Twice Baked Cranberry & Pancetta Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Glaze

The only time I’ve lived away from my hometown was during my sophomore year in college when I moved to Beaufort, a small town on the coast of North Carolina. I lived there for a few months before traveling for a month down the Eastern seaboard to study marine zoogeography. That semester changed my life, and I’ve continued to process the memories over the years. Periodically I’ll share stories here on Willow Bird Baking from that time.

. . .

I stared willfully at the horizon, waiting for the wave of nausea to subside. As if it were having great fun at my expense, the boat rolled over another giant wave. My stomach followed. I was determined not to succumb to the sensation and end up hanging over the railing like several of my friends, so I squinted even harder at the steady line between sky and land.

We’d woken up at an absurd hour to climb aboard the R/V Susan Hudson that morning. We’d all become accustomed to rolling out of bed, pulling on a pair of salty old sneakers, and plowing through the fog of sleep to begin our adventures. Luxuries like showering and hairstyling and even, say, deodorant had long since been abandoned. There was a high likelihood that on any given day we’d find ourselves traipsing through mud up to our thighs (I’m not exaggerating), swimming to a nearby island, or cuddling with sea cucumbers in the shallows. There was no point in getting pretty.

This was our first deep sea expedition. We were traveling miles out into the ocean to dredge and trawl for invertebrates that we would take back to the lab, observe, and then release. I’d been on the Susan Hudson around Pivers Island, home base for the Duke Marine Lab where we lived, but I soon discovered that this was an entirely different experience: one in which I did not have sea legs. Or a sea stomach.

The briney smell of the critters we poured out onto the ship’s deck didn’t help. We quickly flipped fish back out into the sea and scooped heaps of clams, snails, and squids into buckets of seawater. A cacophony of seagull chatter above us reminded us to toss a bit of our impressively fresh sushi into the air now and then.

On our way back with our spineless loot (the squids’ inky water suggested they were none too happy with their temporary accommodations), we docked near Cape Lookout to explore the seashore for a bit before eating lunch back on the boat. The dining hall had packed us sweet little bag lunches complete with a sandwich, apple, and cookie, but the thought of lunch sent my stomach back into a lurch.

Fortunately, one of the guys in our group had grown up on the water in Charleston. Will had battened down hatches, swabbed the deck, shivered some timbers, and every other nautical cliche I can muster up. He saw my decidedly green gills and said, “Make sure to eat.”

I was skeptical. “Well, I’m feeling really sick — is it a good idea to eat anything? Isn’t that just asking for trouble?”

“Trust me: eat. You’ll feel better.”

I unfolded the wax paper around my sandwich and took a cautious bite. (By the way, if you’ve never wrapped a sandwich in wax paper for your lunch, you should. The sensory experience of unwrapping that crinkly, smooth paper to eat a humble little sandwich is one of my favorite things in the world.) I don’t remember what sort of sandwich it was, but it tasted otherworldly after an entire morning on the boat. My hunger caught up to me and I finished devouring my sandwich with gusto. I headed for the cookie after that, offering my apple to one of my friends (the peel gets caught in my teeth and drives me batty, so I never eat them).

My trust in Will, given tentatively and mostly out of desperation despite his obvious experience, paid off. I felt better almost instantly. So much so that instead of clenching my bench and staring at the now-bright horizon the entire way back to the lab, I was able to get up and survey the surrounding sea, broken by waves and playful dolphins.

. . .

I’ve moved from research boats to potato boats since my time in Beaufort. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot on an actual boat (unless you count a kayak) in years. And I wouldn’t trust these sweet potatoes to be particularly sea-worthy.

They are fantastic, though. I love twice baked potatoes for their soft, creamy filling, and this play on the theme boasts that same lovely texture. In addition to that, it has a phenomenal collection of flavors: sweet potato, cranberry, salty pancetta, sage, goat cheese, and a sweet balsamic glaze. The pretty presentation is just the icing on the cake.

Twice Baked Cranberry & Pancetta Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Glaze

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 2 twice baked sweet potatoes

These gorgeous twice baked sweet potatoes are fancy enough for a holiday meal, but simple enough to make any night. You can even prepare them a day in advance so they’re ready to pop in the oven before a big meal. A few tricks (like using a zip top bag to pipe the mixture into their sweet potato boats) speed up the process. The best thing about them, though, is the fantastic combination of flavors: salty pancetta, sweet and tart cranberries, tangy goat cheese, fresh sage, and a sweet balsamic glaze. It’s every sweet potato’s dream.

2 large sweet potatoes (look for ones that are shaped like a fat oval)
4 ounces cubed pancetta
2 ounces goat cheese, plus more for crumbling on top
2 tablespoons butter
1 heaping teaspoon of loosely packed sage leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup half & half
salt to taste
1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar

In a small bowl, cover dried cranberries with hot water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for about 10 minutes to rehydrate the berries. Drain them and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Poke each sweet potato several times with a fork and bake them on the oven rack (with a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any oozing) for 1 hour or until a knife will slice them easily.

While they bake, sauté the pancetta in a skillet over medium-high heat for a 8-10 minutes or until crisp. Drain it on a plate lined with a paper towel.

Once they’re ready, let the baked sweet potatoes cool for 10 minutes before slicing the top third off of each. Use a spoon to carefully scoop out the flesh (leave about 1/8 inch of flesh in the skin to give it some sturdiness). Mix the sweet potato flesh in a medium bowl with the butter, 2 ounces of goat cheese, and half & half (add this slowly while mixing so you get the consistency you’d like). Once the mixture is smooth, stir in the cranberries, sage, and pancetta. Salt the mixture to taste. Spoon it into a large zip top bag and cut the bottom corner off. Squeeze the mixture into the sweet potato skins. (At this point you can cover the potatoes and refrigerate overnight or bake immediately. If you chill them overnight, just let them come to room temperature before you bake them the next day.) Bake the potatoes for 10-12 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.

While the potatoes are baking, combine the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and boil them over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to about 2/3 cup (this can take anywhere from 18-25 minutes). Be careful — vinegar fumes are strong! When the glaze is about ready, preheat the broiler. Top each potato with a generous amount of goat cheese and broil, watching very closely, until goat cheese is toasty brown and bubbly. Remove the potatoes and drizzle on the balsamic glaze. Serve immediately.

P.S. This dish will be entered in the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission‘s No More ‘Mallows Recipe Contest. I love me some sweet tater and marshmallow casserole, but I also love that sweet potatoes pack a lot of savory potential.

If you liked this post, please:
Subscribe to Willow Bird Baking
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Twitter
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Facebook
Give this post a thumbs up on StumbleUpon
Pin It

Cranberry Orange Pecan Cake (vegan)

I’m sitting in my living room like a lump, listening to a Brazilian rock band and watching Mike exercise (I’m pretty sure I’m getting healthier by proxy). Byrd is snuggled beside me, a tiny fellow lump. I’m about to grade papers (I promise), but the sum total of my work today has been coining a new nickname for Byrd: Sweet Potato. It’s a cross between sweetheart and couch potato. Get it?

So it’s been a lazy day. I ate oatmeal on toast and then some sausages, caramelized onions, and sauerkraut for dinner. Mike and I discussed Jean Luc Picard. We finished watching Miracle on 34th Street. Byrd chewed on her toy for awhile. That’s about the sum total of our productivity.

It’s about time for some relaxation, though. I like to say that teachers don’t really get a “weekend” for 10 months out of the year; we’re hard at work or on call 24/7. Work and home start to blend together — you lesson plan at school and grade papers at home or vice versa, answering student and parent queries all the while. You squeeze in the other bits and pieces of your life wherever they fit (and sometimes leave them by the wayside altogether — I won’t mention how long my carpet sometimes goes unvacuumed).

Also, I work at a project based school, which means students learn through authentic application projects. I’m wholeheartedly invested in this model, but it does mean that I’m always knee-deep in projects to grade.

I would never complain — I have the best job in the world (did I tell you about the lamb that was at school last week? Did I mention the Winter Wonderland where students caroled and drank hot chocolate? Did I tell you about how my students are actually excited to receive new projects?) But I definitely appreciate a break now and then.

This break has been appreciated to the fullest. Honestly, this is my first day of lounging around in an otherwise caffeinated week. I’ve been getting housework done and prepping for the holidays. And Monday, I attended a baked goods swap (my first ever, if you can believe it) with the Charlotte Food Bloggers.

The Charlotte Food Bloggers are an incredibly varied group of people. We have mommy bloggers, vegan bloggers, healthy living bloggers, restaurant reviewers, and straight up food bloggers. I decided I wanted to make a dessert everyone could enjoy and that meant (gulp) baking vegan.

Vegan baking may conjure up ideas of dry or oily frankendesserts, but it really shouldn’t. This cake, for instance, was as delicious as any non-vegan cake I’ve ever tasted. It was, if I do say so myself (and I did already, on Willow Bird Baking’s Facebook page), pretty slammin’! It even passed the Mike test, and he’s quite the carnivore.

The festive combination of orange zest and cranberries brightened up the moist cake, which was generously slathered with some dairy-free “cream cheese” frosting. Whether you’re vegan or not, give this one a try.

fun with the charlotte food bloggers (instagram courtesy of taylor mathis)

Vegan Cranberry Orange Pecan Cake

Recipe by: Adapted from the veganized version by The Tolerant Vegan, originally from Midwest Living
Yield: 9 servings

This cake is fantastic! It’s a moist, delicious “butter” cake full of festive cranberries, orange zest, and toasted pecans. The whole thing is slathered with dairy-free cream cheese frosting that, unlike some other vegan frostings I’ve tried, is a great consistency for spreading. Whether you’re a vegan or not, you’ll love every bite of this cake.

Cake Ingredients:
3/8 cup Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
5/8 cup vanilla almond milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen, chopped
1/4 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for sprinkling)
1 tablespoon orange zest

Frosting Ingredients:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons dairy-free cream cheese, softened (I used Trader Joe’s This is Not a Tub of Cream Cheese)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare an 8-inch square baking pan by greasing it with Earth Balance and flouring it. Place a parchment paper square in the bottom, and grease and flour the paper as well. (Note: You can double this recipe and make it in a 9 x 13-inch pan).

In a large bowl, cream together the Earth Balance and sugar for 2-3 minutes until fluffy. Mix in the applesauce, almond milk, and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, whisk together the baking powder, baking soda, sea salt and flour. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until fully combined.

Mix in the vinegar. Fold in the cranberries, pecans, and orange zest. Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs. Allow the cake to cool completely before you frost it.

To make the frosting, place confectioners’ sugar, dairy-free cream cheese, Earth Balance, and vanilla extract in a bowl and mix until combined and fluffy. Spread the frosting on the cake, sprinkle with toasted pecans, and serve.

P.S. I just learned about orange pomanders this year and have enjoyed making them. Just poke some whole cloves into a few oranges. You can make any design you like. They smell lovely and are a fun little Christmas craft.

P.S. 2 – See Taylor’s visual recap of the CFB baked goods swap here. Lots of pretty food!

If you liked this post, please:
Subscribe to Willow Bird Baking
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Twitter
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Facebook
Give this post a thumbs up on StumbleUpon
Pin It

Shareother ways to share this post with friends

Make-Ahead Gingerbread Coffee Cake with Cranberry Pecan Streusel

“Hey Barb,” I chirped into the phone, hoping I sounded nonchalant. “You know our security deposit? Well. We’re, uh . . . we’re not getting that back.”

It was my first call to my roommate since we’d gotten the keys to our new apartment. I was standing in the living room surveying the debris field. Chaotic stacks of moving boxes littered the floor, as you might expect, but in front of me, the front doorframe lay in splinters on the floor. The door itself hung agape, swaying in the wind: a boat without a moor.

The tone of her voice took on a preparing-for-the-worst quality as she replied. “Uh-oh. What happened?” Do you want to know what happened, dear reader? I’ll tell you what happened.

It all started about an hour earlier, when I’d arrived in the parking lot of my new apartment complex with my dad and my brother, Alex, to begin moving in. We walked up the stairs and I began digging through my gigantic purse in search of my apartment key. I dug past lip gloss, receipts, gift cards, candy, my flashlight, my checkbook, my hippopotamus change purse, tampons, medicine, tissues, letters, my phone, several key rings . . .

I dug through that purse like an paleontologist for what seemed like an hour, uncovering months’ worth of fossilized garbage instead of cool dinosaur bones. And instead of, um, my apartment key.

Suddenly the awful realization dawned on me: I’d left the key at my parents’ house. I admitted this to my dad and we stared unhappily at the moving boxes we’d just hauled across town. We walked downstairs to consider our options.

We needn’t have worried, though, because Alex came down a few minutes later and relayed some “good” news: “The door’s open.”

“Wait, what?” I asked, thinking perhaps the apartment folks had left it unlocked for us. But you know where this is going. Alex didn’t mean that the door was unlocked. No. You know what Alex meant?

Alex meant that on my first day moving into my brand new apartment, he had just broken down my front door.

(Even better is that I don’t think he saw anything strange about this. He had kind of a, “Well, we had to get in, right?” attitude about the whole thing.)

As I stood in the living room relaying to Barbara that our new apartment had just been broken into (by, uh, my kid brother), I felt more than just my bank account plummet. The apartment didn’t feel so new and exciting anymore. My spirits fell. I’d been anxious about moving across town, moving in with a new roommate, and starting a new job; now it seemed my new living situation was already going poorly.

My dad returned the next day and fixed the door frame. A few nails, some spackle, and some paint and it was good as new. As for my morale, it took a little longer to improve. Barb is a magnets-on-the-refrigerator and tchotchkes-on-the-mantle person and I am not. The huge windows, while gorgeous, let in lots of cold air. The faucet in the kitchen was too low to fit a stock pot under.

Really, though, none of this was the issue. The issue was that I was in a new place and it just wasn’t home yet.

It’s been 3 years since I stood in front of my busted up doorway and broke the news to Barbara. I still don’t know if we’ll get our security deposit back. And as I mentioned to Kaitlin recently, I still don’t know that this is truly “home.”

But there have been plenty of moments that felt like “home” in this apartment. There was the time Mike walked in and saw the Valentine’s feast I’d prepared as a surprise for him. There was the time Barbara, Mike and I all decorated her Christmas tree together. There was the time I sat out on the balcony in the middle of a summer night all alone, writing poetry in the company of fireflies.

And there was the Make-Ahead Holiday Breakfast Party — Mike and I eating in our PJs by the fire, with little Byrd eating her breakfast between us.

This Gingerbread Coffee Cake was probably the easiest dish to prepare and also Mike’s favorite of the morning. The recipe began life as a regular gingerbread cake, but I revised it to include sour cream, cake flour, and a healthy dose of streusel on top to turn it into a coffee cake. It’s certainly Christmas-worthy! I hope you can find a little bit of “home” in it just like I did.

Gingerbread Coffee Cake with Cranberry Pecan Streusel

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, heavily adapted from Joy of Baking
Yields: 9-12 servings

This moist, gorgeous Gingerbread Coffee Cake is the perfect combination of sweet, spiced, crunchy, and comforting. The best part (besides the taste!) is that it can be made in advance and refreshed in the oven for just a few minutes before serving. You can even divide the preparation over a few days to ensure it fits into your holiday schedule. This was Mike’s favorite dish on our holiday breakfast table.

Coffee Cake Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses*
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream
*Tip from Joy of Baking: To prevent the molasses from sticking to the measuring cup, first spray the cup with a non-stick vegetable spray.

Cranberry Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold butter
1 cup chopped pecans (Oh Nuts! sent me Cranberry Pecans and they were so awesome for this!)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup apple cider

NOTE: If you wanted to make this cake way in advance, you could complete this recipe up to the point of wrapping and refrigerating the cake. Instead, you’d double wrap it and freeze it. Then you could just thaw it overnight in the fridge before warming it through in the oven and serving it.

2 days in advance: Place the cranberries and apple cider for the streusel into a small bowl and cover. Refrigerate to rehydrate the berries.

1 day in advance: Make the streusel. First, drain the cranberries. Combine the flour and brown sugar in a medium bowl and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in the cold butter until you have crumbly streusel. Mix in the pecans and drained cranberries. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and make a foil sling for a 9-inch square baking pan: tear off 4, 16-inch long pieces of aluminum foil and fold them in half. Situate two side-by-side in the pan, covering the bottom of the pan to the edge (they will overlap). Situate the other two strips in the same manner, but perpendicular to the first. The overhanging foil of the sling will make it easy to remove the cake from the pan after baking and cooling. Butter and flour the sling.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Set aside. In a separate large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy (at least 2-3 minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the molasses, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl when you need to. Gently mix the sour cream and milk in a measuring cup. Add the dry ingredients and milk mixture alternately, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat until just combined.

Pour the batter into the buttered and floured baking pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about 25 minutes before sprinkling the streusel evenly over the top of the cake (and kind of pressing it on). Continue baking for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool completely. Remove it from its pan using the foil sling and wrap it tightly with plastic wrap (I wrap the foil sling and all so I can just pop it back in the pan to refresh later on) and stick it in the fridge.

The morning of: Let the cake sit out and come to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Pop it back in its pan and into the oven for a few minutes until warmed through. Let it cool for about 10 minutes.

P.S. Oh Nuts! sent me Cranberry Pecans to try free of charge. My opinions are always my own and always thoughtfully prepared with consideration for my readers — and I loved ’em!

If you liked this post, please:
Subscribe to Willow Bird Baking
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Twitter
Follow Willow Bird Baking on Facebook
Give this post a thumbs up on StumbleUpon
Pin It

ShareOther ways to share this post with friends!

1 2