July 28, 2017

Blackberry Almond Coffee Cake

Every week when I go to farmers' markets I make a point of buying something new in an attempt to broaden my palette. Though I'm not always successful, I do find that the best way to try a new food is to put it in something I already like. A gateway recipe, if you will. A perfect example of that is this blackberry almond coffee cake. Yes, of course I love coffee cake with the tender, fluffy cake-for-breakfast base and piles of buttery, crunchy streusel on top. It makes sense for me to try and sneak in some fruit between the two, though the gorgeous purple jammy layer in this particular cake isn't exactly subtle. You can use whatever fruit you have on hand or find at the farmers' market, and since you're cooking it down it's ok to use ugly or overripe fruit, too. I do like the combination of blackberries and almonds (especially with some sliced almonds on top for aesthetics), but any berry would work just as well.

The first step is to cook your fruit down so it can cool while you make the rest of the cake. I combine most of my blackberries, some sugar depending on how sweet they are, some cornstarch to thicken it, some lemon juice to enhance the tartness, and some water to make it spreadable. That mixture simmers for a few minutes while I mash the berries to make a sort of quick jam. I also leave some berries whole for some extra texture, but you could easily throw everything into the jam pot and crush the berries more or less until it reaches the texture you want.

I know many people think the streusel is the best part, and this is a pretty simple recipe for it. Just combine some sugar, brown sugar, and a pinch of salt, then add in melted butter, flour, and almonds. You can omit the almonds or swap them for a different nut, but I appreciate the extra crunch. You can also double the recipe if you're a big streusel person since I agree that there can never be too much of it.

The cake itself is also pretty straightforward. Again, I like it because it's basically a vanilla cake that passes as an acceptable breakfast food. It's much easier than a typical cake as well; since you use melted butter, there's no beating the batter for a few minutes until it's fluffy, and you don't have to alternate the dry and liquid ingredients. Honestly, you don't even need a mixer. Just whisk the sugars together, add the melted butter, add the remaining liquid ingredients, then add the dry ingredients.

Once all the components are prepared, it's time to assemble and bake the cake. This is a pretty big cake, so I go with my 10" springform pan. If you want to use a regular 8-9" cake pan, you'll probably want to make two cakes to avoid a spillover. At that point, you should look into making more of the jam and certainly doubling the streusel so you have enough for both cakes. That or you could just cut the cake batter part in half. The cake batter goes on the bottom, then the jam and whole berries are spread and sprinkled on, and the streusel is piled on top. It bakes for a while since it's so big, but it's certainly worth it. As much as I love the contrast of the purple, any other seasonal fruit would work instead. Mixing fruits could be interesting as well; a blueberry peach variety is on my shopping list for the farmers' market this week.

3 Cups Blackberries
1 1/4 Cups + 3 T Sugar
1/2 Cup Light Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Cornstarch
1/2 tsp Lemon Juice
3/4 tsp Salt
1 Stick + 6 T Butter, Melted
1/3 Cup Sliced Almonds
4 1/2 Cups Flour
4 tsp Baking Powder
4 Eggs
1/2 Cup Milk
2 tsp Vanilla Extract
1 tsp Almond Extract

Heat oven to 325F. Line a 9-10" springform pan with parchment and grease.

Combine 2 cups blackberries, 1/4 cup water, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 T cornstarch, 1/2 tsp lemon juice, and 1/8 tsp salt in a small pot. Simmer for 6 minutes, mashing until somewhat smooth, and set aside to cool.

Toss the remaining blackberries with 3 T sugar and the remaining cornstarch.

Whisk 1/4 cup sugar, the dark brown sugar, and 1/8 tsp salt together. Stir in 6 T butter and 1 1/2 cups flour. Fold in the almonds and refrigerate until cold.

Whisk the remaining 3 cups flour, baking powder, and 1/2 tsp salt together. Whisk the remaining 2/3 cup sugar and light brown sugar together, then stir in the remaining 1 stick melted butter. Add the eggs, milk, vanilla, and almond extract. Fold in the flour mixture.

Spread the cake batter into the prepared pan. Spread the jam evenly on top, leaving a ½" border around the edges. Sprinkle the whole blackberries on top and sprinkle the streusel over the berries. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until cooked through.

Serves 8-10
Recipe Inspired by The Frosted Kitchen

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