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Beaches, Brahms and Brownies

25 Apr

What a busy April it has been! First we were off in the Bahamas with family for what was a wonderful, relaxing and awesomely fun vacation. There is nothing so calming to me as being by the ocean. Not to mention the glee I get from enjoying good seafood, freshly rolled cigars, and time to just be with the people I love the most.

Once I was back in town it was straight into a very tight rehearsal schedule. Choral Arts Society of Washington just performed our last concert at the Kennedy Center for the year, and it was Maestro Scribner’s final show as our director. “Ein Deutches Requiem” rang through the air just beautifully, and I felt truly privileged to be a part of such a fantastic choir. We got some pretty excellent reviews to boot:

http://www.examiner.com/review/scribner-s-final-performance-at-the-kennedy-center-filled-with-great-admiration

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/concert-review-norman-scribner-leads-choral-arts-society-in-swan-song-performance-of-brahmss-requiem/2012/04/23/gIQAgkNvcT_print.html

Our final concert of the season will be in June at the National Cathedral and is a tribute to the maestro for his 47 incredible years as Choral Arts’ director.

Joe and I get married two weeks after that concert, wow. Summer is going to be wonderful!

Still riding the adrenaline rush from Sunday, I finally had both the time and energy to do some baking last night. At the same time, since we’ve been getting home so late that I had very few interesting ingredients hanging around the house. A handful of this, a pinch of that, a few squares of chocolate…etc. But any decent cook knows that you just work with what you have.

And I had brownie ingredients.

I’m not into tooth-achingly sweet things when it comes to chocolate. I like decadent and rich, not too much flour, and little or no leavening agent. Brownies are not, in my opinion, mini-cakes and are best when creamy and a little bit dense.

Dark Chocolate Brownies with Toasted Coconut and Pecans

  • 3.5 oz. dark chocolate. I used 72% for this batch.
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • ½-2/3 cup of sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • Handful of pecans
  • Handful of shredded coconut. Sweetened or unsweetened is fine.
  • 1 tsp. coconut extract
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extraxt
  • Pinch of salt

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F, and line an 8×8 in. square pan with foil. Grease the foil lightly.

In a dry pan, toast the coconut and pecans over medium heat until fragrant and lightly brown. I did them in separate batches since the coconut browns much quicker.

Melt together the butter and chocolate, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate is almost completely melted, remove from the heat and mix until smooth.

Add ½ cup of sugar and give the mixture a taste. If you want it a little bit sweeter, use up to 2/3 cup, but I wouldn’t go any higher than that.

Add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition. Then add the salt and extracts.

Mix the flour into the wet ingredients and beat by hand until it is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the 8×8 in. pan and top with the shredded coconut and pecans. Bake 20-25 minutes or until the center has just set.

The only patience involved in this recipe comes at this stage. Let the brownies cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes and then remove (the foil makes this so easy) and rest on a wire rack until completely cool…or at least close to it.

I’ve cut this batch into as many as 24 small brownies, but you can choose your own destiny there. They’re hard to share, but when I saw how happy they made folks I gave them to, it more than made up for the fact that I only got to try a bite of one that broke when I cut them.

And I hope delicious chocolate makes up for my long absence from the blogosphere. There should be a bread recipe coming up soon once I finish getting the photos ready to go, so be on the lookout for that.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Strawberry-Lemon Macarons

22 Jan

Oh hi, I didn’t see you there…Happy New Year!

I was a busy holiday season. Lots of candy, cookies, and granola were made and many smiles were shared with family and friends.

Neen’s Notes is finally back after a whirlwind few months, and I’ve brought you something truly delightful and delicate: The Macaron! And what an awesome little cookie it is. Finely ground almonds and powdered sugar mixed into well-beaten egg whites to form an incredibly delicious meringue. When baked correctly, they come out with crisp outsides and chewy middles. The best part is figuring out what to sandwich between them. Yum.

There are many methods for making macarons floating around. I found this to be the one that worked best given the time frame I had and the equipment and relatively small space of my kitchen at home.

Shall we get our French cookie-baking on? I think we shall…

Strawberry-Lemon Macarons

Ingredients for the cookies:

  • 5 oz. sliced almonds (blanched will give you a more polished look)
  • 8 oz. powdered sugar
  • 5 oz. egg whites
  • 2.5 oz. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Red food coloring (optional)

Ingredients for the strawberry-lemon filling:

  • 4 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 4-5 strawberries
  • 1-2 tbsp. cream
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Pinch of salt

First, get your workspace ready. Fit a piping bag with a plain ½ inch tip (or just cut the corner off of a plastic bag) and line 4 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a food processor, grind the almonds until fine and then grind with the powdered sugar and lemon zest until a sandy texture is reached.

Mix the food coloring into the granulated sugar and set aside (the color doesn’t need to be perfectly distributed). I went very easy on the food coloring, so my cookies looked almost salmon-colored when piped, but gel food colorings brighten as they set so I always err on the light side. You’ll see that the finished product is very pink.

Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip them on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed and slowly add the granulated sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form.

Add the almond mixture and vanilla extract to the meringue and start folding and mixing it in. I do this by hand because it is much easier to feel when it smooths out. You don’t want to overbeat it, but you want a nice texture that ribbons when you lift the spatula out of the bowl.

Transfer the batter to the piping bag and pipe small 1.5 in. circles about 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Tap the baking sheets on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles in the batter. Leave the baking sheets of cookies at room temperature for about a half hour or until the tops appear somewhat dry.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Bake the cookies for 16-20 minutes, or until they are puffed up, feel dry, and peel away from the parchment paper easily. Rotate the pans once in the middle of cooking. Cool on a wire rack.

While the cookies are cooling, prepare the strawberry-lemon filling.

In the bowl of a food processor, puree the strawberries and then add the butter and 2 cups of powdered sugar and process until well combined. Add a pinch of salt, the cream, and powdered sugar until a creamy texture is reached. Again, cut the corner off of a plastic bag and transfer the icing to it.

Pipe small circles onto the flat side of one meringue and sandwich another cookie on top, pressing lightly to spread the filling to the edge. Be gentle, as you’ll see from my final photos, the cookies are delicate and crack easily.

I brushed these ones with a little bit of luster dust to make them shiny.


Store the cookies covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. These were sent off to Joe’s office as a Friday treat for him and his colleagues.

Looking forward to sharing all sorts of recipes with you in the new year. Let’s make 2012 the most delicious one yet!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Black and Goldies: Super Blondies

1 Feb

Two entirely different things inspired this post. First, there was the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. If you haven’t seen the cover of said magazine, it was a siren calling, “Look at these delicious cocoa-walnut brownies, don’t you want them right now?” To use a Bourdain-ism: Total food porn.

Then there was January 23rd. It was the day that my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers valiantly defeated the New York Jets to secure their spot in Super Bowl XLV. I can’t wait for the big game this weekend vs. Green Bay. It has potential to be one of the best ever: Two teams so well-matched that it’s the lowest Super Bowl point spread in 27 years.

Having already made and devoured Bon Appetit’s dark and decadent goodies last week, I decided to switch it up this week and go for the gold. This one’s for you, Steelers.  Good luck in the big game!

Black and Gold Blondies

Black and Goldies

These are a one pot wonder, so make sure that your saucepan is big enough to accommodate all of the ingredients. I used a 4qt. to account for whisking space.

Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup light or golden brown sugar, packed
8 tablespoons (4 oz.) unsalted butter
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. coconut flavoring (optional, but soooo good)
¼ tsp. salt
2 oz. dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Method
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8×8 in. pan with parchment or buttered foil.

To toast the pecans, spread them out on a sheet pan and bake for about 8-10 minutes or until lightly fragrant.

Cut the butter into 1 in. pieces and melt in a saucepan over medium heat. Stirring gently, allow it to cook for about 5 minutes or until the foaming subsides and the butter browns just lightly.

Take the pan off of the heat and beat in the brown sugar until the mixture is smooth and shiny.

Beat in the egg and extracts until thoroughly combined.

Slowly beat in the flour and salt until no dry spots remain and then add the pecans and dark chocolate pieces.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center comes out mostly clean (a crumb or two is fine). The top of the blondies should look shiny and set. This may take up to ten minutes longer depending on your oven, but start checking for doneness at 25 minutes.

Here’s the hard part: Wait. Let them cool in the pan on a wire rack for an hour and a half and then gently lift the whole slab out of the pan (this is where your foil/parchment is so handy). Let them cool out of the pan for an hour more and then cut into squares. Yield: 16 blondies.

Cook’s note: There is no leavening agent in this recipe, so these will be more fudgy and less cakey than some brownie/blondie recipes. The edges (especially if you use buttered foil) are lightly crispy. Personally, I love a gooey cookie so I have no complaints.

Enjoy the treats and GO STEELERS!

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark after the AFC Championship

Ciao for now,

Neen

Ms. MLIS and the 114 Dozen Treats

6 Jan

Happy New Year from Neen’s Notes!

I took a hiatus from blogging in December for a multitude of reasons. The first was to focus on completing my final projects for graduate school. You may recall such posts where I defeated the Great Perl Dragon and other beasts along the way, but this was (to put it in super-nerd terms) the true Boss Battle. And yes, I won the game of graduate school. I’m now a bonafide library and information scientist.

And then came the baking and candy making. Once the final papers were off to my instructors, I suddenly had…time. It’s not as though I never had free time while I was in school, but I always had a lingering, “I really should be working on (blank)” feeling whenever I tried to take some down time. Last December, when I was only a little more than half-way through school I made 65 dozen cookies for friends and family. I did not anticipate ever coming close to breaking that record. After all, I only have two cookie sheets and two 9×13 in. pans.

Armed with my favorite recipes from last year and a brand new confectionery book, I warned my family not to bake and that I’d bring more than enough home for Christmas. I’m not sure they anticipated quite how excited I was to be back in the kitchen.

Here’s the final tally:

7 dozen peanut butter cups
3 dozen Nutella cups
6 dozen orange chocolate truffles
6 dozen gingersnaps
4 dozen thumbprints
6 dozen peanut butter blossoms
3 dozen chocolate almond coconut biscotti
4 dozen chocolate cherry walnut biscotti
4 dozen cranberry orange pecan biscotti
8 dozen Russian tea cakes
10 dozen coconut joys
17 dozen walnut caramels
7 dozen torrone
10 dozen chocolate marshmallows (for Folger party)
12 dozen vanilla-almond spritz cookies
3 dozen walnut-coconut patties
4 cups sweet and spicy pecans
4 cups sweet and spicy peanuts

Total? Not counting the candied nuts, 114 dozen. I should go into business! If you have a request for any of the recipes above, let me know. There may be photo-tutorials for some of them in the coming weeks. Candy is so temperamental that it can be hard to get pictures of the process, but I’m getting better at setting the timer/one-handed photography.

My final reason for a blogging hiatus? Pittsburgh, of course! I can’t believe that I somehow didn’t write about the fact that (back in October) Joe got us tickets to the Steelers’ last home game of the season as an anniversary gift. The game was 2 days before Christmas and so we decided to spend the first week of our holiday up in PA.

Joe has taken me to a few Steelers games when they’ve played down here at Fedex Field, but I had never been to a home game at Heinz Field. In fact, the only home game I had ever gone to was a game at Three Rivers Stadium when I was…12ish? Needless to say, my anticipation was building for a very long time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 27-3 from Section 223, Row K, and it was incredible. My favorite part of the stadium was the Great Hall, where memorabilia (including all of the Lombardi trophies!) from Steelers and Pitt Panther stand-outs are on display for all fans to see. A live band, members dressed in black and gold and donning Polamalu wigs, blasted rock music to get the crowd milling around excited and ready to go. Fans wore jerseys from every era emblazoned with names like Lambert, Greene, Harris, Bettis, Stallworth, Bleier, and Swann. Of course, current players were heavily represented as well, and even some…interesting throwbacks like Kordell Stewart. I did not, however, witness any Neil O’Donnell jerseys and do not believe I ever will. 

And everyone, I mean everyone carried a Terrible Towel. Even before the announcer could start naming the players who ran onto the field, the crowd looked like a sea of Vegas-gold waves. The experience of being in a place where 60,000 people are excited and proud of the same thing was unbelievable. The players on the sidelines too, waved their Terrible Towels to liven up the crowd during crucial moments. (The glorious noise forced 2 Carolina time outs and contributed to 3 false starts. Hope we helped, boys!)

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire evening. Thank you again, Joe, for making yet another one of my dreams come true!

Yet, that was only the very beginning of our vacation. You’d think it couldn’t get any better but it did. We spent the next 4 days celebrating with family we don’t see nearly enough. There are few things that make me happier than just having time to spend with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, and Joe. We had some wonderful meals together, wandered the Strip District, and just caught up on life over wine and board games. Cigars, too. Oh, and cookies…days and days of cookies. I feel like we should install a fire-extinguisher type case in each family member’s house that contains a tray of cookies: “Break glass in case of celebration.”

I hope your holiday held wonderful memories as well. My hope for this year is that I may continue learning how to have more compassion for both others and myself, to remove the ego and respect what my body and mind can do on each day that I am alive, and to live with a sense of respect for all that this amazing planet provides each day.

Happy 2011—Ciao for now!

-Neen

Mystery Food Week 19: Clown Box edition

6 Oct

My stomach and I are at war. I don’t know what I ever did to it, but it’s mad at me. Most of my delicious mystery food from last week had to go the preservation route, but I am absolutely not complaining about a freezer full of lunches. I did get around to making some delicious potato soup from the mountain of potatoes I accumulated and it’s been a lifesaver while I’m not feeling 100%. It’s also perfect for this lovely, brisk weather that has appeared out of nowhere. It’s not too heavy, but substantial enough for a meal:

Crock Pot Potato Soup

Ingredients
-12 small/medium potatoes (use the week 17 and 18 pictures for size reference.) They yielded about 6 cups diced.
-1 medium white or yellow onion, diced.
-3.5 cups of low sodium chicken stock. I like Kitchen Basics’ unsalted variety.
-3 cloves of garlic, minced.
-3 slices of bacon
-1 cup of 2% milk
-1.5 tsp. dried thyme
-A few shakes of cayenne pepper
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Green onions or chives to garnish

Method
-Peel and quarter-inch dice your potatoes. If you too are sick with the stomach flu, have a friend drag a chair and your laptop into the kitchen so that you can sit and watch bad reality television like Hell’s Kitchen while you work. If you’re preparing them in advance, put the diced potatoes in a bowl and cover with cold water. This will keep them from turning gray.
-Dice the bacon and sauté it to render out most of the fat.
-Put the potatoes, chicken stock, bacon, thyme, pepper, and some salt into the crock pot and set it on high.
-Gently sauté the onions in the left over bacon fat (you may need to add a splash of olive oil) until translucent and fragrant. Add the garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes more. Add this to the crock pot and give everything a quick stir.
-Cook on high for 4 hours.
-Ladle half of the soup into a blender and add the milk. Blend until smooth. Add the puree back to the crock pot and cook for another ½ hour on low. (It should be simmering very gently.)
-Garnish with green onions and a few grinds of black pepper. Eat merrily.

Yield: Six 1 ½ cup servings

It’s so good. I confess, however, that by the end of the weekend I was really tired of the lack of solid food in my diet. I made cookies and justified it by saying that the inclusion of ginger (digestive aid!) and blackstrap molasses (iron!) made them an appropriate snack. And they’re perfect autumn cookies, best eaten alongside a strong cup of coffee.

Giant Gingersnap Cookies

 Ingredients
-1 cup all-purpose flour
-2/3 cup sugar
-4 tbsp. unsalted butter
-1 egg
-2 tbsp. blackstrap molasses
-2 tsp. cinnamon
-1 tsp. ground ginger
-1/4 tsp. ground allspice
-1/4 tsp. baking soda
-1/4 tsp. salt
-A few grinds of black pepper (really amps up the spices)

Method
-Pre heat an oven to 350 degrees F.
-Mix the flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, baking soda, salt, and pepper in a bowl and set aside.
-Cream the butter and ½ cup of the sugar (reserve the rest in a small bowl) until fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and mix well.
-Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until just combined.
-Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. They will spread slightly, so only put 7 cookies on each sheet.
-Spray the bottom of a glass with non-stick cooking spray, dip in the bowl of reserved sugar and then flatten a mound of dough. Repeat for each cookie.
-Bake for approximately 13 minutes or until just set. The centers will still be slightly soft, but will firm up and be crunchy once cooled.
-Cool on a wire rack and then store in a sealed container for up to a week. But they won’t last that long.

Yield: 14 big wonderful cookies

Onto this week’s Mystery Food…I called this week the clown box edition for good reason. Items just kept coming out no matter how many times I reached into the box! Fantastic.

Salad greens, Rome apples, green bell peppers, a small eggplant, squash, potatoes, and a lovely pumpkin. I found a recipe for sweet spiced pumpkin pickles so I might give that a go. If I end up canning I might also use some of those beautiful Rome apples to make apple pie filling. A quart jar of pie filling is the perfect amount for a 9-inch pie.

I hope you enjoy this week’s recipes. I’m crossing my fingers that my stomach and I can form a peace treaty so that there will be apple-picking in the near future. What better way to celebrate autumn?

Ciao for now,

Neen

65 Dozen

30 Dec

What I baked for Santa:


Cherry-Walnut Thumbprints, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Gingersnaps.


Gingersnaps and marshmallows dipped in tempered chocolate and chopped, roasted peanuts.

Chocolate-peanut covered marshmallows, “mini-s’more” marshmallows, and vanilla marshmallows.


Cherry-walnut thumbprints, peanut butter blossoms, walnut-cashew torrone, gingersnaps, caramels, spicy-sweet nuts, homemade oreos, and gingerbread.

And a merry little tree!

Happy holidays…hope you got everything you wanted:

Cheers,
Neen