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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

Pruning a Process: Turtle Caramels

23 Aug

I made some pecan turtles recently. For the uninitiated, turtles are groups of 5 pecans topped with caramel that glues them together, that are then covered with melted chocolate to create the “shell.” They are so, SO good.

While they were exceptionally delicious, they were, well…a bit of a task. First of all, you need a lot of space to put together all of the little clusters of nuts on sheet pans, then you need to not only cook the caramel to a precise temperature, but also shock and cool it down to a specific temperature. Then you can glue the nut clusters together with said caramel, wait, melt the chocolate, and put the shells on. It’s a messy process that left dribbles of caramel and melted chocolate all over my counter tops, and also left me looking for somewhere to store multiple sheet pans of drying candy.

There’s a better way. For REAL. Literally the only benefit to doing the process that way is that they look like little turtles when they’re done. There is a far simpler way to get all of the same textures and flavors while removing a lot of the steps and pans. Much less candy thermometer stress too. And they’ll still be pretty…not that your taste buds will care. They will be far too busy enjoying the fruits of your not-so-hard labor.

Turtle Caramels

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 oz. (8 tbsp.) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • One 12 oz. can evaporated milk
  • 6 oz. pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 16 oz. dark chocolate OR dark chocolate compound coating. I used Ghiardelli Dark Chocolate Melting Wafers for this batch because it is VERY humid and I didn’t feel like tempering chocolate. Not as shiny of a finish, but equally good in flavor. Wilton Candy Melts work well too and can be easily found at craft stores.
  • Sea salt flakes (optional, but tasty!)

Line an 8×8 in. baking pan with parchment paper so that there is an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

To make the caramel, combine the sugar, butter, corn syrup, and kosher salt in a saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil.

Once boiling, add the evaporated milk slowly, a little bit at a time over the course of 10 minutes. It’s going to bubble and hiss after each addition, which is why it is important to take your time.

After all of the milk has been added, cook while stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chopped pecans.

Pour the mixture into the prepared 8×8 in. pan and let cool completely. It will take several hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Once cool, cut the pecan caramels into squares using a pizza wheel or very sharp scissors.

Next, it’s time to coat the caramels. If you are using dark chocolate, melt 75% of it over a double boiler over low heat and then add the remaining 25% off the heat. Stir until all of the chocolate is melted. If you are using the melting wafers or other compound coating, simply melt all of it in a double boiler over low heat while stirring. Don’t have a double boiler? Neither do I. I use a mixing bowl set in a steamer insert over a few inches of water that is not touching the bottom of the bowl.

Put one square of pecan caramel on a fork and dip it in the chocolate, coating it completely. Shake the fork gently to allow the excess to drip off and then carefully move it to the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with a few sea salt flakes (if using).

Repeat until you have coated all of the caramels.

Once the chocolate has set, you can store the squares in an airtight container between layers of parchment or wax paper.

Crunchy toasted pecans suspended in rich, creamy caramel all wrapped up in a chocolate shell, and finished with just a touch of salt to balance the sweetness. All the delicious goodness of a turtle with half of the steps and pans. And this way, you get some of everything in each bite.

Simplified for sooner sharing, these undercover turtles are sure to bring smiles all around. And that’s the part of the process that really matters anyway.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Practice and Patience: (Award-Winning!) Pecan Pie

16 Aug

One of the things I don’t mention enough on this blog is how many iterations recipes go through before I post them here. I want to make all of the mistakes and find better, more efficient ways to do things so that you don’t have to go through that process. There is so much clumsy struggle behind pretty results sometimes.

And that is the case with the pecan pie we’re going to make today. I have had it all happen. Melted crust, over-browned crust, greasy crust, soggy bottom crust, soupy filling, over-set filling, sunken top…you name it, I’ve been visited by it at some point. Every time I’d make this pie, there would be a dozen notes added to whatever caramel and butter stained piece of paper the recipe was printed on. One day, it came out just so. It sliced so beautifully, the filling set, but not too firm. The crust was delicate, but sturdy enough to accommodate the weight of the filling, and the whole crust was golden with not a burnt spot in sight. Immediately I made sure that the recipe was written down, complete with method notes. Obsessive? Maybe.

But it turns out a beautiful, delectable pecan pie every time. I’ve streamlined the process a lot, and though there’s a bit of time spent with the crust, it’s mostly just patiently waiting for it to chill between steps.

Let’s bake!

Pecan Pie

Crust  

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter (very cold)
  • 2-3 tbsp. ice water

Filling

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 4 eggs (well beaten)
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 4 cups toasted pecan halves (chop 2 cups of these)

 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In the bowl of a food processor combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter and pulse until the pieces are pea sized and smaller.

Sprinkle on 2 tbsp. of the ice water and pulse the dough just until it adheres together when pinched between fingers.

If too dry, sprinkle on more water and pulse again. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, and chill for 30 min.

Roll dough out between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a 12” circle and then move to a baking sheet and chill for 10 min.

Peel back the top piece of parchment and gently fold the pie dough over a rolling pin. This will help you lay it in the pan without stretching.

Fit the dough into 9 in. pan and trim edges, flute or crimp as desired. Freeze the crust for 15 minutes to firm it thoroughly.

Line the pan with a piece of parchment and pour in a bag of dried beans to use as weights. Bake with weights for 15 minutes, then remove weights and parchment and bake for another 10 min. Move crust to a wire rack while you prepare the filling.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Melt the butter over medium-low heat and then cook, stirring, until it is lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, salt and cinnamon, then add eggs and whisk until smooth.

Slowly pour butter into the sugar mixture, and whisk to combine.

Stir the chopped pecans.

Pour the filling into pie crust.

Line the top of the filling with the remaining pecan halves in concentric circles. Cover the edges of the pie with aluminum foil or a pie shield to prevent over-browning.

Bake for about 50-60 min., or until the filling is just set. Start checking for doneness right at 50 minutes. The filling will jiggle a little bit but should not be sloshy. Cool completely before cutting.

Why no slice here? Well, this one was headed to the county fair, but I’ll try to get a picture of it cut when I go to the fair this weekend.

Update: This pie made me the GRAND CHAMPION of the baking competition at the 2018 Arlington County Fair!

The way I see it, all of this is play and creativity. And if you approach cooking that way, you’ll never stress over the messes, accidents, or mishaps. You’ll just write yourself a note and fix it next time. Just wait for it and always, always keep learning. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon that perfect bite. And it will be so worth it.

Ciao for now,

Neen

One Night in NOLA: Salted Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Caramel Swirl

10 Aug

I don’t eat ice cream very often. I’ve made vanilla and cookies and cream versions for Joe, but usually I have a spoonful and leave it at that. I’m more of a pie and pastry person when it comes to sweets. When I think back to many birthday parties over the years, I’ve never wanted a scoop of ice cream with my cake.

But I have my moments. The craving hits every once in a while and always for the same flavor: butter pecan. And the way I see it, if you are going to treat yourself to ice cream, you should go all the way and make it everything you want. As many of my recipes are, this one is born from a memory.

Seven Junes ago, Joe proposed to me a few days before a trip to New Orleans with my family. When we arrived in NOLA, we surprised everyone with the news, and what was already set to be a fun vacation became even more celebratory and special.

The first night there was, as expected, hot and muggy. We made our way through the French Quarter to a tiny restaurant called Green Goddess. We had an excellent meal, but for one time in my whole life, it was an ice cream dessert I ordered there that embedded itself in my brain. It was a sundae consisting of butter pecan ice cream, a caramel sauce, candied bacon, and whipped cream. And it was unreal. The ice cream was perfectly creamy and packed with buttery toasted pecans, the caramel sauce was dark and rich, and the candied bacon was smoky, salty, crunchy, and sweet. The cloud of homemade, not-too-sweet whipped cream on top was the perfect finish.

So when I got my annual(?) ice cream craving, I thought about just making butter pecan, but then I thought back to that sundae and decided it needed a caramel swirl right through the ice cream along with some crispy, salty pecans. Go all the way, right?

The best part about this ice cream is that it’s really not fussy (no egg tempering!), and all of the components can be made in advance. For me, that’s really excellent. My energy level since being diagnosed with RA has been erratic at best, so recipes that allow me to do things at my own pace are especially valuable to me.

Obviously, you will need an ice cream maker of some kind to make this recipe. Whether you roll a ball or use a electric countertop model, you’ll turn out some great ice cream. Let’s get churning!

Salted Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Caramel Swirl

Ice Cream Base

  • 1 cup cold whole milk
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups cold heavy cream
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract or 1/3 vanilla bean, split and scraped

Salted Buttered Pecans

  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • ¾ tsp. salt

Caramel Swirl

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 7 tbsp. heavy cream
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt

Method

To make the ice cream base, whisk together milk and brown sugar until brown sugar is dissolved.

Stir in heavy cream and vanilla extract or vanilla bean pulp. I also throw the empty vanilla pod in.

Pour into a lidded container (or cover the bowl) and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, though I usually let it go overnight.

To make the buttered pecans, melt the butter in a skillet. Add pecans and salt to the pan, and cook over medium low heat until pecans are browned and fragrant, about 8-10 minutes.

Remove from heat, strain off the excess butter (and save that pecan butter! It’s so good on pancakes), and spread the pecans on a foil lined baking sheet to cool.

Cool completely before use.

To make the caramel, using a heavy bottomed saucepan, bring the sugar, corn syrup, and water to a boil over medium heat, stirring just until sugar is dissolved.

Then boil mixture, without stirring, but gently swirling pan, until the syrup turns a deep amber color. Be careful, it goes from golden to burnt quickly. I like to swirl on and off the heat to keep the syrup nice and even in color.

Remove pan from heat and carefully pour in the cream and vanilla extract. The mixture will bubble up and harden a bit. Return it to the heat and simmer mixture, stirring, until caramel is smooth.

Remove pan from heat, stir in the salt and cool caramel to room temperature.

If you make this on the same day you are making your ice cream, leave it at room temperature. If you make it in advance, store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. Warm to room temperature before use. You may need to heat it slightly to loosen it up.

Now let’s put it all together. Have ready the container you want to use, a large spoon for the ice cream, a spoon for the caramel, and a butter knife. Have your buttered pecans and caramel ready to go.

If you used one, remove the vanilla bean pod from the ice cream base.

Pour the chilled ice cream base into your ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions. In my ice cream maker, this takes about 24 minutes.

Pour in the pecans during the last 3 minutes of churning.

Take 1/3 of the ice cream and spread it in the container. Quickly drizzle a layer of caramel on top.

Repeat this 2 more times, and then use the butter knife to swirl the caramel through the ice cream. I ended up using about 2/3 of the caramel I made, but it did not go to waste!

Cover the ice cream and quickly move to the freezer to harden. In my freezer, it took about four hours to reach a nice hard scoop consistency. Serve as-is, or if you’re feeling special, drizzle on some extra caramel sauce, sprinkle a few chopped salted toasted pecans, and top with some maple sweetened softly whipped cream.

While no pigs were harmed in the making of this sundae, the savory, crunchy toasted pecans and deep, rich caramel swirl running through the fluffy, soft ice cream with that little pillow of whipped cream on top instantly took me back to that wonderful summer night. Music spilling into the restaurant from the streets, my new fiancé by my side, and my family surrounding me. My heart was full. What a profound testament to the power of foods as vessels for memory.

With Joe at Green Goddess

Recipes are little time capsules we can open at any moment, and I know this is one I will surely return to on many occasions.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Reimagining Ribbon Cake

4 Aug

My grandmother turned 90 years old last week! For her birthday cake, we turned to an old recipe that my dad said she used to make frequently. It was a cake I’d never heard of that definitely doesn’t turn up in a basic or reverse Google Image Search, called Ribbon Cake. It’s a two layer white almond cake with white frosting, topped with piped ribbons of cherry and pineapple fillings, sprinkled with a layer of finely chopped walnuts, and finished with a final lattice of frosting to top it all off. It turned out pretty well, though I wasn’t crazy about the all-shortening frosting. And while I liked the fruit fillings, they were more sweet than fruity and were just a touch runny for easy cake topping.

Tradition is great, but I thought the recipe could benefit from an update. I really believe that recipes are live documents that morph over time as trends, ingredient availability, and food tech change. So for this version, let’s frost that fluffy white almond cake with an equally luxurious vanilla-almond buttercream. And while we’re at it, let’s make the fruit fillings from scratch too, for fruitier flavor and to help control the thickness for piping and standing at room temperature. Depending on where you live, you might even be able to make them completely fresh. My dad, mom, and I also learned a few lessons while frosting and decorating the cake that definitely helped make the second go at it a smoother process.

Reimagined Ribbon Cake

White Almond Cake

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided into two 1 ¼ cup portions
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg whites at room temperature

Quick Buttercream Frosting

  •  6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 16 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

Cherry Topping

  • 7 oz. cherries, pitted
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 heaping tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • ¼ cup water

Pineapple Topping

  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1(20 ounce) can crushed pineapple, packed in its own juice or 2 cups mashed pineapple and 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons butter

Walnut Topping

  • ½ cup walnuts, finely chopped

I made this cake over the course of two days, so I’ll describe that process here.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare two 8 in. square pans by lining the bottoms with parchment paper and then greasing and flouring the pans. Alternatively you can use a baking release spray, but I would still recommend lining the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and 1 1/4 cups of the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk, until everything is combined. Transfer back to the large mixing bowl.

Clean and dry the stand mixer bowl thoroughly. Use the whip attachment for this next step.

Add the egg whites and a pinch of salt to the stand mixer bowl. Whip on high speed until the egg whites are frothy, and then very slowly add the remaining 1 ¼ cups of sugar. Whip until the meringue is thick, glossy, and holds stiff peaks.

Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest just until evenly incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly among the two prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for 33-37 minutes, or until pulling away from the sides of the pan. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, and then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.

Next, make the fruit toppings.

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. Cool and then move to a plastic container and store in the refrigerator.

To make the pineapple topping, combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and cook until mixture comes to a boil, stirring constantly.

Continue stirring until the mixture is thick and loses its milky look.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter.

Let cool and then move to a plastic container and store in the refrigerator.

At this point I wrapped the cakes tightly and stopped for the day. The next morning I began by making the buttercream.

Beat the butter on medium speed until creamy.

Gradually add the powdered sugar. Once it is all combined, add the salt and extracts and beat on high speed until thick and fluffy.

To assemble the cake, frost the first layer and stack the second on top.

Frost the cake with the buttercream, and then pipe a border around the top and the bottom of the cake. The top border is important as it acts as your frame for the fruit toppings. It can be as simple as a straight line if you prefer. I piped kisses using an open star tip.

Get out the fruit toppings and give them both a good stir. Transfer to piping bags with just couplers attached (no tips). Alternatively, use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off. Pipe the first filling in diagonal lines about ½ in. apart.

Using the second filling, pipe lines in the spaces left between the first.

Sprinkle the walnuts over top of the fruit fillings.

Create the final layer by piping a lattice with lines spaced about 1 in. apart.

There you have it! My variation of grandma’s Ribbon Cake. The cake is moist and light, the buttercream silky smooth, and the fruit fillings are nice and bright. Saving most of this one for a visit from my parents. Maybe it will be a new tradition!

Ciao for now,

Neen

My Favorite Oatmeal Cookies

20 Jul

I love oatmeal cookies. They pair well with lots of different additions, but are also delicious left perfectly plain with a hint of spice. You can do fun things with the texture too. Make them thin and lacy, thick and cake-y, crunchy, or chewy and soft. But my favorite oatmeal cookies, combine lots of textures and have deep dark spice and caramel flavors. The recipe has gone through many iterations as I tried to find the combination of ingredients that gave me the nutty, chewy, crunchy, spicy-sweet cookie I was seeking. I really like where it’s at now, but you know I’d never promise not to play around with the recipe in the future. My imagination is already running off…

I digress. Back to the treats at hand. These are a really special little bite despite their innocent appearance. Let’s fill up the cookie jar!

Toasted Oatmeal, Pecan, and Coconut Cookies

  • ¾ cups rolled oats, toasted until fragrant*
  • ¾ cups quick cooking oats, toasted until fragrant
  • ¾ cup flour
  • ½ cup pecans, toasted and chopped
  • ½ cup (sweetened or unsweetened) shredded coconut, toasted until golden
  • ½ tsp. baking powder**
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp.  cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Pinch fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1 large egg

*To toast the dry ingredients, just turn the oven to 350 degrees F and spread them out on separate baking sheets. The oats and nuts usually take 7-10 minutes and the coconut takes about 2-4 minutes.

** This weird thing happened when I started taking my medication for rheumatoid arthritis. I was finding that some of my baked goods tasted…off. There was this funny aftertaste that I could not get rid of and I had no idea what it was. I realized one day when I accidentally left some baking soda out of a recipe that OH, that’s that funny taste. This particular recipe can absolutely be made with ½ tsp. of baking soda or baking powder. Use what you have on hand.

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

Combine the butter, shortening, brown sugar, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt, and beat until smooth and creamy.

Add the egg and beat until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Add the flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated.

Finally, stir in the oats, pecans, and coconut and beat until well distributed.

Use a small cookie scoop (mine is 2 tsp.) or spoon to drop the dough onto the sheets. I got three dozen this way and placed 18 per sheet. Gently press the cookies down with fingertips to flatten.


Bake for 11-12 minutes or until golden at the edges and lightly brown on the bottoms. Cool on a wire rack or eat them warm because YES.

So yes, I’ll admit there are some extra steps to this recipe, but they really are worth it to achieve all the crispy, chewy, crunchy goodness here. The warm spices make them a super comforting accompaniment to any cup of coffee, cocoa, or tea. Definitely a good evening porch-sitting cookie for summer.

Ciao for now,

Neen