Monday, December 28, 2009

Sparkling Cranberry Gems

The luscious little sparklers you see before you are called "Sparkling Cranberry Gems," called that, I assume, from the coarse sparkling sugar coating them and the dried cranberries tucked inside (not much gets by me!).  

The fine folks at King Arthur Flour created this recipe and yesterday morning at 7am, I decided I needed one more cookie added to the "the list." For those of you playing along at home, you'll recall that I published my holiday baking list a couple of weeks ago and I have been very disciplined in sticking to it.  I did have one mishap:  Giada's Cornmeal Cranberry Cake.  A cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake came out clean, but as it started to cool it slowly cracked and fell in the center. When I tried to invert it onto a plate, the cake broke into a semi-liquid mess all over the counter!  So disappointing.  Well, as the French like to say, c'est la vie.  I guess one baking disaster out of all the baking I did this holiday season isn't too bad.

Back to the Sparkling Gems. These are super easy to make, delicious, and even a little bit healthy for you (check out the nutritional values at the end of the recipe).  Because I only had King Arthur whole wheat flour in the house, I used a half 'n half mixture of whole wheat and white. You can use 100% white flour if that's all you've got. Either way, I think you'll be happy.

Sparkling Cranberry Gems printable recipe

1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) King Arthur White Whole Wheat 

Flour, organic preferred; or  King Arthur Unbleached 
All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 cups (7 ounces) dried cranberries,  packed
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold unsalted butter, 

cut into pats
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) milk

scant 1/2 cup (about 3 1/2 ounces) coarse white 

sparkling sugar

Place the flour and dried cranberries in the bowl of a food 

Process until the cranberries are coarsely shredded. 
Imagine a single dried cranberry cut into about 4 pieces: that’s 
your goal.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) 

two baking sheets.

Whisk together the flour/cranberry mixture, sugar, baking powder, 

and salt. Add the vanilla and butter, mixing until the butter is 
thoroughly distributed, but some pea-sized chunks still remain. 
Dribble in the milk while mixing; the dough will become cohesive.

Place the coarse sugar in a plastic bag; about 1-quart size 

should do.

Using a teaspoon cookie scoop (or a spoon), scoop the dough 

by 1 3/4-teaspoonfuls (about 1 ¼" balls) into the bag, 6 or 8 at 
a time. Close the top of the bag, and gently shake to coat the 
balls with sugar. Place them on the prepared baking sheet, 
and use the bottom of a glass to flatten them to about ¼" thick 
(about 1 ½" in diameter). Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake the cookies for 16 to 17 minutes, until they’re set and 

barely, BARELY beginning to brown around the very edge; 
the tops shouldn’t be brown at all. Remove them from the oven, 
and cool right on the pan.
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size, 1 cookie (15g); Servings per Batch, 36; amount 

per serving: Calories 60, Calories from Fat 20, Total Fat 2g(3% DV), 
Saturated Fat 1g(6% DV), Trans Fat 0g, Cholesterol 5mg(2% DV), 
Sodium 30mg(1% DV), Total Carbohydrate 10g(3% DV), Dietary 
Fiber 1g(3% DV), Sugars 7g, Protein 1g, Vitamin A (2% DV), Vitamin C 
(0% DV), Calcium (2% DV), Iron (0% DV).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Toffee Cookies with Dark Chocolate Glaze

These weren't on my baking list from the last post, but I came across this recipe on the wonderful Leite's Culinaria and they sounded so good I decided they deserved a spot on the list. By the way, if you don't already subscribe to David Leite's newsletter, I suggest you hustle on over to his site and sign up (the site has all kinds of fabulous recipes and great giveaways).

This recipe is from the cookbook Salty Sweets by Christie Mathieson. I am usually not drawn to toffee recipes, but something pulled me to it and I'm so glad it did. The cookie is rich and buttery (good just on its own -- well, I had to be sure it was worthy of the chocolate, didn't I?), and then you add this lovely layer of dark chocolate, top it with chopped, toasted pecans, and just the barest sprinkle of sea salt...need I go on? I'm sure no one is even reading the rest of this post because you are all running to the kitchen to gather the ingredients for this delectable cookie. That's OK, I'm not hurt. Go forth and bake!

Printable Recipe

Toffee Cookies with Dark Chocolate Glaze

Makes 20-24 Cookies

1 C unsalted butter
1 C packed dark brown sugar
2 egg yolks
2 C all-purpose flour
1 t sea salt
4 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/4 C chopped, toasted pecans

Preheat oven to 350. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar. Add the egg yolks one at a time and mix well. Combine the flour and salt in a small bowl, then add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, mixing until well combined.

Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out circles with a 2-inch round cutter and place cookies on baking sheet.

Bake the cookies for 11-13 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Let cool completely on the baking sheet. Bring water to a simmer in a double boiler, or set up a heatproof bowl over a small saucepan with water in the bottom. Melt the chocolate over the simmering water. When the cookies are cool, spread them gently with a thin layer of melted chocolate. Before the chocolate dries, sprinkle lightly with the pecans and a few grains of fleur del sel. Let the chocolate set. The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Baking

How are you doing with your holiday baking? I have been doing alot of baking since our return from the islands a couple of weeks ago. Let's see, so far I have made:

  • Mexican Wedding Cookies
  • Chocolate Cream Cups
  • Lemon Pistachio Biscotti
  • Chocolate-Chip Walnut Espresso Biscotti
  • Toasted Coconut Shortbread
  • and just today, World Peace Cookies
Whew! That's alot of baking. And I'm not done yet. Before Christmas next Friday, I will probably bake another batch of Mexican Wedding Cookies (because they are that good and that easy), and perhaps more World Peace Cookies because they freeze so well. Also on my baking agenda this week: Cranberry and Cornmeal Cake with Caramel-Walnut Topping (for Christmas dinner dessert) and Holiday Bundt Cake (probably to take to our friends in North Carolina for the New Year - shhh, don't tell them).

I have not made the Cranberry-Cornmeal Cake (courtesy of Giada deLaurentis) before but it sounds good and quite festive so I thought I'd give it a go. You can get the recipe here if you'd like to try it.

The Holiday Bundt Cake is a favorite from Dorie Greenspan's award-winning "Baking From My Home to Yours." I made this a few times last year during the holidays and everybody loved it. I think my friends in NC will enjoy it. It includes all the fabulous flavors of the season: cranberries, pumpkin, apples, pecans, cinnamon (you get the idea) and it keeps well. It's great dressed up with a little freshly whipped cream for dessert or cut into nice thick slices, toasted up for brunch.

The World Peace Cookies (what a great name for a cookie) are also from Dorie Greenspan's book and couldn't be easier, or more delicious. Very chocolate-y and moist, with the added touch of sea salt, to give you that sweet/salty sensation that everybody loves.

Let me know what delicious holiday treats you are baking this week (use the comment section below)!

Finally, one quick housekeeping note: I've added a "search" function to the blog (over in the right-hand nav) to make it easier to find a recipe or a link from a past entry.

Happy Holidays!

Eat well, stay warm, and be happy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Island Time

Where does the time go? I am terribly remiss in not having written to you in almost a month! It seems like yesterday when we were just about to leave for "Thanksgiving in the Islands" and now it's a week before Christmas. I don't know about you, but I cannot keep up with the whooshing of the days racing by me and not enough time to do the things you really want to do (like talking with you, my culinary friends).

Anyway, enough philosophical waxing, you're probably saying! What about the food? Yes, we'll get to that. But first let me tell you about St John. If you want an unhurried, relaxed vacation in the sun, in a tropical locale (in the US), where there is an "island vibe," get thee to St John. While not totally unspoiled, but with 75% of the island owned by the National Park Service, you can be relatively sure that high-rise condos will not appear on the shoreline.

And while beautiful vistas and cool rum drinks are always on my list for a tropical vacation, my real focus on ANY trip is, of course, the food! Since this was not my first visit to St John, I had a couple of "must have" foods on my itinerary. First stop: what I call the "ultimate cheeseburger in paradise." I have been reminiscing about this burger since my first trip to St John 17 years ago. This, my friends, is what a cheeseburger is all about: flavorful, juicy, charcoal-grilled, on a toasted roll; all made even better if eaten in a bar at the water's edge. Said burger can be found at "Skinny Leg's Bar and Grill - A Pretty OK Place." This is the formal name; locals just call it Skinny's. Needless to say, this was our first stop after getting settled and it did not disappoint.

Next up: one of the best known island foods, conch fritters. Conch (pronounced konk) is a shellfish, also known as whelk. In the Caribbean it is served raw with lemon, onion, and minced tomato for a cold cocktail, or minced and made into a chowder. Or fried into fritters, which is how I like mine. You really want to get your conch fritters made by a local, if possible. One of the most highly regarded native cooks on St John is Miss Vie. Miss Vie and her daughter operate "Miss Vie's Snack Shack" on the far end of St John. Miss Vie's is really just a roadside shack that you could easily miss (save the one or two signs along the winding road that point you in the right direction). There are three or four items on Miss Vie's menu, but conch fritters are what I came for. Sweet morsels of conch meat with a light breading, fried crisp. Served on a paper plate - it's just you, your food, and that gorgeous blue water a short walk away. Does it get any better than this? Only when accompanied by Miss Vie's delicious Coconut Tart. Made with a cookie crust and exploding with fresh coconut, this was the perfect ending for a tropical lunch.
Miss Vie's has a private beach ($2.50/pp on the honor system) and after you've feasted on the delicious West Indian fare, you walk through the family cemetery (I'm not kidding) to a gorgeous, soft powder beach. All you need is a towel, Miss Vie even provides the beach chairs. A lovely way to spend an afternoon, I think.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Starbucks Via

Up front notice: I love Starbucks. Loved it for years. When I traveled frequently for work, I would look forward to grabbing a Mocha or Vanilla Latte anywhere I happened upon a Starbucks store. When I saw a Starbucks drive-thru while on vacation in California several years ago, I was jealous that New Jersey wasn't the chosen state to pilot this concept (we have since been brought into the fold). I love the whole concept of Starbucks, and if they were based here, I would want to work for them.

However, when they recently introduced their new instant coffee, I thought, "whoa, these people have lost it." Since their inception, they have preached (and I have worshipped) at the altar of "only freshly ground, fresh-brewed, barista-made" coffee. So I really paid little heed to the onslaught of advertising that has been launched for Via, their "ready brew" instant. Then, one day, two slim, attractive sample packets appeared in my kitchen. And yesterday, after finishing our normal daily pot of French press coffee (from my favorite vendor, Counter Culture, in North Carolina) and not wanting to make another whole pot, I thought "...hmmm, maybe I should give one of these little packets a whirl." Tear the packet, pour contents into cup, add boiling water, stir. After adding the requisite half-n-half, I tentatively took a sip, and then another. I could not believe how good this was.

According to the web site, there are three varieties of Via: Columbia, Italian Roast, and Decaf Italian Roast. I sampled the Columbia, and I've gotta tell you, this was a pretty darn good cup of coffee. Now, will it replace my French press morning ritual? I don't think so. But when I just want one cup of coffee, pronto, Via is the "way" to go. Check it out.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cranberry-Orange Pecan Bread (and other assorted stories)

Well, it's been awhile since my last post, but I've not been idle. Let's see, I've been to Maine and back, I had an exquisite lunch at Vita in Basking Ridge, and enjoyed some fun and tasty pre-theatre dishes at Bar Breton in NYC. And, of course, I have a delicious recipe to share with you. Where to begin?

Let's start with the northeastern most state in the union: the Pine Tree state (or its advertising slogan "Vacationland"); yes, I'm talking about Maine. It was only a short trip a couple of weeks ago, but the weather was beautiful and there were still some nice foliage views to be had. We took a ride along Rt 15 through Penobscot and Orland to Castine, home to the US Maritime Academy and quaint New England architecture. No real food stories here as it was post-season and other than Dennett's Wharf, nothing was open. But a picturesque ride nonetheless.

We again enjoyed a terrific dinner at Red Sky in Southwest Harbor - see earlier post here. I love the warmth and personal attention you get here from the owners.

A lovely find for lodging has arrived in Belfast: the Belfast Bay Inn. Belfast is a charming little town about two hours north of Portland (and very close to our home in Stockton Springs), full of artsy-type shops, a very cool martini bar called 3 Tides, and a great vegetarian restaurant (Chase's Daily), but no decent lodging. Finally, someone has seen the light and opened a luxury all-suite boutique hotel on Main Street. That someone is Judy and Ed Hemmingsen, former owners of the award-winning Bluenose Inn in Bar Harbor. They took an historic building and transformed it into exceptional accommodations. If you find yourself in the Belfast area and want to wrap yourself in comfortable luxury for the night, please visit the Belfast Bay Inn. Now all we need in Belfast is a high-end restaurant, the likes of Primo in Rockland or Francine in Camden, and Belfast will become a destination for like-minded travelers.

In geographic order, New York City is next. We had a great time at a (way) off-Broadway play called "Penny Penniworth," an hysterical send-up of every Dickens story you've ever read. The play closed last weekend after an extended run but the cast is hopeful that another production company will pick it up soon. If it returns, don't miss it. Before the play, we had dinner at Bar Breton, a nice, little brasserie-style restaurant in Chelsea. Gallettes are the house specialty - buckwheat crepes with an assortment of savories. We had the special which was filled with short ribs - delicious. Entrees sampled included the hangar steak, and pan-seared cod - all very good.

Finally, making our way back to New Jersey in this culinary travelogue, I am thrilled to tell you about a fabulous lunch at Vita Restaurant in the Dolce Hotel in Basking Ridge. I had lunch "in the kitchen" of Vita, sitting up close and personal, to take in all the action of a delicious lunch presentation by Chef Paul Bogardus and his talented staff. We began with an appetizer of Warm Crab Cake with Roasted Corn, Porcini and Ricotta Fondue. This was followed by a main course of Mushroom and Plum Stuffed Roasted Pork Loin with Pancetta and Rosemary Grits and Pomegranate Glaze - doesn't
this sound like the perfect Fall dish? Dessert was (as they say) the pièce de résistance: the Art of Flambe with House-made Crepes - classic crepes suzette, cherries jubilee, and bananas foster - oui! Everything was just divine. If you find yourself in the Basking Ridge area, put Vita on your short list of must-visit restaurants.

And in preparation for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I will leave you with a lovely little bread - perfect for a quick nosh with coffee before you get started on the day's cooking, or add some freshly whipped cream and serve it as part of your holiday dessert offerings. This Cranberry-Orange Pecan Bread comes from one of my favorite food sites, Leite's Culinaria.
From the cookbook, Grand Central Baking, the batter goes through a number of whippings to incorporate the wet and dry ingredients, and it produces an extremely ethereal batter - when you look at it, it almost resembles a yeast dough (see picture).

Light in texture, not too sweet/not too tart, and like a bonus, the recipe makes two loaves. So you can pop one in the freezer to enjoy at a later date.

I'll be taking my frozen loaf with us to the islands where we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving on the beautiful, warm beaches of St John.

I doubt I will have time for another post before we leave, so I will wish you all now a very Happy Thanksgiving! May your table be full of happy friends, loving family, and good food.

Cranberry-Orange Pecan Bread

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Very Culinary Weekend

Whew! I am exhausted. What a busy weekend it was, culinarily-speaking. I've got two restaurants for you AND two recipes! What more could you ask for? And how about that photo above of the gorgeous maple tree that lives down the street from me? Every year when it starts to turn that deep, beautiful orange, and the ground around it is blanketed with the fallen leaves, I think, "I should really snap a photo of that tree." Of course I never do. Until today. And I'm so glad I did because it epitomizes the fall season for me, and now I've captured it for posterity.

On to the food! The weekend began with dinner at LuNello in Cedar Grove, NJ. Some of you may recognize this restaurant from an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey. Those of you who don't, count yourselves lucky to have missed it (the show, that is). But don't let LuNello's association with this show deter you from enjoying a fine meal.

LuNello's is more formal in nature, in both decor and food. Waiters in tuxedos are very gracious, and service was very good. They recite a list of about 30 specials and all except one of our meals came from the regular menu. I loved my meal - Short Ribs over Fresh Pappardelle, in a delicious brown sauce that reminded me so much of my husband's outstanding brisket. The minute I spotted Pappardelle with Porcini and Oyster Mushrooms, I knew it would be Barry's choice. Ever since we were in Italy October 2006, Barry has been craving fresh porcini and pasta, which you don't find on many menus in the US. It did not disappoint - tender porcini mushrooms scattered among the fresh pasta.

If there is any area that LuNello's falls short, it's dessert. We ordered the Ricotta Cheesecake and Tiramisu. Both very average. But a nice touch presented during dessert, was the offering of house-made miniature ice cream cones. If you go, skip the dessert menu, wait for the cones.

Saturday night brought me to Fiorino's in Summit. This was the polar opposite of LuNello's in atmosphere, decor, and clientele. A warm, inviting space in downtown Summit, Fiorino's offers outstanding cuisine. My meal began with a Baby Arugula Salad with Toasted Pine Nuts and Goat Cheese - sublime. Everything on the menu sounded wonderful but for my main course I went with the recommendation of my friend and dining companion. Every time she visits Fiorino's she must have the Rigatoni Bolognese (it's not even on the regular menu). Now this may sound plebian to you, but a well made Bolognese sauce is not to be missed. This version lived up to my expectations. Husky chunks of a veal, pork, beef ragu strewn over fat rigatoni, accompanied by a quartino of a deep, delicious Rosso di Montalcino. We shared a dessert that perfectly suited my fall state of mind:

Warm Apple Strudel with Caramel Wild Berry Compote and Butter Pecan Gelato - crisp, firm apples swirled with a very delicate caramel sauce and outstanding gelato. Meals don't get much better than this, my friends.

So after all that dining about on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was definitely a stay at home kind of day. It was rainy and cold in NJ - perfect baking weather. But since I totally indulged at the aforementioned meals, I felt the need to slim down my baked goods. But these certainly didn't taste like "slimmed-down" foods! Cho-nana Bread (from the Chobani Yogurt web site) and Pumpkin Crunch (from Canyon Ranch) were flavorful and easy. The Pumpkin Crunch is a very versatile little treat with only 125 calories in 1/4 cup - it folds very nicely into yogurt, as a crunchy topping to your morning cereal, or just as a mid-afternoon snack. And the banana bread is super moist, thanks to the yogurt and applesauce base; only 210 calories per serving.

You won't go wrong with these two recipes - plenty of taste, no guilt!
Pumpkin Crunch

1 C pumpkin seeds
1-1/2 t canola oil
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t allspice
1/2 t sea salt
2 TB maple syrup
1-1/4 C dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly spray a baking sheet with canola oil. In a small bowl, toss pumpkin seeds with canola oil and evenly spread coated seeds on baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes or until almost dry.

Place pumpkin seeds in a medium bowl and mix in maple syrup until coated. Combine spices in a large bowl and add pumpkin seeds. Place back on baking sheet and return to oven. Roast for 15 minutes or until dry. Be sure not to burn. Set seeds aside until completely cool, for about 30 minutes. In a large bowl, combine seeds with dried cranberries.
Cho-nana Bread

3/4 C all-purpose flour
3/4 C whole-wheat flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 TB butter
1/2 C natural applesauce (no sugar added)
3/4 C sugar
2 large eggs
1 t vanilla extract
3 large overripe bananas
1/2 C Chobani plain 0% Greek Yogurt
1/2 C walnuts, toasted and chopped (optional)
1/2 C semi-sweet chocolate chips (optional)

Grease large loaf pan. Preheat oven to 350F. In a small bowl, stir together flours, baking soda, and salt.

Peel bananas. Cut each in half lengthwise and then cut each half into halves. Chop quartered bananas into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar into a smooth paste. Add applesauce and vanilla, and mix until combined. Add eggs one at a time, and beat until incorporated.

Add flour mixture to wet ingredients, and mix well. Add chopped bananas, nuts and/or chocolate chips and yogurt.

Fold ingredients in, being careful not to bread up banana chunks. Bake at 350F for 1 hour or until inserted knife comes out clean when removed from loaf.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zucchini-Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Crunch Glaze

Greetings! I know it may seem like I've been neglecting my baking duties (which I take very seriously!) because I haven't posted for a couple of weeks, but I have been busily baking away. I was on this cornbread kick trying to fulfill a special request from a work colleague. And, of course, I was hoping to post about my fabulous cornbread results.

Alas, not such good results. Even using a recipe from the grand Dame of Southern food, Edna Lewis. Her recipe produced a bread with incredible texture, but really, severely, lacking in taste. This was so bad it went directly into the trash. My next attempt was with a recipe from Dean Fearing (formerly of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, now at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas). Again, nice texture, not so good on flavor. My husband re-purposed this as a stuffing mixture for delicious pork chops he made the next night. At least not a total waste.

So while I'm not giving up on finding a great cornbread recipe, I needed a little deviation this week. I went to one of my favorite bakers, Gina DePalma, for inspiration. Her "Zucchini Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Crunch Glaze" proved to be the ticket (from her wonderful book, Dolce Italiano - see Amazon link under "Books I Love"). The trio of spices in the recipe (cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg) provide that all-important autumnal aroma, and the cake has a wonderful moist, light crumb. But let me tell you about the taste. It's got this unusual sweetness to it, not your typical harvest-y type flavor, but almost like a healthy, good for you, type sweetness. Probably from the zucchini, or at least that's what I'm attributing it to. Either way, this is one terrific cake. The lemon glaze is not too sweet either, in case you were worried about that. Although it feels like an autumn cake to me, obviously you could leverage this recipe when your zucchini harvest is at full throttle in the summer and you don't know what to do with your zucchini overload. Seems like a perfect excuse to me to bake a cake! But don't wait until next summer to try this -- it's too good. Mangia bene!

Zucchini-Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Crunch Glaze

Makes one 10" cake, approximately 12 servings


1 C walnut pieces
2 C unbleached all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1 t kosher salt
2 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
3 large eggs
1-3/4 C granulated sugar
1 C extra-virgin olive oil
2 t pure vanilla extract
2-1/2 C grated zucchini (about 2 small zucchini)
Confectioners' su
gar, for dusting (optional)


1/4 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 C granulated sugar
1 C confectioners' sugar

To make the cake: preheat oven to 350 F and position rack in center. Grease a 10 cup Bundt pan using nonstick cooking spray or butter, then dust with flour to coat completely, tapping out excess flour.

Place walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them until they are golden brown and aromatic, 12-14 minutes. Cool walnuts completely, then finely chop them in food processor and set aside (CT note: I opted for not-so-fine a chop as I really like the texture and crunch of walnuts).

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices in medium bowl and set aside. In electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and olive oil together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then beat in vanilla extract. Scrape down sides of bowl with spatula after each addition. Beat in dry ingredients all at once on low speed until they are thoroughly combined, then switch mixer to medium speed and mix for 30 seconds. Beat in the zucchini and walnuts on low speed until they are completely incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing the top with spatula. Bake cake for 45-50 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time to ensure even browning. The cake is done when a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake has begun to pull away from sides of pan.

While the cake is baking, prepare the glaze: in medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and granulated sugar, then whisk in the confectioners' sugar until the glaze is completely smooth.

Allow cake to cool in pan for 10 minutes, then carefully invert onto a wire rack. Using a pastry brush, immediately brush the glaze over the entire surface of the warm cake, using all of the glaze; it will adhere to the cake and set as the cake cools. Allow cake to cool completely and the glaze to dry completely.

Transfer cake to a stand or serving plate and, if desired, lightly dust it with confectioners' sugar. Any leftover cake may be wrapped in plastic and served the following day.

See photo below - I wouldn't normally post a photo like this, but I wanted you to be able to see the beautiful texture and the flecks of zucchini throughout the cake.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fascino - Montclair, NJ

While it is Italian in cuisine and lineage, Fascino in Montclair, NJ is by no means your average Italian restaurant. Set toward the not-yet-totally re-gentrified end of Bloomfield Avenue, Fascino sits back quietly unassuming, confident in its abilities to provide high-end, sophisticated food and service. This is the kind of culinary evening people in the north Jersey area previously had to travel to New York to experience. And while there are many fine restaurants in Montclair and the surrounding areas, Fascino is a cut above.

Headed in the kitchen by Executive Chef, Ryan DePersio, the food practically glows as it makes its way to your table. We have been visiting Fascino since they opened in 2003 and it keeps getting better. Last night's meal was no exception. An amuse bouche, consisting of a bite-sized morsel of crisp halibut sitting so daintily in a light yogurt sauce, was presented to our group. Just enough to whet your appetite for what lay ahead. I wanted more.

Excellent breads from Gina's Bakery (also in Montclair) made their way to our table along with an incredibly fruity olive oil.

One of my favorite spring/summer items is fresh Zucchini Flowers and
Ryan stuffs them with Maine Peekytoe Crab and ricotta and lightly fries them. It is served with a
light, fresh yellow tomato Gazpacho. Incredible.

Fascino is BYO, which is always a plus for us. And even better for us last night, our dinner companion was a friend who is a wine consultant and he brought a delicious Orvieto from a small, family vineyard in Tuscany. Just acidic enough, this crisp white blended perfectly with the zucchini flowers and Bernie's appetizer of Fresh Seafood Salad. For the record, he couldn't stop "oohing and aahing" over the incredible array of seafood laid before him - shrimp, clams, squid, octopus - see the photo above for the beautiful presentation.

Since it was a rainy, chilly evening, it seemed appropriate to order a Fall-like dish (truth be told, I never really need an excuse to order Osso Buco). Ryan's Veal Osso Buco served with brussel sprouts over a pillow of delicious sweet potato puree, was mind-blowing. That's my Osso Buco at the top of the post - look at the gorgeous shellac on that shank! A gentle prod with my fork sent the ever-so-tender meat cascading into the potato puree, creating a wonderful taste combination. That veal shank was picked clean when I was done.

My husband ordered the exact same meal as me, but when I told our wine-knowledgeable friend, Bernie, that all the pastas are house-made, his fate was sealed. Tagliatelle
with Shredded Short Ribs was the winner - it looked (and by all accounts) tasted fabulous. Our wine for dinner was a 2004 La Vigna Mobile, a super Tuscan made up
primarily of Sangiovese grapes. A terrific accompaniment to the food.

A unique and delicious side is the Mascarpone Polenta Fries with Gorgonzola Fonduta (OMG!). Imagine these as Italy's answer to our own French fries or France's pomme frite! These disappeared from our table in a flash. Light, crispy, with an earthy richness - IMHO I don't think you even need the gorgonzola sauce. These are not to be missed.

A true family operation, Ryan's mother, Cynthia DePersio, is the Pastry Chef. Being a baker myself, I always look forward to trying one of Cynthia's creations. Last night's choice: Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Sundae
with Midnight Chocolate Sauce and Chocolate Coffee Bean Crisp ("HELLO!"). While my dining companions all professed to not being able to eat another bite after dinner, somehow there were three spoons in my dessert. This might be my new favorite dessert at Fascino.

There is a welcoming warmth about Fascino. Whether it's the deep red banquettes you slide into, or the greetings from the DePersio family (Ryan's brother, Anthony, is the GM and their father, Anthony Sr, is usually lending a hand with front of the house duties), dining at Fascino is always a pleasure. Now celebrating its' fifth anniversary, the "fascination" continues at Fascino.
Fascino on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Weekend Wrap-up

Well, we never got to the ribs I was so hopeful about last week, but it was one of the most relaxing weekends in a long, long time. There was alot of great food, though, so not to worry.

Friday was a terrific opener. After a late Thursday night work-related event in NYC, I was thankful to work from home in the morning; then we took a nice ride through some picturesque NJ backroads in my husband's just-recently-purchased, previously-owned convertible. My new weekend equation: beautiful, blue skies + warm breezes + a convertible = something pretty close to divine. There is nothing better than tooling around on a nice day in a convertible. Definitely good for what ails ya...

Later that day, with nothing really planned for dinner, I remembered reading a review in New Jersey Monthly for a Thai restaurant in Belleville. Since my husband, Barry, is always lobbying for us to visit non-Italian restaurants (not that he is anti-Italian food, in fact, he loves it, but there is a definite glut of Italian restaurants in NJ and Italian is always my go-to cuisine), I thought this was worth a visit. Topaz Thai is a small, family-run operation with "Mama," otherwise known as Wanida, at the helm. Wanida cooks for you like you were in her home; everything is fresh, plentiful, and cooked to order. When she learned that Barry had requested his food really spicy, and that he had been to Thailand many years ago, she came out to chat and to make sure he meant "really spicy." Wanida learned to cook at her mother's side in Thailand and this is the real deal. When I mentioned above that the food is fresh, I wasn't kidding: the fish of the day (Sea Bass) was caught that morning by Wanida's husband (a chef at the Pierre Hotel). It was delectable. We ordered it crispy and she suggested the chili sauce - definitely the right choice. We began the meal with two appetizers: Green Papaya Salad and Thai Spring Rolls. Both were wonderful. Looking forward to our next visit.

Topaz Thai on Urbanspoon
Sunday, we grilled Seasoned Chicken Burgers (from our favorite Goffle Road Poultry Farm), enjoyed with fresh corn, and Stiner's Famous Potato Salad. When we picked up the corn at the roadside stand in Chestnut Ridge, NY (just over the NJ border), the farmer had baskets of gorgeous apricots that I couldn't resist. I knew I had white nectarines waiting at home, now all I needed was a recipe. In my trusty recipe vault I found "Summer Fruit Crisp," a recipe (see below) that allows for many variations of fruit fillings. This was the perfect recipe for late summer stone fruits, and the crisp topping of butter, chopped walnuts, brown sugar was de-lish! I love the fact that you can use just about whatever fruit you have at home or can find at the local market -- the fig and cherry from the list below sounds divine.

Today, the last day of the long labor-less weekend, we are grilling chicken thighs in one of Barry's marinade concoctions that are always good, more corn (because at the end of the summer, you just can't get enough), potato salad redux, and probably another small helping of fruit crisp. Truly, a delightful way to cap the weekend. I hope good friends, great food, and a little R&R found their way to your home this holiday weekend.

Summer Fruit Crisp

8 Servings - serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a splash of good and thick heavy cream (good vanilla ice cream would also do nicely).

Crisp Topping:

1-1/4 C flour
1/2 C firmly packed light brown sugar
7 TB sugar
Pinch of salt
10 TB (1 stick plus 2 TB) cold, unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
2/3 C slivered almonds or chopped walnuts
1 t vanilla extract (may substitute 1/2 t each vanilla and almond extract)
Confectioners' sugar for dusting the baked crisp (optional)

Fruit Filling:

5 C fruit (peeled, pitted, thickly sliced stone fruit; berries, or a combination of sliced fruit and berries; see variations below)
2 TB peach or apricot preserves
6 TB sugar, or more to taste (if the crisp is made entirely of blueberries or blackberries, or with very juicy fruit, blend 2 TB cornstarch into the sugar)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a deep 12-inch ovenproof baking dish.

For the topping: in medium bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, sugars, and salt. Scatter over the pieces of butter, and using a pastry blender (or two round-bladed knives), cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small flakes. Add the almonds of walnuts and the vanilla. Using your fingertips, work the mixture to form big and small cohesive lumps of topping. The pieces will be moist, buttery, and irregularly shaped. Set aside.

For the fruit: in a medium bowl, gently combine the fruit or berries, preserves, and sugar. Turn the fruit mixture into the baking dish. Strew the topping over it to form an even layer, but keep the crisp light rather than packing it down.

Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes, or until the topping is set and golden and the fruit is bubbly. Sprinkle the top with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve warm.

Note: the crisp may be made into individual servings. Divide the fruit mixture among eight 1-cup ovenproof baking dishes and sprinkle on the topping. Place the dishes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 375 for 35-40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbly and topping is golden. Just before serving, dust tops with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

Variations: a combination of sliced fruit and berries creates a flavorful base.

Peach (or nectarine) and Blueberry: use 3 C thickly sliced peaches (or nectarines) and 2 C blueberries.

Peach, Plum, and Blueberry: use 2 C thickly sliced peaches, 2 C thickly sliced red plums, and 1 C blueberries.

Apricot and Cherry: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Apricot and Peach: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C thickly sliced (peeled) peaches).

Apricot and Blueberry: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C blueberries.

Nectarine and Cherry: use 3 C thickly sliced nectarines and 2 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Plum and Cherry: use 4 C thickly sliced plums and 1 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Fig and Cherry: use 2 C (stemmed and quartered) figs and 3 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The End of the Non-Summer

This happens when summer, which is supposed to begin June 21, for some reason was confused this year and began around July 20. I'm talking about the lackluster summer we've had in New Jersey. And now Labor Day is upon us, which traditionally signals the end of the summer. But the weather prognosticators have signaled good weather for the week and I am going to soak up every last ray of warmth and sunshine.

I am feeling the need for ribs. We haven't done a rack of ribs all non-summer so this weekend must be it. I've been wanting to go to Blue Smoke in NYC for the Texas Salt 'n Pepper Crusted Beef Ribs, and maybe we'll do that this week. If not, in our cookbook library at home, we've got dozens of 'Q books so I'm sure we can rustle up a suitable rib recipe. Friends of ours in California, Ron & Phyllis, do ribs with a wonderful apricot BBQ sauce that just might do the trick.

Gotta get ready for my day job now. Will you be doing any special cooking this weekend? Let me know! I'll be back later in the week with the end of the non-summer food festivities.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Cavalcade of Cakes!

I know I was delinquent in not posting last week so I will make it up to you this week by supplying not one, not two, but three fabulous cake recipes! By the way, because one cannot live by cake alone (so they tell me), right now I am happily munching on a BearNaked Grain-ola Bar. Have you tried these? My local Costco has the fruit & nut (raisins, cranberries, almonds, and pecans) variety; it's quite good and will tide me over until dinner.

Last Saturday/Sunday, I baked the luscious Lemon Yogurt Cake from Ina Garten and the delicious Dimply Plum Cake from Dorie Greenspan (two of my favorite bakers). I wasn't really planning on two cakes last weekend, but when I went to the farmer's market in Paterson (currently celebrating 75 years in operation - the surrounding areas taking advantage of "farm to table" years before it was trendy), one of the farmers had baskets of gorgeous purple plums and I just had to have them. And today, I made Nectarine Golden Cake from the September issue of Gourmet. These cakes were all very different but all wonderful (there are very few cakes I would not find wonderful).

The nectarine cake is cooling right now and a little later this evening, I'll be savoring it. Let me know what you're baking this weekend. Bake on, my friends!

Lemon Yogurt Cake
Barefoot Contessa at Home

1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t kosher salt
1 C plain whole-milk yogurt
1-1/3 C sugar, divided
3 extra-large eggs
2 t grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/3 C freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 C confectioner's sugar
2 TB freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 8-1/2 x 4-1/4 x 2-1/2 loaf pan. Line bottom with parchment paper. Grease and flour pan.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into 1 bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 C sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk dry ingredients into the wet. With rubber spatula, fold vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it's all incorporated. Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in center of loaf comes out clean.

Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 C lemon juice and remaining 1/3 C sugar in small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in pan for 10 minutes. Carefully place on a baking rack over a sheet pan. While the cake is still warm, pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow to soak in. Cool.

For the glaze, combine confectioner's sugar and lemon juice and pour over cake.

Dimply Plum Cake
Dorie Greenspan, Baking From My Home to Yours

1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
Scant 1/4 t ground cardamom (optional)
5 TB unsalted butter at room temp
3/4 C packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 C flavorless oil such as canola or safflower
Grated zest of 1 orange
1-1/2 t pure vanilla extract
8 purple or red plums (in the Fall, use Italian prune plums), halved and pitted

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350. Butter an 8 inch square baking pan, dust the inside with flour, tape out the excess and put the pan on a baking sheet.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom, if you're using it, together.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and beat for another 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition. On medium speed, beat in the oil, orange zest, and vanilla. The batter will look very light and smooth, almost satiny. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are incorporated.

Run a spatula around the bowl and under the batter, just to make sure there are no dry spots, then scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums cut side up in the batter - I usually make 4 rows of 4 plum halves each - jiggling the plums a tad just so they settle comfortably into the batter.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is honey brown and puffed around the plums and a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 15 minutes - during which time the plums' juice will return to the fruit - then run a knife around the sides of the pan and un-mold the cake. Invert and cool right side up.

Nectarine Golden Cake
Gourmet, September 2009
1 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
Rounded 1/4 t salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 C plus 1/2 T sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/8 t pure almond extract
2 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
1/2 t grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 with rack in middle. Lightly butter 9 inch springform pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat butter and 3/4 C sugar with electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in extracts. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined.

Spread batter evenly in pan, then scatter nectarines over top. Stir together nutmeg and remaining 1/2 T sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake until cake is golden-brown and top is firm but tender when lightly touched (cake will rise over fruit), 45-50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove sides of pan and cool to warm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer...better late than never!

The New York/New Jersey area had its first 90 degree day of the summer today. Today, August 10. And I guess to re-stake her claim on summer, Mother Nature sent us 90% humidity, too. Lovely. But when you spend most of the day indoors, it doesn't really matter too much.

And now for something completely different. I've been on this "real" ricotta kick lately. Not the stuff in the plastic tubs from the supermarket. Thick, fresh, creamy curds from your local Italian specialty store. We've been using it mainly in pasta dishes with ripe tomatoes from our garden, but I recalled a recipe in The New York Times about a month ago by Melissa Clark where she served fresh ricotta with homemade granola. When I realized we were going to have leftover ricotta, I thought this would be a terrific little breakfast dish, and a delightful departure from my standard cereal and bananas. And other than the raw pistachios and the coconut chips called for in the recipe, I had all the ingredients. So after floating around the pool for awhile this evening to de-stress, I hopped out and tossed the granola together. I think this granola is very forgiving and you could probably substitute lots of different ingredients here. In lieu of the pistachios, I used walnuts. Standing in for the coconut chips, I offered unsweetened shredded coconut. I also added a handful of dried cherries. It's all good.

For some reason, this granola reminds me of Tuscany. I think it's the olive oil part. I can see myself sitting at a table at a rustic farmhouse, overlooking a field of giant sunflowers just starting to turn their happy little faces toward the sun. I can't wait to have this tomorrow morning for breakfast with some fresh raspberries and blueberries thrown in for good measure. It's not Italy, but it is summer and I have my own little patch of sunflowers ready to greet the day.

Olive Oil Granola with Dried Apricots and Pistachios

3 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1-1/2 C raw pistachios, hulled
1 C raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 C coconut chips
3/4 C pure maple syrup
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C packed light brown sugar
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground cardamom
3/4 C chopped dried apricots
Fresh ricotta, for serving (optional)
Fresh berries, for serving (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, cardamom. Spread mixture on rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes until golden brown and well toasted.

2. Transfer granola to large bowl and add apricots, tossing to combine. Serve with ricotta and fruit, if desired.

Yield: about 9 cups.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Brooklyn, Summer 2009

Full disclosure: this post is primarily about steak. Vegans: turn back now.

Made a pilgrimage last night to the king of steakhouses - Peter Luger in Brooklyn. We were looking to experience steak in all its glory. And what can I say? This was a perfect meal.

Picture if you will: a steakhouse in operation since 1887, a building set on a corner in Brooklyn that no doubt has seen a myriad of changes in the last hundred or so years; dark, wood paneling covering the walls of the many dining rooms, a long bar right at the entryway manned by very able but not very friendly barmen, and old-world waiters who guide your dinner experience like the venerable Obi Wan (" don't really need two orders of the jumbo shrimp cocktail, sir."). Do you have that picture firmly in your mind? If so, then we can proceed.

Set not far from the Williamsburg Bridge, Peter Luger's is to steak as Julia Child was to fearless French cooking. Arriving about 30 minutes early for our reservation, we gladly took seats at the bar to enjoy a cocktail. Two burly barmen stood sentry behind it, filling various drink orders. As I mentioned above, they were not very warm or welcoming, but boy could they make a drink. And, really, do you need more than that at this kind of establishment? I think not. On to dinner.

Seated at a nice four-top, Bernard (our Obi Wan look-alike) immediately greeted us and brought a basket of heavenly breads. No focaccia here, folks. We're talking salt sticks, yeasty dinner rolls, and onion rolls. With salted butter. I could have been very happy with just my cocktail and this basket of incredibly good bread, but more sensible heads prevailed.

Our friend, Lou, who had been to Luger's several times recommended we start with three appetizers to share. The first selection was Sliced Tomato and Onions with Luger's Sauce. I thought to myself, how boring does this sound? But figuring that there must be something to it if it was a key set piece on the menu, I dove right in. Large slices of juicy tomatoes with equally large slices of onion - no seasoning, nothing else on this plate. But when you drizzled the "special sauce" over it, it became wonderful. They tell me this sauce is available in your local supermarket - it will be on my next shopping list. I don't know what's in it, I can't even tell you what makes it so special, but it took everyday tomato and onions and ramped it up a notch.

Next, Luger's Sizzling Bacon, Extra Thick. This was simply four slices of the
most incredible, mouthwatering, delicious, not-at-all salty, bacon I've ever had.
This, plus my cocktail, plus that basket of breads and I could have been happy (you notice the list of "happy with just this and that" is getting
longer...). Really, this was nothing but four slices of sizzling bacon - that's it. Fabulous.

The last appetizer was the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Extra Large Portion (6). Six gorgeous, huge shrimp - plump and delicious, thank you very much.

Finally, we get to the real reason Luger's has been in business for lo these 123 years -their Porterhouse. Prime beef, chosen only by members of the family, and then dry-aged on-site until ready for consumption.

There are not many choices provided on how to order the steak - single steak or steak for two, three, or four. Even though we were a party of four, we ordered steak for three and were quite satiated. Peter Luger's porterhouse comes out sizzling and if it's a little too rare for any members of your party, you simply place a piece on the edge of the plate where it will continue to cook (very handy). This was a fantastic piece of meat - I couldn't stop eating it - tender, juicy, marvelously crusty exterior. Creamed spinach, onion rings, and the Special German Fried Potatoes brought up the rear. The potatoes were extraordinary - small, flavorful cubes fried crisp - nary a crumb was left on the plate. Not one item on our table required salt and pepper - everything had been expertly seasoned in the kitchen (imagine that).

Luger's has several nice items on the dessert list but we had other plans. Before I get to that, we need to wrap up on the steakhouse. I've been to Ruth's Chris, I've been to Morton's, and while those are good, if you want a true, old-world, rarefied steakhouse experience supplanted with outstanding quality, you've simply got to go to Peter Luger.
Peter Luger Steak House on Urbanspoon
You know I'm all about dessert. So don't think that just because we didn't have dessert at Luger's that we were passing on it altogether. Au contraire, mon freire. Our friends had heard about an ice cream shop set underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful, warm night so why not. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is, indeed, right underneath the bridge, but we were obviously not the only people brought out by the nice weather. A long line snaked out the door. The store offers only about six flavors and after about a 20 minute wait, we took our turn at the counter, then headed outside to enjoy our cones, all the while gazing up the East River at the Statue of Liberty, the boats sailing by, and that incredible bridge soaring above us.

While my coffee ice cream was very creamy, a bit stronger coffee flavor would have been more to my liking. But when you've got the lights of the South Street Seaport twinkling across the river, the lovely River Cafe (also set at the base of the bridge) bustling with activity, and tourists from around the globe posing for pictures at the water's edge, why complain. This is the stuff a summer evening in New York is made of.