Simple Gifts for Snowy Drifts

AsparagusProsciutto_1A bomb cyclone just passed through New York…for the third time this year. And it was just as unpleasant as the last two. When the weather gets this bad, I go for simple recipes – because #ComfortFood makes everything better. It also helps if you don’t have to leave your house/apartment/comfy Ikea couch…so fortunately for me I had a pantry that could produce Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus as well as a Classic Grilled Cheese; both of which are a perfect match for a day when dense, heavy sheets of what appear to be wet flour are cascading from the sky. Gross. 
Asparagus_1Because I’m a nut for history, I thought, “If this dish is so easy, how easy is it to make Prosciutto?” Turns out…it’s not easy at all. BUT (good news!) it is easy to find prosciutto at almost any grocer. Italian in origin, Prosciutto – like Champagne and Gorgonzola – is a “protected designation of origin” product, in that its name can only be assigned to meats created under specific conditions and within certain territories. I had purple asparagus for this dish as well, which was also first produced in Italy (called Violetto d’ Albenga…great name for an opera character, FYI).
Asparagus Prosciutto 2The recipe for this dish is quite simple: you wrap each spear with a slice of prosciutto, arrange them on a roasting pan, drizzle some olive oil, pepper and salt over the spears, and roast. You want to cook the dish at a high heat, so that the asparagus and prosciutto crisp but don’t overcook. Since there are only two ingredients, you should aim for quality asparagus and prosciutto. For those of you wondering if bacon is a substitute, it will definitely work – albeit with a very different flavor profile (though still delicious). Click HERE to see how to make this delectably simple side. 
GrilledCheese_1This next recipe is a great way to use up any leftover cheeses you have in your fridge – I had some sharp cheddar, and shredded about a cup for this recipe. While most recipes swear by American cheese – given its melt factor – I personally think any cheese will do the trick. I also love to use a good quality butter for grilled cheese. My mantra: if you have to use fatty ingredients, go for the best. I actually used Kerrygold butter and cheddar…mere coincidence. For the bread, I highly recommend using a good sourdough. Pictured is a whole wheat variety from Trader Joe’s that is my latest obsession.
DSC_0793A cast iron is the quintessential tool for a grilled cheese, but a nonstick pan will do in a pinch (what I used). To ensure the cheese melts fully, I put the lid on after I flip the sandwich – but allowed it cook for a few seconds after flipping sans lid to prevent steam being captured underneath (no one likes a soggy sandwich). Of course, there is no right or wrong way to make this classic: at the end of the day it’s toasted bread and melted cheese. Though I recommend skipping the Benny & Joon method…where Johnny Depp used a clothes iron. Click HERE to see my method for this American classic. 
I actually thought of the musical pairing before the food – as I’d been considering the piece for some time. It’s the “Variation on a Shaker Melody: ‘Simple Gifts'” from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Originally a ballet, today the larger work is performed as an orchestral suite. The ballet premiered in 1944, and the Suite just one year later with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitsky. The work embodies the spirit of the American pioneer, against the backdrop of early 19th century Appalachia. The shaker melody is one of the more famous moments of the piece, and perhaps the most recognizable. The tune “Simple Gifts”, 170 years old this year, was in relative obscurity until Copland’s Appalachian Spring – and as you will hear in the clip below, it was a great addition to the classical canon. The recording features the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. Enjoy!

“Appalachian Spring,”

Pie, Oh My…

What better way to end a hot summer’s day than with a cool slice of pie? Some reasons why pie is the all-time seasonal dessert:

  1. It can be made ahead of time, allowing your kitchen to stay at a reasonable (and tolerable) temperature during gatherings (CRUCIAL for hosting!)
  2. It is portable – always a welcome treat at cookouts and potlucks!
  3. It is remarkably versatile, and can be the perfect palate for the season’s colorful harvest.
  4. Let’s face it – who doesn’t like pie?

When I hosted a BBQ the other weekend, I thought I’d throw my efforts into not one but TWO pies…as expected, there wasn’t so much as a crumb left by the end of the party. What made them disappear so soon, you ask? Brace yourself – Lime and Blackberry Meringue Pie and Banana Cream Pie with Homemade Caramel and Chocolate Crust.
I have tried countless pie dough recipes, resulting in everything from lifeless crusts and burnt edges. This recipe is my new go-to: perfectly flaky, yet still full of that sinfully buttery taste! The secret ingredient? Vodka! Probably one of the few times that vodka is a good choice. Once the dough starts baking, the (flavorless) alcohol evaporates, and leaves behind a golden crust just begging to be filled! It’s a Cook’s Illustrated experiment (gotta love those nerdy cooks!) and will guarantee a perfect slice of pie 🙂
I’m a sucker for blackberries – there is something too irresistible about berries so fresh that they look ready to burst. Glazed with red wine and sugar…I was sold! As for the lime curd, there (apparently) is a step that involves powdered gelatin and whipped cream…I think my subconscious decided to omit this in favor of a straight-up curd. The result was (in my opinion) fabulous! A simple, creamy lime curd atop a beautiful bed of glazed blackberries – does life get any sweeter? Click HERE to see the recipe for this gorgeous pie!
For many of us, banana cream pie evokes memories of Nilla wafers and Jello pudding mix. Yet this recipe is a cut above those “out-of-a-box” creations – layers of homemade caramel and dark chocolate ganache topped with a creamy vanilla bean custard and fresh bananas. The caramel and custard require a bit of patience (and careful monitoring). Both are prepared over low heat, and immediately removed the second they are finished…failure to do this will put you right back at square one. That being said, the result is one of the BEST banana cream pies you will have ever tasted! I’m not one to pressure others, but I really encourage you to give this pie a try – click HERE to see the recipe for this homemade classic!
I wanted a musical pairing that captured the “joy” of summer in addition to acknowledging the unique flavor of these two pies. That led me to Debussy: a composer whose style is both beautiful and exotic. His work L’Isle joyeuse (Isle of Joy) for solor piano made a perfect fit. Debussy was inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement pour Cythère (Voyage to Cythera). The scene, filled with color and sensuality, portrays a group at the onset of their journey to the Island of Aphrodite (pictured below):
Debussy captures this colorful revelry by combining standard diatonic scales with whole tone scales; the result is almost otherworldly. These pies, each of classic origin, bring a new concept of flavor combinations that allow one to experience an almost “otherworldly joy” at first bite. Not to mention the technical difficulty this piece requires can certainly be met by the amount of time and patience needed to make these delicacies. I hope you enjoy this work as much as I do!

Sources Cited:
“Debussy: L’Isle joyeuse,” Minnesota Orchestra Program Notes
“L’Embarquement pour Cythere, by Antoine Watteau,”

An Indulgence of Laughter and Sugar

Donuts…baked in a bread pudding…forgive me arteries, for I have sinned. My sister talked me into this one, how I’m still not certain. I honestly thought she was joking…but then I had a bite, and wished I had never discovered this irresistible thing. I tried to push my plate away, but found myself going back for more against my own will. Sugary, golden goodness…save yourself while you can from this Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.
There’s something truly American about the doughnut (or “donut” as we like to spell it here). Evocative of classic diners and incomplete without a cup of coffee, they are seen as a cultural staple of the American breakfast. Though believed to be of Dutch origin, Hanson Gregory (an American) takes the credit for the ring shape we’ve all come to know and love. It is said he disliked the doughy, uncooked center of the pastries, and started using a tin can to cut the holes. Despite their integral connection to our culture, doughnuts are enjoyed across the globe, from the German Berliner to the Moroccan Sfenji.
The custard for this dish is pretty dense, no lie – three types of cream and a dozen eggs – but crucial to turning this dessert from “just another pudding” to “you-can’t-put-the-fork-down” amazing! The trick is to toast the doughnut pieces completely, then allow them to sit at room temperature for a good 30 minutes or so before adding the custard. This helps give the pudding a sugary crunch. Regardless of the occasion, this dish will win over even the staunchest of critics (myself included): click HERE to see the recipe.
This dish is so rich and eccentric, I couldn’t help but laugh when Sarah first told me about it. That led me to consider a musical pairing with such a sense of humor: Britten’s A Simple Symphony, for string orchestra. With movements titled “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Saraband,” and “Frolicsome Finale”, he’s made known the humorous intent. That being said, each movement does ring true to it’s name. The work opens on a lively note, giving us hints of  classical norms which are then offset with not-so-subtle antics. It then glides into a dazzling second movement simmering with a restrained energy, played entirely without bows. The third movement is the longest, taking a reflective turn into a more emotive realm. The fourth movement then  “snaps us back to reality,” giving a festive closure to this delightful “morsel” of a work that runs just under 20 minutes. The recording below is with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“About the Piece: Simple Symphony,” LA Phil

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!

Sources Cited:

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!

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

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!

Sources Cited:
“Russian Tea Cake,”
“Food Timeline: Cookies, Crackers, & Biscuits,”

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!

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

A Delectable Surprise

There’s nothing like a surprise party to make a rainy Friday night come to life. We decided to throw one for my close friend Erika Boysen, and it was a huge success! Somehow we managed to keep it under wraps, and she showed up totally unaware. Lots of great people were there, and there was (of course) tons of food. Earlier that week I managed to glean from Erika her love for tiramisu. Since this was going to be a party with lots of people, authentic tiramisu would quickly become a mess so I decided to make Kahlúa Tiramisu Cupcakes.
For those of you familiar with making tiramisu, you may be wondering why use Kahlúa instead of Marsala. While it’s not the most traditional substitute, Kahlúa gives an extra kick of coffee flavor to these. Plus I also have a giant bottle leftover from brownies I had made a while back…expect more Kahlúa recipes, in other words. These actual cakes are just like ladyfingers – they are perfect little “sponges” for the coffee-kahlúa syrup. They have a light crumb and bake to a beautiful golden brown. Topped with an airy mascarpone frosting, these cupcakes are just like the real deal. Click HERE to learn how to make these marvelous treats!
For pairing this piece, I wanted to honor the birthday girl and feature a work that genuine standard in the flute repertoire: Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata. Poulenc composed the work for flutist extraordinaire Jean-Pierre Rampal (whose was often cited as being the authority on stylistic choices by a previous flute teacher that Erika and I shared). As a member of the French group of composers “Les Six,” Poulenc’s music was known for being light and simplistic. The “light” relation to these cupcakes goes without saying. These cakes may have not been simple to make, but they are certainly easy to eat! I’ve included a recording of the first movement performed by Emmanuel Pahud, as well as a fabulous photo of the birthday girl and my friend TJ (thanks Philip!) – enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Philip Varricchio

A Global Delicacy

When you host social gatherings as often as I do, you are left with a bunch of odds and ends in your kitchen: half-eaten bags of chips, nearly depleted salsas, cheeses of every variety, etc. These leftovers often find their way into my culinary creations. More recently, I found myself with a collection of untouched baguettes that were too stale to enjoy, yet too young to toss. My upstairs neighbors also had an untouched leftover: dark rum. The solution was just too easy: Rum Raisin Bread Pudding.Like many food histories, that of bread pudding isn’t necessarily traceable to a specific region. This simple way to use up stale bread finds footing in a number of cuisines, such as European stuffings, Indian Shahi Tukra, and the Spanish Capirotada. With liquid and sweeteners as a starting point, it’s no wonder that this dessert is such an international delight. With such a simple base, the add-in options are endless: sliced fruits, chocolates, dried fruits, nuts, syrups, the list goes on!
I’ve personally always felt that dried fruits work wonders in bread pudding, and the thought of rum raisins was a hard one to shake. I can’t tell you how easy this is for being SOOO good! My only confession on this dish: the sauce was a near-disaster (rum bubbling over saucepan = unexpected flambé!). PLEASE remove the pan from the heat before adding the rum. That being said, the sauce made this pudding Oh.So.Good – Click HERE to make this simple, delectable treat today!
Though he’s been paired several times on this blog already, Debussy is yet again a composer whose music most suitably fits this dish. Though rather than the qualities of his style, my pairing refers more to his actual influences. As this dish is arguably “a worldly staple,” I wanted a composer who drew from international influences. Debussy is a wonderful example, with a wide range of cultural inspirations: Russian music by prominent composers of his time, the works of English painter Joseph Turner and Japanese artist Hokusai, gamelan music of Java (which he experienced at Paris’s Exposition Universelle in 1889), the German composer Richard Wagner, an extensive selection of literature, etc. The work I chose exhibits a number of “exotic” influences: Estampes. This work, for solo piano, consists of three movements that reflect a variety of cultures. The first movement (which I’ve included here) is structured on pentatonic scales and hints at melodies redolent of East Asia. The second draws inspiration from Spanish styles, while the third reflects on his native France – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
– “Puddings, custards, & creams,”
– “Capirotada,”
– “Claude Debussy,”