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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

Bite-size Sweets: Mini Strawberry Pies

30 Jun

It may be obvious from some of the recipes on this blog, but I love miniaturizing foods or making single servings. Little cookies or cakes that are a few bites at most are perfect to me, as is anything that can be frozen and revived without much loss of quality. A lot of this comes from a practical place. Neither Joe nor I have a particularly huge appetite, so making a whole cake or pie often means a lot goes to waste. It’s easier to make cupcakes or logs of cookie dough that can be frozen and portioned out when we want them. Right now there’s a bag of cinnamon rosettes, some of those chocolate and vanilla striped cakes, and a handful of flaky layer biscuits too. The point is, I really hate wasting food, so a lot of my cooking reflects that.

I was thinking about what to do with a fresh jar of strawberry preserves and immediately thought of this jam tart, which is one of my all-time favorite recipes. I knew though that we’d each have a piece or two and then we’d get a little bored of eating it. But I was kind of stuck on the idea of pie, and remembered that hand pies reheat pretty well from the freezer. So I decided to size them down a little further and make these cookie sized, a perfect few bites of rich pastry and sweet strawberry filling. And the best part is that you can store them in the freezer and toast or warm in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes and have them just as good as fresh.

Mini Strawberry Pies

Crust:

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tbsp. sugar
  • 2-3 tbsp. ice water

Filling:

  • 2-3 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Egg wash:

  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp. water

Method

You can find the method for making the pastry crust here, in my apple pie recipe. Follow the instructions just until the part where the ice water is added and the pieces are pressing together.

Turn the dough pieces out onto a sheet of parchment paper and press them together. Place another sheet of parchment on top and roll out to 1/8 in. thickness. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes, or until very firm.

Using a 2 in. round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out 24 circles. If the dough gets soft while working with it, just put it in the freezer for 5 minutes. You may have to re-roll and re-chill the dough to get 24 circles. Place the circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Top half of the circles with a rounded ½ tsp. of strawberry preserves.

Brush the edges of each circle with the egg wash and then place another dough circle on top, pressing the edges to seal, and then crimping the edges with the tines of a fork. Use a sharp knife to poke vent holes in the top of each pie.

Place the pies in the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

When the oven is preheated, brush the top of each pie with the egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar (if desired).

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the bottoms and edges are golden.

Serve warm or room temperature. Store in a sealed container at room temperature for a few days. For longer storage, freeze on a baking sheet and once they are firm, move them to a freezer bags and seal.

These are delicious little bites that you could certainly make with other fruit preserves. Treat yourself to something sweet and then save the rest for when you’re really craving them again. It’s like baking for yourself a bunch of times all at once. Awesome!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Un-puzzling Apple Pie

30 Nov

I’ve been after the perfect apple pie for a while. There are so many variables: What kind of fat in the crust? Cooked or uncooked filling? Cornstarch or flour? What kind of apples?

And I’ve encountered all of the usual problems too: Under-baked crust, melted or broken crust, mushy apples, watery filling. With every pie I’ve baked, I’ve had a chance to learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

The good news is that I’ve combined several methods that turn out a pie with a flavorful, flaky crust, and a filling that’s sweet-but-not-too-sweet and that holds together when sliced.

Here we use a pretty traditional all butter pastry, but stay mostly hands-off and also chill it several times throughout the process to keep it workable and stable. For the inside, I wanted to avoid a watery filling, but pre-cooked ones make the apples too mushy by the time the pie is baked, so we’ll instead take time to extract some juice from the apples, make it into a syrup, then toss the apples with that and cornstarch to create a filling with the perfect consistency.

Let’s do it to it!

Apple Pie

Crust:

  • 2 ½ cups unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled in the freezer for 10-15 minutes)
  • ¼ – ½ cup ice water

Filling:

  • 3 lbs. apples (Good varieties that will not break down are Honeycrisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh, or Cortland). I used 3 large Honeycrisp and 3 Granny Smith for a balance of tart and sweet.
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch

Prepare the crust by combining the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and mixing.

Add the butter in chunks, pulsing between additions, until the mixture is a sandy, pebbly texture.

Slowly add ice water while pulsing, until the dough holds together when pressed between fingers. Do not overmix.

Turn the mixture out onto a countertop and gather into a ball. Divide the dough in two pieces and flatten into discs. These weighed about 12.5 oz. each. Wrap these in plastic wrap and chill for 30 min – 1 hour.

To make the filling, peel, core, and slice the apples. I also quarter my slices.

Toss the apple slices with the sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and allow this to sit for at least 30 minutes, but up to an hour is fine.

Meanwhile, roll out one pie dough disc into a 12 in. circle, fit it into a pie pan, and trim the edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Roll the other dough disc into a 12 in. circle, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Then place a strainer over a bowl and pour in the apples. Allow them to drain for 30 minutes, or until ½-3/4 cup of juice has accumulated.

Take the pie dough circle on the baking sheet out of the refrigerator before you begin the next step to allow it to get slightly pliable.

Put the juice and the 2 tbsp. of butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and boil until it reduces to about 1/3 cup and is syrupy, about 7-10 minutes.

In a bowl, toss the apples with the cornstarch and then toss with the reduced syrup.

Fill the pie crust with the apple mixture.

Gently wet the edges of the crust and place the top crust over the filling. Trim the edges and then crimp with a fork. Cut 5 slits in the top. Wrap the pie in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Preheat an oven to 425 degrees F and place an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet on an oven rack placed on the lowest setting.

Once the oven is preheated, unwrap the pie and cover the edges with an aluminum foil ring to prevent the crust from overbrowning. Bake the pie for 45-55 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and tender when poked through one of the slits. Remove the foil ring during the last 10 minutes of baking.

Allow the pie to cool for at least 4 hours before slicing.

Hope you have a chance to try this one during the holidays. It’s sure to make them merrier!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Adventures in Japan!

1 Nov

After a year of planning, we finally took off on our trip to Japan a couple of weeks ago.

We left DC midday on October 18th and arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 19th.  Shibuya, the neighborhood in Tokyo we called home base, is about 80 minutes from the airport via the Narita Express train. By the time we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we were pretty exhausted so we spent the evening at the hotel bar talking about what we wanted to do the next day.

The next morning, I got up and walked to a local gym in Shibuya to work out. I was honestly impressed that I found it on the first try. Directions in Japan rarely involve street names. Anytime I consulted Google Maps, it was “cross the crosswalk,” “go up the stairs,” “go over the walkway,”…etc. Nothing super specific, so I ended up using a lot of landmarks like shops or subway stops to find exact locations. But I did find the gym, and had a good workout that definitely helped shake the jet lag. I also happened to find the statue of Hachiko on my way there. This Akita came to Shibuya Station to greet his master, a professor, coming home from work every day. The professor died in 1925, but Hachiko kept coming to the station daily faithfully until his own death 10 years later. The statue was erected in memoriam.

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I headed back to the hotel to meet Joe and we decided to head to Kōrakuen, and wandered through the Koishikawa Kōrakuen gardens before heading to Yasukuni-jinja, which means “For the Peace of the Country Shrine.” It is a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million people. It’s unusual and massive torii (gates) are constructed of bronze and steel. Housed in the shrine complex is Yūshū-kan, a fascinating and somewhat controversial war history museum that begins with Japan’s samurai tradition and goes all the way through World War II.

After a full day, we grabbed some karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and sushi from Shibuya Station’s massive food hall called Food Show, and took a quick break at the hotel. We spent the evening walking the neon-lit streets of Shibuya, wandering in and out of shops and arcades before winding up at a place called the Living Room Café, a really relaxed bar with some great live music. A perfect way to close out our first full day there.

On Saturday, we headed to Harajuku to visit Meiji-jingū, Tokyo’s largest shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. The sprawling forested grounds contain over 120,000 trees collected from all over Japan. There are several torii as you walk along the path toward the main shrine, the tallest of which stands 12m high and is made from a 1500 year-old Taiwanese cypress tree. Also along the path are rows of decorative sake barrels, gifts to the shrine.

After leaving Meiji-jingū, we made our way to the famous Takeshita-dōri. Even on a rainy day, this street was packed with people filling the unique, funky shops lining it from end to end. We explored, snacked on street food, and even popped into a cat café to grab a coffee and pet some fluffy creatures. In the evening, we went to Shinjuku to explore the nightlife, arcades, and shopping there. A lot like Shibuya with tons of stores, neon lights, and music just pouring into the street.

Sunday I got up and made my way back to Shinjuku for class at Bikram Yoga Shinjuku. Even though I don’t understand more than a few words of Japanese, I know the sequence so well that I was able to follow along just fine. It reaffirmed how special this yoga is, that I have found it so many places and been able to share practice with so many people.

Joe and I spent the rest of the day wandering Akihabara, which is a ton of sensory overload. Arcades, manga shops, giant 8-floor tech stores, media, and book stores are everywhere, and we went to as many as possible before the rain got too heavy and sent us back to Shibuya.

Monday we got up to catch the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto. The train reaches speeds of up to 186 mph. By car, the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto would take approximately 6 hours, but on the Shinkansen, the trip took just under 2 and a half. It was pretty awesome.

After checking in at the New Miyako Hotel, we visited Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine built into the side of Mt. Inari. The entire path through the shrine goes about 4km up the mountain, and I would say we went about 2/3 of the way up. It is lined with hundreds of orange torii as you walk up and is a really breathtaking place. This shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. There are many stone foxes along the pathways, and foxes are considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the harvest. We spent a full afternoon exploring, and then wandered the surrounding streets and shops into the evening.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel to the Kyoto Aquarium and spent a couple hours exploring the exhibits there and seeing a dolphin show, before hopping back on the Nozomi Shinkansen to make our way to Hiroshima.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, the city was buzzing. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there were signs that read “We ❤ Carp!” About a 1/3 of the people we saw were in baseball jerseys, and we eventually figured out that the local baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, were the current Central League Champions and had a playoff game that evening vs the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. We even got to see their trophy because we just happened to wander into the store where it was on display. Later, we found a good pub to watch the game, but unfortunately the home team lost.

On Wednesday, we took the streetcar to Genbaku Dome-mae to visit Peace Memorial Park. The first thing was saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was the former Industrial Promotion Hall, but the atomic bomb in 1945 exploded directly above it, and this is all that remains of the structure.

We also visited the Korean Atomic Bombs Victims memorial, the Peace Clock Tower, the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and finally the Children’s Peace Memorial where we registered and donated 2 paper cranes to add to the thousands already there.

We then took the streetcar over to a shopping area called Hondori and spent the afternoon shopping and exploring the surrounding area. After heading back to Hiroshima Station, we went to the rooftop of nearby Fukuyu department store for some panoramic views of the city before catching the Nozomi Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The trip took about 4 hours, but would have taken about 9 and a half by car. Pretty cool.

Thursday morning I took an early trip to Tsukiji Market to see all of the vendors, and treated myself to a delicious sashimi breakfast.

Joe and I met up and went to nearby Shinjuku, where we went to VR Zone, a virtual reality park, to try out a few VR experiences on the HTC Vive. I have to say, it was pretty immersive and a lot cooler than I could have expected. Mario Kart in VR was WILD. After a little bit of lunch in Shinjuku, we decided to go back to Akihabara and check out some of the shops and a retro arcade that we’d missed when we went the first time.

Friday, we got up and met up with our tour guide to head for Mt. Fuji. Most of our trip thus far had been a little bit grey and rainy, but we woke up to a perfectly clear day. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride, we stopped in a town nearby Mt. Fuji for lunch before heading to the Fifth Station. The Fifth Station is about halfway up Mt. Fuji at approximately 2,305m above sea level (the mountain is 3,776m tall). Our guide Yoko remarked that there were only about 3-4 days of full visibility this time of year, so we were extremely lucky to have such beautiful views.

After Mt. Fuji, we traveled about an hour and 45 minutes to nearby Hakone, where we took a boat cruise on Lake Ashi before ascending to the summit of Mt. Komagatake via the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway. The summit of Mt. Komagatake had some stunning views, and we even saw Mt. Fuji in the distance.

After a trip back down the ropeway, we grabbed some ice cream before hopping back on the bus to Shinjuku, then caught the subway to home away from home in Shibuya.

Saturday we visited the expansive Ueno Park and spent several hours at the zoo there.

In the late afternoon we headed to Shinjuku for a quick meal before heading to the Robot Restaurant for a show there. Pictures and videos will never, ever do the experience justice. All I can say is if you are ever in Tokyo, treat yourself. It was a whole lot of silly fun.

Our last day in Tokyo, we headed to Ginza, where we visited Café de l’Ambre, a shop where the sign above the door reads “Coffee Only.” It has been in business since 1948 and specializes not just in roasting different varieties of coffee, but also in ageing its beans. After a delicious cup of coffee, we headed back out toward the main street in Ginza.

We spent some time wandering the shops and had a really great lunch at a place called Tsubameya before heading back to Shibuya. Then it was time for one last waltz through the neon lights of Shibuya. Even in the pouring rain, the streets were packed with people (many in Halloween costumes!) and the mood was lively. What a cool, special place.

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We’re already talking about where we want to go when we go back!

Rainbow Layer Cake

5 Feb

I was too busy celebrating my 1000th day of sobriety to publish this yesterday!

I spent the day cooking, teaching, playing a bunch of games with a handful of friends, laughing all night, and made a pretty awesome cake too.

Here today is the brand new version of a rainbow cake I originally made last year, but I re-wrote the recipe yesterday to simplify a cake that still has a lot of steps but is definitely easier now. This was a special cake for a special day, and there’s nothing quite like cutting into it and seeing the rainbow of layers inside.

Rainbow Layer Cake

Cake

  • 2½ cups white granulated sugar
  • 4 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¼ cups whole milk
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • Food coloring (I used Americolor Gels) in red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple

Frosting

  • 8 oz. butter, softened
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

 

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour (or line with parchment) six 9 in. pans. I only have three pans, so I baked in two batches.

Combine the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Add the vanilla extract.

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In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, salt, lemon zest, and baking powder.

Slowly alternate adding the flour and milk to the wet ingredients and mix until well-combined.

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Weigh the batter and then divide it evenly into 6 bowls (my batter weighed approx. 9.5 oz per layer).

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Mix the food coloring in the bowls so that you have a bowl of each red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple.

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Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth with an offset spatula. Bake for approximately 13-15 minutes.

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Cool layers completely before frosting.

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To prepare the frosting, whip the butter and cream cheese until smooth, then add powdered sugar slowly and whip until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well.

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Stack the layers and put a thin layer of the frosting between them.

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Then ice and decorate the cake as desired using the remaining frosting.

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Pretty on the outside…

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…but suuuuuper cool inside.

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Thanks for letting me share part of my celebration with you. Maybe I’ll make an even crazier one for 2000 days!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Under Pressure: Mushroom and Romano Risotto  

10 Jan

Happy New Year, readers! As it always does, the cold month of January has brought me to my crockpot seeking bean and kielbasa stew, hearty soups, and pot roasts. These one pot meals are lifesavers when I teach in the evening and then don’t want to have to come home and cook.

This year, I’ve been trying to use my pressure cooker a little bit more to save time on recipes and also infuse deep flavors into proteins and grains. I can’t remember what cooking show it was that I was watching, but a chef mentioned making risotto in a pressure cooker and I thought, “What a brilliant idea!” After a little Google-fu, I found that others had tried this and had great success, so I decided to throw my own culinary skills at it.

The pressure cooker I have also has a sauté function, which is even handier because it meant that this meal could be made with nothing but a few delicious ingredients, a cutting board, and one pot. Less dirty dishes, far happier Neen. So without further ado, let’s get to this earthy, creamy and really satisfying mushroom risotto.

Pressure Cooker Mushroom and Romano Risotto

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups Arborio rice or other short grain pearl-shaped rice.
  • 4 cups broth or stock (I used turkey stock I made/froze at Thanksgiving)
  • 8 oz. cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: splash of red wine

Method

Begin by sautéing the onions in the olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the mushrooms and cook until they give up their juices and most of the liquid has evaporated.

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Add the rice to the cooker and stir to combine. Sauté the rice with the vegetables for 1-2 minutes and then add a splash of red wine (or stock/water) to deglaze the pan and get any browned bits off of the bottom of the sauté pan.

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Finally add the stock or broth.

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Put the lid on the pressure cooker and set it to cook at high pressure for 6 minutes.

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After the time has elapsed, you can wait for the pressure cooker to release steam naturally or use the quick release function.

Give the rice a quick stir and then add the romano cheese and mix well.

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And that’s as simple as it is. Risotto in less than 20 minutes. This makes quite a lot, so you may have leftovers. It reheats well on the stove, or can also be used to make arancini straight out of the refrigerator.

I wish you all the best and happy cooking in 2017. Let’s continue to make delicious food together!

Ciao for now,

Neen