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The Cookie Connection: Cinnamon Crispies

26 Nov

When I was growing up, we spent nearly every Christmas at my paternal grandmother’s house. If I close my eyes, I can still smell her kitchen. So many of my favorite foods came from her; broccoli casserole, ham pies, sauce and meatballs, pretzel jell-o (don’t knock it ‘til you try it), pumpkin pies, her breaded chicken, and especially an array of Italian and not-so-Italian cookies.

When we celebrated Gram’s 90th birthday over the summer, my cousin Emily surprised all of us with a cookbook of her recipes written in her beautiful script handwriting. To me, it was the greatest treasure anyone could bestow.

A little under two weeks ago, my Gram passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. As we stood in the funeral home, surrounded by flowers and mourners, I turned to my cousin and said, “You know what Gram would have said about all of this, right?” We both smiled and nearly in chorus said, “Oh this is ri-DIC-ulous!” My Gram had no time for pageantry and no love for flowers. Her love and affection was, like mine, spread through sharing food and especially telling people, “Oh, you don’t eat nothing!” before scooping another meatball or piece of pie onto their plate. I will admit to doing this to my own husband many times.

After we returned to Arlington following the funeral, I started going through the cookbook of her recipes and smiling at the ones that reminded me of her kitchen. I laughed at all the mentions of “two handfuls of Crisco” or “two scoops of sugar.” Like so many good cooks, she did things by feel and not by a structured recipe or method. Her recipes matched the time in which she learned to cook too. I can’t tell you how many times Oleo is mentioned in this cookbook.

Most of the cookie recipes were familiar to me, but there were several I came across that I didn’t recall. One such recipe was for Cinnamon Crispies. As far as I could tell, they were bar cookies consisting of a layer of cinnamon-sugar cookie batter topped by chopped pecans. As I am a sucker for anything containing pecans and warm spices, I knew I had to try it. And of course, you’ll see what I mean about things being a little…non-specific:

First of all, is the butter soft? Is it cut in cold? And if soft, why isn’t it creamed with the sugar first? If sugar is a dry ingredient does that imply more of a pastry consistency? Is a flat pan a sheet pan or a cake pan? What should it look like when it’s done???

There were a few clues in the recipe that helped me decide how to work this one out. Since at the end it said to cut into squares, I decided to bake in a 9×13 in. baking pan to get a perfectly rectangular shape. As for the mixing part, the instructions said to “spread” this into the baking pan, so that made me assume it was more of a cookie dough than a pastry dough. As for the final product, that I’d just have to guess about. All it said was to bake it for 30 minutes, so however it looked at 30 minutes was what I was going to stick with. So come along with me on my adventure and let’s blindly bake some cookies together, shall we? I mean, nothing with this much cinnamon, sugar, and butter can possibly be bad anyway…

Cinnamon Crispies

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 ½ sticks butter (6 oz.), slightly softened
  • 1 egg yolk (reserve egg white)
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Sift together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.

Add the butter, egg yolk, and vanilla extract, and mix until a soft dough forms.

Press the dough into an even ¼ in. layer in a 9×13 in. baking pan.

Brush the top of the dough with the unbeaten reserved egg white and sprinkle on the chopped pecans.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove and cool in the pan for 15 minutes before cutting into squares.

They are, as advertised, both cinnamon AND crispy. The cookie layer has a little bit of chewiness to it, but the butter toasts the pecans and makes the top so crunchy. Ri-DIC-ulously delicious.

I’m so glad I could share a little bit of my Gram’s cooking with you. Whenever I need to go home for a few moments, I’ll work my way through those recipes and smile. As I wrote on the day I learned of her passing, “You’ll always be with me in the kitchen.”

Ciao for now,

Neen

Holiday Heartwarmer: Triple Ginger Spice Cake

24 Nov

Well, here we are. This year has been kind of a vortex. It’s like I blinked and it’s almost December. Now that Thanksgiving has passed, Christmas trees and wreaths are popping up all over the neighborhood. When I walk the dogs, we’re delighted by twinkling lights and ribbons wrapped around lampposts. Even as the chill smacks against my cheeks, I feel a sense of gratitude to just be able to walk them again. It sounds cliché, but I have all the gifts I need just being relatively healthy.

For those of us who love baking, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. From sparkling cut-out cookies to soft sweet breads, it’s the season for giving out sweets. As the weather turns frigid, I turn to rich spices to make the house feel cozier just by illuminating their enchanting scents. And when you need something warming, what could be better than ginger? And if you’re going to go for ginger, I say go all the way! Why bake with one kind when three will bring out all of its spicy-sweet characteristics? Plus, ginger plays well with others, thereby allowing you to bask in the sweet scents of the season while you bake a cake that’s a comforting companion to a cup of coffee or cocoa.

Triple Ginger Spice Cake

  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup ginger ale
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ oz. candied ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 ¼ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tbsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. ginger
  • ¼ tsp. cardamom
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. cloves
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper

Glaze:

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tbsp. ginger ale
  • 2 tbsp. maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9×5 in. loaf pan.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients and set aside.

Cream together the butter and sugars.

Add the eggs one at a time and beat well. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the ginger ale, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Blend well.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert and re-invert onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Whisk all of the glaze ingredients together and drizzle over the cooled cake.

I don’t much care for the cold, but if it gives me an excuse to bake this cake, so be it! It’s rich, soft, and smells amazing every time you lift a bite to your lips. The butter in the cake rounds out the spicy flavors and the glaze adds a bright, sweet finish.

So happy holiday season to all of you! I hope it’s full of delicious dishes.

Ciao for now,

Neen

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