Wrapping Up the Year

christmas cookie and chocolate cake

The months have floated by and the celebrations of dressing up and stuffing our bellies have come and gone. Now ‘tis the season to give! For the food and wine-minded the obvious gifts to give are those that are perishable and cherishable. Early December becomes the time to stock up on flour, sugar, oranges and cinnamon sticks and set aside a few hours to bake it all into mini masterpieces.

After spending six years living in Boston I made the move back to my home state of Colorado, which gave me an even better excuse to cook and bake for all the friends and those whom I practically call family back in New England. I wanted to create gift boxes with both savory and sweet goodies so as to not massively add to an assumed already mountain of cookies and cakes. Adding some jarred, savory gifts also allows your receive-ees to have some nosh for weeks to come.

christmas cookies in a tin

After tearing through my massive backlog of Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines as well as my trusty bunch on online recipe sources, I came up with this list of holiday eats to send and share:

  1. Cornmeal Thumbprint Cookies with Summer Jam (I used raspberry)
  2. Orange Cardemon Chocolate Cookies (with fleur de sel)
  3. Homemade Cumin Chipotle Chili Paste (I skip the step that directs to strain)
  4. Onion and Port Chutney
  5. Dark! Gooey Chocolate Cake (see recipe below)

homemade chili paste chocolate cake

Since I was to be sending these gifts across the country, packaging was as important as the food items themselves. For the jarred Items, I typed up custom labels using the PaperSource’s free label templates. I handwrote the cookie tags and secured it and tins with a holiday ribbon. I baked the chocolate cakes in oven-proof, disposable and decorated cardboard loaf pans which I then wrapped in parchment and kitchen twine for a home made feel. I had extra greens lying around from cutting the Christmas tree and used small clippings of these to add a Christmassy touch to the cake package. All went into a box lined with natural excelsior. Lastly, a handwritten card is a must.

Dark! Gooey Chocolate Cake

Ingredients

1 ¾ Cup sugar
¾ Cup Black Onyx cocoa powder (or the darkest cocoa powder you can find)
2 sticks + 2 Tablespoons butter
1 Cup water
2 Cups (and if at altitude + 2 Tablespoons) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 Cup whole milk
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 375° degrees. Grease a 9-inch cake pan or two loaf pans.
  2. In a 3 quart saucepan add the sugar, cocoa powder, butter and water. Place on medium heat and stir until the butter has completely melted. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
  3. In a large bowl sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Wisk to combine. In a small bowl whisk the milk with cider vinegar. Wisk in eggs.
  4. Wisk the egg and milk mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture. In three additions, whisk in dry ingredients until just combined. Add vanilla and whisk just to combine.
  5. Pour batter into either pre-greased cake pan or two loaf pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Once cooled, sift powdered sugar over top.

package of christmas food gifts

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Bringing in August with Blueberries

blueberry white chocolate macadamia nut cookies

Reaping these opaque orbs takes little effort and proves a therapeutic pastime. Blueberries, like grapes, grow in tight clusters, making for efficient picking, about six pints per hour to be exact.

Recipe ideas for blueberries usually come in the form of baked goods – especially the classic yet esteemed blueberry pie. Below is a recipe for a berry baked good, however don’t shy from incorporating blueberries into savory dishes. Cooked down with thyme and a splash of port, and you’ll have a superb sauce for pork or grilled chicken. Or boil down with ginger and sugar for a compote that will compliment creamy cheeses.

Whichever way you choose to transform your summer blueberries, just be sure to share the outcome!

White Chocolate Blueberry & Macadamia Nut Cookies

3 Cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1cup) of butter at room temperature
1 Cup brown sugar
¾ Cup sugar
2 Eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ½ Cups fresh blueberries (frozen is ok too in the winter time)
1 Cup white chocolate chips
1 Cup macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.  In a large bowl whip butter and both sugars until fluffy and light in color. Beat in one egg at a time until blended. Beat in vanilla.

In another large bowl sift the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients into the butter and egg mixture. Mix until just combined. Carefully fold in the blueberries, white chocolate, and macadamia nuts until evenly distributed throughout batter.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of the batter onto baking sheets, leaving 2-3 inches between each cookie. Bake until the edges of the cookies are golden brown, about 18-20 minutes. Let cool before serving.

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Strawberry Fields

spring strawberries

Strawberry season is just about on its way out, but before its goes be sure to take in all you can of these bursting red lanterns! For the first time, I went and picked my own, and did so (of course) with my foodie partner in crime, J.

u pick strawberries

We stocked up on a whole flat of strawberries before heading to a nearby beach, making for a perfect June Saturday.  The next day we planned a brunch with strawbs aplenty.

fresh strawberries

Pureed and strained strawberry juice made for the perfect seasonal mimosa. To accompany, we cut up the fresh strawberries and placed them (and some mint) atop sweet toasts and liberal spreadings of mascarpone cheese. Crunchy, juicy and so sweet, these simple toasts showcased the spring fruit and proved you don’t need to do anything fancy to fully enjoy a sun-ripened berry.

strawberry toast with mascarpone and mint

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Chia Seed Summer Sorbet

Chia seed mixed berry and lemon sorbetI think we can all agree that come spring we naturally begin to crave lighter fare. I have personally become quite attached to my new blender, whipping up juicy, super-food packed smoothies for my morning commute. Since a dawn jog is just simply out of the question, at least I can tamper my guilt with the likes of bananas, Greek yogurt, cherries, blueberries, mangos, hemp hearts, flax meal…the list goes on. How’s that for ingredient inspiration for your next smoothie?

I’ve become so adept at creating these liquid luxuries that I decided to widen my range of excuses to mix them up. An after dinner, evening coolant seemed the perfect place to sneak in yet more fruity goodness. All I would have to do is freeze an already scrumptious smoothie concoction, and voilà, sorbet! To add extra pizazz to this sorbet I decided to incorporate fresh lemon peel and raspberry preserves, and to replace the sometimes “healthy tasting” flax or hemp I chose to sprinkle in chia seeds—just for good measure.

Now unless you’ve been hiding inside your winter coat too long, chia seeds are the hottest new super food. Or at least that’s what the Whole Foods shelves seem to infer. Chia seeds, a flowering plant species akin to mint, have actually been consumed for hundreds of years, mostly by those darn smart Aztecs. The seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, and calcium, and are generally soaked in water until becoming gelatinous. Often consumed by athletes, these jelly-like pearls help to retain water and therefore essential nutrients and electrolytes for a working body. I prefer them in their raw, crunchy state and add them into my vinaigrettes and cereal.

This sorbet is best gobbled up the day it’s prepared so as to taste its full freshness. The addition of lemon peel and raspberry preserves truly makes this sorbet sparkle!

Combine following ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth:

1 Banana

1 Cup frozen mixed fruit

1 Tablespoon chia seeds

1 Tablespoon raspberry preserves

The peel from 1/4 lemon

½ Cup of juice (I prefer using no-sugar added, pure vegetable or fruit juices)

Transfer to a bowl or Tupperware and freeze for at least 3 hours before serving.

 

 

 

 

 

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Restaurant Review: Myers + Chang

Restaurant interior

Enter Myers + Chang and find yourself in a world of bubbly whimsy. Pink and white clusters of Chinese lanterns bobble along one wall of the restaurant’s bright and charming interior. Opposite this wall stands a long bar top where diners sitting in bubble gum pink chairs can look over their food’s preparation. This open kitchen concept allows for a casual yet hip experience. Stainless steel tables and a several high top counters make up the remaining seating options, all of which are set under the watchful eye of a crimson dragon stickered onto the room-length windows.

Opened by Boston famed pasty chef, Joanne Chang and husband Christopher, Myers + Chang has become a friendly, funky, and fiercely scrumptious staple in Bean Town’s south end. Here you’ll find the real kind of Asian food, the kind you can’t just get in a take-out box. The menu is Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai inspired—even the cocktail menu reflects this eclecticism. The Luckiest Kitty is a spritely and citrusy mixture of sake, St. Germain, and grapefruit. Sake also makes a cameo in the Asian mojito.

entrees and appetizers at myers and chang

As for the food, don’t come in too too hungry as this will turn out much like grocery shopping on an empty stomach. The menu is filled with familiar dishes with unexpected twists. Take the spare rib appetizer—these four meaty bones are tea-smoked and as tender as great duck confit. The smoke makes these spare ribs akin to an excellent jerky for not only the flavor but also the slightly glazed top.

noodle entree at myers and chang

The Beef and Broccoli Chow Fun is one of those dishes to be ordered over and over again. Wide rice noodles are wok-charred and give off the most warming, charcoal grill flavor. Charred and wilted broccoli and onions slither throughout the browned beef and noodles making this bowl hearty and filling.

For a lighter meal or lunch entrée I recommend the Thai Ginger Chicken Salad. Bright flavors of lemongrass make this a refreshing green salad alternative, while the dressing invokes just enough spice to keep this light option interesting. Myers + Chang is also known for their ramen, which is one of the few great noodle bowls of its kind in all of Boston. And every one of their daily specials that I’ve tried have yet to fail my taste buds.

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Three’s Company

peppadew goat cheese spread with almonds appetizer

As the creator of Belle’s Best Bites you could probably gather that I treasure tasting and creating that perfect, one bite food wonder. If a dish is well executed, one bite can encapsulate every note and texture of the entire dish conception. The amuse bouche or even a small appetizer is the condensed version of a meal’s best bite. I like experimenting with making small dishes that boast multiple layers of interest—salt, sweet, crunch, acid, etc.

Below are three recipe ideas for creating appetizers or munching foods for your next gathering. Each of the three aims to showcase not one, two, but three different layers of taste and texture.

Peppadew Spread with Toasted Almonds. This sweet, nutty, and creamy dip or spread has the perfect tangy zip to whet your guest’s appetites. Roasted garlic adds a rich depth while toasted almonds sprinkled on top give this bite a needed crunch.

To make: In a food processor combine about 1 ½ cups sweet peppadew peppers, ¼ cup of roasted garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Pulse until minced. Transfer to a bowl and stir in one 4oz package of plain, fresh goat cheese and 1/3 cup full-fat cream cheese. Mix until fully combined. Spread on crackers and top with toasted, sliced almonds.

bacon and kale appetizer

Maple Bacon Kale Bites. I am one to smother my morning bacon with maple syrup and also one to massage my kale before serving it raw. This recipe combines these two idiosyncrasies. Sweet, acidic, and crunchy are the components that help make this cocktail party bite irresistible.

To make: Remove fibrous rib from leaves of Lacinato kale and place in bowl. Add several tablespoons of both olive oil and balsamic vinegar and massage into leaves of kale. Next, bake bacon in a 375° oven for about 20-25 minutes or until the bacon is cooked through but not too crispy.  Remove and brush both sides of bacon with maple syrup. Place strips of kale on top of each piece of bacon, roll, and stick with a toothpick.
Brussels sprouts with parmesan appetizer

Mustard Braised Brussels Sprouts with Melted Parmesan. I lightly braise these Brussels in mustard and cider vinegar to sharpen the flavor of these savory green bulbs. Melted Parm adds a rich creaminess while the topping of red onion brightens the bite. Mix it up by adding apple on top to create a classically flavored sweet/salty snack.

To make: melt a hunk of butter in a sauté pan. Then add 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, whisk to combine and turn the stove to low. Cut Brussels sprouts in half and add to the pan, cooking for two minutes on each side. Remove and sprinkle with fresh cracked pepper.  Assemble sprouts on a baking sheet and top each with a small hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Place under the broiler for several minutes until cheese is melted and bubbley. Serve with several small slices of red onion.

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Take a Nap from Paper Napkins

set of six linen napkins

As a food stylist I can never have too many cute, floral, and colorful dishtowels and napkins to decorate a set.  I recently received these Saffron Marigold napkins as a gift and felt I had to share how much I like them.

For just shy of $50 you’ll receive a set of six hand block printed linen napkins from India. More economical and eco-friendly than always buying up paper napkins, these cloth ones will give your table the character it craves.

Patterns range from sweet and springy like these to bold and colorful, Middle Eastern and even French Provençal. They’re machine washable which makes them an accessible accessory for your dinner table. Check out their tablecloths and bed linens too!

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Informing on the Cranberry

Cranberry Bogs

The cranberry is arguably the most American food (other than apple pie, but that’s a whole different story). All varieties of cranberries grow only in the Northern Hemisphere, and the most common eaten variety of them grows primarily in the United States.

If you didn’t know this much, here’s the real catch: most of us don’t even know how they’re grown or how they’re harvested, myself included before I ventured on a cranberry bog tour in Carver, Massachusetts.

Cranberries and Boots

We have all seen the goofy guys in the Ocean Spray commercials decked out in waders, speaking in New England tongue while waste deep in a cranberry-laden pond. Naturally, this leads us to believe these small, puckersome berries are grown underwater.  Hate to break it to you, but they are not. Rather, cranberries grow on thick, very stubby bushes out in the open. Farmers cultivate the plants on the bottom of a swimming pool-like plot of land, sans water—in other words the bush grows below ground level.  During harvest, in the beginning of autumn, farmers quickly flood one bog (or empty swimming pool) at a time. Flooding helps the cranberry naturally release from its parent bush. Because the berries have inherent air pockets within their meat, most float to the water’s surface. Large tilling machines help turn up the cranberries that do not naturally release.

Next, a large floating boom gathers all the fruit into one corner of the flooded bog. From there a truck with a vacuum-like attachment pulls the berries out from the water and transports them to the plant to be processed.

Tilling Cranberries

From flood to truck, workers act quickly as the cranberries cannot be “bogged” down with water for too long a time, as spoilage is imminent.

J and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this quick process. The cranberries, almost popcorn-like, danced and swayed on the water’s surface creating a like-life, moving pointillism painting showing off every shade of pink, from white to deep crimson.

We dipped our hands in the water to gather snacks along the way. If you’ve never popped a raw, fresh cranberries into your mouth then caution, these things are as tart as a lemon!

Cranberry Bog

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, I deemed it only appropriate to create a recipe suited for the holiday table. I wanted to break the berry from its usual protagonist role in sauce, and give you an original alternative instead. This cranberry dessert is one light enough to keep your full belly grinning, is tart with an almost raw bite to the berry and a tangy whip from plain yogurt, and provides a warmth and winter essence from spices and orange. Did I mention there’s hardly any oven sharing at all? The bonus of this recipe is that only the crust bakes for 15 minutes, leaving your oven open and heated properly for the main events.

thanksgiving and holiday Cranberry Tart with cardamom and orange

Cranberry Yogurt Tart with Cardamom and Orange

2 ½ Cups finely ground ginger snap cookies
6 Tablespoons melted butter
½ Teaspoon ground cardamom
24oz plain Greek or Icelantic style yogurt
1 ½  Cups fresh (or frozen & thawed) cranberries
1 Tablespoon honey
Zest of half an orange

1. Using a food processor, grind ginger snap cookies to a fine powder.  Transfer to a bowl and mix in melted butter. Line tart pan with the cookie mixture to create a ¼ inch crust.  Bake in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes or until toasted.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl mix yogurt with ground cardamom until combined. Once tart crust has cooled, pour yogurt mixture into the tart until even with the rim of the pan.  Refrigerate to cool.

3. While tart is cooling, add cranberries, honey, and orange zest to a small saucepan. Over medium-low heat, mix until honey beings to melt and coats the cranberries, about 3-5 minutes.

4. Top the tart with the cranberry mixture. Serve immediately or keep in refrigerator until dessert time.

Leftovers make for a perfect breakfast bite. Add whole cardamom pods to your morning coffee to compliment the tart’s warming flavors.

 

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Goat’s Milk Butter, Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Goat Milk Butter toast with beets

Have you ever had one of those food Duh! Moments? When you wonder how in the heck you could have traveled so far down your gourmand path without coming across something so simple yet remarkable? Well, I had one of those the other day. While roaming around the likes of fresh pastas, imported anchovies, and English mustard in a tube in a new favorite Boston food shop, Dave’s, I came face to face with a shop sample: Goat’s milk butter on toasts.  The butter was glistening as it just barely melted with the heat of the bustling store. It tasted buttery, goaty, and creamy all at once. Duh! How had I never had or thought up the idea to find such a simple sounding ingredient? I’ve been to farms all over the globe, but yet right here at home I tasted for the very first time a butter made from tangy goat’s milk.

I wouldn’t per se substitute goat’s milk butter in normal butter’s usual place in baked goods. No, I thought, this farmy, almost potent ingredient deserves to star among the company of savory foods. To find out if this hunch proved correct, I came up with a simple snack to put the goat butter to the test. Beets and goat cheese are a classic, almost hackneyed, combo, so beets and goat’s milk butter must surely like hanging out.

It turns out goat’s milk butter slathered on thick toast topped with lightly steamed then thinly sliced beets, cracked pepper and salt makes for a goat to have snack. Bad pun. Great bite.

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Chocolate Pear Mini Pies

pears and chocolate pear  mini pies

Autumn in New England penetrates the air at an ideal rate. Each day the mean temperature drops by roughly one degree, so that by the time mid-October rolls around we are all well acclimated to brisk and rosy-cheek inducing temperatures of around 55˚.  As a person and eater moved by the seasons I call this phase-into-fall period the “hunker down and beef up” time of year.

This is a time when I know my bathing suit has un-reluctantly migrated to the bottom of the drawer and with that so dissipates the upkeep to actually look good in it.  I begin to feel less satisfied by a light salad and summer fruits and veggies during this transition into fall, and conversely begin craving meatier, heartier meals by instinct.

The cold of winter calls for more insulation and thus I won’t deny the temptation to fatten up for a long winters nap (or rather for the coming months of skiing the brutally frigid Northeast mountains).  I find the two best-suited ingredients to achieve such an essential goal are butter and chocolate.

 

Ingredients

For the Pie Crust:
2 Sticks of butter, very cold or frozen
2 2/3 Cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ Cup ice water

For the Filling:
4 Seckle pears or 2 Bosch pears
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon flour
2-3 oz quality dark chocolate (I used 70% cacao), broken into small pieces

For the Thyme Mascarpone:
½ Cup Mascarpone
2 Springs of thyme, removed from stem and minced

To make the Crust:  In a food processor combine butter, flour, and sugar.  Pulse until butter is about the size of peas.  Slowly and gradually pour ice water into the mixture while continuing to pulse.  Continue to pulse until the mixture comes together into a ball, or becomes a dough consistency.  Empty dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Handling the dough as little as possible, form two equal-sized disks, cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.  Dough can also be saved in the fridge for up to two weeks.

While the dough is cooling, slice the pears into ¾ inch slices, removing core. (I cut the seckle pears into eighths).  Toss in a bowl with nutmeg, flour, and sugar.

Preheat oven to 425˚

Once dough is chilled, place one disk on a lightly floured surface.  Using a rolling pin, roll out dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using your ramekin as a guide, cut out a circle of dough that is 1 inch larger on all sides than the ramekin’s width.  (I used a 4-inch ramekin, so my circle was 6 inches in width).  Make a slice in the dough from the center to the edge of the circle (this will help you line the ramekin with your dough).  Line the inside of the ramekin with the dough; there should be about 1 inch of dough folding over the lip.

Alternating layers of chocolate and the pear mixture, fill the ramekin until you have used half of the pear mixture.  Cut another circle from the dough large enough to cover the top of your pie.  Place this circle on top of your pear mixture, and seal the edges of the dough by pinching both layers together all the way around the circumference of the pie’s edge.  Make slits on the top of the crust to allow steam to escape.  Repeat this process for your second pie.

Place both pies in the oven and set the timer for 45 minutes.  After 15 minutes, loosely cover the tops of pies with a piece of aluminum foil.  Cook for 5 minutes.  Reduce oven to 375˚.  Bake for the remaining time.  Remove, cool, and serve with thyme mascarpone.

For the Thyme Mascarpone: In a small bowl, stir the minced thyme into the mascarpone until combined.  Refrigerate until use.

 

 

 

 

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