Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on the Kitchen and the Table

I am a big believer in eat-in kitchens and round tables to go with them. The kitchen and corresponding table are where the pulse of the family lives and breaths.

In high school, I would occasionally be invited to have dinner at a friends house and I always thought it was interesting to see how different families interacted at dinner. If a sociologist wanted to see the state of the American family, they could just observe millions of families at their nightly or non-nightly dinners. What are family dinners like these days? Do we talk about the events of the day? Do we sit in silence and just eat the food? Do we have the TV on throughout the dinner with the whole family watching that instead of conversing? Does everyone at the table actually enjoy each other's company? Is everyone in the family present at the table or is there a consistent no-show? Is everyone at the table tuned in with with each other?

Growing up, it was where I would do my homework at night while talking with my Mom as she prepared dinner. It was where my parents, my brother and I would eat dinner every night for hours laughing and talking about our day. It is where my family still gathers to cook, eat, drink and talk...endlessly.

It is with sappy nostalgia that I can finally say that I have my own eat-in kitchen and table to go with it. The table is white, made of wood, round and is complete with cushions on the chairs in bright purple and patterned pink, purple and green. It took me forever to put it together but worth it. I do believe that if families and friends came together for dinner every night, sans TV, that the world would be a happier place.

Xoxo - AJ

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pear Apple Crisp

A good morning before heading to work for the day entails stepping out early to walk my dog with that Autumn chill in the air and taking in the Zen like quality of the moment. The only sound is the rustle of the leaves in the trees. I have a hot cup of coffee with a little cream and a pinch of cinnamon in my hand. The crimson and orange leaves swirl around my feet on the cold concrete as I walk alone sipping the coffee while centering my thoughts and preparing mentally for the day ahead.

The only thing that I savior as much if not more than these Autumn mornings is the smell of apple crisps, pies and tarts coming out of the oven when there is a chill in the air. With the temperature dropping, the following recipe looked too good to resist. I adapted this from Ina Garten's "Barefoot Contessa at Home". I made a few minor changes but it is almost exactly as it appears in the book. This is a classic combination of flavors that is not too sweet with an almost cookie like crisp crumble on top. Enjoy! xoxo - AJ

4 Bosc pears
6 apples (2 Honeycrisp, 2 Granny Smith and 2 Fuji)
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

For the topping:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar packed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup old fashioned oatmeal
1/2 pound or 2 sticks butter, diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Peel and core the pears and apples and cut them into large chunks. Place the fruit in a large bowl and toss with the cranberries, zests, juices, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into a 9x12x2-inch baking dish.

For the topping, combine the flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal and cold butter and mix together with a food processor or a stand mixer. Mix until the mixture is in large crumbles. Sprinkle evenly over the fruit covering the fruit completely.

Place the baking dish on a sheet pan covered with tin foil and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes, until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbly. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Memories of Firenze Spaghetti and Meatballs

I grew up on spaghetti with Prego on top and I had no idea there were any alternatives to what I thought was a pretty good meal. Fast forward to college when my parents shipped me off to Florence, Italy for a few weeks and I felt like I had dropped into an alternate food universe. I had never tasted pasta, calzones, salads, gelato, cappuccino, fish and sauces that tasted so fresh and full of flavor. I remember walking along the cobblestone street soaking in the sun one afternoon with the Florence street vendors hocking everything from leather handbags to $1 straw hats in the shape of ice cream cones. Everyday those vendors get out there and make an art of bartering. While I walked along the street, I spotted a street vendor selling calzones and in my famished state I purchased one for under $5.00. I took a bite and I think the heavens opened up. The inside was warm with fresh mozzarella oozing out and a tomato sauce that tasted like the tomatoes had just come off the vine. The outside dough had a light caramel color, it was soft and moist and melted in my mouth along with the sauce and the cheese. I don't think I had ever tasted anything that heavenly in my young life. Couple that meal with the ambiance of the warm sun on my neck, the beautiful architecture of Firenze with the miles of white and pink stone towering above me and the beautiful Italian men and women passing me left and right adamantly speaking their beautiful language with their arms flailing about. It is an experience that everyone should have once in their life as it is one that you will not find anywhere else.

This dish makes me feel like I am back in one of the little restaurants that speckle the streets of Florence. It is the comfort food to top all comfort foods and well worth the time it takes to make it.

Meatballs First
1/2 pound ground pork
1 1/2 pound ground beef
1 cup fresh white bread crumbs sans crusts
1/4 cup Italian seasoned dry bread crumbs
1 handfull chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 egg beaten

Sauce Second
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup red wine (I used Chianti)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Spaghetti Last
1 1/2 pounds spaghetti cooked al dente

Place all ingredients under "meatballs" with 3/4 cup warm water in a large bowl. With clean hands, mush it all together until well mixed. Form the mixture into 2-inch balls. You will have approximately 15 meatballs.

Pour part vegetable oil and olive oil in a large skillet to a depth of 1/4 inch and heat the oil. In batches of about 5, place the meatballs in the oil and brown them on all sides. If they brown too quickly, the oil is too hot, too slowly and the oil is not hot enough. You will also need to move the meatballs around constantly for about 10 minutes per batch. Remove the meatballs to a plate with a lot of paper towels. When all the meatballs are complete, discard the oil but don't wipe or clean the pan.

Place the pan back on the stove with heat and pour in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the wine over high heat and scrape up all of the brown bits from the meatballs. Let the wine cook until reduced by half. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, salt and pepper and stir together. Let cook for 5 minutes and add the meatballs back into the sauce. Stir, cover the pot and allow to cook on the lowest heat for 45 minutes.

Stir in the cooked spaghetti along with 1/2 cup of the water that the spaghetti was boiled in. Only serve this (with parmesan) to someone who is nice and considerate of your time and feelings.


Xoxo - AJ

Friday, September 25, 2009

Orange Pound Cake with Chocolate Marble

Let me start off by saying that this recipe is not for everyone. I personally love, love, love the taste of chocolate and orange together so if you are like me, you will love this. This recipe is enough for two loaves, one with just the orange and the other with the chocolate topping. One note, the chocolate loaf is best served right away. If you refrigerate it, the chocolate turns hard as a rock. I know this is not how to make marbled pound cake but I tend to think the typical marbling method covers up the chocolate taste. Since I am a chocoholic, I melt the chocolate and simply swirl it into the cake before baking. Again, this is not how you are supposed to do it and I know the picture is not pretty but for me, it is a comfort food that makes me groan. xoxo - AJ

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at slightly cool room temperature
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup grated orange zest (6 oranges)
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, divided
3/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate Topping:
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ounce high quality unsweetened chocolate chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease (I use PAM) and flour two loaf pans.

Cream the butter and 2 cups of the granulated sugar for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the orange zest. Mix in 1/4 cup orange juice, sour cream and vanilla.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Combine flour mixture with butter mixture until just combined. Fold mixture together to finish mix. Divide the batter evenly between the pans. In one of the mixtures, pour the chocolate mixture (see recipe below) on top. Stick a knife into the chocolate batter to the bottom of the pan. Swirl the chocolate up and down the length of the pan 3 or 4 times Do not over swirl!

Bake both loaves on the middle rack for 5 minutes to 1 hour or until they have a golden to and a long toothpick comes out clean.

While the cakes bake, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the remaining 1/2 cup orange juice until the sugar dissolves completely. When the cakes are done, let them cool for ten minutes. Take them out of the an and place them on a baking rack set over a sheet pan where juice will not run off. Spoon the orange syrup over the loaves and allow cakes to cool completely.

Chocolate Mixture:
Combine the half of the chips and the unsweetened chocolate in a glass microwave safe bowl. Heat chocolate in 1 minute increments and take out between heating to stir. When chocolate is smooth, pour in the remaining chips and stir quickly until all is melted. The more you stir, the more glossy it becomes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Crunch Granola

I am a huge fan of granola but I have anxiety over the cost and artificial taste of the stuff from the middle aisle of the store. This recipe makes a whole lotta granola and should last you for weeks. This is also totally easy and you can switch, add and subtract ingredients to suit your own tastes. The only warning on this stuff is that it is addictive and I have spent more nights than I care to admit munching away while watching Bridget Jones's Diary for the 80th time. I know, not glamorous but it puts me in my happy place and that's how I roll.

2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup of water
5 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup chopped salted cashews
1/2 cup salted sunflower seeds
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup golden raisins

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Combine brown sugar and water in a large glass microwave bowl. Make sure it is big or it will boil over. Place in microwave for 5 minutes and cook until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from microwave; add vanilla extract, almond extract and salt. Stir to combine until salt dissolves. Place oats, all nuts and dried fruits in a bowl and combine. Pour brown sugar mixture over nut mixture and combine. Pour mixture onto the two baking sheets, piling high if necessary. Bake for 50-60 minutes until olden and crunchy. Wait until the mixture is cooled completely and store in an airtight container.

Friday, September 18, 2009


No, Ina Garten would never in a million years serve this heap of yumminess but she also doesn't get the after drinking munchies because, well, can we really picture Ina at some ladies drink free night in the western suburbs of Illinois? Ummm, no. These are two-bite piles of butterscotch, peanut butter, marshmallows and cashews. Actually, Ina would probably take this recipe and make it positively elegant. Before that happens though, appreciate the recipe for what it is, the food equivalent of crack that is just not that pretty.

P.S. Freeze these and have them the next day...groan...totally addictive.

1 package butterscotch chips
3/4 cup peanut butter (do not use natural here, use the Skippy with full on flavor)
1/2 cup chopped salted cashews
1 1/2 cup chow mein noodles
3/4 cup mini marshmallows

Melt the butterscotch chips and peanut butter in a large sauce pan. When the mixture is halfway melted, take it off the heat and stir until it is smooth. Let cool slightly and add in the cashews and chow mein noodles and mix together. Fold in the marshmallows. Spoon the mixture in rounded tablespoon size into balls on parchment or wax paper. Allow to set for an hour and eat or put them in the freezer or fridge for later noshing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Lemon Meringue Pie

I am not usually a fan of Lemon Meringue Pie but I absolutely loved this one! This came from the wonderful book "Pie, 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie" by Ken Haedrich.


1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch
pinch of salt
2 cups water
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

4 large egg whites at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
big pinch of salt
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Prepare the pastry (see recipe below) and make sure it is firm enough to roll.
2. Roll the pastry out and invert it into a 9 1/2 inch deep dish pie pan and tuck it into the pan without stretching it. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes and pre-bake it at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
3. Combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium-size saucepan, whisking to mix. Add the water, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Add the egg yolks, whisking the mixture well. Place over medium heat and cook, whisking nonstop until the mixture comes to a boil, 5 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly and continue to cook, whisking nonstop for about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, one piece at a time. Immediately pour the filling into the cooled pie shell, jiggling the pan to settle it. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly over the filling, taking care not to leave any gaps or air pockets, to prevent a skin from forming. Transfer the pie to a wire rack to let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for up to 1 day if not adding the meringue right away.
4. Just before serving, preheat the broiler and make the meringue. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer on high speed until they hold soft peaks. (Please be sure the bowl is clean!) Beat in the cream of tartar and salt. Gradually add the superfine sugar, beating until the whites are thick and glossy, though not dry. Add the vanilla and beat briefly. Mound the meringue over the filling, spreading so it is domed in the center and touching the crust all around the edge.
5. Place the pie in the center rack in the oven and briefly brown the meringue under the broiler. This will be quick so don't walk away. Serve immediately.

Pastry - Single Crust
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 stick very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/4 cup very cold vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
1/4 cup ice water

Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor or stand mixer and combine. Add the cold butter in and combine until they are pea-sized nuggets in the flour. Add in the shortening and combine. Add the water slowly while mixing until dough comes together. Add more water or four as necessary to make it come together. Dump the flour mixture onto a floured surface and kneed a few times. Split the dough in half and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Banana Cream Pie Controversy

Good God this pie caused a lot of controversy. It started out so very simple. I was out on a seemingly harmless date and I asked, "What is your favorite kind of pie?" Thinking that I was the pie baking goddess and that no man could resist my skills in the kitchen, I thought I could really wow him with whatever pie he wanted. On top of my overblown ego, he said his favorite was banana cream. Jackpot! I had made a banana cream pie with my cooking club fellow goddesses from an Emeril cookbook a few years back and it was heavenly. How could I possibly go wrong? Ugh, famous last words.

I proceeded to diligently prepare the pie with what I thought was some skill and care. I took this photo and texted it to the guy. Lesson #1 in this scenario, never text the finished product to the taster as this will lead to too much build-up, leading to high expectations and a diminished rate of return upon tasting. Note: don't do food trailers.

The first two pieces of pie went to my parents and being the sweet parents they are, said the pie was "amazing". Lesson #2, do not test recipes on your parents as they are your parents and they will lie to your face because they love you and still think you are 8 years old cannot handle their real opinion.

The second two pieces went to two guys in my office who taste a lot of my baking. When they are not fond of something, they are pretty diplomatic but honest so I knew they would tell me the truth. I thought if these two like it, I am golden. One of them liked it and the other said it was the best thing I had ever made.

So, by now, I am feeling pretty good. My family and colleagues all gave the big thumbs up and collectively indicated that whoever did not totally dig the pie was mentally deranged. Fast forward to a random Tuesday night. I ask the target audience to come over and taste the last piece of pie I had. He says no need to twist his arm and that he will put in a double work out to prepare. Lesson #3, people who spend a lot of time at the gym and watch every little thing they eat should not be completely trusted with providing credible food tasting opinions. Their taste buds have been diminished by bland food without salt, sugar or fat. Anyway, I gave him the pie, left the room and returned to find that he had eaten most of the pie but left some of the graham cracker crust on the plate. Not good. He then proceeded to say the following, "it was good but if I could offer a suggestion, I like banana cream with the regular butter crust rather than the graham cracker crust you have." There you have it, everyone liked the pie except for the person it was aimed at. Crashed and burned.

To make matters worse, I then proceeded to call my Mother to tell her what happened and she said, "yes, your Father and I thought the same thing, it was a little overwhelming with the graham cracker crust." I understand lying to me about the Tooth Fairy and Santa, but my baking? She said they didn't want to hurt my feelings.

I will try the pie with the butter crust in the next few months. Until then, here is the fateful recipe that I still personally love. Cheers to Emeril, who, in my book, is a genius.

4 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise in half
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 recipe graham cracker crust
3 pounds (about 9) ripe but firm bananas peeled and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine 2 cups of the cream, the milk, 1/2 cup of the sugar, the vanilla bean, and the vanilla seeds in a large heavy saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.

Combine the eggs, egg yolks, cornstarch, and 1 cup of the sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until pale yellow. Slowly add 1 cup of the hot cream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly until smooth. Gradually add the egg mixture to the hot cream and whisk well to combine. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly with a heavy wooden spoon, and cook until this mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. (The pastry cream may separate slightly; if so, remove from the heat and beat with an electric mixer until thick and smooth.) Strain through a fine mesh strainer, pressing it directly against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 4 hours.

To assemble, spread 1/2 cup of the pastry cream over the bottom of the prepared crust, smoothing it with the back of a large spoon or rubber spatula. Arrange enough banana slices (not quite one-third) in a tight pattern over the custard, pressing them down with your hands to pack firmly. Repeat to build a second layer, using another 3/4 cup of the pastry cream and enough bananas to cover it. Do a third layer using the method above. If there is any remaining cream and bananas, do a fourth layer. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 4 hours or overnight.

In a medium bowl whip the remaining 2 cups cream until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and the vanilla extract until soft peaks form. (In my version there is also a tablespoon of dark rum that went into this but that's up to you.) Pile the high with the whip cream or pipe on the cream for a more refined look.

Graham Cracker Crust Recipe:

1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350.

Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter in a bowl and mix well. Press the mixture into the sides and bottom of a 9-inch pie pan.

Bake the crust until browned, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely.

French Apple Tart

I am a huge fan of anything apple and this tart is no exception.

This is a desert that could serve as a light alternative to an apple crisp or a basic apple pie. This tart looks absolutely fabulous when completed and cut up and it has a wonderful delicate quality that makes you feel satisfied and not stuffed. I am a firm believer that no one likes to leave the table feeling sick or overly full and with that philosophy in mind, this would be a perfect accompaniment to a heavy meal.

This recipe comes from a lady who I consider to be a genius of easy and elegant food, Ina Garten. A few things to note about this recipe and the finished product; first, it is indeed easy especially if the pre-packaged puff pastry is used instead of the one that is provided in the book. Second, cover your entire sheet pan with parchment paper and I would even say to cover the edges of the pan with parchment. The sugar with the juice from the apples run all over and trying to get burnt sugar (see first picture) off of a sheet pan is akin to scraping dried and blackened gum off of a sidewalk, a horrible undertaking requiring gladiator scrubbing strength. In addition, open your windows because the sugar will burn and when you open your oven, the smoke will set off your smoke detectors and scare the life out of your little dog and small child (not that I speak from experience). Third is that I used salted butter to dot the apples instead of the unsalted called for in the recipe. My reasoning was that there was absolutely no salt anywhere in the recipe and quite frankly, I do not trust recipes without salt, so I added it in where I thought there was some room for maneuvering.

Here is the recipe with my alternative ingredients:
Frozen Puff Pastry thawed overnight in the refrigerator
4 Granny Smith Apples
1/3 Cup Sugar (her recipe calls for 1/2 cup but 1/3 is plenty)
4 tablespoons cold salted butter diced
1/3 cup apricot jelly (her recipe calls for 1/2 cup but 1/3 is plenty)
2 tablespoons Calvados or Rum (I used dark rum)

Preheat the over to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with edges (very important) with parchment paper.

Lay out the puff pastry on the parchment paper and lightly press it with a rolling pin just to make it smooth. Refrigerate while preparing the apples.

Peel the apples and cut the four sides of the apple off. Slice the apples into 1/4-inch thick slices. Place overlapping slices of apples diagonally down the middle of the tart and then repeat on each side of the middle row until entire pastry is covered. Sprinkler all of the sugar over all of the apples. Dot the sugared apples with butter.

Bake for 1 hour turning twice throughout baking until the apple edges are brown. Take the tart out of the oven and set aside. Heat up the jelly and the rum mixture and then pass it through a fine mesh sieve to make it smooth. Brush the apples with the apricot mixture. Serve, hot, warm or cold.

**My family loved vanilla bean ice cream on top of the tart.

Xoxo - AJ

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Okay, so maybe I should say half of the bread. I made this yesterday before I got this blog up and running. I have always thought that banana bread, no matter how many flavor uppers are added, is inherently bland. So, I found a recipe that had sour cream in the ingredients and I had to try it. Sour cream, in my opinion, can perform magic in so many dishes with its thick and slightly sour quality that really bumps up flavor. I also added in walnuts and chocolate chips to see if I could add a little more complexity. It turned out very well and my son loved it! I put 1 cup of chocolate chips into this recipe but I think I might add in a little less next time. The chips seemed to overwhelm the banana flavor whereas it really should enhance. I will try this again in a few days and modify this post based on the next try.

***One very serious note here, I am working on getting a better camera and acquiring better photography skills. Until then, the amazing photos seen on seemingly every other blog on earth will not be appearing least not yet.

11 tablespoons Butter (at room temperature)
3 very ripe bananas mashed
1/2 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat over to 350 degrees F.

Spray PAM in a 91/4 by 51/4 by 21/2 inch loaf pan

Puree mashed bananas, sour cream, eggs, butter and vanilla with a paddle attachment in mixer.

Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

Add flour mixture in with banana mixture until just combined. Fold in walnuts and chocolate chips.

Pour mixture into loaf pan and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Bread should be lightly browned and spring back when touched. Remove from the oven and leave in pan for about 30 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack lined with a paper towel.

Xoxo - AJ