September 27, 2009

Chocolate Espresso Caramel Bars

As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I made a picnic for my mom and I in Central Park this past July. Along with the panzanella, I made these chocolate espresso caramel bars. (I also made a watermelon, feta, and arugula salad and spicy apricot glazed shrimp. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but this was not your ordinary, run of the mill picnic spread- it was pretty spectacular.)  Upon tasting the caramel bars for the first time, it was love at first bite. My mom and I polished off a whole batch within a matter of days. These things really are magical. For the past two months I have literally dreamed about them, almost nightly, waking in a cold sweat and salivating over the image of chocolate caramel gooey goodness.

Don't let the name of these heavenly treats throw you though. These in no way taste like coffee. Not that I have anything against coffee, I actually consider myself somewhat of an addict. My day does not begin until I have my first cup of joe. The espresso powder in this recipe is not intended to impart its flavor; its purpose is to intensify the flavor of the chocolate, adding depth. While watching the Barefoot Contessa last week, she reiterated this tasty little trick.  She added espresso powder to chocolate cupcakes, both to the cake batter and the frosting, with only the intentions of enriching the chocolate.  A nifty little trick to keep in mind, don't you think?

One of my favorite things about this particular dessert is its cross section.  The distinctive layers are so beautiful! A graham cracker crust and soft caramel center topped off with rich, intense chocolate.  Sort of like a Twix bar gone gourmet. This recipe is adapted from, once again, Giada. She suggests sprinkling the top with smoked sea salt, but at $17 a pop (!), I figured regular sea salt would do just fine. This is, of course, not necessary, but I really like the slightly salty finish.  It really leaves you wanting more, which, I guess, could be both a good thing or a bad thing.  Not such a great thing in my case, as I usually can't walk away from these things without eating at least 5.  I even tried freezing half the batch to save for a later date, (and to deter me from once again consuming the batch in its entirety) but unfortunately, they defrost way to easily.  Take one bar out of the freezer and it's soft enough to eat in 10 minutes.  But I guess that's comforting to know, should I start waking in the middle of the night again, dreaming about chocolate, I know it will only be 10 minutes before I can soundly fall back asleep.  

Chocolate Espresso Caramel Bars
Recipe adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Vegetable cooking spray
12 whole graham crackers, crumbled
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 stick plus 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted 

pinch of salt

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar (packed)
1 tablespoon water

Chocolate Layer:
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1 teaspoon course sea salt, optional

Special equipment: a candy thermometer


For the crust:
Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 9x9-inch baking dish with parchment or waxed paper. Spray the paper and the sides of the pan with cooking spray. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the graham crackers, sugar, and salt. Process until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Add the melted butter and blend until the mixture forms into clumps. Spread the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan, pressing gently to form an even layer. Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes until the crust is golden. Cool for 15 minutes.

For the caramel:
While the crust is cooling, in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of cream, butter, sugar, and water. Stir over medium heat until the mixture is smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees F, about 5 to 7 minutes. Carefully pour the caramel over the warm crust. Cool for 20 minutes. Freeze until firm, about 10 minutes.

For the chocolate layer: 

Combine the chocolate chips and cream in a small bowl and place over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the espresso powder. Remove the pan from the freezer. Pour the chocolate mixture over the caramel layer and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with sea salt, if using. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour until firm.

Allow the layers to come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Using a warm, slightly wet knife, carefully cut around the edges of the chocolate layer. Cut into 1 1/2 by 1/2-inch bars and store airtight in a covered plastic container in the fridge.

September 23, 2009

Grilled Vegetable Panzanella

As a last ditch effort to use what's left of summer's premium produce, I decided to make my grilled vegetable panzanella salad. I created this recipe back in July to showcase the flavors that summer's bounty has to offer. (I made it as part of the picnic spread I prepared for my mom when I took her to Central Park.) Granted, with fall officially upon us, the produce is no longer at its peak, but I wanted to share this recipe with all of you before it was too late! I had never actually had a panzanella salad when I made this one, but they always seemed so tempting. Maybe it's all in the name... PAN-ZA-NELLA. There is something seductive about it, in one way or another. Every recipe I've run across, however, was, well... uninteresting. Nothing that made my taste buds dance in anticipation. 

I wanted to create a panzanella that was the epitome of summer. It needed to incorporate fresh flavors and a variety of textures with minimal effort. I am a firm believer that humans not only eat with their mouths, but also with their eyes. If something doesn't look appetizing, you don't necessarily want to eat it, right? So, it was also important to me to use as many different colors as possible. Red tomatoes, orange peppers, yellow corn, green asparagus, purple onion... I think the only main color I'm missing is blue, but I challenge you to find a blue vegetable. To up the ante on that summer time feeling, I threw the corn, asparagus, and peppers on the grill (or in my case, a stove-top grill pan, because, well, I live in New York City and that's all I have to work with- a good enough substitute I suppose). 

Panzanella literally means "bread-salad". While most recipes use cubed ciabatta, tossed together with various ingredients and an emulsion of red wine vinegar and oil, I thought a slightly crunchier bread would lend a more interesting texture. I toasted the ciabatta cubes just to the point where the exterior developed a nice crust, but maintained a chewy interior. I definitely didn't want to turn them into croutons, or the salad would have become something else entirely.  I tossed these with the colorful spectrum of veggies, fresh herbs, some parmesan, and a white wine vinaigrette. Voila! Summer all wrapped up into one bite!

Grilled Vegetable Panzanella

1 loaf ciabatta bread, cut into bite size cubes
extra-virgin olive oil
garlic salt
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half 
1/2 pound asparagus 
1 corn cob
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1 orange bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 to 1/2 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano (depending on your preference)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
*White Wine Vinaigrette (see recipe below)

1. Preheat the over to 350°F. Place ciabatta cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.  Sprinkle with garlic salt on top.  Toast bread in the oven for 10-12 minutes or just until the bread starts to crisp, but stays chewy inside.  
2. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle olive oil on the corn, asparagus, and bell pepper (or spray with vegetable spray for a lower fat alternative). Place on a pre-heated grill or stove-top grill pan and cook until tender and slightly charred, about 5-10 minutes.
3. Shave the corn kernels off the cob and cut the asparagus and bell pepper into bite size pieces. 
4. Combine the bread, tomatoes, asparagus, corn, onion, bell pepper, parsley, and basil in a large bowl.  Drizzle with the white wine vinaigrette and top with freshly ground black pepper and shaved Parmigiano.  Serve immediately. 

Makes 2-3 entree sized servings.  

White Wine Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Mix the wine, lemon juice, honey, mustard, salt, and pepper in a blender or food processor. With the machine still running, gradually blend in the oil.  Season the vinaigrette with more salt and pepper, if desired. 

September 19, 2009

Chicken, Spinach, and Mushroom Crepes

Upon deciding to begin this culinary journey, I knew that I wanted to challenge myself with new techniques, ones that I had yet to attempt. The art of crepe making has been high on that list for quite some time. The Parisian staple has always intrigued me with its delicate texture that is complementary of both sweet and savory dishes.  Though most of my experience with eating crepes has been in the dessert arena (crepes with nutella and sliced bananas- yes please!), I felt more enthralled to try a savory version for my first endeavor.  A recipe source I often turn to is Cooking Light.  I think they do a great job of giving classic recipes a lighter, more healthful makeover.  (As much time as I spend in the kitchen, it's not only a wise decision to choose lighter recipes, but also necessary.)  I will admit that I never usually follow Cooking Light's recipes to a tee though.  They never seem to produce as many servings as the recipes claim (unless perhaps you have the appetite of a 4 year old- I do not), and the most tasty (read: most calorie laden) ingredient is often used in extremely scant proportions.  However, I came across a recipe from Cooking Light for chicken, spinach, and mushroom crepes, that seemed like a good starting point for my first savory crepe dish.

The batter came together in a pinch, with the help of a blender, but things started to slow down from here.  One should note that the batter needs to chill for one hour- an important detail I did not become aware of until after I decided to start this recipe at 8 o'clock at night. (Needless to say I ate a very late dinner that night.)  After the batter is chilled, each crepe has to be made individually, a rather time consuming process. My first few crepes, I regret to say, were less than unsightly. Flipping the frail, flimsy things was much harder than I anticipated!  They kept tearing and sticking and folding into themselves. No spatula or any other kitchen gadget I creatively tried to use helped to appease the situation. It turns out that the most effective tool I had on hand (literally) was my fingers.  Using a gentle touch and quickly grasping the edge of the crepe, turning it onto its other side, culminated in a perfectly golden, tear-free crepe. Don't worry, after your fingers are sufficiently numb- and perhaps an expletive or two is thrown about- the process begins to move much more swiftly.  

The filling consists of onions, mushrooms, spinach, and chicken (I used a rotisserie).  I decided to jazz it up a bit by adding in a couple spoon-fulls of cream cheese and a few crumbled bacon slices, because, well, everything is better with bacon.  A white sauce, essentially a béchamel, is then added into the mixture, before being folded into a crepe-like parcel, topped with cheese, and broiled in the oven.  The end result was tasty, but somehow familiar... like chicken enchiladas on vacation in Paris- a classic Mexican dish parading around in French flavors.  

However, I did find this Parisian inspired version to be a little dry. Most enchiladas are accompanied by a sauce, be it a mole or tomatillo.  So, the following night, before reheating my leftover crepes, I decided to make another batch of the béchamel sauce that was originally added into the chicken and mushroom mixture, only this time I added a few flavor components (see recipe below).  The idea I had in mind here, is that one could double the recipe for the sauce and use half for the filling, while reserving the other half to top the finished crepes.  But I decided to take it one step further, by adding in gruyere cheese to the finished béchamel, resulting in a Mornay sauce.  The final product: enchiladas that just may claim France as their permanent residence.  

Chicken, Spinach, and Mushroom Crepes
Recipe adapted from Cooking Light

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced onion
1 (10-ounce) package presliced mushrooms
3 cups chopped cooked chicken breast
1/4 cup sliced green onions
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry
2 oz 1/3 less-fat Philadelphia cream cheese (optional)
3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled (optional)
Béchamel Sauce, divided (recipe below)
10 Basic Crepes (recipe below)
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (optional)

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to pan and allow to heat for 2 minutes. Add sliced onion and mushrooms to pan; sauté 5 minutes or until mushrooms release their moisture and darken. Stir in chicken, green onions, 1/4 teaspoon salt, spinach, cream cheese (optional), and bacon (also optional).

Add half ( about 1 1/2 cups ) of the prepared béchamel sauce to chicken mixture, reserving the rest of the sauce for later use; stir to combine.

Spoon about 1/2 cup chicken mixture in the center of each crepe; fold ends and sides over. Finish with either option 1 or option 2.

Option 1) Preheat broiler. Place crepes, seam side down, in a 13 x 9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle crepes evenly with the mozzarella cheese. Broil 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Finish by topping plated crepes with reserved béchamel sauce.

Option 2) Continue with béchamel recipe to make a Mornay sauce. Place 2 crepes on each dish and top with Mornay sauce.

Makes 5 servings; 2 crepes per serving

Béchamel Sauce

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely chopped shallot
2 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups 2% milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of freshly ground white pepper (a little goes a long way!)
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

1. Place butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat; cook until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Add onion to pan; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic to pan and cook 5 minutes longer or until onions and garlic are tender (do not brown), stirring occasionally. Sprinkle flour over onion; cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Gradually add milk to flour mixture, stirring with a whisk until smooth; bring to a simmer. Simmer 10-15 minutes or until thickened, stirring frequently. Strain mixture through a fine sieve over a bowl; discard solids.

3. Stir in salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if desired. Serve immediately.

To Make Mornay Sauce: Prepare Béchamel Sauce. Wipe pan clean with paper towels. Return reserved Béchamel Sauce to pan, and place over medium-low heat. Add 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese, stirring until smooth. Serve immediately. Yield: 1 1/2 cups (serving size: about 2 1/2 tablespoons).

Basic Crepes
This recipe works for both sweet and savory crepe applications.

1 cup all-purpose flour (about 4 1/2 ounces)
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup low-fat 1% milk
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons butter, melted
2 large eggs

Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a small bowl. Combine milk, water, melted butter, and eggs in a blender. Add the flour mixture to milk mixture, and process until smooth. Cover batter; chill for 1 hour.

Heat an 8-inch nonstick crepe pan or skillet over medium heat. Pour a scant 1/4 cup batter into pan; quickly tilt pan in all directions so batter covers pan with a thin film. Cook about 1 minute. Carefully lift the edge of the crepe with a spatula to test for doneness. The crepe is ready to turn when it can be shaken loose from the pan and the underside is lightly browned. Turn crepe over, and cook for 30 seconds or until center is set.

Place crepe on a towel; cool completely. Repeat procedure with the remaining batter, stirring batter between crepes. Stack crepes between single layers of wax paper to prevent sticking (make sure crepes are completely cool before stacking, or they will become soggy).

Makes 10 crepes

Tip: Crepes can be stacked between single layers of wax paper and stored in a ziplock bag in the freezer for up to one month!

September 13, 2009

Summer Peach Cupcakes


I had such high hopes for these... I first saw these cupcakes posted on Smitten Kitchen a couple weeks back, and thought daily about them ever since.  Even though I know keeping two dozen cupcakes around the house is never a good idea, at least not for my waistline, I decided the fleeting days of summer was a good enough excuse to give myself the go ahead. A cake made of summer goodness and topped with a brown sugar cream cheese frosting- nothing else would prove a worthy substitute.  

Upon tasting these cupcakes however, my dreams were shattered.  What was advertised as a moist cake, turned out to be dry and surprisingly flavorless.  (I know what some of you might be thinking, but no; I was very careful not to over mix the batter.)  Maybe the peaches I used weren't quite ripe enough?  I did intentionally use a firmer fruit with the idea that a softer one might fall apart in the mix upon baking in the oven.  The real star of this particular cupcake was the frosting.  It was sublime.  (I will most definitely be adding this to my recipe repertoire.  Right now I'm thinking of pairing it with some sort of pumpkin flavored treat... Stay tuned for that!)  The recipe for this frosting is unusual as it calls for a generous amount of corn starch.  The recipe on Smitten Kitchen explains that its purpose is to thicken the icing since brown sugar is a more "damp" sugar as compared to granulated or powdered sugar (which already has corn starch incorporated into it).  However delectable this frosting may be, the intense richness of it overpowers the delicate flavor of the peach.  Actually, the peach seemed more like an after thought here.  I had to actively try to taste it.  Maybe a juicer peach would have imparted a stronger flavor? 

However,  I don't think this recipe should be completely cast aside.  With a few modifications, these could actually make for a pretty tasty muffin.  My suggestions are posted below in green.  

Peach Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Frosting
Recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen

Makes 24 to 28 cupcakes

3 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup dark or light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) buttermilk, sour cream or full-fat yogurt
3 large peaches, peeled, cored, and chopped smallish (I went for a 1/3-inch dice)

Suggested ingredients for muffins:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour and 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (in place of cake flour)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup chopped pecans
Make sure to use a ripe and juicy peach!

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 28 muffin cups with paper liners.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg and set aside. Cream the butter and sugars together, beating until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl between each addition, and then the vanilla. Gently mix in the buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt. Stir in the dry ingredients and fold in the peach chunks. (Chill the batter for at least 30 minutes. The cupcakes- or muffins - will rise much better.)

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cupcake liners. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of cupcakes comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes for five minutes in the tin, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cornstarch and powdered sugar. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add the sugar-cornstarch mixture and vanilla, beat until frosting is smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it thickens back up a bit, about 30 minutes, then spread or dollop on cooled cupcakes.

September 10, 2009

Chicken Milanese with Tomato-Fennel-Mascarpone Sauce

Anything that's lightly fried in oil has got to be good.  Something that's lightly fried in oil by Giada De Laurentiis, well, that's even better.  I have a confession to make.  I have a crush on this woman, a culinary crush that is.  Giada has the incredible ability to make my mouth water with almost any dish she makes. Perhaps it's because a good percentage of them contain mascarpone cheese... Though I usually try to abstain from fried foods (both for the calorie content and the inevitable stove-top splattered mess) the Chicken Milanese she made a couple weeks ago on her show, Giada at Home, seemed like a dish that was worth making a greasy mess over.  The chicken, which is breaded then pan fried in vegetable oil, is accompanied by a creamy sauce of cherry tomatoes, fennel, and- you guessed it- a generous serving of mascarpone.  

Not a huge fan of fennel, I had the notion to substitute it for caramelized onions. So glad I didn't!  Fennel, when raw, is extremely reminiscent of black licorice, something that I am also not a huge fan of.  But when sauteed and softened in olive oil, the flavor becomes much milder and subtly sweet.  I have been converted- I am now a believer in fennel! The only modification I might have made to this recipe, would be to add a hint of acidity.  I think a quick squeeze of fresh lemon juice on top of the chicken, just before serving, could have really heightened the flavors.  Something to keep in mind for next time, because I will definitely be making this again!

Chicken Milanese with Tomato and Fennel Sauce
Recipe courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis
(My modifications are in green)

1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 cups plain bread crumbs
2/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 (6 to 8-ounce) boneless and skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil

** I used Italian style bread crumbs, skipped the dried basil, and added only 1/2 tsp dried thyme

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 1/2 cups (12 ounces) cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature

For the chicken: Put an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a wire rack.

Using 3 wide shallow bowls, add the flour to 1, the eggs to another and to the third bowl combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, basil, and thyme.

On a work surface, put the chicken between 2 pieces of plastic wrap. Using a meat mallet, lightly pound the chicken until approximately 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour to coat lightly, then dip into the beaten eggs, allowing the excess egg to drip off. Coat the chicken with the bread crumb mixture, pressing gently to adhere.

In a large, nonstick saute pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add 2 pieces of the breaded chicken into the oil and cook until light golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken to the prepared baking sheet and keep warm in the oven. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Reserve the cooking juices in the saute pan.

For the sauce: Using the same saute pan, add the olive oil to the reserved cooking juices and heat over medium heat.
(I opted to poor out about half of the reserved juices. There was a lot of oil left in the pan, and I didn't think it seemed necessary for the sauce.) Add the fennel and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the cherry tomatoes, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, garlic and thyme. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes until the tomatoes are tender. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the mascarpone cheese and stir until the mixture is creamy. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and spoon the sauce over the top before serving.

**I garnished the chicken with chopped, fresh flat leaf parsley, which made for a pretty presentation. Also, I would suggest adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.


To all my future viewers, (hey mom!) I am setting off on a journey.  An adventure in culinary experimentations, all the while, doing a little bit of self-discovery along the way.  I am not a professional cook, but spending time in the kitchen is something that I truly love to do.  I'm always seeking out recipes that involve a new technique or interesting ingredient, as a way to teach myself and evolve my cooking skills.  So, I hope to use this blog as a sort of journal, a way of documenting my trials and triumphs in the kitchen and measuring my progress along the way.   In addition to improving my culinary technique, I'm also eager to develop some kind of talent for photographing food.  I had no idea how difficult a task it would be to take a picture of an inanimate object.  The lighting in my apartment- a major obstacle.  But I digress.  So here's to my culinary inspired future!  One that's filled with butter, dark chocolate, cheese (mmm... ricotta), bacon, and most likely, some sour cream (I have an odd obsession with it...).  Time to get cookin'!