LIFE IS A PICNIC
The first brilliant rays of light stream through the window and beat on the wood floor after a long winter of gray discontent. The first breath of warm breeze shuffles through the budding leaves on the tree outside our window and blows our hair into our eyes as we stroll to the boulangerie, no longer rushing through the icy mist hoping that our fingers don’t fall off. Both hubby and Marty are perkier, both have that glint in their eyes, one glowing with pleasure seeing his cushion placed in the sunshine, knowing that he can crash there all day, the other thinking of the weekend walks in the local vineyards.
Yes, Springtime has once again come upon us, settling in and calling our names, arms open wide. We stretch our legs and shake off the gloom, and picnic season is here.
A lifetime of picnics: I loved eating outside in the Florida sunshine, either sitting in the crook of the tree branches in our front yard with a book and a sandwich or the Fourth of July fetes in Wickham Park, fun and games, children and dogs and every family laden down with their own basket. Picnics on the beach or on Girl Scout campouts, picnics followed by a swim in the lake or by marshmallows roasting over the open fire. And as I have grown up, a good picnic never failed to amuse me; Fairmount Park in Philly, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Parco Sempione in Milano. My husband, being a lover of the outdoors, fresh air and sunshine, he never misses the chance to organize a good picnic in the closest park, forest or vineyard. A romantic tête-à-tête or a joyous day out with family or friends, there is always a wonderful lunch, a bottle of chilled white and a dog. A light impromptu bread, cheese and fruit snack for two tucked into a backpack or something more consistent if we happen to be bringing along a couple of young men just strong enough and just game enough to lug heavy coolers and baskets weighed down by roasted chickens, bags of chips, summer fruit and homemade desserts.
Living in France, picnics are a breeze; we wake up Sunday morning, grab a basket, walk to the market and buy a fresh cheese or two, vine-ripe tomatoes, a baguette and maybe some tiny pastries, a chilled bottle of wine, fresh fruit and whatever grabs our fancy, even pre-made seafood salads or deep-fried spicy fish balls served up in little plastic containers, or a hot-off-the-spit roasted chicken. Hop into the car and in twenty minutes we find ourselves spread out in the sun, fingers greasy, tossing bits and pieces of this or that to the dog, chugging wine right out of the bottle. Or doing it the French way, handing out knives and forks and plates heavy with food, pour a red or a white into wine glasses, slicing off chunks of sausage or bread. Ah, oui, c’est la vie!
And now an on-line food blogger picnic, larger than life, spread across borders, around the world. My friend Zorra of kochtopf.twoday.net created Bread Baking Day, a monthly food blog challenge to get us all baking. This months challenge, BBD #19 is hosted by Cindystar just in time to celebrate spring her way! She has offered to host a virtual picnic and has asked each of us to bake a picnic bread.
The very first thing that crossed my mind was picnic = sandwich = chicken, veg, cheese, fresh herbs in between two layers of fresh, dense bread. How about mix it all up and bake it in one loaf? Follow by fresh fruit, but instead of pulling out squished berries from the cooler, juice dripping down your arm as you savor the ripe berries, how about the season’s first strawberries all wrapped up in a muffin?
And that is exactly what I did for BBD #19!
SAVORY PICNIC QUICK BREAD WITH SMOKED CHICKEN
2 onions + 2 Tbs (30 g) butter, large couple of pinches of brown sugar and a slug of balsamic vinegar to caramelize
2 leg + thigh sections smoked or roasted chicken
3.5 oz (100 g) comté or gruyere cheese, the real thing if possible
1 small bunch fresh basil
2 – 3 Tbs sun-dried tomato caviar (or puréed)
3 large eggs
1 cup (150 g) flour
2 tsps (10 g) baking powder
½ cup (125 ml) warm milk
3/8 cup (100 ml) vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease a loaf pan.
Cut each onion in quarters, then slice thinly. Chop the basil. Cut the chicken off of the bone, pull off and discard the skin and any fat. Cut into bite-size chunks. Grate the cheese.
Melt the 2 Tbs butter in a large frying pan. When melted and bubbly, add the sliced onions and cook, stirring occasionally over medium-high heat, until soft and translucent, about 5 – 6 minutes. Sprinkle on a teaspoon or two of light brown sugar and stir to coat all of the onion slices and continue to cook for another few minutes. When starting to brown around the edges, drizzle on about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, stir and cook until the onions are nice and caramelized. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
(* This is Kate’s method of caramelizing onions and I decided to try it here. Fabulous! The onions had a full, sweet and sour flavor, just like the little onions that I used to buy in Milan.)
In a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer, beat the eggs until frothy and starting to thicken. Add the flour and the baking powder and beat for just a minute until thick and blended.
Add the milk and then the oil, a little at a time, beating continuously. Beat just until well blended. Beat in the grated cheese.
Fold in the cubed chicken, the chopped basil and the caramelized onions until well blended.
Pour and spread 2/3 of the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Glop on teaspoonfuls of the puréed sun-dried tomatoes around the surface and swirl with a sharp knife (not very easy to do).
Spread the rest of the batter over the top making sure all the tomato caviar is hidden underneath.
Bake the loaf in the preheated oven for 45 – 50 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
Allow to cool in the loaf pan before turning out onto a platter.
This bread was fantastic! All the flavors popped out, the smoky chicken, the sweet/sour onions were fabulous, the hint of nutty comté cheese. Really truly a fabulous bread! Perfect not only for a picnic, but I would definitely serve this for a brunch. We had this for a light dinner with a salad.
And once you have made the basic bread batter, fold in what you will: smoked or roasted chicken can be replaced with crispy fried bacon bits or lardons, slivers or roasted, peeled red pepper or caramelized cauliflower flowerets. Toss in any cheese you please, drained, jarred artichoke hearts or slivers of sun-dried tomatoes. As you please!
SWEET STRAWBERRY PECAN MUFFINS
Adapted from a quick bread recipe from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
2 oz (about 50 g) chopped pecans
1 ½ cups (180 g) flour
1 cup (200 g) sugar
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp vanilla
2 large eggs
1 ¼ cups (10 oz / 300 g fresh whole) mashed strawberries
½ cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan or line 15 muffin tins with paper liners (I made 12 regular-sized muffins and 9 mini muffins with this recipe).
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the chopped pecans, the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Mash the strawberries by hand (I used an old-fashioned potato masher, leaving some chunks) in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
Add the eggs, vanilla and vegetable oil to the mashed strawberries and whisk until well blended.
Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry and stir or whisk together until well blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan or spoon into the muffin cups.
Bake in the preheated oven until puffed, lightly browned and set in the center (when gently pressed in the center the bread will spring back), 55 – 60 minutes for the loaf, 40 – 45 for the muffins, but check often.
This can also be made with 1 ¼ cups unsweetened stewed rhubarb (starting with 2 ½ cups sliced fresh rhubarb), increasing the sugar in the bread recipe to 1 ¼ cups (250 g), or replace the strawberry pulp for the equivalent amount applesauce. Walnuts can replace the pecans.
The muffins were wonderful, full of strawberry flavor with the pecans offering the right amount of bite under the teeth. It is the perfect picnic dessert or breakfast muffin, sweet without being overly sugary or cloying, just enough sugar to bring out the best in the strawberry flavor without overpowering it. And just the perfect moist yet light muffin texture.