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

Sniffle Stopper: Vegetable Soup

24 Sep

Ever since I started taking immuno-suppressants for my RA, I’ve had a constant, nagging cold. Maybe that’s why I woke up at 4:45 am today with an immediate and insatiable craving for vegetable soup. Your body tends to speak to you, and I’ve learned it’s generally a good idea to listen. So yes, there I was at 5 am in Safeway, standing in the produce section without a list. While things usually go better when I plan, vegetable soup is one of those things that you don’t really need a plan for, you just need to know what vegetables you like and what looks good at the store. It’s also helpful to know a little bit about what stands up well to being cooked in broth without going to mush on you, and that’s why I think that simple though this recipe may be, it’s well worth sharing because of its balance of textures and flavors. Let’s put the soup on!

Vegetable Soup

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 leeks (white part only, save the tops for stock!), diced
  • 2 cups carrots, peeled and cut into circles
  • 2 cups red potatoes, diced
  • 2 cups green beans, cut into 1 in. pieces
  • 1 cup celery, diced
  • 2 qts. low sodium chicken broth
  • 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, pulled into pieces
  • 2 ears corn, kernels removed
  • ¼ cup flat (Italian) parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-low heat.

Add the leeks, garlic, and a heavy pinch of salt, and sweat until the leeks are soft, 6-7 minutes.

Add the carrots, potatoes, green beans, and celery, and cook 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth and turn the heat up to high. Once the soup comes to a simmer, add the tomatoes and corn. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Simple, savory, and perfect for the crisp autumn days ahead. It’s got a nice mix of textures, an intoxicating aroma, and all the vitamins you could possibly want. Maybe this lip-smacking medicine will subdue my sniffles a little bit. Even if it doesn’t, it certainly satisfied my craving for a hearty soup. Hope it warms your heart too!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Kyoto Comfort: Miso Soup

18 Sep

The morning that Joe and I arrived in Kyoto last year was rainy and cool. Actually most of our trip was spent under umbrellas and wrapped in raincoats (save for a literally perfect, amazingly clear day at Mt. Fuji), but it didn’t slow us down much.

At the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

That morning in Kyoto we were tired and hungry after the long trip from Tokyo, so after we dropped off our suitcase at the hotel, we wandered back through the train station in search of something warm to eat. We stumbled upon Suika KYK, a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu, which is deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. And yes, the tonkatsu was delicious, savory, and crispy.

But I was equally enchanted by the deep, umami flavor of the miso soup served alongside it. Later, back in Tokyo, we ducked out of a storm into a Japanese steakhouse and were again greeted with a warm atmosphere and steaming hot bowls of miso soup.

With the recent residual storms from Hurricane Florence keeping the skies grey and the ground wet, I found my mind wandering back to those steamy bowls of soup that warmed and comforted my body. So one cool, gloomy morning I decided to allow myself a brief moment to embrace a memory that soothed me, and recreate a few cups of deeply treasured moments.

Miso soup is simple to make from scratch. Built right, we’ll end up with a rich, deep broth and a soup that’s both deeply satisfying and pretty healthy, too.

Miso Soup

Dashi:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 – 12 in. piece kombu
  • 1 oz. bonito flakes / katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna)

Soup:

  • 1 recipe dashi
  • 2 tbsp. white miso paste
  • 2 tbsp. brown miso paste
  • 6 oz. firm tofu, well-drained and cut into 1/2 in. cubes
  • 2 green onions, bias cut into small pieces, white and green parts divided
  • 2 ½ oz. dried mushrooms (I used oyster and porcini)
  • 3 small heads baby bok choy, stems chopped into ½ in. pieces, leaves sliced
  • 1 in. piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

To make the dashi, combine the water and kombu and bring to a boil.

As soon as the water boils, remove the kombu. Add the bonito flakes and stir to mix.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow the bonito flakes to steep for 5 minutes. Strain the dashi through a cheesecloth-lined sieve.

In a large pot, heat a tbsp. of neutral oil over medium-low heat and add the white parts of the onions, ginger, and garlic to the pot. Cook until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Add the dashi and bring to a simmer.

Add the miso pastes and mushrooms and cook 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender.

Add the bok choy stems and simmer another 10 minutes.

Finally, add the tofu, bok choy leaves, and green onions, and simmer 5 minutes.

Serve, and let your heart and whole self feel warm.

While it’s a pretty light soup in a caloric sense, the tofu, mushrooms, and bok choy give it texture and heartiness that make it perfectly suitable for a meal. You could certainly add some noodles to it for something more substantial, though I think it makes a wonderful breakfast just as-is.

My life has been flipped upside-down in the last six months, but I am so grateful for the power of food and cooking to continue to not only bring me physical and mental comfort, but to bring joyful memories and thoughts to the forefront of my mind when I’m shaken. I sip this soup and I am back half-way across the world with my best friend. It is self-care in the truest and sweetest sense.

Ciao for now,

Neen