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RED VELVET CUPCAKES

For most 14th of February’s in my life I have been single and life has been status quo.  I wouldn’t consider myself a Valentine’s Day fanatic, although I will admit to looking forward to the bright red boxes of tasty chocolates and the heart-centric paraphernalia and puppy pictures that in the dictionary rest under the word “cuteness”.  Seriously, can’t get enough of this one.
When I think back though, I remember how lucky I am to have had so many special ones.  Every year since I moved away to college, my mom has sent me a valentine with a heart-shaped Reese’s (she knows the holiday ones are the best).  My real-life-Pinterest friend once sent me a valentine in the form of a front cover of an old romance novel – a postcard with glittery hearts, an inappropriate quote from the book, and, following the hashtag trend, #ewww and #getaroom.  I will be stealing this idea for next year.

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Then there were the other, more romantic ones when I was younger.  On my first real Valentine’s Day, my then-boyfriend took me out to the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh (yes, we are talking P.F. Chang’s) and said the first ever “I love you” I would hear from anyone I dated from then on.  Understandably my memory of that night is very vivid, and I could somehow now describe to you the exact location where we were sitting and describe to you the nervous and excited expression on his face.  
In college, my Valentine walked a mile in the freezing cold and snow of Penn State just to hang out and play Nintendo for the night.  If it helps to explain the Nintendo part of this story, both of us nerds studied engineering.

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Last year I was able to gift someone else a Valentine’s Day memory, which also happened to be my first paid gig out of Shelley’s Cafe.  I was hired to make cupcakes for a friend’s bridal shower, red velvet to be exact, which instigated a flurry of recipe testing and an equal number of times taste testing at different bakeries in NYC and Brooklyn.  No complaints there.  Here is the recipe I ended on, perfectly domed cupcake tops and the right balance of vanilla, chocolate, and tangy-ness, topped with my cream cheese frosting recipe of choice.
One of the things that motivated me to try out this red velvet cupcake recipe is the detailed description of what red velvet is actually supposed to taste like and the science behind it.  Technique here is key towards the end of the batter recipe, so be ready to bust a move.
Happy Valentine’s Day everybody.

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RED VELVET CUPCAKES
(Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction)
Makes: 12-14 cupcakes
Ingredients:

Cupcakes:
2 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp. baking soda
4 tsp. natural unseated cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
2 Tbsp. red liquid food coloring
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature

Frosting:
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1-2 Tbsp. milk or heavy cream

Variations:
Color me bad – The red food coloring doesn’t actually give the cupcake any flavor.  Surprise!  The red color was added in WWII by bakers using beets, to brighten the color of the limited food supply.  If you don’t have any red food coloring (or beets!) handy, just omit and go all natural.
Instructions:
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Line a 12-count muffin pan with cupcake liners. This recipe makes 14 cupcakes, so you will have 2 cupcakes to bake in a 2nd batch.
  2. Make the cupcakes: With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat 2 egg whites on high speed in a medium bowl until soft peaks form, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Sift the flour and cornstarch together to make sure it is evenly combined. Whisk this, along with baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  4. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on high speed until smooth and creamy – about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat on high speed for 2 minutes until creamed together fairly well. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the oil and beat on high for 2 minutes. The butter may look “piece-y” and not completely combine with the oil. This is normal and ok.
  5. Add 2 egg yolks and the vanilla. Beat on medium-high speed until combined. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Beat in the vinegar and the food coloring– until you reach your desired color. I use 2 Tablespoons. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not overmix. Fold whipped egg whites into cupcake batter with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. The batter will be silky and slightly thick. (If there are still pieces of butter – and there were in 1 test batch for me – again, this is ok. They will melt inside as the cupcakes bake. Making them even more buttery.)
  6. Spoon batter into cupcake liners filling 1/2 – 2/3 of the way full. Bake for 20-21 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes spring back when gently touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Don’t overbake; your cupcakes will dry out. Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
  7. Make the frosting: In a medium bowl using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and 1 Tablespoon cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more Tablespoon cream if needed to thin out. Beat on high for 1 full minute.  Frost cooled cupcakes immediately before serving.
  8. Make ahead tip: Cupcakes can be made ahead 1 day in advance, covered, and stored at room temperature. Frosting can also be made 1 day in advance, covered, and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. Decorate/assemble cupcakes immediately before serving. Leftover cupcakes keep well covered tightly at room temperature or in the refrigerator for 3 days. Unfrosted cupcakes can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
*HINT: If possible, bake all 14 cupcakes at the same time.  Because the eggs are whipped and then folded in, the batter will lose its buoyancy if it sits for too long.  This will cause some unhappy yet still tasty cupcakes.

 


PUMPKIN SPICE CUPCAKES w/ MAPLE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

As a woman of science, I’ve always found it fascinating how powerful the connection between our senses and our memories is.  How the smell of a cigar triggers old memories of my grandfather.  How the sound of a once favorite song brings me back to certain time and place, forever dedicated to the friend whom it reminds me of in the first place.  How just the sight of my hometown brings back sporadic memories and feelings from my childhood.

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I guess it’s no surprise then that food, which enlivens all of the senses, can also carry strong memory associations.  It’s the way that apples remind you of Fall and peppermint reminds you of the winter holidays.  To my own senses, these pumpkin cupcakes remind me of my first Fall in NYC, around the time I started this blog.  I was living in a shoe-box of an apartment, still having to think an extra second when getting on the subway to convince myself I wasn’t going the wrong direction, making friends in a city where I knew no one from my past, and picking up the pieces of a broken and failed relationship.  These cupcakes and the little pumpkins on top became a foodie craft project of mine to focus on in the midst of all of the challenges of a new life and the adjustments to it.
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Fast forward 2.5 years, I have a (somewhat) spacious apartment in Brooklyn where the hipster in me can run wild, and I know my way around the city, including which end of the train I need to be on for the most efficient commute possible.  I have many friends in the city both new and old (it seems that I started a trend within my friends of moving to NYC – at least I like to think I did), and I’m stronger and very (maybe sometimes too) independent. These pumpkin noms have turned into an annual tradition, not only because they remind me of where I started in NYC, but also because they’re so darn tasty and adorable!
I found these cupcakes and decorations to be super easy to make (parents – these would be a great DIY project with your kids), and I also love the fact that the recipe is conveniently divisible (to spare your coworkers too many more sweets after the Thanksgiving holiday).  As for the flavor, the spices bring a strong punch, which means the flavor of the frosting doesn’t hide the pumpkin goodness underneath it.

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So, that said, forgive my nostalgia, start your own pumpkin craft project, and let your senses spark new memory associations over this Thanksgiving holiday!  Who doesn’t love a little more pumpkin in their life?
PUMPKIN SPICE CUPCAKES w/ MAPLE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
(Adapted from Sweetopia)
Makes 10-12 cupcakes or ~36 mini cupcakes
Ingredients:
Cupcakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp groung nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Frosting:
4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2-3 Tbsp real maple sugar
1 1/2 – 2 cups confectioners sugar
Sweetened coconut, toasted (optional)
Pumpkin/Leaf Decorations:
Fondant icing
Food coloring gel, orange
Almonds, whole
Bay leaf or thyme
Variations:
Minimalist Décor: Making your own pumpkins can be more time than you’re willing to spend.  Place a candy corn pumpkin on top and call it a day.
Shrink ‘Em: Mini cupcakes are just the cutest little things.  Make ’em mini for a party or for portion control (even though we all know that never works).  This recipe also halves easily.
Add a Layer:  Add a layer of butter pecan or cinnamon spread/icing or jam in between the cake and the frosting.
Instructions:
*HINT: Use a trigger ice cream scoop, like this one, to fill your cupcake liners perfectly!
Cupcakes:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line muffin tin with paper cupcake liners.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, into a medium bowl.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin puree, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vegetable oil.  Add the flour mixture and stir until combined.
  4. Fill the cupcake liners 2/3-3/4 full, but evenly across all.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Set pumpkin cupcakes aside to cool completely.
Frosting:
  1. Cream the cream cheese and butter together either with a hand mixer or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Add maple syrup.  Slowly add the confectioners sugar and beat until smooth.
  2. Once your cupcakes are cool, ice them with a butter knife or large piping bag and tip of your choice.
  3. Sprinkle toasted coconut on top and any decorations you made.
Pumpkin/Leaf Decorations:
  1. For the pumpkins, add a small drop of gel food coloring to a about a 1/2 Tbsp. of fondant icing and mix until the coloring is even.  Use your hands to roll the icing into a ball, and use a toothpick to make indents from top to bottom (like a beach ball).
  2. Chop an almond lengthwise to make the stem and break up a bay leaf for the pumpkin leaf.  Insert the stem and leaf into a small hole at the top of the pumpkin created by the toothpick.
  3. For the leaves, mix the fondant with the food coloring gel as with the pumpkins.  Press the colored icing into a chocolate or candy mold of your choice.  Use a knife to cut off the excess and carefully take the icing out of the mold.

FROMAGE BLANC w/ BLACKBERRY JAM SWIRL ICE CREAM + #ICECREAMFOROXO

When I go to a restaurant, I often wonder where the chef got the idea for the meal I’m eating.  What was it that inspired him/her to use that compound of ingredients that make every bite so outrageously divine?  I wonder what experience they had that triggered the chain of thoughts and motivation to create it.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible that we will have the same experiences as others, but the good news is that it is guaranteed that our interpretations of the same or similar experiences will always create unique outcomes.  Not to mention the inspiration domino effect that will come from that meal I just shared with several others in the restaurant that night.

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On a recent visit to Shake Shack, one of the city’s best burger joints, a friend and I felt the New York summer heat collide hard with our love of cold summer desserts.  The Wednesday ice cream special (yes, you can literally go back every day for different flavor – dangerous…?) was a fromage blanc ice cream with raspberry swirl, and needless to say our curiosity got the best of us.  As we finished our burgers and quickly dived into the already melting ice cream, we pondered over what fromage blanc actually was – “white cheese?”, “cream cheese?”, “yogurt?”.  I’m sure the group of French men at an adjacent table were probably rolling their eyes at us, although as it turns out we weren’t too far off.  It most closely resembled a cheesecake flavor –  tangy, slightly cheesy, and a silky smooth texture.  With the taste still on my tongue and a little encouragement from my friend, though it didn’t warrant much, I left with the gears in my head turning and off I was, ingredient shopping.

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Commericial break…

For this blog post I was given the opportunity, nay, inspiration(!) to participate in one of OXO‘s blogger campaigns, #IceCreamForOXO.  I was sent a box full of handy OXO kitchen products to help me create my new ice cream recipe. 
  • The Small Silicone Spatula helped me almost every step of the way, from stirring to pot scraping, and I found it to be just the right size for scooping every bit out of small corners.  
  • The 2-Cup Angled Measuring Cup was already a favorite of mine, because of how easy it is to measure liquid while looking from above, not to mention it has a great pour spout.  
  • The Mini Chopper saved me a lot of prep time and created the bite-sized pieces of mint chocolate for the ice cream topping.    
  • I stored my ice cream in the LockTop Container.  As opposed to the pints I normally use, this container provided the artist in me a canvas for mixing in the jam swirl.  
  • My unexpected favorite product of the group was the Solid Stainless Steel Ice Cream Scoop (since I have 3 other ice cream scoops at home – clearly I don’t joke around when it comes to ice cream).  It worked surprisingly well with its pointed shape that can plunge right into that ice cream, no problem.  I’ve used it on other, harder ice creams and it doesn’t disappoint.

Disclosure: I am employed by OXO and received these products for free. The views and opinions expressed on this site are my own alone and do not represent the views of OXO and/or its affiliates.

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Now back to the ice cream…
What is fromage blanc?

 

Simply put, it’s a low-fat, or in many cases fat-free soft cheese, which looks most similar to a yogurt, sour cream, or creme fraiche.  It has only a faint hint of tanginess and is much less dense than cream cheese, yielding a lighter texture and making it a good substitute for your regular or greek yogurt fixes. When it’s combined with the mascarpone cheese in this recipe, the tanginess really comes through and that’s where the ice cream begins to taste “cheesy” and rich like a piece of cheesecake.

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Where to find fromage blanc?

 

I found the one I used at Whole Foods, conveniently located next to the mascarpone cheese I needed for this recipe as well.  They also sold more specialty flavored versions, which may be something I will try in the future.

 

Others: Amazon, local cheese shops, or if you’re ambitious enough you can make your own!

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Had it not been for burger night and a little push from my sweet tooth, I probably never would have tried fromage blanc, let alone thought to put it in an ice cream.  For the base of this recipe, I worked with one of the few fromage blanc ice cream recipes I could find, and used the fruit in my refrigerator to decide the jam swirl flavor. 

So…have you been inspired yet?

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FROMAGE BLANC w/ BLACKBERRY JAM SWIRL
(Adapted from FEAST)
Makes: 3-4 cups  

Ingredients:
1/2 vanilla bean or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (*see note in instructions)
3/4 cup + 1 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs, preferably brown
1 8oz. package (3/4 cup) fromage blanc, such as Vermont Creamery
3 Tbsp. mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup blackberry (or any other berry) jam or preserves
Mint chocolate such as Lindt’s for topping, chopped (optional)
If making jam:
1 cup blackberries (I actually used a mixture of blackberries and black raspberries for this version)
1/2 cup sugar
Variations:
Flavor of the Week – Change up the flavor of jam that you swirl in or the flavor of fromage blanc if you can find it.
Substitutions – Substitute a low-fat plain yogurt for the fromage blanc.
Beware – Fromage frais and fromage blanc are not the same!

Instructions:
Blackberry Jam (makes approximately 2/3 cup)
  1. Combine berries and sugar in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over MED heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Continue to boil the mixture for 8-10 minutes.
  3. Cool slightly and push the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, using a spatula, to remove the seeds.
  4. Place the jam in a container and cool in the refrigerator until needed for the ice cream.
Fromage Blanc Ice Cream
  1. Add sugar to medium bowl.  Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the contents into the bowl with the sugar (*skip this step if using vanilla extract).  Use your fingers to break up any clumps of vanilla and mix together with sugar.
  2. Add the egg yolks to the sugar mixture and whisk until combined.
  3. In a medium saucepan, heat milk and cream, and scraped vanilla bean pod just until it begins to simmer, stirring occasionally to break up the film of the cream.
  4. Slowly add 1-2 Tbsp. of the warmed milk mixture to the sugar mixture, whisking to combine.  Continue to add the remainder of the milk mixture, slowly in a steady stream, whisking constantly to avoid cooking the egg.
  5. Rinse saucepan and pour mixture back into it.
  6. Heat on MED-LOW to MED, stirring frequently, until the custard thickens, about 10-15 minutes.  Strain into a mixing bowl and cool completely in the refrigerator.
  7. After the custard base has cooled, add the fromage blanc and mascarpone, mixing until combined completely.  A whisk works best for this.
  8. Freeze in ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Assembly
  1. After the ice cream has been made, scoop half into a shallow container, such as this OXO one, in an even layer.  Add several scoops of blackberry jam in lines across your canvas, then repeat with the second half of the ice cream to create two layers.  The ice cream will have the swirled look when it is scooped and served.
  2. Place in freezer for several hours to allow ice cream to harden.
*I recommend adding some dark mint chocolate bits as a final touch, but this ice cream is delicious as is too.

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SHAKSHUKA

Life changes are inevitable, and in my opinion very healthy experiences and something you can grow and learn from.  No, it’s never an easy thing, and some people are better at it than others, but in the end it mostly seems to be worth the stress and struggle.  All you can do sometimes is just sit back and enjoy the ride, and keep the positive juices flowing.

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There are lots of changes happening around me this month.  For one, the weather is hinting that spring is coming…finally.  But the biggest change is that in a couple of weeks, one of my best friends will no longer also be my roommate.  After almost a year and a half in the same apartment, Rachel is moving out and moving on, taking the next big step and moving in with her boyfriend.  I of course have bittersweet feelings since I will no longer be seeing her every day, but I couldn’t be happier for her new life.  She has taught me so much about cooking, introduced me to so many new foods (and cheeses!), and has been my partner in crime for exploring all of the amazing food my neighborhood has to offer.  And don’t worry, we will continue to share recipes and have foodie get-togethers as usual and as often as possible.  I will however miss our spontaneous weekend brunches the most, and so, Rachel, I toast this brunch to you.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of food creations.  Another close friend of mine is moving in, which I am very much looking forward to, and I have no doubt we will find just as many food adventures.  Like they say, when one door closes, another one opens.
Cheers!

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It was Rachel, in fact, who introduced me to this recipe and the cookbook it comes from, and I am so grateful for it.  For those who haven’t had the chance to try this cookbook, it’s full of recipes created by the cultural influences of two men who grew up in Jerusalem, one from the Arab side, the other from the Jewish side.  Every recipe has a unique and creative flair, and interesting ingredients and combinations.  Not to mention the pictures are GOR-geous. I highly recommend this cookbook as a staple in your kitchen.  Everything I’ve made from it has tasted so, so good, and this shakshuka recipe is no exception.
Though shakshuka could realistically be served for any meal, I love serving it to brunch guests at “Shelley’s Café” the most.  It’s a guaranteed hit every time, as people are always impressed with the dish.  Even better, it’s relatively easy to make and can be modified based on what seasonal vegetables you have.  Sounds like a perfect change to the menu, doesn’t it?

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SHAKSHUKA
(from Jerusalem: A Cookbook)
Serves: 2 to 4
Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. harissa (*see recipe notes)
2 tsp. tomato paste
2 large red bell peppers, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. ground cumin
5 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped (5 cups in total); canned are also fine
4 large free-range eggs, plus 4 egg yolks (or 8 full eggs total)
1/2 cup greek yogurt
salt
2-8 slices white bread, olive bread, or pita, for dipping
Variations:
Eat seasonal – Try substituting eggplant or potatoes instead of tomatoes (although I think this version is the best)
*NOTE: The original recipe calls for 2 Tbsp. of harissa, but beware of how spicy your harissa paste is.  I suggest starting with less, and adding more if you can handle the heat.  You can find tubes of harissa near the tomato sauce and paste in the grocery store, or order it online.
Instructions:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and add the harissa, tomato paste, peppers, garlic, cumin, and 3/4 tsp. salt.  Stir and cook over medium heat for about 8 minutes to allow the peppers to soften.
  2. Add the tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook for a further 10 minutes until you have quite a thick sauce.  Taste for seasoning.
  3. Make 8 little dips in the sauce.  Gently break the eggs and carefully pour each into its own dip.  Do the same with the yolks.  Use a fork to swirl the egg whites a little bit with the sauce, taking care not to break the yolks.
  4. Simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny (you can cover the pan with a lid if you wish to hasten the process).
  5. Remove from the heat, leave for a couple of minutes to settle, then spoon into individual plates and serve the yogurt and bread.

BOOZY PEPPERMINT MILKSHAKES

New York City has been feeling a good bit of freezing lately, and Mother Nature does not seem to be letting up anytime soon. But true to its nickname, this city never stops moving.  That’s why when we get lucky with a grey or snowy weekend day, we take full advantage of it by curling up in a ball on the couch, sipping hot coffee or tea, and taking a break from the hectic.  We relax, take a deep breath, and start a long day of whipping up our favorite comfort food recipes.

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Okay, so I may be among a small handful of people who actually spend the lounge days in the kitchen.  But like so many other New Yorkers, no sun and chilly weather means no guilt for staying inside, and that opens up a large window of time for cooking.  These type of days are…cooking marathons.  My friend and I baked seven different types of Christmas cookies in one day this past year. And another day we tackled brunch, pickling, and bread, all before dinner time.
 
Depending on the season, different food trends tend to surface.  During the summer months, rainy days are filled with creative ways to combine the many things we just bought at the farmers’ market.  Fall dreary days yield lots of soups and homemade breads.  Winter brings cold and snowy days, which inevitably call for cocktails and desserts, made with all of the familiar holiday flavors —   cinnamon, citrus, peppermint.

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Why is it that peppermint is something we tend to crave in the winter, in the coldest of months, when the very taste of it is so cooling?  Maybe it’s the nostalgia of the holidays that drives me to seek out this flavor.  It certainly proves to be the perfect companion for this winter dessert.
BOOZY PEPPERMINT MILKSHAKES 
(Recipe idea from this blog)
Makes: 2 pint glass servings
Ingredients:
1 cup almond milk
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. peppermint extract
1 1/2 shots Peppermint Schnapps liqueur
1 cup ice
crushed candy cane pieces, for garnish
Variations:
Not boozy enough? – Add another shot of rum or bourbon Virgin – Add 1/4 tsp. more peppermint extract and 1 Tbsp. more sugar
“It’s chocolate, it’s peppermint — it’s delicious!” – Add 1 Tbsp. chocolate chips
Instructions:
Add all ingredients to a blender and puree.
*HINT: You have several options for how to get the crushed candy cane pieces to stick to the rim of a glass.  Many websites suggest dipping the rim in marshmallow fluff.  But if this isn’t something you have just lying around, a simple mixture of sugar and water will do the job just fine.  Mix 3 Tbsp. sugar with 2 Tbsp. water.  Dip the rim of the glass in the sugar-water mixture, then into the candy cane pieces.
My disclaimer to the reader:  There’s a reason I didn’t include the “V” word (Vegan) in the title of this post.  Maybe it was my desperate attempt to trick you into trying something that sounds scary, but is in reality very tasty.  I am in no way a vegan myself, and nor do I intend to be, but I do find excitement in building new concoctions with ingredients I wouldn’t normally use.  As with anything, there are so many variations, and I think they all deserve a fair chance.

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APPLE PANCAKE + BIRTHDAY BRUNCH

I’m very thankful for the Fall hues that I get to experience up here in the Northeast, something I really missed when I was living in Georgia.  I can’t help but smile when I see the decorative Indian corn husks, signs pointing to apple picking fun, and large orange pumpkins taking over small shops on the side of the road…or at least that’s how it is outside the NYC bubble.

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Since Fall (along with most things) is a little different in the City, I decided to escape to the Berkshires in Massachusetts with a couple of close friends for my mid-October birthday celebration.  It was good to take time to explore the scenic views before New York minutes swallow up the season.
Relaxation was of course a priority on the agenda, along with hiking Mount Greylock, and the farmer’s market to pick up fresh produce and a hot, buttery cider doughnut (aka Heaven).  Then there was lots (and I mean stretchy-pants-lots) of cooking and wine “tasting”.  To most people, cooking on your weekend getaway may not sound like the best of times.  But for someone like me (and hopefully you can relate so I don’t seem totally crazy), I saw it as an opportunity to try new foods with people who were equally excited about it.
Making meals for friends and family brings new opinions and influences to the mix.  It means experimenting with no judgment, and getting to share that food experience with the people you are close to.  I have to say, it was quite a successful outcome, with 6 restaurant-worthy gourmet pizzas pushed out from the kitchen for dinner (courtesy of our amateur pizza chef and friend, Rachel) and an amazing birthday brunch using recipes from a favorite food blogger of mine, Love & Lemons.

The other brunch recipe we made: Sweet Potato and Brussels Skillet

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The main ingredient for this dish is truly an iconic one and I don’t think I could’ve picked a better one for this occasion.  Aside from the apple’s association to all things Fall, it’s the state fruit of both New York and Washington, the fruit that poisoned Snow White, and the name of probably the most popular tech gadget company in the world.  Oh, and my favorite one…the famous fruit that hit Sir Isaac Newton on the head.
Apples have quite the reputation in our society and in our daily lives.  This apple pancake recipe is great for brunch with a small group, easy to make, and of course amazingly delicious.  You know that cider doughnut ecstasy you were drooling over earlier?  Yea, it’s like that.

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APPLE PANCAKE
(by Love & Lemons)
Makes: 2-3 servings as main dish or 5-6 servings as a side dish
Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. butter
3 apples (I used red), peeled, cored, and sliced thin
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3 large eggs
1/2 cup milk (or almond milk)
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)
Variations:
Gluten Free – Use a GF flour such as spelt or brown rice flour.
Local Friendly – Use as many ingredients from your local farmer’s market as possible.  At the very least, you should be able to find brown eggs, apples, and fresh milk.
Instructions:
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Combine brown sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Whisk together eggs and milk.
  4. Mix together flour and baking powder and stir it into the egg/milk mixture.
  5. In a large oven-safe skillet (I used a 10″ cast iron), melt butter and add the apple slices and 1 Tbsp. of brown sugar mixture.  Cook, stirring until soft, about 5 minutes.
  6. Pour the batter over the apples and sprinkle the remaining brown sugar mixture evenly on top.
  7. Transfer the skillet to oven, and bake until it puffs, around 18-20 minutes.
  8. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
*HINT: To dust with powdered sugar, use a fine metal sieve or strainer.  Place a small spoonful of powdered sugar in the sieve, hold over the pancake, and gently hit the sieve with your free hand.Another technique?  Use a tea ball.  Any will work, but I favor this OXO tea ball.

STRAWBERRY BASIL ICE CREAM

Other than the lengthening days of sunlight, the growing desire to wear shorter pants, and seasonal openings of the local amusement parks, what’s the thing that truly signifies summer is right around the corner?  The first sight of strawberries.

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Spotting them for the first time of the season at the local farmer’s market will make the heart begin to race, followed by thoughts of “what will I make with them this year?” and “how many is too many?”.  The answer to the first question is an easy one for me, after having been in this wonderful dilemma before (don’t worry, I will share some of my ideas).  The second is usually not controlled by my brain but rather my craving level for strawberries at the time of purchase.  Let’s just say that level is almost always high… So far this year I’ve purchased 3 pints from the farmer’s market, received 2 pints in my CSA, and picked another 8 pints at a strawberry field in New Jersey.  Not to mention the ones my roommate brought home that were shared.
Strawberry picking is a fun and rewarding experience, for adults as much as children, and I think everyone should do it at least once in their life.  Not only does it teach you an important lesson in where your food comes from, but it’s very relaxing and enjoyable to walk between rows and rows of strawberries searching for the perfectly shaped and deep-red colored, taking tastes of your gatherings all along the way.  I’ve spent hours filling up buckets or flats of these berries, and I look forward to my once a year strawberry picking.

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I actually found this recipe after my first strawberry picking adventure, which yielded way more crop than I could ever hope to finish one at a time.  Now, it has become an annual recipe, which I try to only make from strawberries picked myself.  Yes, I could use store-bought, or out-of-season berries other times of the year, but trust me when I tell you that you need that fresh and sweet strawberry taste.  
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IMG_3698Strawberry and basil seems like an odd combination, especially in ice cream, but I’ve seen it pop up on menus a lot lately.  It’s become one of my favorite pairings, and the reason I love this ice cream so much is because it’s one of the rare foods that will give you not one, but two distinct punches of flavor.  Strawberry…then basil.  I can just imagine my taste buds celebrating as the taste hits two different sets of them.  Take your first bite nice and slow to give your mouth the full indulgent experience.
**Other great strawberry pairings you ask?  Just follow the season…  First comes asparagus in late spring, which kicks off the green vegetable season (this combination is best in salads).  Rhubarb follows shortly after (mix with strawberries in pies/tarts, ice creams, or cocktails).  As the season moves into early summer, pair them with blueberries, squash, and of course in salads.  Strawberry jam is always a good option too.

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STRAWBERRY BASIL ICE CREAM
(Adapted from eCurry's recipe)
Makes: ~5 cups (2.5 pints)
Ingredients:
1 cup half and half
1/2 cup whole milk
1 pint fresh strawberries + 1 cup fresh strawberries, washed, and hulled
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves (no stems)
3/4 cup sugar
Zest of 1 medium lemon or lime
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup blanched and slivered almonds, slightly toasted
Variations:
Substitutions – Replace half and half with heavy cream and whole milk with half and half.  Or, for a healthier version, replace half and half with whole milk and whole milk with 2% milk.
Recommendations – Use milk and cream from a local source, such as the farmer’s market, use fresh strawberries, and pick basil from your garden if you have one.
Gluten Free
Instructions:
*HINT: Save empty pint ice cream containers to store your own ice cream creations.  The plastic ones work best for multiple uses.
  • Blend half and half, milk, 1 pint strawberries, basil leaves, sugar, and lemon or lime zest, and salt.
  • Chop the remaining strawberries and set aside.  These will be used for extra pieces (optional)
  • Crush nuts slightly to release oil.  Set aside.
  • Combine all ingredients including nuts and strawberry pieces.  Pour slowly into an ice cream maker and follow manufacturer’s instructions.