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Cure for a Cold Snap: Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

13 May

Howdy readers, I’m back. It’s been an interesting few months to say the very least, but needless to say I wasn’t doing as much cooking as I do normally. And when I was cooking, I was feeling stuck in a little bit of a rut. Not as if there aren’t endless sources of inspiration in books and online, I just wasn’t in that head space. It was hard to be out of the groove, but as I’ve started feeling more like myself, getting back into the kitchen and just experimenting has made me really happy again.

I’ve been on a soup and stew kick this week. That might seem like a little bit of a head-scratcher for this time of year, but if you were in Arlington this week, it’s been in the 50s, overcast, and rainy. So my local friends might understand why I’ve wanted nothing but warming foods.

This soup is spicy-sweet, creamy, and really delicious. It can also be made vegan if you swap out the chicken stock for vegetable stock or even water with a stick of kombu in it. Let’s have at it!

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 lb butternut squash, cubed
  • 1 apple, cored and cubed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 3-4 cups unsalted chicken stock or broth
  • ½ cup whole or light coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. toasted ground coriander
  • Optional: Toasted, salted pistachios

Method

Heat the olive oil in a deep, straight-sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and a bit sweet.

Add the chopped apple, squash, and spices to the pan and cook everything over medium heat for 5-7 minutes or until the squash and apples begin to cook down and release liquid.

Add enough broth to the pan to cover the vegetables and fruit, then turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat back to medium and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, until the squash is tender. The liquid will also start to reduce.

Using a traditional or immersion blender, puree the soup. If using a countertop blender, you may need to do so in batches to keep the hot liquid in check. Once the soup is pureed, add the coconut milk and blend it in. Check the seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed, and then blend again.

Serve hot with the toasted pistachio garnish and enjoy!

Hopefully I’ll be back a little more quickly this time. There’s a lot I know I’ll want to make once the farm markets are back in full swing for the summer, so keep your eyes peeled for new recipes. Until then…

Ciao for now,

Neen

Re-mixing Upside-Down Cake

27 Jul

Upside down cakes are a magic trick to me. The perfect chemistry of caramel, cake, and fruit.  I felt like playing around with this traditional southern favorite this week. The classic variation features a light, white cake, brown sugar caramel, and pineapple rings studded with maraschino cherries

For starters, pineapple is sweet enough—maraschino cherries are delicious, but kind of overkill. We’ve had some lovely, tart blueberries in VA this summer, so I swapped those in for flavor and color contrast, and then brightened the whole caramel up with fresh herbs and lime. I also diced the fruit and let it cook with the caramel, rather than layering them individually. It really let the fruit soak up the herbs and zest. Yum!

As for the cake itself, well, there’s nothing wrong at all with a good white cake, but my favorite batter is a good old-fashioned yellow butter cake. And frankly, no egg whites to whip means less bowls to clean. Shall we?

Pineapple-Blueberry Upside Down Cake with Lime and Mint Caramel

Ingredients

Cake Batter

  • 4 oz. butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup whole milk plain yogurt
  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt

Caramel

  • 1 pineapple, cored and diced (fresh or equivalent canned amount, drained)
  • ½ cup blueberries (frozen or fresh)
  • 5-6 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • zest and juice of one lime
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • ½ cup brown sugar

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter a tube pan, bundt pan, or 9 in. cake pan thoroughly.

Combine the chopped pineapple with the lime zest and herbs and set aside.

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To make the caramel, combine the brown sugar, lime juice, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat.

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Once the sugar dissolves and the caramel is bubbling, add the pineapple mixture, and cook until fruit is soft, well-glazed, and the caramel has reduced by half (5-7 min). Set aside to cool slightly while the cake batter is prepared.

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Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the egg and yolks one-by-one, mixing and scraping the sides of the bowl between additions. Add the vanilla and mix well.

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In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.

With the mixer on low speed, alternate adding yogurt and the flour mixture until all is incorporated. Mix just until the batter is even.

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To assemble, pour the pineapple and caramel in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. Then, make decorative lines using the blueberries.

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Pour the cake batter over the top. It is a stiff batter, so use an offset spatula to smooth it as evenly as possible.

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Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes or until golden brown on top. A knife into the cake (not the fruit layer) will come out clean.

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Let the cake cool on a wire rack and then invert. Yes, it’s scary, but if you’ve baked the cake long enough and prepped your pan well, then…

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The cake is buttery and rich, the caramel and fruit are tart and sweet, and it all comes together so beautifully.

Enjoy and be inspired to make your own upside down creations!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Lessons in Problem Solving: Chocolate-Caramel Tart revisited

20 Sep

I recently went gluten-free. Yes, I’ll still be baking with wheat to share recipes with you on the blog, but for my own purposes, eliminating gluten from my diet has done a world of good. The benefits have been pretty staggering, and I’ve finally stopped feeling like “I’m just doing this because it’s the trendy thing.” Even under the advice of a doctor, I thought, “This is stupid.” I don’t have a wheat allergy, I don’t have celiac, how could a mild intolerance be an actual problem?  My brother was once given a pair of shoes for an opera performance and they were far too small. The costumer’s response? “Suffer for art!!” And cooking is my art, after all.

But the hemo-doc thinks it could have an effect on my iron levels, so I decided to be a compliant patient.

I was initially annoyed, and then decided to see the situation as an opportunity. I would try new foods, post new recipes, and just…play in the kitchen. My only rule was to avoid the gluten-free baking mixes or specialty pre-packaged cookies. The last thing I wanted was to incorporate a lot of potato and cornstarch into my diet instead of using more whole grains in general. After a few days of perusing and one or two brief experiments…something magical happened.

What would you think if I told you that I could make the best candy bar in the world without a drop of flour, butter, or refined sweetener? Perhaps you might run screaming in the other direction, but then you wouldn’t get any and that would be very, very sad. Because it is literally one of the best tarts I have ever made. It may even trump the Nutella tart. This is basically my favorite candy bar turned into a pastry that will truly knock your socks off. Caramel, chocolate, and nuts…what’s not to like? I must be on to something, because it disappeared before my eyes when shared with friends.

Date-Almond Butter Caramel and Chocolate Tart

For the crust:

  • 1 ½ cups finely ground almonds
  • ½ cup toasted, shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp. coconut oil, melted
  • Pinch of salt

For the caramel filling:

  • 10 medjool dates, pitted and soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
  • 6 tbsp. almond butter
  • 6 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 4 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

For the chocolate ganache

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/3 cup light or regular coconut milk
  • Grade b maple syrup to taste (I used a 4-5 tablespoons)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients for the crust in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_171346[1]Mix together the coconut oil and maple syrup and then drizzle into the dry ingredients. Pulse this mixture until it begins to clump.

20130919_171358[1]20130919_171448[1]Press the crust into the bottom of a greased 9 or 10 in. tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant.

20130919_171729[1]20130919_173215[1]Cool the crust completely on a wire rack. I usually just refrigerate it for 20 minutes or so.

Prepare the caramel by combining the almond butter, maple syrup, coconut oil, vanilla and salt in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_172624[1]Add the drained, soaked dates and process until smooth. It may take a  few minutes.

20130919_174943[1]For the ganache, chop the chocolate and place it in a small bowl.

20130919_174301[1]Heat the coconut milk until it simmers, and then pour it over the chocolate. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes and then whisk until smooth.

20130919_175652[1]20130919_180016[1]Assemble the tart by spreading the caramel into the crust in an even layer.

20130919_174927[1]Refrigerate for a half hour or until the caramel begins to firm up. It will still be sticky, but it should be cool. Drizzle the chocolate ganache on top and voila! Scrumptious, candy-like tart.

20130920_052754[1]And there you have it, a delicious surprise that you can share with all of your gluten-free, vegan, or paleo friends. Nothing fake, no special ingredients, just good stuff that happens to be pretty good for you. Sort of. 😉

This whole experience has reminded me of the importance of creativity and ingenuity. I was so thankful once I began looking at the situation it through a different lens, and even though I know there’s nothing that will stop me from baking bread or craving pizza every so often, I can accept that by remembering that I can always cook, have a taste, and share with others. What an energizing lesson!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Share the Love: Breakfast Cake

12 Sep

A former colleague of my husband’s once said to him that it was foolish of me to bake for my coworkers so often. She claimed that my colleagues would not take me seriously. They would see me as nurturing, mothering, and not as an asset to the company itself. Not a professional.

Huh.

I thought that was some managerial psycho-babble right there. What’s the point of being an asset and doing your best work if you aren’t good to the people around you? What kind of feelings do you build up in your life? What kind of environment do you create if you aren’t welcoming?

Still, that idea struck me when I got laid off earlier this year. Maybe she was right. All summer, I wondered what I would do when I finally found a new job. I fretted over the idea of not being taken seriously. Even though I consider the blog a fine example of my writing skills, I considered removing it from my resume and LinkedIn profile.

Then I thought of the butter tarts and the Nanaimo bars that gave one colleague memories of home. The Happy Camper and FRACAS where I got to share my favorite things with the whole staff. The boerewors I made for my former boss when he couldn’t find it anywhere in DC.  The cider doughnuts I got up early to fry at least once each fall when suddenly DC turned crisp, orange, and gold. The multitude of morning coffees shared with people reaching into the infamous “Giant Cookie Jar,” and leaving with a smile and a thank-you.

I decided then and there that I would embrace my whole self. Wherever I ended up, I’d work hard to be a productive and driven member of the team, AND continue to share what I love.

What is one of the first things we learn in preschool and kindergarten? Sharing. Our smallest selves are taught that if we share with one another, the community as a whole benefits. It’s an enormous ripple effect; joy multiplies when we share. Sharing bonds us and can bring groups together that might otherwise never communicate. It teaches us to think beyond our own personal existence and consider our place as a citizen of the planet.

In other words, sharing is really important. And if it isn’t considered a professional asset to be willing to share (whether it be knowledge, caring, office supplies, time…), then I think we need a serious change of culture.

I did find a new job. In fact, of the 60ish I applied for, I interviewed for, and got the one I wanted the most. And during my first week at the office, an invitation went out for an in-office bridal shower. The party planner happened to be in my office and was discussing the expense involved in buying cupcakes for the party.

“How many do you need?”

And so it began. Inspired by my family’s favorite birthday cakes, I made four varieties that I knew would bring an extra shot of delicious to a celebration. And a tart too, so as to not leave our gluten-free and vegan friends hungry.

A version of Lynn’s Triple Coconut Cake all filled up with tangy lime curd…

coconut cakeRoger’s two joys in one; a red wine chocolate cake enrobed in bittersweet chocolate ganache…

chocolateJoe’s sunny lemon cake with blueberry filling, lemon cream cheese frosting, and candied lemon peel…

lemon cakeA rather decadent chocolate-coconut-macadamia tart with an almond-coconut crust that was both gluten-free and vegan…

tartAnd a tribute to my love of all things breakfast, this little number…

“Breakfast in Bed,” or Brown Butter Cake with Maple Buttercream and Praline Bacon

  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 3 1/2 tsp.  baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 2 tsp.  pure vanilla extract

First, melt the butter and allow it to brown lightly. Then return it to a small container and refrigerate until it has re-solidified completely. Do not skip re-solidifying! Adding melted butter to the cake batter will make for a very dense, sunken cake.

20130906_23380920130907_081156Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 12-well cupcake tins (or use paper liners).

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they are smooth and fluffy. Then add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well between each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract.

20130907_08162820130907_081724With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture (in three additions), and milk (in two additions), beginning and ending with the flour.

20130907_082050Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans, and then tap the pans gently on a counter to remove excess air bubbles.

20130907_082457Bake 23 to 25 minutes or until they are golden on top, and a slightly darker golden brown at the edges. They’ll have wonderfully crispy edges a la the pancakes at the ultimate palace of flapjacks, Pamela’s. Do not argue with me about Pamela’s pancake supremacy, you will not win. Important note: These do not rise a lot–they will not have high domes. The cake is still fluffy and moist inside, I assure you. If you really want the extra lift, you can add another tsp. of baking powder.

Place the cakes on a wire rack to cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, and then remove from the pan and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

Maple Buttercream

  • 8 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

To prepare the buttercream, combine all of the ingredients in a mixer on low speed until they are combined, and then beat on medium-high speed using a whisk attachment until creamy and fluffy. It will take 5-7 minutes.

20130908_08343220130908_084715Praline Bacon

  • 1 lb. sliced bacon
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ oz. pecans, toasted and ground

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Arrange the bacon in a single layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake the bacon for 20-30 minutes, or until it begins to brown.

Mix together the brown sugar and toasted pecans.

20130908_085332Remove the bacon from the oven and sprinkle the brown sugar / pecan mixture on the slices, pressing down lightly to make it adhere. Return the bacon to the oven and cook until crisp, about another 10 minutes.

20130908_08535220130908_091416Allow the bacon to cool completely before breaking into small pieces.

Finally, assemble the cupcakes. Pipe or spread the maple buttercream onto the cupcakes and sprinkle on the candied bacon.

20130908_094153It really is like eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon…only better!

The cupcakes went over very well at the party, and the best part is that sharing them helped me get to know my new coworkers better.

So what if people think you’re nurturing? The way I see it, if that’s the most negative thing someone can think of to say about you…you’re doing a pretty okay job on planet earth.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Tribute to the Pie Queen

9 Oct

My best friend at Northeastern U. was an incredible baker. You’d walk into her dormitory suite and be enveloped in the warm scent of apples, cinnamon, and buttery pastry. She was undoubtedly one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life, and never once hesitated to take care of those around her. My freshman year of college, I would be her kitchen helper when she made dinner for our friends once a week. Every week was a different theme; from Italian and Southern favorites to a night of American classics that ended in an epic powdered sugar fight. Outside of my family, she is the one person who truly inspired me to see cooking in that light. She’s one of the reasons I almost never bake anything without intending to give some of it away.

Eight years ago today I solo-baked my first layer cake and it was for her. My decorating skills were even less, um, elegant than they are now and I used M&Ms to spell out her name on top of the icing. We watched a Red Sox v. Yankees playoff game, drank, ate, and laughed our heads off with the rest of our friends the entire evening. That night is more vivid in my mind than almost any other from that year living on Columbus Avenue. I adored those friends, especially the skinny guy with the sandy blonde curls and bright yellow “Firefighters for Kerry” shirt who asked me out four days later. Who knew I’d be calling him my husband someday?

Every year when that first autumn chill hits my bones, I think of my friend and the incredible apple pie she would make for us at a moment’s notice. That inaugural Fall day was most certainly yesterday. Saturday was warm with puffy clouds in the sky and then BAM: 50 degrees and overcast on Sunday.

I only had two apples in the refrigerator. Damn. Pie was not to be, but all was not lost. A lonely package of thawed phyllo dough called out to me and the next thing I knew I was making origami folds with the paper thin sheets slicked with butter. It might not be pie, but the little pockets of goodness were certainly easy to transport and share with colleagues.

I think she’d be proud of me.

Apple Turnovers with Hazelnuts and Almonds

Okay, take a deep breath. You are going to tear several sheets of phyllo dough. Don’t worry about it. Either patch it with a dab of butter or just grab a fresh sheet from the box. To keep your phyllo pliable while you work with it, keep what you aren’t currently working with and covered with a damp towel.

  • 2 large apples. I used Rome apples this time and enjoyed them a lot.
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus extra for dusting finished pastry.
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 20 sheets phyllo dough (14 inches x 9 inches), thawed, unrolled and covered with a damp cloth.
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • ½ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts and almonds

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F.

Core, peel, and chop the apples. This kitchen toy is pretty awesome. I keep it around for when I make apple rings to dry or preserve. A $10 investment that will save you a massive amount of time unless you are Hiroyuki Sakai: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-xkL9DbwJc

Combine the apples, sugar, cinnamon, flour, and chopped nuts (if using) and set aside.

Now you are going to assemble and fold the dough exactly as you would do with the American flag. Here is a very clear video of the folding process. You don’t need to do the final fold at the edge and can finish with your original triangle pattern: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcOWc5EJbVo

Place one sheet of phyllo dough on a clean work surface and brush one half with butter. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise and then repeat the process of buttering and folding. You’ll have a long strip of dough.

Take about one tablespoon of the apple filling and put it at one end of the phyllo strip. Then, fold the edge over the filling at a 90 degree angle to form a triangle shape. Continue folding into triangles the whole way down the strip of dough. Place the finished turnover seam side down on a baking sheet.

Repeat the process until you run out of either dough or filling. If you are being really neat and meticulous about it, you could probably get two dozen turnovers out of this recipe.

Brush the finished turnovers with melted butter, sprinkle on some extra cinnamon and sugar, and then bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown at the edges and on the bottom. Move them to a cooling rack. Unlike pie, you can eat them right away without the fear of oozing pie goo being left in the pan and not on your plate.

So, an autumn tribute to the Pie Queen, who taught me that generosity is the greatest gift in the world and always made me feel that no matter how cold the Boston winters were, there would always be a place to go to be warm all over. Thank you, my friend.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Peach Prizewinner

11 Aug

It’s peach season! It’s peach season!

I went to the Foggy Bottom farmer’s market on Wednesday and loaded up a backpack full of them. Cut in half and roasted or grilled with a small pat of butter and a few tsp. of brown sugar in the hole where the pit used to be, they are perfect. Usually I eat one with a dollop of plain yogurt for a cool, tangy topping. If there’s any homemade granola around I’ll throw a spoonful of that on as well. It is the best summer dessert and I love that you can just make one serving.

Delicious little drupes.

Anyway with the Arlington County Fair going on this weekend, I thought making something with the most in-season fruit I could find was the best bet. But somehow I just got stuck. No recipes stood out to me and I finally just started pulling out ingredients in the kitchen and hoped that using some basic proportions would guide me along. We’re currently rich in bourbon that was either gifted to us or left over from the wedding. What could be better than bourbon and peaches? Bourbon, peaches and pecans, THAT’s what. If it will win anything at the fair, I can’t even guess. There are a lot of talented bakers in Arlington and only so many awards to go around. The greatest joy to me is seeing them disappear at work and having colleagues give them a thumbs-up.

Peach, Pecan and Bourbon Streusel Bars

Pastry:

  • 2.75 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped.
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into cubes.
  • 1 egg
  • 2-3 tbsp. bourbon
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg

Filling:

  • 2 peaches, peeled and sliced ¼ in.
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. bourbon

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and grease a 9×13 in. pan.

Toss the sliced peaches with the 1 tbsp. flour, 1 tbsp. brown sugar and 2 tsp. bourbon. Set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, grind the pecans into a coarse meal. Add the flour, sugar, spices, and baking powder and combine. Add the butter a few tbsp. at a time and process until the texture is mealy.
Beat together the egg and bourbon and then process into the dry ingredients just until the dough is a crumbly texture. Add more bourbon if extra liquid is necessary; an extra egg will make it too doughy.

Press half of the dough into the prepared pan and then top with a layer of sliced peaches. Crumble the remaining dough on top.


Bake for 30 minutes or until the top and edges are lightly browned.

Cool completely (overnight is preferable) before cutting into 24 squares.
Store squares in a sealed container between layers of wax paper and refrigerate.
In between the time I wrote, edited and prepared this post, I got this:

What a weekend!

Ciao for now friends,

Neen