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Going Goldilocks: Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

4 Nov

Most recipes are a search for that just right bite. We fumble around seeking textures, flavors, and oftentimes memories in our kitchens. Then comes the a-ha moment, that blissful occasion where it all turns out just right, or at least just the way you want it. For me, nothing embodies that dance more than biscotti.

Twice-baked breads could be stored for long periods of time, which is why these cookies were favored by the Roman legions. Adding to their non-perishability is the fact that they contain no fat other than eggs. So it’s not a flaky or tender cookie, but a crunchy, dense treat meant to be enjoyed with a beverage–coffee in my case, but vin santo for many others. Still, balance is the name of the game. We’re looking for that sweet spot of crisp but not tooth-breaking, sweet but not cloying, and flavorful, but not overpowering. And in my case, an added element of memory too.

When I was a kid, we would go to Pittsburgh’s Strip District on Saturday or Sunday mornings. After the rest of our shopping was complete, my dad would often send me into Enrico’s biscotti for a “bag of ends.” These treasures were bags full of the ends of biscotti loaves, so you got to try the extra-crunchy versions of lots of different flavors. They were always a welcome treat in the car on the way home.

So when I make biscotti now, I do that search, that little dance. And like Goldilocks, I sometimes find one that’s juuuuuust right.

Cherry, Sesame, and Pecan Biscotti

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. cardamom
  • 2/3 cup dried tart cherries
  • ½ cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar together until well-blended and thickened slightly, about 3 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the vanilla.

Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom just until the flour disappears.

Stir in the dried cherries, pecans, and sesame seeds just until distributed.

Gather the ball into a ball (flour your hands if needed) and let it rest for 5 minutes. At this point, I usually weigh it.

Divide the dough in half evenly and roll each half into an 11 in. log.

Press the logs flat until they are about 3-4 in. wide.

Brush with the egg wash.

Bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan once for even done-ness. Cool the loaves on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes and reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees F.

Cut the loaves into ½ in. slices and arrange them, standing up, on the baking sheet. They can be extremely close, but shouldn’t touch.

Bake for another 22-24 minutes and then cool completely on a wire rack.

The cherries become tender in the oven and their tartness is welcome up against the warm spices and rich, nutty pecans and sesame seeds. The cookie itself is crunchy but easy to break, and doesn’t require a beverage to soften it, though one is most certainly welcome. And the extra-crisp heels remind me of the delights found in those random bags of ends.

Truly, this is a balancing act worth the effort and a welcome addition to any holiday cookie exchange. I hope you give these twice-baked treasures a try!

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Holiday Helper: Apple and Sausage Dressing

3 Nov

Now that it’s officially “the holiday season,” my inclinations are toward those foods that help us celebrate. There’s one I make year-round out of necessity (and craving!) It’s another leftover rescue like quiche, frittatas, or soup. And it just so happens one of those occasions popped up this week. I had a half a loaf of rock-hard stale French bread, some vegetable/fruit odds and ends from the week’s cooking, and a couple lonely pieces of sausage left in a package from the farmers market that weren’t quite enough to make a meal. What does that sound like? Sounds like dressing (or stuffing, depending on your opinion) to me! Since we’re cooking in a baking dish and not a bird, we’ll go with dressing.

When I’m cooking dressing, my main concern is texture. This is basically savory bread pudding, so we don’t want things to get too soft and one-note. Secondly, we want to balance flavors. Sausage is salty and fatty, so we need something crisp and sweet to play off of it. And that’s really the beauty of this dish, if there is something you don’t have, I’ll suggest a few alternatives in the recipe so you can build your own with your leftovers. Let’s clean out the fridge!

Apple and Sausage Dressing

  • 1/2 loaf of bread, cubed and dried in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes (French bread or baguettes, Italian, and sourdough are all good options.)
  • 1 oz. chopped toasted pistachios (or other nuts, pecans are great.)
  • ½ apple, diced
  • 4 oz. sweet Italian sausage, cooked and crumbled (Hot sausage or kielbasa work well too. Could also go in a different direction and use bacon. It’s delicious.)
  • ½ onion, diced (Red, yellow or white. Could also use the white part of a leek.)
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease an 8×8 in. pan. Toss the bread, crumbled sausage, and pistachios together in a large bowl and set aside.

In a saute pan over medium heat, cook the onions, celery, carrots, and apple until softened, about 4-5 minutes.

Add the vegetable mixture to the bread mixture and mix well. Stir in the melted butter.

Whisk the egg and chicken stock together and then pour over bread mixture. Stir until the bread has absorbed all of the liquid. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the dressing into the prepared pan and smooth into an even layer.

Dot the top with butter, cover with foil, and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the foil, increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees F, and bake for another 20-25 minutes or until well-browned.

Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving.

The bread is crisp on the outside, soft and custardy inside, the salty sausage and sweet apple play off each other well, and the pistachios add a great, nutty crunch to all of it. I had mine with some pulled chicken I made in the pressure cooker.

You can easily double this recipe and bake in a 9×13 in. pan for a larger crowd, but this was just me using what I had on hand. Herbs are always welcome too. I like thyme and a little bit of sage, which I didn’t have this time, but definitely would if I was making this as part of a turkey dinner. This is tremendously useful on Thanksgiving when I have almost all of these ingredients at the ready from making other recipes. Whether for a special occasion or an end-of-week refrigerator clean-out, it’s a great recipe full of varying textures and flavors. And like all the best casseroles and bread puddings, it reheats beautifully. A super serviceable side dish indeed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Birthday Bakes: Lemon Olive Oil Cake

23 Oct

I’ve been lost in a massive RA flare the last couple of weeks, and realized literally the night before it, that I hadn’t made or even conceived of a cake for my father-in-law’s birthday.  And of course this was the one time I was out of both butter and chocolate. Ugh. But you know, butter is certainly not the only fat around that can keep a cake moist and flavorful. While most average kitchen oils don’t have a ton of flavor to speak of, there is one that can bring out the fruitiness of citrus and makes a cake that is actually better after it sits for a day. That’s olive oil. Extra virgin is preferred, but it doesn’t have to be anything top shelf, just an extra virgin olive oil that you like the flavor of when you cook. If it doesn’t taste right on its own, it won’t make a cake you want to eat. Using liquid fat means a slightly different approach than the traditional creaming method for cakes, but this one is pretty forgiving so don’t stress!

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • ⅓ cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • 1¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and sugar-coat a Bundt pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl or measuring cup, combine the lemon juice and extracts.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest together until thick, light, and ribboning off of the whisk. It will take about 3 minutes.

With the mixer still on high speed, slowly stream in the olive oil and beat until thick.

Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the lemon juice mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Fold the mixture a few times with a large spatula to ensure that everything is well-incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake to even it out.

Put the cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, and then invert onto another rack to cool completely. Once cool, cover in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature. The day you are going to serve, finish it with a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze.

It cuts easily, revealing a beautiful fragrance from the lemon and fruity olive oil, a crisp exterior from sugaring the pan prior to baking, and a crumb that’s moist, dense, and citrusy. It’s soft, but the cornmeal adds a slight coarseness that keeps the texture from being one-note.

But don’t take my word for it, my father-in-law had three pieces the night I served it to him. That’s the ultimate in rave reviews from my perspective.

This recipe is another example of how some of the best cooking discoveries can come from creating from what you have on-hand. With a piece of fruit from the refrigerator and the oil I use in most of my cooking, I had the base of a really special cake and didn’t even know it. But now I do, and you do too!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Shared Experiences: Santorini Fava

19 Oct

One of the best things you can bring back from a trip is a recipe. I’m excited when I or others try something delicious ­and learn how to make it. Sharing food traditions is special and important. My parents recently went on a trip to Santorini, where they tried a dish called fava, which has precisely nothing to do with fava beans. The hero here is a different fava, the humble yellow split pea, which has been growing on Santorini for over 3,500 years. With these peas and relatively few other ingredients, we create an incredibly earth, hearty, and smooth dip or spread that is popular in the local tavernas there.  Think of it as an alternative to hummus that can be served warm, room temperature, or even chilled.

Santorini Fava

  • 250g yellow split peas, rinsed
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 3-5 sprigs thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 2 cups warm water
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Salt and pepper

Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, thyme, and a pinch of salt, and saute until the onions begin to soften and turn translucent, 5-6 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute one minute more.

Stir in the split peas and then add the water and olive oil, reduce the heat to medium and cover.

Cook until the peas are mushy, 35-45 minutes.

Add the mushy peas and lemon juice to the bowl of a food processor and puree until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

I like to serve this room temperature with a spoonful of cold plain yogurt, caramelized onion, and chopped fresh parsley to garnish.

The combination of textures and temperatures is just excellent. Fried capers would be more than welcome here, I just didn’t have any on-hand.

I’m so glad my parents took the time to get this recipe and passed it along to me. It’s the perfect quick snack alongside some warm pita or crisp, cool vegetables. And I never would have heard of it if not for their travels! One savory little way to taste a part of their experience.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Flavorful Few: French Onion Soup

13 Oct

Some recipes are all about technique and time. Applying those two things to the simplest, humblest of ingredients can bring a true depth of flavor to the party without clearing out the pantry. Take French onion soup for example. Vegetables and herbs deeply caramelized, deglazed with a bit of wine, thickened with flour, simmered with broth, and topped with a broiled cheesy crouton. Caramelize, deglaze, thicken, simmer, and broil. It’s the steps that build the body of the soup, not a pantry full of ingredients.

Surprisingly hearty and heart-warming, there’s no reason not to stop and make this right now! Just be sure to take it slow and you’ll be enjoying a rich bowl of satisfying soup in about an hour and a half.

French Onion Soup

  • 3 lbs. Vidalia onions (about 4 large onions)
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 8 cups unsalted beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • French bread and grated gruyere cheese for serving

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat and then add the onions, garlic, bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and some salt and pepper.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are well-caramelized and very soft, about 45 minutes.

Add the white wine to the pan, scrape the bottom of the pot to release the fond (browned bits), bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated, 10-15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Sprinkle on the flour and give the mixture a stir. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 7 minutes.

Add the beef stock/broth and bring the soup to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, preheat a broiler. Ladle the soup into a heatproof bowl and top with a slice of French bread. Add a generous helping of gruyere cheese on top of the bread.

Broil until the cheese bubbles and the bread is toasted. Garnish with fresh thyme.

Basically crispy, gooey grilled cheese and savory soup all perfectly balanced together in one bowl. Yum! This recipe makes quite a lot and does freeze well. By taking your time during the initial making of the soup, you have something intensely deep, rich, and satisfying that you can reheat quickly when a craving strikes.

So take those simple ingredients and make them shine!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Easy Energy: Granola Bars

12 Oct

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

Granola Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut into 32 squares.

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

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

Ciao for now,

Neen