Brownies. I don’t think I need to say more.

My adventures in baking continue with my first attempt to make brownies from scratch. They’re basic chocolate, but the beauty of a simple chocolate brownie is that so much can be done in the way of toppings: whipped cream, fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate sauce, ice cream … there is no limit to how you can doctor the results of this yummy recipe.

I adapted an old recipe to my own tastes as well as the supplies that were readily available in the kitchen without having to make a trip to the grocery store. And when I tell you this is the simplest brownie recipe in the world, believe it. In a mere 30 minutes, we had yummy, homemade brownies. Can’t beat that!

Ingredients:
1 cup of butter OR 1 Crisco Baking Stick PLUS 2 tbsp water (this is what I used, being short on butter at the moment)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix butter and sugars together in a large bowl until relatively smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time, then add vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix flour, salt, and cocoa–add dry ingredient mixture gradually to the wet ingredients and beat until moistened. If you are making brownies with nuts, stir them into the mixture at this time.

Lightly grease a 9×9 baking dish. Spread brownie mixture evenly in pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before cutting into squares and eating.

The end result is a deliciously chocolaty brownie, rich but not too sweet. And it’s even better on the second day.  🙂

Enjoy!


Cupcakes. Drool optional.

Yesterday, I experimented with two versions of mini-cupcakes. These are some seriously sweet (and seriously easy) treats to whip up and enjoy. From start to finish, you’re looking at about an hour’s worth of effort to end up with 48 yummy, joyful little cupcake buddies.

Both cupcakes start with the same basic batter, a simple vanilla cake. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Easy Vanilla Cake Batter

Ingredients:
1/3 cup softened butter
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:
Cream butter. Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt; gradually add dry mixture to butter. Add half of the milk and the egg; beat until flour is moistened. Add the remaining milk and vanilla; continue to beat until batter reaches a creamy consistency (about one minute).

With a bowl of this basic batter, you can now put together your duo of cupcakes. You’ll use half the batter for each type.

Let’s start with the brown sugar-cream cheese cupcakes.

Brown Sugar-Cream Cheese Cupcakes

Ingredients:
8 oz. cream cheese (I used a whipped cream cheese, which gave the icing a great, creamy texture)
2 tbsp. softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tbsp. honey
6 tbsp. light brown sugar (this may be too sweet for some, or not sweet enough for others–subtract or add 2 tbsp. of brown sugar per your personal taste)

Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and beat until mixture becomes creamy and light (a minute or two depending on mixing speed).

Fill mini-cupcake liners or mini-muffin cups (I used a Pampered Chef nonstick mini-muffin pan, which worked beautifully) half full of vanilla cake batter. Bake for 9 minutes (cupcakes are done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean). Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Top with icing. Refrigerate any leftover icing immediately.

The cake part remains light and moist, and the icing adds a kick of pure, unadulterated sweetness with just a hint of cream cheese flavor.

Now for the second cake-y act …

Praline Cupcakes

Ingredients:
1/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans, plus extra (chopped or whole, depending on your preference) for topping

Directions:
Combine butter and brown sugar; set aside.

Before filling muffin cups, add 1/2 cup of chopped pecans to the vanilla cake batter; stir well. Fill muffin cups/cupcake liners half-full of cake batter (again, I used the handy mini-muffin pan). Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from oven. Spoon butter and brown sugar mixture over the tops of cupcakes. Sprinkle chopped pecans on top (or place one whole pecan on top of each cupcake–whichever you prefer). Bake an additional two minutes. Allow to cool on a rack for 15 minutes before serving.

The brown sugar-butter mixture melts kinda crazily on these, but the taste is out of this world. These were my favorites of the two; they really do taste like pralines!

I hope you try and enjoy both varieties!


Nothing more American than apple pie.

At least, that’s what they say.

It’s actually a coincidence that the making of this pie fell on the fourth of July weekend. The hapless dieters in this household fell off the wagon this week, though to be honest, it was a pretty crappy wagon. Any diet that requires you to eat steamed broccoli for breakfast doesn’t deserve to be followed anyway. Right?

Right?

Ahem.

Anyhoo.

We had already stocked up on green apples, and rather than let them go to waste, I decided to throw them into a pie! I’ve made a traditional apple pie before, and I’ve made an open-faced apple pie before, but I had never before made one with a crumble topping, so away I went.

Ingredients:
6 medium-sized green apples
1 frozen prepared pie crust
5 tbsp sugar
1 c flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
6 tbsp cold butter
juice of one lemon
2/3 cup brown sugar, halved

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set frozen pie crust on a baking sheet and let it thaw (30 minutes or so).

Peel, core, and dice the apples. Coat the apples in lemon juice to keep them from browning. Cover and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, half the brown sugar, and butter. Blend ingredients with fingers until the mixture becomes coarse and crumbly, then set aside.

Lightly dust the apples with a little extra flour. Pour apples into the pie crust. Cover with the crumble topping (all the way to the edge) and sprinkle the rest of the brown sugar on top (you can also sprinkle more cinnamon for flavor).

Bake for 35-45 minutes until the topping is nicely browned. Let cool for two hours (at least) before serving.

It is very yummy. How do I know this? Well, not only did I thoroughly enjoy it, but it is now gone. Yes, gone. I made it last night, and after today’s Fourth grill-out, it has been devoured.

Enjoy!


Fonduuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuta.

I’m trying to say it like Giada would. Fonduuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuta. Really throw that emphasis on the “u.” And throw on an almost obscenely low-cut top while saying it. And make your “O” face while eating your own food. That’s key to getting into the Giada kitchen personality.

Putting snarkiness aside…

You know how sometimes you’ll be watching television, and a commercial for some restaurant’s featured menu item pops up, and you think to yourself, “Self, we could totally make that without having to pay $20 and endure poor table service?”

Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Michelle and I were watching television, and a commercial for Olive Garden’s new fonduta recipes came on, and I looked at her and said, “We can totally make that.”

So I did some research. And I discovered that fonduta, traditionally, is a dipping sauce for breads, etc.: as you can probably guess from the name, it’s kind of like an Italian fondue (yes, shockingly, despite my upbringing and my very Italian father, I’d never had it before). So the stuff Olive Garden is using in their recipes is likely not a traditional fonduta, but an amalgamation of several different techniques for which they have appropriated the name “fonduta.” Of course, they’re Olive Garden, and that’s how they roll, so who am I to criticize?

As you can probably tell from the name, it requires Fontina, one of my very favorite cheeses. Ohh, Fontina. So tasty. Slight problem, though–in this relatively small town (the smallest in which I’ve ever lived, incidentally), gourmet cheese is difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

Columbus to the rescue! At Homecoming earlier this month, the GDI gathering/silent auction was held at Le Gourmet, a cheese and gift shop on Main Street (would have been nice to have when I was still a student, but I digress), and Michelle was able to purchase a large quantity of really nice Fontina and have it packaged to survive the eight-plus hour trip back home (side note: have you ever noticed how, when talking about food, people always use the term “nice?” “I have a nice piece of veal here.” “That’s a nice piece of zucchini on my grill.” I don’t want my food to be nice. My food has a wicked streak. Just like me. So let’s just say it was a really wicked Fontina. I’m done now).

The sauce is relatively easy to make; it just takes a lot of time to melt down the cheese and get the sauce to the right consistency. You want it to be creamy, but not too thick.

Ingredients:

3 cups of Fontina, cubed
1/2 cup Asiago, shredded*
1/2 cup provolone, shredded*
1/2 cup Romano, shredded*
1/2 cup mozzarella, shredded*
8 oz. salted butter, cubed
4 egg yolks, beaten
2 cups of milk, halved
1 lb pasta (I recommend anything with ridges, which will really soak up the sauce; we used radiatore, one of Michelle’s favorites)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Italian seasoning (to taste)
Grated Parmesan (optional)

*Make your life easier: buy one of the Kraft Italian-blend shreds. It has all four of these cheeses.

Directions:

Melt the Fontina in a double-boiler with 1 cup of milk and a dash of pepper. I don’t have an actual double-boiler, so I used a stainless steel bowl atop a large stockpot filled with boiling water.

Make sure the water in the pot does not touch the bottom of the bowl. Be careful when touching the top bowl or removing it from the stockpot; that shit be hot.

In a separate pan, warm the milk on low heat and add the beaten egg yolks and the butter. Don’t turn up the heat too high, or else you’ll scramble the eggs. Stir occasionally while the mixture thickens.

Once the Fontina has begun to melt, add the other shredded cheeses; heat until mixture becomes creamy and cheese has completely melted. Add the milk/butter/egg mixture and continue to heat on low until the sauce has reached a creamy, but not too thick, consistency.

While you are making the sauce, boil the pasta in heavily-salted water 8-9 minutes, then drain. Add the pasta to the sauce and mix well. Top with more ground black pepper and salt (to your taste) and Italian seasonings to your liking. You can also top with grated Parmesan if you like.

I wasn’t kidding about the pasta. Look at the way the sauce sort of lovingly clings to each individual spiral of starchy goodness.

This is absolutely delicious and rich as it is, but if you want to jazz it up with some meat, I suggest some grilled steak or chicken, cut into strips. After all, that’s the way OG does it. As goes OG, so goes the world. Or something like that.

Enjoy!

Timbale, or: Brandie reconsiders her relationship with eggplant.

My friend Heather and I caught an episode of Everyday Italian earlier this week and were both intrigued by Giada’s recipe for eggplant timbale. Yes, people, Giada managed to do the impossible: make eggplant look damn scrumptious.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with eggplant for years. Ever since I had a horrible experience with an eggplant parmigiana that went terribly wrong about eight years ago, I’ve been iffy about cooking it. But after giving it a go with Heather yesterday, I think I’ve made my peace with the big purple veggie that God forgot.

This is a pretty involved recipe, and, as always, alterations were made, which will be noted where appropriate. Or maybe where it’s NOT appropriate. I just roll that way.

FYI: You will need a springform pan to put this recipe together.

Ingredients:
2 medium eggplants, sliced 1/4 in thick (ha!–good luck with that)
1/2 pound pasta (we used ditalini; Giada called for penne; I say use what you got)
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb Italian pork sausage (Heather picked up a 4-cheese variety; oh, yum)
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 cups prepared marinara sauce
8 oz mozzarella (Giada called for 6, but when is more cheese EVER a bad idea??)
1 c Italian cheese blend (parmesan, asiago, and romano–Giada calls for 3/4 c Pecorino Romano, but again: when is MORE cheese EVER a bad idea??)
A splash of beef stock (Giada calls for Marsala wine instead; we left this out)
Olive oil
Seasonings: salt, pepper, dried basil

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place a grill pan over medium-high heat (or, if you want to be all fancy-like, use a charcoal or gas grill). Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and dust with salt and pepper. Grill until tender and covered with grill marks, roughly 3-4 minutes per side. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to boil (salted liberally). Add pasta and cook approximately 8 minutes (right around al dente). Drain pasta and set aside.

Warm 2 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet. Add onions and saute until tender and almost translucent (3-4 minutes). Add the beef and pork, breaking meat into smaller pieces while browning (5-6 minutes). Add beef stock and cook until liquid evaporates (4-5 minutes or so). Turn off the heat. Add peas and marinara sauce and stir until combined. Add pasta and cheeses; sprinkle with basil. Set aside.

Line the springform pan with the eggplant slices. The edges should overlap and hang over the side of the pan. Fill the pan with the pasta mixture and press down evenly.

Fold eggplant slices over the top of the pasta and add the remaining slices of eggplant to the top of the pan to completely enclose the timbale.

Bake until warmed through, allowing cheese to melt, approximately 30 minutes. Let rest on counter for 10-20 minutes to set.

Now comes the fun part: use a serving plate to invert the timbale and remove the springform pan (as Heather can attest, this endeavor sounds easier than it may be to actually carry out). Giada says to top the timbale with 1/4 c of Pecorino Romano, but we forgot this step and were none the worse for it.

Slice and serve!

This is insanely delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I went back for seconds, and had to tell myself that going for thirds would be a little overboard.

Consider me converted: eggplant, at least in this incarnation, rocks my freaking world.


Best of both worlds.

Merging the latent vegetarian and the Italian in me, tonight I tried a roasted vegetable lasagna (in part inspired by my successful experience with Giada’s roasted veg pasta last month). I had intended to use a mix of yellow squash and zucchini, but the zucchini in my local market looked like a truck had run over it. Instead, I stuck with the squash, some sweet red bell pepper, and a white onion. You can use any veggies you like for this–if you’re a fan of eggplant (I am decidedly not), it will go nicely with this, as will fresh sauteed spinach and/or mushrooms.

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

Ingredients:
9 lasagna noodles
4 cups prepared/heated tomato sauce
2 large summer (yellow) squash, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 white onion, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
32 oz part-skim ricotta
2 eggs
3 cups shredded mozzarella
salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings (to taste)

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place vegetables on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables, then season with salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings (I used a mixture of basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano). Toss to coat.

Place on top rack of oven and roast for 10-15 minutes until vegetables are tender. Remove from oven and cut heat down to 350 degrees.

While vegetables are roasting, prepare noodles by boiling for 6-7 minutes until just shy of al dente (add a bit of olive oil to the boiling water to prevent noodles from sticking together while cooking). Remove from heat.

Mix ricotta, 1 cup of mozzarella, and eggs in a bowl until smooth. Set aside.

Add more Italian spices to this cheese mixture to kick up the flavor.

Cover bottom of a 13×9 baking dish with one cup of tomato sauce. Place 3 noodles on the bottom of the pan and cover with a layer of the cheese mixture. Top with 1/3 of the vegetables, then cover with another cup of tomato sauce.

Repeat with two more layers. Top with remaining cup of sauce, then sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese.

Cover pan with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove cover and heat for another 10 minutes until cheese is bubbly. Let sit for five minutes before serving.

I couldn't get a good picture of the layers; it's so cheesy!

As you can see, this is a relatively simple dish to make, and it serves a lot of people, so it’s perfect for company. Plus, it’s hella tasty! I can’t wait to try it again with a different variety of vegetables.

Enjoy!


The joy of pomegranate.

I’ve never cooked with pomegranate before, though I’ve always enjoyed the tart-and-sweet combination of the fruit. I don’t drink the juice often–it’s relatively expensive for my budget–but when I came across this recipe in last month’s Cooking Light, I had to indulge. And boy, am I glad I did. This delicious pork dish will be a favorite in my kitchen for many years to come. As always, I made adjustments and alterations according to my particular taste.

Pork with Pomegranate Sauce

Ingredients:
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground black pepper
4 boneless/skinless pork chops
2 tsp olive oil
2 chopped shallots
1 clove chopped garlic
1 c pomegranate juice
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Directions:

Dust chops on both sides with the first 4 ingredients. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chops; cook 3 minutes per side.

Remove from heat and place a foil tent over chops to keep them warm.

Add shallots and garlic to the pan; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add juice, sugar, and vinegar; bring to a boil.

Cook for 5 minutes or until thickened (if you prefer your sauce a little more liquid-y, cook for less time). Serve sauce over pork (about 2 tbsp. per chop).

Serve with your desired side dishes. I chose to serve this with black-eyed peas w/bacon (a Southern New Year’s tradition) and sour cream garlic mashed potatoes (after boiling potatoes and draining, mix butter, garlic powder, salt, pepper, sour cream, and milk–all to your personal taste–into potatoes and mash/whip to desired consistency, then top with chopped green onions). Perfection.

The pork is the perfect blend of sour and sweet, tender with a tart bite. If it were possible to be in love with a hunk of meat, then I would have to admit that this is wuv … twu wuv.

That last sentence sounds like the set-up for a “that’s what she said” joke if I ever heard one.

Anyway … enjoy!