Friday, December 30, 2011

sachertorte, a new york christmas, and a 2012

Two days to 2012. Unbelievable how fast this year's flown by.

More importantly, two days to Sherlock season 2. As fast as the year has passed, I've been waiting 6 damn months for this damn season to get here, and the level of excitement and hysteria I have been fruitlessly trying to contain is inordinately high.

[Though, to be quite honest, it's not nearly as bad as it would have been had I watched it when it first aired in the US last October, but if that were the case, the BBC would have received quite a lot of strongly-worded emails at this point.]

Still, being home the past two weeks has done well for my impatience. Meaning, catching up with family and taking a trip up north with Yusra and the cousins has kept me busy.

New York is always a pleasure to visit, particularly this time of year. Understandably so, of course, since it's just lovely nowadays, bustling with shoppers lined up on every corner, bright and towering Christmas displays around Rockefeller Center, cafes and bakeries full to the brim with pumpkin pies and spicy lattes wafting through open doors and windows, sax and cello players circling Central Park and bringing melodies of Christmas carols against the breezy chill of winter weather. 

And even after Christmas, the excitement of a New Year and bright lights keeps the city in full swing.

We took our leave the day after Christmas, and after four full days down the street from Times Square, I figured it was enough for one trip. 

We visited my favorites, of course, which was a non-issue, but also discovered some new ones. Magnolia Bakery and Momofuku Milk Bar, in particular, were two that I was most excited about finally visiting in person. 

I've had Magnolia's recipe book in my Amazon wish list for months now, but have been holding off on purchasing it. After seeing the bakery and ordering a pumpkin spice cake with caramel cream cheese frosting, though, I'm thinking it's about time I dish out the money and get it shipped to my place. It's an absolutely darling bakery, stuffed to capacity full of people shoulder-to-shoulder ordering cupcakes and cookies, glass cases stacked with colorful lemon bars and mini cheesecakes, and cake stands holding some of the tallest and most beautiful cakes I've ever seen. And it was, quite predictably, unmatched in deliciousness. Yusra ordered a mini pumpkin spice cheesecake with one of the most satisfyingly creamy textures I've ever tasted, and the cake I ordered was unbelievably good, hitting a perfect balance of sweet and spicy. 

Such perfection in such adorableness. Unfair. 

Momofuku was another story entirely. Not in a negative way or anything; on the contrary, it was one of the most unique culinary experiences of my life, and if I could have it my way, I'd make a pitstop there every morning on my way to class from now until the day I die. It's not quite as diverse in its selection of treats as an ordinary bakery would be, but it's also not an ordinary bakery. We visited the Milk Bar on 56th (conveniently located two blocks from our hotel), and they had perhaps 3 types of beverage options and a small handful of bakery treats for sale. The treats themselves were nothing special; delicious, yes, but not anything extraordinary.

No, the real gem is their trademarked Cereal Milk, which I had in milkshake form, on about three occasions in two days. And it would have been more had we come upon it earlier in our trip.

You know when you pour yourself a bowl of utterly unhealthy and exceptionally sugary cereal? And the milk absorbs all the sugary goodness, so that once you've eaten everything out of the bowl, all you have left to do is very classily bring the bowl to your lips and drink up that leftover, liquid heaven? 

You know what I'm talking about. Those last few seconds of perfection before the bowl is empty. The cereal milk.

Well, Momofuku has totally taken that flavor and run with it. And it is absolutely brilliant.

I cannot even describe this milkshake to you. I mean, I am so in love. It has this buttery quality about it, which I assume comes from the cornflakes, with which they steep the milk before whisking in a bit of brown sugar for just the perfect flavor imaginable. 

I just. Ugh. I can't. I'll just shut up. 

In any case, that was the bulk of my trip: eating good foods. Finally visited Junior's Cheesecake bakery, which was kind of a surreal experience since I've been baking out of their cookbook for three years now. Surreal, and delicious. Also watched The Book of Mormon, which is quite possibly the funniest musical I have ever seen before in my life [and made me rather happy that the parental units did not come on this particular trip], and have had the soundtrack playing on loop in my head for the past three days.

Did all the tourist-y things that I've never done in the past, even when I still lived in Queens: Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and peering out at the city lights from the 86th floor of the Empire State building on Christmas night. It was, in some ways, kind of surreal: being in a city I've lived in, visited with frequency since moving, and yet, I saw it from a place I've never been before, and what I saw was something I'd never seen before. I'd walked those streets, but I never really looked at them until then. It was like a reminder that even the most ordinary things can be extraordinary, if you see them just a bit differently.

I don't know. It was a strange moment, but a nice one. Maybe something to keep in mind for 2012.

Other than that, just strolling through Times Square, doing a bit of shopping, and enjoying another trip to one of my favorite cities. 

We spent all of Monday on the road, quite literally, as all of the post-Christmas traffic was backed up for hours and hours. For a lot of the drive back I alternated between reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and thinking about what I would bake Hannah, whose 21st birthday was, incidentally, that same day. I knew it would have to be chocolate, of course, but didn't know what. Something different from last year's cheesecake, but nothing too extravagant.

And then I realized that  during our visit to Max Brenner, I picked up their dessert recipe book. And as soon as I got home, I flipped through it and decided on his Sachertorte. 

Max Brenner is, after al, the god of all things chocolate.

I'm not actually going to divulge the recipe for the cake, since I followed it straight from his cookbook, but I can assure you that it is delicious. Paradoxically airy and dense, bittersweet chocolate offset by a layer of black raspberry jam, encased in a layer of fluffy, bittersweet chocolate frosting. 

I suppose that doesn't actually make you feel better about not having a recipe, but perhaps will inspire you to look him up. He really is fantastic, and his recipe book is a delight.

Happy [belated] 21st birthday, Hannah-banana! I do hope Max Brenner's recipe was up to your standards of chocolate heaven. Love always.

So I suppose it's time I bid adieu to 2011. It's been an incredible year, upon reflection. Lots of traveling and spending time with good friends. Attending some fantastic concerts and watching some of the most quality television ever created. Reading some beautiful books and eating some incredible foods. Memorable experiences and exceptional memories. And a lot of smiles and laughter. 

Still uncertain about quite a lot of things, but a new year means a year of opportunities to figure them out. I anticipate more quality television, coffee dates, memorable experiences, and laughs in the future.

And I hope the same goes for you. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

apple pie cheesecake bars [and holiday nights with old friends]

Cranberry-cinnamon tea. 

I arrived home yesterday evening to an empty house, parents both out and about and Yusra off with friends. I didn't expect anything different, really, and so took my suitcase and backpack upstairs to a room that's been vacant for weeks, freshly cleaned for my arrival. After gracelessly dropping my things haphazardly in the space next to my bedside table, I put my hands on my hips and looked around, letting the breeze wafting in through the half-open window chill my bare arms, still adjusting to the new house. A deep sigh, closing my eyes for just a moment to let everything sink in, breathing out the stresses from a semester of constant work, and then back downstairs for a glass of water and, perhaps, a piece of fruit.

And it was then that I noticed that almost every inch of counter space was covered in gift baskets and fruit bowls, obligatory gifts from drug reps and secretaries at my father's office. [It's Christmas season, after all.]

And then I grinned.

As mundane and predictable as most of them are, full to the brim with boxes of stale pretzels and commercially-cloned milk chocolate truffles, the odd basket or two is full of delightful surprises. A small bottle of olive oil, caramels wrapped in colorful foil [the ones that only seem to make an appearance this time of year and virtually disappear from existence for the remaining eleven months], a wheel of chevre, a tin of cranberry-cinnamon tea.

I horde all of these for myself, naturally, as the rest of my family is content with the chocolate and crackers [which, admittedly, I enjoy quite a lot as well] and have little interest in odd teas and cheeses. It's bizarre, but it's the little things from gift baskets that really solidify this time of year. The end of a semester. A break from academics. A time to spend the day away in pajamas and a sweatshirt, lounged upon the sofa with a book, iPod plugged into Aine Minogue and Dean Martin, perhaps a mug of cranberry-cinnamon tea at hand.

And occasionally, a Christmas party or two.

Matt's parents graciously invited me to their home this evening for a small party, which was in and of itself one of the most delicious events I have ever attended. There is never a shortage of incredible food whenever Matt's family is involved, particularly when smoked brisket, turkey and cranberry, and the most diverse selection of homemade cookies are at one's fingertips.

When I was first told of the party, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to bake something as a thank-you, to which Matt's parents happily accepted. And so, for days I pondered about what would be worthy enough for individuals which such impeccable taste, and eventually decided on these: apple pie cheesecake bars, which I dedicate utterly and unconditionally to Matt's incredible family.

Apple Pie Cheesecake Bars
Adapted from The Girl Who Ate Everything.
Makes 24-32 bars.

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 sticks butter, softened and cut into cubes
For the cheesecake layer, you'll need:
  • 3 8-oz packages cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
For the apple layer, you'll need:
  • 3 large apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes [Grannysmith, Gala, and Golden Delicious are ideal, or any combination of the three]
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg
For the streusel topping, you'll need:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 stick butter, softened
For the caramel, you'll need:
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

To prepare the bars:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a 9x13-inch pan with aluminum foil. Grease the bottom and sides of the foil. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour and brown sugar. Add in butter and pulse until dough has the consistency of bread crumbs. Pour dough onto bottom of the pan and press evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown. Do not turn off the oven.

While the crust is baking, prepare the cheesecake layer by beating cream cheese and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add vanilla. Pour the cheesecake filling onto the baked crust, spreading evenly with a spatula.

Toss the apples, 2 tbsp sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a bowl. Spoon the apples evenly over top of the cheesecake filling.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, and oats and mix until well-blended. Using a pastry cutter or your hand, mix the butter into the flour mixture until crumbly. Sprinkle the streusel evenly on top of the apples. Bake the bars for 40-45 minutes, until cheesecake is set. Let bars cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the caramel: 
In a medium saucepan over medium flame, whisk together sugar and water. Allow syrup to come to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer until the syrup reaches an amber color, 7-12 minutes. Watch the syrup closely as it will quickly burn after it has started to color. Once syrup reaches the correct color, slowly pour in the heavy cream, whisking constantly while doing so. The syrup will sizzle and foam up spectacularly, but will calm down soon after. Remove saucepan from the heat and continue whisking until mixture has reached the consistency of smooth caramel. Let caramel cool 15-20 minutes before using on the bars.

Once dessert has refrigerated for at least 2 hours, slice them into bars and arrange on a serving tray. Right before serving, drizzle a generous amount of caramel on top of the bars.

There's really nothing pie-like about these, save that I made them with apples and it's currently autumn, but the name has a rather nice ring to it. Plus, with his face muffled in my shoulder in an enormous, snuggly hug, Matt mumbled that they tasted like apple pie wrapped in a cheesecake. The contented grin on his face when he pulled away and dove into his second bite was inspiration enough for the title.

Matt's mother was thrilled, Matt's father thought they were delicious, the other guests loved them, and my heart soared. More than anything, I wanted to give back a small bit of the kindness Matt and his family have shown me for over a decade.

Hopefully this was a little victory, but above all, a big thank you.

"Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal"
Julia Child

Sunday, December 11, 2011

6 [layers] x 4 [hungry people] - 3 [feet tall] = 21 [years old]

Ah, birthday season.

It has begun.

Naturally, the start of birthday season always coincides splendidly with finals, which is both hideously inconvenient and a wonderful break from studying.

But since it's Noosh's birthday, the break is always, always welcome.

Though, I suppose that after spending the vast majority of our Saturday night writing and editing term papers along with Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother breaks every thirty or so minutes, but it's okay since I started and finished a rather decently executed 8-page political theory essay in a grand total of 6 hours, I think today's lunch and subsequent sugar coma were well-deserved.

Noosh's rents came up today and took us out for a fantastic lunch at Outback, which was quite literally the first time in weeks that she and I had a meal that didn't involve items of questionable edibleness haphazardly thrown together in an attempt to fashion what few would call any semblance of a plate of food, so I was pretty damn pleased. I mean, salmon on rice pilaf with broccoli? It was like a holiday miracle, I kid you not. 

I feel unbelievably rejuvenated now and have this delusion that I possess the strength necessary to stare down my metaphysics term paper with the utmost confidence. By that I mean I may not actually pass out from sheer terror anymore.

Anyway, lunch was great [the whole 'real food' thing], and then we came back to the apartment for merriment and cake.

And so we ate. And ate. And ate some more.

And I'm still reeling from all the sugar. [What else is new.]

Fall Hummingbird Cake
Adapted from Sweetapolita and For the Love of Food.
Makes one three-layer 9-inch cake.

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup pumpkin
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 8-oz can crushed pineapple, with juice
For the maple cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 2 8-oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature and cut into cubes
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 5 cups powdered sugar

To prepare the hummingbird cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat eggs and oil on medium speed until frothy, about a minute. Add in pumpkin, bananas, and pineapple and mix until well-blended, 3-4 minutes. Remove the bowl from the stand. In a separate bowl, sift flour, sugar, spices, salt, and baking soda. Dump flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until barely incorporated. Stir in pecans and mix until just combined.

Divide batter among the three pans. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.

To prepare the maple cream cheese frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter, maple syrup, and vanilla on medium speed until well-mixed. Reduce speed to low and gradually add in powdered sugar. Beat until the frosting fluffs up a bit, about 3 minutes. Add in the cream cheese all at once, increase speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Refrigerate frosting until using.

To assemble the cake:
Place one of the three layers on the serving plate. Frost top of the layer with a generous amount of frosting. Repeat with the second and third layers, and use remaining frosting to frost the sides of the cake. Refrigerate cake until serving. Garnish with chopped pecans, if desired.

Alright, so my cake was the approximate size of a small child. And was also 6 layers tall. And it could probably feed a small country. With leftovers remaining.

What I did was bake the cake twice over - used the same three pans for the second round of batter, and I was left with six, rather sizable, layers of hummingbird cake. I let them cool completely, and then got to frosting, the recipe for which I increased by 50% [I'll let you do the math on this one].

Now, a word of caution: if you're going to make a 6-layer cake, you can not assemble the entire thing all at once. I initially did all 6 layers, and the mess was teetering over worse than the tower of Pisa. I almost had a mental breakdown, and then decided to just remove two layers. Instead of throwing them away, I stuck them on a plate and figured I'd just have two cakes [of two awkwardly-different heights]. The cake with four layers was pretty stable, so I went ahead and frosted it completely. Then I decided that, no, I am not going to sit here and allow physics to destroy all of my dreams and happiness, so I stuck the four-layered cake in the freezer for about an hour and a half [stuck the other two in the fridge during this time], then placed the two refrigerated layers on top, refrosted the top two layers, and stuck it back into the freezer to firm up completely.

So, if you, dear reader, hope to make a 6-layered cake, I would do the following:
  1. assemble and frost four layers, sides and all 
  2. wrap remaining two layers in clingwrap and allow them to mellow out on the counter
  3. place frosted cake in freezer for 1.5 hours
  4. frost and add final two layers to frozen cake [note that frosting blends seamlessly with what has been done prior]
  5. place 6-layer, frosted cake in freezer for another 2 hours
  6. transfer frozen cake to the fridge for at least 4 hours before serving, so that it has a chance to thaw and isn't an unpleasant experience to eat
Yes, it is a time-consuming process, as all layer cakes are loathe to be, so make sure to keep in mind the time you'll need to set aside to make it happen.

You could also always just go with the three-layer, but the six-layer is far more enjoyable to slice.

As for decoration, I just purchased some fake flowers from Michaels, trimmed them off of the stalk, and arranged them on top. Chopped up some walnuts for some sort of aesthetic flair - rocks maybe? I'm really not quite sure - and it ended up looking more like a wedding cake than a birthday cake. But the addition of candles toned down the exuberant amounts of class radiating off of the cake, so it was all good.


Anyway, Noosh and her famfam loved it, so I figured it was a success in the end.

And finally, my darling Farnoosh, most amazing roommate and best friend one could wish for in the most epic bromance that ever was, I hope you had an absolutely wonderful 21st birthday [despite the fact that you are sitting next to me working on an ethics term paper], and I'm warning you now that once you turn it in, we are in for a night of a How I Met Your Mother marathon. Prepare yourself.

As for later this week, I'll be at the apartment until Friday when I'm finally off for break. I have this vague notion that the cousins and I are heading to NYC next week, but I'm fuzzy on some all of the details. But at least I have a few weeks to spend with the family before I'm back here for intercession.

And sometime in between there are about 3 more birthdays needing to be celebrated, so at least there's weight-gain to look forward to.

Friday, December 2, 2011

pumpkin bars with maple cream cheese frosting

Thanksgiving feels like it was ages ago, though it was just last week that I was huddled around our dining table, 14 unnervingly-cheerful family members by my side, reaching for my second [or was it third?] helping of turkey and Butterbeer.

What I wouldn't do to have some leftover turkey here at the apartment so as to stop chewing on my own hand whenever I get hungry. The lack of quality food and utter depression that accompanies it can only mean one thing: we've approached finals season.

Presumably, I spend most of my days holed up in my room or at a coffee shop, frantically reading hundreds of pages of Spanish literature and philosophy that I shirked during the semester, writing the best-quality term paper[s] I can a week before the due date, and waking up every morning praying that I'm back in my fluffy bed at home, having left all final exams and papers behind me.

Okay, admittedly, it's not that tragic. Mostly it's been painful not being able to play PS3 when AC:R sits next to my television remote forlornly, abandoned and neglected, wondering how it got stuck with a good-for-nothing college student who really should have read that 200-page Spanish novel 2 weeks ago when it was assigned rather than spending hours doing so yesterday in order to write a paper due next week.

...not that I'm, you know, bitter or anything.

Pumpkin Bars with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
A bakedbeen original
Makes 18-24 bars

For the pumpkin bars, you'll need:
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 15-oz can pumpkin [not pumpkin pie filling]
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 heaping tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • a few shakes of cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup crushed pecans
  • 1/4 cup raisins
For the maple cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 4 tbsp butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla

To prepare the pumpkin bars:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease a 9x13-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, beat eggs, oil, brown sugar, and pumpkin until fluffy, 4-5 minutes. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt.  Using a wooden spoon, hand-mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Be careful not to over-mix. Once mixed, toss in the pecans and raisins and give the batter another turn. Pour the batter into the prepared pan for 25-30 minutes, until set. Let cool completely before frosting.

To prepare the maple cream cheese frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter and cream cheese on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Lower mixer speed to low and slowly add in powdered sugar. Mix until combined. Add maple syrup and vanilla. Increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat for another 3-5 minutes, until fluffy. Refrigerate until frosting reaches spreading consistency, about 30 minutes. 

Once bars are cool, spread the cream cheese frosting evenly over top. Garnish with whole or crushed pecans, if desired. Refrigerate at least 45 minutes before slicing.

Luckily, after a week of unprecedented amounts of catch-up and studying, Noosh and I got to spend the afternoon and evening out, shopping in pleasantly nippy, chilly weather and meeting up with good friends for an extraordinarily entertaining little dinner party.

For the occasion, I decided to bake. I felt as though I hadn't baked in years, although I made about 4 desserts for our Thanksgiving dinner last week. I'll blame it on finals-prep having drained the life and joy out of me.

But I digress: baking. Pumpkin bars with maple cream cheese frosting, to be precise. For some reason I have this delusion that baking with pumpkin after Christmas is just blasphemous, since pumpkin is the epitome of fall deliciousness and happiness, and the only thing I want to do when winter rolls around is stuff a pillow over my head and hibernate for 3 months. So I figured: I only have two more weeks at the apartment, I have a can of pumpkin in my pantry, and it would be going against nature for me to use it after I'm back for intercession; might as well put it to delicious use.

I always view pumpkin in the same light I do carrots, when it comes to baking. They both have a sort of mild, dense, earthy quality about them which pairs wonderfully with spices, nuts, and dried fruits. Pumpkin bars I've had in the past are typically made with just pumpkin and spices, and have a really pleasant cake-y quality to them. But I like my pumpkin bars heartier, so always add ground nuts [what's more fitting than pecans?] and raisins to give them some body and a sort of rustic, cold-weather touch. Maple added to the frosting to tie it all together, and you're left with a beautiful fall dessert.

Simple, but comforting. As is spending an evening after a stressful week with good friends and good food.

And with a happy belly and residual smile from a wonderful night, the next two weeks don't seem quite so daunting.