Sugar and Spice

Cardamom Cheesecake 4Have I ever told you that cheesecake is my favorite dessert? There’s something about the creamy texture that I simply cannot turn down. And there are so many possible flavors! Chocolate, vanilla bean, triple berry – the list goes one. The dessert itself is unique, presenting a irresistible fusion of sugary and tart tastes. I  recently made what was possibly the BEST cheesecake recipe I’ve ever come across. My boyfriend and I were visiting his parents for dinner a few weeks back. He prepared a ridiculous meal of Indian specialties, which was loaded with ambrosial ingredients and potent spices. I was tasked with creating a complementary dessert, and this unique Cardamom and Saffron Cheesecake was the result. Cardamom Cheesecake 3 I like to consider cheesecake to be one of my “specialties,” and have developed a series of tricks over the years to create perfect results. I only recently discovered that cheesecake filling prepared in a food processor yields an unbeatable texture that is both smooth and fluffy. Stand or hand mixers can sometimes result in an inconsistent batter with chunks of cream cheese – the processor whips everything with precision, and creates a silky smooth filling that pours beautifully into your prepared pan. The original recipe is a Simply Recipes original…who to this day is one of my most trusted bloggers. This cake on its own is highly recommended, but the incorporation of cardamom and saffron sent this recipe over the top. These savory elements paired beautifully with the dessert’s sweeter side, adding a notable depth and character to this otherwise straightforward recipe.
Cardamom Cheesecake 2What I love about most cheesecake is the ability to make it days in advance, giving those of us with full-time schedules some peace of mind. On the day of, I topped the cheesecake with a layer of lightly sweetened mascarpone and garnished with crushed pistachios (unsalted). The result was an all-around awesome cheesecake: the irresistibly creamy texture, undeniably great flavor, and a gorgeous appearance. The meal had been a fairly spicy one (Tom likes food with a kick…heh) so this was the perfect balance. I guarantee that this will be a crowd-pleaser, for pretty much everyone at your dinner table: click HERE to make this lovely dessert.
Cardamom Cheesecake 1While cardamom and saffron are staples in savory recipes, they rarely play a role in sweeter ones – yet the combination works beautifully in this cheesecake. For the musical pairing, I wanted to complement both the uncommon while also paying homage to the East Asian spices of this dish. That led me to British composer Jonathan Harvey: a contemporary English composer and musicologist whose style explores the more subtle connections between spirituality and music. In Harvey’s case, Buddhism was the inspiration for his both his music and philosophies. The following comes from Harvey’s 2010 essay Buddhism and the Undecidability of Music:

“Music is in some sense a picture of wisdom. It is even an explanation, in that it shows rather more clearly than words can so, [the] will-o’-the-wisp quality of reality. Music shows us how mind works.”

This mindfulness can be found in Harvey’s work …towards a Pure Land: a work for full orchestra that portrays the journey that one must take to reach a state beyond suffering (or dukkha in buddhism). The understanding and cessation of dukkha is an extremely important element of Buddhist practice. The music vacillates between energetic highs and a breezy calm, with a flurry of emotions in between. The end of the piece finally brings the listener to that state of mind beyond suffering, which speaks to Harvey’s belief that music can and does provide insight to the human conscience.

Sources Cited:
Service, Tom. “Music and the Mind,” The Guardian. June 2010.
Buddhism, Wikipedia.com

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Cheers to Independence

July 4th 1 Independence Day – a holiday that, for many Americans, is primarily associated with fireworks, cookouts, and beer. While it may seem blasphemous to commemorate such a day with revelry, it was one of our country’s most celebrated victories – making it an excellent reason to throw a party! This date marks the official adoption of our country’s Declaration of Independence, portending the end of a struggle between our foundling nation and England’s imperial stronghold. For those of you who know me, any excuse to host is a good one – this one just happens to be renowned for food, meaning it’s just my kind of party 🙂
Spicy Bourbon Chicken 1Grilling is THE method of choice for any respectable Independence Day cookout. While we certainly had our share of standards – burgers and hotdogs – I always try to include a recipe that stands apart from the crowd; these Spicy Bourbon Chicken Thighs were just that. The original recipe calls for tequila…but in an effort to save money and time, I used a liquor I had on hand: Bourbon. Though let’s be honest – Bourbon is almost always a better choice (especially over Tequila…)
Spicy Bourbon Chicken 2Another notable difference was to use the sauce as a marinade, rather than an ending glaze. The only setback to this is the potential for more flare-ups (since the sugary sauce will be on the direct heat earlier on), but the flavor payoff is worth it. I made this sauce one day in advance, and then set the chicken thighs into the marinade the morning-of the cookout. The end result was flavorful, juicy, with a bit of a kick. I can guarantee you’ll knock your guests socks off with this one – click HERE to see this unique recipe!
Mixed Berry Tart 1The national ostentation of all things red, white, and blue helps to inspire the rhetoric of Independence Day. While I refuse to stick little American flags into every burger that comes off the grill, I do give in to subtle patriotic presentations – this year it was the desserts: Mini Cheesecakes with Summer Berries and a Mixed Berry Tart with Mascarpone-Ginger Cream. Not terribly imaginative on my part, but thankfully red and blue do a fantastic job of delineating any patriotic intent. They were both quite delicious which (in my experience) is what really counts.
Mixed Berry Tart 2The tart’s original recipe was a little too involved, and seemed to be more work than it was worth. So rather than take on an ambitious project, I made a single tart that could fit entirely within a 9×13 baking sheet. The pastry is the most complicated element – a paring knife and the freezer will be your best friend here. Just stick to basic dough knowledge – keep it cold, but not beyond a workable chill (because you won’t have any use for a frozen brick). Mascarpone in lieu of cream cheese was my idea, and seals the deal on this winning dessert – click HERE to see the recipe for this mouthwatering dessert!
Mini CheesecakesThese cheesecakes were adorable, and made for a great end-of-party indulgence. They can be topped with pretty much anything – berries, chocolate, jam, etc. They are far simpler than your standard cheesecake (no need for a water bath, for starters) and much easier to serve to a large crowd. I made my own mini crusts for these, but you can use a vanilla wafer or oreo cookies for a quick fix. I decided to go fancy and use a real vanilla bean as well, but extract will do in a pinch. The best part about these bite-sized treats? You won’t feel quite as guilty when you reach for a second…or fourth: click HERE to see the recipe for these adorable cheesecakes!
July 4th 2Aside from the food, fireworks, and friends, July 4th is also known for its parades. Whether it’s in the middle of small-town Iowa or the National Independence Day Parade in D.C., our country loves its parades. A notable part of any good parade is the brass band, which leads to my discussion on Charles Ives and this blog’s musical pairing. Ives was a different breed of composer – an innovator, artist, and businessman all packed into one; some go so far as to say that he was the prototypical American. It is believed that one of his strongest influences was his father, who had been a U.S. Army bandleader during the Civil War. The day-to-day band rehearsals left an impression on the young Ives, and his father’s encouragement on musical studies helped foster the composer’s vivid imagination:

“In ‘thinking up’ music I usually have some kind of a brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.” – Charles Ives.

One thing that Ives is known for is the incorporation of musical “quotes” – more often than not, they are allusions to popular American folk songs and hymns. These quotations are both intentional and witty, giving insight to Ives’ thought process as a composer. It’s worth noting that Ives was also a very talented organist, and was composing hymns from a very young age. With an upbringing immersed in folk songs, hymns, and marching music, Ives is perfect for this patriotic blog, and his Variations on ‘America’ for Organ Solo showcases all of these elements quite beautifully. Less than 8-minutes in length, it’s a brilliant little work – he wrote it when he was just 17 years-old, and his prodigious organ talent is apparent in the work’s complexity. In fact, it is one of the earliest surviving examples of contextual polytonality – a well-known feature of Ives’ style. The work is both humorous and edgy, with moments where the theme is fighting to be heard followed by moments where it is exulted – nonetheless, “America” rings true throughout. Enjoy!

Sources Cited
“Charles Ives,” Wikipedia.com

A New Take on Holiday Traditions

For my family, the menu for Christmas dinner practically mirrors the cover of a “Good Housekeeping” holiday issue: creamy mashed potatoes, garlicky spinach, a juicy beef tenderloin, freshly baked cookies – the works. So when my roommate Jenn Berg offered to cook a meal with her take on tradition, you can imagine my surprise when she brought home a giant stack of tortillas and several pounds of ground beef. My Texan roomie was making her famous enchiladas, and I quickly understood why this could become a beloved tradition. She asked me to cover the desserts, and I made two that would make any Texan proud: Mexican Wedding Cakes and Sopapilla Cheesecake.
What’s interesting about Mexican Wedding Cakes is while the recipe is old, the name is fairly new. They are closely related to jumbles, a recipe dating back to the Middle Ages. They appeared in Russian culture around the 18th century as sweet confection in tea-sharing ceremonies. This tradition gave them the name Russian Tea Cakes – the shift to its current name has no evident impetus (though rumor has it the Cold War may have played a key role in the change).
These are easily my favorite cookie – they are basically bite-sized pillows of nutty, sugary goodness that are all-too-easy to make. Their lightness comes from using confectioners’ sugar in lieu of regular, and the addition of ground nuts give them a contrasting texture that is irresistibly perfect. While still warm, they are then tossed in confectioners’ sugar – genius! I can guarantee you will make these a Christmas tradition for it will be love at first bite – click HERE to see the recipe for these addictive cookies.
Sopapillas are another Berg Family tradition. They are essentially fried pastry squares that are served warm with honey and/or confectioners’ sugar. I wasn’t fully certain I’d be able concentrate on deep frying after a long day’s work, so I sought an alternative; that’s when I happened upon this recipe. Cheesecake is a Christmas tradition for my family, so this twist felt all too appropriate. I’ll admit, I was initially apprehensive about this recipe: crescent dough, cream cheese and melted butter? Sounds like a gooey mess out of context. The verdict: this cake is ridiculous. I guess you can credit the butter, but the dough does achieve a flaky texture emulating its sopapilla intention. It’s extremely easy to make, and yet still can bring anyone to their knees with its cinnamon-sugary goodness – click HERE to see how to make this unique twist on cheesecake.
I wanted a pairing the embraced the fun, unique take on tradition, so I chose Danzón No. 2, by Arturo Márquez. A celebrated Mexican composer, his works draw significant inspiration from the traditional styles and rhythms of his culture. In terms of Mexican contemporary music, this piece is one of the more venerated among orchestral repertoire (much like these two desserts will be in your baking repertoire!). I’ve included one of the more famous recordings  of this work – Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vwZAkfLKK8

Sources Cited:
“Russian Tea Cake,” Wikipedia.com
“Food Timeline: Cookies, Crackers, & Biscuits,” FoodTimeline.org

A New Beginning…

“The secret to a rich life is to have more beginnings than endings” (David Weinbaum). There’s nothing quite like a new beginning, and this is one project I’d been hoping to pursue for quite some time. There are two great passions in my life: music and cooking. These two are a match made in heaven, one that I hope to explore through my own musical training and culinary experiences. And so my “breath of fresh air” begins with this blog – The Classical Kitchen. I hosted a dinner party for close friends this past weekend to celebrate the blog launch. The menu was, in theory, Italian – but unique flavors betrayed a cultural diversity:

◊ Arugula Salad with Oranges, Tomatoes & Goat Cheese tossed in a Red Wine Vinaigrette
◊ Roasted Rosemary Potatoes with Crispy Garlic and Lemon Zest
◊ Pan-Roasted Chicken with Shallots, Olives and Sage
◊ Vanilla Creme Fraiche Cheesecake with Blackberries

(It’s okay, you can take a moment to digest…)

This dinner was a FANTASTIC way to launch this new blog, and (as always) a great excuse to spend time with friends. Before diving into the chronicles of these recipes, I want to say how lucky I am to be surrounded by such wonderful friends – cooking has no purpose without good company.

The salad was the contribution of my dear friend Tim Wilfong. A veggie through-and-through, he wanted to bring a side that would complement our main dish as well as his (veggie burgers – nothing too fancy, but he claims it was the perfect match).

So about the potatoes – potatoes in general are an easy sell: mashed, roasted, baked, fried, scalloped, etc. You can almost always guarantee that any crowd will love a potato dish. These, though, exceeded everyone’s expectation! While these beautiful, golden potatoes can stand on their own, the added flavors are what bring this dish up a notch: crispy garlic slivers, freshly crushed rosemary, and zesty lemon. Oh.My.God! My advice? Let these guys cook longer a little than you’d expect (without burning them, of course!) The amount of olive oil used in the recipe will protect the potatoes to a longer heat exposure, so don’t fret.

Some modifications: The end of the recipe calls for tossing the potatoes in the leftover lemon/rosemary vinaigrette – I wouldn’t recommend more than a tablespoon (or two). Trust me, you want to maintain that crunchy goodness, and too much oil will just make a soggy mess. The original recipe also calls for dill, but I went with rosemary. You can view this recipe HERE.

Here’s where our regional fare gets an exotic twist. This method of roasting calls for the chicken to be separated into 8 pieces (a process you can do on your own, though I highly recommend asking your butcher to do this for you), then cooked in a large oven-safe pan. Lemon and sage stay true to our Italian taste, but we journey closer to the Mediterranean with a curveball – brined green olives: a fruit native to the Mediterranean region, appearing in Egyptian chronicles dating back to 17th century B.C. Green olives are unripe and much firmer than the black and brown varieties, so they have to be cured with a lye solution to soften the fruit’s flesh.* This dish packs a LOT of flavor, and is a definite keeper.

A few variations: I placed the chicken directly under the broiler for the final stage of cooking to deepen the flavor and color. I also thickened the sauce slightly at the end to make a quick gravy. To check out this fabulous recipe, click HERE.

Even though I created this blog to expand my cooking repertoire beyond sweets, dessert is still a must at all my dinner parties. This dessert was the PERFECT selection for a launch menu. With a gorgeous texture and depth of flavor, this WILL be my go-to cheesecake recipe from here on out. The original recipe called for a roasted pineapple topping…which probably would have been fantastic if I had the energy to make it, but fresh blackberries were the perfect touch. If there is anything you take away from this lengthy first post, it should be this recipe.

My recipe notes: do NOT overmix the batter, or an unseemly crack will be inevitable, and use real vanilla bean. While vanilla extract is obviously cheaper and easier to manage, this cake would lose half its charm. Finally, don’t substitute sour cream for the crème fraîche – the tangy, light flavor is what makes this recipe! You can get the recipe for this cheesecake HERE.

Given our “twist” in ingredients and method, I feel it only appropriate to take a detour in genre when considering a musical pairing for this menu. I needed a piece that appeared Italian, for all intents and purposes, but contained elements of diversity. My friend Nate Lofton gave the perfect suggestion: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, Op.90 “Italian“. A German-born composer of Jewish descent who studied briefly in France,  Mendelssohn was inspired to write this work following his travels in Italy.** I have included  a recording of the first movement below with The Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – arguably one of the best up-and-coming professional orchestras today. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWaGq3HIojs

*According to homecooking.about.com.
**According to Wikipedia.com