Easter’s Cutest Traditions

When you travel as much as I do, you tend to lose track of the various holidays. Fortunately, we’re often bombarded with constant reminders whenever making the weekly CVS/supermarket run (whose shelves are lined with seasonal frippery months in advance). When Easter rolled around, I had a different reminder: my roommate Jenn had decided to give her Artist Diploma recital on Good Friday. She asked me to bring some form of dessert, and it was all too easy to give in to Easter’s colorful traditions with these Mint-Chocolate Birds’ Nests.
I never imagined I would be placing a package of crunchy chow mein noodles into the same camera shot as a bag of Cadbury chocolate eggs…yet here they were – two food products whose chance pairing make an adorable, crunchy delight. The only time I’d ever used chow mein noodles had been as topping for a chicken stir-fry…a far fetch from chocolate. Though labeled as “noodles”, they are actually cracker-like in both taste and consistency. This otherwise bland flavor makes them an easy complement for a variety of dishes.
These are extremely simple to make, and can be assembled in a matter of minutes. The first time I made them was with butterscotch and peanut butter. Looking for a new flavor profile, I added a dash of peppermint extract…and oh my God they were good! The perfect combination of crunch and sweet, these are a quick and easy way to entertain and delight your friends – click HERE to see how to make these adorable treats.
Considering I made these for my roommate’s recital (which was a phenomenal concert!) it was only fitting that the musical pairing be a piece she performed. Her program began with two Good Friday arias, and I chose the first of these for my pairing: “Endlich wird mein Joch” from Cantata BWV 56.  Bach composed this cantata in October of 1726 during his time as Cantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. “Endlich” is one of the more uplifting arias from this otherwise somber cantata, celebrating the “end of suffering”. The translation is as follows:

Finally, finally my yoke
Must again be lifted from me.
Then I shall battle in the Lord’s power,
Then I shall be like an eagle,
Then I shall ascend from this earth,
And soar inexhaustible.
Oh, may it happen yet today!

The joyous tone of the piece perfectly complements these delicious treats, with the lyric “like an eagle” serving as the obligatory literal piece 🙂 She performed the piece with my very dear friend Tim Wilfong singing the baritone line (who did a fabulous job!) The recording below is with oboist Marc Lifschey (one of THE American oboists, according to Jenn) and baritone Mack Harrell. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_589br3HP8

Sources Cited:
“Cantata #56 ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen'”, Bellingham Festival of Music
“Helmut Rilling interprets Bach Cantatas,” www.drmm.net

Short and Sweet

There is no lack of desserts when I host an event – tell me 20 people will show, and I’ll make enough for 50. My Oscars Party was no exception. It also gave my creative edge a challenge – as you read in my last post, each dish was paired with a nominated film. Some of the  pairings were a bit of a stretch (cocktail wieners with Hugo?), though it was fun to do nonetheless! These were definitely two of the stars from the evening’s spread (as were the films with which they were paired): Mini Chocolate Pies and Black & White Cookies.
For those of you who read the book/saw the movie, it’s no mystery that I paired these Mini Chocolate Pies with The Help (definitely worth seeing if only to understand why this is the case, though it is a great movie). They’re quite simple to make – I purchased several packages of phyllo mini tarts, made a simple chocolate pudding to fill them with and topped each with a dollop of meringue. Your guests will think you put in WAY more effort. Click HERE to see how to make these adorable bite-sized treats.
Black & White cookies are classic, and I had always been curious to give them a try. They were paired with The Artist (a literal pairing, granted) which was hands downs my FAVORITE movie of the year – I practically leapt from my seat every time it won an Oscar. These are more cake-like than your average cookies (thanks to the use of cake flour), and are topped with a thick, glossy icing that takes seconds to make. They were a huge hit at the party, and I imagine they’ll be adored at your next event as well – click HERE to see how to make these sweet classics.
I wanted the musical pairing for these two desserts to acknowledge their “bite-sized” enjoyability – both also compelled my more creative edge. That led me to consider fulfilling works that can also be defined as “short and sweet”; musical novellas if you will. With this in mind what better pairing than Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12! Inspired by a collection of novellas by E.T.A Hoffman, the eight pieces within the work capture different the moods and thoughts of Schumann’s dual identities, known as the characters “Florestan” and “Eusebius.” Seeing how both of these desserts brought out my more creative edge, I felt the dreamer in Eusebius would be the best fit and thus chose the first of the eight pieces: “Des Abends” in D-flat major. It’s gentle melody lulls the listener into an ephemeral state of serenity; refuge from the noise and chaos of reality (a similar experience to be had after trying one of the delicious treats in this post). Enjoy! 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNcavAwICR8

Sources Cited:
“Fantasiestücke,” Wikipedia.com

When Decadence meets Elegance

There are very few who will say no to a peanut butter/chocolate combination (I’ve stressed the draw of this “super couple” a number of times on this site). That being said, I can’t quite say there’s been a cake as dangerously addictive as this one – the perfect balance of a rich, dark chocolate cake with a light, heavenly peanut butter frosting. I had volunteered (again) to be the baker for our office’s January birthdays celebration – it’s a busy time of year, so I wanted to bring in an extra-special treat. This Dark Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting and Chocolate-Peanut Butter Ganache DEFINITELY was just that.
There is dark chocolate, then there is this cake – I decided to give Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa a shot for this cake. The result was a cake that was nearly black. It was a rich cake, no doubt, but my fear that the chocolate flavor would be WAY too intense was unfounded. I’ve discovered that chocolate cakes made with boiling water = amazing. Though it makes the batter appear more like chocolate soup, its function is helping dissolve the cocoa butter fats into the batter, resulting in a smooth, rich finish. It also means that the cakes will be that much more difficult to remove from your pans, so be prepared with parchment (or grease and flour the pan).
The frosting was the winner of this cake – despite having nearly 3 cups of peanut butter, the result was a “light, airy” frosting with just the right amount of sweet and salty. In fact, it might just be one of the best frostings I’ve made yet. I had originally thought about decorating it with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but chose to make my own chocolate-peanut butter ganache – people were practically licking this stuff off their plates (it was also a gorgeous alternative). All-in-all, this was a fabulous cake that had all the right elements. I highly recommend making this…asap – click HERE to see the recipe for this showstopping dessert.
To complement the “darkness” of this cake, I thought a piece that has a bit of a dark side would be appropriate. At the same time, it needed to be a work with a certain elegance to mimic the balance of this beautiful cake. This led me to the Czech composer ‪Leoš Janáček‬, whose music is known for both its volatilities and subtleties. The piece I felt would be perfect for this pairing is his String Quartet No. 1. Composed when ‪Janáček‬ was 69, the piece is based on Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreuzter Sonata” – a dramatic tale of marital distrust, fury and ultimate despair. The piece itself is highly evocative, filled with powerful harmonies that are countered by delicate refrains; a beautiful balance. The recording below is with the Alban Berg Quartet – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sc-DZWoU52E

Sources Cited:
“Janáček, String Quartet No. 1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’” Earsense Blog

A Delicious Parting Gift

As young adults, it’s inevitable that our friends have yet to find that one permanent place to settle down. It’s never easy to say goodbye when a friend decides to move on; such is the case with my very dear friend Brian McCarthy – he’ll be leaving Boston soon to join the army band, a position he will no doubt excel with. I’ve been through a lot with Brian, and he is someone I will miss a lot. I hosted a small going-away party for him earlier this week, inviting a handful of close friends to wish him luck. Knowing my Brian, I made sure there was a wealth of cheeses, a sizable line-up of party games, and a worthy drink for an Irishman: Jameson. This latter spirit also inspired the dessert for the evening, which undoubtedly takes the “cake” in my dessert repertoire: Chocolate Stout Cupcakes with a Whiskey Ganache and Bailey’s Buttercream Frosting.
Brian stands by his Irish heritage, which compelled me to avoid the original title for these cupcakes: Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes. I have nothing against bakers who do label these cupcakes as such, it’s more the dark history behind the name itself. A drink consisting of Guinness, Irish whiskey and Bailey’s, this infamous shot garners mixed reactions, from total indifference to unmitigated outrage. The name is an allusion to the violent exploits used by the IRA against Northern Ireland during The Troubles. In other words, this shot is far from serving as a tribute to the Irish.
Name aside, these cupcakes are simply amazing! Stout and chocolate are a match made in heaven – the dark, rich brew complements the silky batter perfectly. As you saw above, I went with a Harpoon Chocolate Stout (what I had) rather than the Guinness called for – it was an unintentional stroke of genius! Filled with a spicy ganache (Jameson, no less) and topped with a buttery Bailey’s frosting, these cupcakes can’t go wrong. To push the cuteness factor up a notch (a must with cupcakes), I topped each with a chocolate-covered espresso bean – click HERE to see how to make these deliciously rich cupcakes!
If there is one thing I know about Brian, he plays an amazing Liszt – with that in mind, I chose a work I have heard Brian perform on multiple occasions (yet never grow weary of) – Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Liszt was both a benefactor to and supporter of Wagner’s music. The opera Tristan und Isolde is based on the medieval legend of two star-crossed lovers, and has become on of the more prominent works in orchestral repertoire. The “Liebestod” concludes the third and final act of the opera – it is sung by Isolde as she mourns we lover’s death, shortly before her own tragic end. Known for his virtuosic genius on the piano, Liszt had a gift for adapting the music of large scale works to the keyboard. He stays true to the voice of Wagner, effectively adapting the extensive orchestration to the piano while maintaining the rich, emotive qualities of the overall work. Similarly, each bite of these cupcakes is extremely rich and decadent. I want to dedicate this post to Brian – you will be missed dearly by all of us here in Boston, and we hope you know that you always have a home with us whenever you need it 🙂 Wishing you all the best!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UQrOIa7coc

Sources Cited:
“Franz Liszt,” Wikipedia.com
“Tristan und Isolde,” Wikipedia.com

Crooning for Christmas Cookies

I should start this post by saying Merry Christmas!!! There really is no such thing as too many cookies, especially during the holiday season. Everyone from children to Santa Claus relish these seasonal treats, and Christmas morning just wouldn’t be the same without the smell of freshly baked goods lingering in the air. As you can glean from my previous posts, my baking skills have been amped to the max for the past several weeks. While cutouts are a staple of the season, Thus, the cookie chronicles continue with a pair of recipes that are out-of-this-world amazing – boozy Rum Balls and irresistible Peanut Butter Balls (or Buckeyes).
Considering these are no-bake cookies, many assume that rum balls will knock you off your feet after just a few bites. Though it’s true that the rum isn’t “baked out”, it’s highly unlikely that you will feel the effects of the alcohol. That being said, I do add a “touch” more to mine (including a splash of Kahlua for added depth). The two must-have ingredients for rum balls are chocolate and rum (naturally), while the remaining add-ins can vary. Most recipes call for crushed biscuits, ground nuts, and a binding ingredient of some kind (jam, corn syrup, etc). Though many imagine these cookies as an American tradition, they are enjoyed across the globe: from Australia to Canada to Denmark! I can guarantee that you’ll love these boozy treats – click HERE to make these treats a holiday tradition in your home!
The combination of peanut butter and chocolate will rarely disappoint – you will be disappointed, though, to discover that these will be the first cookies to disappear from your holiday spread. These mouthwateringly delicious treats are, according to my coworker David, practically gourmet versions of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They are SO easy to make, yet the chilling time does require a labored patience while waiting to eat one. The state of Ohio calls these “Buckeyes,” leaving the tops without chocolate to resemble the nut of the Buckeye tree (Ohio’s state tree). They have naturally become a football tradition for the Ohio State Buckeyes. If you love Reese’s, then I promise these are for you – click HERE to discover the easiest, most delicious holiday cookie you’ll ever find!
As you have read, both of these recipes create cookies that are irresistibly delicious – despite their bite-sized form, they are both rich, decadent cookies. Last night I attended a Christmas Eve service and discovered the perfect pairing – Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery), from his Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël. The text is a responsorial chant from the nocturnal Matins of Christmas – the prayer service that is celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve. The work is sung a cappella, yet is filled with rich, touching harmonies that reach right into your soul. I’ve included a recording of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers – I hope you enjoy it, and Happy Holidays everyone!!!

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

Sources Cited:
“Rum Ball,” Wikipedia.com
“Peanut Butter Balls,” Joy of Baking

A Heavenly Slice of Tradition

A Thanksgiving dinner is never complete without pie; they are practically as revered as the main turkey itself! The promise of these desserts at the end of the big meal compels guests to find their second (or fourth) wind before satiety kicks in. I chose to take full advantage of this tradition, and made not one, not two, but three pies! If you recall from my previous post, I had 15 friends over for dinner, so my ambition to bake this many wasn’t too far-fetched. So for this post, It is only all too appropriate to start with a classic: Maple Pumpkin Pie.
Pumpkins, native to North America, were central to the lifestyles of the Native Americans, providing both nutritional sustenance as well as raw materials for everyday items (hollowed vessels, floor mats, etc). When the colonists first arrived, they quickly adopted this readily available squash to their own diets. Over time, they began to add milk and honey in an effort to enhance its flavor (a precedent to the beloved classic). Yet it was French chef Francoise Pierre la Varrene (once pumpkin began to be exported abroad) who created the first pumpkin custard with a pastry crust. The recipe was then sent to England, and subsequently back to the Americas.
This pie uses a fresh pumpkin rather than the canned variety. Though the latter is easily substituted, I highly recommend sticking with fresh – it gives the custard a pure taste that adds a new depth to this classic. It also uses maple syrup as a sweetener, giving this pie a more authentic sweet (rather than using an absurd amount of processed sugar). The funny thing with this pie (and the pie below) was that I accidentally purchased whole wheat pastry flour (a lighter alternative to whole wheat flour) for the crusts. It gave these pies more of a “harvest” appeal, yet still managed to create a beautifully flaky crust. That being said, I’d probably go for the plain ol’ pastry flour next time – click HERE to see the recipe for this Thanksgiving classic!
This second pie we all know and love – the beloved Pecan Pie. Though rumor holds this pie as a creation of French settlers introduced to the pecan by Native Americans while in New Orleans, the earliest record of this pie only dates back to the (very) late 19th century.  Karo® Syrup, founded in 1902, popularized the recipe in an effort to promote its product. Almost all recipes in practice today rely on the syrup (preferably Karo), with some establishments in the South even naming this dish the “Karo Pie.”
This recipe definitely makes one heck of a pie – it is from the Pioneer Woman, and she claims it is a “Pie that Will Make You Cry.” Fortunately, none of my guests were in tears while eating this, but there was a wave of silence during the dessert course (a good sign, I take it). Most pies use halved pecans, but this recipe calls for chopped nuts. I now prefer this method as it creates a beautifully even topping that still looks stunning, without all the hassle. Click HERE to see how to make this fabulous holiday pie!
I’ve saved the best for last (yet pictured it first as a teaser) – Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie. Granted, this is not a “Thanksgiving tradition,” but this is an extraordinary pie! A buttery graham cracker crust filled with a creamy, peanut butter mousse atop a rich layer of dark chocolate ganache – just typing that makes my mouth water. The combination of the dark chocolate with the whipped peanut butter results in a decadent yet refreshing taste that is all-too irresistible (my friend TJ swears it tasted like mint, hence the inclusion of “refreshing” – even though there is NO mint in this recipe, I’ll let you be the judge on this).  I can guarantee this pie will quickly become a Thanksgiving tradition for you and your family – click HERE to see how to make this mouth-watering pie!
For the musical pairing, I thought it only appropriate to go with an American composer: Charles Ives. As I’ve shared before on this blog, his music was the first of American composers to achieve international renown. Wanting a work that was ambitious yet not overly so, I chose his Symphony No. 2. Though his music is filled with experimental techniques, such as polytonality and tone clusters, he weaves recognizable themes throughout his works as musical quotations. His most discernible quotations are famous American folk songs, taking inspiration from his father’s work as an Army bandleader. I thought this work would especially be appropriate given its diversity of cultural quotations: Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms are all cited along with folk melodies. These pies, though arguably an American tradition, find origins in a number of cultures, from Native American staples to French pâtisseries. It’s also worth mentioning I performed this work with my roomie sitting next to me as first oboe! – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZyVlRk6hG4&feature=related

Sources Cited:
“This History of Thanksgiving and Pumpkin Pie.” Gourmet.com
“Pie & Pastry,” FoodTimeline.com
“Symphony No. 2: Notes,” A Charles Ives Website

A Treat for a Texan

Planning a surprise party is like organizing an elaborate meal – there’s prep work to ensure that everything goes smoothly, you have to know when and where the moving parts will be throughout, and you have to be prepared for anything that might happen. Ultimately, the true purpose of both is to bring  family and friends together. The other night I threw a surprise party for my roommate Jenn Berg – the turnout was great, the spread was epic, the champagne was flowing, and the look of sheer happiness on her face made it all worthwhile. Since she loves nutella, I decided to make this gorgeous Nutella Cake with Chocolate Ganache.
Nutella is a work of art, and there are very few who would say otherwise. In fact it’s so popular that they created a World Nutella Day to showcase the potential of this decadent spread! The original recipe was created by an Italian pastry maker named Pietro Ferrero. In the 1940s, his patisserie was limited on chocolate due to WWII rationing. Northern Italy has an abundant supply of hazelnuts, so Ferrero decided to create a mixture with cocoa to help extend his chocolate supply. The result was so successful that Ferrero created the company Ferrero SpA to market and sell the spread.
This isn’t your average flourless cake – the egg whites are whipped separately from the batter, while the ground hazelnuts act as a “flour” substitute. The result is a soufflé-like cake with a rich flavor contrast (from the nutella and hazelnuts). I wouldn’t say serve bigger slices as a result, though – you will still find it to be plenty rich. The recipe originally calls for Frangelico, but rum works just as well. It also originally calls for a garnish of hazelnuts, but I ended up using Ferrero Rocher balls instead (another favorite of Ferrero SpA). Click HERE to see the recipe for this gorgeous cake!
In homage to Jenn, an oboist, I chose a musical piece that I’ve heard her practicing many, many times: Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Originally a suite composed for piano, Ravel later orchestrated four of the seven movements for orchestra. Each movement of the work is dedicated to friends Ravel lost in WWI. Filled with dance-like melodies and pastoral reflections, the work is more a celebration of life rather than a lamentation (making it a wonderful complement to our evening!) This piece places a number of demands on the oboe, making it a staple of their excerpt repertoire (especially for auditions!) I hope that one day I’ll have the chance to hear my extremely talented roomie to perform this with an orchestra – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc8ugWM5tB0&feature=related

Sources Cited:
“Nutella,” Wikipedia.com
“Le tombeau de Couperin,” Wikipedia.com

Do You Believe in Magic?

Baking elaborate cakes can be an exciting challenge, but sometimes it’s the simple things that really shine. I had invited a small group over to hang out, and it just so happened to be my friend Kyle’s birthday as well! I wanted to make something quick and easy, knowing that a cake would be too much for a small crowd. With only seven ingredients, this dessert was shockingly good! It’s no wonder they are called Seven Layer Magic Bars.
The “magic” in these bars comes from the sweetened condensed milk. Granted, chocolate and butterscotch combined with walnuts and coconut is pretty fantastic on its own. But these all come together thanks to this decadent ingredient. Condensed milk is basically milk from which water has been extracted and sugar added to. Once canned, it can have a shelf life that lasts for several years. Condensed milk can be found in recipes around the world, from the Brazilian Brigadeiro to the English Banoffee Pie.
First appearing in cookbooks in the 1960s, these cookies quickly became and still are Eagle Brand’s most popular recipe. These cookies don’t require any eggs, making them a quick fix for any busy weekday. That being said, they are insanely delicious and definitely worthy of a special occasion. My friends certainly agreed – click HERE to the secret to these wonderful bars!
I thought that for a recipe with seven ingredients, a septet would be a great pairing. That led me to the beautiful Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet by Maurice Ravel. Ravel wrote the work on a 1905 commission by the Érard company to celebrate its creation of a double-action pedal harp. The work is well-known amongst harpists, resembling more of a miniature “concerto” than a chamber work for the instrument. It demonstrates the agility and expressive range of the harp, with the quartet and winds providing colorful context. I performed this work several years ago with my beloved friend, harpist Lucia Stavros (she did a fabulous job, as always!) I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I do!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s6suaIQVzI

Sources Cited:
“Condensed Milk,” Wikipedia.com
“Introduction and Allegro (Ravel),” Wikipedia.com

A Cake that Wears Many Hats

Have you ever wanted a cake that could be a round-the-clock enjoyment? An elegant dessert, a midday snack, or even a late night nosh? There’s no “rule” that cakes can only be enjoyed at certain times of day, yet there are few that can satiate those random cravings. Enter this beauty –   a Chocolate Soufflé Brownie Cake. You can enjoy it chilled with a berry coulis, microwaved and served with ice cream, or even just as is with your hands! What more can you ask of a cake…or brownie…or whatever it is.The reason you can say I’m slightly confused about this cake’s “category” is because it has all the components of a soufflé, and yet still manages to taste just like a brownie. The brownie element comes from the melted chocolate, to which the egg yolks and flour are stirred in by hand. This creates a smooth, rich texture of chocolatey goodness. Most “authentic” brownie recipes are made this way, and often use a really good chocolate (and I used Ghiradelli for this cake).The soufflé element comes from the separation of the eggs. The yolks, as mentioned above, are added per usual, yet the white are whipped to a frothy perfection on the side. By whipping the whites separately from the rest of the batter, the cake’s texture is leavened substantially. This cake, in a way, gets the best of both worlds thanks to these separate but wonderful elements. Click HERE to make this versatile dessert today! In thinking about a composer that could also “wear many hats,” there was one name that I was shocked to discover has yet to be on my blog: Mozart. He was an extremely prolific composer whose list of repertoire is nearly endless: operas, sonatas, symphonies, vocal works, concertos, numerous chamber settings (the list goes on).  Though his life was tragically cut short, he managed to produce a wealth of musical genius that influenced countless generations. Le Nozze di Figarois arguably one of his most renowned operas, and I have chosen the beautiful aria “Porgi, amor” for this pairing. In this scene, the Countess laments her husband’s alleged duplicity with her maid Susanna (even though such is not the case). This recording, from the 1980 Paris Opéra production (thanks Tim Wilfong for helping me find this!) features the extremely talented Gundula Janowitz as the Countess – enjoy! 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz3jBUmzqlQ&feature=related

Sources Cited:
“The Marriage of Figaro,” Wikipedia.com