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Belated Birthday Post: Cinnamon Cupcakes with Toasted Italian Meringue

1 Aug

When I woke up on my birthday last month, I had a strange lack of ingredients in the house. Less than a stick of butter, no powdered sugar, and no milk specifically. Not ideal for someone wanting to make birthday cake with frosting, but certainly by no means an impossible task.

What I came up with was actually pretty delicious and reminded me a lot of a cake I used to make for Joe a lot when we were first dating. As for the icing, normally I’m a buttercream kinda lady, but toasted Italian meringue may have won my heart over. It was light and crisp on the outside, and soft and marshmallow-y inside. A perfect companion for this warm, spicy cinnamon cake.

Cinnamon Cupcakes with Toasted Italian Meringue

Cake Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 3 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 whole egg and two egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

Italian Meringue Ingredients and Recipe Here

Method:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease 12 muffin cups or line with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking powder and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or using a hand blender, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the whole egg and egg yolks one at a time, mixing between additions and scraping down the bowl. Then add the almond extract.

With the mixer on low speed, alternate adding the yogurt and the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, scraping the bowl between additions, until everything is just combined.

Divide the batter evenly among the cups.

Bake for 23-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.

To frost, spoon or pipe the meringue on top of the cupcakes and then place under a broiler for 15-30 seconds or use a blow torch to lightly brown the meringue.

These were a pretty delicious way to celebrate #32, I have to say. I bet they’d be great with other toppings too, like maple buttercream, or a crisp brown sugar and oat crumble. Give them a try soon!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.

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Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.

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Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

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After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:

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This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.

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Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!

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Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


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Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Sweet Simplicity: Chocolate Chip Scones

15 Sep

There are some dishes I make so frequently that I never bother to photograph them. That got me thinking the other day about lost recipes. The sort of everyday things that become second nature, that we think unworthy of photographing or calling attention to. But if we don’t teach or tell others how to do these things, they’re completely lost to time. Imagine that; a dish that might never live again until some unwitting cook elsewhere dreams it up again.

So this is one of the recipes that I make probably every other week or so, and one you can make and customize with whatever you have in the house.

Chocolate-Chip Scones

Yield: 8 scones

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder (aluminum –free is best)
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 oz. butter, chilled and cubed
  • ½ cup of cold buttermilk (or make your own by squeezing half a lemon into ½ cup 2% milk)
  • ½ cup chocolate chips (or berries, dried fruits, nuts…etc.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and kosher salt in a large bowl or food processor.

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Add the chilled butter, and process or cut the butter in to the dry ingredients until the mixture has a pebbly, sandy texture.

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Add the buttermilk and mix just until the dough forms large clumps.

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Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and mix in the chocolate chips (or addition of your choice) by hand. Then pat the dough into a circle about ¾ in. thick.

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Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut the circle into 8 triangles and then arrange them on a baking sheet with a couple of inches in between each.

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Bake for 15 minutes or until the bottoms are golden brown and the tops are just lightly golden.

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Scones, like most quick breads, are best consumed the day they are made. That said, I’ve revived these in the toaster for many breakfasts, so they’re definitely still tasty a day later. My favorite additions aside from chocolate chips are blueberries and of course the classic dried currants. Don’t want to add anything? Then don’t! They’re great plain with a pat of butter, too.

So that’s it really. Go forth and make delicious scones!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.

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Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.

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Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

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Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.

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I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

Graham Crackers (and S’mores!)

23 Aug

Sometimes, you find your 31 year old self needing the comforts of childhood: Cartoons and s’mores. After a particularly long week recently, I asked a couple of friends to come over and watch Batman cartoons with me and wind down.

It’s hard not going into full-on hostess mode when people come over. But I really just wanted to hang out with my friends. Can’t hide in the kitchen the whole time, Neen. So I decided the local Thai place would make dinner and I’d only put myself on the hook for dessert.

I thought s’mores would be pretty fun for a summer evening, so I made a batch of marshmallows (recipe here), a batch of chocolate ganache, and some graham crackers.  I know the typical s’mores chocolate is a good old fashioned Hershey bar, but the ganache was definitely tastier and meltier.

Easy Chocolate Ganache

  • 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or coconut milk for dairy-free)

Put the semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl. Bring the heavy cream just to a boil, and then pour it over the chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes, and then whisk until smooth. It will be very liquid, but will set up and become spreadable as it cools down.

The last step was making the graham crackers, which is really more like making pastry dough than a cookie or biscuit. I’ve made graham crackers a lot of different ways, but this is my personal favorite recipe for ones that are crisp, and juuust sweet enough.

Graham Crackers

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar (or 1 cup granulated sugar blended with 3 tbsp. molasses)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
  • 1/3 cup honey or maple syrup. For this batch I used half and half!
  • 5 tbsp. cold milk
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • granulated sugar for sprinkling

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.

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Add the butter a few cubes at a time and pulse until the mixture is sandy. You can also do this by hand with a pastry cutter or the tines of two forks.

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In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey/maple syrup, milk, and vanilla extract.

Slowly add the wet ingredients to dry and mix until a cohesive dough forms.

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Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into discs, and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm enough to roll.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a baking mat.

Roll out one half of the dough until it is 1/8 in. thick and then cut out crackers. I used a 2-in. fluted round cutter for these.  Move the crackers to the prepared baking sheet, dock with a fork (this keeps them from puffing up) and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar.

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Bake the crackers for about 15-20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Then move to a wire rack to cool.

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We intended to use my little butane torch to toast the marshmallows (no campfire here, alas). It was out of fuel though, so Joe quickly improvised while at the grocery store and bought a sterno. We lit it and toasted our marshmallows using the chopsticks from dinner as skewers. Honestly, it was a pretty great way to spend an evening with friends. I’m glad to have people in my life who are content to laugh, eat a bunch of gooey marshmallows, and have a good time.

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Neen’s Notes is BACK (with cookies)!

16 Jan

Almost a year after quietly fading away, here I am. So what happened?

Life.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Okay, you want details. After I finished yoga teacher training at the end of March 2014, there was a void. It was a steady, dull ache that huddled in my heart and reminded me constantly of how much I missed the long weekends learning about yoga with kind souls. I grasped at every opportunity I could to take classes from my friends (now amazing yoga teachers!), but I couldn’t get grounded. Things at work were really challenging. The organization where I worked had gone through huge transitions in procedures and leadership, and the growing pains got more palpable with time. Every time one fire started to die out, another blazed in its place. There was sadness within me that I couldn’t shake, but I did my best to keep grinding forward.

As we do each spring, Joe and I made our grand return to Boston for PAX East in April and that was when everything started to change. While we were away, two local studios emailed me and offered me yoga teaching jobs, and one of them offered to hire me to do some writing work for their website and blog. That night I was sitting at a panel event hosted by the team from Giant Bomb. All of the panelists and their guests were having fun—they’d found a way to take their joy and make a living doing it. I decided that night to leave my office job.

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

The next few months were an insane experiment. At the beginning, I only had one or two classes a week that were permanent, so I took substitute teaching positions as often as possible. I spent the rest of my time writing about yoga for a studio blog, and studying therapeutic yoga as a way to expand and continue my training. I wrote class plans, built a website, found a graphic designer to create a logo, started developing a social media presence on Instagram and YouTube, and began to teach myself the ways of Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing (oh we have a ways to go together). And I read. I devoured yoga books, always looking for things to share with my students.

It was not and is not a linear experience. In July, the studio that hired me to write for their blog decided to take their student outreach in a different direction, and at the same time another studio cancelled two of my classes because of low attendance. I was crushed. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for this. I was having some health issues too, and felt frustrated and overwhelmed by everything.

I started to really question myself and did some serious svadhyaya (self-reflection in yoga practice). They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it is also the creator of doubt. I saw my friends in crazy arm balances and strength poses that I didn’t have in my practice and thought, “I can’t offer that to my students. How can I possibly be a good yoga teacher?”

The answer came quietly: You do you.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t there, I remembered my friends during teacher training telling me that they wished they could just lay in savasana and listen to my voice. It is round, rich, and warm. It is probably my favorite quality about my physical self. So I started using that—sharing a soft chant while students were in a restorative pose or reading a poem during our break between standing and seated poses. People smiled. They thanked me for an experience.

I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mindset. I was intimidated when I came to yoga by all of the strength and flexibility around me. The teachers I returned to were those who took that away, the ones who offered variations so everyone could try something, and who encouraged students to own their practice. Those are the people I thought, and still think of, when I stand at the front of the room. I decided (rather radically for me) to love myself unconditionally. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said.

When I let go of trying to be what I thought I needed to be, my confidence grew. I was me when I stood up, and not anyone else. Sure, teachers beg, borrow, and steal cues from one another all the time. That’s the amazing thing about yoga—there is always, always, always something more to learn. Part of the reason I love social media is because the Instagram community is chock full of talented, smart yogis who share their journeys. It makes me feel so connected and whole knowing that we are all in this together, all working together.

And here it is, 2015. I finished my graduate certificate in nutrition in the fall, I’m teaching yoga seven days a week, and have learned to just ride this wave. Classes will ebb and flow, but there is always more to learn and there is always an outlet to share it with others. I’m making my own way and living life on my own terms. It is not always easy and I do still feel twinges of doubt or the urge to control, but more and more I am learning to breathe through it. Life happens one moment at a time.

The universe has put me exactly where I need to be, and I trust that. I have faith. I am welcoming it in, and I hope you’ll join me.

And because this is, after all, Neen’s Notes, I also have cookies!

Over 6 years of Notes, and I never shared my favorite cookie recipe with you: Shortbread. Shame on me.

How lame is that? The truth is that it’s such a simple recipe that I never thought to share it. And then I was making a batch last week and thought that of all the things I make, it is pretty much the embodiment of those words: You do you. (Well, me doing me, but that sounds strange.)

Why? A few reasons. First of all, it’s pretty much pie dough with a slightly different method. And if you know anything about this blog, you know my love for pastry dough runs deep. Secondly, it’s four ingredients that I always have in the house. That’s it. And third of all, in encapsulates my loves of recipe manipulation and kitchen science, because I tried a whooooooole lot of shortbread recipes (tough job), and then made up my own based on knowing exactly what I was trying to achieve in terms of texture and flavor. For me, the perfect shortbread is crisp, but flaky on the inside.

Let’s do it.

Crisp Shortbread Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 4.5 oz. (9 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Heavy ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • *Optional: 2 tbsp. corn starch. Adding cornstarch to your flour will make these ultra-snappy and crispy. Especially ideal if you want to use these as sandwich cookies or plan to ice them. It gives them sturdiness without making them tough.
  • *Optional: Sprinkles!
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Team Shortbread

Method:

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the flour and salt (and cornstarch if using it) in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth.

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Nice and fluffy, buy you can taste to be “sure”.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing slowly and just until pieces of dough start to adhere together. Pour this on to a clean surface.

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Bring the dough together with your hands and knead just until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

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Smooth and ready to wrap/roll.

Lightly flour a counter and roll the dough out until it’s about a 1/4 in. thick, and cut out shapes as desired. I used a fluted 1 ½ in. biscuit cutter and got 2 dozen cookies.

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Any shape will work, but if there are a lot of fine edges, roll the dough a bit thicker.

Put the cookies on a baking sheet with about ½ in. of space between them. They won’t spread very much. Here you can add sprinkles if you like.

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Ready to bake.

Bake the cookies on a rack in the middle of the oven for about 17 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden.

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Ta-da!

Enjoy!

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Sparkling shortbread, yum.

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Mmm, so flaky inside.

 And that is the delicious, and dare I say very happy, return of Neen’s Notes. It’s good to be back.

Ciao for now,

Neen