July 17, 2017

Pink Lemonade Bars

Lemon bars are the quintessential summer dessert. They're light, refreshing, and packed with citrus flavor with just enough buttery crust to satisfy your dessert cravings. I'm a crust girl, so this is miles better than pie since it's about 2 parts lemon filling to 1 part crust, as opposed to the filling-heavy pies I usually bake. Not that my pies are bad, but sometimes I want some extra crust. Plus these lemon bars are extra special because they're pink! The secret is a few spoonfuls of raspberry jam, which adds a different kind of tartness and of course that gorgeous color.

This crust is a cross between a pie crust and shortbread. It's not as delicate and flaky as a typical pie crust, but it's not nearly as dense and crumbly as a shortbread. I use the same process as for a pie crust: pulse the dry ingredients in a food processor to combine, add the butter, then add a bit of liquid just to pull it together. However, there are a few notable differences. I use powdered sugar for a smoother texture than regular sugar, and I use softened butter instead of chilled cubed for a more cohesive dough. A secret trick is to use vodka for a lighter dough; it evaporates faster than water for a flakier dough.

As for the bars themselves, it's a fairly typical base. I use both lemon juice and lemon zest, but I rub the zest into the sugar so it perfumes the whole mixture. The natural oils in the zest are absorbed by the sugar for more uniform flavor. That mixture is whisked together with the juice and the jam, which I heat with a bit of water so it melts the lumps and mixes in more smoothly. I then add a few eggs and some flour, which turn it into a custard and allow the mixture to set properly. If you've ever had a lemon bar, you know that texture I'm talking about. You want to take it out of the oven when it just barely jiggles in the center.

I've found that if you can stand to let this chill in the refrigerator overnight, they'll cut much more cleanly. Of course, if you cut them shortly out of the oven you'll get bits stuck to the knife that you can nibble on discretely. All imperfections are easily hidden with a good shake of powdered sugar, but make sure you do that shortly before serving or the sugar will take up moisture from the bars and lose that nice powdery finish. You can always forgo the powdered sugar entirely and allow the pink color to shine, but for me the powdered sugar is part of what makes lemon bars so special.

2 1/4 Cups Flour
2 Cups Sugar
1/2 Cup Powdered Sugar
Pinch Salt
2 Sticks Butter, Softened
1 T Vodka or Water
1 T Lemon Zest
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Raspberry Jam
4 Eggs

Heat oven to 350F.

Combine 2 cups flour, powdered sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse in the butter until small lumps remain, then add the vodka or water.

Press the dough into a greased 9x13" pan and bake for 22-24 minutes or until just golden.

Heat the raspberry jam in a small pot with 2 tsp water.

Rub the lemon zest into the sugar. Whisk in the lemon juice and raspberry jam. Whisk in the eggs. Sift in the remaining 1/4 cup flour.

Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake for 30 minutes or until just set.

Makes 18

July 6, 2017

Mahi Mahi with Basil Shallot Butter & Roasted Tomatoes

So by now my regular readers should know I'm in Chicago for the summer. I spent a full day driving all the way across the country for what I expected to be a somewhat cool, breezy summer. After all, it is the Windy City and it is known for being extremely cold for 80% of the year. It's not. I have no idea how I drove so far north and it's just as hot and humid as Atlanta but without the Waffle House. Luckily, there's plenty of amazing seasonal produce to make it worth it. This dish tops fresh grilled fish with a rich, herby butter and juicy roasted tomatoes for a picture-perfect dish you'll be eating all summer long (regardless of the heat).

I chose mahi mahi for this dish, but any firm white fish will work; you just want it to be able to stand up to the grill without sticking or flaking. I marinate it in a simple mixture of olive oil, brown sugar, herbs, and spices so that it has some flavor but lets the other components of the dish shine. Since it's so simple, you only need to let it infuse for an hour, though a little longer won't hurt at all.

The tomatoes are also extremely easy to prepare. I take a ton of cherry tomatoes (the rainbow ones for aesthetic purposes), cut them in half, toss with olive oil, and roast under high heat for a few minutes or until tender. Roasting adds a hint of charred flavor that complements the grilled fish and brings out their natural sweetness.

What makes this dish so special is the butter. You can slather this stuff on other fish, chicken, steak, or even a shoe and it would taste delicious. It starts by sauteeing a thinly sliced shallot to reduce some of the sharpness and make it easier to blend into the butter. That gets mixed with basil in a food processor along with some seasoning, then I throw in some softened butter and it's ready to go. To kick it up a notch, you could add some more herbs, some chiles, and/or a drizzle of honey depending on what direction you want to go in. Compound butters make everything taste better; just look at my grilled ribeye with rosemary vidalia butter.

Grilled fish is one of my favorite dinners, especially in the summer. It's light, healthy, and incredibly quick and easy. However, it has the potential to be pretty bland, so adding a compound butter and some roasted vegetables takes advantage of all the seasonal produce and makes sure you have an unbeatable dinner. With this heat it seems like summer is endless, but you can easily transition to fall and other seasons by switching up the vegetables. Try some roasted carrots, root veggies, or squash depending on what you can find in the grocery store.

1 1/2 lbs Mahi Mahi
1/4 Cup + 2 T Olive Oil
1/2 Stick Butter, Softened
1 T Brown Sugar
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Sprigs Thyme
1 Shallot
3 T Chicken Broth
3/4 Cup Basil Leaves
1 Cup Cherry Tomatoes, Halved

Combine 1/4 cup olive oil, brown sugar, garlic, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Marinate the fish in the olive oil for at least an hour.

Slice the shallot thinly. Heat some oil in a skillet and cook the shallot for 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken broth and cook for 14 minutes or until tender and the liquid evaporates. Set aside to cool.

Heat oven to 400F.

In a food processor, pulse the shallots with the basil until fine. Add the butter, season with salt and pepper, and pulse until uniform.

Heat a grill or grill pan.

Toss the cherry tomatoes with the remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the tomatoes on a baking sheet and roast for 8 minutes or until tender.

Grill the fish until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes on each side. Serve with the basil shallot butter and the roasted tomatoes.

Serves 4-6
Inspired by Bon Appetit

June 30, 2017

Brownie Pudding

It's my birthday weekend! Yes, I am stretching my birthday into multiple days of forcing my fellow interns into attending various Chicago activities and eating copious amounts of food. I'm still debating if designing a bakery crawl and baking my own birthday cake will give me instant diabetes, but for now I'm sharing one of my personal favorite dessert recipes: brownie pudding. While neither a brownie nor pudding, this gooey, chocolatey concoction is so good my sister has actually attempted to stab me with a fork for more.

If you've followed my blog for any period of time, you'll know I'm a sucker for anything chocolate. From double chocolate shortbread to extra slutty brownies to chocolate lava cake if it has chocolate you'll find me eating it. That's why I love this recipe so much; it is pure chocolate heaven. It's also an amazing balance of textures since it has a crisp, crackly crust (think that thin crunchy layer on top of brownies but extreme) covering an incredibly rich, gooey center. I don't care if you're team fudgy or team cakey brownie; this is an entirely different level.

This recipe isn't anything like your typical brownie batter. You start by whipping eggs and sugar together until they reach the ribbon stage, essentially where they turn pale yellow and fall in thick ribbons when you pull the beaters out. I add a splash of vanilla and a splash of Kahlua for flavor (it is my birthday after all), then gently sift and fold in flour, lots of cocoa powder, and salt. Lastly, a stick of butter is stirred in because you can't have a good dessert without a cow's worth of butter. You can always fold in some chocolate chips, but if you use good cocoa powder you won't need the extra chocolate.

The first time I baked this, I used an 8x8" ceramic pan (glass works too). Big mistake. It baked up perfectly and was presentable right out of the dish (you're not going to want to try and get this out until you eat it). However, my overeager sister was unwilling to share and I faced losing out on my share vs getting chased around the house with a surprisingly sharp fork. I learned my lesson and now bake this in multiple vessels. I have one ceramic baking dish that I love for presenting and photographing, and I also made a second mini one for my sister to have all to herself. As I said, this works perfectly well with an 8x8" pan (or something similar) so it stays gooey in the center and is thick enough to have textural variation. The key to getting those different textures is the water bath; the inside doesn't firm up too much since it doesn't exceed water's boiling point (212F) but the top gets nice and crispy.

Honestly, I'd be perfectly happy if my birthday consisted of some good pizza, a good movie, and my own pan of this brownie pudding. Hopefully I'll get to do some sightseeing, but as long as I get my chocolate I'll be fine. You can make this for whatever occasion calls for a tasty chocolate dish; it can easily be dressed up with some good ice cream and homemade whipped cream or just eat it in your pajamas while binge watching Netflix. I'll probably be doing a little bit of both.

2 Eggs
1 Cup Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla
1 tsp Kahlua, Optional
1/4 Cup Flour
1/3 Cup Cocoa
Pinch Salt
1 Stick Butter, Melted

Heat oven to 325F and grease an 8x8" baking dish.

Whip the eggs and sugar together for 5-10 minutes or until pale yellow and ribbony. Fold in the vanilla and Kahlua, then sift in the flour, cocoa, and salt. Gradually stir in the butter until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and set in a larger baking pan. Pour boiling water into the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the 8x8" dish. Bake for 30 minutes or until set.

Recipe Adapted from Ina Garten