Friday, November 28, 2008

A Festive Cranberry Cocktail

I realized yesterday that I have not eaten turkey on Thanksgiving since I moved out of my parents’ house in 1991. It’s not that I’m a vegetarian or that I even have anything against turkey, but I guess I’ve always been a rebel when it comes to traditional holiday food. From the time I was a teenager, I always made pizza for my family each year on Christmas, serving it on the good china with real silverware. We all loved it, so much so that I wondered why we ever felt compelled to do the standard turkey&potatoes routine for Thanksgiving each year which always seemed so boring in comparison. This was the beginning of my rebellion against the confines of the traditional holiday menu.


From the time I was living on my own, I have usually hosted Thanksgiving at my place, so the menu planning is up to me. For many years I prepared a scrumptious Italian feast, one which often involved a lasagna with homemade spinach noodles and a real Bolognese sauce that completely erased any thoughts of turkey from anyone’s mind. There were years when I did my own riffs on the typical Thanksgiving side dishes to satisfy the cravings of those wanting a more traditional holiday meal. I have roasted countless root vegetables and transformed all varieties of winter squash into fabulous dishes from soup to dessert. I never tire of doing variations on mashed potatoes, and I have built entire meals around a hearty stuffing as the main course. But no turkey anywhere. By now it’s almost become a point of pride.

This year was no different in wanting to buck the turkey trend, as several friends and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Chinatown. We had been looking forward to it for weeks, excited by the prospect of a day to hang out together and eat yummy Chinese food, yet there would be no dirty dishes for anyone to deal with. But last night, I started to get this weird pang for cranberries. This is strange since I’ve never had any particular affinity for cranberry sauce, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I really wanted to have cranberries today, which felt uncomfortably traditional to me. Perhaps this craving stemmed from being tired and thirsty at the end of a long day, having played two performances of “South Pacific”, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted those tart little rubies to be soaked in rum!


My mind started jumping around, scrolling through cranberry-based cocktails I’ve had over the years, and I remembered a fabulous Cranberry Daquiri at Gramercy Tavern four years ago. This was an exceedingly lovely drink, one which combined a tangy-sweet cranberry syrup with rum and lime, with a few of the syrup-steeped cranberries floating on the top of the drink as a garnish. It was so pretty and festive, not to mention delicious. And I knew that THAT was exactly what I wanted.

I got up early this morning to go running to offset this afternoon’s Chinatown feast, and by 10:30 a.m. I was walking in my apartment with two kinds of rum and a bag of fresh cranberries. I was ready for action, eager to recreate my own version of this cranberry daquiri living large in my memory. I wanted to make sure I gave you a great cocktail recipe to have in your repertoire for the holiday season, a drink which can carry you quite happily from Thanksgiving all the way to New Year's, and I knew this would fit the bill if I could recreate it successfully enough.

A simple syrup made of equal parts sugar and water became much more complex with the addition of cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger slices and grated orange zest. When the mixture came to a boil, the cranberries were thrown in and simmered until they began to burst. The sound was not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of fresh popcorn popping away. These cranberries were exploding with joy as they bathed in this spicy syrup, almost as if they knew they were just moments away from being transformed into the most marvelous cocktail!

Since I had invited Julie and Alissa to come sample my cranberry daquiri before we headed downtown to meet the others, I had to work quickly. Chilling the syrup in an ice water bath cooled it to room temperature in a short space of time. Throwing in a cup of light rum also helped bring the temperature down quickly!

Once the syrup had cooled, I was ready to host my own impromptu cocktail party. I had the martini glasses chilled when the girls arrived, so all I had to do was combine some of the cranberry syrup with dark rum and fresh lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. I gave this mixture a good thirty shakes and strained it into the chilled glasses, garnishing each drink with a few of the rum-plumped cranberries. I took a sip, just to make sure I'd balanced the drink properly. It was exactly the tart-and-sweet concoction I'd been hoping to create, with just a bit of gingery kick to it.

Julie and Alissa also agreed that this cranberry daquiri was an excellent holiday cocktail, one which will have to make repeat appearances throughout the next few weeks. In fact, it was so festive and celebratory, I was sorely tempted to fill a flask with this gorgeous elixir and bring it to Chinatown just so I could share it with the other friends at our Thanksgiving table! We raised our glasses to great friendships and to the official beginning of the holiday season, and my little kitchen was alive with laughter and merriment as we enjoyed our pretty drinks down to the last drops. My heart was filled with gratitude for all of my fabulous friends who make my life in the city so much more interesting and wonderful. With or without a cranberry daquiri, I think that’s definitely worth celebrating!

Inspired by the Cranberry Daquiri from Gramercy Tavern, ca. 2004.

For the cranberry syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 cinnamon sticks
a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
the grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup fresh cranberries
1-½ cups light rum

For each drink:
1 ounce prepared cranberry syrup
2 ounces dark rum
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
a few drunken cranberries, for garnish

Prepare the syrup by combining the sugar and water in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add the cinnamon sticks, ginger slices, and orange zest. Bring to a boil and then add cranberries. Simmer the cranberries until they begin to pop, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large glass measuring cup and stir in the 1-½ cups of light rum. Let the syrup cool to room temperature. (You can speed this up by placing the measuring cup in a large bowl filled with ice and water.)

Chill a cocktail glass for each person by filling it with a few ice cubes and some cold water for a few minutes. Toss out the ice water at the very last moment, just to keep the glass as cold as possible.

For each drink, combine the cranberry syrup, dark rum and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to thoroughly combine and strain into the chilled glass. (I like to do 30 shakes myself, which not only blends everything completely but also allows the ice cubes to break down so that little tiny flecks of ice crystals keep your drink icy cold.) Garnish with a few of the drunken cranberries. Take a sip and feel thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eggplant With A High Wow Factor

November has always been my favorite of the autumn months, and not just because I have so many friends’ birthdays to celebrate. Many complain about how short the days are, but as one who does her best creative work when it’s dark, I always feel weirdly energized by the long nights, as though my creativity is sparked in inverse proportion to what’s happening in nature. The trees are not quite bare but are quickly getting there, and I love walking through the park with the crunch of fallen autumn leaves underfoot. The air is cool enough that I finally had to haul out my long wool coat, getting ready for the inevitable frigid temperatures we will have in a few weeks. And while the full-blown craziness of the holiday season hasn’t yet begun, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.

Since Official Party Season is almost upon us, I want to share a few recipes in these next weeks which will take you gracefully through whatever occasions are on your social calendar. Whether you are hosting your own shindig or contributing a dish to someone else’s event, it’s important to have a few stand-by dishes in your repertoire that can be prepared with minimal fuss for a big pay-off. I love to make food that elicits a “WOW!” from people after a single bite, and this Smoky Roasted Eggplant Dip definitely falls into that category.

This is a recipe that I make year-round, but it’s especially nice in the colder months when I don’t mind turning on the oven, and I love the heady aroma of roasting vegetables wafting through my apartment. It can be prepared in advance or served immediately, and I enjoy it immensely whether it is served warm or at room temperature. I like to accompany this with pita bread cut into small triangles, drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, and toasted till crisp. But it is also delicious when scooped up with endive leaves, and I’ve been known to dunk bell pepper strips or baby carrots in it as well.

The ingredients are straightforward, with eggplant providing the bulk of the dish with peppers and onions rounding it out. The raw vegetables are a riot of colors, even after the eggplant is stripped of its deep aubergine skin and cut into spongy little cubes. Red onions and bell peppers will add sweetness and body to the mixture, and a few slivered garlic cloves are usually a good idea for any roasted vegetable dish in my book. After tossing with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, the cubed veggies spend time roasting in a hot oven until they soften and caramelize, practically melting into each other.

This recipe was adapted from one in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Whereas Ina Garten simply purees her roasted eggplant mélange with a little tomato paste and olive oil with delicious results, I have tossed a little Spanish flair into my version with the addition of smoked paprika and sherry vinegar. I think that’s where the “WOW!” factor really comes into play.

 I love the sultriness of Spanish smoked paprika, also called Pimenton de la Vera, and it can range in heat from Mild to Bittersweet to Hot. Once you try it, I can guarantee that you will find yourself looking for any excuse to incorporate it into your savory dishes! This gorgeous smoked paprika will build layers of flavor to your food, adding depth and roundness while at the same time making your taste buds dance, and it is definitely worth seeking out in your grocery store. (McCormick is probably the most readily available brand in your average grocery store, and there are even more intense varieties, such as Safinter and La Tienda. If you can't find it in your local store, you can order it from such sites as Penzeys or La Tienda.) The Pimenton adds a beautiful smoky dimension to this roasted eggplant spread, a dip that is already earthy and grounded with the slow-roasted vegetables pureed into a comforting spread. And I love the way the sherry vinegar adds an unexpected bright note to the mixture, truly making it sing.

My Smoky Roasted Eggplant Dip is appropriate for many occasions. I can imagine a Spanish-themed wine&cheese party featuring nutty Manchego and pungent blue Cabrales cheeses accompanied by Manzanilla olives, Marcona almonds and slices of chorizo, where this eggplant spread would fit in perfectly. If you are responsible for providing appetizers for your Thanksgiving feast, serving this hearty dip with crudités would be an excellent way to offset the heavy starch factor and inevitable carb-coma that accompany the traditional holiday meal. And if you’re going to a party to celebrate a friend’s recent book-signing, as I did today, then this roasted eggplant dip is an ideal thing to bring to the celebration! (See how versatile it is?)

My friend Ed Valentine, a wonderful playwright and writer for Nickelodeon, just had one of his plays published in an anthology of plays, The Best of En Avant Playwrights, and there was a reading and a book-signing at the Barnes&Noble at Lincoln Center this afternoon. It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to attend such an event at a major store where the one of the authors wielding the autograph pen is a dear friend of mine, and I was so proud of him! Ed is a delightfully imaginative writer and incredible friend, a joyful story-teller and a huge-hearted human being who is a great inspiration to his many friends. He continually challenges us all to dream boldly and aim high, and he has been one of my biggest supporters in all of my creative endeavors over the past decade, especially with my writing. (Thank you, Ed!)

I was thrilled to be there along with many of our friends to cheer him on at the Barnes&Noble event, and I’m very happy that I managed to get my own signed copy of the anthology, because it promptly sold out within minutes! Of course we had to have a party afterwards, and the bubbly flowed freely as we celebrated Ed throughout the course of a very happy evening.

On a side note, my roasted eggplant dip was a festive addition to the party, sampled by everyone as it made its merry way from the kitchen to the middle of the living room. I am pleased to report that nearly everyone who tasted it responded with some variation on “whoa, what is that?! WOW!” I invite you to try this recipe for yourself. I think you'll agree that the wow-factor of this is quite high.

Adapted from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten
If you can’t find the Spanish smoked paprika, you could substitute a teaspoon of regular sweet paprika. It won’t be quite as smoky and interesting, but it will still be delicious. I have often made this using oregano or marjoram instead of the thyme leaves, both of which also work nicely. Serve with toasted pita bread or store-bought pita chips, or with endive leaves.

1 medium (or 2 small) eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 red bell peppers, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large red onion, peeled cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large garlic cloves, slivered
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more for roasting if needed
Salt and pepper
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons smoked paprika, or more to taste
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried), plus a few more for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400°. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with foil.

In a large mixing bowl, toss the eggplant, pepper, red onion and garlic with just enough olive oil to lightly coat. Season with salt and pepper and spread out in a single layer on the two foil-lined baking sheets. Roast the vegetables for about 45 minutes, stirring once, until they are tender and browned. Let cool slightly.

Place the roasted vegetables in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the tomato paste, smoked paprika, sherry vinegar and thyme leaves. Pulse several times to blend, and taste for balance and seasoning. At this point, you also might want to add a bit more smoked paprika or a splash of sherry vinegar. Be judicious with these seasonings as they pack a punch, so add a small amount at a time, letting your palate guide you as you balance the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and scatter the additional thyme leaves on top before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Your Chocolate Opinions Are Requested

It’s almost that time again. CocoaRoar time, that is. Do you have any idea how happy that makes me?!

I’m remembering the email I sent out a year ago today announcing the launch of CocoaRoar, my little homegrown chocolate truffle company, and you can not even imagine how excited I was about it. For years I had been on a mission to create the truffle of my dreams, one that combined the finest chocolate with exquisite flavors that enhanced the chocolate even moreso. This dream truffle had to have silky texture inside and a shatteringly thin coating of extra bittersweet chocolate which would not detract from the beautifully flavored ganache inside.

Many of you participated in my countless chocolate experiments over the years, in which I tested different truffle-making methods and endless varieties of flavors on enthusiastic friends and musical colleagues. I had years of refining my technique and focusing my flavor profiles, and I was encouraged by so many of you who kept urging me to make these bonbons available as gifts. After a chocolate epiphany or two of my own in 2007, I finally decided that I was ready. I announced myself to you all as CocoaRoar a year ago tonight, and I could not have imagined what an incredible ride I had in store for me!

Twelve months and approximately 6,000 truffles later, I am STILL excited about making truffles for all of you in these coming weeks. I am glad that I have limited myself to doing this seasonally, as I love playing the violin too much to ever go full-time into the chocolate business! By only doing this for isolated weeks around holidays, it allows me to thoroughly enjoy my truffle-making without becoming burned out. My absolute favorite childhood book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so you can only imagine how CocoaRoar is my childhood fantasy come to life!

Last year’s learning curve was steep, but I am feeling much more calm about production this time around since I have a much better idea of what to expect. I have spent the last few days preparing to turn my 1-bedroom apartment into an honest-to-goodness chocolate factory. I have ordered more of my signature red boxes, as well as a hefty assortment of gorgeous Valrhona chocolate in bulk, and I’ve already begun cutting tissue paper to line the boxes in advance. Flat surface areas have been cleared off, providing plenty of space for trays of freshly-dipped truffles to rest while the chocolate sets. The kitchen will get a most thorough scrubbing in these next days, but the pots and pans which normally live on my stove have already been transferred into the oven, since I probably won’t even have time to turn on the oven once during the entire time of truffle production. (It’s not quite as bad as Carrie Bradshaw storing sweaters inside her oven, but nonetheless, that’s Manhattan kitchen life for you, using whatever storage space you can find!)

The one thing I have NOT done, however, is send out the official email announcing this season’s flavors. I really must do that over the weekend, but the truth of the matter is that I CAN’T DECIDE which flavors to make this time around!!!! With over 40 different truffles in my repertoire, I have so many favorites, and I really struggled last year to narrow it down to ten flavors for my inaugural truffle launch.

I’ve since realized that ten flavors are a lot for me to juggle at one time, but SIX is the perfect number. (A small box has six truffles and a large box has twelve.) I am definitely doing an Extra-Bittersweet truffle, as well as the Raspberry Earl Grey which is one of my long-time favorites. But as for the other four possible flavors??? I’m in a quandary. And this is where you come in.

Would you do me the favor of responding to this post and sharing your chocolate opinions with me? I invite all of you readers to write a comment in the appropriate section and vote for your Favorite FOUR Flavors from the following list of possibilities:

CARAMEL WITH SEA SALT: not a gooey caramel (which has never been my thing anyway), but instead this is a bittersweet ganache deepened with caramel and sea salt, dipped in extra bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt flakes

PEANUT BUTTER WITH SEA SALT: bittersweet/milk chocolate ganache blended with peanut butter and a dash of fine sea salt, dipped in extra bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt flakes

CHILE&CINNAMON: bittersweet ganache heightened with a spicy little kick of ancho chile, chipotle chile, and cinnamon

SAFFRON: deep milk chocolate ganache kissed by imported Spanish saffron threads and a touch of honey

FRESH MINT: bittersweet chocolate ganache infused with fresh spearmint leaves

GINGER: bittersweet ganache steeped with fresh ginger

JASMINE: bittersweet ganache beautifully perfumed with exotic jasmine flower tea

LAVENDER: bittersweet ganache infused with fresh lavender buds

GRAND MARNIER: white chocolate ganache enlivened with Grand Marnier and fresh orange zest, dipped in a thin coating of bittersweet chocolate

LEMON-BASIL: white chocolate ganache infused with fresh lemon and fragrant basil, dipped in bittersweet chocolate

I know, it’s painful to narrow it down to four! You see why I’m in such a dither?! I am grateful to hear your thoughts, and I will take all opinions into consideration! In the meantime, I leave you with promises of beautifully decadent chocolate truffles to come…

A somewhat hilarious photo of me with the MGM lion from 11/17/06 which eventually contributed to the name CocoaRoar on 11/17/07...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wild Mushroom Inspiration

I couldn’t stop thinking about wild mushrooms last night. Visions of chanterelles, porcini and morels danced through my culinary imagination, teasing and taunting me with earthy promise. There were endless possibilities of what I could do with those mushrooms, but I especially wanted to sauté them in butter with a little garlic until they began to crisp around the edges, becoming more concentrated and meaty in the process. And if I could combine these sautéed mushrooms with creamy polenta, that ultimate of comfort foods, so much the better.

I know that this is a very specific craving, but it was prompted by the fact that I was time-traveling again last night, luxuriating in the memory of 11/11/06 which was one of the Great Food Days of my life. I would pay a lot of hard cold cash to be able to relive that day in San Francisco again, eating all that I ate, drinking all that I drank, and enjoying all that I thoroughly enjoyed! Clearly, I’ve never been one of those people who say, “I can’t even remember what I ate yesterday,” for here I am, practically rapturous over the memory of meals I had two years ago! Among other things that happened that day, there were glorious mushrooms and gorgeous polenta.

To put it in context, my stunning day in San Francisco came in the midst of an amazing two-month tour with Barbra Streisand during the fall of 2006. For weeks we had played to sold-out arenas around the U.S. and Canada, in which our audiences were on their feet screaming before Babs even had a chance to sing a note! All she had to do was show up on the stage, and the crowds went ballistic. Our tour managers were the best I’ve ever encountered, total pros who were ten steps ahead of everyone else and made us feel as comfortable on the road as we would have been at home, which is no small accomplishment. It was a magical time all around, not only for being part of these incredible concerts with such a showbiz legend, but also for the fact that so many of my friends were also in the orchestra and we were having an absolute blast touring the country together.

When you are on the road with friends with whom you love performing, it makes for a really enjoyable tour. But when those same friends also live to travel and explore new cities, as well as being very enthusiastic in the culinary department, you have a surefire recipe for a fabulous tour experience. And if you have the good fortune to be on a tour which includes time in Northern California, a veritable food-lover’s paradise, you will probably find yourself in a state of happy delirium and sensory overload! Because the Streisand tour was such a unique and remarkable time in my life, all of the memories from that tour are heightened, and the food-related memories are intensified to an even more delectable degree.

I have recently fought the urge to reminisce on this blog about any of the other great food days on that Streisand tour, even though there were many. But I simply can’t help resist with this one. My delicious November 11th in San Francisco is a kaleidoscope of images and tastes, starting with a pilgrimage to the fabulous Ferry Building Marketplace, a Mecca for any foodie worthy of the name. We devoured green chile tamales from the Primavera tamale stand outside of the Ferry Building while enjoying the breeze off the water as the Bay Bridge loomed large behind. Blue Bottle Coffee, fragrant and robust, was enough to snap anyone to happy attention. 

Wandering lightly amidst the stalls of the farmer’s market outside, I was tempted by lavender-infused salt and spearmint-infused sugar as I calculated how much room I had left in my suitcase for such delicacies. The fragrant flavored oils from Stonehouse Olive Oil were a delight, and it was difficult to decide whether the Blood Orange or Persian Lime or Lisbon Lemon olive oil was my favorite. 

After finding a coveted seat at the bar of The Slanted Door, we savored ginger-kaffir lime cocktails alongside green papaya salad and crispy Imperial spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves with cilantro and mint, all the while enjoying the expansive view of the water and Bay Bridge. And for dessert? Rose petal gelato from Ciao Bella, lemon verbena chocolates from Michael Recchiuti, and perfect little raspberry macaroons from Miele Bakery…


And then there were the mushrooms. The mushroom stand alone made me frantic that I didn’t have access to a kitchen. What I could have done with those mushrooms! Would you just look at these beauties???

I didn’t see anything remotely ugly about these magnificent specimens.

Or these.

Of course I roared with laughter when I saw the Lion’s Mane mushrooms! Who knew?!

The Wood Ears were little folds of black velvet.

And that was just the morning at the Ferry Building! There was a dinner at Zuni Café which will live on in joyous memory for many years to come, even though I have virtually no photographic documentation of it. Kumamoto oysters on the half-shell were icy and perfect, accompanied by champagne to start. A hearty vegetable soup with layers of flavor tasted as if the Italian grandmother you always wanted had been lovingly tending the soup all afternoon. The fillet of beef was cooked to perfection, tender and melting, surrounded by braised baby vegetables that beautifully complemented the beef. I was having absolute kittens over a side order of polenta, which was soul-satisfying and sensual all at once, made all the more luscious with the decadent addition of mascarpone cheese stirred in and a scattering of chopped toasted walnuts over the top. 


And as if that hadn’t been luxurious enough, dessert was a silky caramel pots de crème that brought tears to my eyes. (Anyone who served me that dessert again could probably convince me to do anything for them…) The room was aglow with flickering candlelight and animated conversations, punctuated by frequent clinking of glasses throughout the room, and I remember being in a state of sheer bliss.


Sigh... As I've trudged my way through grey rainy New York today, I feel so far from San Francisco and that very delightful day. Since I've been in a state of acute longing for a trip to the Ferry Market Building AND a marvelous meal at Zuni Café, I decided to combine two of my favorite finds from that special 11/11, using that as the inspiration for creating my own pleasurable meal at home. An assortment of coarsely chopped wild mushrooms sautéed with a little garlic and butter, flecked with green herbs, and spooned onto a puddle of soft creamy polenta ought to do the trick.

It’s so simple and ultimately comforting. The polenta is prepared with a lot of liquid and cooked slowly over so that it retains a loose consistency, all the better to provide a creamy cushion underneath the sautéed mushrooms. You could stir in mascarpone at the end of the polenta’s cooking time, but I used Gorgonzola cheese tonight with very happy results.

Even though I didn't have access to the Lion’s Mane or those soft little wood ear mushrooms, I had no complaints about my mushroom ragout made of chanterelles, shiitakes, and criminis, otherwise known as “baby bellas” or baby portabellas.


The mushrooms really cook down, reducing in size as they intensify in flavor. A little butter and fresh lemon juice easily tie it all together at the end.

I may not have had a decadent day in San Francisco on this particular 11/11, but at least revisiting that magical day in 2006 inspired this earthy mushroom and polenta dish. And I must say that I am quite satisfied with this autumnal repast, almost as much as if I’d eaten it at Zuni Café. I know you will love it too. (Now if only I had that caramel pots de crème…)

Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, October 2005

The original recipe calls for a ½-cup of mascarpone, the Italian cream cheese, to be stirred in at the end. I substituted crumbled Gorgonzola, since that is what I had on hand, and I really love the combination of pungent Gorgonzola with hearty mushrooms. But I urge you to try it both ways and decide for yourself.

For the polenta:
4-½-cups water
1 cup coarse stone-ground polenta
¼ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 teaspoon salt
Several grinds of freshly cracked black pepper
½ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

For the mushrooms:
1 lb assorted fresh exotic mushrooms (use a combination of porcini, oyster, chanterelle, crimini, shiitake)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon salt
Several grinds of freshly cracked black pepper
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1-½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about half a large lemon)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or fresh thyme leaves

Bring water to a simmer in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan. Add the polenta in a slow stream, whisking until incorporated. Simmer, stirring occasionally with a long-handled whisk or wooden spoon, until liquid is absorbed and polenta is thick and soft, about 30 minutes. The polenta should have a loose, risotto-like consistency. Remove from heat and stir in cream, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt, and pepper. Keep warm, covered.

Sauté mushrooms while polenta simmers:
Clean the mushrooms by wiping off any grit and dirt with damp paper towels. (If you soak them in water, the mushrooms get water-logged, which is no fun.) If using porcini, halve if large, then slice lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. If using oysters, trim spongy base if necessary and slice caps into ½-inch-wide strips. If using chanterelles, leave small mushrooms whole, halve if medium, and quarter if large. If using shiitakes, slice lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. If using crimini, remove stems and cut caps into quarters.

Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Sauté the mushrooms, garlic, salt, and pepper, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are golden and any liquid they give off has evaporated, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add water, butter, lemon juice, and parsley and heat, swirling skillet, until butter melts and liquid forms a sauce.

Just before serving, stir the crumbled gorgonzola cheese into the polenta and heat until it melts. Divide the polenta among warmed bowls and top each serving of polenta with mushrooms. Serve immediately. (The polenta will stiffen as it cools). Makes 6 appetizer servings, or 4 main course servings.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Those Cupcakes....

If you were in rehearsals with me this past Tuesday, you most likely experienced the cupcakes which I brought in honor of Cenovia’s and Lorra’s birthdays. I would like to write about Those Cupcakes tonight. After all, you’ve been talking about them for the past five days. You’ve sent me texts and Facebook messages about them. Every time I see you at gigs, you keep asking me if I have any more of Those Cupcakes. I am thoroughly delighted that you responded to them so enthusiastically, more than I can even say. And so it would give me great pleasure to share the recipe for Those Cupcakes with you. Yes, I'll tell you how to make those Chocolate Cupcakes with Mascarpone and Almond-Pinenut Praline, which are also known as the Oh-my-GOD Cupcakes!

Most of you know that I LOVE celebrating birthdays. I celebrate my own birthday extensively, not only on the actual day or even just the week, but the entire month of August is declared Birthday Month! However, lest you think that I am a narcissist who wants it to be all about her, I honestly get just as excited about my friends’ birthdays as I do my own. This is a particularly happy time of year since I have many Scorpios in my life, many of whom were born within a 12-day stretch. The first week+ of November is the time of celebrating Alissa, Joyce, Cenovia, Lorra, Belinda, Stephanie and Kristina. Even Kristina’s baby, who is due to make her appearance in the world any day now, is going to join this list of fabulous Scorpio women!

My dear friends Cenovia and Lorra share their birthday on November 4th. I knew I would be seeing a lot of them that day, since we were scheduled for multiple rehearsals together on Tuesday in addition to having a birthday dinner with several of our other friends. As a Leo who never had to go to school on her summer birthday, the concept of being stuck in school or at work on one’s birthday has always felt wrong to me. And because this was such an intense work week for all of us, I felt compelled to cushion the indignity of my Scorpio friends having to spend their birthdays in long rehearsals for various concerts we were playing together this week.

Champagne and chocolate immediately spring to my mind whenever I’m trying to conjure up a celebration. However, as fun as it might have been, I knew that sparkling wine was probably not the best choice for our 10 a.m. rehearsal. I had just finished a round of CocoaRoar truffles for Halloween, so after hand-shaping hundreds of truffles and individually dipping each one in melted chocolate, I was eager to work in slightly broader strokes. Rather than schlepping a big cake all over town, cupcakes seemed to be the natural solution.

Honestly, who doesn’t love cupcakes?! A multi-layered cake can feel very grown-up and serious, but cupcakes are fun and whimsical, often evoking memories of being a child when life was simpler and more calorie-free. Savoring a little cupcake somehow seems less indulgent than chowing down on a big slice of birthday cake. On a purely practical level, cupcakes are easy to transport and require no plates or serving utensils, which is an important detail to consider when you have to get around by subway and set up your mini party in a bare-bones rehearsal space.

If you’re anything like me, you wouldn’t seriously consider most of the local cupcake bakeries as a viable option. I often complain about many of the overrated cupcakeries around the city which serve dry cake heaped with a mound of icing so cloyingly sweet that it makes my teeth itch. Could somebody please explain to me why those overpriced tasteless cakes are so popular?!? Life is simply too short to eat cupcakes without nuance!

I wanted to make something that would honor these two sensational birthday women, both of whom are not only terrific violinists but are also huge-hearted, fabulously talented in so many ways, and incredibly fun to be around. Cenovia and Lorra are also my frequent partners in all sorts of culinary adventures, so I wanted to make something that would appeal to their excellent palates.

Imagine a tender chocolate cake with a fine crumb and a deep chocolate flavor without being overly sweet. Instead of veering off into diabetic-coma-inducing sugary icing territory, I made two different toppings for these velvety chocolate cupcakes. The first was a cardamom icing perfumed with a bit of rosewater and rose petal sugar, as a nod to Cenovia’s and Lorra’s fondness for that flavor combination. Yum. But I would like to talk about the second version, in which the perfect little chocolate beauty was topped with amaretto-laced mascarpone cheese. And as if that weren’t delightful enough on its own, would you please imagine a little sprinkling of a crunchy almond-pinenut praline on top?!

Whoa! Skyrockets in flight!...AFTERNOON DELIGHT!!!!!!

We had the cardamom rose cupcakes at our Riverside Symphony rehearsal in the morning, and then the praline cupcakes in the afternoon at St Ignatius Loyola while rehearsing for a different concert. There was such excitement in the air since it was Election Day, and all of my friends and colleagues were buzzing with choruses of, “Did you vote? Did you see how many people were lined up around the block to vote?! Have you ever seen anything like it?!” And throughout all of these animated conversations, the cupcakes were absolutely devoured.

This has been my favorite cupcake recipe for a long time, but now it has special resonance for me as they will always be associated with Election Day 2008! It would have been a memorable day just to play great music as we did, and the day was extra special since I got to celebrate with these two fabulous friends of mine on their birthdays, both in rehearsals and then at an especially lovely birthday dinner later on. But there are no words to describe the elation that so many of us felt shortly after 11 pm when the election results came flooding over our television screens and computer monitors. I had saved one chocolate praline cupcake for myself which I ate in a spirit of great celebration that night, and these are now forever sealed in my mind as the Obama victory cupcakes!

Now I know I just gave you a chocolate cupcake recipe a few weeks ago, but somehow I don’t think you’ll mind my inclusion of this one as well. The October 17th chocolate cupcake recipe that I make with my nephew Mac is a little more kid-friendly, both in taste and in the preparation, which is perfect when you are baking with a very young friend. But these beauties are more sophisticated, mainly because of the mascarpone and praline topping. Whereas the other cupcake recipe uses just butter, this particular recipe uses a combination of butter and oil which creates a beautiful cake with a velvet texture. The inclusion of both unsweetened cocoa and melted bittersweet chocolate in the batter lends a chocolatey depth that I find intensely appealing.

You don't even need a mixer for these cupcakes. After the flour and baking powder are sifted into the chocolate mixture, buttermilk is whisked in. This adds moisture and tempers the sweetness, intensifying the chocolate flavor of the cake.

The praline is made by cooking a simple sugar and water mixture until it caramelizes and turns a deep amber color. Quickly stir in toasted almonds and pinenuts, and spread the mixture out on a piece of foil to let it harden.

When the praline has hardened and cooled, it is crushed into coarse pieces for the topping. Creamy mascarpone, the Italian cream cheese, is spiked with amaretto before being slathered on the cupcakes. It provides the perfect bridge between the fine textured chocolate cake and the crunchy praline that is then sprinkled on top.


Whether you have birthdays or political optimism to celebrate, or if you're simply craving a fabulous treat, I urge you to go directly to this recipe, for it will create one of the more memorable cupcakes you will ever have the pleasure of experiencing!

Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, April 1999.

The cake is light yet quite dark chocolatey without being overly sweet, and I think the combination of the mascarpone with the unusual crunch of the almond-pine nut praline is heavenly!

For the praline:
½ cup slivered almonds
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup water

For the cupcakes:
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup canola oil
2/3 cup water
3 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the topping:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons amaretto

Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until just barely golden brown, stirring frequently; set aside to cool on a plate. Toast the pine nuts in the same way and set aside.

Line a baking sheet with heavy foil. In a skillet bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil the syrup without stirring until it begins to turn golden. Swirl pan until syrup is deep golden and remove from heat. Stir in the nuts and immediately pour praline onto baking sheet, spreading evenly. Cool the praline completely and break into pieces. Transfer the praline to a resealable plastic bag and coarsely crush it with a rolling pin.

Preheat oven to 300°. Line 18 standard-size muffin cups with paper liners.

In a small saucepan combine the cocoa powder, butter, oil, and water. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until smooth, and remove pan from heat. Add the chopped chocolate and sugar, whisking until smooth, and transfer to a bowl. Cool chocolate mixture completely and whisk in the egg. Sift flour and baking powder over chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Whisk in buttermilk and pour batter into the prepared cups, filling each about 2/3 of the way full. (You will probably have some empty cups if you are using 12-cup muffin tins, so fill each of those halfway with water to keep the muffin tin from scorching.

Bake cupcakes in middle of oven for 25-30 minutes, until the top springs back when touched or a tester comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

When you are ready to frost the cupcakes, stir the mascarpone and amaretto together in a medium bowl. Spread mixture liberally over the tops of the cupcakes and generously sprinkle with praline. Makes about 18 cupcakes.

Note: You can also bake this cake as a single 9-inch round. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper, then butter the paper and dust pan with flour, knocking out excess. Bake the single cake layer for 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let cool completely before frosting with the mascarpone and praline.