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Monday, February 9, 2015

Blondies Have More Fun

Snooping has its merits.
As a kid, I was a voracious reader.  So voracious, in fact that I became a nuisance to my first grade teacher who couldn't find enough reading material to keep me occupied as my classmates trudged at a maddeningly slow pace through the reading workbooks featuring the antics of Sam and Ann and their poodle, Nip.  (Eye roll.  Blew through that, was ready for more, and this lady can't find anything else for me to read?!  Really?!)

It wasn't until the sixth grade when I was placed into an advanced reading class that wanting to read more was not considered troublesome.  Oh Happy Day!  IN the meantime the library became like a second home and I took to prowling my parents bookshelves at home.  The books they had collected provided a reading potpourri that was duly noted by my teachers at school.  One English teacher was especially fascinated by my choice of Gone With the Wind for a book report (fantastic read, by the way) after gently steering me way from For Whom The Bell Tolls.

It was while snooping through a stack of vintage dime store paperbacks (can you even imagine?!  TEN CENTS...for a book!  Egads!) shoved into the opening between a shelf and more books that I discovered a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Jackpot, I thought!  The title alone felt like some kind of magic recipe book for potions that would guarantee mass adoration.  Flipping through the book, I was mesmerized by the chapter headings.

Three Fundamental Techniques in Handling People.
(ha, ready to spring on my bratty little brother!)

Six Ways to Make People Like You!
(I tried these on my childhood crush, Scott D.  And then he suggested marriage when we were on the swings one day, and TOTALLY freaked me out.  The power of this book was not to be underestimated.)

Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking!
(Bwahh, haa haaaaa....perfect for influencing my parents in the campaign for my own room.)

Nine Ways to Change People Without Arousing Resentment!
(Could it be?!  A way to make Ramona, the bully at school, leave me alone?)

Despite its bold promise, How to Win Friends ended up being like most of the self-help books I came across later in life when I worked at The Oprah Show...a couple of good nuggets of advice wrapped in a heap of general bullshit.

Over time, and with some life experience, what I've come to realize is that one of the easiest ways to Make People Like You or Win People to Your Way of Thinking is to cook for them.  It's not too difficult to establish with some trial and error, the recipe that is guaranteed to make people adore you.  Aside from my sparkling wit and vivacious personality, for some years now, my secret has been a brownie recipe that's worded wonders for me.  Guaranteed to win anyone over, the brownie recipe includes a swirl of dulce de leche to counterbalance the fudginess of the brownie with caramel goodness.  David Lebovitz, creator of said brownie recipe used it to win over grumpy Parisian bureaucrats, shopkeepers and the like when he moved to Paris years ago.  I rest my case.

But, I am happy to announce, (trumpets play and a drum roll, please) I have a second option!
The Browned Butter Blondie.

If you're French, go ahead and give me that perfect I-don't-give-a-fuck Gallic shrug at which your people excel, because, mon dieu, browned butter has been around for ages in French cuisine.  But if this is the first you've heard of it, well, you are welcome.


Never a fan of blondes, as evidenced by my slavish loyalty to that brownie recipe, I thought I'd give these a whirl as dessert for my little Super Bowl get together a couple weekends ago.  I'm not even sure what traditionally goes into a regular blondie, but these golden, nutty beauties include toasted pecans, both swirled into a brown butter laden batter that runs throughout and as a topping for some extra crunch.  It's as if a gorgeous pecan pie had a one-night stand with a bar cookie and this is the resulting golden child.  I intend to make more...and then, look out people!
World domination is within my grasp!  Bwaaaahhhh hahahahahaaaaaaa!

Brown Butter Blondies with Pecans
adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
makes 24

Photo Note:  We all got a little giddy as I served these up so I didn't have a chance to take a photo.  I could have taken a photo of the empty plate with some crumbs left, but then thought better of it.  All I have is the photo from my copy of the magazine and yes, mine looked every bit as delicious as theirs!

And, let me just say these actually improved the next day, which is hard to even fathom, but it's true.
Finally, most definitely gild the lily and serve with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Brown Butter Mixture
1 stick unsalted butter
1 large egg
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Blondie batter
2 sticks unsalted butter (room temp)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 3/4 cups (packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract

butter + flour for buttering and dusting the pan

Toast your pecans
1.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and spread the pecans on a small baking sheet.  Toast for 7-10 minutes, until pecans barely darken and are fragrant.  Let them cool.

Make the Brown Butter Mixture
1.  Cook butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until butter foams and browns.  (about 5-8 minutes...and don't take your eyes off this for a minute...butter can go from beautifully nutty brown to black and ruined in the blink of an eye!)

2.  Transfer butter to a medium bowl and let cool slightly, before adding egg, brown sugar, vanilla and salt.  Beat (by hand) until mixture is light and falls back onto itself in a slowly dissolving ribbon, about 3 minutes.  Fold in the flour and set aside.

Make the Blondie batter
1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour a 13" x 9" baking dish.

2.  Whisk baking powder, salt and 2 1/4 cups flour in a medium bowl.  Using the stand mixer on medium-high beat brown sugar and 2 sticks butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

3.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating between additions; mix until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Mix in the vanilla.

4.  Reduce speed to low and mix in dry ingredients.  Fold in half of pecans.

5.  Scrape two-thirds of the batter into the prepared baking dish and smooth the top, pushing the batter to the edges.  Dollop the brown butter mixture across and alternate with the remaining batter.  Swirl a bit with the edge of a knife and sprinkle remaining pecans across the top.

6.  Bake until the blondie is golden brown and firm (a tester will NOT come out clean) 30-35 minutes.  Let cool before slicing and top with vanilla ice cream to serve.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mysterious Pairings


 Oh, the mysteries of chemistry.
Wait, that sounds like my high school self moaning about one of my most dreaded classes:  Sophomore Chemistry, and that's not what I'm talking about here.  
Don't we all know couples that cause us to wonder, “how on earth did those two ever get together?!”
          Exhibit A:  Ross and Rachel.  
          Exhibit B:   A former college roommate and her straight-from-the-50s,  a-woman's-place-is-in-the-home husband.
As I say...a mystery!  Well for me, this doesn’t just apply to people, but to ingredients as well.

Who hasn’t read a modern restaurant menu lately and wondered how “persimmon, amaranth, candied pecan, vin cotto and brown butter” ended up on the same plate together?  I kid you not.  This is a real life example pulled from a local menu.  And what is amaranth anyway?  
Had to look that one up, and I give you, straight from Wikipedia:
Amaranthus, collectively known as amaranth, is a cosmopolitan genus of annual or short-lived perennial plants.  Some amaranth species are cultivated as leaf, vegetables, cereals, and ornamental plants. 
Whaaat?
There are definitely times when I see odd combinations of ingredients in a recipe and like many people, I hesitate.   But I’m here to tell you it’s worth going forth boldly in cases like this, at least in the world of cooking and eating.  Whether you should go on a second date with the guitar-playing lawyer, well, let's leave that up to you.
When it comes to unconventional ingredient lists, I would suggest if even one element seems intriguing to you, GO FOR IT!  What’s the worst that can happen, really? 

 
Last night I made a salad that falls into this category.  Although they may not sound radical, the components were interesting:  spinach, dates, pickled red onions, pita bread and almonds.  Not ordinarily something I’d jump on but what caught my eye was the addition of sumac.  This comes from Ottolenghi’s book, Jerusalem and since I started cooking from Jerusalem, I’ve found I really love the taste of sumac.  It gives things a smoky, tangy depth that's indescribably alluring.  And, wouldn't you know it...with this salad, it's a stroke of brilliance.  
Here's how it goes:   
You do a quick (20 minutes or so ought to do it) pickle of thinly sliced red onion with slivers of dried dates (dates!  I know!  How often do you cook with dates?!)  in some champagne or white wine vinegar. While that's happening, you saute a couple handfuls of torn  pita bread with some coarsely chopped almonds in a combination of olive oil and butter.  The smell of the pita bits and almonds getting toasty and golden brown is intoxicating here.  You've been warned.  Once you've achieved golden toasty pita bit nirvana, sprinkle the combo with salt, some chili flakes and the aforementioned sumac and you're in the home stretch.  Wash your fresh spinach leaves and then toss with the pickled onion/ date mixture and combine with the toasted pita/almond goodness.  The sumac envelopes it all in that unique, smoky, tangy embrace that is indescribably delicious while the variety of textures provide a chewy crunchy symphony of tastiness that somehow all just works.  Don't ask me to explain how...it's just, chemistry.