November 28, 2012

Pignoli cookies

Let's call this the official start of the holiday season!  That means plenty of cookies!  I can't wait to enjoy some of our family favorites - a few recipes that I feel are must-haves for the season (like those soft and chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies and those divine tri-color cookies, which my husband recently requested for his birthday).

Today, I want to share pignoli cookies.  They are one of my favorite treats to pick up from the Italian bakery though, admittedly, I haven't been a good customer since I started baking a lot more in recent years.  There is an Italian bakery in my neighborhood that I used to take my little one to often and my favorite thing to get there was always the pignoli, or pine nut, cookies.
If this bakery had tri-color cookies, I would've dived for those but since they don't, I always went for some of these delicious, chewy pignoli cookies.  The little guy loved to get the almond cookies with a red or green cherry on top (the cookie base was essentially the same as the pignoli).  That was always rather amazing because there's no way he'd eat an actual cherry straight up in real life.

And there are many weekend mornings where we head into New York City and end up at Ferrera Bakery in Little Italy.  I sometimes have a doctor's appointment nearby and my husband usually takes the little one there for "a snack".  When I come to meet them, after the little one has (typically) enjoyed a plate of tri-color cookies, I have to take a minute to admire their beautiful display of pine nut cookies, biscotti, miniature cakes, canoli, gelato, and so much more.  I love French pastry and desserts but we sure owe the Italians for some truly amazing cuisine.
Now back to pignoli cookies.  I love the base of this cookie - an abundance of almond flavor from almond paste.  It's one of my all-time favorite baking ingredients, and I particularly favor Love 'n Bake almond paste.  These pignoli cookies are very similar to the almond macaroons that I love to make; in this case, the almond cookie is encrusted with pine nuts.  You can roll the dough completely in pine nuts or press some over the tops of the cookies.  The pine nuts add a nice crunch against the sweet, fragrant, and oh-so chewy almond cookie itself.  The combination is divine and one I'd love to see on any upcoming holiday cookie platter.  I love it anytime for that matter. 

November 26, 2012

Hot chocolate *cake*

This is the last of my "Hurricane Sandy recipes".  When I made this about three weeks ago, I was thinking about time.  I felt/feel like the entire month of November passed by in a blur with all the drama associated with the hurricane.  Thanksgiving was upon us, which shocked me, but at the same time, it's hard to believe that it isn't officially winter yet.  We've already had one serious snow storm that dropped over 8 inches of snow on us in one fell swoop!
I'm ready to snuggle up and hibernate for the winter.  While I know we can't exactly hibernate, we can snuggle up with hot chocolate and cookies!  If you’re like me, you associate winter with steaming cups of hot chocolate.  What could be cozier (assuming you have power and the comforts of home).  As a twist on that favorite winter treat, I made these cute hot chocolate cups of cake on a recent Friday night for a family dinner.  I readily admit it was the simple whimsy of this dessert that appealed to me and, in general, I just welcome different ways to eat chocolate for dessert.  Sometimes all it takes is a different way of presenting something to put a smile on your face. 
I found this recipe online from the Wall Street Journal.  You only need 4 ingredients – chocolate, butter, eggs, and sugar.  Essentially, you whip the eggs and sugar into a voluminous mixture, then stir in melted chocolate and butter before transferring the batter into cups or mugs and baking them in a water bath.  As you might imagine from that description, what you end up with is something of a cross between chocolate mousse, soufflĂ©, and custard.
My husband really enjoyed his hot chocolate cake but to be honest, it didn’t win me over.  I prefer, and maybe expected, more intensity of flavor and texture than what I got here.  Yes, I’m once again talking about something more akin to molten chocolate cake; it is, afterall, probably my favorite dessert of all time and a person just can’t help but holds things up against her gold standard...
After making these, I figure there’s really no reason not to spoon molten chocolate cake or some other cake, custard, or pudding batter into coffee or tea cups and mugs for a similar “look”, if you choose.  I actually saw some adorable small silicon teacups made precisely for this kind of purpose at a papery store recently.  I guess the idea is to think beyond the baking pan or ramekin, I suppose.  Not being the most creative girl on the block, though, I rely heavily on concrete inspiration.
Now I was thinking...these are truly cup-cakes!

November 23, 2012

No crust, no-fuss brownie pie this Thanksgiving

I hope you and your family had a happy and delicious Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving kind of snuck up on us this year, following the heels of Sandy.  We didn't really have much time to think about it and partly as a result, it was relatively low-key, less stressful, but no less joyful.  We have a lot to be thankful for and I'm very grateful for that!
Our version of Thanksgiving is always eclectic.  Besides the requisite turkey and gravy, the sides take off on all different tangents.  We have anything from noodles to seafood and vegetables on the table.  Mom does most of the work (as usual) but I've been in charge of the turkey in recent years.  Now, I like to cook (not just bake) but generally, I lean towards the 30-minute, 5-ingredient or less, and/or one-pot variety type of everyday cooking.  I have to admit I haven't relished my job as turkey maker and at the end of last year's Thanksgiving, I vowed to buy a prepared turkey next year. 

So don't laugh (or cringe) when I tell you that we did, indeed, buy a pre-cooked turkey this year.  Hurricane Sandy made the decision final and I have to tell you, it felt so good to bypass the whole turkey shopping, cleaning, stuffing, cooking, gravy-making process.  The kids really enjoy the turkey but it's definitely the accompaniments that I look forward to eating at Thanksgiving.
I extended the same easy/low-key mantra towards dessert.  I made Ina Garten's brownie pie; no crust-no fuss for this easy Thanksgiving!  The recipe even calls for simple chocolate chips - and plenty of it, at over 3 cups or more than a pound's worth!  If you look at the recipe, it's actually called a brownie tart with instructions to bake it in a tart pan.  Ina makes a brownie pie on her show though and I find the pie version far more appealing here, not only because it was for Thanksgiving, but because it just seems more befitting the casual American brownie.

Bake the batter directly in a glass pie plate and it's a dessert that's easy to transport and just generally low-maintenance.  To dress it up a little, drizzle some chocolate ganache randomly over the top but you could even skip this step.
Come dessert time, we sliced into our rustic brownie pie and enjoyed it with grateful hearts.  I loved its simplicity, which was particularly welcomed this year.  As importantly, it was yummy - I mean, it's a brownie, afterall!  The top is crusty and crunchy while the center is fudgy and studded with chunks of chocolate chips.  I omitted nuts given the audience (most of the kids prefer it without) but otherwise, I highly recommend adding nuts.  Some walnuts would provide extra crunch and some earthy flavor to balance the sweetness. 
Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it's time for Christmas!  I love this time of year because, despite the busyness, I love the general feel of celebration, kindness, and giving that fills the air.  Plus, Christmastime means lots of cookies, hot chocolate, and an array of other treats so I say...bring it on!

November 21, 2012

An old-fashioned coffee cake

During the flux of the few weeks surrounding Hurricane Sandy, the idea of making something old-fashioned (which I associate with steady, dependable, and simpler times) appealed to me.  While pretty much stranded at home during the early days after the storm, I spent time re-reading some of my cookbooks.  With no TV or Internet connection (other than our cellphones), my subscription of cooking magazines and old books provided entertainment.  The benefit of revisiting those cookbooks is that I found a bunch of recipes I want to try, or have already tried since.
I adapted this coffee cake recipe slightly from a cookbook given to me recently by a friend (thank you, girl!).  It’s a breakfast book, no pictures but recipe after recipe of anything you might consider for your first meal of the day.  When I was looking through it, I kept going back to the coffee cake.  It reminded me of those first cooking classes I took back in high school (or was it junior high school?).  I remember the first things we learned to make in that big classroom kitchen were coffee cake and zucchini bread, both of which were surprisingly good to my green taste buds. 
As you probably know, coffee cake has nothing to do with coffee in the sense of being an ingredient or flavor in the cake.  It’s a basic cake intended to be served alongside a cup of coffee.  Most of the time, it has a crumb topping on it and because of that, it’s also called crumb cake.  I like the sound of coffee cake better but I have to say the crumb topping is the vital component to the coffee cake.
This particular coffee cake is a pretty basic one, flavored mainly with cinnamon and nutmeg – rather appropriate for this time of year, I think.  But the thing is I only enjoy cinnamon and nutmeg (and other spices like ginger and cloves) in careful moderation.  The recipe was more generous than I wanted to be with the spices so on personal preference, I dialed it down a bit.  Luckily, it turned out quite well, with enough presence but without being overpowering. 
I like that this coffee cake is nice and moist thanks to the use of oil as opposed to butter, and it keeps well for several days tightly wrapped.  The crumb topping is made with chopped walnuts mixed together with some flour and cinnamon-sugar.  It provides a nice bit of crunch and extra sweetness against the soft, moist cake.
Coffee cake may not be something I'd crave often but it was a nice old-school treat that I really enjoyed making and eating.  There’s something nostalgic about it.
So let's bring back the coffee cake once in a while!  Brew a pot of coffee and have a good sit-down with someone you enjoy spending time with.  Or make one and wrap a few pieces up (it travels quite well) for someone you know who’d appreciate a little treat to go with his/her daily cup of joe.  It's a great make-ahead also, if you are thinking about food for that busy Christmas morning.  Make this the day before and it needs nothing more than knife and fork the next day.  Oh, and coffee, of course...

November 18, 2012

Two-bite brownie bite cookies

When you are practically stranded at home - albeit cozy and fortunate enough to be with power and heat even if not phone, TV, or Internet service – because of gasoline shortages and continued power outages, you might look to comfort yourself and share something tangible like food with your family.  For me, I cooked – partly for comfort and enjoyment but also due to necessity given the inability to go out and get around like normal during the first week or so after the storm. 

Comfort food takes many forms, particularly in steaming bowls of pasta or anything that’s hot and plentiful, on the savory side.  For me, it also means chocolate…lots of chocolate because the smell and taste of it is simply soothing.  I took full advantage of my chocolate stash following the storm.  It was my daily dose of comfort “medicine.”
My little guy was a fan of these chewy chocolaty bites; I partly credit their petite size, which makes them easy to eat with little mess (he's hasn't been a fan of gooey cookies lately) 
I made these two-bite brownie bite cookies on November 7th, nine days after Hurricane Sandy, as snow starting drifting down from the sky thanks to a nor’easter!  Did I mention there was also a minor (2.0 scale) earthquake in New Jersey a few days prior to that also?  There were no damages and I don’t think anyone even felt it but…seriously?  Insane times call for chocolate intervention.  By the time I baked these chocolate cookies in the early afternoon, the sky was almost completely dark and picture-taking was far from ideal.  But the cookies were good though…
For my daily dose of chocolate, these did the trick.  These small two-bite cookies (you could make them even smaller into single-bites if you have the patience or do the opposite and make them larger) are like mini bites of chewy chocolate goodness.  There’s dark brown sugar in them but it’s mainly the honey that sets them apart and provides that chewiness I enjoy.  I don’t generally love cookies with honey in them, mainly because it’s hard to find good honey that isn't insanely expensive, but these cookies needed to be made because I happen to have a jar of delicious honey I picked up on our last apple picking expedition, which feels like a lifetime ago.
Sadly, my precious jar of honey is dwindling quickly but I’m glad I put some of that nectar to good use here in these brownie bite cookies because you can really taste what you put in.  The honey, along with cocoa, and bits of semisweet chocolate conjure up this lovely little treat.  Since they are not overly sweet, rolling them in sugar adds an extra touch of sweetness as well as giving them a nice luster and crunchy contrast to the soft and chewy texture.  I tried granulated, sanding, as well as turbinado sugar for the topping and my family and I liked the sanding sugar best both in appearance and texture (just the right amount of crunch).
These cookies are great for a stressful day or anytime, any day.  They may also be something to consider for your upcoming Christmas cookie lineup.  In fact, they remind me of one of my other Martha Stewart-favorites for the holidays, chocolate gingerbread cookies, minus the spice but offering a similar texture and base chocolate flavor.  And since the recipe makes a large amount of these small cookies, it is great for sharing and gifting.

November 16, 2012

After the storm...Double-chocolate muffins with mini chocolate chips

I might always think of these as my post-Hurricane Sandy muffins because they were the first thing I baked after our power was restored.  When the lights came back on, I was thrilled at the thought of using my oven again.  It sounds silly because I know there were and are far greater things to worry about than having a functional oven but it brought a little extra comfort to me in my little world.  I think we all want to feel useful and being able to cook and bake for my family gives me that feeling.  At the same time, the repetitiveness of cooking and baking is a great stress reliever, with an added bonus of a tasty reward at the end.  And speaking of stress relief, is there any better medicine than chocolate for the job?

Being mindful of conserving power, I baked these double chocolate muffins, which only take about 15 minutes in the oven.  I whipped up a small batch, just a half dozen (partly given limited resources at home – it was much too soon to venture out for groceries when much of the neighborhood was still without power), early the next morning after our power was restored and before my husband went off to work at a nearby office temporarily.  It felt good to be able to offer him something homemade before he took off to see what our world looked like post Sandy.
I found the recipe for these muffins a few weeks ago in a special Chocolate issue/magazine published by Better Homes and Gardens.  I’ve been on the lookout for a good chocolate muffin recipe because it satisfies my continuous craving for chocolate cake without the guilt of over-indulgence (no frosting and less sweet).  My last attempt at chocolate muffins was disappointing but these looked and sounded good – in particular, I like the use of oil as opposed to butter for a generally moister cake.

And I was very pleasantly surprised by these muffins!  It may have had something to do with the relief and joy I felt from having power again but I really like them and plan to make these from time to time.  They are moist (though not my favorite chocolate cake type moist but remember these are muffins, not cupcakes) and tender, and the use of mini chocolate chips really works here.  The chocolate flavor of the muffin itself comes from cocoa powder while the small chocolate chips blend throughout the muffin and provide a noticeable presence of actual chocolate in each bite.  In other words, they satisfy my chocolate craving.

I tweaked the recipe just a bit, adding some vanilla extract which was oddly missing, and I’m happy I reserved some of the mini chocolate chips to scatter on top of the muffins right before baking.  I like seeing the little chocolate studs on the surface, reinforcing the all-important presence of chocolate and giving a clear idea of what’s involved.  I’ve been experimenting with whole wheat pastry flour lately, and used a mixture of that and regular all-purpose with good results (i.e., unnoticeable taste difference as long as you keep the whole wheat pastry flour at no more than 50%).

I liked these so much, I made a second, full batch, a few days later!  The excuse was my brother and his family was staying with us part-time as their house remained dark after the storm and I thought we needed more breakfast/snack provisions.  I’ve discovered that when housebound with little to do and few places to go (scarcity of gasoline at the pump being one major issue), we need plenty of food and something to go with all those cups of java.
Interestingly, I almost like the flavor of these better the next day.  They may be a tad dryer versus fresh (I recommend re-warming them in the microwave for about 10 seconds just before eating like I do) but I think the flavors blended together and the whole wheat pastry flour (if you’re using) mellowed to the point of being totally indiscernible even when I experimented with using a bit more in my second batch.  I upped the ratio to 60% WW pastry flour and I could taste the whole wheat in that second fresh batch; the next day, however, it was not discernible at all.
Now the other good news is the lights came back on for my brother and his family (including my 3 young nephews) late that afternoon after I whipped up the second batch of these.  The way I figure it, they must be good luck!

November 15, 2012

Finally online after Hurricane Sandy...

I am so very glad to finally be sitting in front of my computer, Internet connection up and running again, so I can write here and return to a normal routine after Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy walloped us on the Northeast a few weeks ago.  For the second year in a row - practically to the date – Mother Nature left a big scar on our area.  Apparently, Halloween is not her favorite holiday either; you could say Mother Nature “stole” Halloween but unlike the Grinch, Mother Nature was successful and did it two years around here.  But losing Halloween is the least of the matter.
Instead of an ice storm, which immobilized us for over a week the same time a year ago, another hurricane (there was Hurricane Irene just last August) blew through.  And yes, a nor’easter followed 9 days later and dropped a solid 8 inches or so of snow on us.  What was once almost unheard of in our parts is becoming all too familiar.  While we were relatively prepared thanks to advance warning (which I always take seriously now in a post Hurricane Katrina world), Sandy once again reminded us of our vulnerability and perhaps even the limits to the control we have over our destiny.
We were extremely lucky.  My family and I hunkered down ahead of the hurricane, and while the sounds and sights of trees bending to the force of 60-mph type winds at night were frightening, we managed to reach the other side and wake up the next morning safe and without damage.  We lost power for only 2 days – extremely fortunate indeed compared to many others in New Jersey where we live, and along New York and Connecticut.  I know we have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.  And being so lucky, it reminds me to give more during this holiday season.
Making cookies ahead of a storm calms the nerves (at least, for me)...
On a lighter note, you can imagine I took my self-appointed role as Chief Meal-Planning Officer seriously during that week or so surrounding the storm when all we could really do was wait and, well, eat.  We comforted each other by gathering around the table.  Cooking gave me as much comfort as eating.  I had a vague notion of snapping photos of our meals as a sort of documentary of the storm of 2012 through food.  But suffice it to say that once the wind started to pick up, the storm arrived, and things got serious, we found ourselves glued to the TV coverage while we had power and then, without power, I fairly forgot about the camera.

But you can take my word for it - the pantry was stocked and we ate our way through the storm and the aftermath.  Looking back, we shored ourselves up with hearty chicken parmesan and roasted squash the night before the storm.  Pancakes and bacon, comforting bowls of oatmeal (for me), and cookies and homemade ice cream filled our day as we waited.  On Monday evening, October 29th, when the wind arrived and the lights began to flicker, I started dinner and stashed it away in the warm oven by 4pm so we’d have our dinner in case the lights went out.  Food is obviously about survival but I think it goes beyond just the physical need for it…
We were very lucky to be able to use our gas stove (and have hot water!) after we lost power (around 10pm the evening of the storm) and I took full advantage to cook up my stash of frozen shrimp and meat from the defrosting freezer.  My husband cooked from the grill and together, we ate everything from stir-fry beef with tofu and rice, to popcorn chicken, and pasta (always lots of pasta) with garlic bread toasted on the skillet!  There were lots of frozen vegetables on the table too and I’m thankful for it.  The Halloween candy, our stash of chips and other snacks were dipped into as well.
When the lights came on, I nearly cried with joy and relief.  Interestingly, the three of us were seated around the dining room table eating dinner by candlelight at the time.  The overwhelming feeling then and now remains: grateful.  Looking at the uprooted trees around our neighborhood, hearing about the injuries and victims, the people displaced from their homes and those without power for far too long, and seeing the flooding in the city and coastal areas, it is clear that we were once again very fortunate.  I am very grateful.
Other members of my family who live nearby went without power for six days (many others were dark even longer).  So for a few days, we did what we do best – cluster around the table, drinking coffee and eating, talking, and eating a bit more while the kids enjoyed and entertained each other.  The grownups were waiting - for “normal” life to begin again, for schools to open, and the ability to resume life and business, without fear of downed wires and gas shortages.  But at the same time, we realized how lucky we were to be merely inconvenienced, and how minor our problems were relative to so many others who lost so much because of Sandy.  It’s frightening to think of worse case scenarios and those less fortunate… 
Though the lights came back on, our cable connection was down for 17 days, until today (luckily, our cell phones kept us informed), or I would have written sooner; I missed putting my thoughts down on “paper” here.

So if you're reading this, wherever you are…I hope you are safe and well and count yourself lucky like we do.  And, please, let’s hope for a mild winter!

November 12, 2012

Baking therapy

Hello!!  Wherever you are reading this, I hope it finds you well and safe!  I am tapping away on my cellphone right now.  Following Hurricane Sandy, our phone, Internet and TV connection have been down and there are no imminent signs of that status changing.  Luckily, we only lost power for 2 days so I dare not sound like I'm even remotely complaining.  

I have so much I'd like to write and post here!  Hopefully, I'll eventually be able to do so once our connection is up and running again.  In the meantime, I just remembered this post I wrote before the drama of the past 2 weeks.  Ironically, I called it "baking therapy"...little did I know I'd be needing plenty of that!  So I leave you with this for now and hope to be back here again soon.

From a couple weeks ago (before Hurricane Sandy):

After a few of my recent baking endeavors that bordered on the adventurous side (for me, anyway), I've been craving the comforts of going back-to-basics.  I wanted to get in the kitchen and make something a little bit more predictable and slip back into my comfort zone.  Trying and doing new things is great but knowing what you like and staying true to that is also important.  I needed a little baking therapy and wanted to get back into a familiar rhythm...
So I turned to Martha.  I grabbed my cup of tea and armed myself with Martha's Baking Handbook for a cozy read.  I felt myself relaxing instantly, and I'm only partially joking.  For my little baking therapy session, I decided on the marble loaf cake.  I always enjoy making cake but I was in the mood for a relatively simple one that doesn't require require any fuss like frosting and layering.  I've never made a marble loaf before so this was a chance to stick close to what I love while trying something new.
I'm not sure this recipe qualifies technically as a pound cake but whatever we call it, you end up with this dense (but tender), buttery cake that's golden on the outside and has a surprisingly nice crunchy crust to it once freshly cooled from the oven. 

For one 9x5 inch loaf, we use 1 stick of butter, a cup of sugar, and 3 eggs in this recipe.  Some of this vanilla cake batter is turned into chocolate with the help of a paste made from cocoa powder and water.  The resulting marble effect is achieved through alternating layers and a few swipes with a knife.  I've always wanted to give the whole swirling and marbling trick a try, and I think it worked out pretty well!
When I was making this marble loaf, I put to use some of the tips I've read about making pound cake (regardless of whether or not this is officially one).  What I remember included making sure your ingredients - butter, eggs, buttermilk - are at room temperature.  I also took my time to mix the butter and sugar together thoroughly enough to incorporate air and lighten the batter.  And when it comes to that actual marbling technique, the trick is not to over-do it, which, as simple as it sounds, can be hard to resist.
I really enjoyed making my "therapy" loaf cake.  It tasted much as I envisioned from readin the recipe: not overly sweet, a great mid afternoon or even morning snack.  I opted out of the chocolate glaze for this marble loaf because I wanted to keep it simple and light(er).  Since the chocolate part of this marble cake comes from unsweetened cocoa powder as opposed to melted chocolate, the flavor is not overly rich.  In fact, I think it could probably use the chocolate glaze if you are looking for a little extra sweetness and flavor but if, like me, you just want a simple midday snack, I think it's perfectly fine unadorned.
But this relatively mild and simple marble loaf does seem to be calling out for a little something.  And as with most things, a scoop of ice cream quickly elevates this little treat.  I highly recommend it. 


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