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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Here today is the brand new version of a rainbow cake I originally made last year, but I re-wrote the recipe yesterday to simplify a cake that still has a lot of steps but is definitely easier now.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

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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

Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.

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Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.

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Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

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After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:

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This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.

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Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!

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Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


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Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.

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Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.

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Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

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Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.

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I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

My Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

27 Jan

What sort of red-blooded American woman has a recipe blog without a chocolate chip cookie recipe??

Oh, oh…

Oh dear.

How did this happen? Once again I fell into that trap of thinking, “Oh that’s too simple. People know how to make that.” And that’s true, but hey, who knows? Every method has its own little tricks and quirks to it. In fact, what started this was my husband showing me this image from Handle the Heat that’s been floating around social media:

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Now there’s science I can get behind! Why didn’t I do this as my science experiment for PJAS in grade school?

Joe asked about the chocolate chip cookies I make, and I told him that my recipe was a combination of several of those variables, except that I rarely chilled the dough for a whole day. Maybe he was just trying to get a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but he asked me to try it out of curiosity.

I did, and the flavor was amazing, but found that the first batch didn’t spread out as much as I’d prefer. So for the next go-round, I rolled the soft dough into a log, wrapped it in parchment, and then chilled it. Instead of rolling or dropping/flattening the cookies, I cut half-inch slices off of the dough log, ensuring even thickness and less spreading.

And lo, it was the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I doubt the ingredients are much different than yours, but I think the method here makes all the difference.

CCL’s Most Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer, combine the sugars and melted butter and beat until well mixed and slightly thickened. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla to this mixture and beat until thick (2-3 minutes).

Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix just until combined.

Mix in the chocolate chips.

Scoop the soft dough onto a large piece of parchment paper and form it into a 12-13 in. log. Roll the dough up in the parchment and refrigerate for 24 hours.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and then use a sharp knife (those chocolate chips are chilled and hard now) to cut the dough log into 1/2 in. slices. Place the cookies on a parchment-lined sheet pan about 2 in. apart and bake for 16 minutes or until golden around the edges.

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They’ll bake more evenly, no spreading, no fuss. Just delicious chocolate chip cookies. Now stop reading and get baking!

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A Note on Norman Scribner

23 Mar

The “Tuba Mirum” section from Mozart’s Requiem begins with a series of solos, with tenor and alto solos back-to-back. A little too timidly, I explained that I wanted to audition for both vocal parts. Norman Scribner raised his eyebrow at me looking unconvinced, but prepared to play the passage I’d marked.

Norman at the piano.

Norman at the piano.

I was in the hall at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, auditioning for the Choral Arts Society of Washington. After finishing grad school, I finally had some free time in the evenings after work, and wanted to get back to singing in some way. I missed singing with other people. I hadn’t auditioned for anything since college and felt completely out of practice. I’d torn our townhouse apart looking for sheet music and cursed myself for having no idea where any of it had gone. The Requiem was the only appropriate piece of music I even had in my possession to use for a choral audition.

Maestro Scribner gave me a few bars to get a sense of the pace he was playing, and offered another lift of his eyebrow to cue me in. Fortunately the tenor solo came first, giving me a chance to ease into my voice and calm my heart rate. I made a quick jump at the end of the tenor solo into the alto part, and I knew I’d won him over as a rather sly grin made its way across his face.

He laughed when I finished. “Well that’s just fantastic,” he said. We did some scales and rhythm exercises (the latter I totally bombed), then he told me there were still several weeks of auditions, so I probably wouldn’t hear anything for a few weeks. I thanked him for the opportunity and went on my way.

A few days later, I headed to Pittsburgh to visit my family. I got a phone call, and when I picked up, it was Norman. “Is this Christina?”

“Yes,”

“Hi, Norman Scribner from Choral Arts. Is this a good time?”

“Sure.”

“I keep thinking about your audition. I just think, I think you have something really special. You have a really unique voice. I’ve never heard anything like it. I don’t need any altos right now, but would you join Choral Arts as a tenor? I’d really like to have you.”

All I know is that I said yes, and that he thanked me. My brain almost went blank for the rest of the conversation. He was so utterly confident in my voice and that I’d be a good fit for the sound of the choir. It was beautifully humbling.

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Suited up for my first concert. The whole “being a tenor” thing helped me dodge buying a long blue choir dress and jacket.

Over the next ten months, I spent a great deal of time working with, and learning from Norman. He guided us through rehearsals for Orff’s Carmina Burana, an “Homage to Modern Classics” concert featuring Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a Christmas concert full of Russian carols, the annual “Living the Dream…Singing the Dream” Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concert, and finally Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem.

A photo of the choir, orchestra, and Maestro Scribner at Brahms "Ein Deutches Requiem."

A photo of the choir, orchestra, and Maestro Scribner at Brahms “Ein Deutches Requiem.”

He guided a smaller group of us who volunteered through rehearsals to sing with Andrea Bocelli as his back-up choir when he came to perform at the Verizon Center in DC. Oh, how patient he was as we attempted to not mangle the “Triumphal March” from Aida, which seemed to split into about a million parts.

Orchestra/choir backstage pass at the Verizon Center! SO COOL.

Orchestra/choir backstage pass at the Verizon Center! SO COOL.

There were also the numerous “Tenor and Bass Only” rehearsals during Carmina Burana where we’d fly through “In Taberna” over and over and over again until we stopped tripping over our tongues. Norman always had a moment to laugh with us during what could have been a redundant chore, but just as quickly, it was back to business.

I introduced him to my parents when they came to see one of our concerts and he repeated to my mother what a “unique treasure” of a voice I had. Every time he stood before us in The Kennedy Center and waited patiently for us to calm the chatter (oh come on, over 100 singers on one stage fidgeting around at dress rehearsal is a haven for good conversation), I felt the presence of something very special.

He drew sound out of us with his baton, and launched it across the walls of the Kennedy Center like a brilliant painter. He brought confidence and joy back into my voice when I wasn’t so sure I still “had it” anymore.

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Norman guiding his choir magnificently.

I am so utterly grateful to have known Norman Scribner. When I heard of his passing today, I could only hug my husband close to me, and cry for the loss of this heart and soul full of song. I feel blessed to have known him, blessed to remember that phone call, and in awe of his service to Choral Arts and music as a whole.

This article was published shortly before the last concert Norman conducted as Choral Arts’ director. It says more about his legacy in Washington, nationally, and abroad than I can possibly say. I know his spirit will live on in the lives of every person he shared time and music with, and am glad to be counted as one of his students.

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Norman Scribner, founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. February 25, 1936 – March 22, 2015

May you be at peace, Norman. Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.