Monday, October 13, 2014

Spider Bite Brownies


People, it's finally here...Halloween season! My definition of a Halloween themed dessert is quite simple–Take an otherwise delicious treat and make it spooky in some way. Because, after all, Halloween desserts can be creepy as all hell, but they should still taste good! Enter the brownie spider bite...my solution to the Halloween themed dessert. I find it hard to believe that this blog is without a post that showcases the brownie. It truly is the best dessert food out there. Show me someone who doesn't like brownies and...well, actually don't show me because I don't want to be acquaintances with anyone who doesn't appreciate a brownie as one of the great things in life. I've actually been working out my brownie recipe for some time now, which may seem silly seeing that a brownie is not a complex dessert. Yes, the ingredients and steps are minimal, but that just means they should be done right. There are a few elements to a brownie that are up for debate, but in the end it boils down to a matter of preference. Do you use cocoa powder or unsweetened chocolate? I prefer both! One thing's for sure, the chocolate needs to be high-quality, dark and delicious. Do you like a cake-like or fudge-like texture? I err on the side of fudgy, and for that reason, I give you a recipe with less flour and more butter. I also contemplated adding in candy to keep things Halloween festive, but in the end I kept the brownies pure and simple. A hint of espresso lets the chocolate shine and I now intend on making these for every holiday. Flag day brownie bites, anyone?

So, how do we make these brownies spooky. While perusing the aisles at my grocery store, I happened upon a $2 bag of plastic spiders. Jackpot. I never intended on actually serving something plastic on my brownie bite, I simply used the spider and a dusting of powdered sugar to create a spider silhouette. Any plastic spider will work, as long as its no bigger than the size of the brownie bite. In the end I think these look slightly more like beetles than spiders. But hey, a bug's-a-bug, right? 







Spider Bite Brownies
makes 24 mini brownies
INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 24-cup mini muffin tin with liners. 
2. Melt the butter in the microwave or on a stove top. While it's hot, pour into a mixing bowl filled with the chopped unsweetened chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and let cool to room temperature. Mix in the sugar and eggs, one egg at a time, until fully incorporated. Stir in the instant espresso and vanilla. 
3. Fold in the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and salt until just combined. Fill the muffin cups three-quarters full and bake for 15-20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
4. To make the spider silhouette, place a plastic spider on top of the brownie, then gently tap a fine strainer filled with powdered sugar until the brownie is covered. Remove the spider and the silhouette with remain. It's magic, people.



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home Improvement: DIY Built-Ins & a Wall of Frames

Warning: This post contains no food, whatsoever. If you're here for dessert porn, just scroll on through and pretend this post never happened. But, if you're an HGTV addict like myself, I think you'll enjoy this brief segue into a little DIY home improvement. 

When we first made the leap from an apartment to a house, I promised to keep you updated on any progress! Well, it's been a few months and although we're not anywhere near being finished, we have made some progress! Begin slow clap now. The desire to have our home completed and combined with the demand of real life is a constant struggle. My time for fixing up the house is now delegated to my son's blissful nap hours. I now realize that I am not capable of moving into a "fixer-upper" as I would drive myself mad. I'll begin one project, get distracted and start another, completely forgetting about the first project altogether. That is, of course, until my 16 month old waddles over with a few screws in his hand, reminding me that 1.) Oh yeah! I forgot about that picture I was hanging, and 2.) I'm terrible at baby-proofing, thank you Nolan for not swallowing those. 

On the top of the everest-like mountain of projects that my husband and I want to tackle is our living room. This is not only our living room, it's our foyer, play room, TV room and my office. Having built-in shelves has always been a dream of mine. It's just what adults do--they have built-ins stocked with beautiful books. (Or, in my case, an abundance of cake stands and cookbooks.) Luckily, we have plenty of wall space and a perfect wall to attempt built-ins. The only hitch is that they cost a fortune and need to be installed by someone who knows what they are doing (i.e. not me.) So, we decided to DIY our own built-ins and my husband Tom transformed two Ikea bookcases into a couple of fancy pants faux built-ins. 

Here's how we completed our own Ikea hack:
1. We purchased two of these white Hemnes bookcases from Ikea for $149 each. 
2. We lived with them for about a month and was unimpressed by how small they looked in the space. While we brainstormed on how to upgrade our bookcases, I bought a simple white parsons desk from Target for $70 to fill in the space under the window. 
3. In one of our bi-weekly Home Depot trips, we stumbled across a set of basic white kitchen cabinets. We reluctantly bought them for $144 each, not really knowing how they would help us solve our built-in predicament. 
4. We decided to elevate the Ikea bookcases on top of the kitchen cabinets, raising them all the way to the ceiling and creating a new storage space below. Because these weren't base-cabinets they aren't designed to hold the weight of an entire bookcase and its contents, so Tom had to reinforce them. Basically, he nailed several strips of wood along the inside frame and created a strong platform for the Ikea bookcases to sit on. The Hemnes bookcases come with feet, so we had to saw those off and screw the bottom of the bookcase directly into the top of the kitchen cabinet. Just to be safe, we also secured the top of the bookcases into the wall. These suckers aren't going anywhere!


It should also be noted that we painted our walls grey which helps the white bookshelves and trim pop!


The photos aren't great, but you get the idea. What a difference elevating a couple bookcases makes! The track lighting was our solution to not having any overhead lighting in our living room. Seriously, we don't have one light! They were the cheapest track lighting options Home Depot had (about $30 each) and they now add a gorgeous glow to our living room. Also, we can now see all the dog hair that had accumulated. Eventually, we plan on adding a strip of wood molding to hide the track lighting a little better as I'm not crazy about how large they are. 

On another wall of our multi-pupose living room, I decided to hang a bunch of frames. Like, dozens, actually. This project was actually really fun for me because I love the chance to add a personal touch to our home and photos are just the trick. Now, if you don't plan accordingly, a wall of frames can quickly turn into a disaster. Uneven frames, too much symmetry, not enough symmetry, or running out of wall space can all lead to lots of holes in your wall. I learned how to map out a wall of frames from the blog Young House Love and although theirs was a much larger project than mine, using paper as a guide was incredibly helpful. A couple rules I tried to adhere to: Try to keep the largest frames in the middle of the cluster and get as varied as you can with sizes. Don't just frame photos, postcards and fabric swatches add lots of color. Think outside of the box frame and try hanging a metal letter or something that is meaningful to you. Here's how my wall came out. I'll probably add another dozen frames, but for now it does the trick. 



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lemon Hand Pies

When I was a kid on road trips with my family, we'd often stop at a rest stop or gas station along the way. A family of seven makes pretty frequent stops, for obvious reasons. Sadly the food options were always pretty bleak. Throughout the years, I've noticed these rest stops (mainly along I-95) haven't really gotten much better. Why is it that all rest stops are dumpy? Is it too much to ask for a brief respite from our travels and some decent grub? Instead, we're stuck with noxious Cinnabon smells and foil wrapped burgers from Roy Rogers. Not saying I don't crave those burgers now and again, but I digress. 

One of the things my dad used to pick up at the gas station would be a Hostess Lemon Fruit Pie. In my opinion, these hand pies were the one shining star in a galaxy of bad food options. Remember these wax-paper-covered, sweet pastries?



Although my dad was the biggest fan, I also loved these little pies. Anytime I see them in the store, I contemplate buying a few. Sadly, Hostess doesn't make these pies the same way anymore. And even if I did buy a few, they wouldn't be as tasty as they were when I was a kid. So, recently I decided it was time to make a variation of them at home. And unlike the questionable "Real Fruit Filling" stated on that wax paper packaging, my pie filling is, in fact, a delicious lemon curd. I also swapped the generic pie crust for a walnut pie crust. If you're more of a traditionalist, however, feel free to omit the walnuts and stick with a basic crust. They're delicious either way.


Walnut Pie Crust
Makes enough dough for about 14 hand pies
INGREDIENTS
1 cup walnuts
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
1/3 cup ice water

DIRECTIONS

1. Use a small food processor or knife to finely chop walnuts then toss in a large bowl. Add the flour, sugar, salt and butter. Use a pastry blender or a large fork to cut the butter cubes into the dry ingredients, working quickly and incorporating all of the flour mixture until the butter pieces are the size of peas. Make sure you don't over-work the butter. Visible chunks of butter = tasty flakiness!

2. Slowly drizzle the ice water into the flour mixture. Mix until the dough just begins to pull together, drizzling more water if needed. (You might not use all of the water.) Pull dough together, divide into 2 disks and wrap each one tightly with a piece of plastic wrap. Chill in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight. While the dough chills, make the lemon curd.

Lemon Curd
INGREDIENTS
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

DIRECTIONS
In a saucepan set over medium-low heat, combine the egg yolks and sugar and whisk until incorporated. Add in the lemon zest and juice, stirring constantly until thickened, or about 8 minutes. Strain into a clean bowl and stir in the cubes of butter until completely melted. Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming on the top, then cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. 


Assemble the Pies
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Remove one of the pie dough disks from the fridge and roll out to about 1/8" thickness on a floured work surface. Use a large circle cutter (Or an upside down mug) to create circles about 4" wide. Transfer to the baking sheet and repeat until you've used up all the dough.

2. Place a giant spoonful of the lemon curd into the center of half of the circles, then top with another dough circle. Crimp the edges with a fork and cut slits in the top to let them vent. 

3. Create an egg wash by mixing an egg in a small bowl with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to cover each pie with the egg wash, then sprinkle with a pinch of turbinado sugar.

4. Bake pies for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Let them cool for a few minutes so you don't burn your mouth!



Make sure you strain the curd. It removes any little cooked egg bits and ensures you have a smooth filling.






Monday, September 1, 2014

I Fondue, Do You?



Ok, I understand there may be a few fondue haters out there. They're just jealous that fondue is no longer retro. In fact, it's coming back to mainstream entertaining in a big way. Also, fondue is really fun. (Well, I consider eating food smothered in cheese on a stick fun.) My decision to make fondue came the other night rather hastily. Basically, I wanted cheese for dinner. Not cheeseburgers or even a grilled cheese, just plain cheese. I knew there was a wedge of Gruyere in the fridge and I thought about plopping down on my couch with that whole hunk of cheese, calling it a meal and  watching (yet another) episode of Discovery Channel's "Naked and Afraid". But then I realized I have a husband and a kid who wouldn't let that pass for dinner. Also, plopping down on the couch and relaxing at all is something dreams are made of these days. Instantly I thought of loophole where cheese could be the main event in our meal, FONDUE! It usually makes an appearance in the winter months, when its chilly out and you want to cozy up next to a pot of melty stuff. But when you have a craving who gives a crap what month it is. Also, I happened to have an abundance of delicious summer strawberries, so pairing them with chocolate fondue for dessert seemed perfect. Next thing I knew, I was scouring my kitchen in search of any accoutrement for my cheese and chocolate fondue. I had a baguette, some grapes and red potatoes. I mean, you could pretty much dip anything in cheese and chocolate, they are just vessels anyway. With better planning, I would have stocked up on apples, cornichons and some pound cake (for the chocolate fondue), as well.

I didn't have a traditional fondue pot, but it didn't matter–I ate all the stuff before it got cold, anyway. The skewers I used are the cheap wooden ones you can find at any supermarket. I gussied them up a bit by dipping the ends in some craft paint. It took about 5 minutes and makes them adorable and colorful. If you really get into it, you could color code the skewers for each dinner guest.

Cheese Fondue

YOU'LL NEED:
1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese, shredded or cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup dry white wine
pepper to taste
pinch of nutmeg (optional)


DIPPERS:
4 red potatoes
  olive oil
  salt and pepper
  oregano or rosemary
Bread, such as a baguette or pumpernickel, cut into 1" cubes
Sliced apples
Blanched Vegetables, like broccoli or carrots

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bring a pot filled with water to a boil. Wash and cut the potatoes into 1" cubes, then boil until tender and a fork can poke through them. Strain, then spread out on a baking sheet. Coat with olive oil, salt and pepper and the oregano or rosemary. Bake until edges are crispy, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

While the potatoes are in the oven, make the cheese fondue. Cook the wine over medium heat, bringing it to a low simmer. In a small bowl, mix the cheese with the flour, tossing it to coat. Gradually stir the cheese into the simmering wine. Melt the cheese slowly for a smooth fondue. Otherwise you'll have a stringy mess. Once all the cheese is melted, stir in pepper or a pinch of nutmeg. Transfer to a bowl and serve with dippers.








Chocolate Fondue
YOU'LL NEED:
8 oz. dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder


DIPPERS:
Strawberries, washed and hulled
Grapes
Sliced apples
Pound cake, cut into 1" cubes

Place the chocolate into a heat safe bowl and set aside. Heat the heavy cream in a microwave safe liquid measuring cup for 45 seconds, then pour over the chocolate. Let stand for a few minutes, then stir until all the chocolate is melted and smooth. Stir in the instant espresso power, then transfer to a bowl and serve with dippers.




Thursday, July 31, 2014

Basil + Lime Watermelon Granita


It's hot and you don't want to cook. I get it. What you do want is a sno-cone–and lots of 'em! Well, this watermelon granita beats out any sugary syrup snow ball and will probably be the best iced treat you'll have all year. Don't let the fancy Italian term "granita" fool you. This dessert is so simple, it only requires four ingredients. The star of the show is the watermelon, so get a good one. 

I know what you're thinking..."But how do I know if it's a great watermelon?" Here's a few pointers:
• A ripe watermelon should have a deep hollow sound when you thump it. 
• It should be heavy... That means it's full of juice!
• Look for a yellow splotch on the outside of the watermelon. That's a sign that it had time to ripen in the field. 



Basil-Lime Watermelon Granita
INGREDIENTS:
Half of a large Watermelon, cut into small chunks
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup sugar
4-5 basil leaves, roughly torn apart

DIRECTIONS:
1. Fill a blender all the way to the top with the watermelon chunks and cover with the lid. Blend until the watermelon is liquid, then add the lime juice, sugar and basil leaves. Continue to blend until the bits of basil are very small, about 10 seconds. 

2. Pour the watermelon juice mix into a metal or glass baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and place into the freezer. After about 1 1/2 hours, use a fork to scrape and break up all the frozen parts. Cover and place back in the freezer. Wait another hour and repeat by scraping with a fork, until all the ice is broken up into flakes. After one more hour, scrape your granita once more with the fork, then it's ready to serve. Serve in small bowls or cocktail glasses with a basil garnish. Keep any leftovers covered in the freezer. 




Any leftover watermelon will gladly be consumed by our four-legged friends. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

So long Big Apple, Hello Charm City!



After a lovely thirteen years in Manhattan, the time has finally come for me–and this blog–to seek out greener pastures. If you ask my husband and two dogs, they'll tell you it's not a moment too soon. Things were getting a little cramped in our one-bedroom apartment and now we'll be able to stretch our legs in a real grown-up house! So we've relocated to Maryland–an awesome place on its own, and also where I spent much of my youth. Being back in Baltimore means I can re-introduce myself to–and enjoy–a few of the culinary treats I loved as a kid. My favorites are Old bay (and anything crab related, really), Berger Cookies and last, but not least, the lemon stick! The emergence of this unexpectedly delicious lemon treat is debatable, but most agree that it began at the Baltimore Flower Mart. They are a staple at every Baltimore school bake sale and I recently indulged in a few (okay, like five) as a break from all this hard "moving-in" work. 




The recipe couldn't be simpler:
Slice a lemon in half, cut an x in the center (where all the membranes meet) and insert the peppermint stick. Now, it's imperative that the peppermint stick be the soft variety as the whole point of the stick is to suck out the lemon juice through the stick. So make sure you don't use any 'ol candy cane. Get these and you're just a lemon short of having the most delicious and refreshing summer treat. (If you're up for a boozy treat, try soaking the lemon halves in vodka before you pop in the peppermint stick!)

I'll be sure to keep you in the loop as we fix up the house here-and-there. Everyone loves a before/after pic, right? 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Whole Plum Pies




Summer fruit desserts are truly the best–they're deliciously simple and nearly impossible to mess up. Also, the fruit filling is easily interchangeable. I made these whole plum pies with fresh plums (because I absolutely love the color of a plum), but you could swap 'em for a peeled peach or nectarine. Anything is delicious when it's wrapped in pie crust. (I mean, maybe not an old shoe, but most fruits are anyway.) And since nobody wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen in the summer, this dessert won't take up your entire day. In fact, you can make these in the morning and set them aside for dessert. Oh, and always add a scoop of vanilla ice cream:)






Whole Plum Pies
You'll Need:
Pie Crust (recipe below)
6 medium sized ripe plums, rinsed 
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
6 teaspoons brown sugar
milk or egg wash
sliced almonds or turbinado sugar for topping the pies

DIRECTIONS:
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove one disk of pie crust from the fridge and roll out on a lightly floured work surface until the crust is about 1/8" thick. Use a large circle cutter or flip a bowl over and use a knife to trace around the rim to cut circles of dough that measure about 6" in diameter. Collect any scraps, re-roll and cut until you have six circles. 
2. Slice each plum in half and carefully cut out and discard the pit. You'll be left with a well in the center of the plum half where the pit was. Place a few cubes of butter and a teaspoon of sugar into the well of one half, then place the remaining plum half on top so the plum is whole again. 
3. Wrap the whole plum inside a dough circle and place into a heavily greased muffin tin. Repeat until all six plums are wrapped and in the tin. Brush the tops with milk or an egg wash and sprinkle the almonds or turbinado sugar on top. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the dough is golden brown and the plum is soft. Cool pies before removing from the tin and eating. 

Flaky Butter Pie Crust
INGREDIENTS
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks very cold unsalted butter, cubed into 1/2 inch pieces 
1/3 cup ice water

DIRECTIONS
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Use a pastry blender or a large fork to cut the butter cubes into the flour, working quickly and incorporating all of the flour mixture until the butter pieces are the size of tiny peas. Make sure you don't over-work the butter. Visible chunks of butter = better tasting crust!

2. Slowly drizzle the ice water into the flour mixture and stir until the dough just begins to pull together. Pull dough together into a ball. Divide the dough in half and place each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a disk and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. You'll probably only need one disk for this recipe, so keep the other disk chilled for another day.