Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer, and former professional pastry chef.

She came to food writing in a roundabout way, after a few post-college years (she graduated from Bowdoin in 1985) in book publishing, a few years as an English professor (she received a Ph.d. from Yale in 1993) and a six-month stint in pastry and baking night school (The Institute for Culinary Education in New York City) shortly following the birth of her first daughter in 1996. After an apprenticeship at Restaurant Daniel, she and her family moved to the East End of Long Island, where she was inspired to begin a career as a cookbook author. Her first book, Cool Kitchen (Morrow, 1997), is a collection of no-cook recipes dreamed up during her first hot and hectic summer working as Pastry Chef at East Hampton’s busiest restaurant and celebrity hangout, Nick and Toni’s.

Lauren’s recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated, and the New York Times. She is the author of fourteen books, most recently Cake Keeper Cakes (Taunton 2009) and Cookie Swap! (Workman, 2010). She has also co-authored several books, including Dessert University (Simon & Schuster, 2004) with former White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier. With artisan baking expert Daniel Leader, she is the co-author of the IACP award-winning Local Breads (Norton, 2007). With Susan Matheson, she is co-author of The Gingerbread Architect (Clarkson Potter, Fall 2008)

Lauren lives in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband and two daughters. She blogs about local food and small-town life at sagharbordays.blogspot.com.

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Artisanal Bread’s Sweet Afterlife Image

Here are two facts: I am a big purchaser of artisanal bread, and artisanal bread is expensive. I am entirely willing to pay $10 for a handcrafted, certified organic loaf that delivers honest flavor, outstanding texture and, preferably, maximum nutrition. But when half of it sits uneaten on the counter for several days, I become anxious. I am entirely too thrifty to throw several dollars’ worth of bread in the garbage. So I incorporate stale bread into my cooking until there is nothing left but crumbs.

Sure, I have toasted leftover bread for breakfast, made grilled sandwiches with it for lunch, and made croutons galore for salads and soups. But as a former pastry chef and incurable sugar fiend, I tend to look at bread and think, “How can I turn it into a dessert?”

The obvious answer is bread pudding. But there are quicker and easier ways to turn a wedge of sourdough into something sweet at the end of the day. Here are a few:

Dessert French toast: French toast has all of the rich egginess of bread pudding, without the fuss. I hear that in France, French toast is commonly considered a dessert. You can make a single portion if you’re home alone and craving something sweet (not that I’d know anything about scarfing down a few slices of baguette dipped in egg, vanilla and cream, sautéed in butter, and topped with caramel sauce and ice cream when I have the house to myself). If ice cream and caramel sauce aren’t your thing, you can top your dessert French toast with fruit, jam, syrup, whipped cream or grated chocolate.

Sweet tartlets, bruschetta and panini: Leftover slices of peasant bread are easily transformed into individual fruit tarts. Just butter your lightly toasted bread, top it with some thinly sliced peaches, sprinkle with sugar and place under the broiler until the sugar melts and caramelizes. Or make sweet bruschetta: Toast the bread and top it with ricotta or goat cheese cheese, raspberries and a drizzle of honey. Panini are another option. Sandwich some nutella and sliced bananas between two slices of sourdough, butter the outside and place in a panini press for a few minutes.

Cobblers, crisps and brown betties: I wouldn’t use bland supermarket white bread to top a baking dish full of fruit, but cubes of artisanal bread make a cobbler topping. For a simple fruit crisp, use large whole-wheat bread crumbs, or call it a brown betty if you’d like.

During the summer months, I often use my leftover bread to make traditional panzanella, with tomatoes, herbs and a vinaigrette. While contemplating a large hunk of leftover pane di casa last week, I thought, “Why not try something similar with juicy stone fruit for dessert?” Before I toasted my bread cubes in the oven, I coated them with some melted butter and brown sugar. My peaches weren’t quite as juicy as my tomatoes, so I poured some sparkling wine over them, with the idea that it would give my panzanella a Bellini-like flavor. After the bread cubes cooled and crisped up, I tossed them with the sliced fruit and wine, and then topped each portion with a dollop of crème fraîche.

Panzanella With Peaches, Plums or Nectarines

Makes 4 servings

Use any top-quality bread here, but realize that the character of your bread will determine the character of your dessert. Brioche, Pullman or challah cubes will make a refined panzanella. Chewy cubes of sourdough will give you a more rustic result.

Ingredients

4 cups country bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

2 ripe peaches, plums, or nectarines, pitted and thinly sliced

½ cup peach nectar or sparkling wine

¼ cup crème fraîche, mascarpone, or sour cream

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Place bread cubes in a large bowl.

2. Whisk together the butter, ½ cup brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a small bowl. Add to bread cubes and toss to coat.

3. Place coated bread cubes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until toasted and caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring once or twice for even toasting.

4. Let cool completely on baking sheet. Watch carefully, to make sure sugar isn’t burning.

5. While the bread is cooling, combine the fruit with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, mashing a fork to release some juice. Stir in sparkling wine or peach nectar.

6. Place bread cubes back in the large bowl and toss with the fruit. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until bread begins to absorb fruit juice, about 10 minutes.

7. Spoon into dessert bowls, top with any accumulated juices and crème fraîche and serve.

Photo: Sweet panzanella with nectarines and crème fraîche. Credit: Lauren Chattman

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Panko, Meet Cookies Image

Before I visited my parents in February, I got a desperate call from my mother. She hadn’t been able to find a favorite ingredient at her local supermarket on the southern shore of the Dominican Republic.  Her plea: “Buy me six boxes of Panko bread crumbs and pack them in your suitcase!” Before I had a chance to clean out my local IGA, mom called again to tell me to hold off. A new shipment had just arrived at Jumbo in La Romana. She and my dad would be able to enjoy panko-crusted chicken breasts that night.

Panko is one of those formerly obscure items that has become, seemingly overnight, a staple in many American kitchens as well as in the kitchens of retired Americans in the Caribbean and beyond. Compared to other familiar Japanese products like soy sauce (first made 3,000 years ago), panko is a relatively new invention. During World War II, Japanese bakers began to bake bread without ovens, using electric current and producing large crustless loaves. Sliver-shaped crumbs were made by passing the loaves through special screens. This style of bread crumb was perfect for some of the Western-style dishes growing in popularity at the time, including tonkatsu (a deep-fried pork cutlet similar to weiner schnitzel) and korokke (deep-fried potato croquettes introduced to Japan by the French).

Panko has been produced on an industrial scale in the U.S. for 30 years, and distributed to Japanese restaurants around the world. In the last 10 years it has crossed over from restaurants and specialty stores to supermarkets. It is now being used in recipes as varied as eggplant Parmesan and potato latkes. American cooks value panko for the light, crunchy coating it gives to fried foods. In contrast to Italian-style supermarket breadcrumbs, which are hard and pebbly in texture, panko crumbs are flaky. They absorb less oil than conventional bread crumbs, so they stay crisp during and after frying.

I love crispy fried chicken breasts as much as my mother does, but as baker I wondered if this focus on frying was limiting my use of panko. I was familiar with plenty of recipes for cakes made with bread crumbs rather than flour, fruit crisps with bread crumb toppings, and classic strudels held together with bread crumbs. Why not use panko? Its light, crispy texture and resistance to soaking up fat might make them an improvement over other store bought breadcrumbs. Looking closely at them, I thought they might even be better than homemade crumbs, which are difficult to grind fine without completely pulverizing, and are difficult to crisp up without browning.

Not quite committed enough to invite some friends over for a strudel pulling party, I decided to test panko in an simpler recipe. I thought of some chocolate chip cookies I had made years ago with a couple of cups of crushed rice cereal added to the dough for crunch. Instead of cereal, I’d use panko. With the substitution, the recipe became even simpler, since I didn’t have to crush the crumbs. The most difficult step was the math I had to do to figure out how much panko to use in place of the cereal (if you want to use puffed rice cereal, measure out two cups and then crush to get a cup of crumbs). The result was a light, tender cookie with a little bit of crunch. The slightly wheaty flavor of the cookies, compared to the more neutral flavor of the rice cereal cookies, was a bonus. My kids loved them. If only they sold Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips at Jumbo, I’d be able to bake Panko Chocolate Chip Cookies for my parents, too. Here is the recipe:

Panko Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes about 24 cookies

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl.

Cream the cooled melted butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and panko.

Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie.

Bake until golden around edges but still soft on top, 10 to 11 minutes. Slide cookies, still on parchment, onto wire racks to cool completely.

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Spinach for Dessert Image

When my doctor, reviewing routine blood work a few weeks ago, told me I was anemic, the first thing I did was run out and buy a rib-eye steak for myself. It was the quickest remedy I could think of to pep up my tired, almost-vegetarian blood.

But it was also the least interesting. As a baker and former pastry chef, it didn’t take long for me to consider how I might supplement my iron-poor diet with a thoughtfully prepared dessert. I wasn’t interested in recipes developed by food faddists. It had to be something I’d want to make regardless of doctor’s orders. Internet searches using keyword combinations like “kale waffles” and “collard greens tart” turned up plenty of intriguing savory dishes, but not the sweet treat I was looking for. I got a little closer by typing in “lima bean pie.” But it wasn’t until I googled “spinach cake” that I hit what I believed to be dessert pay dirt. With these magic words I discovered a traditional Turkish recipe that satisfied my culinary standards and Popeye’s, too.

Photos revealed ispanakli kek to be shockingly bright green. Attracted by the color alone, I decided to whip one up immediately. The recipes I saw called for fresh spinach, but I didn’t feel like washing, chopping and cooking mountains of the stuff to wind up with the ½ cup or so that I needed. So for the sake of convenience and consistency, I used a package of frozen chopped spinach. Squeezing it to remove as much moisture as possible, I was able to incorporate it into a standard cake batter without throwing off the proportion of wet to dry ingredients. A couple of recipes included chopped hazelnuts. I substituted sesame seeds for richness and flavor, inspired by a friend who added sesame seeds to his morning smoothie because they make him feel strong.

Thinking of the rib-eye, I started to worry about how my new diet would affect my cholesterol numbers. It was a relief to see that most ispanakli kek recipes called for olive oil instead of butter. I hoped that the oil would enhance the subtly vegetal flavor of the cake. I decided to skip the suggested whipped cream frosting because what would be the point of baking a butter-less cake and then slathering it with whipped cream?

I was delighted with my spinach cake. Its color was definitely a conversation starter. The spinach didn’t so much flavor it as give it a rustic texture, the way carrots give carrot cake its unique consistency. Lemon zest gave it a mildly lemony flavor, and Greek-style yogurt gave it just the right amount of moisture. It did take some bribery to get my children to give the spinach cake a try. Once they did, they enjoyed it as an afternoon snack and I even let them eat it for breakfast the next morning.

After polishing off my first slice, I sat down to calculate my ispanakli kek’s iron content. What a rude awakening I had! First of all, I discovered that spinach is not all it is cracked up to be in the iron department. It is true that gram for gram it contains almost as much iron as ground chuck (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 180 grams of spinach contains 6.43 milligrams of iron while 170 grams of ground beef contains 4.42 milligrams). But it turns out that the iron in plant foods is much less likely to be absorbed by the body than iron in meat, fish and poultry. Spinach in particular contains absorption-inhibiting oxalate, which renders most of its iron useless to the anemic baker. Adding insult to injury, boiling (frozen spinach is boiled during processing) leeches a significant amount of iron from spinach. Even with the sesame seeds and enriched flour, one serving of my spinach cake provided me with less than 3 milligrams of iron, a long way from the 18 milligrams recommended for a woman my age. Eating a whole cake, with about 16.45 milligrams, got me closer to the recommended daily allowance, or RDA. Obviously, I’m no nutritionist, but even I realized that this was the wrong way to address my iron deficit.

Still, I was happy with the outcome of my adventure in iron-rich baking. It was a failure in terms of supplementation, but a success as a roundabout way to discover a new recipe. I’ve added ispanakli kek to my collection of vegetable cake recipes and plan to serve it as part of a larger Turkish feast someday soon. After all, I don’t bake parsnip cake to add vitamin C to my diet. And I’m certainly not eating chocolate-zucchini cake for the vitamin A.

Ispanakli Kek (Spinach Cake)

Serves 6

Ingredients

one (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups sugar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 large eggs
one (7-ounce) container plain Greek-style yogurt
¼ cup sesame seeds

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Puree the spinach in a food processor or blender.
  2. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and dust with flour, knocking out any extra. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the sugar, oil, lemon zest, eggs and milk in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in the spinach and sesame seeds.
  3. Add the flour mixture to the spinach mixture and stir to combine.
  4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes and invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and serving.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Freshly baked spinach cake. Credit: Lauren Chattman

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Spiced Pumpkin Churros Image

In early October I wrote a light-hearted story about the supposed pumpkin shortage on Long Island. It was hard to believe national news reports that a fungal blight was destroying local crops. At the time, I could drive down Route 27 in the Hamptons and see pumpkins for miles. Now it’s no joke. Late blight has taken its toll, resulting in a small harvest of pumpkins that often began to go bad within days of picking. Although our farm stands are flush with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower this November, pumpkins are scarce. Since I didn’t stock up before Halloween when they were plentiful, I’m out of luck now.

Good thing that fresh pumpkins are best enjoyed as holiday décor. I agree with experts like Dorie Greenspan and Nick Malgieri, who say that canned pumpkin (100 percent pure pumpkin, not “pumpkin pie filling,” which contains sugar and spices) is just as tasty and easier to use than fresh for use in seasonal baked goods. A bonus: According to doctors at the University of California at Berkeley, canned pumpkin is actually more nutritious than fresh, with more carotenoids and nutrients, ounce for ounce, than fresh because it is more concentrated (processing eliminates a lot of the water).

To me, opening a can of pumpkin feels like taking a step back in time. When my mother was growing up in the 1940s, canned vegetables were a convenient and economical kitchen mainstay. According to Mom, their altered texture and flavor were part of their appeal. I never tire of hearing how she and my aunt used to argue over whose turn it was to drink the “juice” from a freshly opened can of sauerkraut! I wonder if part of pumpkin pie’s retro allure is the fact that it all starts with a can.

One thing is certain: Strict Long Island locavores won’t be satisfied with the pumpkin purée on the shelves at the Bridgehampton King Kullen supermarket. Although it seemed in October that every field on the East End of Long Island was covered with the orange orbs, our local crop makes up a minuscule slice of the national pumpkin pie. According to the University of Illinois, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria. Nearby Morton, the “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” is home to a Libby’s processing plant that produces 85 percent of the country’s canned pumpkin.

So I don’t put pumpkin recipes to the 100 mile test. I just enjoy them. Pumpkin’s moisture, along with its great color and sweet vegetal flavor, make it a valuable addition to baked goods beyond pie. Pumpkin quick breads, muffins and waffles are welcome at breakfast, brunch and tea time during the holiday season. After baking all of these, I thought I’d try something new last weekend: Churros made with canned pumpkin instead of water. The pumpkin added some nutritional value to this fried dough recipe, although I’d still place it firmly in the category of “treat,” especially when served with a cup of thick Mexican hot chocolate.

Pumpkin Churros

Makes about 20 (4-inch) churros.

Although I’d love to own a home churro maker someday, for now I squeeze my dough through a pastry bag fitted with my largest star tip (an Ateco 827) to get a similar result. Or if I’m being lazy, I’ll simply spoon the dough into the hot oil, to make pumpkin beignets.

Ingredients

½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
vegetable oil for frying
1 cup canned pumpkin purée
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs

Directions

  1. Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Line another rimmed baking sheet with paper towels.
  2. Combine the pumpkin purée, butter, brown sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Add the flour all at once and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture forms a ball, no more than 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl and let cool for 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, with an electric mixer, until smooth.
  3. Heat 2 inches of oil in a large Dutch oven. Scrape the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip.
  4. When the oil is hot (between 350 and 375 F — a small piece of dough placed in the pot will cause the oil to bubble up), pipe 4-inch strips of dough into the pot. Use a scissors to cut the strips as they are extruded from the bag. Take care not to overcrowd the churros (you should be able to fry 4 or 5 at a time). Fry until golden brown, turning once, about 3 minutes total. Remove to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain briefly and repeat with remaining dough.
  5. Roll hot churros in cinnamon sugar and serve warm.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Pumpkin churros. Credit: Lauren Chattman

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Popped Quinoa Granola Image

During the lead-up to Halloween and Thanksgiving, Hamptons farm stands practically explode with pumpkins, straw and ornamental corn. All of this abundance inspires some shoppers to trim their walkways, stoops and porches in high-kitsch harvest style. But because I am more interested in eating than decorating, the idea of exploding corn makes me hungry.

Searching online for something fun to do with popcorn this October, I paged through the same old recipes for popcorn balls, caramel corn and cheese popcorn. Was there nothing new under the autumn sun? Then, I came across some information that almost made my head explode. Until a few days ago, I didn’t realize that grains other than popping corn have hard impermeable hulls protecting starchy interiors. When quinoa, millet, amaranth or sorghum are heated, pressure builds up inside the grains until they pop. I immediately got out my jar of quinoa to give this a try.

Quinoa is an ancient grain-like crop that has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years. Its nutritional value is beyond compare. Not only does it have twice as much protein as corn, but its protein is complete, containing all nine essential amino acids. When it comes to fiber and minerals, quinoa is also a powerhouse. And according to some studies, it may slow atherosclerosis and protect against certain types of cancer. I was excited by the prospect increasing quinoa’s presence in my family’s diet by employing this new cooking method.

I heated a little bit of vegetable oil in a pan and stirred in my quinoa. After a few minutes, a toasty aroma began wafting through the kitchen. I quickly realized that without constant stirring, the kernels on the bottom would quickly burn. Luckily, quinoa kernels are much smaller than corn kernels, and although they will jump a few inches, they won’t fly all over the kitchen the way popcorn will when popped in an uncovered pan.

In less than 10 minutes, most of the kernels had popped and the mixture was nicely browned. It’s better to scrape the quinoa out of the pan when many but not all of the kernels have popped, so it tastes pleasantly toasted and not burnt and bitter. Unlike unpopped corn kernels, unpopped quinoa kernels can be eaten along with the popped ones without risk of broken teeth.

I had a cup or so of popped quinoa. Now I had to figure out how to use it. This wasn’t a fluffy snack I could eat out of hand at the multiplex. It was, however, a crunchy and flavorful addition to my homemade granola. After I enjoyed popped quinoa granola for breakfast, I thought of 10 more ways to use it in my cooking every day:

Ten delicious things to do with popped quinoa:

1. Add to bread dough for a whole-grain boost with no resulting heaviness.

2. Add to oatmeal cookie dough, instead of nuts, for crunch.

3. Use it along with puffed rice cereal in a marshmallow treats recipe.

4. Use along with chopped nuts and dried fruit to make chocolate bark.

5. Stir into waffle or pancake batter.

6. Use as a thickener in Mexican-style mole sauces.

7. Sprinkle onto salads or steamed vegetables, as you would sesame seeds.

8. Knead into tortilla or flatbread dough.

9. Use instead of bread crumbs, to top macaroni and cheese or other baked pasta dishes.

10. Combine with panko bread crumbs, as a coating for chicken fingers.

Granola With Popped Quinoa

Makes about 6 cups granola

Ingredients

5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and allowed to dry slightly
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅓ cup honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup dried apricots, chopped

Directions

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the quinoa and cook, stirring constantly, until it begins to pop. As it pops, stir it frequently to prevent scorching. When the quinoa is mostly popped (many of the grains will be brown), scrape it into a bowl to cool.
  2. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the oats, almonds, ginger, cinnamon, honey, vanilla and remaining 4 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Spread in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the oats are crisp and lightly colored, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on the baking sheet.
  3. Stir together the oat mixture, popped quinoa and apricots. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Granola with popped quinoa. Credit: Lauren Chattman

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School Lunch Demystified Image

This week my children went back to school, and while they girded themselves for another year of homework and gym class, I got ready to pack lunch boxes again.

Because of my particular lunchroom history, I always approach the task with conflicted feelings. Every morning when I was a kid, my mom put together a feast for me to carry to school: a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a box of pretzels and a snack cake. Every day, for years, I ate the snack cake and tossed the rest right into the garbage. No one was looking. Why not skip right to the Devil Dog?

Maybe this was an early sign that I would become a pastry chef. But it also foreshadows the resistance I now feel to the pressure from our school’s wellness committee (which has debated canceling the long-standing tradition of a weekly ice cream day), certain vocal yoga moms (who have lobbied to allow only whole wheat vegan pizza at school functions) and various other members of our community’s food police to pack nutritionally superior lunches day after day. Has joy gone the way of the Ring Ding?

My mother felt no such pressure in the 1970s. Her choices reflected the idea of a balanced meal at the time. She provided plenty of midday calories and left the rest of it up to me. When I revealed to her recently that I never ate the sandwiches, fruit and pretzels that she packed, she wasn’t that surprised or upset. “Well, you survived,” she shrugged.

Today, things are different. For one thing, there are so many more lunchbox choices, good and bad. And the culture at large is interested as never before in what kinds of foods should be allowed in school. Every September, parents are bombarded with books and newspaper articles on packing the perfect lunch. While there’s some helpful advice to be gleaned, most authors put nutrition before pleasure and ease. As someone who has spent the last 15 years developing simple recipes for cakes and cookies, I’m inclined to do the opposite. I pack lunches the way I prepare breakfast, dinner and dessert, letting the following questions guide me:

Did I make it myself? I don’t prepare elaborate, time-consuming dishes for my family on school nights, but I don’t serve them prepared or processed food either. The same goes for the lunch box. I don’t give my kids ravioli from a can, microwavable burritos or pre-packaged snacks (even if they are made with sprouted wheat or labeled “organic”). Lunch may be a sandwich, a salad with a separate container of homemade dressing or leftovers (the kids’ favorite), but it’s always something I’ve made myself.

Have I exercised portion control? When people find out what I do for a living, they inevitably are shocked that my entire family isn’t morbidly obese. There is no secret to our weight control. We just eat everything in moderation. If I’m packing several items in a lunch box, every one of them will be small: A half a bagel with cream cheese, a half dozen baby carrots or cherry tomatoes, and a small treat to end the meal: Enough food to give my kids energy for the second half of the school day but not enough to slow them down.

Have I taught my children something about food and cooking? I strongly believe that learning how to cook is integral to becoming a healthy adult. While my children eat breakfast, I pack their lunches and we talk about the best way to slice a hard roll (don’t hold it in one hand and cut towards that palm with the other hand unless you want to start the day at the emergency room), why it’s better to pack a whole apple than apple slices (slices will turn brown by second period) and why sandwiches with mayonnaise should be kept in the classroom cooler.

Does the meal end with a treat? I guess I’m sentimental, but I can’t bear the idea of sending them off without something sweet to end their midday meal. I have bags of cookie dough in the freezer, so I can bake them each a cookie before school. I also have frozen brownies and blondies (1½-inch squares, not big enough to tempt them to ditch their sandwiches). And every couple of weeks I’ll bake a batch of mini coffee cakes, wrap them individually, and freeze them for future lunch box use.

My priorities might be different from those of a nutritionist, but the end result is a relatively healthy midday meal, nutritionally balanced but easy to prepare and with plenty to enjoy. My own children haven’t inherited my deceptive nature. When they don’t care for something that I’ve packed for them, they leave it in the lunchbox and bring it home. If there’s a half a sandwich or a container of celery sticks, what can I do? When there’s a leftover cake, I pour myself a cup of coffee and enjoy an afternoon snack.

Mini Whole Wheat Coffee Cakes

Makes 12 little cakes

I loved Devil Dogs and Ring Dings as a kid, but my all-time favorite was Drake’s Coffee Cakes. This recipe is an homage to that lunchbox treat. My version is less rich and buttery than the coffee cake I make for brunch and dessert, but will satisfy a child’s sweet tooth nonetheless. I actually chose the “healthy” ingredients not for their fiber or vitamin content, but because they lend great flavor and texture to the cakes. Whole wheat pastry flour makes them tender but slightly chewy. Sunflower seeds in the streusel topping gives them some crunch (I use seeds because my children eat in a nut-free lunch room; chopped walnuts or pecans may be substituted if you’d like). Once the cakes are cooled, you can wrap them in plastic, place them in a zipper-lock bag, and freeze them. Then pop a frozen one your child’s lunchbox in the morning. Even if his or her lunch period is at 10:30 (that’s when the sixth graders in our school eat), the cake should defrost in time.

Ingredients

For the topping:

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
pinch salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
5½ tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup sunflower seeds
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the cakes:

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 cup milk (lowfat is OK)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Make the topping: Combine dark brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, whole wheat pastry flour and sunflower seeds in a medium bowl. Drizzle with butter and pinch mixture with your fingers to form crumbs. Freeze while making cake batter.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Stir in milk , eggs, butter and vanilla. Divide batter between muffin cups. Sprinkle with crumb topping and press lightly so it adheres to the batter.
  3. Bake until toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out dry, 15 to 18 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack, re-invert, and let cool completely.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Mini whole wheat coffee cakes. Credit: Lauren Chattman

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