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?