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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

Turning Leaves: Cheddar Fougasse

9 Sep

Well, I guess it’s about time for me to admit that it’s almost autumn. I’m a summer person if there ever was one. I crave heat and the bright, light flavors of summer. Farmers markets attract me like a moth to flame, and I’ll eat pounds of berries if left to my own devices.

Autumn has its merits too. Warm, sweet, spices, crisp apples, creamy pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and perhaps the most delicious holiday, Thanksgiving. BUT for now, we’re in the early moments of the pre-season, with leaves just beginning to turn golden. And for me, those warm colored waifs falling gently from the trees remind me of one of my favorite simple breads, a French flatbread that is a wonderful addition to any bread basket, the fougasse.

Fougasse is generally associated with the Provence region, but originated in Rome as Panis focacius, Roman flat bread baked in the ashes of a hearth called a focus. If these words sound familiar, you’ve probably heard of the Italian version, focaccia (which we have made and you can find right here). And like focaccia, fougasse is a blank canvas for all sorts of fillings and flavors, including nuts, olives, cheese and herbs. What makes it different is its unique shape, cut like a big, beautiful leaf or sheaf of wheat.

To make our golden, not-quite-yet-autumn leaf, I chose a simple cheddar fougasse, but you can amp this up with rosemary, oregano, basil, or whatever herbs suit you. You can also swap out the cheeses, just be careful of balancing the salt in the dough with saltier cheeses like romano. You may just need to use slightly less.

Cheddar Fougasse

Sponge:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp. instant yeast

Dough:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. instant yeast

Filling:

  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, cut into ¼ in. cubes

Combine all of the ingredients for the sponge and allow it to rest overnight, or for as much as a full 24 hours.

After the resting period, stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will look rough.

Bring the dough together and knead for 8-10 minutes, until a soft, smooth dough is formed.

Roll the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise until it has doubled, anywhere from 75-90 minutes.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly greased surface, sprinkle on the cheese, and knead a few times to incorporate. Don’t worry if you lose a few cubes of cheese here and there, you can stick them on after shaping the bread.

Form the dough into a leaf shape or a large oval about ¾ in. thick and then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush it lightly with olive oil.

Using a sharp knife, make decorative slits. I did two down the middle and six on either side, but it’s your leaf, make it to suit you! After slicing, gently pull the cuts apart so there is some space between them.

Cover the bread with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Uncover the bread and bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped. Move to a wire rack to cool.


With each changing season we invite in new culinary treasures, and this is a simple, yet beautiful one to put on your table and enjoy. No matter what your favorite time of year may be, these fragrant, crisp, golden leaves are sure to please.

Ciao for now,

Neen

A Loaf from Le Marche: Crescia al Formaggio

8 Sep

When I first came across a recipe for Crescia al Formaggio, it noted that the recipe was an enriched Italian Easter cheese bread, but beyond that there wasn’t a lot of detailed information. It’s still relatively unknown in the United States, where many of the Italian Easter breads I’m familiar with are sweet yeasted breads enriched with eggs.

In order to dig deeper, I found myself using the magic of Google to translate several Italian web pages and discovered that this savory delight dated back to the Medieval period(!), and is said to have first been prepared by the nuns of the monastery of Santa Maria Maddalena in the Le Marche region. The recipe wasn’t codified until much later, and the first written trace dates back to 19th century recipe books. Traditionally, the bread is made only on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, where 40 eggs were divided between many loaves to symbolize the 40 days of Lent. These loaves were then taken to the church for blessing before being served on Easter Sunday morning or afternoon. It was seen as an Easter reward for Lenten penance, especially since rich ingredients like cheese and eggs were expensive and not widely available to the masses.

In the present, it is available year-round in smaller loaves, but the high, soft grander ones are only seen around Easter where it is traditionally baked in a round mold or panettone pan, giving the finished bread an almost soufflé-like appearance. I wanted to make this one a little more accessible, so we’re going to bake a smaller version in a loaf pan but trust me, it’s savory, golden and absolutely worthy of a holiday. Just as a note, it has quite a long rising period due to the eggs and cheese in the dough, so start this one early in the day.

Crescia al Formaggio

Dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, egg white reserved
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water (110-115 degrees F)
  • 2 oz. (4 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups grated parmesan, romano, or asiago cheese (I use a mix of all three depending on what I have on hand).

Egg wash:

  • Reserved egg white + 1 tbsp. cold water

Combine all of the dough ingredients except the cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed for 10 minutes, scraping down the bowl every few minutes.

Add the cheese, and beat until incorporated.

Scrape the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and leave to rest for an hour. It will not rise very much. After an hour, turn the dough over in the bowl and leave to rest for another hour.

Flour your hands lightly. Scrape the dough out of the bowl, divide into three equal pieces, and form each into a 12 in. rope. My dough weighed 21 oz., so my ropes were 7 oz. each. Braid these together and then put the braid into a greased 9×5 in. loaf pan.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 2 hours, or until noticeably puffier.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and adjust a rack to the middle position.

Whisk the reserved egg white with the water and brush it on top of the loaf gently.

Bake the bread for 15 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, tent the bread lightly with aluminum foil, and bake for another 25 minutes or until the bread is a deep golden brown and registers at least 190 degrees F on an instant-read or probe thermometer.

Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then run a knife around the edge of the pan and turn the bread out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

The dark golden crust is crispy, and the soft interior is savory and rich. This bread makes excellent toast and has a perfect texture and flavor for cold-cut sandwiches. I was enjoying it with smoked turkey and tomatoes shortly after cooling.

I feel so lucky sometimes to live in a time when ingredients are more widely available, and web pages can be translated in an instant, allowing me to learn about recipes I might otherwise never have known to try. Food connects us and brings us closer together to our families and to our histories, sharing celebrations across generations. What a blessing and a joy.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Essential Kneads: French-style Country Bread

7 Sep

Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in June, life has kind of been a rollercoaster. How I feel when I wake up each day is a complete surprise. I live in a constant state of fatigue and trying to catch up with whatever joints are flaring that day. Sometimes I need a cane to walk, or can’t raise my arms overhead, or am unable to do things as simple as squatting down or bending over. Even a simple shower can be painful sometimes. It’s almost impossible to have a consistent schedule or make firm appointments. For someone who loves to move and be in the kitchen, this can be really, really difficult. I’m able to work, but the opportunities have become very limited. It feels like so much has been taken away, and my primary job has become working toward remission.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered something wonderful, something unexpected, and something I am beyond grateful to have. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that baking bread makes me feel soothed, comforted, and home. I was deeply worried that my often swollen and painful hands and fingers would keep me from this practice. Okay, sure, I could use my mixer to knead bread, but a huge part of handling bread dough and knowing when it is ready is how it feels. And you can’t do that kneading in a mixer.

One night, I made a sponge starter for a loaf of bread. When I woke up the next day, my fingers were puffy, swollen, and angry. I was heavily disappointed. Yet again, an unexpected flare had hit me. I was about to throw the sponge starter and rest of the ingredients into my mixer, and then remembered a self-massage technique my physical therapist had shown me. It basically involved rubbing down the palms and fingers to move the inflammation. I realized it was essentially the same act as kneading. So why not take 10 minutes to move my hands through soft dough and just see what happened? Worst case, I’d have to give up and let the mixer do the work.

But I was right. While it wasn’t a perfect solution, by the time I finished kneading the dough, the swelling in my hands had reduced significantly. They still ached, but I had more mobility and a better grip. My love, my home had again brought me comfort and soothed me during struggle. So in light of that, I want to share with you the bread I was making that morning (and again this week). Get your hands in there and enjoy every second of it.

French-style Country Bread

Sponge:

  • 1 cup cool to lukewarm water (90-100 degrees F)
  • 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

Dough:

  • Sponge
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (100-115 degrees F)
  • ½ tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Make the sponge by stirring all of the ingredients together in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rest overnight or for as much as 16 hours.

After the resting period, stir the starter and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt. The dough will look rough and messy. Let it rest for minutes and then stir again. The dough will be more cohesive.

Knead the dough for 10-12 minutes, adding the remaining ¾ cups of flour only as needed to form a smooth dough. On a humid summer day, I needed all of the flour. When I’ve made this bread in the winter I have needed less than half, so it can vary a lot.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container. I like a measured plastic container because it is easier to see the exact volume of the rise. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until almost doubled, 1-2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal or semolina.

Gently pour the risen dough out onto the counter and shape into a large ball.

Place this seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rest until it becomes puffy and about 50% larger. This can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and place a 9×13 baking pan or cast iron pan on the bottom rack. Adjust the other rack to the middle position.

Make three slashes across the top of the loaf of bread, or make a tic-tac-toe pattern. Have ready 1 cup of hot water.

Place the bread in the oven on the middle rack and pour the hot water into the pan below it. Quickly close the oven to trap the steam and then reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it’s a deep golden brown and the internal temperature is at least 190 degrees F. You can also test bread doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a wire rack.

Maybe a lot has been taken away (temporarily), but RA has also become my greatest teacher, helping me learn greater patience, compassion, and gratitude for the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. I have discovered strength and perseverance I didn’t know that I had in me.

Whenever I feel myself struggling—and I know that is part of this too, I will go into the kitchen, massage my hands, and find myself home again.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Excellent Experiments: Cinnamon Twist Bread

1 Sep

I have had the experience on a few occasions of starting a recipe assuming I had certain ingredients on hand, only to realize partway through that I was actually missing something. Yes, yes, I know this breaks the cardinal rule of “mise en place,” but we all err sometimes. There are also occasions when I know I don’t have the right things on hand and don’t care, because I’m simply going to try something and see what happens.

I found a recipe for a cinnamon twist bread ages ago. I remember that I loved the concept of it, but it called for several ingredients (and a cooking vessel, as I recall) that were either hard to find or that I didn’t want to buy because I couldn’t think of how else I would use them. I wrote off the recipe and moved on to something else. I never like it when things go to waste, so it’s always my preference to use ingredients that can be located in an average grocery store and have multiple uses. For whatever reason, I thought back to that pretty-looking loaf this morning. I decided to take what I know about bread and recreate the idea with ingredients and tools that an average home cook would have available. I was worried that it would turn out strange, but if you never try, you never know. And many times it’s worth trusting your instincts.

Cinnamon Twist Bread

Bread dough:

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (105-110 degrees F)

Filling:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon

Topping:

  • 1 tbsp. granulated sugar

 

To make the bread dough, combine all of the ingredients in either a stand mixer or by hand and then knead until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic.

Roll the dough into a ball, placed it in an oiled bowl, and toss to coat with oil.

Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size. This can take anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen.

Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly greased surface and roll it into a 24 x 10 in. rectangle.

Combine the cinnamon and sugar and then sprinkle the dough with the mixture.

Roll the dough up lengthwise into a log and pinch the seam closed. Place the seam side facing down.

Using a sharp knife, cut the log in half lengthwise and leave the cut sides facing up. You may have to do a little pinching to make the ropes easier to handle. As you can see, there might be an errant rope or two. Just do your best! It won’t matter in a moment.

Cross the ropes in the middle and then twist tightly, keeping the cut sides facing up as best you can. Pinch the ends of the ropes.

Form the twisted rope into a coil and tuck the end underneath. Then transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Cover the bread with a clean towel or lightly with oiled plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it is noticeably puffy.

While the bread is rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Once the bread has risen, remove the towel or plastic wrap, sprinkle with 1 tbsp. sugar, place it in the oven, and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Check the bread half-way through baking. If it is browning quickly, tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. The internal temperature of the finished loaf should be 190-200 degrees F if you have a thermometer handy.

The bread has a soft, pillowy interior with a crisp crunch on the outside from the sugar on top. It’s not too sweet either, just enough to compliment the spicy notes from the cinnamon. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.

Sometimes you don’t need a recipe to tell you what to do. Go your own way from time to time and see what happens. Even if the experiment fails spectacularly, it’s giving you information to learn from, and that’s the only way to get good at anything: Learn, learn, learn and grow, grow, grow.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Perfect Prize: Pan Pizza

28 Aug

It doesn’t take knowing me very long to realize that I’m kind of a nerd, a title I wear with pride. Let’s be real, I went to graduate school for library and information science, so reading and research are my jam. I’d say that a lot of this stems from having parents who read to me and who encouraged me to read from a young age.

One of the perks of being a kid who already LOVED to read was Book It!, a program that Pizza Hut has been running since 1984 to promote literacy. When I was a kid, you’d receive a badge and for every book you read, you’d get a sticker to put on it. Once it was full, you could present the completed badge at a Pizza Hut and get a free personal pan pizza. And man, was that an awesome reward in my mind. I loved those little pan pizzas. They were thick, super cheesy, and had awesome crispy edges from the cast iron pans they were baked in. I remember my cousins and I nearly emptying the shakers of parmesan cheese onto our pizzas and gleefully devouring them as we contemplated how to convince our parents to give us more quarters for the arcade machines in the front of the restaurant.

Adult-me still loves books (especially cookbooks!) and definitely still loves pizza. But I have my own beloved cast iron pan now, and my love of reading and research have most certainly led me to learn how to make that cheesy, chewy, crispy delight right in my own kitchen. And with a husband who has an extensive collection of video games, I don’t even need quarters to play games while I wait for my pizza.

Want to make one? Here’s how!

Pan Pizza

Dough:

  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups bread flour
  • ¾ cup warm (110-115 degrees F) water, divided
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Sauce:

  • One 15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tsp. dried herbs (I like a mix of parsley, oregano, and basil)

Toppings:

  • 9 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Whatever you like on your pizza!

Pan:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 8-10 in. cast iron skillet

Begin by making the pizza dough.

Combine 1 tbsp. of the flour, ¼ cup of the water, and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for about 5 minutes, or until foamy.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup water, 2 tsp. olive oil, and salt and stir to combine.

Slowly add the flour ½ cup at a time until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic.

Roll into a tight ball and then place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat in the oil.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough ball doubles in size. It will take about an hour.

Pour 2 tbsp. of olive oil into the cast iron pan. Place the risen dough on top and then stretch it to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 2 hours.

While the dough is rising, prepare the sauce. Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees F.

Lightly press down on the dough in the pan to remove any large air bubbles, and then spread the sauce on top, going all the way to the edges.

Top with the cheese and any other toppings you might wish to add.

Bake the pizza for 15 minutes and then carefully remove from the oven and then cook on the stove top over high heat for 1 minute.

Just look at that cheesy goodness:

To remove the pizza from the pan, run a knife or palette knife around the edges, and then use a large palette knife, tongs, or a spatula to lever it out of the pan and onto a cutting board.

Allow the pizza to rest for 2-3 minutes before slicing.

The crust is thick and chewy with crisp edges from the olive oil and high heat, and the cheese is beautifully broiled on top and gooey underneath. It’s a little decadent and a LOT delicious.

It just goes to show that if you bury your nose in a cookbook (or many), you too can always relish the rewards of reading.

Ciao for now,

Neen