Strawberry Spice Cakes

This is my variation on strawberry shortcakes, bursting with flavor. Instead of plain biscuit-type "cakes," I make mine as spiced muffins. Freshly picked ripe strawberries are naturally sweet, and are wonderfully accented with these ingredients. You can also make this recipe for spiced cakes as a sweet bread, and use slices for the final presentation:

If an ingredient is in red type, look for details on my "Ingredients" page, linking from the top of any page in this blog.
For the Cakes (makes about 18 muffins or 6 muffins and 3 mini loaves):
2 eggs, beaten
1 c honey
1/2 c sorghum syrup or molasses
1/2 c coconut oil, warmed to liquid
1 can pumpkin puree (about 1-1/4 c)
2 c all purpose gluten free flour *
1/2 c sorghum flour
1 T chai spices or pumpkin pie spices
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 c chopped fresh strawberries
(* If not concerned with making this dessert gluten-free, use 2-1/2c white wheat flour in place of the two gluten-free flours in my recipe.)

Whipped Coconut Cream (see the recipe here)

3 c sliced fresh strawberries
1 t ground cinnamon
2 t lemon juice
sweetener to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease large muffin tins or mini bread pans. Mix eggs, honey, sorghum, coconut oil and pumpkin puree well. Separately mix the flours, spices, baking soda and salt. Stir the chopped strawberries into the dry mix to coat them. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until well mixed. Spoon into the muffin cups, filling them just half way. Bake for 30 minutes for muffins or 50 minutes for mini bread loaves. Remove to a rack and cool.

Mix the sliced strawberries with the cinnamon and lemon juice. If they need sweetening, I use my own homemade vanilla/stevia extract. Alternately, sweeten with a little local honey. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, and the berries will release juices.

Mix the coconut cream topping, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just as delicious on slices of spiced bread
To serve, split 4 muffins in half (top and bottom) and place them open in an individual serving bowl. I switch the order of the toppings from a conventional strawberry shortcake: top muffin halves with a big dollop of cream, then spoon the strawberries on top, with all their sweet juices, flavoring the cream and the cake. This tastes just as scrumptious on a slice of the spiced bread - for breakfast, dessert or anytime snack.

P.S. Thanks to my special friend Sandra for my lovely personalized dish cloth; she is an extraordinary quilter and master of machine embroidery, as you can see.


The Easy Way to Grow Onions

I've been planting onion sets in my spring and winter gardens for years, but last year I learned a new, easy method. Two of my gardening friends, Kathy and Carol, recommended that the best way to plant onion sets is not to bury them in the soil (which I had been doing). Their method couldn't be easier, and my harvest proved it works!

Here's how: Just soften up the dirt with a hand rake in the area you've prepared for your onion bed. Place each onion set right on top of the soil, root side down. Push each one down into the dirt very slightly, just enough to keep it stable, upright, and in place.  Put the next one in, about 3-6" away. That's it! The onion set's roots will quickly make their way down into the soil, and green tops will start growing quickly. Any rain will probably push the dirt up around the growing bulb a bit, and that's fine. The top of the onion will stay visible as it grows, which actually makes it easy to see how big it is for harvesting.

Onions are cold hardy, so I plant my spring crop in February and March in my zone 7 garden. In fact, onions don't like heat when in the early growth stages. I've tried growing onions from seed, but the thin blades - like grass - require more time for weeding than I'm willing to invest, and they grow very slowly. Onion sets, which are immature bulbs and look like tiny onions, give a bit of a head start on growth vs. seeds or transplants, and they are less prone to disease. You can usually find them for sweet, red, yellow or white onions; I've grown all types successfully. I've seen them sold in small sacks or sold loose, by the pound. No matter what color onion I plant, they all seem to have a good strong flavor; I once heard that the stronger the onion, the long it keeps. My onions don't store really well, so I use them fresh, or peel/chop/freeze, or cut up and dehydrate. Onions like regular watering during growth; dry weather can cause the bulbs to split. Mulching the onion bed keeps down weeds and holds in moisture. I've never had any bugs or diseases on my onions, which makes them very easy to grow organically.

During the growing season, I harvest onion tops as scallions (as I do with the green tops of garlic), selecting one or two green leaves from each plant rather than cutting the entire top from any one onion. This way the growth of the onion bulb is not affected. You can also dig the bulb up at any time, or wait until the plant tells you it is ready to harvest. Mine are usually ready to dig up in June or July.

When the green tops begin to turn tan, fall over, and die back, withholding water will help the onion cure and increase the storage life once harvested. I wait until a dry spell to dig the onions up. Once dug, I let them dry outside, making it easier to brush off any dirt from the outer skin. Usually I'll lay them on sheets of newspaper in a single layer, shaded from the sun on a table on my porch.

Clumps of potato onions, planted last fall
I've grown two other types of onions in my gardens, each considered to be perennial onions. "Walking Onions" will grow little bulblets at the top of the green leaves. These make the green stalk top-heavy, so it falls over, setting its babies on the soil so they will start to root new plants. This type is best harvested for its green tops vs. the root. Last fall I planted "Potato Onions" (aka Multiplier Onions). They looked like small onion sets when I planted them, and each one planted is supposed to produce a cluster of 10-12 bulbs, ranging in size from 3/4" to 4". When harvesting, the smaller ones are replanted to begin the growing cycle again. I haven't had a harvest yet, but they are supposed to have a great mild flavor and good storage.Remember to plant these 'forever' types of onions where they can remain year-round; not in your vegetable garden if you till the soil.

Try some onions in your garden this year!


Spicy Cheese Bites

  These are not your mother's thumbprint cookies! Spiced up with the hot pepper powder I make by grinding my dehydrated home-grown jalapenos and filled with hot pepper jelly, these are crispy, zesty and satisfying. They were a hit with my Christmas guests who were my guinea pigs for this new creation.
    This is my variation of a recipe from my friend Sandra, who shows my paintings in her art gallery. The original recipe called for crispy rice cereal, which typically includes sugar, salt, vitamins, and other ingredients I don't want added to my food. Substituting rice crackers which have just 3 ingredients: rice, oil and salt, makes for a healthier treat. Next time, I'll go one step further... instead of the crackers I'll try using brown rice flour and a small amount of coconut oil - and eliminate the salt, since the cheese provides plenty. I make these gluten-free by using GF flour also, but regular wheat flour can be used. I used a hot pepper jelly made by the nearby Menonnite community and it is yummy!

Hot Pepper Cheese Crackers {Gluten-free}
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Makes: About 3 dozen
NOTE: Ingredients in red type are detailed on the "Ingredients" page of this blog

rice crackers*, enough to make 2c of crushed cracker crumbs
4 c grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 c all purpose gluten-free flour
1 c softened unsalted butter
1/2 t ground pepper
1 t paprika
1 t hot pepper powder or chile powder (adjust to your taste)
hot pepper jelly

To crush the crackers, place them in a zipper bag and roll with a rolling pin until crushed into small pieces. Whirl the cheese in a food processor to make it finer then gradually add all other ingredients except the cracker crumbs and jelly. Dump into a bowl so you can mix in the cracker crumbs - I found my hands to be the best tool for this step.

Shape dough into 1" balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet lined with baking parchment, placing them 2" apart. Press to flatten slightly, then push your thumb into the center just enough to make a small indent.

Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, and spoon a small dollop of hot pepper jelly in the center of each. Bake an additional 10-13 minutes, until crispy and golden.

Alternately, if you don't want the hot pepper jelly filling, you can flatten the balls of dough with a fork before baking, then bake for a total of 25-28 minutes... see the photo below.

Remove to a rack to cool.

* I used Nabisco Poppy & Sesame Seed Rice Thins, whose ingredients include: white rice flour, safflower oil, millet, poppy seeds, salt, mustard flour and sesame seeds. The poppy seeds show up as the black specs in my photos of the dough and baked crackers. You can use Nabisco GF Original Rice Thins for fewer ingredients. Watch out for added sugar in other brands of rice crackers. It took a little less than 2 boxes to make 2 c of crumbs.


Eat Real Food

Just by chance, we caught the premier of a PBS documentary titled "In Defense of Food" at the end of December. It came at the perfect time - just as we were feeling the negative effects of holiday overeating and too much of the wrong foods. So the message really hit home!

The program is based on a book by the same name by journalist Michael Pollan. If you too are trying to get onto a healthier eating regiment as this new year begins, I highly recommend you watch this show. If you can't find being repeated on your local PBS station, you can watch the whole program online. The messages and tips are simple, easy to adopt, and make sense.

The bottom line, as summarized into 7 words by Pollan, is "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." The program has good tips like "Eat plants, not food made in plants," and "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother would not have eaten." Pollan suggests ways to help us all get back to eating "real food," versus the highly processed offerings so prominent in the contemporary Western diet. He shows how people automatically eat less simply by using smaller plates, without feeling like they've reduced their portions. The messages are great, and the presentation is excellent.

For continued good advice from Pollan, like the In Defense of Food Facebook page and start your own path to getting eating healthier today!


How to Grow Ginger

I love ginger, and I've wanted to grow my own for years. So much of it in the stores is grown in countries which I don't trust, and if I could grow my own organically it would be great. One year I potted up some healthy USA-grown organic ginger roots from the supermarket and set the pot outdoors in our hot humid summer weather; I barely ended up with more than I had planted. Then I learned about a plant related to the variety of ginger we commonly eat, called "galangal"  (pronounced guh-lang-guh). Used in Thai cooking and in curry seasoning blends, some argue that it tastes different from common ginger, while others use it interchangeably with ginger. Reading that it was successfully grown by home gardeners, I felt it was worth a try. A source I found online seemed to be sold out as soon as they listed some for sale in late winter. But last year I got lucky and here is how it worked for me....

I found an Etsy shop called Magical Mystery Herbs selling fresh live galangal root, grown near me in Athens, Georgia. I ordered 12 ounces last January (I see they are selling it again now; likely it's a seasonal offering). They sell 4 oz. for $9.95. Plump big rhizomes arrived quickly. I set the galangal chunks in water until I had a chance to pot them. Then I cut them into smaller pieces, each with a growth bud or two, buried them in soil, and set the small pots by a sunny indoor window in my dining area. Be forewarned - it takes a lo-o-o-o-ng time before any little green sprouts begin to emerge from the soil (3 months for me). Be patient and keep them watered and warm. Mother Nature understands the proper timing.
Once the plants started to develop green leaves I carefully transplanted them into very large pots, allowing plenty of room for new rhizomes to grow. I tried planting some directly into the soil of my cold frame too. We were past our last average frost date, so I put the pots outdoors. I also decided to bury one large pot in the vegetable garden, with the rim at the soil line. This way, there was less likelihood for the soil to dry out during hot weather.

During our hot, humid, rainy summer, each pot grew more and more stems and long green leaves, about 12-18" tall. The plant buried in the garden showed the best growth… I had to keep pulling away the Seminole pumpkin and sweet potato vines from nearby garden rows!

Before our first fall frost (our average date is Oct. 15), I decided to uproot each galangal pot and see how the roots had multiplied. I was delighted with my harvest! The plant submerged in the garden had grown the best, and the photos of my harvest are from that pot. The roots I planted directly in the garden soil didn't fair as well, but still grew big rhizomes from the small pieces I had started with. And the flavor is so much like common ginger that I don't notice any difference.

I had too much ginger to use all at once, so I kept some growing in their big pots and brought them into my south-facing basement window to continue to grow. I also shared some of the small sprouts with friends to grow their own. I'll separate my potted plants to start the cycle of summer growth again this year, burying each big pot in my garden soil for the best results. I hope to have more and more each year.

The galangal I didn't use fresh immediately was washed clean and frozen in zipper bags. The frozen chunks have all the flavor of fresh, and can be cut or grated easily. Fresh ginger tea is wonderful in winter and even makes a refreshing cold summer drink. The galangal has been delicious in my favorite gingerbread, gingerbread biscotti (where I substituted 1 T fresh grated ginger in place of 1 t of dried gingerroot powder), in sweet breakfast breads, and in stir-fries. I added a small amount of grated fresh gingerroot to my homemade holiday cranberry-orange sauce and one of my guests said it was the best cranberry sauce he had ever eaten. It would be possible to dehydrate thin slices of galangal root too, using the slices chopped finely or making some into dried gingerroot powder in a coffee grinder.

If you too love ginger, don't settle for store-bought any more. Grow your own!


5 Steps to Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs

Just in time for Easter eggs, I've got 5 easy steps to help you cook perfect hard-boiled farm-fresh eggs. I love deviled eggs, pickled eggs, and egg salad, but stopped making them since I began getting fresh eggs from friends' hens. If you've ever tried peeling a fresh egg, you likely struggled as I did… a frustrating, tedious task to to pick the shells off without pulling off pieces of the egg white. I swore never to try again! Even my friend Deborah, who supplies me with her hens' eggs (with shell colors ranging from light minty green to dark chocolately brown) had resorted to letting some of her eggs "age" when she wanted to hardboil them.

Technically, store-bought eggs have sat around long enough (an unpleasant thought) so the eggshells' coating wears off (or is removed by commercial cleaning), the egg becomes porous, and air is allowed to penetrate. This makes the inner membrane stick to the shell less and also makes the egg white shrink. More air space develops in the egg… resulting in easier-to-peel eggs. But who wants to use old eggs when you have access to super fresh eggs?

I accidentally came across a blog post on perfect boiled eggs last week, and I developed these steps from the comments to the post, where readers offered their own tips. I wanted to bring green deviled eggs* to a St. Patrick's Day potluck, and I didn't want to hassle with peeling the fresh eggs I had in the fridge. So I broke down and bought a dozen large white eggs at the supermarket. The expiration date was 3 days away, and retailers have 30 days to sell eggs, so they had been aging! I tested my new 5-step method, adding one farm-fresh egg to the batch - a lovely dark brown maran egg from my friend Deborah. The results were wonderful... the shells slipped off easily, the whites were not tough, and the yolks were pure yellow. The next time I tried using only one-day old eggs, and the results were still perfect! I'll no longer hesitate to make hard-boiled eggs.

Here are my five steps to perfect Hard Boiled Eggs:
  1. Poke a tiny hole through the large end of the shell with a sharp thumbtack (some people say this isn't necessary, but I tried one without the hole and it didn't peel as well)
  2. Put cold eggs in a steamer rack in a saucepan, cover and boil 15 minutes, starting the timer when the water starts to boil (NOTE: be sure you have enough water under the steamer rack so it won't boil away; elevate the rack in the pan if needed) If you don't have a steamer, submerge a small colander in the pot, making sure the eggs are above water
  3. Remove the steamer basket and rinse the eggs under cold water, then immediately put them into an icy cold water bath and let them stay there for 10 minutes
  4. Shake each egg in a 1/2 pint mason jar to crack the shell
  5. The shell slips right off!

* For green deviled eggs, Google "Avocado Deviled Eggs" or "Guacamole Deviled Eggs" and you'll find recipes - basically the yolks are mixed with your favorite guacamole recipe. I used a recipe that got the onion flavor from chives (sticking with the green theme ) and mixed my green filling in a food processor until smooth, so I could pipe the green filling into the egg whites. They are delicious, eye-catching, and cute too!

My hard-boiled eggs cooked with tender whites and clear yellow centers, perfect for these St. Patty's Day Green Deviled Eggs.


Delicious Gluten Free Dinner Rolls

I shy away from posting someone else's recipe in this blog, but this one is worth an exception. I made these rolls last night and they are fabulous! Make them for yourself or make a batch for a GF family member or friend and treat them to the bread they've been missing! I think even non gluten-free eaters will love these rolls, as Rick did.

NOTES: I ordered the specified flour from Amazon, but the next time I'll try some other GF all-purpose flour, like Bob's Red Mill, for comparison. The original recipe, with many variations, is here, on the flour website, but I first saw it posted by another food blogger with her changes, and that's the version I followed (and posted below). Next time I make these, I'll reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons, since they tasted a bit sweet to me (some sugar is necessary, to feed the yeast). I used coconut palm sugar instead of white sugar (which is only on my shelf for the hummingbirds). I might use honey next time, which always worked fine in my non GF bread recipes in place of white sugar. Also, I used unsalted butter. The recipe calls for xanthan gum, which might not be on your baking shelf if you are not GF yourself; it's a bit pricy but you use very little at a time. A substitute which perhaps you'd have more use for is psyllium powder, which you can buy at a drug store or online as Konisyl Original Psyllium Fiber. I don't have a cookie scoop, so I greased an ice cream scoop (complete with a penguin handle!) and globbed the dough into the pan, smoothing it with wet fingers. I made 8 rolls (and we each ate 2!), not 9, so mine were a little bigger. They browned really fast; I added the note about browning in the recipe below, in case your oven reacts the same as mine. Remove the rolls from the pan as soon as possible, as with all gluten-free baked goods. 
Bottom rolls have been smoothed with wet fingers.
     There are many other GF recipes on the flour maker's website so be sure to check it out - I plan to try others, maybe the pumpernickle bread next.

Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls {Gluten-free}
Author: Michelle @ MyGluten-freeKitchen.com
Recipe type: Yeast Breads/Rolls
Cuisine: Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Serves: 9
NOTE: Ingredients in red type are detailed on the "Ingredients" page of this blog

2-3/4 c Gluten Free Mama's Almond Blend Flour
1-1/2 tsp xanthan gum or 1 T psyllium powder
2 tsp instant yeast
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 c warm water (105-110°)
2 T butter, dairy-free margarine, or Spectrum shortening, melted
1 egg (preferably room temp)
1 tsp cider vinegar

Right out of the oven, brushing the tops with melted butter
In the mixing bowl of your electric mixer, mix together flour, xanthan gum, instant yeast, sugar, and salt. With mixer running on low speed, add in the water, melted butter (or substitute), egg, and cider vinegar. Mix on high speed 3 minutes.

Spray 8" or 9" round cake pan or pie plate with cooking spray. Using a 2" scoop or ⅓ cup measuring cup, scoop dough into 9 mounds in the pan. I place one mound in middle, then scoop 8 mounds of dough side by side all the way around the pan. Dip your fingertips into warm water and use to smooth out the tops of the rolls, continuing to wet fingers as needed.

Cover with a dry towel and let rise in a warm place 45 minutes to 1 hour. During the last few minutes that the rolls are rising, preheat oven to 400°. Bake in 400° oven for 26-28 minutes. [If they brown too fast, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top to prevent further browning; I had to do this after 15 minutes of baking.] Tops should be golden brown and if you measure temperature of dough, it should measure 200°. Brush rolls with additional 1/2-1 Tablespoon of melted butter.

Let me know how you like these!