Rhapsody in Ribs

Barbecue and Fourth of July are the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of culinary traditions – it’s hard to picture  one without the other. This was my fourth year celebrating Independence Day in Boston, and this city just comes to life. The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular is one of THE largest celebrations in the United States, and is a tradition viewed by Americans across the nation. While the live show is truly spectacular (and one every Bostonian should experience at least once), the 500,000+ spectators makes it somewhat of a stressful endeavor…so after having trekked out to the Charles for the past 3 years, my friends and I vied for an at-home Barbecue Cookout and viewing of the Boston Pops show.
Ribs – they are an iconic Fourth of July tradition, and resonate with appetites across the nation. For this dish, I chose baby back ribs. A cut from the top of a hog, they are (unfortunately) much tougher than the more tender pork loin. Because of this, grilling baby back ribs can quickly go from perfect to beyond repair. The trick is to start the cooking process before the ribs hit the grill – the low and slow roast method. What’s even better about this method is that the meat doesn’t need more than 10 to 15 minutes on the grill (as opposed to hours), leaving you more time to relax with your guests.
A great rib needs a great sauce, and this was a great sauce – I like to think that whenever bourbon and brown sugar are combined, a rainbow appears; that is how perfect they are together. It is sweet with a hint of spice (earthy or floral, depending on your bourbon). Making it the day ahead will a) save you time and b) make the sauce 10x better…so basically it’s a win-win situation 😉 Whether grilling for a few or a crowd, these Bourbon and Brown Sugar Ribs are sure to please (thanks Teej for the above photo!) Click HERE to get the recipe for this barbecue classic.
In addition to the ribs, I made some Honey-Sesame Chicken Skewers that were to die for! Tender, packed with flavor, and SO simple to make, they were an ultimate hit. The marinade is what gives these skewers their unique edge, with ingredients including sake, sesame oil, and even puréed pears! The original recipe called for chicken breasts, but the cheaper, more tender thighs were my pick; a solid choice when hosting for a crowd. Trust me, you HAVE to try these – they are absolutely magnificent. Click HERE to see the recipe for these uh-mazing skewers!
As a nod to the Boston Pops Fireworks show, I made my vegan entree a New England classic – Vegetarian Maple Baked Beans (only without bacon, of course). The combination of soaking the beans and cooking in a slow cooker spans over several hours, but most of this has no need for supervision (in other words, you can leave for work and have a meal ready to go by the time you get home!) These beans are (as the title suggests) inherently sweet, and made the perfect side dish vegetarian dish to complement the spread – click HERE to view this recipe!
The traditions of Independence Day bring to life a narrative of victory and celebration that has a universally contagious spirit. With this in mind, I wanted to showcase an American composer whose music can enrapture any audience (using pizzazz that is all-too-familiar of any Fourth of July celebration). That led me to George Gershwin and one of his most iconic works: Rhapsody in Blue. Composed in 1924, it has easily become one of the most popular American compositions. The amalgamation of jazz and classical is a beautiful display of our nation’s diversity and vivacity, which Gershwin shared as his inspiration:

No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness…

What’s even more wonderful about this story is that he was on a train to BOSTON when he came up with the idea for this piece – how perfect is that?? The piece is concerto-esque as it features solo piano, originally written for jazz band and later scored for full orchestra. The piece opens with a “famous opening clarinet glissando…that has become as familiar as the start of Beethoven’s Fifth” (according to one columnist with the American Heritage). The full gamut of Gershwin’s style is shown, from graceful melodies of to large-scale harmonies. Such can be said of the gamut of my own culinary talents for this barbecue 😉 I’ve included a recording with another iconic American composer conducting and soloing on piano: Leonard Bernstein – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmUHI2yTtVY

Sources Cited:
“Rhapsody in Blue” Wikipedia.com

A Festive Feast

Christmas dinner – a meal nearly as stressful as its Thanksgiving precedent. The setting: a cozy apartment in sleepy Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Cast of characters: my mom and stepdad, my sister Sarah, and her boyfriend Grant (the latter three possessing a strong appetite for southern-style food). With all of its familial expectations, a great amount of pressure is placed on the designated chef for Christmas dinner. Being the crazy person I am, I (naturally) volunteered to be said chef. Though I was only cooking for four other people, I knew this meal had to be an outstanding occasion for all parties involved. Avoiding the hackneyed honey-baked ham or roast turkey, I decided to go with a more humble, hearty feature: Spice-Rubbed Roast Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine Gravy.
History doesn’t delegate a specific type of game or meat for the holidays – goose, turkey, oysters, ham, pot roast, pheasant, suckling pig, fish, and more have graced Christmas tables around the globe. These dinners tend to reflect more extravagant renditions of traditional cuisine, celebrating family and faith with a bountiful feast. American traditions most closely reflect those of the UK: a roasted entree paired with ample side dishes, including mashed potatoes, roasted squash, braised greens, cookies and pies, etc.
While I relish experimental menus, I went with a  traditional one for this dinner. I managed to sneak in a few unconventional touches to the tenderloin. For the gravy, it relies on a red wine reduction that is brimming with flavor. You can opt to keep the aromatics (shallots and mushrooms respectively), though I followed the recipe and discarded them for a smoother sauce.
The meat itself is spiced with fennel, caraway and thyme – the latter is arguably a beautiful pairing for any rich meat, yet the fennel and caraway gave the meat an aromatic depth unlike any I’ve experienced. As you can tell, we went for a rarer cut, yet roasting times will vary depending on your personal preference. Regardless, I can guarantee this recipe will create a beautiful centerpiece to your Christmas dinner – click HERE to see how to make this flavorful roast.
Kale is endorsed as one of the healthiest greens available to consumers today…this recipe is perhaps not the healthiest realization of the green’s potential, yet it is pretty darn amazing. I mentioned my Georgian sister was present – the bitter edge of kale was a far-fetched bet with this one. So I chose a recipe that would appeal to her “Southern roots” with Southern-Style Braised Kale.
What makes is Southern? Bacon. The remarkable thing about this seemingly simple ingredient is it can truly be a chef’s secret weapon – a dish can go from sophomoric to superb. This recipe is a standard for collard greens, but proved to be remarkably successful with kale. To see how to give kale a “southern touch,” click HERE. We also served basic mashed potatoes and a personal favorite of mine, Orange & Fennel Salad with Citrus-Shallot Vinaigrette (recipe can be found HERE).
The musical pairing for this meal may seem cliché, yet it was too perfect: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (especially considering I had just seen it at the Boston Ballet). While its original premiere in 1892 wasn’t markedly successful, it has since become one of the most celebrated works by the composer. Its themes are recognizable by nearly anyone (particularly The March and Sugar Plum Fairy), and no Christmas would be the same without it. Its variety of characters and themes pairs all too well with the colorful, unique traditions of Christmas dinners across the globe. I hope all of you had a beautiful holiday season, and wish you the happiest New Year – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP5oVMvYHBs

Sources Cited:
“Christmas Dinner,” Wikipedia.com
“The Nutcracker,” 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

Tis the Season to be Baking!

For a baker, the Holidays mean stocking your pantry with more flour and sugar than you could ever know what to do with,  just to be prepared. I often bake a variety around this time, from your standard cut-out cookies to decadent truffle-like treats. I hosted a holiday party this past weekend – the company was cheerful, the setting was festive, and the spread was epic. Perhaps the most noteworthy installment was the cookie-decorating station: rich cream cheese frosting with a myriad selection of sprinkles and candies were set out as toppings for adorable Gingerbread Men and Cut-Out Sugar Cookies.
Cutout cookies are a Christmas classic, giving bakers everywhere an edible palette for colorful icings and candies. The traditions dates back to 13th-century Germany with Lebkuchen. This style of cookie (very similar to gingerbread) is a refined delicacy in German culture, boasting intricate shapes and designs. Gingerbread itself can be traced back even further, appearing in Europe in the year 992! Though both cookies are spiced, Lebkuchen is made with honey while gingerbread relies on treacle (or molasses). The first recorded instance of gingerbread being shaped as “men” appears with Queen Elizabeth I, who would present distinguished guests with gingerbread likeness of themselves.
These gingerbread men were absolutely perfect! The recipe recommends making the dough ahead of time to allow both the flavor and texture to develop, which I strongly second. I used blackstrap molasses, When rolling out these cookies, be sure to have a bowl of flour on hand (I just had an entire bag) to prevent the dough from sticking to the rolling pin or the surface. As I mentioned before, I paired these with cream cheese frosting, though feel free to use whatever style you prefer (royal icing is a favorite) – click HERE to see how to make these traditional treats!
I’ve made a number of sugar cookies in the past, but these were by far THE best I’ve ever made! There are several ingredients that help set these cookies above the rest. The first is the addition of cream cheese as a binding agent – the result is a sturdier dough that is SO much easier to work with than an all-butter dough. The second factor is the medley of flavorings – while vanilla extract is standard, these cookies achieve an almost-fruity contrast with the additions of almond extract and lemon zest. Best part of all, the dough can be frozen for up to 3 months if needed! I rolled out the dough a week before the party, stored it between sheets of parchment paper and froze it. I highly recommend these, and can guarantee they will become a new tradition in your household as well – click HERE to see how to make these stunning cut-out classics!
You can already guess that a pairing for traditional Christmas cookies deserves a traditional Christmas tune – so naturally I went with a piece that plays in every pops concert, Macy’s, and in every holiday broadcast: Sleigh Ride, by Leroy Anderson. In fact, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers [ASCAP] claims the light orchestral work has routinely been within the top 10 songs performed (worldwide) during the holiday season. Steve Metcalf, author of Lero’s biography, states that “‘Sleigh Ride’ … has been performed and recorded by a wider array of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music.” The piece was first recorded by the Boston Pops, which is why I thought it appropriate to include a recording with that orchestra – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OATi34PKNPw

Sources Cited:
“Christmas Foods,” FoodTimeline.org
“Sleigh Ride,” 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 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

An Evening to Be Thankful For

Yesterday I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner, and it was a terrific success! Originally expecting to have only 8 friends over, the list quickly blossomed to 15! For those of you who know my place, fitting that many people at a dinner table was not an easy feat. Yet there we were, 15 friends gathering for the year’s most thankful (and indulgent) dinner. It couldn’t have been a more perfect evening.
This was also my first time making a Roast Turkey (commence panic mode). I probably considered over 20 different recipes while planning this, but the biggest question I had was on brining. There was a 50/50 take on this – some say it works wonder, others say it’s a complete waste of time. Having never cooked a turkey, I of course had no idea which to trust. At the end, I went with the brine; I am so happy I did!
Brining may seem scary, but it’s not actually that intimidating (though finding the space in your refrigerator might be). The basic components of a brine are salt and water – meats immersed in this solution . Brining works through diffusion and osmosis – the brining water, which has a high concentration of salt, moves to where there is a lower concentration in the meat. In permeating the meat’s cells, the water becomes “locked” into the meat, creating a perfectly moist roast as result. Seasoning are often added to brines to give the meat more flavor.
That being said, brining takes time – I left mine in the fridge for about 18 hours. I bought a brining bag to place the turkey in…and I highly suggest having a second hand to help lift the turkey into the bag (this coming from the near catastrophe I had trying to do this myself). I chose an 18-lb fresh turkey – fresh is key, as frozen turkeys often have higher sodium content (unless you go organic).
The stock for the gravy is made in the pan while the turkey roasts – it’s an added step, but creates one of the most flavorful gravies you will ever make! Unfortunately, I was unable to snap a photo of the finished product in the dinner rush. It makes a lot of gravy, which your friends will be extremely grateful for. If you are looking to impress, go with this recipe – you’ll be extremely please (and so will your friends!) Click HERE to learn how to make this perfect centerpiece to your Thanksgiving meal!
Seeing how this was my first-ever Roast Turkey (and that first Thanksgiving I’ve hosted), I felt it only appropriate to (finally) showcase a work by Gustav Mahler. Though he was primarily known as a conductor during his own lifetime, Mahler’s symphonies are among the most prominent of the orchestral repertoire. These large-scale works utilize the full orchestral force, and are lush with rich musical content. In spirit of this being my first Thanksgiving, I chose his Symphony No. 1. in D Major.  The symphony took him nearly two years to complete, and was premiered with the orchestra he was the conductor of at that time. Though it is a lengthy work (just under an hour), it is extremely beautiful and difficult to not enjoy, like our Thanksgiving: though the dinner was a lot of effort and quite demanding, it too became an occasion of wonderful friends and great food that was meant to be enjoyed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UskC4VILUeg

Sources Cited:
“Symphony No. 1 (Mahler),” Wikipedia.com.