Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bowtie Brownie Cookies...

For the weekly Wednesday Treat Day, we decided it would be fun and a little whimsical to make an unusual shaped cookie, namely these Bowtie Brownie Cookies. Well, that's mostly true... but to be completely honest, I've been thinking about our yearly Christmas Baking Spree and figured this would give me a chance to give them a run-through and see how they would come out!

The barely-sweet casing for these cookies came together in a snap by mixing together a half block of softened cream cheese, a few tablespoons of butter, a single tablespoon of sugar, a splash of vanilla, salt and enough flour to transform those ingredients into a soft, cohesive dough. Because it is fairly soft after being beaten up in the mixer, you'll want to let the dough chill in the refrigerator for about an hour or so, giving it time to firm up enough to work with. You can even do this a day ahead of time, but just know the dough will probably need to spend ten or fifteen minutes at room temperature to make rolling the dough out a bit easier.

As the dough was resting, unsweetened chocolate and butter were melted together in a small saucepan to begin the brownie filling. Use low heat here as you don't want to risk scorching the chocolate. As soon as those two were combined, the pan was taken off the heat, with granulated sugar whisked in, along with a few drops of vanilla and a pinch salt to keep the sweetness in check. Left to cool slightly, an egg yolk, flour and chopped dried cherries joined the party, forming the slick brownie batter. I made this right after putting the dough in the fridge as it has to be completely cool before adding it to the cream cheese cookie dough or a mess would ensue.

We're up to the assembly point now, where these cookies unfortunately becomes a bit tedious. Both sections of dough need to be rolled out into a large square, then pared down into smaller squares with a pastry wheel. If your kitchen runs on the warm side, like ours does, the dough may become a bit difficult to work with during assembly - if this happens, stop, take a deep breath and just slide it back into the refrigerator (or freezer) for a few minutes to firm it back up. You could also chill down your work surface by adding a few ice packs or a bag of ice before rolling it out - I did this when we were in Phoenix and it was too warm all the time!

On each two by two inch square, a scant half teaspoon (did I mention tedious - this is done 50 times...) of the brownie filling is added in the center, with two opposing corners folded over the mixture to form the "bowtie" shape. The measurement may seem small, but you also don't want to add too much - I ended up using every drop of the brownie mixture to fill all of the squares. Before being baked, the cookies are brushed with a light egg wash and sprinkled with extra sugar for good measure.

I suggest using coarse sugar for sparkle, but I had to use regular granulated... when I went to grab the small bucket I thought we had of it in the cabinet, I found the container void of all but a few crystals. Darn it! I should of known better the last time I used the sugar than to put the container away empty - that will teach me (probably not, but it sounds good)!

With less than a fourth cup of sugar stretched between fifty of these two-bite cookies, I wondered if they would have enough oomph or come across dull and bland, but surprisingly these little bundles were quite the opposite! I do think the rich brownie filling had a lot to do with that, especially those little nibbles of cherry that hit the spot. That's not to discount the cream cheese wrapper though as it was tender and buttery, with a pleasing crispness to the edges. I do have to say that I was a little disappointed that the sculpted sides from the fluted pastry wheel seemed to melt away in the oven. Not a big deal in the end (our pastry wheel may have not had a deep enough "flute" to it), but I think they would have looked better with those jagged edges.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Eggs over Cheese and Prosciutto Rosti

In all of the homes we've lived in now, each one always had an electric stove and I'd gotten quite comfortable cooking with them. I've always wondered, though, what it would be like to cook with the power of gas. So, what made us even more excited with this house than we already were with it was the fact it came with a gas stove top, along with a separate convection wall oven (though not a double oven, but that may happen soon!). Score! It has taken some getting used to, but I love the control and can already tell it would be a struggle to go back!

Like with this Eggs over Swiss Cheese and Prosciutto Rosti we had for dinner tonight... it took me a bit to get the heat right so the dish could cook through, without scorching the potatoes (oops!). For the potatoes, we used good 'ol russets, tossing them whole into a pot of salted water and letting them cook until they were just barely tender. After draining and allowing the tots to cool, we scraped them against a coarse grater, shredding the potatoes into big pile of bite-sized strips.

To season the potatoes, this recipe keeps it simple by just using salt and a bit of fresh ground black pepper, along with a sliced scallion for a mild hint of onion. With a knob of butter melted down in a medium skillet to give a slick coating, half of the potatoes were patted down in the pan, covering the bottom in an even layer. Shredded Swiss cheese was the next layer to go on, followed by a handful of thinly sliced prosciutto and another dose of Swiss cheese. The rest of the potatoes are patted on top, enclosing the cheese-y ham filling in a spud crust.

Because this is not your ordinary stuffed potato cake, when it comes time to flip this Rosti, you'll want to take the extra measure of carefully inverting the potato disc out onto a plate or cutting board first. This not only helps keep it together in one piece, but also allows you to melt down another knob of butter in the pan before nudging the Rosti back in for that brilliant golden crust.

When the bottom of this was as browned and crusty as the top (maybe not as dark as ours went... I told you I'm still getting used to gas!), the potato round was slid onto a cutting board to rest while we used the skillet once more (saving on clean up) to cook enough eggs to top each serving. Certainly cook the eggs to your liking, but let me urge you not to go too far - we only left them in long enough to set the whites, leaving the yolks soft enough that the rich liquid inside would ooze all over the potato wedges when pierced with a fork.

Between the creamy, molten cheese and warm, salty strips of Prosciutto inside, the wicked hash brown-like casing and delicate egg crown, you don't even have to wonder what we thought about this. Simple enough that one could whip this up any day of the week, this just goes to show that meals don't have to be overcomplicated or ingredient laden to be worth making!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Apricot and Prosciutto Pizza...

Friday has finally rolled around again, and it happens to be last one in June to boot - woo! Last Friday, we made an unexpected run up to PA to pick up a few items we had in storage, which means we missed our weekly Pizza night. However, we sure did make up for it this evening by preparing this flashy Apricot and Prosciutto Pizza!

The original recipe had a small recipe for homemade dough included, but we decided to pass in lieu of our snazzy whole-wheat pizza dough - being versatile and quick, I didn't feeling like straying from a favorite tonight. We did, however, stick close to the shaping instructions, stretching it out to a large round, building up a rim around the edge for a crusty ridge and stabbing the top all over with a fork, before leaving it to rest for a good half hour while the oven came up to temperature.

Before arranging the toppings on the dough, it was given a quick jolt of heat on our well-seasoned pizza stone (almost two years of pizza at least once a week will do that!) to give it a head start - you are not looking to cook the crust through, but enough that you could pick it up without the dough going limp or bending in half.

Fresh, somewhat firm apricots (barely underripe works to your advantage here) are tossed together with thin slices of shallot, tiny leaves of fragrant thyme and olive oil, along with your obligatory salt and black pepper. Artfully arranged over the dough (okay, more like throwing the bowl on top and scooting the apricots around as evenly as possible), we then plastered the top with crumbles of tangy goat cheese before sliding the crust back into the oven to finish baking through.

As soon as the pizza was warm and toasty, it was taken out from the oven and scattered with fresh parsley and chives, then topped with peppery arugula, seasoned lightly and tossed with olive oil. To finish off this pizza, shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and strips of salty prosciutto grace the top, adding a touch of elegance and a welcome intensity against the sweetness of the apricots. If, by chance, apricots don't sound all that exciting, don't skip over this pizza - think about switching them out with a couple juicy peaches instead (which, by the way, are pretty darn amazing here in the southeast)!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cream Cheese Apple-Cherry Streusel Bars...

While one part of me is loving the heat we've been having lately, the other is not all that accustomed to the degree of humidity that reigns here in the south every. single. day. We did, of course, have these days in Minnesota, but I don't think it happened this early and often. With the cooling thoughts of fall scurrying around my mind, I thought these Cream Cheese Apple-Cherry Streusel Bars might be just the ticket to make this week's Wednesday Treat Day a sweet success.

To juice up the dried fruit used in these bars, we soaked the apples and sour cherries in a liquored concoction of brandy and zesty fresh lemon juice. They will need a good half hour or so for the liquid to soak in, plumping up the fruit, but since there are several steps to get these bars baked, you won't need to worry about starting this ahead of time. If you don't fancy having the dried fruit drink up a few tablespoons of booze, feel free to switch out the brandy for an equal amount of apple juice.

You'll be making quite a big bowl of the streusel topping, but it all won't end up on top - a portion is reserved and chilled, while the rest of the crumbly mixture is scooped into a large baking pan and pressed down to form a crust. Briefly set into the refrigerator to firm up the dough, the crust is then baked, naked, until it turns from pale to lightly golden.

While the crust cools, a basic cheesecake-like filling is made by beating together cream cheese and sugar, along with an egg and a pleasant shot of vanilla. Keep the egg out of the mix until the cream cheese has smoothed out and married with the sugar, then toss in the egg, beating it in as minimally as possible, until evenly distributed. You don't even have to dirty another bowl to prepare this, just use the same one that the crust was made in. Spread over the blonde base, the buzzed apples and cherries are scattered over the barely sweetened filling, followed by the rest of the streusel crumbles that had been kept in the refrigerator.

There will be fair amount of downtime once the bars come out of the oven - besides letting them cool completely, they'll need to chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour to allow the filling to completely set. Slightly annoying (who wants to wait?!), yes, but this does make cutting them into tidy, clean bars a snap and allows extra time for the more delicate flavors to permeate throughout.

With their shortbread cookie-like base, these colorful rectangles can be eaten with a fork, but the crust is sturdy enough that one could just as well use their fingers to bring it up to their mouth, without worry that the bar would fall apart into a mess. Both of us went with the second option (less dishes later!) to give these a test and we were definitely not disappointed! The soft apples and chewy cherries popped with brightness, while the smooth filing set a creamy tone to contrast the ample amount of buttery, golden nuggets strewn over each bar. They do have a fall-time essence to them, but they are certainly appropriate anytime of the year... especially as an edible way to cool down during this steamy summertime!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Broccoli-Chicken Bowls...

I never used to be a fan of plain, dark meat chicken - thighs and legs? Nope, skip right over to the white meat please. I don't know what exactly it was that turned me off, but I think it came down to the slippery texture and "richer" taste. These past few years, however, that richness is exactly what I'm after. The taste is definitely stronger as well, which is why I've been adding it to breast meat when I'm grinding chicken to use in recipes - the extra fat in the meat also produces a more moist result.

Just as I do with the packs of chicken breasts we talked about earlier, I like to do the same process with thigh meat, though maybe not quite as often. We bought a few pounds from the farmers' market the other day to break down and stock the freezer, but I saved a scant pound's worth to make these Broccoli-Chicken Bowls we had for dinner.

To give the thigh meat a little nudge, we let them sit in a pool of soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch and thin slices of fresh garlic. While the meat rested, we broke down the head of broccoli, making use of the entire piece from the tender florets to the thick stems. You won't want to use the stems as-is because they are covered in a tough peel, but removing that reveals the lovely, light-green edible interior. The stems are quite sturdy and crisp (which makes for excellent broccoli slaw by the way), so you'll want to give them an extra minute or two to become tender when cooking.

As soon as the prep was out of the way, we slid garlic into one of our skillets, lined extra-virgin olive oil, and gave it a few seconds to heat through. Because the broccoli stems needed extra time, we added those first, then after a minute or so, the chopped florets joined the party, along with a splash of water to create a steamy home. Just as the broccoli became crisp tender, we scooped the vibrant pieces out onto a plate and drizzled a bit more fat into the barren skillet.

When the oil began to shimmer, the thigh meat, juices it sat in and the whites of a couple green onions were added. Because the chicken was sliced into thin strips, it didn't take long for the flesh to turn opaque, letting us know the chicken had cooked through. Since the "sauce" is fairly fluid at this point, a touch of cornstarch, dissolved in broth or water, was poured in and brought to a boil. This thickened the liquid enough, allowing it to cling to the vegetables and chicken, rather than run completely off.

We served this mixture over a generous bed of brown basmati rice, cooked using our favorite no-fuss method, and tossed a fresh note on by sprinkling over the remaining mild tops from the green onions. If you're not much of a dark meat fan (how can you resist the call of the dark side?), I'm sure breast meat would work here, but I think you'll lose that va-va-voomness (did I just say that?) the juicier thigh meat holds. Because we're sesame fans, the one thing I might do differently next time is either add toasted sesame oil to the mixture the raw chicken sits in or use a mixture of canola and sesame oils to cook the chicken in.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Caramel Corn Clusters...

We've done several cookies and a wicked brownie for Jeff's co-workers out here in Charlotte, introducing them to what we call the "Weekly Wednesday Treat Day". I had a cake picked out to make this week, but with as crazy hot and humid as it has been, the thought of turning the oven on for any length of time was not nearly as appealing as I thought the cake would be.

Instead, we decided we would give these Caramel Corn Clusters a go as all that was needed was a few minutes time on the stove! And no, we didn't bust out the packaged microwaveable sacks (which I'm sure would probably work fine if that's all you have) to pop the corn - for this treat, we went old school and tossed the kernels into a heavy saucepan, lined with a slick of canola oil. Actually, at first we only added two or three kernels into the cold oil and as soon as one of them popped after being set over the burner, we added the rest in. With a few shakes, lid slightly ajar to let steam escape, we had a brimming pot stuffed full of light, airy fresh popcorn!

Really, it doesn't take any more work than that - I forgot how fun making popcorn on the stove can be! Now, before moving on, I do suggest you pillaged through the popcorn and make sure there are no "old maids" hiding around - it don't think it would be any fun biting into these sweet cluster and biting into one of those unpopped kernels!

To hold all the popcorn together, a gooey, sticky syrup is created by heating together butter, brown sugar and brown rice syrup until it bubbles, thickens and comes to just under the hard-crack stage on a candy thermometer. With the heat immediately cut off to stop the syrup from going any higher, a hit of salt is stirred in, along with a shot of vanilla and a couple pinches of baking soda. It will sputter a bit when the vanilla hits the pot, so do remember to be careful.

The popped corn is then stirred in (be sure that you have used a big pot!) with a generous cup of salted peanuts to coat - you'll want to work quickly here as the more you stir, the caramel mixture will begin to cool and harden, making it difficult to get the popcorn evenly coated. Spread out over a sheet pan in a thin layer, you will soon be rewarded with quite the treat as soon as this candy cools - crunchy and sweet, with just the right delicate bite of salt to contrast.

We thought the peanuts were exceptional in this, but I'd still like to give this a try with others - cashews, toasted almonds or pecans come to mind first. Jeff also made a good suggestion of adding a dash or two of cayenne to satisfy those who love the combination of sweet and heat. If you want to go completely over the top and decadent, before you break up the popcorn into bite-sized clusters, melt a bit of dark chocolate (or perhaps, a trio of dark, milk and white!) and release your inner child, drizzling the liquid chocolate in messy lines all over the top.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Almond-Stuffed Chicken...

I found yet another rogue recipe we made just before we left Minneapolis that we never got to talk about with all the flurry of activity that was happening. I was trying to get one of the last batches of chicken we had in the freezer used up and this classy Almond-Stuffed Chicken was the one that cleared out the rest of the white meat.

Depending on the recipe, stuffed chicken can often be a production, between flattening the meat, adding the filling and sealing it back up with ties or picks. While that isn't necessarily a bad idea at all, I wasn't in the mood for that much work tonight, which made this seven-ingredient dish that much more appealing. With a thin, sharp knife, we simply sliced a pocket into the thickest portion of each piece, then wiggled the knife around inside, making ample room for the filling. Be sure to stop before you reach any section that risks the knife poking through the meat to keep the filling from oozing out and more importantly, you don't poke yourself with the knife.

We stuffed the chicken with a cheesy blend of creamy Boursin cheese (swoon!) spread, toasted sliced almonds and chopped fresh parsley. Make your own blend or use whichever garlic and herb-flavored soft cheese you can find at the market. Place a spoonful of the mix into the pocket, then use your fingers on the outside of the meat to spread the filling around the roomy space you created. With a straightforward seasoning of salt and fresh ground black pepper on the outside, we slide the chicken into a pan with a knob's worth of butter and let them be until each side was golden and cooked through. With the filling, it can be a little deceptive determining when the chicken is done by feel - I'd suggest sticking a thermometer into the center just to make sure it has come up to 165 degrees to be safe.

Chicken breasts are notorious for some as coming across on the dry side without a ton of flavor behind them, but that tasteful, nutty cheese mixture permeated the meat from the inside to ensure it became anything but bland. Making use of a thermometer to check for doneness only aids in keeping the chicken juicy and tender, but if they do become slightly overcooked, the filling works as another safety net by plugging in extra moisture. I didn't have any problem with the filling coming out of the slit and into the pan, but if you're worried that might happen, you could secure it closed with a toothpick.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sausage, Egg and Asparagus Pizza...

Sausage and eggs... you'll find that duo fairly often as our breakfast, most notably on the weekends, but what's a good way to work them into dinner, in a not-so-traditional fashion? Toss it all onto a pizza and call it dinner, of course! We did just that for our Friday Pizza Night by making this Sausage, Egg and Asparagus Pizza.

For a fairly thin crust, we blitzed together the twelve-ounce version of our favorite whole-wheat pizza dough - though, if you want a chewier base, bump it up to the pound recipe to give yourself more bulk to work with. We did go the extra mile and roll the sides of the dough onto itself, building a thick ring around the edge - I suggest you do the same and you'll see why in a minute. Since the toppings are going to be fairly moist on this pizza, we gave the stretched out round a few minutes in the oven to give it a head start - not too long, just until the bottom begins to crisp and is lightly golden.

While the crust was occupied in the oven, we moved on to the toppings by browning a couple links of sweet Italian sausage, crumbling them with a sturdy wooden spatula into meaty nuggets as they cooked. With the sausage scooped out to drain, sliced shallots went in next, followed shortly by sliced fresh asparagus to briefly feel the heat, leaving the spears with a civilized bite.

You'll notice we haven't mentioned a sauce at all and that's because there isn't one with this pizza - after scattering the vegetables and sausage all over the top of the crust, what holds those ingredients together, in spite of said sauce, is quite simply a bowl of eggs, scrambled together with a dose of salt and fresh ground black pepper. This is why the rim around the crust is a good idea... think of it as extra insurance so the eggs won't even dare think about flowing over in the oven!

Topped off with a smattering of shredded Fontina and sharp white cheddar, the pizza goes back into the oven for a second bake, which sets the eggs to a puffy, moist curd and melts the cheeses into a gooey slick. Like a big breakfast spread, assembled together on a crisp, edible canvas, the combination of the soft eggs, mild onion-y shallots and sweet sausage did feel a bit heavy at first, but with the bright, tender-crisp asparagus breaking through the richness, the pizza balanced itself out quite nicely. If you're havin' a cravin' for bacon, substitute a few smoky strips instead of the sausage (or go for a gluttonous glory with both!) and cook the shallots in a bit of the leftover drippings. Crumble the bacon and add it when you would have done the sausage.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Vanilla-Chai Icebox Shortbread Cookies...

Wednesday has become our day of choice for Treat Day, but this week we had to shift it around a bit, moving it up to today as Jeff is going to be working from home tomorrow. However, this meant I had to get into gear yesterday to make sure I had enough time to get these Vanilla-Chai Icebox Shortbread Cookies baked! That's also why I didn't get our dinner posted yesterday... too busy with cookies!

The dough begins with butter and granulated sugar, which would be expected, but we also poured a touch of golden honey into the mix for a kiss of extra sweetness and warmth. To get a full-bodied range of flavors packed in, these intensely-spiced cookies are peppered with pumpkin pie spice, ginger and allspice, along with an exotic note from a small spoonful of cardamom. You can use prepared pumpkin pie spice if you already have a jar, but you don't need to run out to buy some if you have a stocked spice pantry - I usually just blend together cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg, ginger and clove. As far as how much of each, the ratio that I've fallen for most is using half as much ginger as cinnamon, then a quarter as much of the nutmeg and clove.

As if that wasn't enough, a full vanilla bean was ravaged, taking its thousands of aromatic seeds and adding them in for an almost audible floral background that lingered on the tongue. When the dough is completely combined, it should be on the softer side, but should not be very sticky - if you touch the dough, your finger should come away clean. Split in two, the dough is then shaped, wrapped and stashed into the refrigerator to firm it up enough to slice into tidy rectangles.

You don't have to make the cookies rectangles by the way; roll the dough up into a log for round buttons or shape the log into a square for a boxy treat. If you do go for the round route, here's a tip we've given out before to help the dough keep its cylindrical shape - when you have the dough wrapped up, cut a slit down the middle of a paper towel tube and slip the dough inside. The sturdiness of the tube will give the dough just enough structure to stay round and not flatten out.

Because they are on the smaller side, I was able to fit 20 cookies comfortably on a regular half sheet pan to bake, making the time it took to bake them not nearly as long as I thought. They do spread a tad as they bake, but as long as you give them roughly 1/2" between, the cookies will be fine. Baked until each vanilla-studded cookie was lightly golden around their edges, we made sure they had time enough to cool before we added one final touch.

While the cookies stand on their own taste wise, they do look a little plain and ordinary - to give them a leg up in the looks department, a snazzy drizzle made from confectioners' sugar, vanilla and a splash of milk was lazily drawn over each. And for just another bit of extravagance, I did scrape a half of another vanilla bean and whisked the seeds in. Jeff and I both loved the texture of the cookies - crisp, yet tender, with a slight crumbliness that had us reaching for cookie after cookie (and thankfully it made plenty to go around!).

Friday, June 04, 2010

Back into the groove with Calzones...

Life has finally started to fall into its new routine around here, though it is still a bit more hectic than we would like it to be. We've been able to find time to run around and explore our new surroundings, but we hope to do more of that when we have free time on the weekends... especially the farmers' markets on Saturday's! We're going to try and check out one of the newer markets tomorrow morning that wants to focus on local-only produced goods in a "city market concept".

I'm also making sure we keep up with our Friday routine of Pizza Night, which we did this evening by making these Calzones with Ricotta, Broccoli and Prosciutto. We did use our favorite whole-wheat pizza dough that always makes life easier, but feel free to use whatever dough suits your fancy. After it had time to bubble and brew in our dough container (a sparkling clean small painters bucket from Lowes, no less), we divided the ball into four pieces, rolling each into a good 6" round.

On the center of each dough, we spread a slick two-cheese garlicky concoction made from creamy ricotta, shreds of mozzarella and garlic, obviously, which was followed with a dollop of zesty pizza sauce (your favorite thick marinara sauce would work too) for not only flavor, but extra moisture. A small mound of steamed, then chopped, fresh broccoli florets (we had a small head leftover after last night's casserole!) were then scattered over the sauce and the filling was complete with a smattering of salty strips of prosciutto. Don't feel chained to the ingredients we used - use whichever type of lightly cooked vegetable that sounds good at the time and mess with the meat if you like... ham, Canadian bacon or even a few discs of pepperoni sound good to me!

Making these in continual assembly line fashion worked better for me, however you can concentrate on one at a time - just keep the extra pieces of dough you are not working with covered so they don't begin to dry out. When you fold the dough onto itself, making the half-moon calzone shape, use your fingers to try and keep the fillings tucked inside - as long as you keep the edge of the dough clean, it won't take much more than a few sturdy pinches to keep the dough closed while baking.

A fork also works well to press the dough sides together to make a tight seal. Just before these went into the oven, we drizzled each calzone with olive oil and gave them a gentle rub down to coat. You absolutely don't have to do this, but it definitely makes for a more pleasing color to the stuffed pieces of dough - it doesn't take much, usually a half teaspoon is sufficient to transform the drab paleness to a rich golden brown.

I do suggest slicing a slit into the top of the calzones, giving any steam that forms a place to vent, rather than risking a blowout!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Broccoli and Pasta Casseroles...

It's funny when I think a few years back, probably seven or eight, when neither Jeff nor I ever cared much about what we ate - it was always eating out or having whatever we could prepare quickly (and it showed). You'd rarely, if ever, find any sort of fresh vegetable in the refrigerator, and even when we made the decision to start making food at home, it was a slow integration process. Back then, if I knew what I would be eating now, I would have laughed and said "um, yeah - if you say so!".

That's why, when I think about this Broccoli and Pasta Casseroles dish that we made tonight, I'm thankful that we made the conscious decision to change when we did.

Some of the ingredients used in this, broccoli, onions, ricotta cheese and pasta, may be common fare for some and they happen to be staples for us now, but I wouldn't have gone near them before (I know I've mentioned this before, but I didn't even start eating pasta until I was around 23!). When I think about it, I can't believe how much good food I missed out on!

To get us going on the recipe, we needed to get the pasta and broccoli going - to simplify the cooking process, we cooked the two together in the same pot of salted water, adding the florets and peeled stems during the last two minutes of the pasta cooking time. While those two were working, I kept busy starting on the light, milky sauce by softening a cup of diced onion, then adding a few sprinkles of flour and dry mustard. Be sure to stir this around the pot for a minute or so, giving the flour time to cook its rawness out. Whisking in a steady stream, you'll want to pour the milk into the pot gradually, which makes sure the flour dissolves evenly without leaving tiny nuggets behind. Cooked until it just begins to thicken (it will be on the thin side still), a scoop of ricotta and plenty of salty Parmesan cheese are stirred in, off heat, to finish off the sauce.

To save on clean up, you could prepare the sauce in the same pot you cook the pasta in, but in an effort to speed things along, I had both pots going at the same time. After stirring in the crisp-tender broccoli and pasta into the sauce, I portioned the mixture out into individual oven-safe baking dishes - if you don't have any, this should fit fine in a smaller casserole dish (a 7 to 8" x 11" would be about the right size). For a bit of crunch, we topped each portion with one of our favorite ways to top pasta - breadcrumbs! Not just any breadcrumbs though, we blitzed a couple slices of whole-wheat to coarse crumbs, then lightly toasted them in the oven. If I were to make this again, I do think a handful of Parmesan, tossed with the cooled, toasted crumbs, would add a bit more oomph to the topping.

Even though everything is completely cooked, a trip in the oven gives the flavors a chance to marry and sets the sauce. Shell pasta was the shape-of-choice for us in this baked dish, but I'm sure others like fusilli, gemelli or even macaroni would work well. Using the heartier mutli-grain pasta brought a nuttiness that we both noticed, yet thought it added a welcomed depth instead of being a distraction to this casserole - if you've never tried it before, this may be a good starting point! The leftovers should reheat well too, though I plan to use the toaster oven to warm them through - if you use a microwave, you'll most likely lose the crunch on top.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Iced Butterscotch Brownies...

If you're ever on the hunt for a large pan of tasty bars that will feed a crowd, I hope you remember these Butterscotch Brownies With Brown Sugar Butter Icing... I know I will after throwing them together today for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day goodie!

And by throwing them together, I mean exactly that - the baking (generous half-sheet!) pan was filled with the thick, brown sugar-engorged batter within ten minutes of bringing the mixer to the island! Just be sure to set the butter out to soften a bit first - you don't want it meltingly soft, but you should be able to make an indent with your finger without much effort. Now, if you are a nut fan, a couple cups of toasted chopped pecans or walnuts would make an excellent add-in to the batter for a contrasting bite - however, Jeff vetoed that idea as he wasn't sure if the majority of his co-workers are nut enthusiasts or not. I tried, especially since we are in the South now, but he wouldn't budge! Once you scoop the vanilla-laced batter into the pan, be sure to give the top a once over with a sturdy off-set spatula to even and smooth the batter.

Looks and smell work well for testing for doneness as the sugar-y aroma is powerful, but a trusty toothpick does the job if you second guess yourself. The bars will puff up as they bake, but you'll know when they are almost done when the batter begins to settle back down and take on a lovely golden shade. When you take them out from the oven, give them plenty of time to cool down before you even think of starting the frosting - they are fairly delicate while hot and the icing will stick and set best when they have cooled completely.

As the name implies, you'll find an ample supply of butter and moist brown sugar in the icing. Melted together into a bubbling, sticky pool of love, when those two ingredients are combined with confectioners' sugar, half-and-half and a liberal splash of vanilla, the dynamite icing is formed and will begin to set up quickly. You will have a few minutes to slather it over the bars, but don't dilly-dally trying to make it perfect or you may end up with a mess.

While I'm all for mile-high brownies, these bars are on the thin side and neither of us thought that was a bad thing as they are quite dense and rich with their butterscotch background. Besides, the almost equal-in-thickness insane addition of soft, fudge-like icing on top makes for quite the mouthful! However, if you do want some heftiness to them, cram the decadent batter into a 9" x 13" pan and extend the baking time. If you opt for that, I don't recommend piling on all of the frosting - either save it for scooping on graham crackers (not like I did that or anything... just sayin') or reduce the recipe to compensate.