Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Messing with Perfection

Two of the most basic and satisfying baked goods, in my opinion, are homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies. I think the former is my all-time favorite dessert, as long as they are warm from the oven and contain a lot of chocolate chips.

I've been making chocolate chips cookies from memory for years, and the recipe that I use is very similar to the Nestle Tollhouse formula. I use salted butter for everything, so I omit the salt. I also cut out two tablespoons of butter and add another half cup or so of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Last week I was browsing the photos on and noticed an entry about reducing the amount of butter in Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. The blogger had conducted a comparative experiment with the original recipe (two sticks of butter), the traditional ingredients with half the butter, and a third variation with a substitute for butter and whole wheat flour. Her favorites were the cookies made with one stick of butter, and after reading that, I had to try it for myself.

When I made them on the first day, without chilling the dough, the cookies turned slightly browner than normal and were a little dry. They were still quite edible, and that night I decided that I could handle them if I ever found myself craving warm chocolate chip cookies and only had a stick of butter.

The cookies were much better the second night, after the dough had been refrigerated overnight. One of the only differences I noticed between the original recipe and the half-butter version was that my hands were less greasy after eating them. They looked the same and I didn't even alter the baking temperature or time. I tried another batch with one and a half sticks of butter (pictures below), and noticed no difference to my normal cookies. As adverse to change as I am, I may choose to go with less butter from now on, because it's both healthier and more economical.

Now that I'm writing this, I realize that I've been baking a lot lately, because I've also been tweaking a new brownie recipe that is quickly becoming a favorite. It's for peanut butter-Nutella brownies (adapted from Culinary in the Country), which one of my coworkers discovered on another blog.

They're very moist and cakey, and the recipe makes a 9x13 pan full of rich brownies. The original calls for a half cup of peanut butter and the same amount of Nutella. I put mini chocolate chips and peanut butter chips on top the first time I made them, which gave an extra layer of flavor and texture, but the peanut butter in the brownies and on top overpowered the Nutella.

Another coworker, who's also been working with the recipe, tried adjusting the ratio of peanut butter and Nutella to 1/3 cup peanut butter and 2/3 cup Nutella. Neither of us could detect any hazelnut, so we both made a pan of brownies with 1/4 cup peanut butter and 3/4 cup Nutella. While the brownies were very moist and had a deep chocolate taste, the Nutella still wasn't coming through, and we could barely taste the peanut butter.

I haven't ruled out trying another ratio, but I really liked the last version of the brownies because the small amount of peanut butter complemented the sweetness and depth of the chocolate ingredients. I may also have liked the last trial because I put chocolate chips in the brownies, and mini chocolate chips on top of the brownies. You can never have too many chocolate chips....

Peanut Butter-Nutella Brownies
Adapted from Culinary in the Country

1 cup butter (2 sticks), melted
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
4.5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa (sifted)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup Nutella
1/2 cup peanut butter

In a medium bowl combine all-purpose flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Over low heat, melt butter and stir in sugar and vanilla extract until well combined.

To the butter-sugar mixture add eggs, one at a time. With a wooden spoon vigorously mix in each egg until well-combined.

To the butter-egg mixture whisk in the cocoa mixture until fully combined.

In a microwave safe bowl add Nutella and peanut butter. Heat in the microwave in 20 second intervals until it reaches a runny consistency. Stir this mixture into the batter.

Pour the batter into a greased glass 9 x 13 pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Let brownies cool completely before cutting.

It's Official

Despite temperatures below and around freezing, 37,000 people ran the Monument Avenue 10k this year. Our friend Brian Gorman's professional cake decoration, seen below, captures the spirit of the 10k and spring, which is undeniably here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Choco what?

Anyone who reads this blog probably knows how much I depend on chocolate to get through every day life. I rarely go without dessert, and it's really only worth it to me if it's chocolate. It's also only worth it if the chocolate isn't mixed with fruit or fruity flavors (with few exceptions), but otherwise I won't really discriminate.

Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to be given a gift of high quality artisan truffles. They are hand painted and carefully arranged in a box with pretty blue tissue pepper on a seashell dish. The shells are made of white chocolate, and the truffles inside are flavored with some type of liqueur. I've only sampled one so far because they're too beautiful to eat, but hopefully by the time they're gone I'll know what the flavoring is. The shells are resting on a bed of sparkling rock candy, which completes the exquisite presentation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Food, Inc.

It took us a little while to get to Food, Inc. on the Netflix queue, but Davy and I finally watched it this week. If you're a Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser fan, or if you've read up on the benefits of eating locally and naturally, the film probably isn't going to be life-altering. I learned a little about specific food companies and laws, but most of the content wasn't new information. It was, however, a reminder that all of us have control over what we feed ourselves. Small changes can make a big difference for personal health as well as the environment, whether it's eating less meat, buying humanely raised meat, eliminating food with artificial products, or opting to buy from a local store or market instead of a big chain. The next time you go to the grocery store, think about a minor way that you can alter your diet for the better. It might not feel like a big deal, but one decision can have multiple benefits. If you need some motivation and haven't seen it yet, Food Inc. is worth moving to the top of your Netflix queue and enjoying with a bowl of popcorn (homemade, of course).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lobster, Goat Cheese, and Lucky Cupcakes

Before I resorted to sesame noodles, there were several special occasions marked with delicious meals.

My first attempt in 2010 to make lighter food was this pumpkin and lentil salad from Bon Appetit. I substituted butternut squash for the pumpkin, regular paprika for smoked, used a generic bag of regular lentils instead of the French variety, and omitted the mint. Despite the changes, the salad was filling and had a satisfying blend of flavors. The only problem with it was that I didn't crumble the goat cheese enough and the lentils stuck to it. I love goat cheese, but I didn't love having large clumps of it covered in lentils throughout the salad.

I had a second encounter with goat cheese in Charlottesville at a "gourmet burger bar" called Boylan Heights. The "gourmet" in the restaurant's description about its burgers is no exaggeration: the beef is purchased from a local, organic butcher, and there are fifty high-quality toppings available. Each table is stocked with Scantron sheets and pencils in case diners want to customize a burger. Inspired by the turkey and white bean burger from Belvidere at Broad that I'd eaten a few days earlier, I selected goat cheese, spinach, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers, and they certainly didn't disappoint. My bowl of sweet potato fries disappeared quickly as well - they were sweet and salty with just the right amount of crunch.

Normally either Davy or I will make a nice dinner for Valentine's Day, and we go out to eat on another night to avoid the crowds. This year we splurged on lobster tail (two for $15 on sale at Fresh Market!) and filet. Davy labored over the meat, lobster, garlic mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli, and we even had enough filet to convert the components into a second special dinner.

The week before Valentine's Day was the Super Bowl, which I have never cared much about besides the food and some of the commercials. This year, however, I was cheering for my former high school classmate Marques Colston and the Saints. Davy and I hosted a get together with the traditional pigs in a blanket, Greek potato skins, bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers, and spinach and artichoke dip.

For dessert, I made the chocolate whiskey and beer cupcakes from Smitten Kitchen, and used food coloring to turn the Bailey's buttercream frosting gold. I also attempted to pipe some fleur-de-lis in dark whiskey ganache to mimic the Saints' logo and team colors. I have a long way to go before I become a cake decorator, but I do believe that my cupcakes were good luck. Let's hope that this post is good luck, and that my tribute to winter food will make spring come faster!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sesame Noodles

I've stopped using scarves and gloves, and even take my jacket off when I go out for lunch. Spring is coming, and this in-between time of year makes it tough to select clothing every day. I want to get my summer clothes out and debut new items, but it's 30 degrees when I leave for work in the morning, and the temperature drops again when it gets dark.

Seasonal limbo also applies in the kitchen. I'm ready to lighten my cooking and gear up for fresh, local produce, but I'm also not ready to let go of all of my comforting, wintery recipes quite yet. Just like that ideal outfit that bridges the gap between winter and spring, sesame noodles are a perfect transition meal.

I got this recipe from my mom via my uncle, who always makes delicious food, including grilled meat and side dishes. When I first tried these noodles, I was in middle school and hated cilantro and avoided the dish for several years. Thankfully I decided to try them again, because they are a simple and impressive.

This recipe is interesting enough to accompany a main course or, with some additions, stand alone as its own meal. My most recent version of the dish included stir fried chicken and snow peas, and no other changes needed to be made. It's slightly crunchy from the sesame seeds, savory from the soy sauce, and rich from the sesame oil, while fresh cilantro and garlic keep it light.

As the warm weather approaches, I know I'll be pulling the sesame noodles card out of my recipe box to balance out any soups or roasts that can't wait for next winter.

Hot Sesame Noodles

12 oz. linquine, or pasta of your choice
1 hot green chili pepper
3 Tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup soy cauce
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Cook noodles and set aside
Seed and mince chili
Mix chili, sesame seeds, garlic, oils, cilantro, and soy sauce in a large bowl
Drain noodles well and toss with the other ingredients
Season to taste