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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

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Game Night Snacks: Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

17 May

I had some pizza dough in the fridge recently that I needed to use and it got me thinking about creating a savory version of the Cinnamon Rosettes on this blog. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are also going on and the Pens are in the Eastern Conference Finals, so I’ve also got stadium snacks, bar food, and Pittsburgh on the brain. That led me to one natural conclusion. Let’s flip the script for…

Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pizza dough, homemade or store-bought. Recipe here!
  • 12-15 slices pepperoni
  • 4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 oz. pecorino romano cheese
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • Optional: ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

Roll out the pizza dough into a rectangle about 12 x 15 in.

Melt the butter with the herbs and spices, and then brush onto the pizza dough, leaving a small seam at the bottom.

Layer on the mozzarella cheese and most of the pecorino romano cheese (reserve some for the tops of the rolls).

Add a layer of pepperoni.

Roll the pizza dough toward you slowly, jellyroll style, and pinch the edges together to seal.

Place the roll seam side down on a cutting board and slice into 12 equal pieces.

Put each roll into a muffin tin cup and then sprinkle additional pecorino romano cheese on top.

Bake 25-27 minutes or until golden brown on top. Move the rolls to a wire cooling rack and serve warm with marinara sauce for dipping.

These are really delicious the day they are made, but they also reheat well. Just put them back in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

Ciao for now (and let’s go Pens!),

Neen

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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Stop for Science (again!): Gluten-Free Soft Pretzels

6 Nov

Regular readers of this blog will recall my Home Alone style dash through the Frankfurt airport, induced by the scent of warm soft pretzels (laugenbrezel!), and the subsequent foray into the chemistry that gives us this glorious bread. Ah yes, we donned our gloves and surgical masks together, avoided recreating any particularly cringe-worthy scenes from Fight Club, and discovered that sometimes you have to be a little brave to make the magic happen.

It appears that suddenly the rest of the world has discovered that pretzels are that good, because it seems like every restaurant is offering sandwiches on pretzel buns now. The nerve! Yes, restaurant industry, thanks for waiting until I went gluten-free to shove advertisements for pretzel rolls in my face at every turn. But it’s like they say: Don’t get mad, get even.

And I found the perfect opportunity on a chilly Sunday over the weekend to do just that. With leftover mornay sauce from the previous night’s macaroni and cheese just begging to be reheated as cheese dip, clearly, it was time to take back the pretzel.

The process for making gluten-free pretzels is pretty similar to making traditional pretzels. There are some differences in the dry ingredients in order to add more acid and give the dough that chewy tenderness, but the main difference I found is purely tactile. The gluten-free dough feels much less stiff, so it took more care and a lighter touch to roll it out. I’d recommend keeping a little bowl of sweet rice flour nearby to flour your hands with, because it’s pretty likely that the warmth from your hands will make the dough stick to them otherwise. The other main difference is kind of awesome: only one rise! So basically, you get your pretzels twice as fast. Hallelujah!

Gluten Free Soft Pretzels

  • 3 1/4 cups gluten-free flour blend (here’s mine!), plus ¼ – ½ cup extra
  • 1 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
  • ½ cup dry buttermilk powder
  • 1 package rapid-rise or instant yeast
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. dark brown sugar or barley malt syrup
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. rice vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 ½ cups warm water, about 110 degrees
  • 1 oz. food grade lye
  • Coarse salt or pretzel salt
  • Plastic gloves, safety goggles, vinegar, and nonreactive pans and utensils.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.

Combine the flour blend, xanthan gum, buttermilk powder, yeast, cream of tartar, baking soda, brown sugar, and salt in a large bowl and mix well.

20131103_074135Add the vinegar, butter, and egg whites to the dry ingredients and mix well, then add the water in a slow steady stream. Once all of the water has been added, turn the mixer to a high speed and mix for 2-3 minutes. The dough will be loose and wet.

20131103_075122Turn the mixer speed down to low and add flour 1 tbsp. at a time just until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. It will still be quite tacky. Use a dough scraper to turn the dough out onto a silpat or lightly floured board, then knead lightly until smooth. Divide it into 12-16 equal pieces, depending on how large you would like the rolls to be. From here, you can either roll the dough into balls OR roll out into thin ropes and form into the traditional pretzel shape.

20131103_08033420131103_08041120131103_080414Set the rolls onto the prepared baking sheet, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and allow them to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. They will puff up, but will not quite double in size.

Now it’s time for the lye bath. Put on your gloves and safety goggles, and wipe down the surface of your workstation with plain white vinegar. Keep a small glass of vinegar nearby to neutralize any spills of the lye solution.

20130807_115440Measure one quart of cool water into a nonreactive saucepan. Slowly add one ounce of food grade lye and stir gently to dissolve. ALWAYS add the lye to the water and not the water to the lye. Doing it the other way around may cause the lye to react and combust.

20130807_131512Dip each pretzel in the lye solution for 30 seconds and then place back on the parchment-lined baking sheet using a slotted spoon. When finished, wipe down any surfaces that may have come into contact with lye with a vinegar soaked rag, and then with warm soap and water.

Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and then let them rest while the oven is preheating.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the pretzels for 20-30 minutes or until they are a deep golden brown.

20131103_09294320131103_09295220131103_093145 Cool completely on a wire rack prior to storing.

To save pretzels for later enjoyment, wrap individual pretzels in plastic wrap and then put them in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator or freezer. These reheat beautifully in the toaster or toaster oven, so you don’t have to worry about the leftovers going to waste. Perfect for slider-style sandwiches, cheese dip, mustard, or just alongside a cup of coffee, they are a hit out of the park.

So the next time some chain restaurant’s advertisement comes blaring through your television or radio praising their “artisan,” “hand-crafted,” or “revolutionary” pretzel buns… remember that you’ve totally got the power to make them even better.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Reclaiming Picnic Fare: Hot Dogs

13 Aug

Anytime I attend a barbecue or a sporting event and someone is grilling hot dogs, there are inevitably one or two people who mention that they don’t eat them. It’s not because of vegetarianism or taste, “I’m just grossed out by what might be in there.”

Fair enough. Hot dogs are, after all, a meat emulsion. And if some cheap processor was feeling Sweeney Todd enough, he or she could put pretty much any part of the cow or pig into the sausage without the customer being much the wiser. And the sad fact is that even when the meat is of decent quality, processors often use a significant amount of filler. Consider that 3 oz. of short rib meat (separable lean) contains 26 grams of protein, and then look at a package of decent quality kosher beef hot dogs. Most are 2 oz., yet contain only between 6-10 grams of protein. What that tells me is that I’m eating mostly fat and filler…and we can do better, don’t you think?

Since Labor Day is coming up and it’s the perfect moment for a picnic, let’s rescue the humble hot dog and make it a sausage you’re proud to serve your guests. Plus, you’ll be the best friend of pregnant women everywhere who have been banned from eating pre-packaged hot dogs due to the risk of listeria and other bacteria.

The secret to hot dogs, as with most sausages, is getting the right ratio of meat to fat. Fortunately the cow in all of its glory has a cut that achieves this balance perfectly (and inexpensively in most cases): The short rib. And don’t discard the bones! They make excellent beef stock.

All Beef Hot Dogs

Adapted from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

  • 2 ½ lbs. beef short rib meat (you’ll need about 4 lbs. of short ribs to get this amount), diced and chilled
  • ½ oz.  kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. pink curing salt
  • 1 cup ice water
  • 1 tbsp. dry mustard powder
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. toasted ground coriander
  • ½ tsp. white pepper
  • 1 tbsp. finely minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp. light corn syrup
  • About 5 ft. worth of sheep casings, soaked in lukewarm water for at least a half hour

Begin by grinding the meat using the smallest dye you have.

Mix the ground meat with the salt, pink salt, and water, then mix by hand to distribute the salts throughout the meat. Cover and refrigerate this mixture for 24-48 hours.

Add the mustard powder, smoked paprika, coriander, white pepper, garlic, and corn syrup to the beef and salt, and mix well.

20130713_130519Spread the meat mixture onto a baking sheet in one even layer. Freeze for a half hour, or until the meat is stiff but not frozen solid.

20130713_130515Regrind the mixture and again spread it onto a baking sheet and freeze until the meat is stiff, about a half hour.

20130713_131252Now it’s time to process the mixture into a uniform paste. The most important part of this step is to not let the meat get too warm. I processed this amount of meat in two batches; use brief pulses until a smooth consistency is reached.

20130713_134903Find the opening at the end of the casing and rinse through with cool water. To stuff the sausages, I used the attachment for my mixer with the smallest tube (5/8 in.). Grease the tube with a small amount of oil and shimmy on the casing. Tie off the end and have a sterilized pin nearby to prick out any air bubbles or pockets that form during stuffing. For a detailed, photographic tutorial of sausage stuffing, see my earlier post on how to make boerewors.

Feed the hot dog mixture slowly into the casings, taking care not to overstuff. Go slowly enough to ensure even thickness throughout. Once you’ve filled the casing, go back and smooth out the rope of sausage, check for evenness, and twist into 6 in. links. How many links you get will depend on the diameter of the casing and the thickness of the sausage. Prick the casings all over with the pin.

20130713_143353Let’s get smooooooookin’! I used applewood chips in my stovetop smoker and hot smoked the hot dogs until they reached an internal temperature of 150 degrees. While the hot dogs are smoking, prepare an ice bath large enough to chill the whole batch. Once they have reached 150 degrees, move the hot dogs directly to the ice bath and chill completely. This step helps finalize that characteristic hot dog texture on the inside and gives the casing that nice *snap* when you bite into it.

I store hot dogs in vacuum sealed bags, but well-wrapped in wax paper they will last in the refrigerator for about a week. They also freeze well, but thaw completely before broiling, simmering, or grilling.

20130714_083339Joe and I are purists when it comes to hot dogs. We usually forgo the buns altogether and eat these with a few squirts of good old Heinz ketchup. Every once in a while though, I go full ballpark: Steamed bun, finely diced blanched onion, pickle relish, and mustard. Yum.

Oh, and fellow DC / NoVA residents…want a half-smoke? Simply replace half of the short rib meat with diced pork shoulder and amp up the spices with some chili powder, cayenne pepper, and hot paprika. You’ll feel like you’re on U Street or at Nationals Park in no time.

Be the genius at your Labor Day picnic when you say, “I’ll bring the hot dogs!” When friends get a taste of that perfectly emulsified sausage full of rich short rib meat, spices, and smoky flavor, they won’t be able to resist having one…or three. Plus, your well-fed guests receive a heap of protein and iron, making you a culinary hero all around.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Zen Balance of Maple-Cured Smoked Bacon

16 Jul

Talk about a hiatus, eh? Well, Neen has not abandoned her Notes, but the last few weeks have been a little bit tricky. My last week at the Folger was the epitome of bittersweet, and frankly I’ll admit that I’m still grappling with what and who I am now. It sounds strange; I never thought that I was so attached to seeing myself as Associate Production Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.

Now Im the boss. That is beyond weird. Yes, the individual who hates being bossy or delegating tasks was suddenly thrust into the bizarre managerial scenario of being her own boss. And though I’m not perfect at it, I’m getting the hang of keeping my days busy and varied. I do crave a little bit of structure, which is on the horizon in the form of a recent acceptance into Tufts’ graduate certificate program in nutrition science for communications professionals, and (provided the application and interview process go well) beginning yoga teacher training in the fall at Pure Prana.

Where I’m headed with my career is vaguer. I write new letters and apply for jobs every day, but nothing has leapt off of the page at me yet. So part of what I am hoping to do through these personal and professional development courses is figuring out what exactly I’d like to be next. I’ve already decided that I don’t want my identity to hinge on it…who I am is Neen.  And pigeon-holing a person, or boiling down their essence to a single occupation? Well…that seems oversimplified to say the very least.

But there are some constants and certainties in life, and one of those is surely cooking. It has remained (along with family) as my home base, my safe place throughout this entire internal earthquake. It has been where I manage to find a center…and so what recipe more appropriate to share with you than the sweet-salty balancing of over-the-top-crazy-good MAPLE BACON.

My last few days at the office were full of last-minute trips to my favorite walkable spots on the Hill, and especially to Eastern Market. I decided to make some duck prosciutto (recipe here) and try out my new Cameron stovetop smoker on a batch of maple bacon. After acquiring the necessary animal parts at Union Meat (thanks guys!), I stopped to talk to Mrs. Calomiris and she as always sent me on my way with an armload of the perfect accompaniments, and an extra banana and a handful of cherries (“for your walk back to the office”). I felt rejuvenated after that trip, and ready to forge ahead with so many of the food projects I’d put off due to lack of time. So yes, while I haven’t written to you recently…oh, I have been cooking. And rest assured that this “so-good-it’s-gonna-make-you-swear” bacon is just the first of many treats to come.

Maple Cured Smoked Bacon

  • 5 lb. pork belly, skin on
  • 2 oz. kosher salt
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. pink curing salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I used a citrus pepper blend)
  • ¼ cup dark grade b maple syrup

Combine the kosher salt, brown sugar, pink salt, and black pepper, and mix well. Add the maple syrup and stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

20130612_17185520130612_171934Trim the pork belly until it is as uniformly shaped as possible. This is important because you want the cure to penetrate the meat evenly. Place the trimmed pork belly in a snug-fitting nonreactive baking dish. I used a 9×13 in. pyrex baking pan, but the pan you use will be dependent on the size and shape of your piece of meat.

20130612_172003Rub the meat thoroughly with the cure on all sides.

20130612_172401Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and press down to remove as much air as possible. Move the dish to the refrigerator and allow the belly to cure for one week, flipping it every other day to redistribute the cure.

The bacon is cured when the meat is firm to the touch at the thickest point. If it still feels squishy at the end of a week, flip it and allow it to cure for another 24 hours. This belly took 8 days to fully cure. Once the meat feels firm, rinse and pat dry and move it to a wire rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours. This will allow the surface of the meat to develop a sticky pellicle for the important forthcoming smoky goodness to adhere to.

Now, if you have an outdoor smoker you’ll want to preheat it to about 250 degrees. I used an indoor stovetop smoker set over medium heat. For this batch, I selected applewood chips to add a little bit of fruitiness to the caramel-y molasses flavors in the brown sugar and maple syrup cure.

9299857471_6773c4974b_bSmoke until the belly reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees and then allow it to cool completely before attempting to slice.

9299823731_80b87f011f_b9299844553_eda8328fcf_bGo ahead and slice it down yourself if you’re feeling like Chef Sakai. Me? I sought the excellent helpful hands of the folks at Springfield Butcher. For a more than reasonable $7 fee, they sliced the whole belly down for me and I had over 4 lbs. of perfectly even slices to share with family over our vacation trip to Fenwick Island.

9302600758_fbfc61dd8e_b9302584984_d72cf909bf_b9302554436_55faeb656f_b20130624_075909Verdict? Salty, sweet, deep caramel richness, and a fruity smoky finish. Well-rounded to the point of reaffirming my belief that finding balance in the kitchen is just a step away from translating it to other facets of life. Nobody has everything figured out, and even if someone did…wouldn’t that be kind of boring and predictable? I think I’ll keep looking for and refining the edges, because like the yogis always tell me: When you fall out of an inversion or a balancing posture, just reset your foundation and try again. Falling just means you’re reaching for something new.

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Something better.

Ciao for now,

Neen