The Best Brownies I’ve Ever Made

February 14, 2010

My brothers’ friends can attest to the fact that I make a lot of brownies when I know there are people around to eat them. I confess, however, that most of the time, they’re Ghiradelli mix, because that’s what my mom keeps in the house.

Guys? I’ll be making a different kind of brownies for you this summer. They’re almost as easy as the mix, and they’re ridiculously fudgy. And, oh yeah, they have a layer of Reese’s Cups baked into them.

Reese’s Brownies
adapted from epicurious and inspired by April Rouleau’s York Peppermint Patty brownies

You’ll need:
7½ oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2¼ sticks butter
3 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
3 t vanilla extract
⅜ t salt
1½ cups flour
24 Reese’s cups

1. Melt 5 oz bittersweet chocolate, 1 1/2 sticks butter and 2 oz unsweetened chocolate in a double-boiler.
2. Whisk 2 cups sugar, 4 eggs, 2 t vanilla and 1/4 t salt in a large bowl until fluffy.
3. Stir in melted chocolate mixture.
4. Mix in 1 cup flour.
5. Pour into a 13×9″ greased pan.
6. Arrange Reese’s cups over batter, pressing them in slightly.
7. Repeat steps 1-3 with 2 1/2 oz bittersweet chocolate, 6 T butter, 1 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1 t vanilla, 1/8 t salt.
8. Pour batter over Reese’s cups and spread.
9. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached. Start testing after 35 minutes.

Note: These make great cupcakes, too. The amounts described in step 1 will make about 20 standard-sized cupcakes. I put two Reese’s quarters in each cupcake.


Bisque, Quick

February 12, 2010

Chicago has the sort of winters that make you flee into the arms of the nearest warm, thick soup. As a girl who doesn’t really like peas, beans, or tomato-based soups, I’m always thrilled to find a new recipe for something I might like. Something like Shrimp Bisque.

I was intrigued to find a Shrimp Bisque thickened with rice instead of cream in the New York Times this week, and I just happened to have a big bag of shrimp in my freezer. The result? Delicious, easy, fairly quick–and a one-pot meal!

Shrimp Bisque
adapted from the New York Times

You’ll need:
1 pound medium or large uncooked shrimp, shelled and deveined, shells reserved
6 T butter
1 1/2 t kosher salt
2/3 cup plus 2 T dry white wine
6 cups water
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
3 celery ribs, chopped
3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 fennel bulb, chopped
2 large shallots, chopped
2 small onions, chopped
1/4 cup long-grain rice
2 T tomato paste
juice of 1 lemon

In a large pot over high heat, cook shrimp shells in 1 T butter and 1/4 t salt, stirring frequently, until lightly browned in spots. Add wine and boil until most of the liquid has evaporated. (Right about now, your kitchen will smell pretty incredible.) Add water, thyme and bay leaf and simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes or until everything else is chopped and prepped. Mine went a bit longer. Strain shrimp stock into a bowl, pressing on shells before discarding them.

In same pot, melt 2 T butter with 1/4 t salt. Add shrimp and sauté until they are pink, 2 to 4 minutes depending on size. Using a slotted spoon, put the shrimp in with the stock.

Add remaining 3 T butter to pot along with celery, leeks, garlic, fennel, shallots and onions and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice, tomato paste and remaining salt and sauté for 2 additional minutes.

Add shrimp stock, being careful to keep the shrimp in the other bowl, and simmer, covered, until rice is tender (20 minutes).

Cut shrimp into chunks and add to bisque. Purée using your preferred method. I used an immersion blender, and thus I ended up with a slightly chunky bisque with the consistency of applesauce. A real blender might yield a smoother soup.

See, doesn’t it look like applesauce? Return the soup to the pot, if you used a blender, and stir in the lemon juice. At this point, I couldn’t tell there was any acid in it. I was tempted to throw in some extra salt and white pepper, but I didn’t. Good thing, too–the next day, the soup was perfect: shrimpy, warm and comforting.

I’ll definitely be making this one again.


Too many calories!

February 7, 2010

I realized recently that I really like hosting events because it gives me an excuse to feed people. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I spent more time planning what to feed people at this weekend’s yarn swap than I did figuring out what from my stash I would be willing to trade.

I also broke out my new camera to photograph the baked goods I had on hand: David Leite’s Chocolate Chip Cookies and my grandfather’s zucchini bread.

I’m trying a new recipe format. Without further ado: David Leite’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
Zucchini Bread

After all of that, only two people showed up. (One of them brought delicious fudge!) So, if my brothers are reading this, heads up! You should have a care package coming your way soon.


Back to Baking!

January 6, 2010

I apologize for the lengthy hiatus! I am now a diploma-bearing freelancer. Very exciting!

I’ve been baking up a storm lately, and it is so much fun! I feel like I haven’t really baked in years, but I know that can’t be true.

First I whipped up more than a gross of Krispies (like a very vanilla-y chocolate chip cookie, but with Crunch bar bits and Rice Krispies instead of chocolate chips). This took a few days, but I got into a rhythm and it went by very quickly. I think I like baking because of the rhythm: just follow the instructions and all will be well. (Ok, the end result might have a tiny bit to do with my attraction to baking over cooking.)

Since I sent all those cookies out, I’ve been feeling the itch to bake again. Plus, I found cinnamon chips for sale at the grocery store, and I just have to try those! My mother finally consented to once again having baked goods in the house.

So right now the kitchen smells delicious. I took my old standby oatmeal chocolate chip cookie and made two substitutions:
1. cinnamon chips for chocolate. Generally speaking, I never EVER substitute for chocolate, but I’m a cinnamon fiend. Plus, I want to find out if these cinnamon chips are worth stocking up on.
2. pumpkin pie spice from the Spice House for cinnamon. My mother’s house usually contains a ridiculous amount of cinnamon, but not so today!

The verdict? They’re ridiculously tasty–chewy and spicy!

Vanishing Oatmeal Cinnamon Cookies
adapted from an adaptation of the Quaker Oats box classic

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice, preferably from The Spice House
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 package cinnamon chips

1. Blend flour, baking soda, spices and salt and set aside.
2. Beat together butter and sugars until creamy.
3. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.
4. Add dry ingredients and mix well.
5. Stir in oats and chips.
6. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet.
7. Bake at 350º 13-15 minutes or until golden brown.
8. Eat!

The only problem? I was told to make a small quantity, and now I’ve got 4 1/2 dozen cookies on my hands.


Ladies Who Brunch, or The Tenacious Tomatoes

October 26, 2009

I freely admit it: I’m a sucker for brunch. I love a good omelette, nice and fluffy, and I’m a bit more partial to a nice crispy hash brown than is probably good for me. It seems so casual yet civilized to get up and go have breakfast in a restaurant with friends.

I was lucky enough to have brunch twice this weekend, but sadly neither experience was particularly civilized.

The first brunch was at Orange, a trendy little place around the corner from my apartment. Orange seems to consciously differentiate itself from your average diner. I mean, a brunch place that won’t let you build your own omelette? The words “mousse” and “infused” appear often on the menu–too often, in the latter’s case. I usually have poached eggs there, probably as a subconscious act of rebellion to the omelette hegemony. The eggs are always tasty and perfectly cooked. The potatoes that come with them taste like they’re at least 50% butter–I usually try (and fail) not to eat the whole serving.

I’ve never been to Orange during the weekend before, and the experience is much more pleasant during the workweek, when things are slower. The kicker was when a busboy asked if he could clear my plate after I had literally taken one bite of my breakfast. Um, no!

But even that lapse in service looked great compared to my brunch at Sarks in the Park yesterday. Right across the street from Orange, this little storefront in the basement courtyard of a big apartment building bills its fare as the “world’s best breakfast.”

It was quite busy when my friend M and I arrive there a little after noon. So busy, in fact, that the only available outdoor table had no chairs. We asked if we could sit there, and were told that it was a bus station. Since gorgeous, warm, sunny days in late October are a rarity, we decided to wait for an outside table.

While we were waiting, a less polite couple put chairs at the bus table and were promptly served. Irksome, to say the least. The waitress looked quite uncomfortable about the situation.

Another group got up shortly thereafter, and we immediately moved in to occupy their table. After five minutes or so, we asked the waitstaff to clear the previous occupants’ food and other debris from the table. Then we were finally given menus.

Given the breakfast-centric motto, I was surprised to see that only a quarter of the single-page menu was devoted to, well, breakfast. (As a clear sign that a very strange symptom is sweeping Lincoln Park breakfast joints, Sarks does not offer a build-your-own omelette, though to its credit it doesn’t have a large note saying that custom omelettes are impossible, unlike its swanky across-the-street neighbor.) I decided on a bacon and cheese (only two choices: American and “white.” I didn’t specify and got the former) egg white omelette. I passed on the hash browns, since I assumed it would be an extra charge and I don’t need them. I was expecting to receive a plate with just an omelette on it, and I was fine with that.

I should pause here to say that my dining companion is a picky eater. M really does not like tomatoes, she’s vegetarian, and she’s generally conservative about what she’ll eat. So when she ordered the veggie quesadilla, M took care to ask for no tomatoes.

It felt like an eternity between the time we ordered and the arrival of our food. We spent almost two hours at the restaurant, and most of it was during this lull. The golden moment was somewhat tarnished, though. M’s plate had an inexplicable garnish of plain, chopped romaine lettuce, a thimble-sized cup of salsa, and three tacos…which contained tomatoes. She sent it back.

When her plate next appeared, the tacos were tomato-less. Bizarrely, though, the kitchen had decided to augment the strange romaine garnish with a giant scoop of…wait for it…chopped tomatoes. M was really hungry by this point, so she didn’t send it back again. I ask you, what must have been going through the mind of the person who added the chopped tomatoes to the dish that came back because it had tomatoes? The world may never know.

Unfortunately, after all that, M didn’t really like the quesadillas. Their veggie mix included broccoli, which wasn’t listed on the menu and is kind of a strange filling for a quesadilla.

That said, my omelette was really quite good, though the pieces of bacon were larger and fattier than I had anticipated. The dish was not empty, as I predicted, but instead had a very large helping of very good hash browns and toast, in the form of pressed Cuban bread. Any kind of grilled bread is usually delicious, but this could have done with some salt. (I was glad it was kind of flavorless, because I wasn’t tempted to eat it. I already had my fill of sin between the bacon and the scrumptious hash browns I didn’t order.)

It’s a shame the service was so slow, because the breakfast food actually was very good. Clearly, though, communication could do with some general improvements at Sarks in the Park.


Back to Basics

September 22, 2009

Well, a summer of bacon ice cream and chocolate mousse cake has certain inevitable consequences.

I’ve buckled down and hired a trainer. As soon as I heard her start talking about diets and low-fat foods, though, I decided to try something different: real, honest-to-goodness food. See, it seems to me that the human body has evolved to digest certain foods. I’m wondering if, in our quest for the ultimate fat-free double bacon cheeseburger, we’ve managed to engineer foods that are absolutely alien to our own bodies. In short, I’m wondering whether the human body has figured out that fat-free food is healthy. I suspect that simple, unprocessed food is a more efficient fuel because it is more evolutionarily familiar.

So I’ve done it: no high fructose corn syrup (turns out you can get a really delicious whole grain oatmeal bread made with sugar instead). Nothing out of a mylar package. I’ve been eating the Honeycrisp apples we picked last week, cream top yogurt, full fat cheese and veggies dipped in hummus from a restaurant in Michigan City. It’s been really tasty and very satisfying–even when I eat the same thing day after day, which I usually can’t stand.

And you know what? I’m not as hungry as I used to be. Yogurt and fruit keeps me full longer than waffles or cereal did. Lunch actually keeps me going until dinner. And after dinner, I’m not interested in grazing. I, the inveterate and incorrigible snacker, am full until breakfast. How weird is that?

We’ll see if it works! If it works, I vote that we dub this the Pollan Diet, since the persuasive indictment of low-fat foods in “In Defense of Food” is what started me down this road in the first place.


Dinner at Perennial

August 30, 2009

I just had a superb dinner at Perennial on Clark.

We had been planning to go to Shanghai Terrace, but they’re closed on Sundays. Jenny’s only rule was that we go somewhere I hadn’t eaten before. Perennial fit that requirement, and I’m so glad we went!

I began with a sweet corn soup with spoon bread and corn relish. It was AMAZING–very sweet and very, well, corny. The creamy soup was poured over a corn relish that had great texture. It tasted like pure corn–not surprising, given the relationship the restaurant has with the Green City Market, conveniently located across the street from the restaurant. It was quite possibly the best soup I’ve ever had.

Jenny had a salad of tomato and watermelon with basil. The salad had been marinating for a while, and the flavors had blended perfectly. I’ve never had basil with watermelon before; I’ll be trying to replicate that combination pronto.

For the main course, I ordered the chicken and dumplings in a roasted chicken veloute. The chicken had been cooked sous vide before being grilled and it was remarkably tender. The veloute was really rich, and the biscuits had soaked it up. Delicious.

Jenny had the pork belly with grilled peaches, thyme doughnuts, kale and a gastrique. The pork belly was crispy on the outside and just melted away when you bit into it. Absolutely delicious, and I’m not usually a pork person. (Ditto for the kale.)

For dessert, we shared a fudge brownie topped with a quenelle of malt ice cream. Both were excellent, of course, but we got it for one simple reason printed on the menu: “fried ganache.” Yes, you read that right. A ball of ganache, battered and deep-fried, sitting on some malt powder. When we broke into it, the liquid ganache spilled out. Mmmmm.

All in all, a fabulous dinner. I’ll be going back.


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