Friday, October 30, 2009

A Trick and A Treat

A Trick:
I was a weird kid. I always always always ate my veggies. Its not that I was super obedient or anything like that, no, I just really loved the taste ( I still do). But I know that not every kid is like me, and normally parents have to sneak in veggies in any way shape or form.

Now of course, just because I liked veggies doesn't mean I was a healthy eater; I loved my desserts so much that I once polished off an entire tub of Cool-Whip when my mom was not looking ( Ugh, I don't even like to think about that!). So, I understand the mentality of a kid, especially during Halloween time, when veggies are the last thing on their minds.
I also understand the mentality of a parent who wants her child to eat healthy. The solution: trick 'em!
These carrot cake cookies pack in enough nutrients that you can almost forget the sugar involved. Almost.

And A Treat:
Remember the joy of Halloween? Besides the fact that you can dress up and pretend to be someone new, you get free candy just by going and knocking on someone's door. But my favorite part of Halloween was always, in the evenings, when we got home and divided up the loot.
I learned quickly that, being the youngest of five had some drawbacks, one of which occurred every Halloween, when we'd dump our pillowcases full of candy on the floor and separate it into three piles: The throw-aways, the middle-men, and the untouchables. The throw-aways were always chalky candies like Necco-Wafers, or waxy things like those little bottles filled with juice. The middle-men were usually fruity candy, things like Starburst and Twizzlers that I liked, but didn't mind sharing. Then there was the Untouchables.

The untouchables were our favorites, the candy that we would not share, and the ones, unfortunately, that my brothers would often steal. For me, these were always chocolate, the mightiest of all being anything with chocolate and mint. Next in line would be chocolate and peanut butter, mostly Reese's Peanut Butter cups, which are the inspiration, and the key ingredient to Peanut Butter Cupcakes, which are the perfect treat for Halloween parties, or any time really.

Enjoy and Happy Halloween!

Carrot Cake Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart Cookies

1 cup butter (softened)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups finely grated carrots
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Creme cheese Frosting ( recipe follows)

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy ( 3-4 mins). Add eggs and vanilla and beat on medium speed until well combined.

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Gradually add four mixture to butter mixture, stirring well to incorporate. Mix in oats, carrots, raisins and nuts. Chill until firm, at least 1 hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Shape tablespoons of dough into balls and place on prepared baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake until browned and crisp, 12-15 minutes, rotating halfway through. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Spread about 2 teaspoons of frosting until the flat sides of half of the cookies. Sandwich together with the remaining cookies.

Cookies can be refrigerated in airtight containers up to 3 days.
Creme Cheese Frosting
8 oz cream cheese
1 stick of butter
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla.

Place cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Using a rubber spatula, beat cream cheese until smooth, Gradually add butter and continue beating until well blended. Sift in confectioners sugar and continue beating until smooth. Add vanilla and stir to combine.

Peanut Butter Cups:
Adapted from Pillsbury: Complete Book of Baking

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/3 cup peanut butter
1/3 cup shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
24 mini-Reese's Peanut Butter Cups ( unwrapped)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 24 muffin cups with paper baking cups.
In a large bowl combine all ingredients except Peanut Butter cups. Mix at a low speed until incorporated then beat for 2 minutes at a medium speed.
Fill paper lined muffin cups 2/3 way full. Press a peanut butter cup into the batter until the top edge is even with the batter.
Bake for 18-24 minutes, or until the tops spring back when touched.
Yield: 24 cupcakes

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Triumph

Ever have one of those days that just works? Today was that kind of day for me. After endless days of rain, we woke up to sunshine ( well, actually we woke up before sunrise but once it came out, it was shining non-stop). And when I got out of work it was still shining.

It was too nice to go right to my bus stop so I walked around Downtown Minneapolis for a while, basking in the crisp fall weather and thought about those apples that are resting on our porch and how I wanted to try a new cake. So I headed to the library to browse through old cookbooks.
I checked out the Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking and as I rode the bus to Gian Luca's lab I narrowed down the options for tonight's cake. In the end, he picked out the recipe for Apple Streusel Coffee Cake.

As I walked home at 5 pm I soaked in the various reds, yellows, and oranges of fall, stopping to notice the little flowers that are still around.

Then I went home, opened the book, turned on some Italian rock music and baked. It was so simple, like I had made the cake 1,000 times. And, while it was in the oven, I even cooked dinner. Its these little culinary triumphs that make this blog writing so fun.

Apple Streusel Coffee Cake
Adapted from Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking
Coffee Cake:
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons plain yogurt
3 medium apples (peeled and thinly sliced)

For the Topping:
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix well and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat 1/4 cup butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and blend well. Alternately add the dry ingredients and yogurt to sugar mixture, beating well after each addition. Spread batter in prepared pan; arrange apple slices over batter.

In a small bowl, combine all topping ingredients except butter. Using a fork, cut in 2 tablespoons of butter until crumbly. Sprinkle topping evenly over apples.

Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Apple picking and a recipe

After being home bound for 6 days straight, I needed to go out. So on Sunday Gian Luca took me to Minnesota Harvest, an orchard in Jordan Minnesota.
We couldn't have asked for a better day to pick our Haralson, Fireside, Regent, and Connell Reds. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and the entire world screamed autumn.
From the smoky smell of fire in the lodge, to the taste of sweet apple cider donuts, it was the perfect apple picking experience, and a first for both of us here in Minnesota.

Throughout the day Gian Luca recounted stories of picking apples off trees in his hometown of Montepulciano, Tuscany. I couldn't help feeling a little envious of his past. Not that I didn't pick fruit in the garden state. The summers in New Jersey led my family to the farms for fresh tomatoes, strawberry picking and the world's largest blueberry festival, but autumn always fell short.
I'm sure there are apple orchards in New Jersey, but I've never been to one. I vaguely remember "pumpkin picking" which consisted of taking a hay ride around a school parking lot and selecting a pre-picked pumpkin from the piles. Those days always ended with fresh apple cider and warm apple-cider donuts but the experience always felt a bit fake. Sunday was the real deal; we even rode horses around the orchards.

After our ride, we were left to graze the orchards and pick our apples. We ran through the fields like two little kids, and yes, I actually skipped for a bit. Gian Luca climbed the trees to get the good apples and we laughed all the way back to the lodge where we sampled cider and ate our donuts, baked fresh just minutes before.

We came home with ten pounds of apples just waiting to be baked into delicious treats.
And of course, my first instinct was to make muffins. ( I just love a good muffin for breakfast!)

Apple Bran Muffins:

1 1/2 cups wheat bran
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup apple cider
1 egg
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder

2 large apples, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease muffin cups or line with paper muffin liners.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Toss apples with cinnamon and sugar, set aside
Mix together wheat bran and milk; let stand for 10 minutes.
Beat together oil, apple cider, egg, brown sugar and vanilla and add to milk/bran mixture. Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, until just blended. Fold in apples. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Hearty Lentil Soup

There are few things more comforting than a nice hearty bowl of soup. And, it is when we are sick that we need the most comfort. I would know, because since Monday I've been battling the flu. Yes, that flu, the one that everyone is scared of, the one that I thought I wouldn't get. But honestly, it hasn't been too bad ( I must have a mild case of it).
Basically, since Monday I have been hibernating in my apartment, alternating my time between the bed and what I like to call "my sick chair", which is one of our kitchen chairs with a blanket on the seat and a pillow on its back for extra cushioning. My head has been aching too much to read or write so I've been filling up on Bravo's reality TV and sleep. To make matters worse, Gian Luca has been away at a conference in St. Louis, so its been me, myself, and I spending quality time with the remote. Oh yeah, and it snowed all day on Monday. Isn't this October?
Luckily, I didn't have to worry about cooking, since I made Chicken Soup last week and had a bountiful supply in the freezer. So my cooking these past three days has been as simple as hitting the defrost button on the microwave. But tonight, all that has changed.I was feeling a little better this afternoon and I finished the last of my chicken soup for lunch, so I decided to make a nice hearty lentil soup that would make the entire apartment smell delicious for when Gian Luca arrives home tonight.
I played with what I had in the fridge to make this chunky variation of an old favorite, and so this soup came out more like a combination of Minestrone and Lentil soup. And since I had some Canadian Bacon in the fridge I threw that in too. Why not, right?
The minute that I smelled the leeks and bacon simmering together I began feeling better. Now, I won't say that this soup will magically cure my flu, but it sure did provide some much needed comfort on this chilly afternoon.

Hearty Lentil Soup

1/4 cup olive oil
2 leeks ( white parts only, finely chopped)
3oz Canadian Bacon ( cubed)
2 celery stalks (finely chopped)
2 carrots (finely chopped)
1 medium potato (finely chopped)
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup Italian Parsely (finely chopped)
1 (16 oz) bag of lentils
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 cups chicken stock
3 qts water ( approx)

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium flame. Add the leeks and Canadian Bacon and simmer until the leeks are translucent (about 7 minutes) Add the celery, carrots and potato and let simmer for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients, making sure that liquid is two inches above the vegetables. Simmer for one hour, or until all of the vegetables/lentils are tender and the liquid has reduced a bit. Stir occasionally.
Top with pecorino romano cheese and a drop of olive oil. Enjoy!

This will keep in the fridge for 3 days or can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Darling Chocolate Chip Muffins

Last night my writing teacher called the first chapter of my novel "darling" and today I've basked in the loveliness of the word.
The entire world seemed darling today, starting with the vibrant sunlight that beamed through the windows of our apartment, to the yellow and orange leaves that crunched under my feet as I walked home, to finally the little chocolate-chip muffins I made this afternoon.
It seems that I am in a muffin mood lately, baking two different batches this week alone. But the truth is that I just realized we had muffin pans in the house. And really, the are so darling.

Chocolate Chip Muffins

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 t vanilla (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 bag of semi-sweet chocolate-chips.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin pan with paper cups. Set aside.
Fold the chocolate chips in a tablespoons of flour ( this will prevent them from sinking). Set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In another bowl, mix the sugar, yogurt, eggs, and vanilla until well blended. Mix in the oil.
Add the dry ingredients a little at a time, mixing until just combined.
Fold in the chocolate chips. Fill each cup 2/3 of the way full.
Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack until completely cool.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shredded Wheat Blackberry Muffins

I hate throwing away food. Even when I ruin a recipe I'll try to salvage the food so as not to waste it. So every time I open my cabinet and see the bright orange box of shredded wheat staring at me, I feel a pang of guilt. I want to throw it away, but I just can't. There is nothing wrong with the cereal, I just don't like it. I bought it on a whim, figuring it would be a nice healthy way to start my day; instead, it tasted a bit like straw.
Since I simply can't throw the stuff out, I figured I'd try to bake with it. I did a quick google search and came up with a few promising recipes. I tweaked them a little and came up with Shredded Wheat Blackberry Muffins. Surprisingly, these muffins are moist and cakey. No straw-like texture here. Gian Luca didn't even believe I put some cereal in there. So the shredded wheat can stay!

Shredded Wheat Blackberry Muffins

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar + 1 tablespoon for topping
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups crushed shredded wheat
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup blackberries ( fresh or frozen)*
1 tbsp. lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add in crushed cereal. Add egg, milk and oil and stir until fully incorporated. Fold in the blackberries, lemon juice and lemon . Line a 12 muffin pan with cupcake liners ( or grease the pan). Fill each cup 2/3 full. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with a little bit of sugar. Bake on middle rack for 18-25 minutes* ( this may take slightly longer if using frozen berries). The tops of the muffins should be golden brown. Cool in muffin pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: 12 medium muffins

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chicken soup: a two for one

So far, October has been good to us. Despite the non-stop rain, we had an amazing weekend, largely because of my brother Joey, who came to visit. During his stay, we consumed so much food, hitting up five of our favorite restaurants in just three days. We all woke up this morning feeling full and a bit tired of eating. But, as it always happens, the more you eat, the more hungry you get, so as Joey hit the road again, heading for Denver, I got in my car and headed for the grocery store.
It's not only been raining these past few days, its also been cold. I don't mean a little October chill either, I mean frosted fingers and purple lips cold. And when its like this the only thing I want to eat is soup.
I think every culture has a great chicken soup recipe, but of course, I favor the Italian version that I grew up with. Since Italians like to have a first and second course, our chicken was always served separately from the soup, making the dinner last twice as long and feel twice as satisfying. Who wouldn't want to get two dishes out of one easy pot?]
So tonight, its a two for one. Brodo con Pastina and Chicken with Salsa Verde. Enjoy!

Brodo con Pastina
for the Chicken Broth:
4 chicken thighs ( with bone and skin on)
4 stalks of celery ( with leaves), cut into quarters
2 carrots peeled and cut into quarters
1 small potato, peeled
1 small onion, cut into quarters
1 roma tomato
Salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a large stockpot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer on medium heat for 2 hours.
Remove from heat. Strain the chicken and veggies, set aside for later.
( this will yield 3 quarts of chicken stock, which can be stored in the fridge for 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month)

for the pastina:
1/4 cup of acini de pepe, ( or orzo)
3 cups water.
1 teaspoon of salt

Bring salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 minutes. Strain and add the pasta to your chicken broth.
Top with pecorino romano cheese and enjoy.

Salsa Verde
1 bunch Italian parsley
8 basil leaves
3 anchovies ( packed in olive oil)
1 teaspoon of capers
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of black pepper
1/2 boiled potato ( from soup)

Blend first seven ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Mash the potato into the sauce with a fork until smooth.
Serve this sauce with the boiled chicken and veggies from the soup.