Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
Continue reading

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cookies and parties and tiny pies

My head is a bit all over the place this week. I’ve been trying to get a head start on cookie-making, planning cookies for baking this weekend, plus thinking about what I’ll be bringing to a cookie swap hosted by one of my local spice shops. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it on cookies this year–the problem is picking my favorites! Biscotti, pecan tassies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate snowcaps, maybe one or two others, and then I’m cutting myself off.

Boxed up

I’m also thinking about what to make for my holiday party. Salmon, definitely; red pepper dip, likely; the rest of the menu is still in draft mode. As with the cookies, I keep having to reign myself in–but there’s so many recipes that sound so good! I figure as long as there’s plenty of wine (mulled and non-), beer, and perhaps some of that plum gin (which should be just about ready), I should be pretty well set.

Finished smoked salmon

I also realized I never shared with you my two contributions to my mom’s Thanksgiving table. I made tiny versions of Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry pie in tiny mason jars that were completely adorable and essentially the fall version of sour cherry pie (and we know how much I love sour cherries). I also contributed some pretty amazing (if I say so myself) Parker house rolls.

Baby pies in baby jars

Perfect rolls

Even with all the cookies and parties and food and planning, I’m not quite feeling like it’s really the holiday season yet. Maybe once I pick up a tree and do my decorating (and figure out how to turn on my new fireplace! I’m inordinately excited about that part) and do my annual viewing of Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! it will sink in.

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Continue reading

Dining and Drinking in Paris (Part 1)

There is no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Paris for me was the food. I mean, come on. It’s a food culture practically built on bread and cheese, two of my most favorite food groups.

As I mentioned, I went to Paris with a pretty comprehensive list of places to eat that covered everything from hole-in-the-wall falafel stands to old school French bistros to small plates and wine bars. These are just three of best places I ate during the trip (another post to come shortly with more, but I figured 1,500 words was quite enough to start with): Au Petit Versailles, an amazing cafe; Breizh Cafe for spectacular crepes and cider; and Le Baron Rouge for wine and oysters.

Petite Versaille

Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cooking Inspiration (and a Theatrical Interlude)

I won’t bury the lede here: last weekend I met Dorie Greenspan and now I have a new cooking hero.

One of the great things about having a passion is constantly discovering how much more there is to learn. In my research on Paris (…at some point I will talk about something else, I promise) I realized how much I really don’t know about French cooking. As much as I adore Julia Child, firmly believe cheese is a food group, and really don’t think a meal is complete without bread of some kind, French cuisine has just never been something I’ve made a conscious effort to learn about. Needless to say, that’s changed.

I discovered one of my favorite shops, The Spice House, was doing a booksigning with Dorie Greenspan to promote her new cookbook on French baking, Baking Chez Moi, the weekend after my Paris trip. I knew very little about her, really, but the timing was too perfect, I had to go. The signing was great fun, not least because there was champagne and delicious little treats made by the students at the French Pastry School.

Baking Chez Moi

As soon as she started speaking, I knew it was fate–I had just finished my last macaron and she said this was the first of her 11 cookbooks in which she was finally convinced by her editor to include a recipe for the Parisian sweet (or is it American now? though I categorically object to framing it as “macarons are the new cupcake”). I anticipate a baking project…

More importantly, Dorie was everything I always hope cookbook authors will be: obviously passionate about the topic, incredibly knowledgeable, and imminently kind. To give you a clue exactly how kind, I bought two of her (not insubstantial) cookbooks before the event in hopes she’d be willing to sign both. Not only was she happy to do that (and wrote the sweetest custom inscription when I told her I just got back from my first trip to Paris, which always earns extra points in my mind), she actually apologized for making me hold both cookbooks while I waited in line. And she was happy to take a picture with me (I need a do-over on that one).

Inscription

Dorie Greenspan

And on a totally different subject (not food- or Paris-related for a change), I went to the opening night of Drury Lane Theater’s production of Camelot last week. I love musicals and it was a nice way to stretch my “on vacation” feeling a little bit longer. The show was great fun and well sung and acted; Lancelot was a cutie; the theater was small enough that everyone had a really good view of the stage (always my struggle when buying theater tickets in downtown Chicago without cringing at the price). If you’re in the Chicago suburbs looking to see a show, check it out. (The theater comped my tickets but my thoughts on the show are my own.)

Camelot

Next post, a new recipe: a simple, beautiful French dessert!

Pear and ginger muffins

I had the best of intentions last week, yet I still found myself with a half dozen pears sitting on my counter, too far gone for eating out of hand. That, of course, didn’t stop me from buying more pears at the market this past weekend. With an over-abundance of fruit and a decidedly fall chill in the air, it seemed as good an excuse as any for a little baking project.

Moody muffin

It would make a better story if this recipe came about after deep contemplation of a perfect bag of golden, freckled pears plucked from a tree with branches positively aching, overloaded with fruit; if I told you how the warming spice of ginger speaks to the new fall season and complements and contrasts the pear’s sweet flower smell. Or if I waxed poetic about the crisp fall leaves flying around me in eddies and waves of yellows, oranges, reds, purples, their sound the autumn equivalent of waves on the beach, while the sun’s angled rays stretches and pulls shadows across the ground.

Freckled pears

Truth? I stared at the pears on my counter on Sunday morning and had this conversation with myself: “These poor pears are not going to last a single day longer. You know, it’s been entirely too long since I made muffins. I wonder how pear muffins would be. And pears go so well with ginger and hey, don’t I have a bag of ginger bits somewhere? I bet if I mashed up the soft pears I could just add them to the liquid ingredients. Good enough, let’s try this.”

Streusel-ed

Like I said, the first version makes the better story, but sometimes the muffin is all you need.

Pear Ginger Muffins Continue reading

Life of Pie

Out of any interest or passion, cooking and eating is the only one I can think of that’s essential to life. This is actually pretty convenient in a lot of ways–if I have to eat anyways, why not make it as enjoyable and taste as good as possible? And I consider pie pretty essential to life, especially in summer, which has finally, blissfully made an appearance in Chicago.

Golden brown and delicious

I’m talking about peach pie, to be exact. And while I’m at it, maybe throw some blackberries in there too because, well, summer.

Peach season
Peaches and sugar
Peach syrup

America’s Test Kitchen’s weekly emails are one of my favorite cooking inspirations, especially since their recipes are so reliable (plus the taste tests and gadget reviews make my research-loving heart happy). At least one recipe usually gets bookmarked (and occasionally I actually get around to making it). Earlier this month, the email included peach pie. I don’t remember the last time I had homemade peach pie, which seemed a perfectly valid reason to buy armloads of peaches and give my pie crust another run.

Rumpled crust
Filled
Blackberries, why not?

If I get nothing else out of writing this blog, I’m happy to finally have and be able to share a reliable pie crust recipe and method. I still have a few tweaks to make–my crimps are hit-or-miss (I think the trick is refrigerating the pie after crimping so the crimps don’t disappear once the pie hits the oven) and I’m still trying to figure out how to brown the bottom crust more quickly in fruit pies (it usually works to put my pie plate on a preheated baking stone, but that didn’t work this time–did the tinfoil underneath make a difference?). And, happy day, I just discovered a pie shop in Chicago will sell, by request, the rendered lard they use in their own crust. As much as it’s a fun point of pride to say I can do it myself, it takes a bit of planning, which is not always my strong suit.

Crimps
Peach pie with lattice crust

I’m always amused to look at my Recipes page to see what it says about how I cook, or at least what I cook to share here. Lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, which is pretty true-to-life, and of course out of all the desserts or sweet treats I’ve shared, pies win. Not a bad trend, if I say so myself

Peach Pie with Blackberries
Continue reading

On baking bread and other risky things

How often do you take risks? Considering how much I love to research and analyze and construct and deconstruct and plan, taking risks is not exactly what I’m known for.

Cinnamon braid

But the past few years, I’ve been stuck. I needed to change something. You won’t find me on stage doing sketch comedy any time soon, but I heard a great rule about it (thank you Tina Fey, you are my hero) that I took to heart–the sketch and the characters only move forward if you say “Yes, and….” You can’t move a sketch forward saying “No;” I realized I couldn’t move forward with changes by turning things down, second guessing whether I’d be good enough, if I have enough time, if I’m smart enough, if I’ll get rejected, if I have enough experience, etc., ad infinitum. Those are the fastest ways to make nothing happen.

Swirled and sliced

The biggest “Yes, and” I’ve taken on has been simply taking more risks more often. I don’t mean risking running a yellow light or skydiving. I mean just trying things–this blog was one of the first. I didn’t know anything about blogging but I loved talking about food; I forgot most everything I learned years ago about photography but I had a camera. I didn’t know anything about self-promotion but I already happily shared food and recipes I loved. I’ve learned a lot, failed more than a few times, but that’s really the  point.

Sifting the flours and grains
Kneading

Sometimes the risks I’ve taken have been frustrating. I’ve been angry and sad and disappointed; I’ve yelled and cried and sat in my car hitting my steering wheel more than once. I haven’t gotten the changes I wanted at the pace I wanted them; some risks have made me question what I’m really good at and where I want to be. And from the same risks, doors have opened. I’ve become part of amazing new communities and met new friends; I’ve learned so, so much. Not just new skills (I’m looking at you, mountains of water-bath-canned preserves), but how to approach and process those risks and use them for my next “Yes, and…”

Resting
Rise, poke

So, bread. (How’s that for a transition?) I’ve never tried improvising a recipe like this–yeast! braiding!–but what’s the worst that could possibly happen? I use a few cups of flour, some milk, and learn something. (I first wrote “I waste a few cups…” but no, it’s not waste.) And I figured it out! Yeah, I researched a bit, and my first attempt was not what I was looking for (it was still good!), but I learned and made this. And it’s honestly one of my proudest baking accomplishments.

Cinnamon sugar, ready for blending
Cinnamon sugar, powdered
Cinnamon sugar-ed

It’s really hard to end up with something bad when you bring together three of the most reliable cooking and baking resources, but this bread exceeded even what I had hoped for. Cinnamon swirl bread has never appealed to me–it always tasted more like raisins than cinnamon and usually too sweet with the actual bread as an afterthought–but when I saw it come up three times in a month, looking so delicious and swirly and I imagined what it would smell like baking in the oven, I had to give it a shot.

Rolled
Ready to braid
Braid 1
Braid 2
Braided

I picked the features I loved most from each recipe: the whole/multi-grain process from Smitten Kitchen; my favorite soft sandwich bread base from Joy of Cooking, and the incredibly impressive (but ridiculously easy) braiding technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Two tries later, it’s just the right amount of sweet, definitely cinnamon-y, tender from the milk and butter, chewy and textured from the combination of flours and grains (and no raisins!). Without the cinnamon, it also makes a great sandwich bread.

Multi-whole-grain sandwich bread
Cinnamon and sandwich bread
Braided bread

So for my 99th post here, I will say yes, and…I’ll have another slice (with butter this time).

Cinnamon Swirl Multigrain Bread (with a plain variation) Continue reading

Sweet as honey

Forget Christmas and my birthday and Thanksgiving and every other holiday that comes around once a year. My favorite day? Opening day of the outdoor farmers markets in Chicago.

Gooey strings of sugar, carmelized edgesStacks of bars

When my two favorite markets open in a few weeks, I know I won’t find the near-overwhelming cacophony of colors and textures and tastes that come in July and continue through October. That’s ok. For now I’ll be happy to ease into spring with little shoots of green, a color it feels like I haven’t really seen in months.

But green things aren’t what I’m talking about today. Among all the fruits and vegetables and amazingly colorful array of eggs is one of my all-time favorite stands even during the winter market–the honey guy. I can, and have, spent half an hour at his stand sampling and chatting with the quiet, unassuming owner about which flavors are best for what, tasting the amazingly apparent differences between varieties. I’ll watch him wave the bees away from his samples as he talks to other customers and I try to decide between tupelo, buckwheat, cranberry blossom, or (my favorite, as in I have a 5 pound bottle of it in my cupboard) basswood-linden.

Essentials
Butter, almond meal, flour, sugar
Eggs, homemade vanilla from a recent swap
Dough
Browned base

There are a million and one ways to use honey of course; my favorites are drizzled over really good yogurt with the freshest mid-summer fruit or on a warm, buttered biscuit. For the stronger, almost molasses-like honeys (buckwheat, chestnut, etc.), it’s a bit more of a challenge. Like really good chocolate, the sweetness has an underlying bitterness that makes it more interesting, but it can overwhelm in the same applications as the lighter honeys. I’ve been kind of stumped as to a good use. Then, I found these.

Sliced almonds
Essentials for the topping
Butter squares

I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get on the bandwagon of David Lebovitz fans; maybe because Paris has never been at the top of my list of dream destinations (yes, I’m aware I’m insane). But his recipes hit on a lot of the things I love–simple and classic and delicious–and his writing is funny and so unpretentious. Plus, at least the past few months, he seems to post the exact thing I’m looking for before I even know I need it.

Such was the case in March with these gallette des rois I made in miniature for that month’s Chicago Food Swap. It happened again this month with his recipe for almond honey bars, the perfect use for the half bottle of buckwheat honey sitting in my cupboard that was destined for these (they also made for a big hit at this month’s swap).

Swirling butter, honey, sugar
Coating the almonds

The bars are a crisp, crumbly, almond-y shortbread topped with a butter/almond/orange/honey brittle that’s a perfect showcase for a great, strong honey. The funny thing is that I actually forgot the sugar the first time I made them and didn’t even realize it until I made a second batch. They’re amazingly good either way: with the sugar, the topping layer is thicker, stickier, sweeter (obviously); without the sugar, the honey bakes more fully into the shortbread and the bitterness comes through more with more crunch from the sliced almonds. The orange and almond compliment the honey perfectly in both versions.

Bits and piecesOne giant bar

With less than two weeks to go until the 2014 markets move outdoors, I’m obviously looking forward to those first fresh, beautiful, green things. But I really hope my honey guy is back too.

Honey Almond Bars Continue reading