Ultimate, Everything Pumpkin Bread (with cherries, nuts, sunflower seeds and cream cheese)

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(Becky, the Mama.)

Yesterday, Colorado was cool, misty and alive with Fall color.  I snapped this picture out my upstairs bedroom window . Through the window pane and the mist, the photo came out looking like a painting, so beautiful it seemed almost unreal.
Room with an Autumn View

On a day like that, what else is there to do but curl up with a book and a blanket, take a long nap, then wake up, pad to the kitchen and bake pumpkin bread?

I searched for what I hoped would be the perfect recipe for pumpkin bread: I wanted it to be moist, spicy and full of tasty surprises.  I narrowed it down to six recipes.  In the end,  I threw elements from all six recipes into the bowl and pans, adding special tweaks of my own. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I’d doubled the spices, used both brown and white sugar plus a tad of maple syrup, folded chopped pecans and dried cherries into the batter.  Then I thought, “Why not?”  as I plopped dollops of whipped cream cheese in the middle of the batter. Then I wondered, “What could make a nice sweet n’ salty crunchy top crust?” I reached for brown sugar and roasted salted sunflower seed kernels.  Then I popped the loaves into the oven and waited.  I had created either a masterpiece, or disaster.  I worried I might  have tweaked this recipe to death.

Well, I am pleased to announce the results are in and they are a 10.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the BEST pumpkin bread I have ever tasted, moist with deep flavor and so many treats-to-the-senses per bite: the sweet tartness of the cherries, the smooth bits of cream cheese and satisfying chew of baked-in-pecans.  The crunchy crust… with a hint of salt and sugar..oh. my.

But don’t just take my word for it. Try it yourself next time the baking mood hits you on one of these cool fall days that beckon you to the kitchen. And feel free to tweak away and make the recipe even more your own– switch out the dried cherries for any dried fruit you like, or use chocolate chips (hmmm… white chocolate chips? Butterscotch chips?).  Use nuts you prefer or have on hand.  I never let what’s not in my pantry keep me from making a recipe.  Go with what you’ve got,  what sounds good… and most of all,have fun.

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Becky’s Epic Pumpkin Bread

(Makes 2 loaves)

3 cups flour 

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup brown sugar

2 t. cinnamon

1/2 t. ginger

1/2 t. cloves

1 t. nutmeg

1 t. almond extract (optional)

1 1/2 t. salt 

3 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

4 eggs

2 T. maple syrup

2 cans (16 oz each) pumpkin 

2/3 cup light oil  (I used olive oil as it was all I had on hand.  Worked beautifully.) 

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (can use up to 2/3 cup if you love nuts)

1/2 cup roughly dried cherries or cranberries  (can use up to 2/3 cup if you prefer more dried-fruit-per-bite)

whipped cream cheese ( I used a light variety that comes in a tub)…  about 1/2  to 2/3 cup

For Topping:  

1/4 to 1/3 cup brown or turbinado sugar 

1/3 to 1/2  cup roasted, salted sunflower seed kernels  (If you can find fresh roasted pumpkin seeds this are also delicious instead of the sunflower seed kernels,  as are sliced almonds.)

 

Directions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl with a whisk. Create a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and add eggs, syrup, pumpkin, oil.  Whisk the wet ingredients together as you slowly incorporate the dry ingredients as well.  Finish stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, slowly folding in pecans and dried cherries.  

Grease and flour two loaf pans.  Pour (or spoon) 1/4 of the batter into each pan, and spread evenly.  Then dollop heaping teaspoons of whipped cream cheese across the surface of the batter in both pans.  Pour the remaining batter over the top of the cream cheese, dividing it evenly between the two pans. Smooth with spatula.

Sprinkle the tops of the batter with brown or turbinado sugar and sunflower seeds.  

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until top is golden and a toothpick in the middle comes out clean. 

Cool thoroughly before serving.  I think the flavors of this bread get better as it sits and cools.   Freezes beautifully. 

Note: I made this at high altitude with no problem.  Many quick breads use more baking soda, but I just hate the after-taste of baking soda. This option rises perfectly, but without that funky  soda aftertaste…

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Christmas Wreath Salad with Cranberry Orange Vinaigrette

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(Mama Becky)

I’ve been mulling over this year’s Christmas Dinner Menu for our big blended family.  My goal is always to use recipes that are delicious, tasty, and pretty — but are no-brainers to make and serve.

For the main dishes, I  decided on my never0fail, always juicy slices of Tri-Tip roast in au jus; and a nice center cut of grilled Norwegian salmon from Whole Foods, our favorite cut of fish.  This should please the beef eaters and the fish eaters alike.

I recently discovered some delicate, amazing-tasting fresh “pasta purses” stuffed with cheeses and truffles at, of all places, Sam’s Club.   After cooking them in boiling water, I gently ladled  them into a quick rich sauce made of cream, a little garlic, Parmesan cheese and basil. To. Die. For.  And silly easy.  I now have my perfect fancy-but-simple Christmas side dish to put on the menu.

Finally, to add some freshness and crunch to round out the meal,  I thought I’d make a salad.  But I didn’t want an old boring salad.  Then –  faster than a speeding reindeer it came to me! I’d make a Christmas Wreath Salad.  I’d arrange the greens on a plate like a wreath, dot it with red berries, both fresh and dried, sprinkle with nuts and top with  feta cheese “snow” and tuck a bow at the bottom of the plate.  Then, what could be more festive to drizzle on this pretty salad than a vinaigrette inspired by my favorite cranberry-orange relish?

As I write this, it seems the whole country is blanketed with snow and ice. Here in Denver  it is a balmly… 1 degree.  Our front yard proved to be the perfect place to chill the salad and snap some photos.  Let me assure, I didn’t dawdle with the camera outside for long. In fact this was probably the fastest — and coldest – food photography session I’ve ever done.  Greg and I sampled this trial-run salad as a one bowl supper tonight by topping it with some warm, sliced deli roast chicken.  Big, Holly Jolly win.

By the way, if you are looking for an uplifting, fun gift for teachers, girlfriends, moms, grandmas or cooks in your family … may we suggest copies of We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook?

We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook - Gift Wrapped

Our memoir is truly one of those perfect, generic, happy gifts that anyone on your list will enjoy.  The recipes at the end of each chapter add extra value.  The book is available online everywhere, and in most bookstores; but if you would like an autographed, wrapped copy check out Rachel’s last blog post with instructions on how to contact us.

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Christmas Wreath Salad with Cranberry Orange Vinaigrette

 Ingredients:

About 4 to 5 cups of salad greens (I used chopped romaine and arranged spinach leaves on top of the “wreath mounds)

½ cup of whole nuts (I used pecans and pistachios)

¼ cup of dried red berries – cherries or cranberries

½ cup of fresh red  berries – slice strawberries or pitted fresh cherries

1/3 cup crumbled feta or goat cheese (or if you prefer, grated white cheddar, parmesan, swiss or other white cheese)

Directions:

On a large round plate, put a small bowl for the salad dressing in the middle.  Arrange salad greens around the bowl to make a “wreath”, then dot the wreath with nuts, dried berries and fresh betters.  Finally sprinkle with feta “snow”.    Fill the bowl in the middle with the following vinaigrette and serve chilled.

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Cranberry Orange Vinaigrette

1 cup fresh  cranberries
1 medium navel orange or 2-3 clementines, peeled and broken apart
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine or balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon grated onion  or dried minced onion

½ t. garlic powder
2/3  cup olive oil

Directions:

Put all ingredients into a blender or food processor and process until smooth, and turns a gorgeous raspberry red.  Keep in fridge until ready to serve.

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Black Forest Greek Yogurt Parfaits

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“……even if you don’t know anybody, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, you should have your box of chocolates with you. You should eat your bowl of cherries. And that is what life is.”
―    C. JoyBell C.

(Becky, the Mama.)

By the amount of Greek yogurt occupying grocer’s refrigerator shelves these days, I’m not the only one in love with its rich, creamy, tart texture and taste. I don’t even buy sour cream anymore and honestly can’t tell the difference.  The 2% Fage brand is my favorite; so smooth with just the right amount of fat so that no one misses the cream.

Two of my favorite foods are sweet dark cherries and chocolate. (I agree with Dave Barry who says, “Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain.”) So it is no surprise that Black Forest Cake is one of my favorite treats, but alas, it doesn’t have many redeeming nutritional assets. So I come up with this quick, easy, decadent Black Forest Parfait, using my favorite Greek yogurt in place  of a pudding.  It was love at first bite.  In fact, I  just made a batch of them  for everyone in our family as snack, to a happy chorus of “mmm.. mmms…yum,  that’s good!”

It’s a dessert you can feel good about enjoying and sharing because the chocolate adds antioxidants, the yogurt is a great source of calcium and protein, and cherries are in the top 20 foods with the highest amount of antioxidants. Also, cherries are one of the few foods that have melatonin in them, for a restful night’s sleep. Finally, by starting with unsweetened yogurt, you can control the sweetness to your own taste.

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Black Forest Greek Yogurt Parfaits

Makes 2 parfaits

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups plain unsweetened Greek yogurt (Vegans can substitute So Delicious Coconut Milk “Greek Yogurt”)

1/4 c. Hershey chocolate syrup, plus a little some for decorating parfait tops (Vegans need to use a milk-free chocolate syrup)

Agave nectar to taste

2 T. mini chocolate chips (vegans use vegan chocolate chip)

1/2 c. dark sweet cherries (frozen, pitted; if they are large, cut them in half)

2 T. cherry preserves I love Bonne Maman French preserves, now available in most grocery stores. They do not have any corn syrup and are full of fruit!

Directions:

In one bowl mix yogurt with chocolate syrup.  Add agave nectar if you like until it is as sweet as you prefer.  In another small bowl mix the cherries and preserves.

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In a tall clear mug or parfait glass, put about 1/3 cup of chocolate yogurt mixture, then put a layer of the cherry mixture on next, about 1/4 cup. (Reserve about a Tablespoon to decorate top).   Follow this with another layer of chocolate yogurt (about 1/3 cup) and  a nice squiggle of chocolate syrup. Top with 1 T. mini chocolate chips and a dollop of cherry mixture for decoration on top.  Repeat in another mug or parfait glass.

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Oat Nut Fruit Gems

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(Becky, the Mama)

My mother, Ruthie, went from loving her sugary desserts (a la last week’s Honey Slice cookie recipe) to a diet almost completely without sugar a couple of decades ago.  A health crisis with her blood pressure and heart, meant major changes in her daily diet – all for the better.  Out went everything white: sugar, white flour and white rice… and in came the brown and fiber-filled replacements.  But, we are not the sort of women to suffer deprivation in our family.  Being the creative and resourceful cook, Mother found several ways to satisfy her sweet tooth while also getting healthier, sporting an adorably slim figure, and having more energy than women decades younger than she!

This is one of my all-time favorite sweet, healthy, satisfying treats that she baked. She served them in a pretty cloth-lined basket at a family supper and they disappeared in what seemed like minutes. Everyone from kids to adults raved about them.

The basic ingredients are so simple:  oats, mashed bananas and grated apples.  From there you can throw in the kitchen sink:  any nuts, seeds, flavorings or dried fruit that you like.   Another bonus is that you can serve this recipe to most of the people in your family (or friends) on special diets.  The recipe is naturally vegan, and if you use gluten-free oats, it is gluten-free and can easily be adapted to use less sugar or made sugar-free.  Kids not only love them, but as you can see from my little helper below, they also love to help make them.

My grandson Georgie, furiously mashing the bananas with a potato masher.

My grandson Georgie, furiously mashing the bananas with a potato masher.

If you want to create warm memories of baking with little ones this Christmas, but prefer not to send them into a Sugar Orbit in the process: this is the perfect mom and child, or grandma and grandchild project, to whip up together.

The texture is somewhere between a muffin, an oatmeal cookie, trail mix, and baked oatmeal.  Made with sugar they get a nice crunch on the outside but are moist and slighty chewy on the inside.  Perfect for quick breakfasts-to-go, they also make great snacks for school lunch boxes and any outdoor enthusiasts in your family.  Wrapped in foil they are wonderful sources of energy when hiking, camping or snow-boarding.

This recipe makes 2 dozen.   Best stored in fridge and then heated for a few seconds in microwave.

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 Oat Nut Fruit Gems

Preheat Oven to 350 degrees

Ingredients

2 large bananas, mashed (use 3 if bananas are small)

2 large peeled apples, grated (use 3 if apples are small)

3 cups oats (I like Old Fashioned Oats for the chewier texture)

½ t. sea salt

1/3 c. raw organic sugar (or use other sweeteners such as brown sugar or coconut sugar or even  Stevia, according to taste )

½ c. dried chopped fruit (I used dates and dried cranberries. Coconut also works well in this recipe.)

1/2 nuts and/or seeds (I used walnuts and pecans)

2 t. vanilla

 

Directions

Mix all of the above together in a large mixing  bowl.  Spray or oil muffin pans.  Fill them about 2/3 full and gently press down with back of spoon. if you want them to look more muffin-like you can mound them a bit in the middle, as they won’t rise. (No leavening or eggs.)

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Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until just golden brown around edges and top.

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When cool to touch, gently remove from pan.  If not eaten in a day, store in fridge in a sealed bag or plasticware and zap for a few seconds in microwave to warm.

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Super Healthy Almond Kale Salad with Clementine-Maple Dressing

(Becky, the Mama. )

Greg and I just spent two days on a road trip, driving from snow-covered Denver to the blue skies, hot air balloons, rusty-red mountains, green grass, gorgeous flowers and warm sun of Arizona.  As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, I grabbed my bathing suit from the suitcase (still in the car) ran into the condo and threw it on, then dashed to the swimming pool. The sun was still in the sky, but sinking, so I arranged my lounge chair just so, where I could get the maximum rays, then sat down and basked and beamed with happiness. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a sun and a water baby. I wore my dark hair in two braids, as a little girl, and by summer’s end I always looked like Pocahontas, my skin as “brown as a berry,” my mother said.

To this day, I wonder if I am part Indian, as I disdain shoes and socks, preferring to be bare foot, even in the winter. I seek out sun like a lizard, anywhere I can find it. I do know that my grandmother Nonny and her family came to Sweetwater, Texas from New Mexico. Her eyes were a twinkling blue, her hair a stunning natural silver, and her skin turned a deep olive every summer.  She loved being outside in her garden, always in a flower print dress (I never saw her in slacks), and if we grandkids were lucky, she’d see and catch a baby horned toad, which us we loved to hold and play with more than any store-bought toy.

But I digress.  Back to the pool.  When I could see the sun dipping in the sky, I jumped out of the lounge chair, hurried back to the condo, grabbing this and that from boxes of food stuffs and ice chest we brought from home – kale, dried cherries, hemp seed,  sliced almonds, Clementine oranges – quickly creating the world’s fastest salad. Then photographing it while there was still natural light on the patio overlooking an emerald green golf course. After two days of road trip food burgers and fries, my body was craving something green and healthy.  This is truly a Super Salad, loaded with nutrition – and it was soo yummy, I know I’ll be making it again and again.  The nice thing about using kale in salads is that the salad still has lots of chew and crunch the next day, and in fact,  it seems to get even better as it has time to sit and soften a bit in the dressing.

Super Fruit & Almond Kale Salad with Clementine Maple Dressing

Ingredients for salad:

2 to 3 cups of chopped kale, leaves only – no stems (I was able to find it pre-chopped and mixed with some shredded carrots in the grocery produce aisle)

2 Clementine oranges, peeled and pulled apart in sections

2 T. dried cherries or cranberries

1 T. hemp, flax, or chia seeds

2 T. sliced or slivered almonds

1/4 cup sliced water chestnuts

Ingredients for Dressing:

¼ cup red wine or rice wine vinegar

Juice from 1 Clementine orange

1 T. pure maple syrup

1 t. soy sauce

2 t. good mustard

¼ cup olive oil

dash garlic powder or about 1/4 of a fresh garlic clove, grated

Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions:

Put kale in a large  bowl and knead and massage it with clean hands for a minute. This will break down the fibers and make the kale tender enough to eat raw.  (Sometimes I run hot water over it in a colander to soften the kale first, knead it, and then rinse again in cold water.)  Add all the rest of the ingredients for a salad and serve in a pretty flat platter.   Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together and drizzle over the salad.  Serve and enjoy.

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