Friday, July 27, 2012

Still breathing.


Okay, okay, I planned an update much sooner than this. So very much has happened, and I'm happy to say a lot of really great things have developed. First and foremost, I finished my Master's thesis and officially graduated! Hooray!

I cannot describe in words how amazing it feels to have the thesis monkey off of my back. Although the project will continue following some lessons learned along the way, it feels amazing to know that I have something tangible from my efforts and that I could go out there and get a job. I will be continuing on in the PhD program, so I will not be seeking employment for another two years... but at least I know call center work is no longer in my future.

Why did it take so long again? Oh yeah, it weighs 2 lbs 10 oz (that's over 140 pages)!


I also had the opportunity to teach my very own course this summer, which was a great experience. In my field, a bit more than half of us work "in the field" and the rest remain within academia. I have not decided for sure which way I will go, but teaching a course gave me a good dose of what to expect as an academic. We also had some restructuring in the lab and some really exciting new projects have come my way post-thesis.

Of course, all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl and you can be sure I have been cooking, baking, thrift store-scouring, reading, etc. these last few months, too! Why haven't I shared these adventures with you? Well, back in March our camera decided that from here on out, it would only take pictures like this:


Which would be amazing if I kept a surreal horror  blog. We tried a few things to get it working again, but the long and short of it is our camera bit the dust. Unfortunately, our grad student budget doesn't really allow for a new camera and after some unexpected expenses popped up (as they always do, at the worst possible time) a camera just wasn't in the cards in the foreseeable future. I frowned, but decided to be patient... like maybe-after-Christmas-patient.

Then recently, I realized I still had my old camera from college. It is clunky, only holds 32 photos, uses regular batteries, has been around for nearly a decade, and is devoid of most bells and whistles. But it works!

In celebration, I am giving you the culinary equivalent of a sigh of relief. This is comfort food, yes, but the kind you can whip up then stash in the fridge or the freezer to give you a little pick-me-up for many dreary or draining days to come. I am talking about classic American brownies.


These brownies are wonderful the way they are-- fudgy with a crinkly top and full of rich, chocolate flavor, just the way my husband likes them. However, they are also a great base for adding nuts and chocolate bits to add plenty of interest and texture, just the way I like my brownies. 

 Classic Brownies

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, March & April 2004

Makes 24 two-inch square brownies

Note:At the end of step 3, feel free to fold in 1 cup of chopped, toasted walnuts and/or 1 cup of chocolate chips, dusted lightly with flour (if you skip the flour dusting, the chips will sink). Also, be sure to really test the brownies. Mine required about 45 minutes until I had just a few moist crumbs on my tester, but do start checking early and really make sure just a few crumbs cling! The goal is fudgy, not gummy or cakey.

1 1/4 cups (5 oz) cake flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (use the good stuff here, I like Valrhona)
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
2 1/4 cups (15 3/4 oz) sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1.Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and place a rack in the middle position. Line a 9"x13" baking dish like so: cut an 18" piece of foil, fold lengthwise to 8" width and fit it into the length of the pan; cut a 14" length of foil and fit it into the with of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet. Be sure to press the foil down into the corners and spray the pan with nonstick spray. This is your insurance against sticking, so don't skip this step! You'll be glad you did it when it's time to cut the brownies.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

3.Set a large, heatproof bowl over a pan of just barely simmering water. Melt the chocolate and butter together in the bowl, stirring occasionally until it is completely smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and slowly whisk in the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking thoroughly after each addition. Whisk in the vanilla. In three additions, fold in the flour mixture until the batter is completely smooth (i.e. no little pockets or lumps of flour).

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the batter into the corners and smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center has just a few moist crumbs attached, rotating the pan halfway through, 35-45 minutes. Start checking at 30 minutes to be sure you do not overbake the brownies. Cool on a wire rack for 2 hours (about room temperature). Once cooled, lift the brownies out of the pan using the foil overhang. Cut the brownies into two-inch squares and serve (alternately, keep them in the fridge for about a week or the freezer up to 3 months).

Be warned: they are extra delicious with a cup of strong coffee. I've had this french press for a few years, courtesy of my father-in-law who knows I love a good cup of coffee, but only taught myself how to use it recently. If you have one languishing in your closet, I highly encourage you to dig it out and give it a try-- it makes a perfect coffee break for one on a hectic afternoon.



Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Moving on up.


I can't believe it. On Tuesday, I had my thesis defense. The night before, I made Jared watch me practice and be my stand-in audience. I made blueberry muffins to bring my committee. I hardly slept I was so full of excitement, terror, anxiety, happiness, fear...

I presented my findings over a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation, to my committee members and my lone audience member (Jared). They asked me questions, some I was prepared for and some I was not, before asking me and the audience to step outside so they could deliberate. We stood in the hall and although I was less nervous than I thought I would be, I was not sure how the whole thing went, but I was so grateful to have his company so I didn't just worry the minutes away.

After 5 or 10 minutes, my advisor came out and shook my hand. It was so surreal. As I realized what was happening, I felt weak in the knees. I had passed the defense and officially obtained my Masters degree. The other members congratulated me and they and Jared left the room. My advisor and I spoke about the new projects I would be started and I'm just so excited for the road ahead. New projects, a new degree, a new chapter.

No recipes or projects today, crunch time to turn in my thesis (with revisions) to the university, but look forward to new exciting things soon!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A cure for coconut haters.


Okay I'm not a coconut hater and I can't claim to understand the aversion. But, as every coconut-loving baker knows, there are plenty of people who cannot stand the stuff. The most common complaints I hear are about the texture-- something about the texture of your standard sweetened dried coconut is just off-putting to some.

I'm not generally in the business of turning distaste to adoration. However, these cookies more than anything else I've made seem to hold some magic power over people who loathe coconut. I warn them, "Those have coconut in them! I know how much you hate coconut..." but over and over they insist on just "a little bit" before exclaiming that they have never liked coconut but they love these cookies. That is some pretty powerful stuff.

I would love to tell you that there's some new technique used in these cookies that will make your boyfriend who hates mushrooms crave them, or make your kids beg for spinach. Unfortunately, I think it all goes back to that texture issue-- in this recipe, the coconut is finely ground before mixing it with the dry ingredients. Which, when I consider it, could help those who dislike the texture of mushrooms, although I can't claim to have a special mushroom cookie recipe in my arsenal.



Coconut Sugar Cookies

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, December 2005

Makes 5 dozen, depending on the size of your cutters

Note: To me, these are Christmas cookies as I make them every year (except last year, which lead to some sad faces... I'm telling you, people love these cookies). But I have a friend who requests them every year for her birthday and this has caught on leading me to make them all year round. Which is nice, if you have cookie cutters that are not almost exclusively Christmas-themed (which I do not). They also make the cutest Valentine's Day cookies if you color the icing like conversation hearts (bonus: no chalky taste). Finally, feel free to freeze the raw dough for later use, wrapped carefully, for up to a month. Just thaw, roll, cut, and bake.

7 oz sweetened flaked coconut
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (standard table salt)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Coconut glaze (below)

1. In a food processor, process the coconut until finely ground-- it should look kind of like coarse sand. In a large bowl, whisk togather the together flour, coconut, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

2. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. With the mixer on low, mix in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined, scraping down the bowl as needed. Divide dough into thirds and wrap each piece in plastic. Refrigerate dough until firm but malleable, about 1 1/2 hours-- you'll know it's ready when your finger makes a dent with some resistance, if it's too hard, let it sit out for a few minutes before rolling.

3. Roll out dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper to 1/4 inch thick. Repeat with remaining dough, stacking between parchment on a baking sheet. Freeze or refrigerate until firm, 30 minutes. **Really important, don't skimp!

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut out desired shapes with a cutter. Place on parchment paper covered cookie sheets, 1 1/2 inches apart. To ensure that your shapes are really crisp, chill the cut cookies again for 15 minutes before baking.

5. Bake until edges are just golden, 11 to 13 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Let the cookies cool on sheets 3 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely. When cookies are cool, spread a thin, even layer of glaze on each cookie. I prefer to use a small spoon, but a piping bag works, too. If you like, toss some colored sugar or sprinkles on while the glaze is still wet.

Extra note: These cookies are really best if you leave them sit overnight after glazing them on wire racks. After a few hours, the glaze melds with the cookie and they become more tender and somehow tastier. Also, the glaze never fully dries, so if you want to pack them for longer storage (and you should) layer them between sheets of parchment paper so you don't end up with one giant block of cookie and glaze.


Coconut Glaze

1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk (if you have extra, just freeze it)
6 cups, give or take, confectioners' sugar
Food coloring (optional)

Whisk together coconut milk and sugar in a large bowl until it is as thick as honey-- if it's too thin, it's really hard to spread. If it's too thin, add more sugar, if it's too thick, add just a touch more coconut milk. But be patient before deciding to tweak it-- really whisk it in as the coconut milk can take a surprising amount of sugar. Tint with food coloring, if desired, I like just a few drops of gel-paste food coloring. Spread on cookies immediately; it gets a hardened skin if left to sit.

Monday, March 19, 2012

So much to look forward to...

No recipes or projects today... just wanted to drop in and say that my thesis defense is finally scheduled and I finally feel some relief that things are moving forward! Following the defense I have a laundry list of projects I'd like to get started both personally and professionally (not to mention a celebratory dinner, courtesy of my husband).

So, plenty to get excited about! Hope your week is off to a great start!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A little something Irish(ish)


That is a delicious, personal-sized soda bread. No, it's not 100% authentic Irish soda bread. Then again, despite my new Irish last name, I'm really authentically Irish, either. But since it's my first year with anything linking me to √Čire, I wanted to do something a little special for St. Patrick's day.

Traditionally, soda bread does not contain eggs. It also doesn't traditionally come in cute little individual loaves nor does it come with dried sour cherries. However, I love food sized for just one and I love, love, love dried sour cherries so I think these little breads are extra charming, and I hope you agree. Of course, you could stick to raisins but I'm telling you, the cherries and caraway seed combination is a winner... I bet even dried apricots could be really good but don't tell that to your soda bread purist friends. Luckily, these single-serving portions also mean you don't need to eat the whole loaf the day you make it; just freeze the little loaves and warm them up in a 350 degree oven whenever the mood strikes. I like mine for breakfast, slathered in good butter, with an egg on the side.



Individual Cherry Raisin Soda Breads
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, March 2000
Technique for mini-breads adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 8 mini loaves

Note: the mini loaves are tricky only in that it can be difficult to tell when they are done. They should look golden brown on the outside and when you check the temperature it should be 170 degrees in the center. However, given their diminutive size, an accurate reading is not always easy to get. Another way to tell is how the bread feels as you slide the probe in-- if it feels sticky at all, it's still raw in the center. When in doubt, go a few more minutes as nothing is more disappointing than breaking open your bread and finding a doughy middle.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
4 tablespoons cold unsalter butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dried sour cherries
1 1/2 scant cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-2 tablespoons of melted butter, for brushing on the finished loaves

1. Prheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and caraway seeds until thoroughly mixed.

2. With a pastry cutter or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a coarse meal. Stir in raisins and cherries, making sure they are distributed evenly.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg, and baking soda well. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the mixture all and stir with a fork until all the liquid is absorbed and the mixture begins to hold together. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knead it a few times to make sure the mixture is cohesive. Be sure not to over-knead-- we're not looking for a smooth bread dough, but rather something closer to a biscuit dough.

4. Form the dough into a round. With a pastry blade or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 8 even wedges. Form each wedge into a little ball and place it on the parchment-lined baking sheet. With kitchen shears, carefully cut a small X on the top of each loaf.

5. Transfer to the loaves to the oven and bake, rotating the sheet halfway through, until the loaves are golden brown and cooked all the way through (see note above), 25-30 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and brush with melted butter. Serve warm with lots of good butter to go around.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A sweet ending.


Over the weekend, we had some friends over for dinner. I wanted to keep the meal casual but still just a little more special than an everyday dinner, so chicken with crisp rosemary potatoes came to mind immediately. However, dessert stumped me for weeks.

I know, it sounds really silly to hem and haw over the dessert for a casual get together with good friends. But dessert really puts the exclamation point at the end of a meal, and is certainly my favorite part. I thought, what about a layer cake? No, too fussy; I wanted to keep with the special casual feel (yes, I just made up that term). Cookies? Too casual...

When pound cake came to me, it seemed so obvious. Like I should have thought of it first. It's more special than your everyday sweets, especially with some lemon whipped cream, but it never seems like it's trying too hard. And I love pound cake. It's easy, it's sturdy (no need to make it the day of), and it's power to create a gorgeous domed shape without leaveners seems like magic.

See? Check out that dome! That's just eggs and fluffy butter, my friends. Fantastic.

The only real problem with pound cake recipes is that they generally make 2 loaves, so you should ideally have 2 loaf pans of the same size. However, I do not live in this ideal world so I have a slightly larger than standard pan and a slightly smaller than standard pan. Just make sure you fill your pan 3/4 to 4/5 full to make sure you get that domed shape; if it's not full enough, it won't have that classic shape (but it will still be delicious). If you just want one loaf, you can make cupcakes with the rest; just reduce the cooking time to 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.


Blueberry-Sour Cream Pound Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, July 2009

Makes 2 loaves

Note: The sugar-sprinkled crust is optional, but I recommend not skipping it. The sugar gives the cake a really pretty top and the crunch provides a nice textural contrast to the cake. But don't skimp on the sugar; really sprinkle 2 tablespoons per cake. It will look like a lot, but if you put on less the crust won't be nearly as crunchy and delicious.

1 pound (3 1/4 cups), plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon coarse salt, like kosher salt or sea salt
3 sticks softened unsalted butter, plus more for the pans
1/2 cup sour cream
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 large, room-temperature eggs
2 cups blueberries
4 tablespoons turbinado sugar (aka raw sugar)

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter two 5-by-9-inch loaf pans, or if you're making cupcakes, put pan liners in muffin tins. In a medium bowl, combine 3 1/4 cups flour and salt.

2. With an electric mixer on high, cream butter, sour cream, and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 8 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl and on medium speed, mix in the vanilla extract.

3. Lightly beat the eggs, and add to mixer bowl in 4 additions. Make sure to mix thoroughly after each and scrape down sides to make sure the eggs are incorporated properly. Reduce the speed to low, and add flour mixture in 4 additions, mixing until just incorporated. Don't over mix-- we want a tender pound cake! Toss the blueberries in the remaining 2 tablespoons flour and fold them into finished batter. Divide batter between pans, tapping on counter to distribute, and smooth the tops. Sprinkle the sanding sugar over each cake (2 tablespoons each).

4. Bake the cakes until a tester inserted into center of each cake comes out clean, about 65 minutes, rotating halfway through the baking time. Let the cakes cool in pans on a wire rack for 30 minutes. To remove from pans, carefully run around the edge of the pan with a knife and gently tip the cake out of the pan. Allow the cakes to cool completely on a wire rack.

If you want to gild the lily (and believe me, you do)...



Lemon Cream

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Combine heavy cream, confectioners' sugar, and lemon zest in a medium bowl. Beat until soft peaks form; this means that when you lift the beater the peaks fall over slightly.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sweet life, indeed!


I don't post a lot about what I read around here, but this was so amazing I had to share. You see, usually I read long, technical articles about employee selection or training methodologies, which I love but it's not what one would call a leisure time activity. However, after seeing a growing pile of books on my nightstand, I vowed to read more as it helps me relax after a long day and inspires me in the days ahead.

One of the most inspirational books I read recently was David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris. Not only is it a humorous look at a fascinating city through the eyes of an expat, the stories always seem to go back to food. If you love French food or just love a good story, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Did I tell you each chapter ends with no less than one recipe? It's true. Although I have only tried two so far, they are just as wonderful as the rest of the text. This is one of those books that you breeze through so quickly that you're sad to see it go, but luckily it's full of recipes that can live on in your repertoire.

David also offers tours of Paris where he takes visitors around to the markets, bakeries, chocolate shops, etc. A girl can dream!