Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

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

Turning Leaves: Cheddar Fougasse

9 Sep

Well, I guess it’s about time for me to admit that it’s almost autumn. I’m a summer person if there ever was one. I crave heat and the bright, light flavors of summer. Farmers markets attract me like a moth to flame, and I’ll eat pounds of berries if left to my own devices.

Autumn has its merits too. Warm, sweet, spices, crisp apples, creamy pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and perhaps the most delicious holiday, Thanksgiving. BUT for now, we’re in the early moments of the pre-season, with leaves just beginning to turn golden. And for me, those warm colored waifs falling gently from the trees remind me of one of my favorite simple breads, a French flatbread that is a wonderful addition to any bread basket, the fougasse.

Fougasse is generally associated with the Provence region, but originated in Rome as Panis focacius, Roman flat bread baked in the ashes of a hearth called a focus. If these words sound familiar, you’ve probably heard of the Italian version, focaccia (which we have made and you can find right here). And like focaccia, fougasse is a blank canvas for all sorts of fillings and flavors, including nuts, olives, cheese and herbs. What makes it different is its unique shape, cut like a big, beautiful leaf or sheaf of wheat.

To make our golden, not-quite-yet-autumn leaf, I chose a simple cheddar fougasse, but you can amp this up with rosemary, oregano, basil, or whatever herbs suit you. You can also swap out the cheeses, just be careful of balancing the salt in the dough with saltier cheeses like romano. You may just need to use slightly less.

Cheddar Fougasse

Sponge:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp. instant yeast

Dough:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. instant yeast

Filling:

  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, cut into ¼ in. cubes

Combine all of the ingredients for the sponge and allow it to rest overnight, or for as much as a full 24 hours.

After the resting period, stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will look rough.

Bring the dough together and knead for 8-10 minutes, until a soft, smooth dough is formed.

Roll the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise until it has doubled, anywhere from 75-90 minutes.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly greased surface, sprinkle on the cheese, and knead a few times to incorporate. Don’t worry if you lose a few cubes of cheese here and there, you can stick them on after shaping the bread.

Form the dough into a leaf shape or a large oval about ¾ in. thick and then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush it lightly with olive oil.

Using a sharp knife, make decorative slits. I did two down the middle and six on either side, but it’s your leaf, make it to suit you! After slicing, gently pull the cuts apart so there is some space between them.

Cover the bread with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Uncover the bread and bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped. Move to a wire rack to cool.


With each changing season we invite in new culinary treasures, and this is a simple, yet beautiful one to put on your table and enjoy. No matter what your favorite time of year may be, these fragrant, crisp, golden leaves are sure to please.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Essential Kneads: French-style Country Bread

7 Sep

Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in June, life has kind of been a rollercoaster. How I feel when I wake up each day is a complete surprise. I live in a constant state of fatigue and trying to catch up with whatever joints are flaring that day. Sometimes I need a cane to walk, or can’t raise my arms overhead, or am unable to do things as simple as squatting down or bending over. Even a simple shower can be painful sometimes. It’s almost impossible to have a consistent schedule or make firm appointments. For someone who loves to move and be in the kitchen, this can be really, really difficult. I’m able to work, but the opportunities have become very limited. It feels like so much has been taken away, and my primary job has become working toward remission.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered something wonderful, something unexpected, and something I am beyond grateful to have. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that baking bread makes me feel soothed, comforted, and home. I was deeply worried that my often swollen and painful hands and fingers would keep me from this practice. Okay, sure, I could use my mixer to knead bread, but a huge part of handling bread dough and knowing when it is ready is how it feels. And you can’t do that kneading in a mixer.

One night, I made a sponge starter for a loaf of bread. When I woke up the next day, my fingers were puffy, swollen, and angry. I was heavily disappointed. Yet again, an unexpected flare had hit me. I was about to throw the sponge starter and rest of the ingredients into my mixer, and then remembered a self-massage technique my physical therapist had shown me. It basically involved rubbing down the palms and fingers to move the inflammation. I realized it was essentially the same act as kneading. So why not take 10 minutes to move my hands through soft dough and just see what happened? Worst case, I’d have to give up and let the mixer do the work.

But I was right. While it wasn’t a perfect solution, by the time I finished kneading the dough, the swelling in my hands had reduced significantly. They still ached, but I had more mobility and a better grip. My love, my home had again brought me comfort and soothed me during struggle. So in light of that, I want to share with you the bread I was making that morning (and again this week). Get your hands in there and enjoy every second of it.

French-style Country Bread

Sponge:

  • 1 cup cool to lukewarm water (90-100 degrees F)
  • 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

Dough:

  • Sponge
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (100-115 degrees F)
  • ½ tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Make the sponge by stirring all of the ingredients together in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rest overnight or for as much as 16 hours.

After the resting period, stir the starter and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt. The dough will look rough and messy. Let it rest for minutes and then stir again. The dough will be more cohesive.

Knead the dough for 10-12 minutes, adding the remaining ¾ cups of flour only as needed to form a smooth dough. On a humid summer day, I needed all of the flour. When I’ve made this bread in the winter I have needed less than half, so it can vary a lot.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container. I like a measured plastic container because it is easier to see the exact volume of the rise. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until almost doubled, 1-2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal or semolina.

Gently pour the risen dough out onto the counter and shape into a large ball.

Place this seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rest until it becomes puffy and about 50% larger. This can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and place a 9×13 baking pan or cast iron pan on the bottom rack. Adjust the other rack to the middle position.

Make three slashes across the top of the loaf of bread, or make a tic-tac-toe pattern. Have ready 1 cup of hot water.

Place the bread in the oven on the middle rack and pour the hot water into the pan below it. Quickly close the oven to trap the steam and then reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it’s a deep golden brown and the internal temperature is at least 190 degrees F. You can also test bread doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a wire rack.

Maybe a lot has been taken away (temporarily), but RA has also become my greatest teacher, helping me learn greater patience, compassion, and gratitude for the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. I have discovered strength and perseverance I didn’t know that I had in me.

Whenever I feel myself struggling—and I know that is part of this too, I will go into the kitchen, massage my hands, and find myself home again.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Inspired Spiral: Swiss Roll

6 Sep

It will come as no shock to anyone that I am a fan of the Great British Bake Off. Almost every episode, I am inspired by at least one of the challenges or history lessons presented. Recently, I’ve been watching old episodes and gathering creativity from them. In one of the episodes I came across, the contestants made Swiss Rolls, often referred to in the States as Jelly Rolls. These consist of sponge cake topped with a cream filling which is then rolled up into a beautiful spiral.

The challenge has its perils. If the sponge is not rolled at the right time, it can crack or break. If the filling is too soft, it will squeeze out the sides, if the sponge is too warm when the filling is added it can melt, and if the cake is not rolled tightly enough from the start, it will simply fall apart when cut.

By now you might be thinking, “NOPE,” or “Why would anyone want to do this?” Well for starters, sheer curiosity, and secondly the internet is FULL of people sharing techniques to avoid these pitfalls. By the time I was finished with my Swiss Roll, I didn’t feel stressed and I had a delicious and oh so light cake to share with Joe. Now, I’m not under a time crunch or fearing pressure from distinguished judges, and neither are you, so remember this is all just fun at the end of the day.

Let’s roll!

Strawberry Swiss Roll

Cake:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Powdered sugar (for rolling)

Strawberry Cream Filling:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/3 cup strawberry preserves

Butter, flour, and line with parchment a standard half sheet pan (12×17 in.), then butter and flour the parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.

Separate two of the eggs. Set the whites aside, and to the yolks add the two remaining whole eggs and one egg yolk.

Place the egg yolk and whole egg mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer along with ½ cup of the sugar. Beat this mixture on high speed until it is pale yellow and thick. This will take a good five minutes. Add the vanilla extract and beat well. Move this mixture to another bowl and clean and dry the stand mixer bowl.

Sift half of the flour mixture over the egg and sugar mixture and fold in gently, then do this with the second half of the flour mixture. Set this aside.

Add the egg whites and cream of tartar to the clean stand mixer bowl and secure a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until the egg whites are very foamy and then slowly add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar. Continue to beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.

Fold a small portion of the whipped egg whites into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest.

Pour the batter onto the prepared sheet pan and use an offset palette knife to spread it to the edges in an even layer.

Bake the cake for about 7 minutes, or until it springs back when touched and is golden brown.

While the cake is baking, lay a clean towel at least the size of the sheet pan out on the counter.

As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, dust the top lightly with powdered sugar and invert it onto the clean towel. Remove the parchment paper lining from the cake, dust the bottom (now top) with powdered sugar, and gently roll the cake up in the towel. Place this on a wire rack and let it cool for at least an hour.

Clean the stand mixer bowl and whisk attachment, and place them in the refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes. If you have enough space in your freezer, you can use that too.

While the cake is cooling, make the whipped cream filling. Place the heavy cream, vanilla extract, and sugar in the chilled bowl. Secure the whisk attachment and beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the strawberry preserves and beat until stiff peaks form. Chill this in the refrigerator while you wait for the cake to cool.

To assemble, unroll the cake gently and spread an even layer of the strawberry whipped cream on top.

Then slowly re-roll the cake, pulling in toward you as you go to tighten the spiral.

Place the cake on a platter, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours minimum.

I like to cut this cake into 12 servings. Use a serrated knife and slow, even strokes as you go. Don’t press straight down or you’ll squish your spiral. Lay the cut pieces on a platter, garnish with powdered sugar and fresh strawberries, and serve!

Honestly, as long as you take your time, it’s really not that hard to do. Beating the yolks and some of the whites separately is what gives this particular sponge the elasticity to roll without cracking or breaking. It is a low-stress sponge, I like to say. And the flavor can totally be of your own design! If strawberry’s not your game, use 1/3 cup of whatever flavor of preserves suits you. You can add some lemon zest to the batter or filling, try a different extract (oooooh almond would be good), paint the inside with flavored simple syrup before the second roll, or even give it a little powdered sugar/milk glaze after rolling. This one is a nice blank slate ripe for creativity.

So, there are some things on TV that you should absolutely try at home without fear, and this is one of them: A perfect little pinwheel to share with friends. What could be better?

Ciao for now,

Neen

Birthday Bakes: Carrot Cake

2 Sep

I love carrots. They’re like the candy of the vegetable world, really. There’s always a bag of them in my refrigerator and I eat them with such consistency that Joe doesn’t even ask me to put them on the shopping list anymore. Much like coffee, he just assumes I’m running low and buys more.

If I’m waiting for something to bake or cook in the kitchen, I’m usually also leaning against the counter dipping carrot pieces in hummus or peanut butter. So it’s kind of weird (now that I think of it) that I’ve never once blogged about carrot cake. Probably because I’m the only one in this household that likes it and I just can’t eat a whole cake by myself.

So when I got the opportunity to make one for a friend’s son’s birthday recently, I HAD to jump at the chance. The natural sweetness of carrots blended into and a soft, tender cake full of warm spices is absolutely a treat. Wrap that up in some rich, decadent cream cheese frosting and we are definitely talking celebration-worthy. And plus, no one can say you didn’t eat your vegetables, right? Let’s make some cake!

T’s Carrot Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups canola oil
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups peeled and grated carrots

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 16 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 4 oz. butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt

Candy Decorations

  • 6 oz. green candy melts
  • 6 oz. orange candy melts
  • Orange and green sprinkles

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter, flour, and parchment-line two 9 in. round cake pans and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in medium bowl.

Whisk the sugar and oil in large bowl until well blended, and then add the eggs one at a time, beating between additions.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir until well-blended.

Stir in the grated carrots.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. I prefer to do this by weight rather than volume because it results in more even layers.

Bake the cake layers for about 40 minutes each, or until a tester inserted into center comes out clean. Allow them to cool in the pans for 15 minutes and then invert onto wire racks, peel away the parchment paper, re-invert and allow them to cool completely. The re-inverting is important because the tops of the cakes will be a little bit sticky, so you want the bottom-side on the cooling rack.

To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together on low speed until smooth. Gradually add the powdered sugar and beat on medium speed until fully incorporated and creamy.

Add the vanilla extract and lemon zest and beat until combined.

Taste the frosting and then decide whether or not to add the pinch of salt. Cream cheese brands can really vary salt content-wise, so you may or may not need it depending on your preference.

Now onto the fun stuff! I always think it’s easier to trim and frost a chilled cake, so I usually wrap and refrigerate layers for a few hours or overnight. Carrot cake has enough oil in it plus added moisture from the grated carrots that it won’t dry out at all as long as you wrap it up well.

Take a look at your cake layers. If they’re even and flat, leave them alone. If you have any doming, it’s a good idea to trim them with a serrated knife.

Put one layer on a cake board. If you have one, set that on a turntable. Place a layer of frosting on top of the cake layer (about ¾-1 cup of frosting) and then stack the second layer on top.

Then place a large dollop of frosting on top and frost the top and sides of the cake using a spatula or offset palette knife.

I have these cake scrapers to smooth the sides, but you can just as easily use the flat side of a knife, bowl scraper, bench scraper, or a plain old flat spatula.

Once you have a nice even coat, put the rest of the frosting into a piping bag for decoration. You can also use a gallon sized plastic freezer bag with the corner cut off for this.

Don’t be intimidated! Keep it simple with small swirls of frosting around the top and bottom or go nuts with patterns. At this point, it’s going to be delicious no matter what. Play around a little. You can always scrape a decoration off and throw that frosting back in the piping bag. If your hands are warm and the frosting gets a little soft, refrigerate the piping bag briefly and return to work when it has cooled.

You can also decorate in a way that allows you to practice as much as you want by using some candy melts, which are just colored vanilla candy you can buy at most craft stores and also online. I melted about 6 oz. of green and 6 oz. orange melts and drew these little carrots on some parchment paper, then sprinkled them with colored sugar.

They set up quickly and stick easily to frosting, so it’s a relaxed way to do more intricate decorations. I also used candy for the lettering on this cake by pouring the melted candy into letter-shaped silicone molds.

Once you’ve decorated your cake, put it in the refrigerator to let all of the frosting and decorations firm up. You can leave it uncovered if you are serving it that day, or box it up if you need to store overnight.


This cake is warm, spicy, and sweet. The smooth, luxurious cream cheese frosting compliments the spices, especially the ginger (in my opinion) without being overwhelmingly heavy. The little candy decorations give a nice vanilla crunch that adds a lovely bit of texture to the whole dessert.

To see the smile on Tobias’ face as his mom opened the cake box was the ultimate reward. There is nothing better than helping to make someone’s special day even sweeter.

Happy cake baking!

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