CrockPot Cinnamon Apple Butter (No Sugar Added)

One of the main reasons why I wanted my boyfriend to get me a slow cooker was so that I could easily make homemade fruit butters. These sweet spreads made of cooked-down and pureed fruits are incredible on their own or spread on different kinds of bread. They're also lovely to bake with and can be mixed into oatmeal or yogurt for a sweet and spicy touch.

Fruit butters can be purchased commercially, but I've had a lot of trouble finding brands made without added sugars or sweeteners. It seems silly to me to add sugar to fruit that is already naturally very sweet. After searching on the Internet for a while I was unable to find any good apple butter recipes that didn't call for the addition of brown sugar or molasses.

I finally decided to just give it a shot myself, using only fresh apples, spices, and unsweetened apple juice. The results were fantastic and the slow cooker made the whole job practically effortless. I simply tossed all the ingredients into the CrockPot before going to bed, set it on low for 15 hours and when I got home from work the next day it was perfect. A quick pass through the blender and it was ready to serve.

This recipe makes enough to fill a large 24oz jar, which is just where I've been keeping it. If you'd like to preserve this for longer keeping, you can follow the same recipe and store using heated and sterilized jars. I admit that I haven't quite gotten around to doing it that way, which is why I like the nice usable amount that this produces.

Cinnamon Apple Butter (No Sugar Added)
This recipe is made without any added sugars to highlight the natural sweetness of the apples and juice. You can use any apples you'd like, but try to pick a sweeter variety such as Macintosh or Jonathan; Granny Smith apples don't work quite as well in this recipe due to their acidity. You can also play around with the juice for slightly different flavors. Try using grape, pomegranate, or pear juice (avoid citrus juices).

8 Macintosh Apples, cored & sliced but not peeled
3 cups apple cider or apple juice (preferably no sugar added)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

To make:
In the base of your slow mixer, add the apples followed by the spices, lemon juice, and apple juice. The cider should just cover the apples, but they shouldn't be swimming in it. If you need a little more, add it. Set the slow cooker to "low" for 12-15 hours. (I find it's best to get it going at night just before you go to bed; when you wake up it'll be just about done.)

Once the apples have softened, darkened, and much of the liquid has reduced, use a standard or immersion blender (or a food mill) to process until smooth.

If the apple butter is still a bit wet after the end of cooking time (due to the size of apples or the range of your slow cooker) transfer the apple butter to a large pot and cook over medium heat for 10-15 minutes until the liquid has reduced and the apple butter has thickened (take care because the mixture will splatter).

Let the apple butter cool completely before pouring into a glass jar or air-tight container. This will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks.


Vegetarian Split-Pea Soup with Smokey Garlic Yogurt

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed have probably read about the detox I've been following for the past week or so. I plan on going into a bit more detail about it in the coming week (complete with the full menu plan in case you'd like to try it out yourself), but for now I thought I'd share one of my favorite recipes from the plan: Split-Pea soup with a delicious garlic and smoked paprika yogurt dressing.

Unlike my usual bacon-infused soups, this one is made detox-friendly with vegetable broth as a base. In terms of numbers, it's much lighter than the traditional soups made with ham hocks, but that's where the differences end. The secret to this richly flavored dish is the yogurt swirl; a blend of smoked paprika, garlic, and Greek yogurt, it gives the soup the perfect amount of spice and depth. The smokiness of the paprika is reminiscent of that you'd get from bacon or a smoked ham hock, but with just a little extra spice. From a nutritional standpoint (if you're into that sort of thing) this soup is packed with protein, thiamine, folate, manganese, and a whopping 50% of your daily dietary fiber requirement. It's also a great source for those good complex carbs and carries a low glycemic load, meaning that it won't cause your body to go into post-lunch carb-crash. And given the crazy freeze that's been covering most of the US lately, I can imagine that a good soup recipe will go over well.

The yogurt dressing is also a nutrition powerhouse. The yogurt is a great source of calcium and live active cultures (the benefits of which Jamie Lee Curtis actively touts). Garlic is a powerful antioxidant that goes to work on all those free radicals, plus it's been thought to help lower cholesterol and boost the immune system against colds. Even the paprika does more than just hang out being delicious--some studies show that it can help normalize blood pressure, improve circulation, and increase the production of saliva and stomach acids to aid digestion. It's also unusually high in Vitamin C! This recipe will make a few cups of this dressing--certainly more than you'll want for the soup, but be sure to save it and experiment with it in other ways. I've found that it's great over salad, served with plain broiled salmon, or even spread on thin rye crisps. My favorite, however, is serving it alongside a big plate of oven-crisped sweet potato slices. I swear, it blows chips and dip way out of the water!

I used boxed vegetable broth for this soup and would certainly encourage you to do the same. It's a low-sodium variety that I've found both on Fresh Direct and Whole Foods. Of course, you can use your own homemade broth, or even bouillon cubes. Just make sure they're low-sodium. One of the key parts of the detox was cutting salt, and though I was reticent at first, I really didn't miss it that much once I did. The soup and dressing are rich with flavor thanks to the herbs and aromatics, and I've learned that a squeeze or two of lemon can help to "wake up" flavors in food much the same way that salt does.

Vegetarian Split-Pea Soup


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 cups dried split green peas (picked over for stones and rinsed)
1 teaspoon ground coriander (you can also use crushed whole seeds)
1 teaspoon marjoram
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
5 cups vegetable broth

To make:

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions and cook for two minutes until soft and just slightly caramelized.

Add the peas, coriander, and marjoram, and stir to combine and coat evenly.

Add the vegetable broth, salt, and sprigs of thyme.

Bring up to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the peas are soft and fully-cooked.

Use a spoon to remove the twigs left from the thyme. Then using an immersion blender, slowly process the soup until it is completely smooth. (You can also ladle the soup in portions into a blender or food processor if you don't have an immersion blender, but be careful as the steam can push the blender cover off.)

Serve with a swirl of the Smoky Garlic Yogurt dressing (recipe below). (To obtain the swirl effect like in the photos, spoon 2-3 tablespoons of the dressing into a pastry bag or a Ziploc baggie, snip the tip, and starting from the center, swirl a design onto the soup.)

Smoky Garlic Yogurt Dressing

2 cups plain strained Greek yogurt (such as Fage)
4 large garlic gloves (peeled and crushed slightly)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon smoked spanish paprika (Pimenton)

To make:

Combine all incredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Flourless Chocolate-Orange Almond Torte

I was home alone tonight. Eugene went out with a few friends and though I was invited, I opted for the quiet evening at home. These solo nights are rare, and I looked forward to having a few hours to read and write and watch multiple episodes of Law & Order. I'd previously bought some salmon for tonight and decided to go ahead and make it anyway. Glazed with an easy miso dressing, broiled, and served on a bed of watercress, it made for a decadent solo dinner. But while incredibly tasty, I found myself with a creeping, but very distinctive craving: chocolate.

I went back and forth over my options. There was a bar of 70% chocolate in the fridge waiting to be attacked. Or I could go the virtuous route with a mug of hot, unsweetened chocolate-flavored almond milk. But I know myself, and I knew that neither of those choices would satisfy.

What I really wanted was something moist, with deep chocolate flavor. My mouth watered as seemingly every commercial on NBC showed peanut butter cups and those silky Dove squares. The crave was getting stronger and I knew that if I didn't act on it soon, I might end up doing something really naughty, like whipping up another German Chocolate Cake.

Luckily, I remembered the flourless chocolate hazelnut torte I first made last year. It's a low-carb treat that uses ground nuts instead of flour and Splenda instead of sugar, but which tastes deceptively sinful. A smaller version made in one of my mini springform pans, using ground almonds and a hint of orange zest seemed more and more like the only viable option.

Into the kitchen I went, haphazardly dumping everything into a bowl and mixing by hand. I didn't even bother to beat the eggs separately. I poured the batter into the tiny baking dish, and about 25 minutes or so later I had THE perfect little cake. It puffed up nicely, (almost like a souffle!) and the inside was simultaneously moist and light, with just a hint of molten filling at the very center. And the magical thing is that somewhere between the mixing and the baking, the orange and almonds combined to give the cake a practically ambrosial flavor.

This is the perfect cake when you're home alone, and it's easy enough that you won't feel guilty about making it just for yourself. If you have someone to share it with, well then, all the better! Add a dab of whipped cream and a handful of berries, and this just might make a perfect Valentine's Day dessert. I only finished about a third of the cake, but even if you do manage to get down to the crumbs, it's small enough that I won't allow you to feel guilty about (just look how tiny it looks next to my 8"--it's practically a muffin!).

Flourless Chocolate-Orange Almond Torte
Serves 2 (or 1, if you don't feel like sharing)

2/3 cup ground almond meal (you can also use hazelnut or pecans)
3 tablespoons good unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup sugar or equivalent substitute (such as granulated Splenda)
1 teaspoon orange zest, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 medium eggs
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablspoons water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

To make:

1.Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and grease a 4" mini springform pan or ramekin

2. Combine the dry ingredients and the zest in a bowl, followed by the eggs, oil, water, and extracts. Stir until well combined.

3. Pour into your greased pan and place in the oven. The baking time will vary depending on your oven and the humidity in the environment. Start checking it about 25 minutes into baking. It will be ready when the batter is set and the cake puffs up and cracks slightly. (Avoid inserting a tester)

Once it's ready, remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Remove the sides of the springform pan or serve right in the ramekin. Dust with confectioner's sugar or top with whipped cream to serve.

Orange-Hazelnut Baklava Recipe

Sahara market doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you’re in the doors you’ll swear it’s doubled in size. Barrels of spices, nuts, and marinated olives crowd an entrance that gives way to shelf after shelf of unfamiliar (but so exciting!) grocery items. The aroma is distinct and intoxicating—a mix of freshly baked bread, grilled meats, and spices. Generous containers filled with milk cheese and yogurts sit in the refrigerator cases at front, up where the owners operate a modest Halal take-out.

While we were growing up, my father occasionally stopped at the nearby Arab market to pick up food for lunch or dinner or some meal in between. He was a fan of the falafel platters, both for taste and nostalgia. With each bite he’d recount the similar falafels he practically lived on as a young actor living in Greenwich Village. The story added just the perfect amount of romance to the already incredible platters; savory, lemon-sized falafel balls drizzled in tahini and served alongside generous portions of hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber salad.

The best thing about dinner from the Arab market was that the meal didn’t end with the entrée. Just at the moment when I scraped up the last spoonfuls of creamy hummus and the hint of sadness that the deliciousness would soon be over started to set in, my father would reach into the store bag and pull out a second, smaller container. Inside, sitting in a small pool of honey syrup, were two perfect triangles of baklava.

My mother rarely ate sweets. My brother was disgusted by the whole meal, preferring the plastic-wrapped treats found on the regular grocery store shelves. But my father and I relished every single bite of that baklava. He ate his one small bite at a time, all the while gingerly holding it about a foot away to keep the drops of honey off his chin and shirt. I, on the other hand, ate mine with my fingers, peeling off each thin layer of phyllo and consuming it before moving on to the next. I started with the light and crispy top layers dusted with green-hued crushed pistachio, and worked my way down. The slices grew sweeter and stickier, until I finally reached the thick layer of crunchy ground walnuts near the bottom. The last few sheets of phyllo are still my favorite, having absorbed the most syrup. I sucked on them, then used my fingers to wipe up and final bits of syrup that may have dripped onto the plate.

A few weeks ago, on one of those lucky free days off work, I came across a package of frozen phyllo leftover from some long ago cocktail party. Though I’d originally meant to turn it into some kind of fancy canapé, I never quite got around to it and figured that I might as well experiment. I had time, afterall, and there was no one around to catch me if I messed it up. And that’s how I decided to make my own baklava.

I promise that though it might seem terrifyingly complicated, making baklava really is rather straightforward. My baklava isn’t exactly traditional—I based my recipe on the one printed on the side of the box, but used hazelnuts and almonds instead of the classic walnuts and pistachio. Since I love orange, I added a bit of zest to the nut mixture and used more zest and orange juice to make a heavily citrus-scented syrup that paired beautifully with the hazelnut.

I loved my baklava and so did my father, who excitedly drove into the city to pick up the portion of the batch I’d saved for him. I learned quite a bit while making it, too, and will include these notes here. I think that the next time I make it I might try and play around with the flavors—perhaps adding dried pineapple and coconut for a tropical flavored treat or mixing in some chocolate with the hazelnut. Once you have the technique down, you’ll see how easy it is to play with.

A few tips:
  1. Make sure you set up all your ingredients and everything first. The phyllo is easy to work with, but is delicate and dries up quickly. You’ll need to work fast for the best results so make sure you’re organized and all set to assemble before you start
  2. The point when you add the syrup to the baklava will determine your results. To keep your pastry crisp and not soggy, make sure the syrup and pastry is at opposite temperatures when you combine them. Meaning that either the pastry should be crackling hot (with a fully cooled syrup) or the syrup should be hot off the stove (with fully cooled pastry). As long as both aren’t at the same temperature, you’ll be fine. 
  3. If you can find it, freshly made phyllo (available at Mediterranean and Arab markets) is the best, but frozen phyllo works too. For best results, take it out of the freezer and let defrost in your fridge for a day or two before you use. This way it will be completely defrosted and pliable. 
  4. Don’t stress about small tears or slight overlaps. These are inevitable when working with such thin delicate sheets. Just straighten as best you can, brush with butter, and keep going. Your pastry will have so many sheets of phyllo on it that a few tears or bumps will be indiscernible in the finished pastry. 

Orange-Hazelnut Baklava
Makes 16 servings


For the pastry:
1 pound frozen phyllo pastry sheets, defrosted
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups ground hazelnuts
1 cup ground almonds
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 pieces Zwieback toast, crumbled (you can replace with ¼ cup plain bread crumbs)
1 tablespoon cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese
1 teaspoon orange zest, finely grated
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the syrup:
3 cups water
2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup honey
5 large strips of orange zest
2 large strips of lemon zest
1 vanilla bean, split
2 whole cloves
1 star anise

To make:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You will need a 9” square pan.

First clarify your butter. Cut the 1 pound of butter into small pieces and melt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer until it forms a white froth and is completely melted. Skim off the foam and discard. Reserve the clarified butter.

In a large bowl, combine the hazelnuts, almonds, toast or breadcrumbs, sugar, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Mix well until all the spices are evenly distributed.

Unroll your phyllo and use a knife to cut the rectangle of pastry sheets down about 6 inches so that it is a just slightly larger square than your baking pan (adjust according to your phyllo and pan).

Re-roll and put away the extra small part you just cut off as you won’t be using it for this.

Lay the phyllo out and cover with a damp towel while working to keep from drying out. Place nine sheets of phyllo on the bottom of your pan, brushing each one with the clarified butter before laying the next sheet.

Sprinkle the top sheet with the nuts mixture, then top with two buttered sheets of phyllo. Continue alternating nut mixture and two sheets of phyllo, being sure to butter each sheet, until you finish the nut mixture.

Place the remaining sheets of phyllo on top, buttering each one including the final layer.

With a sharp knife, cut the Baklava in half across, then turn and cut in half again. Cut each quarter in half diagonally both ways until you have 16 equal sized triangles. Use the clarified butter to brush over the cuts to seal them.

Bake in the 350 degree oven for 30 minutes then lower the heat to 300 and continue baking for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the pastry has puffed up slightly and taken on a slight golden hue. It will also pull away from the sides.

While the pastry is baking, combine the water, sugar, honey, citrus peel, and spices in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes to infuse the syrup and let it reduce a bit. It should take on a slightly golden color.

Let cool completely before pouring over the hot Baklava. (Or let the Baklava cool completely before pouring on the hot syrup.) The syrup pastry will crackle a bit when you pour on the syrup. Add just a small portion at a time so that it has a chance to sink in. Please note that you probably won’t need all the syrup (I had about a cup left).

Let the syrup-covered Baklava cool at room temperature for a minimum of four hours before serving. Can be stored covered with parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap at room temperature for 2-3 days. Can also be stored in the fridge but it will likely get a bit soggy.


Easy Homemade Pita Bread

I spent my college years interning in the PR departments of a number of different non-profits and publishing companies. My sophomore year I got a job in the media relations office of one of the major teacher’s unions. I absolutely loved that job. My work was interesting and our bosses were fantastic—clever, charismatic, and a lot of fun. In the middle of the summer, the union held their annual meeting and we (the interns) were flown out to New Orleans where we each got our own executive suite and a generous per diem. The work was minimal and we spent most of that week going out for drinks with our bosses and having lavish dinners at some incredible New Orleans restaurants.

It was, needless to say, the ultimate internship. But I would be lying if I said that it was not without some annoyances--or one annoyance, to be more exact. She was one of the PR reps and she was good at one thing—driving everyone around her crazy, from our bosses to the mailroom guys. We interns especially hated her because she was constantly passing her work off on us and then taking the credit. Fortunately she was also prone to getting sick, and could usually be counted on to miss at least one or two days of work a week due to such brilliant excuses as “my closet pole collapsed today so I have to stay home and put away my clothing” or “my wrist is sore.”

We all used to share stories about her during lunch and when she wasn’t around (which was often). One afternoon, our boss revealed the nickname that she and a lot of the other veterans had for her. They called her Pita, because she was such a Pain In The A**. We giggled at this and quickly adopted it among our own conversations.

It’s been quite a few years since then, but I’ve never forgotten Pita and I always think of her when I hear the word. It’s a fact of life that all offices seem to have one or two Pitas on staff. They can be impossible to deal with, but can certainly be entertaining to commiserate over (especially during lunch!). Why not whip up a batch of these delicious pita breads to share with your nice coworkers. They’re wonderful plain, filled with salad or meat, or toasted and dipped in hummus. Unlike dealing with the office Pita, baking these is a breeze.

Pita Bread
Makes 8 pita bread rounds

2 ½ cups bread flour
1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup warm water

To make:
Place your baking stone or tile on the lowest rack of the oven and preheat as high as it will allow (around 500 degrees)

1. Whisk the yeast, sugar, and water together and let sit for 5 minutes until the yeast starts to froth.

2. Sift the flour and salt together and pour into the base of your electric mixer with the dough hook attached.

3. Pour in the olive oil and water/yeast mixture and knead using the dough hook. It will come together. Continue kneading for 5 more minutes until the dough is smooth or elastic. You might have to add a bit more water or flour to get the right consistency. Once it is ready, turn out onto a flour surface and form into a ball. Place in a greased bowl (use olive oil), turn once to coat and cover with a clean towel. Let rise for one hour or until doubled in bulk.

4. Punch the dough down and divide in to 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and use a floured rolling pin to roll out to about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let rise again for 20 minutes.

5. When ready to bake, gently lift each round and lay on your baking stone. You can do about 2-3 at a time. Shut the oven door and let bake for 3-6 minutes or until puffed up with just a hint of color. Use a spatula or tongs to remove from the oven and repeat with the rest of your dough. Wrap in a warm, clean dishtowel until serving to keep warm.

Classic Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

On paper, panna cotta really doesn’t seem like much. The name of this classic Italian dessert translates to mean “cooked cream,” which essentially is all it is. Cream simmered with a variety of spices and aromatics, and then set with a touch of gelatin. Think of it as Jell-O’s sophisticated older cousin, eminently satisfying despite the fact that it requires no more kitchen time than the stuff from the packets.

A quick batch of panna cotta made on Sunday evening can provide you with a week’s worth of creamy desserts, served alongside a handful of freshly washed berries or perhaps even eaten straight from the ramekin while watching television. And when planning a dinner party, this one is always a winner; Simple, best when made ahead, and always impressive on the plate (and palate).

This recipe is easy to modify, and I definitely encourage you to try. Add nutmeg and a cinnamon stick to the cream and serve with diced and quickly sautéed apples, or add a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder for to satisfy your chocolate fix. Coconut shreds, toasted nuts, cardamom pods, star anise, and various white and black teas can all be used to infuse the cream with flavor. My favorite, however, is still the original vanilla, which when made with a whole vanilla bean is strongly reminiscent of slightly melted vanilla ice cream. And for those of you following low carb eating plans, simply swap out the sugar for the equivalent Splenda, Agave, Stevia, or whatever your favorite sweetener is.

One thing to note about panna cotta is that the firmness is really determined by the amount of gelatin you use. I love a panna cotta that is creamy and just barely set, but if you'd like something a bit firmer, an extra teaspoon of gelatin will do the trick. If you make my version the day of, I suggest serving it right in the ramekin. A day or two later it will hold better when unmolded. Just dip the bottom of your ramekin or mold in a bit of warm water, run a wet knife quickly around the sides, and flip.

Classic Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
Serves 6

3 cups cream (preferably not ultra-pasteurized, I love Ronnybrook cream!)
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (measure out the gelatin in the packets as amounts vary)
1 whole vanilla bean, split
1/2 cup sugar or equivalent sweetener for low-carb version

To make:
1. Pour 1 cup cream in a medium saucepan and sprinkle gelatin over it. Let sit for about five minutes or until the gelatin starts to absorb.

2. Turn the heat to low and stir until it dissolves completely. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the cream and add the two halves of the pod along with the rest of the cream and sugar(if you’re using Splenda or other sweetener, wait until after infusing the cream to add). Simmer over medium heat until the cream starts to foam slightly. Turn off the heat, cover, and allow to steep for 15-30 minutes.

3. Remove the vanilla bean. Add the Splenda if you are making the low-carb version.

4. Pour into 6 small ramekins (wine or martini glasses also work well for dinner parties).

5. Press a small sheet of plastic wrap over each ramekin to prevent a skin forming and place in fridge to let set (about 4 hours).

6. To serve, dip bottom of ramekin in hot water for 5-10 seconds, cover with your serving dish, then flip to invert onto the plate. Garnish with berries, cinnamon, whipped cream, or any desired toppings.

Arancini di Riso (Fried Risotto Balls Recipe)

Arancini seems like it would be the perfect name for a dessert. In Italian, the word means “little oranges,” and to look at them, these perfectly round and crisp little balls really do seem to resemble a basket filled with tangerines. But don’t be fooled because these fritters are meant to be enjoyed before the meal, not after.

A crisp exterior of seasoned breadcrumbs breaks open to reveal warm and creamy risotto around a center of melted mozzarella. It’s the Italian version of a croquette, designed to make use of leftovers in a way so delicious some might argue they’re even better than the original

Serve these hot, a few minutes out of the frying pan, or let cool to room temperature. With a glass of wine and a bowl of marinara or pureed oven roasted tomatoes for dipping, these make a perfect lunch or light dinner. Smaller Arancini also work as a lovely party appetizer. When I lived in Florence, my culinary school would usually put us students to work making dozens of these to serve at catered functions where they were always a big hit. No one needs to know they’re being served leftovers!

You can certainly make risotto just for the purpose of making Arancini, but note that the rice really needs to be cold and just a bit congealed before you can start rolling. If you’re planning on making these, make a pot of risotto the night before or early in the morning, and let cool in the fridge for at least 5 hours or overnight before starting. I actually make a point of making extra risotto just so that I will have enough for a big batch of these the day after. Risotto with peas is traditional, but I made these using a leftover Risotto Milanese from the night before. If you don’t have mozzarella, you can substitute any semi-soft cheese for the center; Fontina, gouda, or even a soft white cheddar would all make for good variations. I’ve even used squares cut from those Baby Bell rounds that come in the little red netting!

The Arancini should be eaten the day they are made, but extras can be wrapped well and frozen for several weeks. To serve, preheat your oven to 375 degrees and place the frozen rice balls on a baking sheet. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until heated through and crisp on the outside.

Arancini di Riso
makes about 15-20 risotto balls, depending on size

Canola or vegetable oil for frying
3 cups leftover and cooled risotto, any variation (this is a great basic recipe)
2 large eggs, beaten well
2 cups breadcrumbs (plain or Italian seasoned. Panko breadcrumbs are not recommended for this recipe.)
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
3 ounces of mozzarella or other semi-soft cheese cut into ½-inch cubes
salt & pepper for seasoning

To make:
1. Fill a heavy medium sized saucepan with oil until it reaches about 3 inches deep. Heat oil over medium heat until a deep fat thermometer reads a temperature of 350 degrees.

2. Combine the breadcrumbs and parmesan and then pour into a shallow bowl. Set next to a shallow bowl containing the beaten eggs. If your breadcrumbs aren’t seasoned, add a bit of salt and cracked pepper to the breadcrumb mixture.

3. Use a spoon to scoop up about 3 tablespoons of cold risotto and use your hands to form a ball (it might help to moisten them first before rolling). Insert one cube of cheese into the ball, pushing into the center, then roll again to make sure the rice has surrounded it on all sides. Set on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and repeat until you have used up all the leftover risotto and cheese.

4. Once all the balls have been rolled out, working one at a time, dip the ball in the beaten egg and turn to coat entirely. Lift and allow any excess egg to drip off, then roll in the breadcrumb mixture until completely combined. Again, shake off any excess and place back on the parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the risotto balls.

5. Working in batches to keep the oil from cooling, gently add the rice balls to the hot oil and fry until golden brown on all sides. You may need to turn after two minutes. (This should take 4 minutes). Use a slotted spoon to remove the golden arancini to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. And season with a bit of salt (salting right after frying keeps food crisp.)

Serve hot or room temperature with a bowl of warm marinara or other favorite pasta sauce for dipping.


German Chocolate Cake

I wish cafeterias would stop selling German Chocolate Cake.  Years of two-dollar slices squooshed between the sides of disposable plastic food containers have done much to weaken the reputation of this really rather lovely treat.
Real German Chocolate Cake is not the cloying coconut frosting sandwiched by crumbly insipid layers so commonly found in deli refrigerator cases and hospital waiting rooms. It’s not meant to sit next to dishes of congealed tapioca and fruit salad at the lunchtime food-by-the-pound places.
Real German Chocolate Cake can be something elegant. When done well, it is practically regal: moist forkfuls of rich and complex chocolate cake layered with a simultaneously light and creamy coconut filling all covered in a blanket of whipped ganache. It’s supposed to leave you feeling satisfied, perhaps a little bit dizzy. Good German Chocolate Cake will make you swoon, not leave you wishing you’d gone with the pudding.

This recipe is adapted from the dessert genius, David Lebovitz, with a just a few small changes from his original recipe, all of which I’ve detailed for you here:
  • The filling, which traditionally contains nuts, was made with only coconut because my boyfriend doesn’t like nuts in cake. I also doubled the amount because it’s my favorite part and I love a nice thick layer of it (also I love being able to clean the bowl afterwards…mmm!).
  • I never keep buttermilk around since I use it so rarely, so I used a tablespoon of vinegar added to a cup of milk and left on the counter for ten minutes. It works perfectly (really you’re just looking for a bit of acid to react with the baking soda.)
  • For the frosting I used half bittersweet and half unsweetened chocolate because I wanted a really dark frosting to contrast with the sweetness of the coconut filling. I also left out the corn syrup listed in the original recipe. Instead, I cooled the ganache and whipped it in my mixer until it was double the volume and light in color. While not the prettiest of frostings, it was absolutely heavenly and I confess to eating quite a bit of it straight from the mixer bowl. (Actually, I think it was awesome enough to eat on its own as an OMG so good and easy chocolate mouse.)
  • I added a generous ring of shredded unsweetened coconut around the top
Oh! And one more thing. This cake will be awesome tonight, but if you wait until tomorrow, it will be even more amazing. The filling will have absorbed just a tiny bit into the cake and the whole thing will taste even richer. It will also keep remarkably well left out on the counter for up to 5 days (we didn’t even bother covering it, although you probably should). 
I made this cake for my boyfriend's and my New Year's Eve dinner; a very sweet way to close out 2008. Since it's just the two of us here, we each helped ourselves to a slice (or two!) everyday for the first couple days of the new year and would have gladly kept going had I not had to sense to wrap up the half that was left and send it home with my dad when he stopped by one night.  He brought it into work where his coworkers reportedly fell all over themselves devouring it in a matter of minutes.

German Chocolate Cake
Adapted from David Lebovitz/ Makes one huge 9-inch layer cake—enough for several days (or servings) of deliciousness!

For the cake:
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons water
2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cup + ¼ cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature (can be replaced with 1 cup whole milk mixed with 1 tbsp vinegar)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling:
2 cups heavy cream
1.5 cups sugar
6 large egg yolks
6 ounces butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans (optional—can replace with 1 cup coconut if you don’t want nuts in your cake)
1 1/3 cups unsweetened coconut, toasted

For the syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum, vodka, or coffee or coconut liqueur

For the chocolate icing:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 ½ ounces unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream

To make the cake:
Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line bottoms with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt chocolate w/ the water in the microwave (30 seconds at a time). Stir until smooth and let cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and 1 ¼ cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in melted chocolate, then the egg yolks, allowing each one to incorporate.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Mix in half of the dry ingredients, then the buttermilk and the vanilla extract, then the rest of the dry ingredients.

In a separate metal or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold soft, droopy peaks. Beat in the ¼ cup of sugar until stiff.

Fold about one-third of the egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining egg whites just until there's no trace of egg white visible.

Divide the batter into the 2 prepared cake pans, smooth the tops, and bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool cake layers completely.
While the cakes are baking and cooling, make the filling, syrup, and icing.

To make the filling:
Mix the cream, sugar, and egg yolks in a medium saucepan. Put the butter, salt, toasted coconut, and pecan (if using) pieces in a large bowl.

Heat the cream mixture and cook, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) until the mixture begins to thicken and coats the spoon

Pour the hot custard immediately into the coconut mixture and stir until the butter is melted. Cool completely to room temperature. (It will thicken.)

To make the syrup:
In a small saucepan, heat the sugar and water until the sugar has melted. Remove from heat and stir in the rum or alcohol of your choice.

To make the icing:
Place the 8 ounces of chopped chocolate in a bowl with 1 ½ ounces of butter. Heat the cream until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Let stand one minute, then stir until smooth. Let sit until room temperature.

To assemble the cake:
Remove the cake layers from the pans and cut both cake layers in half horizontally, using a serrated bread knife. Set the first cake layer on a cake plate. Brush with the syrup. Spread ¼ of the coconut filling over the cake layer, making sure to reach to the edges. Set another cake layer on top. Repeat until you’ve used all the layers and all the filling (include a layer of filling on top). Ice the sides with the chocolate frosting and sprinkle coconut over and around the top edges.


My Culinary Confessions

While wandering around the Internet, I came across an old post on David Lebovitz's blog in which he spills all his culinary confessions. I think it was a meme for a bit a few years ago so I apologize for being late to the party, but I thought it might be fun to share a few of my own kitchen secrets. I'd also love to hear yours  so please feel free to add to the list in the comments section.

Culinary Confessions
I always eat the first (ugly) pancake while standing at the stove making the rest of the batch.

I rarely sift my dry ingredients (even though I often tell you to sift!)

I scoop my flour directly out of the bag even though I know I'm supposed to spoon it into the measuring cup.

My refrigerator door is overflowing with jars of jams, things I've pickled, and condiments.

I go through 12-18 large eggs a week.

I sometimes buy scrambled eggs at work in addition to the ones at home.

I chop onions daily, but they still make me cry like a baby each time.

I preserved some Meyer Lemons last year and haven't used them yet because I'm a little bit scared that I did it wrong.

I bring expensive Greek yogurt to work a few times a week and let it get sour and watery on my desk before I get around to eating it.

I like my steak and fish cooked well done, but burgers I’ll eat medium.

I use too much salt. In culinary school I always lost points on my dishes for over-salting. But I actually like it that way.

I drink close to a gallon of water a day; probably to wash out all the salt.

I don’t like chicken noodle soup, sashimi, edamame, minestrone, most curries, Thai food, pumpkin pie, cheesecake, filet mignon, white chocolate on its own, bottled fruit juice, tomatoes in salad (except Caprese), roast beef, or anything tartare.

I don't like when chicken tastes too "chicken-y."

I don’t always brush all the dirt off my mushrooms when I’m using them in stews and sautes. I tell myself it adds a bit of flavor.

I don’t always wash my berries before eating them, unless I’m serving them to someone else.

I get irritated when waiters start clearing plates while someone is still eating. It's a quirk I picked up from a guy I used to date who would get incredibly annoyed by it, and would hang on to his empty plate for dear life until I finished mine.

I prefer raw cookie dough to baked chocolate chip cookies.

I use the phrase “I can make that” at least once a day in reference to something edible seen on television, a magazine, a menu, or a store.

And then I usually do make it.

I crave Big Macs and McDonald’s French Fries, but it’s been two years since I’ve had either.

I love mayonnaise. Especially with, on, and in eggs.

I also really love candy. Pretty much all kinds, fancy or expensive, except for licorice things. At the store I always wander into the candy aisle and stare at the options for several minutes, but I rarely buy anything.

Except Cadbury Cream Eggs. I always buy those.

And then I sit and Google ways to make them from scratch at home.

I hate licorice.

But I like Sambuca.

And Amaretto makes me dizzy-happy.

My risotto is perfect, but my regular rice is almost ALWAYS mushy.

Fortunately I don’t really like rice.

Except in paella or pudding.

I only like duck in pate form.

After hearing my coworkers complain about the alleged aftertaste of Splenda one-too-many times, I baked a decadent flourless chocolate torte using only Splenda and smiled inwardly when they raved and polished it off completely unaware that it wasn’t made with sugar.

I go to the grocery store every couple days, in addition to a big Fresh Direct delivery. I also stop at the Asian market, the farmer’s market, and Williams Sonoma for additional “staples.”

I prefer grocery shopping to all other kinds of shopping, and when I’m sad or feeling a bit down, I find walking into a grocery store is the quickest way to make myself feel better.

I love veal, fois gras, and pork without guilt.

I don't like buttercream frosting. It's too sweet and too buttery.

This despite the fact that I. Love. Butter.

I do like canned frosting (or the memory of it as it’s been years since I’ve had any).

Anytime I eat out I can’t help but think about how I’d recreate the recipe at home, certain that my version would be better.

I think that pine nuts, when eaten on their own, have a flavor very similar to smoky bacon or prosciutto.

I much prefer imported oil-packed tuna, but my heart hurts a little bit when I have to pay ~10 dollars for a single jar.

I peak in the oven several times while baking. It’s yet to cause a disaster.

As much as I love to cook, there are some nights when all I want is an order of Chinese lo mein noodles from the takeout place next door. (And eaten straight from the carton!)

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