The Polar Espresso

When it comes to culinary adventures, taste is the most obvious of the five senses involved. Smell is close behind, and sight is also thrown into the mix. But there are sounds that are always coming out of my kitchen that make cooking about more than what meets the eye, nostril, or tastebud. Just as the young boy who narrates The Polar Express is so affected by the ring of a small bell, I am instantly brought back to a comforting and magical place with certain sounds – the sizzling of a breadcrumbed chicken cutlet, the rhythmic slicing of risotto-bound onions, and (perhaps most importantly) the whiz of the coffee grinder first thing in the morning.

My father is a self-proclaimed coffee snob, and I am following directly in his footsteps. There is truly a difference in tasting the flavor of freshly ground beans in each sip of my morning jolt that has made me very attached to all things espresso. And so, I couldn’t resist injecting a bit of that richness into this festive holiday recipe. Merry Christmas!

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Gooey Mocha Brownies:

¼ cup cocoa powder

¼ cup espresso powder

1 tsp cinnamon

½ cup strong filter coffee, near boiling

2 oz. dark chocolate chips (and 6 oz. dark chocolate chips later on)

2 eggs, room temperature

2 additional egg yolks, room temperature

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups sugar

1 ¾ cups flour

1 tsp salt

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Instruction:

  1. Whisk cocoa powder, espresso powder, and cinnamon in coffee until smooth. Whisk in first 2 oz. of chocolate chips until melted.
  2. Whisk butter and oil into mixture. Then, add eggs, additional yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract until smooth.
  3. Sift in flour and salt and fold until completely combined. Finally, fold in the remaining 6 oz. chocolate chips.
  4. Transfer to 9×13 baking pan lined with parchment paper and sprayed with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for about half an hour, until toothpick comes out clean.
  5. After brownies have cooled slightly, carefully transfer to wire rack. To serve, stack different sized squares at 45 degree angles and dust with powdered sugar.

Enjoy gooey mocha brownies with Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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Harry Potter and the Deathly ‘Mallows

The early 2000s were a time of wonderful weirdness for preteens. Maybe you made up a dance routine to Monster Mash in your friend’s basement. Perhaps you rocked a Limited Too pageboy hat on a fifth grade field trip. But I’d bet that the most accurate manifestation of preteen splendor would be your AOL Instant Messenger screen name and password.

While I wavered between Neopets and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats themes, my sister was always very steadfast – the username was based on a fearless Shakespearean protagonist, and the password paid tribute to one of the most entertaining characters in literature: Peeves the Poltergeist.

The ghosts were such a phenomenal part of the Harry Potter series, and though their appearances were brief and infrequent, they were always entertaining. Nearly Headless Nick was bizarrely endearing, and Peeves was hilariously pesky. JK Rowling did a wonderful job of making ghosts – in the past classically “scary” figures – into something we all looked forward to encountering as we turned the pages of the Harry Potter books.

Like the fashion and social choices we made as preteens, these meringues represent something stereotypically scary at first glance; but when you actually dive in, they’re actually quite sweet.

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Meringue Ghosts:

3 egg whites

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 oz dark chocolate chips

Instruction:

  1. In standing mixer, whip egg whites and salt until frothy. Gradually add sugar on medium-high speed and whip until you have stiff and glossy peaks.
  2. Pipe egg white mixture onto parchment paper-lined baking tray. Bake in 400 degree oven for about 5 minutes, until meringues are light brown on top. Let meringues cool completely.
  3. Melt chocolate chips in microwave in 20 second intervals, stirring between each interval. Using a toothpick or a small piping bag, pipe two dots onto the meringue as the ghost’s eyes.

Enjoy meringue ghosts with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

Of Mousse and Men

I’ve recently started teaching part-time at my old high school to supplement the ever unpredictable life of a freelance writer. It’s very surreal walking the same hallways without my beloved green plaid kilt and trusty backpack, calling former teachers by their first names, and giving the same speeches to my own students that I used to hear seven years ago.

There were definitely high school classes that were not my strongpoint. Math was a disaster, and science was a constant struggle. While my freakishly smart classmates excelled, I had no clue what was going on 95% of the time. But like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, often “quality over quantity” rings true. Steinbeck’s perhaps most well-known work was a novella, rather than a full-length book. Its brevity didn’t matter, because the content was what made an impression on people. As with any novel, there are many parts that fall away in one’s memory, and only the truly fascinating parts that make a lasting impact.

When I used to look back on my two years of high school chemistry, I was convinced that the beautiful science was lost on me because as a whole, the courses were overwhelming,  the concepts were huge, and the AP exams were ultimately a disaster for me. But when I think to the individual things that peaked my interest, I realize that chemistry was probably one of the more significant classes in my high school career. Perhaps it was learning how heat reacts with different fats in a cut of beef. Or maybe it’s learning that gelatin can make flavorful beads of any liquid. But I owe my chemistry teachers a big thank you, for the bits of information that have lasted the test of time, and even shaped who I am as a chef.

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Chocolate Mousse:

8 oz. dark chocolate

2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

3 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup heavy cream

Instruction:

1. Over double boiler, melt chocolate, cinnamon, and salt.

2. Whip whipped cream in Kitchen Aid until soft peaks begin to form. Fold into melted chocolate mixture.

3. Begin whisking egg whites in Kitchen Aid. Meanwhile, heat sugar to 120 degrees (use instant thermometer). When sugar reaches temperature, begin pouring into egg whites as they are being whisked. Increase speed to medium and whip until stiff, glossy peaks form.

4. Lightly fold whipped chocolate cream mixture into egg whites. Transfer to piping bag and pipe into ramekins. Chill in refrigerator for at least three hours.

Limoncello caviar:

1 cup limoncello

1/2 oz. gelatin powder

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Instruction:

1. Put vegetable oil in freezer for about twenty minutes. Remove right before you are ready to make the beads.

2. Bring limoncello and gelatin powder just to a boil (allow powder to dissolve) and turn off heat. Using an eye dropper, squeeze drops of the liquid onto the frozen oil. Beads will form and begin to sink to the bottom.

3. Allow beads to sit for several minutes as they continue to sink. GENTLY use a strainer to discard the oil, and place strainer on top of a paper towel to soak up the rest of the oil surrounding the beads.

Whipped Cream:

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 tbsp sugar

Instruction:

1. Begin whipping cream on low speed. Increase to medium speed and gradually begin to add sugar. When stiff peaks form, transfer to piping bag to garnish mousse.

Enjoy chocolate mousse and limoncello caviar with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

Grimm’s Dairy Tales

This week I’ve been working on a freelance piece about avoiding surface cracks in cheesecakes. Blessedly, the life of a food writer requires testing subject matter at home. And while this prospect seemed very appealing at the start, heaps of batter and billions of calories later have left me feeling a bit worse off than when I started. This same fate befalls anyone who reads “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Those who are looking for a breezy encounter (as these tales are portrayed in Disney films) end up feeling very weighed down.

Like the tales of these Brothers Grimm, cheesecake – despite its unfailing heaviness – has endured the test of time. But by portioning into these individual ramekins, you will serve up something closer to the Disney versions – sweet, light, and always a happy ending.

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(Pumpkin Cheesecake Terrines)

Crust:

3 ounces chocolate graham crackers

4 tbsp. salted butter, melted

Instruction:

1. Pulse graham crackers in food processor until fine crumbs. Remove blade and add melted butter, mixing until mixture has “wet sand” consistency.

2. Pack even amount of mixture into ramekins, pressing down with fingers to make an even and compact layer.

3. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Cheesecake filling:

12 oz. cream cheese

3/4 cup canned pumpkin puree

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

2 whole eggs and 1 additional yolk

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup heavy cream

Instruction:

*Note: All ingredients should be brought to room temperature before beginning!

1. In standing mixer, beat cream cheese, gradually adding in sugar. Add pumpkin, vanilla, and salt, and eggs (all gradually, and at medium-low speed). Finally, add heavy cream and beat until mixture is completely smooth. (You may need to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a silicon spatula.)

2. Pour mixture evenly into ramekins with cooled crust. Create water bath by placing ramekins in roasting pan and pouring boiling water halfway up the sides.

3. Bake for about 45 minutes at 325 degrees – centers should still wobble slightly. Pull out of the oven and leave in water bath on stovetop for about 45 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and cool for another 45 minutes. Finally, transfer ramekins to refrigerator to chill for about two hours. (At this point, you can optionally add your mousse layer – see below.)

(Optional)

Bailey’s cream cheese mousse:

8 oz. cream cheese

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1/2 packet gelatin

1/4 cup water

1/4 Bailey’s

Instruction:

1. Whisk together sugar, salt, and gelatin. Bring water and Bailey’s to a boil and pour immediately over dry ingredients, whisking until dissolved.

2. In standing mixer, beat cream cheese and pumpkin puree. Until smooth. Gradually add gelatin mixture in on medium-low speed. Pour over cheesecake right before the refrigeration phase. Chill cheesecake ramekins for several hours, allowing gelatin to solidify.

Enjoy individual pumpkin cheesecakes with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

A Sweet Bar Named Desire

Summer is winding down, and though the evenings are getting cooler, mid-day outdoors still tends to coat me in a sheen of sweat. Because of central air conditioning, August is a much more pleasant month than it used to be, and I am glad to spend the days baking treats inside instead of baking my pale skin outside.

Tennessee Williams sets the backdrop for A Streetcar Named Desire as a Louisiana summer in the 1940s. The air is heavy and dense, in many manners of speaking. Stella knows that her husband Stanley is sinful but can’t seem to get enough of him. And while I agree that there are few things yummier than a young, pouty Marlon Brando – I may have found one of them to be peanut butter cheesecake bars. The combination of cream cheese, graham cracker crust, peanut butter and chocolate chip may even drive you crazy.

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Peanut Butter Cheesecake Bars:

12 oz cream cheese

1 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup milk

1 egg

1/4 cup brown sugar

pinch of salt

1 cup chocolate chips

Graham Cracker Crust:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup brown sugar

6 tbsp melted butter (unsalted)

Instruction:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Make graham cracker crust by combining graham cracker, brown sugar, and butter in food processor. Press to make even layer on bottom of greased baking pan. Bake in oven for five minutes, allow to cool on stovetop while making the cheesecake batter.

3. In medium bowl, combine cream cheese, peanut butter, brown sugar, salt, and egg using electric mixer. Add milk a bit at a time, incorporating well into the batter. Fold in chocolate chips with spatula.

4. Pour cheesecake batter over cooled graham cracker crust. Bake in oven for 25 minutes. Allow to cool on wire rack (still in baking pan) for an hour, then chill in refrigerator for two hours. Remove from baking pan and cut into bars.

5. (Optional:) Sprinkle with cocoa powder and/or powdered sugar.

Enjoy your peanut butter cheesecake bars with A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, and check in at warandpeach.wordpress.com for future recipes and book reviews!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Scone

I associate several things with autumn: flannel, pumpkins, Mumford and Sons, Sunday afternoon football, snuggling, and Harry Potter. Although the series isn’t season-specific, the descriptions of Hogwarts fireplaces and Quidditch matches are so cozy. Plus, the premise of witches and wizards, learning how to cast spells, and ghosts floating around the grounds has an unmistakable “October” feel to it. (Peeves was always my favorite. It was a crime that the filmmakers left him out.)

I decided to develop a recipe that would incorporate all my favorite autumnal flavors. The spiced pumpkin flavor brings a warmth to a previously simple recipe that will cast a spell on all of you Muggles and aspiring bakers.

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Pumpkin scones:

2 cups flour

3 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/ 2tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. ground ginger

7 tbsp butter, cubed and cold

1 tbsp skim milk

1 egg

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

3 oz. block chocolate, chopped (milk or dark)

Instruction:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. In food processor, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices.

3. Pulse cold, cubed butter until mixture has course, sand-like consistency. Add egg, pumpkin, and milk and pulse until  mixture is just combined.

4. Dump dough onto floured surface and knead several times, incorporating chocolate as you do so. Using a floured cookie cutter, cut out six circles and transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes in oven or until scones are light brown and pass the toothpick test (insert toothpick into center of scone and it should come out clean or with only a few crumbs). Let cool for a few minutes before tasting!

I’m still working on my butterbeer recipe, but in the meantime, enjoy a pumpkin scone with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Not to brag, but my copy is signed by J.K. Rowling…) And check in at warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

The End of the Éclair

I remember as a child being unable to sleep one night and padding downstairs in the dark. My parents were on the couch watching a film. As soon as they saw me, my mom leapt for the remote and immediately pressed the pause button.

I was intrigued. What could be so bad that my parents wouldn’t want me to see? “We’re watching The End of the Affair. You can read or watch it someday… when you’re older.”

It was around this age that I began parochial school. Although completely dreadful in most ways, one thing I always looked forward to was lunchtime in the cafeteria. The school sold chocolate éclairs for 50 cents (which, looking back, weren’t éclairs at all as much as ice cream bars with a sophisticated name). The cafeteria treat and the scandalous content of Graham Greene’s work were both delicious, and fifteen years later, I still can’t get enough.

Graham Greene is one of my favorite writers. He captures the serious flaws and complexities of relationships without being too dense. His writing style is not unlike an éclair: the structure is simple and light, but it’s complexity comes from the internal flavor. Both a Graham Greene novel and a simple éclair are quite satisfying – you’ll find yourself filled to the brim but still wanting to come back for more.

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Body (pastry part of the éclair):

1/2 stick butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup flour

2 eggs (one whole, one white only)

pinch of salt

sprinkle of cinnamon

Filling:

1/2 stick butter

4 oz. block of cream cheese

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 cup confectioner sugar

dash of light cream

sprinkle of cinnamon

Instruction:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. In saucepan, melt butter and water until just boiling. Take off burner and whisk in flour, salt, and cinnamon until blended evenly.

3. After the mixture has cooled, beat in eggs. If you do this too soon, the still-warm mixture will scramble the eggs.

4. When mixture is fully blended, use tablespoon to dollop dough onto a greased baking sheet. Should yield about six blobs of dough.

5. Bake for about 20 minutes in oven, or until light brown. Dough should puff up into light pastries.

6. With fork, mash together softened butter and cream cheese until blended. Add vanilla and confectioner sugar. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon and a dash of heavy cream, depending on consistency (should be like a thin frosting) and whisk again.

7. Assembly time. With a small knife, make small incision in each pastry. This should happen quite easily, as the pastries should puff up to be light to the point of almost hollow.

8. Using a piping bag (or your own makeshift piper made out of a plastic bag with a small hole cut in a corner), fill each pastry with the buttercream mixture.

9. Garnish as you like! For example, add a small dollop of leftover buttercream on top of each éclair and sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over the plate.

Enjoy éclairs with The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and check in at warandpeach.wordpress.com for future recipes and book reviews!