Cranberry Crumb Bars

Quick post today, since finals week doom is looming over my head at this moment.  Currently I'm working on a paper for my genes and behavior class (an elective for my psychology major) that I'm actually really excited to write.  Each week throughout the quarter we discussed a different behavior, usually a human behavior but sometimes we looked at an animal behavior that was relevant to studying humans, and the genetic basis for that behavior, which could be one or the product of a number of factors: inheritance of a specific allele, altered expression of a certain gene (or multiple genes), epigenetic modifications (basically modifications that effect gene expression indirectly rather than directly), programming effects (when conditioned changes to the genes of parents are passed on to their offspring, usually differences in gene expression or epigenetic factors), and so on.  We learned about the mechanisms behind these factors, the ways scientists construct experiments to study them, and the specific animal systems used to model different human behaviors.  We read two or three scientific papers on each week's topic and wrote a one- to two-page response; but for the final paper, we get to choose our own topics, and we're writing longer essays involving several more scientific papers each.

I've chosen to write my paper on the genetic basis for sexual orientation.  It's really important to me to establish a biological explanation for sexual orientation, since it's often misunderstood as a lifestyle choice, sexual preference, or even psychopathology.  There's been a lot of literature that's tried to identify a gene for homosexuality to explain its prevalence among humans when it's not an evolutionarily beneficial trait (since you're not a reproducing member of the community).  In the past couple of years, scientists have moved away from trying to find a specific gene for sexual orientation, and instead have been looking more at epigenetic factors (so those factors that indirectly affect the expression of genes rather than altering genes directly), especially epigenetic changes to the parents' genetic makeup that get passed on to their children.  I apologize if this is getting too technical, but I'm nerding out pretty hard over it.  I'm integrating a few studies into a comprehensive view of sexual orientation as a multi-faceted epigenetic phenomenon influenced by both maternal and paternal programming effects and accounting for anatomical, neurological, and behavioral features that have been correlated with sexual orientation.  

So much for a quick post.  Happy first snow in Chicago everyone, curl up with your laptops, hunker down for finals, and have a snack.  

Cranberry Crumb Bars
from Deb Perelman via Lottie + Doof

2 sticks cold butter, cut into cubes
3 c all-purpose flour
1 c evaporated cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice
3 c fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon orange zest

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Line the bottom of a 13x9 inch pan (or you could use a standard sheet pan like I did, but you'll get much thinner bars) with parchment paper, and butter the sides and paper to prevent sticking.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and spices.  Work the butter into the flour mixture until the pieces are the size of peas, then mix in the egg.  When the mixture becomes a coarse meal, press half of it into the bottom of the prepared pan.

In a food processor, combine the orange juice, zest, cranberries, honey, and corn starch.  Pulse until the berries are chopped but not pureed.  Spread the cranberry filling over the crumb base, then crumble on the remaining dough.

Bake 30-35 minutes until lightly browned.  They're best on the day they're made while they're still crunchy, but are still mighty tasty the second and third day.

Thanksgiving, featuring Sweet Potato Biscuits

Do you know what day it is?

Today, my dear friends, is the anniversary of this lovely little corner of the Internet right here, otherwise known as Strong Coffee.  My first recipe for Gingerbread with Espresso Glaze was posted December 3, 2012, and now here we are, talking about a full Thanksgiving dinner.

Such fooding.
So blog.

A lot has changed since then, mostly in ways I could've never anticipated.  I'm quite the planner; not to the point where I have no room, or patience, for spontaneity, but it's definitely an impulse to make the uncertain certain.  I enjoy exercising the power of organizing chaos.  Usually I find out that I don't actually have that power; but, fortunately for my dinner guests and me, I successfully organized the chaos that is Thanksgiving.  Armed with my beautiful, glorious spreadsheet, all of my dishes turned out as planned.  And I didn't mess up the turkey!  You've probably seen a million gajillion recipes floating around the Internet in the past couple weeks for turkey: how to brine your turkey, how to not brine your turkey because brining is evil, how to cook the perfect turkey, deep fry your turkey, turkey is overrated, blahhhhhh... So I won't bore you with the recipe I used for mine.  If you want to know, it's from Alton Brown, because he the Zeus of culinary gods, just sayin'.  Let's not extend that metaphor too far, okay?  Don't go there.  He's awesome, that's it.

I will, however, share with you the recipe I used for sweet potato biscuits.  Because I would've risked the biggest, most gloriously painful food coma of my life to eat three more after dinner, if only they hadn't all been devoured already.  My post-Thanksgiving morning sandwich on a sweet potato biscuit would've been too glorious for words... If only.  But thankfully (har har) they're really simple to make.  You just have to expend a little extra effort to roast a sweet potato, and spend some extra time to let it cool down.  Then just mash it up, eating the skin as a nice little snack of course.  They were great for Thanksgiving prep, since I was able to roast my sweet potatoes on Monday, then make the dough and form the biscuits Tuesday, freezing them on sheet trays overnight before putting them in a gallon-size Ziploc, so that on Thursday all I had to do was let them thaw out on the counter for an hour and bake.  I made a double batch, which made 14 substantially sized biscuits (I mean, if I'm going to have a biscuit, I want a biscuit), and that's what I've posted below.

I won't go too much into the sappy details of Thanksgiving and the evening that followed, how loved I felt surrounded by people who care about me, how fortunate I am to love and be loved by the wonderful people in my life, to have made new friendships and gone down new paths this year, et cetera et cetera, because I'll digress as I'm digressing now into a little pile of soft cuddly mush.  Suffice it to say that I am a very fortunate person, and I love that these months of November and December always make me step back for a moment to really appreciate it.

Okay, it's biscuit time, enough of that cheesy stuff.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
from Tanya Holland at Food & Wine

2 c chilled sweet potato puree*
1 1/2 c chilled buttermilk
4 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c brown sugar
1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 sticks cold butter, cubed

*To make the sweet potato puree, roast a couple of sweet potatoes at 400 degrees F.  I just poke mine several times with a fork (to release the steam that'll get trapped under the skin), drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and wrap in tin foil.  Be sure to put your wrapped sweet potatoes on a sheet pan to catch any juices that'll leak out.  Depending on the size of your sweet potatoes this'll take an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sweet potato puree and buttermilk.  Then, in a larger bowl, combine the dry ingredients (flour through salt).  Using your fingers or a pastry cutter if you have one, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the pieces are the size of peas.  If the butter has become too warm, pop the bowl in the freezer for a couple minutes.  Carefully stir the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.

Dust a clean surface with flour, and dump out the dough.  Pat the dough down with your palm until it's 1-2 inches thick, depending on your preference.  Using a glass (or an actual circular cookie cutter if you have one, ha), cut the biscuits to the desired size.  Again, if the dough has become too warm, pop it in the freezer.  At this point, you could freeze the cut out biscuits completely to bake another time.

Brush the tops with a little melted butter if you feel so inclined, then bake for 15-30 minutes (again, depending on the size) until they're crisp on the outside and firm on the inside when you press gently with your fingertips.  Serve warm.  A drizzle of honey wouldn't hurt.