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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

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

Easy Energy: Granola Bars

12 Oct

Granola bars are pretty great grab-and-go calorie-dense snacks. But if you’ve bought them, you know they’re also kind of expensive per portion. Fortunately, making your own is very simple, cost-effective, and also makes it easy to customize the bars to your tastes.

Granola Bars

  • 5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups add-ins (seeds, dried fruit, nuts, chips etc.) I went with ½ cup pumpkin seeds, ½ cup chopped pitted dates, and ½ cup dried tart cherries

Line a 9×13 in. pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F, and then spread the oats and pecans out on baking sheets and toast for 10 minutes or until fragrant.

Chop the pecans and transfer the oats and pecans to a large bowl.

Combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil while stirring for one minute.

Pour the butter mixture over the oats and pecans and stir thoroughly, until there are no dry spots.

Add the dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and dates and mix thoroughly. Note: If you are using chocolate or other chips, wait 15 minutes before stirring them into the mixture so that they don’t melt.

Pour the mixture into the prepared 9×13 in. pan and press down firmly with greased hands into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or until very firm.

Cut into 32 squares.

A little crisp, a little chewy, and just sweet enough. Store at room temperature in a sealed container or individually wrapped in plastic wrap for easy on-the-go snacks. Super simple, right? And the possibilities are endless! I especially like coconut, pineapple, and macadamia nuts, or chocolate, dried cranberries, and walnuts. Pistachios, candied ginger, and dates as a combination was also a big hit. Sometimes I divide the batch in half and press into two 8×8 in. pans so I can make two different flavors.

No matter how you dress them up, these snacks are a welcome surprise in any suitcase, lunchbox, purse, or backpack. Hope you find your favorite flavor!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Inspired Spiral: Swiss Roll

6 Sep

It will come as no shock to anyone that I am a fan of the Great British Bake Off. Almost every episode, I am inspired by at least one of the challenges or history lessons presented. Recently, I’ve been watching old episodes and gathering creativity from them. In one of the episodes I came across, the contestants made Swiss Rolls, often referred to in the States as Jelly Rolls. These consist of sponge cake topped with a cream filling which is then rolled up into a beautiful spiral.

The challenge has its perils. If the sponge is not rolled at the right time, it can crack or break. If the filling is too soft, it will squeeze out the sides, if the sponge is too warm when the filling is added it can melt, and if the cake is not rolled tightly enough from the start, it will simply fall apart when cut.

By now you might be thinking, “NOPE,” or “Why would anyone want to do this?” Well for starters, sheer curiosity, and secondly the internet is FULL of people sharing techniques to avoid these pitfalls. By the time I was finished with my Swiss Roll, I didn’t feel stressed and I had a delicious and oh so light cake to share with Joe. Now, I’m not under a time crunch or fearing pressure from distinguished judges, and neither are you, so remember this is all just fun at the end of the day.

Let’s roll!

Strawberry Swiss Roll

Cake:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Powdered sugar (for rolling)

Strawberry Cream Filling:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/3 cup strawberry preserves

Butter, flour, and line with parchment a standard half sheet pan (12×17 in.), then butter and flour the parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.

Separate two of the eggs. Set the whites aside, and to the yolks add the two remaining whole eggs and one egg yolk.

Place the egg yolk and whole egg mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer along with ½ cup of the sugar. Beat this mixture on high speed until it is pale yellow and thick. This will take a good five minutes. Add the vanilla extract and beat well. Move this mixture to another bowl and clean and dry the stand mixer bowl.

Sift half of the flour mixture over the egg and sugar mixture and fold in gently, then do this with the second half of the flour mixture. Set this aside.

Add the egg whites and cream of tartar to the clean stand mixer bowl and secure a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until the egg whites are very foamy and then slowly add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar. Continue to beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.

Fold a small portion of the whipped egg whites into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest.

Pour the batter onto the prepared sheet pan and use an offset palette knife to spread it to the edges in an even layer.

Bake the cake for about 7 minutes, or until it springs back when touched and is golden brown.

While the cake is baking, lay a clean towel at least the size of the sheet pan out on the counter.

As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, dust the top lightly with powdered sugar and invert it onto the clean towel. Remove the parchment paper lining from the cake, dust the bottom (now top) with powdered sugar, and gently roll the cake up in the towel. Place this on a wire rack and let it cool for at least an hour.

Clean the stand mixer bowl and whisk attachment, and place them in the refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes. If you have enough space in your freezer, you can use that too.

While the cake is cooling, make the whipped cream filling. Place the heavy cream, vanilla extract, and sugar in the chilled bowl. Secure the whisk attachment and beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the strawberry preserves and beat until stiff peaks form. Chill this in the refrigerator while you wait for the cake to cool.

To assemble, unroll the cake gently and spread an even layer of the strawberry whipped cream on top.

Then slowly re-roll the cake, pulling in toward you as you go to tighten the spiral.

Place the cake on a platter, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours minimum.

I like to cut this cake into 12 servings. Use a serrated knife and slow, even strokes as you go. Don’t press straight down or you’ll squish your spiral. Lay the cut pieces on a platter, garnish with powdered sugar and fresh strawberries, and serve!

Honestly, as long as you take your time, it’s really not that hard to do. Beating the yolks and some of the whites separately is what gives this particular sponge the elasticity to roll without cracking or breaking. It is a low-stress sponge, I like to say. And the flavor can totally be of your own design! If strawberry’s not your game, use 1/3 cup of whatever flavor of preserves suits you. You can add some lemon zest to the batter or filling, try a different extract (oooooh almond would be good), paint the inside with flavored simple syrup before the second roll, or even give it a little powdered sugar/milk glaze after rolling. This one is a nice blank slate ripe for creativity.

So, there are some things on TV that you should absolutely try at home without fear, and this is one of them: A perfect little pinwheel to share with friends. What could be better?

Ciao for now,

Neen

Channeling Julia: Black Forest Tart with Cherry Pit Whipped Cream

20 Aug

At the top of my Instagram account in the “about me” section are these words: “Always a student, occasionally a teacher.”

I am deeply curious and love to peek behind the curtain at the processes behind finished products. One of the people I admire most, the goddess Julia Child, shared this love.

“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

Julia, and later in my reading, Michael Ruhlman taught me that once you know the process or know the ratio of ingredients in a given dish, you can become an artist in your own right. You barely need to think about a recipe, because as long as you know the basics, those variations on a theme come naturally. You can keep iterating again and again.

“The more you know, the more you can create. There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.”

Do they always work out? No. But Julia had advice for that too.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

It can be hard as someone who suffers from bipolar depression to have confidence in myself. I lose my footing with that a lot, and that’s another reason I so look up to Julia Child. She wasn’t glamorous or pretentious, and she didn’t even start cooking until she was in her 30s. Every time I feel that I can’t do something because I didn’t start earlier in life, I think of her, and also of my brother. He decided after a career in vocal performance to then go to medical school and become a doctor.

When I walk into my kitchen without a plan, there is something so freeing and relaxing about the experience. To play, to just see what happens, to step into the unknown…

“Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be  fearless, and above all have fun.”

Usually it starts from one point—a technique, an ingredient, a request from someone, and then the wheels start turning. And if it leads me to something I don’t know or am not sure of, I pull out my librarian skills and dive into research until an idea clicks. Then I’m off to the races.

As promised in my previous post, that inspiration was sweet, perfectly ripe cherries.

And what pairs better with cherries than silky dark chocolate? The idea of a black forest cake came to mind of course, but I was looking for more texture and something a little bit buttery and crisp to offset the creamy dark chocolate and sweet cherries. Balance is everything in cooking.

So how about a tart full of those black forest flavors? And even better, an application for the pile of cherry pits you’ll have after making it!

“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Let’s see what happens…

Black Forest Tart with Cherry Pit Whipped Cream

Tart Crust:

No shrinking, no cracking, no problem!

  • 6 oz. unsalted butter (12 tbsp.)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Chocolate filling:

  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 6 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used dark chocolate chips)

Cherry Filling:

  • 14 oz. cherries, pitted (reserve pits!!)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 heaping tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water

Whipped Cream:

  • Pits from 14 oz. cherries
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch cream of tartar (optional, but recommended)

Start with the whipped cream. Combine cherry pits and cream in an airtight container and refrigerate for at least four hours, though you can leave it for up to 24 hours. While the pits are soaking, prepare the rest of the tart.

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Melt the butter for the crust over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt, stirring until smooth.

Blend the flour into the butter mixture with a rubber spatula.

Press the dough into a 10 in. tart pan. You want the dough to go about an inch up the sides of the tart pan.

Freeze the crust for 15 minutes and then bake for 25 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

For the chocolate filling, bring the cream just to a boil and then remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until smooth.

Spread one cup of filling into the prepared crust, reserving the rest. I left mine in a cup on the counter to thicken up a little.

Refrigerate the tart until the chocolate is firm, about an hour.

To make the cherry topping, combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

Mash the cherries while the mixture heats up.

Stir constantly until the mixture bubbles and thickens. It should be shiny and thickly coat a spoon.

Set aside to cool. Once cool, but not firm, spread on top of the chocolate layer.

Place the tart in the refrigerator to set the cherry layer, about an hour.

Pipe or drizzle the reserved chocolate on top of the tart and refrigerate while you finish the whipped cream.

Strain the cream through a fine mesh sieve into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the salt and cream of tartar and begin to whip, adding the sugar slowly. Whip the cream until it has soft peaks and then store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You should use it within a day, though the cream of tartar will stabilize it for a little bit longer.

Finally, slice, add a dollop of whipped cream, and serve!

The crust is rich and crisp, the chocolate ganache smooth and creamy, and the cherries are bright and sweet. Add the soft, lightly flavored whipped cream and you have one seriously spectacular bite.

But even though this recipe feels perfect right now, I am sure that as I keep learning I’ll come back to it. Because like Julia says…

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”

Ciao for now,

Neen

Summer Sweets: Fresh Cherry Marshmallows

19 Aug

Have I mentioned lately how much I love summer? Okay sure, the other seasons have their benefits. The warm spices of autumn, the hearty meals of winter, and the sweetness of early spring vegetables are awesome. But summer has all sorts of fruit and vegetable gifts for me to play with in the kitchen. And their seasons are fleeting, so it’s important to make the most of them while they’re around. That’s why this is the first of TWO recipes utilizing one of my favorite quick-to-disappear delights: Fresh sweet cherries.

Now sour cherries are delightful too, but you only usually see those here in June. Deep, dark red sweet cherries carry on a little longer through the summer. And while my first choice is always to eat them fresh, I do love using them for jams, sauces, and baked goods as well.

Using them for candy-making, on the other hand is a bit more of a challenge. Fruit has a lot of water and some fruits have a great deal of their own pectin. Those factors (and others, like acidity) can really throw off a candy recipe. So I did two things. First, I decided to update my marshmallow recipe. As they do, my methods and techniques have evolved since I first posted it several years ago. Second, I did some research to find out how, where, and when adding some fruit puree to the recipe made the most sense. And very soon, I had a batch of fluffy, fragrant marshmallows with a gentle cherry flavor.

Let’s whip’em up!

Fresh Sweet Cherry Marshmallows

  • 1 1/4 cups water, divided
  • 1/2 cup cherry puree (from 1 heaping cup fresh cherries)
  • 4  ¼ oz. envelopes unflavored powdered gelatin (about 3 tbsp. + 1 tsp.)
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch

Sift the powdered sugar and cornstarch together in a bowl and set aside. You will need this mixture a few times throughout the process, so have it standing nearby.

Grease a 9×13 in. pan and give yourself some extra insurance by lining the bottom with parchment paper. Then grease the parchment and dust the whole pan with the powdered sugar/cornstarch mixture. Make sure it’s totally coated.

Grease a spatula or a large offset palette knife and set it aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine the cherry puree with ½ cup of the water. Sprinkle the unflavored gelatin on top and briefly stir to combine. Let it sit for at least five minutes.

Prepare the syrup by combining the remaining water, sugar, and corn syrup in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, and then attach a candy thermometer and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches 240 degrees F.

While the syrup is cooking, give the fruit puree/gelatin mixture a stir to make sure the gelatin is well-distributed.

Once the syrup reaches 240 degrees F, turn the stand mixer on low speed and slowly stream in the sugar syrup. Once you’ve poured it all in, slowly increase the speed to its highest setting and whip for 11 minutes.

The mixture will cool down, greatly increase in volume, and slowly turn from syrup into fluffy marshmallow.

After the mixture is whipped, use your oiled spatula/palette knife to spread it into the prepared 9×13 in. pan and smooth the top. Dust the top with more of the cornstarch and powdered sugar mixture and let the marshmallows set for 8 hours.

Turn the slab of marshmallow out onto a cutting board and peel back the parchment paper.

Cut into squares of any size using a pizza wheel or an oiled bench scraper. I find that it helps to dip the pizza wheel into the cornstarch and powdered sugar mixture after cutting each row. Your cuts will be much neater.

As you cut, toss the squares in the cornstarch/powdered sugar so that all sides are coated. This keeps the marshmallows from sticking together.

Store in a sealed container away from heat and humidity, and start thinking about all of the great cherry s’mores you are going to make.

The fragrance of these is just incredible, not to mention the soft, creamy texture when you bite into one.

Not a cherry lover? That’s alright! Strawberry and blueberry purees also make great marshmallows. And if you’re looking for something more traditional, simply omit the fruit puree, use 3 envelopes of gelatin instead of 4, and add a tsp. of vanilla extract when there is about 1 minute of whipping time left. That will get you the classic, bright white vanilla marshmallow that’s ready for a skewer and a bonfire.

I hope you find some of your own sweet tastes of the season to whip into this tasty confection. Keep your eyes peeled for another cherry delight here soon!

Ciao for now,

Neen