Monday, December 28, 2009


It's officially hockey season in western PA. Mostly due to the fact that the Steelers, short of a miracle, are not going to be in the playoffs due to their inability to, well, I guess "win" would be the right word here. And now those fair-weather (read: "all") football fans will jump on the Penguins bandwagon. I say welcome, friends! This should get you appropriately pumped up and ready for the greatest sport ever.  A la Elliot Reid, frick yes!

(I realize this isn't my usual posting material, but a) I'm home for Christmas, b) hockey is amazing and you'll thank me later, and c) I've most likely watched at least three rerun episodes of Scrubs today.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas (a little early!)

Merry Christmas!  Feliz Navidad!  Froehliche Weihnachten!  Have a safe, warm and wonderful holiday, everyone!

I'll be spending tomorrow with my family... eating my weight in cinnamon rolls and snuggling by the fire :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How-to: Creaming

I love the holiday season, from about mid November until January, people everywhere become hosts and hostesses, bakers, cooks, and crafters when they might not think themselves capable the rest of the year.  When someone tells me of the delicious cookies they baked or cocktail party she hosted, I want to run up and give her a big hug and say something like, "See?  You can do it!  And isn't it fun?!  You should do this more often!"  (and probably frighten said person a little in the process, meh)

These seasonal bakers, or TC (Thanksgiving-Christmas) bakers as I like to call them, sometimes need a little refresher when it comes to baking lingo.  And some of you who are new to this may, too!  In most cookie and cake recipes, you'll see the instruction "cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy."  But, what exactly is light or fluffy?  How long will it take?  Patience, young grasshoppers.

Creaming is the process of mixing fat, butter or solid shortening (i.e. Crisco), together with sugar.  The dry ingredients are mixed with the fat until it becomes light and fluffy and increased in volume, due to the incorporation of tiny air bubbles.  Not only does the mixture expand, but the color becomes a paler yellow (if using butter).  These air bubbles, locked into the fat, remain in the final batter and expand as the item is baked, serving as a form of leavening agent.

Overall, creaming is a very important step when making cookies, cakes, and buttercreams (Captain Obvious on that last one, right?), so certainly don't skip this one.  There aren't any steadfast time constraints on this one, but usually two sticks of butter with sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium-high takes about 3-4 minutes.  Use your judgment, and pay attention!  This is not the time to walk away from your stand mixer and do an exercise video... who would ever do such a stupid thing... :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glazed lemon pound cake

Currently listening to "Christmas is All Around" by "Billy Mack" from the Love Actually soundtrack.  No matter how unrealistic it is that Bill Nighy is playing an English pop star, you will not get me to stop loving this song, or the ridiculous video, which I hadn't seen until just now.  I actually thought I was getting the clip from the movie with all of the adorable get together moments of the couples, but instead I got an eyeful of scantily clad groupies. You probably didn't want to see that link.  Woops.

[insert an appropriate transition here because, for once, I'm lost for words] This recipe caught my eye when I was searching for something to take to this year's office holiday potluck party.  I was a little late on signing up with my choice of dish and cookies and chocolate cake were already taken.  And because the party is held in someone else's house, I wouldn't feel right asking to use her kitchen to finish preparing my offering.  So, something easily transported and, let's be honest, sweet.  And what a pleasant surprise to have a citrus flavor (normally in season during the summer months) to enjoy.  Enjoy a slice on its own or, another serving suggestion, with fresh berries of any kind and whipped cream.

Glazed Lemon Pound Cake
(adapted from Everyday Food)
-makes 2 loaves, but can be halved (adjust eggs to 3 if so, to make halving easier)

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
Zest of 2 lemons, finely grated
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs

Lemon glaze: 2 cups confectioner sugar, 4 T lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with rack in lowest position.  Using nonstick cooking spray, coat two 4 1/2-by-8-inch (6-cup) loaf pans.  Dust with a tablespoon of flour each, and tap around until evenly coated.  Dispose of extra.  (I used 1 8 1/2 x 4 1/2" pan and one 9 x 6" pan, and when baking, noted that the latter would be done first.  You can also make mini pound cakes by using a standard muffin pan.)  In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk with the lemon zest and juice, set aside.  In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and soda, set aside.

With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.  With mixer on low, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Again, with the mixer on low (unless you want a flour winter wonderland in your kitchen) add 1/3 of the flour mixture.  Add half of the buttermilk mixture, another third of the flour, rest of the buttermilk, and final third of the flour.  Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula between each step or as needed.  Beat until just smooth (do not overmix!).

Divide batter evenly between pans, if of the same size.  If you're using pans of different sizes, fill about 3/4 full.  Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, 50-60 minutes (40 minutes for the 9 x 6 pan, and probably around 20-25 for muffin pans).  Cool 15 minutes in pan on a cooling rack.  Run a knife around the edges of the pans, and carefully tap cake out onto rack and cool top side up completely (about an hour, maybe more depending on the temperature in your kitchen).

Set rack with cakes over wax paper or foil so that any glaze drippings can be easily disposed of.  Whisk together confectioner sugar and 4 tablespoons of lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth.  Pour or drizzle glaze over cakes, letting it run down the sides.  Let dry about 30 minutes.  Don't worry, it will harden, which lends perfectly to easy transportation.  Stored in closed container or bag for up to a week. 

...or take it to your office holiday party for those people who aren't crazy about peppermint or chocolate desserts and want a refreshingly light and sweet treat :)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The answers to all of your problems!

...or at least baking questions you've asked me.  One of the reasons I started this little project was to take away the mystery and intimidation of baking and some cooking -- it's really not that hard, it just takes some patience and careful attention.  Anyone can do it!

Disclaimer: I am no professionally-trained chef and will never claim to be.  I've gone to the school of "practice makes perfect" with lots of extracurricular Food Network and reading.  I've screwed up recipes, and you will, too.  Just ask my parents about the stuffed red onions.  Not pretty and bland-tasting at best.  You must to be willing to make mistakes, figure out why what happened actually happened, and give it another go.  Recipes you see here are often made at least three times and frequently, over 20 times.  Everyone cooks/bakes differently, and their kitchens, ovens, ingredients, and interpretations of recipes are different, too.  I just try to give the most detailed instructions and give tips that usually aren't included in most recipes.  (My cookbooks look like textbooks with dates and tons of notes in the margins... oh and tons of butter, sugar, and chocolate marks.)

1. "Do I need an electric mixer?  Can I do things by hand instead?"
Teeeeeeeeechnically, yes, you can do without an electric mixer.  Many folks before us did it, but be prepared to put in a lot of extra work, as most recipes assume you have even the most basic mixer.  So, let me answer that again.  Yes, you need an electric mixer if you want to make your life a heck of a lot easier.  I know I harp about my stand mixer all the time (hello, I celebrated my one year anniversary with the thing by using it to make cookise), but they are expensive and unless you will use it often, it's probably not worth the money for you.  Instead, you can find very capable and inexpensive models in stores like Target, Wal-mart and Macy's.  I just coached a friend through buying her first one at a Target, and she found there are models for as little as $15.  Rival, Oster, Hamilton Beach, Proctor Silex, Cuisinart, Kitchenaid -- these are all great models.  Just make sure they come with two metal beaters and you'll be good to go.

2. "I swear you use parchment paper in almost every recipe.  Is it totally necessary?"
No, it's not necessary.  But, for more delicate cookies, as seen in the sugar cookie post, parchment paper will enable you to just remove the whole sheet of paper and transfer to a cooling rack until the cookies become firmer and easier to handle.  I know, I know, I didn't use paper for my chocolate gingersnaps...  that's because I actually ran out (ha!).  But, gingersnaps are much firmer cookies and can be easily removed with a metal spatula without fear of breaking.  If I had to pick one product that I wouldn't make without the use of parchment paper, it'd have to be layer cakes.  Nothing bums me out more than unmolding a gorgeous yellow cake only to have half of the bottom stick to the pan.  Important note: Wax paper is NOT an appropriate substitute for parchment paper.  Wax paper will melt in the oven and I'm sure cause many more problems... I'm not about to find out the hard way.  Parchment paper is available in the baking section of most grocery stores, not in the wax paper/tin foil/plastic wrap section like you might think.  Also, a great more permanent solution would be the Sil-pat.

3. "How do I chop an onion quickly and easily like I see the chefs on TV do?"
I'll say that the art of cutting something, be it an onion, bell pepper, or even tomato, is learned through much practice and observation.  Ina Garten showed me how to cut a bell pepper, some chick on PBS showed me the best way to cut a tomato, and Giada DeLaurentiis was the person I first noticed chopping an onion with such ease.  Since I can't find a video of her online, I'll see what I can find instead.  First tip -- a sharp knife so you are actually cutting the onion, not crushing it.  Alright, here is a quick clip.  I should note that this is how to dice an onion.  For strings or rings, a different technique applies.  Hope this helps!

4. "How do I make a softer, puffier, doughier cookie?  Just decrease the baking time?"
For a quick fix, yes, bake it for a shorter amount of time.  But eventually, the cookie will cool and dry out a bit.  I tell people this all the time and, I'm pretty sure they think I'm just being dramatic, but I have two recipes for chocolate chip cookies and two for sugar cookies: one makes a thin, crisp cookie, and the other is for a chewy and soft version.  There is a difference in ingredients, with two primary examples.  First, a recipe for a thinner cookie will most likely include egg whites and not just whole eggs.  The reason behind this is that the egg white actually dries out the cookie and puffs up much less than the yolk.  Second, a crisper cookie will have more granulated sugar than brown sugar, since brown sugar (sugar + molasses) will create a chewier cookie.  In fact, Alton Brown of Good Eats fame has a great episode about these differences, check it out if you're lucky!  I'll do some posts on this in the future, so just wait!

That's all for now.  Thanks so much for the questions -- keep them coming.  Happy cooking!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cinnamon bread

What a glorious weekend, aside from the ice-rain attack that Mother Nature waged on western PA yesterday.  Luckily, I didn't have anywhere to be so the day was spent napping, baking and cooking, eating, and watching Christmas movies.  Breads, cakes, cookies, soups... heck yes.  I have lots of recipes for the next week or two!  Oh, and I think the highlight was getting calls from two friends that used recipes found here to have their very own (successful!) culinary adventures.  I'm so happy that I've convinced two self-professed kitchen phobics that they can cook :)

This recipe comes from my good friend Becca, who got it from her mom and, from there, it's a mystery.  So, to make things easy, I'm going to call this recipe "Becca's Mom's Cinnamon Bread".  Alternate titles also include "Hey-I'll-do-an-exercise-video-while-making-this Bread" and, my personal favorite, "Screw-aerobics!-Just turn-on-Food-Network-and-do-jumping-jacks-while-making-this Bread".  (Note:  This was not meant to offend any aerobic fanatics.  I, personally, have no coordination and couldn't even make it through the warm-up -- no joke.  Honestly, this lady must have 20 years of dance training.  And I'm pretty sure her ponytail is giving her a face-lift as she does this video.  Ridiculous.)  And this is an easy bread.  No special flours required, and you can do it easily without a mixer.

The first time I made this I used it for French toast the next day.  Holy amazing, I highly recommend this!  The slices of bread will be smaller than traditional bread, but the richness makes up for the size.  Also a nice loaf of this wrapped up makes a great gift.  Happy eating!

Becca's Mom's Cinnamon Bread
-makes one 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf (you can also use a 9x5 pan)

1 1/4 cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1 package active dry yeast
2 Tbsp soft shortening (I used Crisco)
2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar

Pour water in large bowl of an electric mixer.  Add yeast and stir gently with a spatula/spoon until dissolved.  Add shortening, salt, granulated sugar, and half (1 1/2 cups) of the flour to the water/yeast mixture.  Beat 2 minutes on medium speed with bread hook, or 300 strokes by hand.  Scrape bowl frequently.  Add remaining flour (1 1/2 cups) and stir by hand until just blended.

Cover bowl with kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm place (I sat the bowl on top of my stove) until doubled, about 30 minutes.  Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, and set aside for later use.  Grease 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan (metal or glass will work) liberally and set aside.

When dough has doubled, stir down batter by beating about 25 strokes.  You'll hear little "puffs" of air leaving the batter.  This is a good sign!  Stir in brown sugar cinnamon mixture, incorporating but be careful not to overmix.  This will give you swirls of cinnamon in the finished bread.  Spread batter (it will be sticky and a bit stiff, do not panic) into greased pan.  Let rise in a warm place again, until batter reaches 1/4" from top of the pan, about 40 minutes.  Heat oven to 375F.

Bake bread 45-50 minutes or until cake tester inserted in middle comes out relatively clean (there will probably be some cinnamon/sugar on it).  Cool pan on rack for 20 minutes.  Run a clean knife around the edge of the pan, loosening up the loaf, and turn out onto rack to cool completely out of pan.  Optional: Using pastry brush, brush top of loaf lightly with melted butter.  Will keep up to a week in plastic wrap or closed container.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chocolate gingersnap cookies

(I swear, the title makes sense by the end of this post.  Initially, I wanted to make a play on a movie and tried to Google one with ginger in the title, only to find a 2000 movie called Ginger Snaps in which "werewolfism is a metaphor for puberty."  Obvious yes, but that description is just too awful for words.  My condolences if any of you have actually seen that movie.)

Move over, traditional gingersnap cookie.  These cookies are a wonderful twist on the holiday favorite and yet, subtle enough that they won't scare off fans of the traditional cookie.  Cocoa powder is substituted for some of the flour and mini chocolate chips are added for a sweet surprise.  AND... AND... (are you sufficiently excited for this one?)... no chilling of the dough!  Mix, roll in sugar, smoosh (that's a technical term) on cookie sheet, and bake.  Because this is a crisper cookie, they store and/or freeze in a sealed container beautifully.  Keep them on hand for surprise visitors this winter.  Oh, and I give these an A+ for dunk-in-milk-ability.  Trust me :)

The only problem I had with this recipe was finishing and realizing I was almost out of milk.  Not even enough for one last glass, but just enough for a small bowl of cereal.  Crappedy crap crap.  You wouldn't believe how many times I run out of really basic staple items, like milk or bread, and yet I can guarantee I'll have ginger root, molasses, and three different kinds baking chocolate in massive quantities.  There is something seriously wrong with me.  Meh, it's Friday and the Pens won last night.  I don't really care today :)  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Chocolate Gingersnap Cookies
(adapted from Baking Bites)
-makes about 4 dozen 2" round cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips, roughly chopped (or mini chips)
1/4 cup finely grated ginger (peel the root, then grate)
1/3 cup granulated sugar (or colored, if you want) for rolling

Preheat oven to 375F.  Have two cookie sheets ready.  In a medium bowl, sift (or whisk, if you don't have a sifter) together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and all spices.  (Oh my goodness, don't those spices smell amazing?  Keep going, the cookies are even better!)

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes).  Beat in egg, followed by molasses, balsamic vinegar, vanilla, and finally grated ginger.  Either by hand or with the mixer on low speed, gradually stir in all of the flour mixture, mixing only until no streaks of flour remain.  (Don't worry, the dough will be stiff.)  Stir in chopped chocolate.

Form dough into 1 inch balls, roll in sugar and place on baking sheet.  Dip the bottom of a glass, prefererably one with a flat bottom, in sugar.  Press cookies gently with bottom of glass to flatten slightly.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until browned around the edges.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fruit, nut & oat breakfast bars

My love of homemade snacks is no secret.  So, when I saw a recipe for breakfast granola bars in Nigella Express, I knew I had to try it.  They are easy to make (I know I say many things are easy, but this is one bowl, one spatula, and one measuring cup easy) but remember that they need an hour to bake and another hour or so to cool and set.  I made a batch on Sunday to have for the whole week.  You know, just in case I have one of those days when I don't want to get out of my warm bed and the thought of walking to work in 20 degree air makes me want to cry, so I stay in bed much longer than I should. Then panic hits when I do the math of how long each part of my morning routine takes and realize that the time I have left isn't enough... yeah.    These bars are perfect for those exact panic moments.  Also suitable for the common 2:30 "I'm so hungry I couldn't have possibly eaten lunch" hunger pangs.

Breakfast (or any other time of the day when you need a satisfying snack) Bars
(adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe in here)

1 14-ounce can condensed milk
2 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not instant... they don't have enough substance)
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup dried cherries (or other dried fruit of your choice)
1 cup sunflower seeds (or pumpkin, sesame, etc.)
1 cup natural unsalted peanuts

Preheat oven to 250F.  Coat a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.  Mix together all ingredients except the milk in a large bowl.

Warm the condensed milk in the microwave or in a saucepan over the stove.  Do NOT boil, merely warm.  Pour over the mixture into the large bowl and fold and distribute using a rubber spatula.

Spread the mixture into the pan and spread evenly, patting down where need be to make the surface even.

Bake 1 hour, remove from oven and cool on wire rack for 15 minutes.  While still in pan, cut into 16 equal bars.  Let cool completely (I let mine sit out for another two hours while I was doing other things around the apartment).  Store in a sealed bag or container for up to two weeks.

Enjoy with a cup of tea... mmmm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sweet potato lentil stew

On Saturday, it finally snowed in Pittsburgh!  (Maybe not "finally" to some of you, but if it's going to be cold outside, it better snow... at least then my shivering walks to work are aesthetically pleasing.)  Snow and colder weather mean many things to me, two of my favorites being: 1) Christmas decorations, and 2) warm soups/stews.  And, being in a small apartment, both are the perfect ingredients for a cozy day/night in, especially when ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas is added to the mix.  Nope, try as you might, but you won't get me to feel ashamed about that last part.

With sweet potatoes being in season and thus so inexpensive at the grocery store, I knew I wanted to use them for something.  And it was stew season.  Basic stew formula: liquid + vegetables + shredded or cubed meat (if desired) + spices + whatever the heck else you want.  Seriously.  I basically picked ingredients based on the fact that I wanted it to be a colorful stew.  Red tomatoes, green beans and celery, orange carrots and potatoes... you get the idea.  As for the lentils, I wanted a fairly mild (aka versatile) dried legume to add some protein and substance.  If you choose another bean or even use barley, just make sure to read the package to see what the dry to wet conversion rate is.  Unlike baking, cooking allows for much more experimentation without fear of failure.  If it's too dry, add more water.  If it's too watery, well, remove some liquid. 

This is the quickest soup/stew I've ever made.  No special equipment needed.  And it's so easy!  And super healthy/vegetarian/kosher (even pareve without the sour cream!)  ("But Katy, there is no meat!"  Oh friends, if you aren't familiar with lentils, read about their high protein content and other benefits here.  Now you have no excuses.)  Because this makes so much, I actually froze half in a take-out container for later snowy day use.  If you do this, move container from freezer to fridge a few days before to thaw.  You can always pour it into a saucepan and warm.

And ooooooooooooooh is it delicious!  I didn't even want dessert, nor was I tempted with concession food at Mellon Arena for the Pens game right after this. However, I did eat a few Oreos when I got home at 11 o'clock, so yeah.

(I now understand why Julia Child and her husband set up lighting in their kitchen in order to properly photograph food.  I go through an absurd amount of shots before I get one I kinda like that isn't overwhelmed with the yellowish artificial light.  If only I had more natural light.  If only I were home in the middle of the day and my job was just to cook.  Dear Santa...)

Sidebar -- I've been reading lots of comments (thank you!) and noticed a few questions have been posed regarding certain recipes, techniques, etc.  I'm going to have a question answer post coming up at the end of this week/early next week, so if you have any queries (in addition to those already posted) please leave them in a comment on this entry.  Thanks! :)

(P.S. Thanks to Nick who helped me figure out how to insert links that open a new window when you click on them!)

Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew
(if you're not crazy about sweet potatoes, you can easily substitute regular russet potatoes)
-makes about 8 cups

2 T canola or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 medium celery ribs, chopped
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 tsp already minced jarred garlic)
2 cups dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 pound total), peeled and diced into 1/2 inch chunks
1 package (9 ounces) frozen cut green beans, or
1 (14 1/2) can diced tomatoes in juice
Salt and black pepper
Sour cream, for serving

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high.  Add onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaf.  Cook, stirring, until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.

Add 7 cups of water and lentils.  (I had 32 oz. or 4 cups of low sodium chicken stock on hand, so I used that and then 3 cups of water for some extra flavor.  Not necessary, of course, but adds even more flavor.)  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 10 minutes.  Add potatoes and continue to cook covered, until lentils and potato are just tender, about 15 minutes.

Add green beans and tomatoes with juice.  Cook until warmed through, 2 to 4 minutes.  Remove bay leaf.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve with sour cream and maybe some crusty bread for sopping up the broth.  Look how pretty! 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cut-out sugar cookies

Do you ever have a day when you feel like are constantly reminding yourself to do this and that, and then realize you did none of those things?  Mm hmm.  Yesterday, I set my running shoes by my work bag while making French toast (yes, it was delicious) and said to myself, "Katy, you are wearing your boots to work today, since it's raining, when you normally walk in your sneakers.  Here are your sneakers.  Remember to take these so you can go to the gym after work."

After a decent work day, I changed into my gym clothes only to realize that I left my running shoes at home... right where I should've remembered them.   Boo!  This was the second day in a row that I skipped the gym for a stupid reason.  Two nights ago I went home and attempted to do an exercise video, but that was an utter failure -- this will be detailed more in the cinnamon bread post to come.  But last night, skipping the gym was a blessing in disguise.  Honestly, all I wanted to do was bake.  Some people nap, others indulge in vices, I fling sugar and flour around my kitchen like it's some culinary version of Jackson Pollock's work.  (Hey, it's therapeutic for me.)  And, luckily, the dough for these cookies was already chilled in the fridge.  It's like I know myself so well!

I'll be the first to admit that sugar cookies take a bit of work.  The mixing of ingredients is easy, but the chilling, rolling, cutting and careful watching of the oven turns some people off to the idea of making these from scratch.  It's then that I hear people resort to the greasy tasteless doughs in tubes or just-add-water packets.  Slather some icing on the cookies, and they are marginal at best.  But without the icing, they taste like cardboard, my friends.  Don't do it!  Take the time to make these and I promise you, you'll be glad you did.  You'll never go back to the cheap stuff.  This is another one of Martha's recipes, and if you like buttery-vanilla chewy sugar cookies, this is your recipe.  Just trust me, truuuuuuuuuust me. 

I hope I've given you the courage to make sugar cookies from scratch.  Seriously, don't be scared.  It's not that hard.  Just requires a little patience... and crap, if I can do it, you can, too!

The Absolute Best Sugar Cookies in the Entire Universe
(from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, her title may differ slightly)
 -depending on shape, makes about 3 dozen cookies

1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1½ tsp salt
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
colored sanding sugar or sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, vanilla, and salt; mix on medium-high speed until combined. With mixer on low speed, add flour in two batches, mixing until just incorporated.

Turn out dough onto a clean work surface. Divide in half, and pat into flattened rectangles; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.  (Note: Almost always, I make the dough one night, chill overnight, and bake the cookies the next day.  Keep in mind that the dough must be chilled before a batch of cookies can go into the oven, so allow for enough time... unless you want to be up until midnight making cookies, which, quite honestly, sounds like a great night to me!)

Remove dough from refrigerator in order to thaw a bit.  (This step is important or your dough will crack at first.  Don't worry, if you're impatient like me, the warmth of your hands and the rolling pin will soften the dough so it no longer cracks.)  Preheat oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle of the oven.  Line at at least two (or three if you have them) large baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one rectangle of dough to a scant ¼-inch thickness.  Using cookie cutters dipped in flour, cut out shapes. Using a small offset spatula, transfer shapes to prepared sheets, placing about 2 inches apart.

Chill one sheet in freezer or refrigerator until firm, about 15 minutes.  (This may seem like an unnecessary step, but if you want evenly baked cookies, just do it.)  Set scraps aside.  Repeat process with remaining rectangle of dough and place shapes on second cookie sheet, chill. Gather all the scraps, and roll out again. Chill 15 minutes; cut out more shapes, and place on sheets.  (Using two sheets is great because when one is ready for the oven, the next is ready to go into the freezer.)

Decorate cookies with colored sugar or sprinkles, if using, before baking. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are golden around the edges and slightly firm to the touch, about 15 minutes.

(Really REALLY watch the cookies here, unless you like them brown and crunchy... then, by all means, pay no attention at all.  I usually set my timer for 7 minutes, rotate the sheet, 7 minutes more, and check from there until they are at the color I desire.)  Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.  I made these for a friend's Christmas party, so I plated them on disposable trays to take with me:

Quick tip #1 -- This dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped in plastic and in a large resealable plastic bag, for up to three months (or at least I've only tested it this far). 

Quick tip #2 -- If you are really not into the shapes, roll the dough into a log, wrap in plastic. Whenever you want to bake cookies, let log sit out at room temperature for 10 minutes.  With a sharp knife, slice cookies and place onto cookie sheet to bake.  Easy!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Wait, you've never had a falafel?!"

Another day (seriously, how is it December already?!), another New York City food adventure to discuss.  I present to you the acclaimed falafel.

For a simple description, I ventured over to Wikipedia.  ("Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information." -Michael Scott, The Office).

A falafel is a fried ball made from spiced chickpeas and/or fava beans.  It is often served with pita bread and various dressings, tangy tahini being the most common.  See below (clockwise from top left): traditional hummus with olive oil and chickpeas, wheat pita bread, and five falafel balls in tahini.

Delicious food from The Hummus Place in the East Village.  It was almost 60 degrees and a sunny day, so we chose to eat outside.  Rachel kindly photographed my first experience with falafel, but I shall summarize for you here.

me: [hesitantly] Hi, I'm Katy, nice to meet you.
falafel: Uh huh, I know who you are.  I'm falafel, but I know you already know that.  You've been avoiding me for years.
me: Hey now, that's not totally true.  I just thought we should have a proper meeting... and being served out of a van or truck along the street never seemed right to me.
falafel: Excuses, excuses.
me: No, really!  Rachel said you were really fantastic and I should wait until I got to New York to meet you myself.
falafel: Okay, fine, point taken.  [pauses] So, what do you think?
me: Crunchy outside, light interior... really flavorful, kinda warms me all over like a comfort food traditionally does.  You remind me of something...
(after further "conversation" with falafel, and even his friends hummus and pita)
me: I'VE GOT IT!!! I'VE GOT IT!!
falafel: Yes?
me: Tacos!  You remind me of tacos!
falafel: [sigh] Just great.

Ah yes, the taco.  Now, I should be clear.  The flavor reminded me most of those taco seasoning packets you'd buy to mix with ground meat when making tacos.  And I love that flavor.  I can't speak for all falafel, since this was my first, but it was delicious.  We shared the above food and were perfectly satisfied (but we did eat cookies an hour later).  The hummus was velvety smooth and not overly oily like some store-bought brands.  The pita was warm and soft.  And the falafel.  Good grief.  It was divine.  And the tahini sauce was a little tangy, sorta reminding me of Greek yogurt just a bit.  I want another after talking about it.

But, much to my dismay, I can't return to NYC whenever I get the falafel itch.  Does anyone know a good falafel place around Pittsburgh?  I'd be greatly indebted to you for any direction.

And hey, give falafel a try if you're still skeptical.  You'll be handsomely rewarded.  No, really, I'll buy you a pony if you can prove you tried one for the first time.

And who doesn't want a pony?  Exactly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant review: Max Brenner, NYC

Time to relive some of my awesome New York City adventures.  Adventure #1: a surprise trip (planned by a very wonderful hostess) to a chocolate lover's dream restaurant, Max Brenner.

Just walking into this place almost floored me -- the smell of chocolate hits you like a ton of bricks.  And I'm not talking candy bar chocolate... I'm talking that deep, body-warming chocolate that makes you want to curl up in that very spot with one of their hug mugs and then take a nap.  No?  Just me?  Meh.

The regular dinner ("real food") menu had a good bit of variety, with the focus on smaller casual bites rather than fancy or expensive portions.  Smart for a place that really wants you to save room for dessert.  I ordered the Flank Steak and Mushroom Quesadilla, and Rachel ordered the Veggie Conscious Burger.

Both were gorgeous (you eat with your eyes first, after all) and delicious.  My quesadilla was loaded with mushrooms and the steak was super tender.  Rachel said her burger was the best veggie burger she'd had, putting those premade veggie patties to shame.  Oh, and get this... the waffle French fries were dusted lightly with chili and cocoa powders for a refreshing and mouth-watering update on the classic side dish.  Sweet goodness.

Of course we had to have dessert despite the fact that we were completely satisfied by dinner alone.  This is where things became overwhelming (in a good way).  The sweets menu boasts 55 items.  55.  That's way more than the "regular food" menu.  We wanted something unlike anything we'd ever had before, and after a complicated (read: indecisive) selection process, we selected the Banana Split Waffles, pictured at the top of the sweets menu.

Amazing.  I'm not normally a fan of bananas in desserts but this was done so well.  Chocolate covered crispies, vanilla bourbon ice cream (and you could certainly taste the bourbon), and chocolate sauce were given to "decorate" the bananas and waffle.  I'm not kidding when I say that I can smell the restaurant at this moment.  I guess whoever said that smell is the sense tied most closely to human memory frequented Max Brenner's in his day.

All in all, a great experience.  So much so that we considered going back the next night, but our already packed itinerary stopped us.  I'd recommend this place to anyone, even people who aren't crazy about chocolate.  Sure, it's the appeal of this place but our dinner was great on its own and the dessert menu boasts so many options that everyone is sure to find something.  If you're not a New York local, there is a Philadelphia location, too.

(P.S. An semi-related note, it's been just over a month since I started this little project.  Thanks to all of the readers, commenters, and eaters :)  You're much appreciated.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

It's snowing... marshmallows?!

Ahh, Black Friday... To some, it means that famous day after when notches on belts that normally go unused get some love.  To most, though, it signals the first official day of the holiday shopping season when uber crazy consumers, usually clad in velour sweatsuits, fight the masses to get the best deals "only available once a year on this very day" at 5:00AM.

To me?  It means it's officially acceptable to start searching for the person on your gift-giving list who would love this marshmallow gun here available here.

And yes, I know what you're thinking.  "But Katy, don't you love to shop?  Don't you consider it one of your great talents?"  Yes and yes.  But there is no way you'll find me anywhere near the mall on Black Friday.  Instead, I drive my parents crazy with my "Let's get all the Christmas decorations up this very instant!" whip-cracking :)  Time to bust out the Christmas music.  This is first on my list, as always.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Loving this table setting right now, but filing it away for someday when I'm hosting a dinner of my own.

Also, poll question -- any interesting recipes for leftovers (turkey, mashed potatoes, etc.)?  Or do you avoid all things Thanksgiving the day after... if so, what do you eat instead?  I'd love to hear!

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, everyone! 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Broccoli cheddar quiche

If I've had any influence on the people I've met thus far in my life, I'd like to think introducing some to the delights of quiche would be near the top.  Here is usually how the initial conversation goes:

me: Oh man, I'm making quiche for dinner tonight.  Can't wait.  Want to come over for some?
friend: Quiche?  What the heck is quiche?  And how do you spell it?
friend: Uh, no...
me: It's only the best food ever!  It's like an omelette in a crust... eggs and whatever you want, cheese, meat, vegetables, anything you can imagine.
friend: Oh ok, sounds decent.
me: False, it sounds awesome.  Never doubt the power of the quiche... You have no idea.

...or it goes something like that, anyway.  Though quiche may sound like a strictly breakfast-only food, I've found that any time of the day is quiche time.

This is a great make-ahead dish if you are having guests for the weekend or people over for breakfast.  Bake and cool ahead, store covered in the refrigerator overnight, and warm in the oven in the morning.  Talk about easy comfort food.  And very versatile... beyond the eggs and milk, you can add anything you like.  I've done sliced ham and Swiss cheese, spinach and bacon, mushrooms and Provolone cheese... the sky is the limit!

Broccoli Cheddar Quiche
-serves 6 people

9" pie crust, homemade or pre-packaged (I've used both, just depends on what I have around)
1 cup frozen broccoli, thawed, drained and chopped
5 eggs
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Set out pie crust at room temperature for 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 375F.  In medium bowl, whisk eggs together.  Unroll and fit into 9" glass pie plate.  Dip a pastry or basting brush into the egg mixture and brush lightly over entire crust.  (This will help the crust to brown and seal it slightly so it stays flaky once filling is added.)  Bake pie crust in oven for 10 minutes or until light brown, remove to wire cooling rack.

Add milk, salt and pepper, whisk until combined.  In crust, sprinkle half of cheese evenly around crust, place broccoli evenly around on top, and finally top with remaining cheese.  Pour egg milk mixture over filling, and bake 35 minutes or until knife comes out clean, let stand on cooling rack for 15 minutes before serving so that the quiche can solidify slightly (makes serving much easier... trust me).  Slice and enjoy, possibly with a side salad.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back to the Buttercream

Buttercream.  Butter.  Cream.  B-u-t-t-e-r-c-r-e-a-m.  Few words in the English language can elicit the kind of response from me that "buttercream" can.  I'm talking jumping up and down excitement (even more when the sugar rush kicks in).  There are many different kinds, each with its own ingredients.  Wikipedia has a great overview of the various types.  If all of that seems confusing to you, let me simplify.

The runner-up in buttercream popularity, at least in the US, is the meringue-based Swiss buttercream.  This is my go-to fancy cake icing, which I'll explain in a later post.  It's not nearly as sweet as the next kind, but has a light and silky texture that lends itself to more delicately flavored cakes.

The kind that most people have surely had is the American buttercream or "simple buttercream" -- butter, confectioner's sugar, a splash of milk or cream, and flavorings if desired -- for which the recipe is listed below.  It's sweet and often forms a very thin hardened crust on the icing, found in most bakery cakes.  And it's easy to make.  Only one small appliance, four ingredients, and no heat or cooking involved.

However, there is one VERY important key to a successful and delicious simple buttercream: super softened butter.  This is not the time to hurry along the butter to come to room temperature.  Stop!  Don't even think about putting it in the microwave... no, not even on a low power setting... no, not even for five seconds.  
 Resist all urges to do anything to unnaturally soften the butter.  If, like me, you bake when you get home from a day at work or school and can't stand the idea of waiting a few more hours for butter to soften, put out a stick of butter (still wrapped) on a plate somewhere in your kitchen.  Yes, it's okay to leave butter out at room temperature.  Our grandparents did it, so did our parents.  No need to freak out over this.  The reason for my rant is that if the butter isn't softened the whole way through, the icing will have tiny lumps of butter in it... not good.  Now, without further ado...

Simple Buttercream
-makes about 1 3/4 cups or enough for 15 regular cupcakes with extra for snacking

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3-4 cups confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup milk

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes.  Really mix here... you're looking for silky butter here.  With mixer on low speed, add 3 cups confectioner's sugar, milk, and vanilla; mix until light and fluffy (2-3 more minutes).  If necessary, gradually add remaining 1 cup sugar to reach desired consistency.  (I usually use about 3 1/2 cups total, but it's up to you if you like a stiffer or softer icing.)  If you'd like to color your icing, now is the time to add food coloring... one drop at a time.

Top your favorite cake or cupcakes with this nectar of the gods.  You won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Classic yellow cupcakes

One promise that I've made to myself is that my family and friends will never eat a birthday cake or cupcake made from a boxed mix.

It may sound snooty, but homemade cakes just taste better.  Plus, I'll be desperately trying to win back the favor of my loved ones after nights like these.

I'm sure at some point, amidst the unplanned but always expected chaos of life and a million other things to do, I'll think, "Wouldn't it be easier just to buy a mix?"  And then I'll remember this recipe... and how the little work that goes into it is soooooooooooooooooooo worth it.

This recipe makes an incredible moist cake (or cupcakes, in this case).  In fact, my favorite compliment on this recipe has been how flavorful and rich the cupcake actually is -- that it "tastes like vanilla and not cardboard with icing."  How kind :)

Check back tomorrow for the recipe for my favorite basic frosting!

Yellow Butter Cupcakes
(adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)
--makes 24 regular cupcakes

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
[if you don't have cake flour, the conversion is 1 cup cake flour = 1 cup MINUS 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour... look for a post later explaining this, but just trust me for the time being]
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two standard 12-cup muffins pans with liners, set aside.  In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and salt; save for later.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (the volume actually increases and the color becomes paler), about 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down sides occasionally.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla.  With mixer on low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, half of the milk, another third of the flour mixture, the rest of the milk, and the final third of the flour mixture; beat until combined after each addition.  (By breaking up the addition of the flour, you're keeping the cupcakes from becoming too tough or dry later.)

Using a #40 ice cream scoop, fill each regular cupcake liner with two scoops, and each mini cupcake liner with one scoop.  If using another method, just fill each cupcake liner about 2/3 full.  Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until cupcakes are golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 minutes.  (Check mini cupcakes starting at 15 minutes.) 

[For layer cake variation, coat two 9" round cake pans with nonstick spray, divide batters between the two pans.  Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until cake tester inserted in center of each cake comes out clean.  Cool 20 minutes on wire rack, invert pans to remove cakes, cool completely with top sides up.  Level, layer, and frost accordingly.]

Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Carefully remove cupcakes from pan and replace them on the wire rack alone to cool completely, top sides up.

Spread or pipe frosting of choice on top of each cupcake.  Decorate with spinkles, if desired.  Store in airtight container for up to 3 days.  If I weren't making these to take to work, I would've eaten at least 3 mini cupcakes already.  Finally, arrange in ridiculous positions you'd only find in family photos hanging in the mall:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cherry almond cinnamon granola

Anyone who knows me knows that I don't kid around when it comes to shopping.  It's not uncommon for me to be out for five hours at a time.  (My mom and sister recently experienced this when we went to Grove City.  I think they needed naps after two hours.  Amateurs... )  And I don't just shop and buy, buy, buy.  I love to take inspiration from displays for outfits, gifts, and even decorations.  It's therapeutic for me... except when I get hungry.  Racing to the food court, I'm usually driven to either a) Chik-fil-A, or b) Dairy Queen.  Delicious yes, healthy not so much.  I decided I needed to carry a snack with me, which I could dip into whenever I needed a snack.  Something travel-friendly, not messy, and that packed a lot of energy into a small space.  Granola!

We've all had the packaged granola bars from the grocery store.  Super sweet, filled with chocolate, but doesn't really give me energy... just a craving for more sugar.  This granola is just sweet enough but has the crunch and ability to satisfy.  And feel free to experiment with this!  I've made versions with pumpkin seeds instead of almonds.  How about dried cranberries and pistachios for a holiday blend?  The sky's the limit!

Just look at that granola!  How gorgeous is that?!

I can't emphasize enough how versatile this granola is.  I've given this in pretty jars as part of a breakfast gift basket.  I've had it on hand for a movie night snack.  I've even poured milk over it and had it as cereal in the morning.  And, of course, I popped some into a Ziploc bag for my shopping trip this weekend, where, with enough energy, I was able to find these.  Bought here... for much less than the price on the website.

Cherry, Almond, & Cinnamon Granola
(adapted from an Ina Garten recipe)
--makes about 10 cups, can easily be halved

4 cups old fashioned rolled oats
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
2 cups whole almonds
1 1/2 cups dried cherries, roughly chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup honey
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two (or one, if halving recipe) rimmed cookie sheets with foil and fold over edges. 

Toss dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  Pour oil and honey over oat mixture.  Add cinnamon and stir entire mixture with wooden spoon until oats and nuts are evenly coated.

Pour mixture onto cookie sheets, dividing equally among the two.  Bake, stirring occasionally with spatula, say every 8 minutes, until mixture turns a nice golden brown -- about 25-30 minutes.

Cool cookie sheets on a wire rack, stirring occasionally until totally cooled.  Store in an airtight container for up to a month (really, I've had it last even longer) or until it's gone :) 

Friday, November 13, 2009

A baker's best friend: ice cream scoop

Happy Friday!

To the untrained eye, this looks like just another ice cream scoop, albeit a small one.  But to a cupcake/muffin/cookie/meatball (yes, meatballs) enthusiast like myself, this is one my most prized kitchen gadgets.  Though I've only had mine for a few months, I can't imagine life without it now.  For years I used the two spoons method of scooping and scraping for drop cookies and batters.  And, for meatballs, I went one step further by rolling the mixture to get a nice round ball.  As you can imagine, it was messy and items weren't really of a uniform size and that drove the perfectionist in me ab-so-freakin-lutely crazy.  I would often look to the sky (ceiling), shake my fists (with spoons of dough, sometimes falling to the floor) in protest, and shout, "There's gotta be a better way!"  Enter the ice cream scoop.

The one above is a #40 ice cream scoop, whose volume is almost two tablespoons.  When scooping your mixture of choice, get a full scoop, level off using the side of the bowl, and pull the "trigger" to clear the scoop and transfer to the tin/cookie sheet.  The secret is the half-moon shaped wire that rotates to clear the bowl of the scoop.  No need to wash hands between every cookie or fix smaller portions later.  Perfect every time.  And it makes the process much faster.  I've used it for cookies (one scoop for smaller, two for bigger) like these oatmeal raisin cookies, muffin and cupcake batters (no more overflowing or wimpy oddballs that never make it to the frosting stage), and even meatballs.  I'd imagine this would be great for making your own truffles, too.  And hey, if you want to use it for ice cream, I suppose that's acceptable.

I bought mine at a kitchen outlet store in Grove City, but I've seen them at Target, Williams & Sonoma, Sur la Table, Walmart, you name it.

Have a great weekend!  Go Pens!  Go Pitt!  Go Steelers!  And, go bake :)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oatmeal raisin cookies

Oatmeal raisin cookies, let me count the ways I love thee. I can say with unshakable certainty that this is my absolute favorite cookie ever. Ever! (Note: I just got up to get one to eat because that introduction made me hungry. I am my own worst enemy.) Oatmeal raisin cookies are about as classic as a cookie can get, aside from the chocolate chip cookie. And, yet, this is the cookie I'm asked to make most often. I chalk this up to the hard work I've put into my obsessive mission over the past 5+ years to find an oatmeal raisin cookie recipe that can only be called superior to its peers. [insert fanfare and battle cry here]

As with any recipe deemed a "classic", there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of variations. Everyone has an idea as to how oatmeal raisin cookie should look, smell, feel, and taste.  So, what is Katy's ideal oatmeal raisin cookie like?

1. Incredibly chewy but cohesive enough that, when dipped into milk, doesn't fall apart, leaving soggy chunks in the bottom of your glass.

2. Not "kicked up" with chocolate or nuts of any kind. The cookie has enough elements of distinct flavor to give it depth.  Adding chocolate to this is like that Britney Spears guest spot on How I Met Your Mother last season: totally distracting from the quality of the original product and annoyingly pandering for new fans.

3. Lots of raisins. I've had versions that put maybe two raisins in my cookie. No freakin' way, unacceptable.

4. Big. This is not a dainty cookie to eat with your pinky finger extended or at a tea party. No, this is a cookie that should be big enough to satisfy with just one (but, by all means, don't stop at one)... that's what she said.

I have tried between 10 and 15 oatmeal raisin cookie recipes. No joke. Ask my college roommates. They suffered quietly (sometimes not) through less than great cookies. Famed food TV chefs, acclaimed cookie cookbooks, recommended recipes from family and friends. Nothing was cutting it. I was going with the theory of makeup for this cookie: The [makeup/ingredients] should enhance a [woman's face/cookie] without making [itself/themselves] obvious. 

The coconut gives moisture and cohesion to the cookies without tasting like coconut.  In fact, I'd estimate at least half of the fans of these cookies claim they hate coconut and wouldn't touch it.  But when I tell them it's in the cookies, they shrug and proclaim they like them just the same.  Trickery... ha ha!  The maple syrup gives these cookies a deeper flavor and chewy note, often a mental "Hmm" while eating without dominating.

Give these cookies a whirl!  They scream "Enjoy me slowly with a glass of milk while curled up on a couch, watching Twilight a cheesy movie."  Hey, while you're at it, these would be welcome favorite (trust me, people will be thanking you) for a holiday party... among the mystery Crisco-laiden cookies, a shining gem -- royalty among oatmeal raisin cookies!  [final fanfare]

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

(from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)
Makes about 2 dozen super large all-for-me cookies, or 3 dozen office/school-friendly cookies

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I use closer to 1 1/2 tsp)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut (break up any large clumps)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/3 cup pure maple syrup, preferably Grade B (I use Grade A... absolutely do NOT use the fake Aunt Jemima/Log Cabin stuff here, it will not yield the same results)
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (quick or instant will work in a pinch, but the cookie will fall apart more easily)
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 325F.  Have two cookie sheets ready, (for faster baking... one to be in the oven while the other is cooling and getting loaded up to go in next).  In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the coconut and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the maple syrup and mix to combine. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well combined. 
With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two batches; mix until just combined. Add oats and raisins and mix until combined.

Using a 2" ice cream scoop or 3 tablespoons, drop dough 2 inches apart onto a baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.  Do not overbake even if the center looks a bit soft, they will set while cooling.  Let cookies cool on the baking sheet until firm enough to remove to wire racks, about 2 minutes.

Cookies can be kept in an airtight container for about 2 weeks. (MS says 4 days but I've kept them up to two weeks without any quality issues.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Restaurant review: Monterey Pub

I love date night!  (Thanks to some impressive research on a certain guy's behalf.)  This past weekend, I experienced Monterey Pub on the North Side in Pittsburgh for the first time.  I'll be honest -- the only Monterey I knew of was the one with the view one up on Mt. Washington.  Don't get me wrong, I love that one, but I was more than happy to try this new one.

Aiming to bring a little piece of Ireland to Pittsburgh's Mexican War Streets area, Monterey Pub is the kind of place that makes you want to be a regular at a restaurant.  Sit down, order your "usual" drink and dinner, and get a nod from the bartender.  The restaurant is on the smaller side and was full, but we only had to wait five minutes.  Wouldn't have minded waiting longer, since the service was so attentive and kind.

The menu is really creative and a few things caught my eye: Smoked salmon nachos!?  English BLT?! (I love a good BLT.)  Bangers and mash?!  And it was Saturday steak night.  I don't remember the exact price, but I do remember that it sounded like an amazing deal.

I'm on this kick of trying to order something new and unique to that specific restaurant when I go out, so I picked the Mango Ginger Salad wrap with grilled chicken.  Mixed greens, fresh red peppers, sliced almonds, super plump dried cranberries, and crumbled Stilton white cheese with a mango ginger dressing, all tucked neatly in a honey wheat wrap.  I realize that I'm usually writing about sugar-laden items, but I'm not one to mix sweet things into pre-dessert (in some cultures it's known as "dinner").  The wrap was savory with a touch of sweet (the cheese and cranberries) with the perfect amount of dressing, unlike anything I've ever tasted.  Because the sweet fry portion was heaping, I boxed half of the generously-sized wrap to take home.  My date got the roasted pork loin dinner and, since it was gone with little talking from that side of the table, I presume it was good.

I'm not a leftovers person, usually pawning them off onto someone else, but I was looking forward to Sunday lunch when I could finish that wrap.  Just as delicious as the night before.  Mmm!  Like I said, the service was great, and for two dinners, two beers, the total bill (before tip) came to $33.  Yep, the fairy tale continues, my friends.  I highly recommend this place for something different, quiet and cozy... a perfect conversation restaurant.

Following dinner, we rounded out the night by hitting the new Rivers Casino (since it's right around the corner), gambling a whopping $5 on penny slots, and were home by 11:00.  I'm going to be such an awesome senior citizen someday, and then I will have all day to work at becoming a regular at Monterey Pub.  If anyone has also been there, share your thoughts, please!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Maple walnut blondies

This mostly cooler weather has me looking for more fall flavors to use in the kitchen. I did the pumpkin thing for a while... what about maple? I had a craving for French toast for dinner last night but realized that if I made it, I'd either A) have to make a second trip to the grocery store and it was already getting late, or B) not have bread for a sandwich tomorrow. What to do, what to do... ah, yes. Make something with maple syrup to satisfy that craving that required minimal effort, so I could relax and watch a movie rather than doing dishes at 10:30 at night. (You can't imagine how much this actually happens.) Minimal effort... something baked in a dish all at once... bar cookie... blondies!

How many of you know what a blondie is? Or have even heard of a blondie? And I don't mean the cartoon.

(Makes me think of when I was younger and used to pretend, in front of my parents, to read all of the Sunday comics but secretly only read Garfield because the others' humor was way over my head at the time. Anyway...)

A blondie is basically the non-chocolate version of a brownie. Traditionally, the blondie got its name from the light color of the cookie and the predominant butterscotch flavor, coming from the butter and brown sugar. Today, many variations exist. The blondie is made via a simple mixing process (only a whisk needed!), baked in a pan for a bar-like product, and easily personalized with whatever mix-ins or toppings you like: nuts, baking chips or bits, various flavor extracts, and even frosting.

Maple Walnut Blondies
(makes sixteen 2" by 2" bars)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup white chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly coat an 8" square baking pan. In a large bowl, combine the cooled butter, sugar, maple syrup, vanilla and the egg. Whisk until smooth. Stir in flour and salt just until no more flour is visible. Fold in walnuts until evenly incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared baking dish. Bake 30-35 minutes, until blondies are set and a light golden brown color. Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

OPTIONAL: When completely cooled (1 to 2 hours, depending on how warm your kitchen area is), melt white chocolate chips in microwave. That's right, I'm skipping the traditional double boiler (heatproof bowl over another bowl of simmering water) method because a microwave is just plain easier. If you "nuke" in 10 second intervals, stirring between each, you should be able to melt the chips just fine. Transfer the melted chocolate to a sandwich size Ziploc bag, trim the tiniest bit of one corner off, and pipe over blondies until you are satisfied with how they look.

I discovered these taste even better the next day, as the maple and walnut flavors really come together. The walnuts add a nice light crunch to the chewy cookie, and the white chocolate gives a bit of sweetness. I can't stress enough how EASY bar cookies are, especially blondies and brownies. No batch by batch baking with these, just one pan and done. The few dishes and utensils I used were cleaned and drying before the blondies even came out of the oven. And they totally tasted like French toast to me (or enough to stop myself from making a late-night breakfast, at least).

This is a perfect "experiment cookie", I must say. Add mini chocolate chips instead of nuts. Make a cream cheese frosting for a topping! Whatever you do, happy eating! :)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Apple & pear crisp

(Seriously, I wasn't kidding when I said that I would reference movies with ridiculous post titles.)

I love pies. The flaky buttery crusts, warm fruit or nut fillings, and with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Who doesn't love pies? (I can think of two of my best friends who just said "No" in their heads. I'll deal with you fools later.) Pumpkin, pecan, apple, sour cherry... I could go on forever. But, sometimes, so can the pie-making process. Not all pies require a few hours work -- my easy chocolate pudding pie takes about 20 minutes to be spoon ready (look for a post in the future).

Certain fruit pies, especially the all-American classic apple pie, can be a bit time-consuming for the average cook if you start from scratch. So much so that whenever my mom gets to making apple pies at Thanksgiving, she makes 3 or 4 at a time because it is quite a bit of work for just one pie. To those with a concern for time and convenience, I humbly offer up the easily forgotten and sometimes under appreciated concept of the fruit crisp (also known as a crumble).

Pie - crusts + butter/sugar crumb topping = crisp = crumble

Peeled, cut up fruit is usually tossed with spices and a bit of lemon juice, poured in a baking dish, and topped with a mixture of butter, sugar, oats, and spices. Sound good? Mmm hmm. Even better, no worrying about blind-baking pie shells, or accidentally burning pie crusts... a crisp is assembled, baked, and served warm with little expertise needed. And it's what I'd call a great "come home from work and need to bake something now" treat. In other words, no prepping hours before and using standard ingredients found in most pantries. Without further ado, let's get to it!

Apple and Pear Crisp

(adapted from Ina Garten aka The Barefoot Contessa)
Note: I halved this recipe and used a 9" x 5" glass baking dish with success.

2 pounds ripe Bosc pears (4 pears)
2 pounds firm Gala apples (6 apples)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

For the topping:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

Preheat oven to 350F. Peel, core, and cut the pears and apples into large (about 1") chunks. Place fruit in a large bowl and add lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Toss so that the fruit is evenly coated with the spices and lemon juice:

Pour into 9" x 13" glass baking dish.

For the topping, it is important that the butter is cold or else you'll end up creaming the warm butter and sugar mixture - not good. Combine the flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal, and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (If using a hand mixer, regular beaters are fine. If using a pastry blender, more power to ya.) Mix on low speed for 1 minute, or until the mixture is in large crumbles (pea to marble-sized). Sprinkle evenly over the fruit, making sure to cover completely.

Place the baking dish on a sheet pan covered with foil (because fruit tends to bake up and bubble over and oven messes are no picnic) and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbly. Place on cooling rack for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm. Add some vanilla ice cream or whipped cream for an extra treat.

If there is one thing to take away from this post, it's that crisps/crumbles are so so so easy! I would trust my dear dad to make this recipe and not worry about hovering over him in the kitchen. It's a quick but very hearty and impressive dessert. And it's comfort food to the core (ha ha, apples and pears, get it? get it?).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Made with love

I know I said I was going to give Thanksgiving its dues this year, but that holiday hardly requires as much prep as Christmas (and Chanukah). The wrapping, the decking, the writing, and ohhhhhhhhhhh the baking.

I always appreciate cute packaging details that make homemade goods stand out and let the recipient know they were made with love. Ribbons and bows never go out of style, but these tags from Bake It Pretty may be accompanying my holiday gifts this year.

And I don't know about you, but sometimes I make things that aren't as easily packaged as cookies... cakes, sweet rolls, brownies, and I really want presents to look pretty. Occasionally I gift the item in its original pan. But I don't want to rush the recipient in returning the pan to me even though I know I'm out a pan that I use often... it's just a big pile of inconvenience if you ask me. And for multiple gifts? Forget about it.

Thankfully, a coworker recently turned me on to the King Arthur Flour baker's catalogue. They have use-and-lose pans are the perfect solution to holiday treat giving without worrying about your dishes.  And, if you look carefully, there are mini pans on the KAF website as well. Perfect :)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Little Blender that Could

About a month ago, my blender decided to stop working. Not in any kind of dramatic fashion, either, so no good kitchen disaster story. (Check back for one of those... soon enough, I'm sure.) I needed a replacement ASAP because there was a recipe I was dying to make.

A few of my kitchen-centric friends said great things about their immersion (hand) blenders: easy to use, convenient, little storage necessary, and of course a blending job well done. The immersion blender initially appealed to my love of milkshakes and soups, and great hate of transferring hot liquids to a traditional blender. Luckily for me, I had a shopping trip planned with a friend that weekend, so I did some initial research. There is a wide range of products: cord and cordless (with a charging dock), one or multiple speeds, one or detachable pieces, smoothie additions, fancy colors, etc. I chose the Quick Prep Hand Blender by Cuisinart. The cherry on top was that it was on sale at Macy's. Katy - 1, former phantom blender - 0.

I used it last week for the first time to make this pumpkin bisque. Super easy to use, lightweight, no splattering, and it did a fantastic pureeing job. I also liked being able to see (and test) the texture of the item I was blending, rather than it being hidden inside a blender's pitcher. Next, I want to try a milkshake. TBD.

I highly recommend this tool for anyone in the kitchen, novice or expert. In fact, I can't see buying a traditional blender anytime in the future. I love my immersion blender enough that if I wrote haikus, I'd write one about it. So, if you get a hankering for soup, milkshakes, smoothies, pancakes, or anything else that requires whipping/blending, call me up and I'll probably thank you for the chance to use my new toy :)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lemony zucchini goat cheese pizza

When I got home from work last night, it was much too dark for my liking... and much too cold. I needed comfort food, something I hadn't made in a while, that could be eaten while sitting in a comfy chair in my living room. Yes! Pizza! What's more comforting than pizza? Abso-freakin-lutely nothing, my friend. I could only think of one kind of pizza that would satisfy me. [insert a flashback/dream sequence a la Wayne's World here]

This past summer, one of my goals was to take advantage of the variety of fruits and vegetables in their respective seasons: strawberries in June, cherries in July, and squash in July and August. Not only is produce dirt cheap in peak season (no pun intended... except now, when I could delete it, I will proudly draw attention to it), but the quantity of it forced me to find more creative ways to cook and eat the foods beyond eating raw or roasting. My first squash adventure was a lemony zucchini goat cheese pizza first spotted at Smitten Kitchen. Not well-versed in squash or goat cheese, I was still pumped to try this because it just looked so darn good. And sounded so easy.

Lemony Zucchini Goat Cheese Pizza
--makes one 12"ish pizza in round pan or fits to a quarter cookie sheet (9"x13")

1 batch pizza dough (make your own or use 1 package store bought mix, prepared... for space's sake, I'll do a pizza dough only post sometime in the future)
1 lemon
4 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
1 Tbsp fresh thyme, roughly chopped
1/2 medium yellow zucchini, cut into 1/8" slices (too thick and the squash won't roast quite as well)
1/2 medium green zucchini, sliced as the same as above
Drizzle of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450F and have a rack in the lowest possible position (this will ensure a crispy crust). Roll your pizza dough into a thin 12-inch circle (or rectangle, depending on your pan) and lay it on a tray or stone that has been dusted lightly with flour.

In a small bowl, stir together the goat cheese with the juice of half your lemon. (Since I wasn't patient enough to have the goat cheese come to room temperature, I popped the bowl in the microwave for 15 seconds to soften further.) Season cheese with salt and pepper, and spread it over your pizza dough. Scatter fresh thyme over the cheese.

Arrange sliced zucchini in whatever aesthetically pleasing manner you see fit. I've done green yellow rings, alternating rows of all green and all yellow... you get the idea. Overlap the zucchini slices a bit so that the goat cheese is mostly covered. (see above picture for example) Squeeze the juice of the second half of your lemon on top of you zucchini, then drizzle with olive oil and finish with more salt and black pepper.

Bake in preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the edges of the crust are golden brown and the zucchini looks roasted and a little curled up at the edges. (If using a pizza stone, the baking time will likely be much lower, so watch carefully.) Remove pan, transfer to cutting board, and serve! If I'm feeling extra healthy, I'll have a little salad with the pizza, but last night I was too hungry to wait. After all, it's a vegetable pizza -- how much healthier can it be?

The challenge now is to come up with a fall/winter pizza. TBD. For now, enjoy the "summer" pizza and happy eating! :)

P.S For some entertaining reading, I stumbled upon the Top Ten Great Pizza Moments in Film. Wow, two Wayne's World references in one post. Eee....

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thanks a million

I hope everyone had a safe/fun/delicious Halloween! Can you believe it's already November?! And hey, it's time for all of the stores to go full speed ahead to Christmas -- oy. At book club on Thursday, we were talking about how Thanksgiving is such a great holiday but gets the shaft from Halloween and Christmas. In an effort to fully appreciate turkey day and the season of giving thanks, I'm going to write down one thing for which I'm thankful every day. I think everyone should try it!

On another "I'm not just celebrating Thanksgiving as 8 hours of gluttony" note, I'm trying to think of ways to decorate for Thanksgiving without just using Halloween leftovers. Ideas?

Friday, October 30, 2009

A dentist's favorite time of year

Halloween is tomorrow! I hope I'm not the only one who misses trick-or-treating. Grown-up parties just aren't the same, so it's hard for me to muster up excitement for a fun costume (this year it's cop out #1 or cop out #2). I can clearly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my sister, counting and sorting our haul of sugar, and setting aside the "gross" candy (hard candy, black licorice, etc.) for my dad to take to work for his candy dish. Ha!

I'm curious to know what other people remember about childhood Halloweens. What was your favorite treat? Did you have any special family traditions? I'd love to hear!

Holy crap, I just started thinking about Sixlets... man alive... Happy Halloween :o)

Thursday, October 29, 2009


In green plaid.

Pumpkin bisque

Bisque-y Business, y'all!

Oh, that's right, I'm not above corny titles that reference 1980s movies. You thought I was? You thought wrong, my friend :)

This recipe came from a surprising source -- the Market District Giant Eagle in Shadyside. Take it from me that you should always do your grocery shopping on Saturdays or Sundays between 11am and 4pm. Samples are everywhere!

I tasted this pumpkin bisque at the beginning of my shopping trip and was still thinking/talking about it an hour later and even weeks later until I was able to make it. Before I begin, I must say that this is the quickest and EASIEST soup I've ever made or seen in a recipe.

GE suggested serving with sour cream. I opted for crusty (pumpernickel) bread for dipping. The soup is very hearty and filling, perfect dinner on a cold night or late afternoon lunch. It's not overwhelmingly pumpkin-flavored, so I will definitely be making this a few times throughout the fall and winter months. And it's just so darn pretty to look at!

Pumpkin Bisque
(serves 8)

4 Tbsp butter
3 leeks, cleaned and chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fresh thyme
1/4 tsp ground gloves
1 28-oz can of pumpkin
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups vegetable stock (I used 4 c veggie stock, 2 c chicken stock due to available containers at the grocery store)
1 pint heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

A quick tip for cleaning leeks -- rinse, cut in half and chop. Fill a bowl with cold water and put the chopped leeks in and let soak for a few minutes. Any residual sand or grit will sink to the bottom. Easy!

Heat butter in a large pot and add leeks, garlic and thyme. Sweat for 10 minutes. Add cloves and canned pumpkin, and saute for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the half cup of white wine to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Simmer for 5 minutes until the wine is almost evaporated. Add stocks and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove pot from heat and blend with a hand blender while adding heavy cream slowly. (If you are using a standard blender, add soup a cup at a time and be careful to let steam from the hot mixture escape between blending pulses.) Blend until desired texture is reached (that's up to you, cook!). Place soup back in pot and on stove to summer for an additional 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pumpkin spice cheesecake brownies

Now that I'm 12 hours removed from my activities of last night, I can see that someday I will drive my friends and family crazy with my enthusiasm for themes and holidays... but they love me, so they'll have no choice but to deal with it. That being said, last night was simply awesome. I got home and first thing, thanks to some foresight to put out cream cheese that morning, immediately mixed up a batch of pumpkin spice cheesecake brownies.

Though I made these for a book club meeting tomorrow, I had to try one. The pumpkin flavor is really mild and is most prominent when chilled. Don't worry, ye who fear pumpkin. It's certainly not an intense pumpkin flavor, like pie or custard, and the chocolate (as always) is a pleasant complement to the cheesecake top half of the brownie. If you're looking for a more convenient (or, daresay, mini) baking method, try lining a standard or mini muffin pan with paper liners and filling each with the batters in the same fashion. Bake at 350F but check the centers after about 20 minutes and bake until set. Let me know if any of you try this!

While the brownies were chilling, I plopped myself in front of my TV to watch Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin whilst carving a pumpkin of my own. (I take back what I said... my kids will enjoy this until they are about 12 years old, then they will resent me during adolescence.) I also did a little more cooking with pumpkin, but I'll save that for tomorrow.

Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake Brownies
(adapted from this recipe)
- makes 16 (roughly 2" x 2") brownies

A few notes: Having both the cream cheese and egg at room temperature will yield a smoother and more uniform batter.  In other words, it's worth it to plan ahead.

Brownie batter:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon

Pumpkin cheesecake batter:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp flour
2/3 cup pumpkin puree
1/3 tsp pure vanilla extract
2/3 tsp cinnamon
1/3 tsp ground ginger
1/3 tsp ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8x8" square metal baking pan with nonstick spray. Line with parchment paper along one side with a two inch overhang on opposite ends.

In a large bowl, whisk together melted butter, sugar, and vanilla, then beat in eggs one at a time. Combine dry ingredients in a separate medium bowl, and then gradually stir into butter mixture with a wooden spoon. Mix until just incorporated, and be careful not to overmix. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together cheesecake batter ingredients until smooth.

Spread about 2/3 of chocolate batter into prepared pan, and spoon cheesecake batter over.  Dollop remaining brownie batter over cheesecake batter. Swirl the batters together by running a butter knife back and forth through the pan. Swirl as much or as little as you want.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until center is set. Cool completely on wire rack and chill in fridge 1 hour. Holding ends of parchment paper, remove from pan, cut and serve (or chill in a sealed container until ready to serve).