Baking for the Best: Blueberry Muffins with Lemon Streusel

20 Nov

It’s Thanksgiving week, which always makes me reflect on gratitude. It’s been a tough year. I’ve spent most of the year just trying to get well. On top of that, my paternal grandmother passed away last week. She was the last remaining grandparent I had, and there’s a sort of emptiness that came along with her passing. Memorializing her made me think a lot about my maternal grandparents as well, and how lucky I was to have had them in my life for a long enough time to have many happy memories to look back on. But pain takes its toll. I simply feel exhausted, drained, and a little lost in my feelings.

Through all of this, there has been a constant source of strength. There has been an anchor to hold me close to shore when I begin to drift and struggle in an angry ocean of feelings. I’m talking, of course, about Joe. When I got sick in April, he immediately and without question took on the role of caretaker. When I couldn’t walk, he picked me up. When I couldn’t dress or shower myself, he helped me. When I was angry at the disease, he listened and held me. When I sank into depression, he shared his strength and brought me back to my feet. When my grandmother passed last week, he drove me to Pittsburgh with practically no notice at all and acted as a pallbearer in the funeral. And all of this might just seem like something a good partner should do, but what makes it especially beautiful is that he did it all through his own pain. Joe found out recently, after years of being in pain, that the disc between his C6 and C7 vertebrae has completely degenerated to the point where his vertebrae are bone on bone. This causes near constant pain in his neck and shoulder, and frequent numbness down his right arm. He’s in the process of scheduling a spinal fusion operation to bring him relief.

So imagine driving four hours to and from Pittsburgh in that kind of pain. Imagine putting aside a debilitating condition to take care of not just your wife, but her family too. How could I be anything but thankful? How could I feel anything but gratitude for the person who chose to spend his life with me?

There are millions of ways to say thank you, but my way has most often been through food. So when I thought of what I might make this week to share with all of you, it made the most sense to make a tribute to my partner and best friend. Joe loves the combination of blueberry and lemon, so I decided to make a breakfast treat that hit all of his favorite notes, and is of course sweet, just like my best buddy.

Blueberry Muffins with Lemon Streusel

Muffins:

  • 5 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • ½ cup sugar
  • Zest from ½ lemon
  • ¾ cup plain whole milk yogurt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 oz. fresh or frozen blueberries (about 1 ¼ cups)

Lemon Streusel:

  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and grease a muffin tin or line it with paper cups.

To make the streusel, combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and then use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour/sugar until it has a sandy texture with some larger crumbs.

In a large bowl, whisk together the melted butter, sugar, and yogurt, and then whisk in the egg. Add the baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and whisk until thoroughly integrated.

Gently fold in the flour and blueberries until no dry spots remain.

Divide the batter evenly among 11-12 muffin cups. I used ¼ cup disher and made 11 muffins.

Sprinkle the streusel on top of the muffins. You may have some left over.

Bake the muffins for 25-30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and a tester comes out with no wet batter sticking to it (it might have a little blueberry juice on it depending on where you poke). In my oven, 11 muffins took 26 minutes to bake.

Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. But don’t feel obligated to wait for that—these are amazing toasty and warm from the oven. They’re soft and sweet, with bursts of blueberry, and brightness from the sweet-tart lemon streusel.

I’m lucky, I know that. I have a partner who always has my back no matter what happens. I have someone who will take care of me when I can’t do it on my own. When Joe has his operation, the tables will turn. It will be me taking care of him, and I will give it my all, just the way he has done for me. I’ll make sure he knows he’s loved, safe, and never alone through the recovery process.

Like blueberry and lemon, we balance each other out and make a pretty great team. Thank you, thank you, thank you to my partner forever. I’ll always be your biggest fan.

Ciao for now,

Neen

First Snow Simmer: Avgolemono Soup

16 Nov

Winter weather decided to make an appearance this week, and with it came icy roads, sleet, and other generally good reasons to hibernate. What better accompaniment to nasty weather than chicken soup? I had noooo wish to go to the store and face everyone panic-buying bread and milk, so I decided to go for something that was simple, comforting, and a good use of some of the random odds and ends hanging around my refrigerator and freezer. After poking my head in there, I was pleasantly reminded of almost two containers of leftover rice from Chinese food and some lemons I’d zested for a recipe but not juiced. This of course, screamed avgolemono soup.

Avgolemono (egg and lemon) is a delicious Greek chicken soup that sort of reminds me of stracciatella. For Italian/Sicilian stracciatella, you beat eggs and parmesan cheese together and then whisk them into chicken broth with pastina, spinach, and meatballs. The Greek version of egg drop soup is a little bit different. Instead of pastina there is rice, the meatballs are replaced with chicken, and rather than beating the eggs with cheese, they are beaten together with lemon juice. The biggest difference however, is that in stracciatella the beaten eggs are poured directly into the soup and form what look like little rags. In avgolemono, the eggs are first tempered with a few ladles of the broth to create a smooth, creamy texture when the egg is added to the overall pot of soup.

What’s truly awesome about this soup is how few ingredients you need to make it. At the end of the day, it’s just chicken, eggs, lemon, rice, and broth. Our method is what will make the magic. So let’s get to it!

Avgolemono Soup

1 ½ lbs. chicken breast, cut into tenders
1-2 cups cooked rice
4 eggs
Juice from 2 lemons
7 cups chicken broth or stock

First, cook your chicken. You can do this any number of ways, but since I like shredded chicken for this soup, I use my pressure cooker.

Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and oregano, and then put it in the pressure cooker with whatever odds and ends of vegetables you may have. I had some celery, carrots, parsley, onion pieces, and a few chicken wing tips. Add 2 cups of water, broth, or stock, and then seal the pot and cook at high pressure for 20 minutes. Release the pressure naturally or using a quick release function, remove and shred the chicken, and strain the liquid to use as part of the broth for your soup.

Bring the broth/stock to a boil in a large pot and then add the rice.

Beat the eggs and lemon juice together, and then whisk a ladle of broth into the egg mixture.

Whisk 3 more ladles in, and then add the mixture to the pot of soup, along with the shredded chicken.

Simmer 5-10 minutes and then season with salt and black pepper to taste.

How easy is that? The chicken, rice, and eggs make this a surprisingly hearty soup alongside some warm bread. It’s creamy and savory, with just a slight tang from the lemon juice. Perfect for a winter day (or a fall day acting like winter, in my case). So as we move toward the colder months, maybe make a batch of this and pop a few containers in the freezer to have whenever you’re feeling the chill. Happy soup-sipping!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Five a.m. Finds: Cioppino

8 Nov

I keep waking up at 5 in the morning. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. But at least once a week, my eyes open and BAM, brain is on and there is no turning it off. I get up and I’m just restless, so I go to the only place that’s open, the grocery store. I’m pretty stiff most mornings, so walking the aisles at least gets me more mobile. I stop to look at all the things I never have time to look at when I go in with a list. Sometimes I get really good ideas.

For instance, one recent morning, I was walking by the frozen case next to the seafood counter and spotted a 12 oz. package of frozen, mixed shellfish. I instantly thought of cioppino, the seafood and shellfish stew I love but have never actually made. I guess I felt intimidated by it. Cod was on sale at the seafood counter, so I got a couple of fillets, and I hoped that a delicious menagerie of seafood and shellfish in a rich tomato broth was not far away. Still probably a little bleary-eyed, I got the rest of my ingredients and made it home before the sun was up.

It turns out, this is not only an incredibly delicious meal to make, it’s actually a pretty easy one too. It sort of made me wonder why I’d never done it before. It’s just making a broth and then simmering the seafood in it. Sweet and simple.

Cioppino

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ fennel bulb, sliced OR 1 tsp. fennel seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 qt. seafood stock
  • 8 oz. cod, halibut, or other firm white fish cut into cubes
  • 12 oz. mixed shellfish – I used a package of frozen mussels, clams, and shrimp
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a bit of olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Once it is fragrant, add the onions, garlic, fennel/fennel seed, basil, and cherry tomatoes and sweat until soft, 3-4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 1 minute more.

Add the wine and simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated, 5-6 minutes.

Add the crushed tomatoes and seafood stock. Return the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 40 minutes.

Strain the broth, being sure to press the solids and extract all of the liquid.

Return the broth to the heat and bring it back to a simmer. Add the shellfish and cod and return the mixture to a simmer.

Cook just until the shellfish open and the fish flakes easily. This only took 3-4 minutes for the seafood I used.

Ladle into a bowl and serve with some crusty bread.

Like I said, I feel sort of crazy for putting this one off for so long. The broth is savory, rich, and has a beautiful scent of fennel. The cod is flaky, the shellfish are juicy, and both soak up the broth’s flavors perfectly. Everything makes sense together. And trust me, you need that bread to get every last bit of the broth, it’s that good.

Let my 5 am grocery store wandering be your reward! This one is well worth trying at home, especially when you put it up against what you’d pay at any restaurant. You’ll be patting yourself on the back in no time.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Going Goldilocks: Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

4 Nov

Most recipes are a search for that just right bite. We fumble around seeking textures, flavors, and oftentimes memories in our kitchens. Then comes the a-ha moment, that blissful occasion where it all turns out just right, or at least just the way you want it. For me, nothing embodies that dance more than biscotti.

Twice-baked breads could be stored for long periods of time, which is why these cookies were favored by the Roman legions. Adding to their non-perishability is the fact that they contain no fat other than eggs. So it’s not a flaky or tender cookie, but a crunchy, dense treat meant to be enjoyed with a beverage–coffee in my case, but vin santo for many others. Still, balance is the name of the game. We’re looking for that sweet spot of crisp but not tooth-breaking, sweet but not cloying, and flavorful, but not overpowering. And in my case, an added element of memory too.

When I was a kid, we would go to Pittsburgh’s Strip District on Saturday or Sunday mornings. After the rest of our shopping was complete, my dad would often send me into Enrico’s biscotti for a “bag of ends.” These treasures were bags full of the ends of biscotti loaves, so you got to try the extra-crunchy versions of lots of different flavors. They were always a welcome treat in the car on the way home.

So when I make biscotti now, I do that search, that little dance. And like Goldilocks, I sometimes find one that’s juuuuuust right.

Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. cardamom
  • 2/3 cup dried tart cherries
  • ½ cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar together until well-blended and thickened slightly, about 3 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the vanilla.

Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom just until the flour disappears.

Stir in the dried cherries, pecans, and sesame seeds just until distributed.

Gather the ball into a ball (flour your hands if needed) and let it rest for 5 minutes. At this point, I usually weigh it.

Divide the dough in half evenly and roll each half into an 11 in. log.

Press the logs flat until they are about 3-4 in. wide.

Brush with the egg wash.

Bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan once for even done-ness. Cool the loaves on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes and reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees F.

Cut the loaves into ½ in. slices and arrange them, standing up, on the baking sheet. They can be extremely close, but shouldn’t touch.

Bake for another 22-24 minutes and then cool completely on a wire rack.

The cherries become tender in the oven and their tartness is welcome up against the warm spices and rich, nutty pecans and sesame seeds. The cookie itself is crunchy but easy to break, and doesn’t require a beverage to soften it, though one is most certainly welcome. And the extra-crisp heels remind me of the delights found in those random bags of ends.

Truly, this is a balancing act worth the effort and a welcome addition to any holiday cookie exchange. I hope you give these twice-baked treasures a try!

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Holiday Helper: Apple and Sausage Dressing

3 Nov

Now that it’s officially “the holiday season,” my inclinations are toward those foods that help us celebrate. There’s one I make year-round out of necessity (and craving!) It’s another leftover rescue like quiche, frittatas, or soup. And it just so happens one of those occasions popped up this week. I had a half a loaf of rock-hard stale French bread, some vegetable/fruit odds and ends from the week’s cooking, and a couple lonely pieces of sausage left in a package from the farmers market that weren’t quite enough to make a meal. What does that sound like? Sounds like dressing (or stuffing, depending on your opinion) to me! Since we’re cooking in a baking dish and not a bird, we’ll go with dressing.

When I’m cooking dressing, my main concern is texture. This is basically savory bread pudding, so we don’t want things to get too soft and one-note. Secondly, we want to balance flavors. Sausage is salty and fatty, so we need something crisp and sweet to play off of it. And that’s really the beauty of this dish, if there is something you don’t have, I’ll suggest a few alternatives in the recipe so you can build your own with your leftovers. Let’s clean out the fridge!

Apple and Sausage Dressing

  • 1/2 loaf of bread, cubed and dried in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes (French bread or baguettes, Italian, and sourdough are all good options.)
  • 1 oz. chopped toasted pistachios (or other nuts, pecans are great.)
  • ½ apple, diced
  • 4 oz. sweet Italian sausage, cooked and crumbled (Hot sausage or kielbasa work well too. Could also go in a different direction and use bacon. It’s delicious.)
  • ½ onion, diced (Red, yellow or white. Could also use the white part of a leek.)
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease an 8×8 in. pan. Toss the bread, crumbled sausage, and pistachios together in a large bowl and set aside.

In a saute pan over medium heat, cook the onions, celery, carrots, and apple until softened, about 4-5 minutes.

Add the vegetable mixture to the bread mixture and mix well. Stir in the melted butter.

Whisk the egg and chicken stock together and then pour over bread mixture. Stir until the bread has absorbed all of the liquid. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the dressing into the prepared pan and smooth into an even layer.

Dot the top with butter, cover with foil, and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the foil, increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees F, and bake for another 20-25 minutes or until well-browned.

Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving.

The bread is crisp on the outside, soft and custardy inside, the salty sausage and sweet apple play off each other well, and the pistachios add a great, nutty crunch to all of it. I had mine with some pulled chicken I made in the pressure cooker.

You can easily double this recipe and bake in a 9×13 in. pan for a larger crowd, but this was just me using what I had on hand. Herbs are always welcome too. I like thyme and a little bit of sage, which I didn’t have this time, but definitely would if I was making this as part of a turkey dinner. This is tremendously useful on Thanksgiving when I have almost all of these ingredients at the ready from making other recipes. Whether for a special occasion or an end-of-week refrigerator clean-out, it’s a great recipe full of varying textures and flavors. And like all the best casseroles and bread puddings, it reheats beautifully. A super serviceable side dish indeed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Birthday Bakes: Lemon Olive Oil Cake

23 Oct

I’ve been lost in a massive RA flare the last couple of weeks, and realized literally the night before it, that I hadn’t made or even conceived of a cake for my father-in-law’s birthday.  And of course this was the one time I was out of both butter and chocolate. Ugh. But you know, butter is certainly not the only fat around that can keep a cake moist and flavorful. While most average kitchen oils don’t have a ton of flavor to speak of, there is one that can bring out the fruitiness of citrus and makes a cake that is actually better after it sits for a day. That’s olive oil. Extra virgin is preferred, but it doesn’t have to be anything top shelf, just an extra virgin olive oil that you like the flavor of when you cook. If it doesn’t taste right on its own, it won’t make a cake you want to eat. Using liquid fat means a slightly different approach than the traditional creaming method for cakes, but this one is pretty forgiving so don’t stress!

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • ⅓ cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • 1¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and sugar-coat a Bundt pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl or measuring cup, combine the lemon juice and extracts.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest together until thick, light, and ribboning off of the whisk. It will take about 3 minutes.

With the mixer still on high speed, slowly stream in the olive oil and beat until thick.

Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the lemon juice mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Fold the mixture a few times with a large spatula to ensure that everything is well-incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake to even it out.

Put the cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, and then invert onto another rack to cool completely. Once cool, cover in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature. The day you are going to serve, finish it with a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze.

It cuts easily, revealing a beautiful fragrance from the lemon and fruity olive oil, a crisp exterior from sugaring the pan prior to baking, and a crumb that’s moist, dense, and citrusy. It’s soft, but the cornmeal adds a slight coarseness that keeps the texture from being one-note.

But don’t take my word for it, my father-in-law had three pieces the night I served it to him. That’s the ultimate in rave reviews from my perspective.

This recipe is another example of how some of the best cooking discoveries can come from creating from what you have on-hand. With a piece of fruit from the refrigerator and the oil I use in most of my cooking, I had the base of a really special cake and didn’t even know it. But now I do, and you do too!

Ciao for now,

Neen