Sweet Kentucky Bourbon

458430_640x360May’s flowers are finally here, and they were heralded by one of our country’s most beloved (and slightly ridiculous) traditions: the Kentucky Derby. Every year, the first Saturday in May brings a slew of over-sized hats and equestrian fanatics together for a nearly 140-year-old sporting event. This year’s race was won by a horse named California Chrome (pictured above*). For those of us who celebrate the race with food and drinks, there’s one vital ingredient: bourbon. We’re not talking just any old whiskey – Derby parties call for the barrel-aged, Kentucky-bred, high-proof real deal.
DSC_0089One thing I’ve learned about bourbon is that dessert recipes (especially chocolate) are made WAY better when you add the stuff. Bourbon adds a smoky and almost vanilla flavor that’s unlike any other sweets you’ve tried before. So for this year’s Derby, I made THREE treats with a bourbon kick: Kentucky Bourbon Balls, Browned Butter Bourbon Blondies, and (wait for it…) Bourbon Chocolate Cupcakes with Bourbon Ganache and Cinnamon Buttercream (!!!!)
Bourbon BallsLet’s start with the smallest of the three – these treats are both simple and addictive. You know you’ve got a winner when the main ingredients are cookies, nuts, and chocolate. I’ve made a similar recipe using spiced rum (see HERE) but the bourbon variety is by far my favorite. There are actually two ways to make bourbon balls: the first is the method I used, while the second omits the cookies entirely and relies on a powdered sugar and bourbon filling. It’s fairly sweet, with a more pronounced bourbon taste (the cookies help round it out, for obvious reasons).
DSC_0161You’ll need a few hours to pull these together, and a bit of patience – the filling prep and rolling aren’t an issue, but dipping the pieces into chocolate can be a bit messy.  Melted chocolate is an ingredient that manages to get onto everything, so I have the setup ready to go before even melting the chocolate. The key is to keep the the bourbon balls cold for as long as possible. I froze all the pieces, and then dipped 1/3 into the chocolate while the others remained chilled.
Bourbon Balls 2Since it’s a no-bake recipe, use a bourbon that you would actually want to drink – these treats will only be as good as the alcohol you use. I used Jim Beam for all three recipes. That being said, I’m admittedly a bit of a bourbon snob and would never drink the stuff unless absolutely necessary – I can thank my friend Beth for that! The resulting bites were perfectly delicious, and there were hardly leftovers by the end of the party. Click HERE to see the recipe for these chocolate-covered treats!
Bourbon Blondies 2The second recipe was a twist on a classic dessert that I’ve been making for years. Blondies are basically brownies, but with brown sugar replacing the chocolate. Like brownies, you can fill ’em with nuts, chocolate chips, candies, and more. These blondies take it to a whole new level with browned butter AND bourbon. The first ingredient is a recent discovery of mine (see here), and is honestly a game-changer in the world of baking.
Bourbon Blondies 1The resulting bar was nutty and moist, with a hint of bourbon that rounded out the sweetness. They store beautifully, making them the perfect treat for picnics and parties. You can use dark or white chocolate, or even crushed walnuts. That’s the best thing about bars – you can make them your own, and they’ll still be just as delicious no matter what. One bite of this blondie and you’ll never go back – browned butter and bourbon will be your kitchen standbys. Click HERE to see the recipe for these golden beauties.
DSC_0212This last dessert was an experiment – I had found a GREAT recipe for bourbon chocolate cupcakes, but didn’t have nearly enough time to prepare the remaining components. I was left with a base recipe and no idea on what to do for frosting or filling. I ended up making a bourbon ganache, and it was a winner. This was a fairly basic ganache, with a splash of bourbon and touch of vanilla. Any extra ganache will keep in the refrigerator for a week (boozy ice cream sundaes, anyone?) For those who aren’t as keen on the bourbon taste, coffee or even milk make wonderful substitutes. As is, these are definitely cupcakes for adults.
Bourbon Choc Cupcakes 3I wanted a frosting to complement the bourbon spice, and whipped up a cinnamon buttercream. Again, a fairly basic recipe with a small twist – it was the perfect complement to an already stunning set of flavors. I was hoping to find a decorative Derby garnish (like this), but ended up crushing cinnamon sticks and arranging the pieces atop the frosting. The result was an intensely flavorful cupcake, all of which were demolished before the night’s end. Click HERE to see the recipe for these devilish cakes.
Bourbon Choc Cupcakes 1I grew up loving horses – they are magnificent animals, and have been a vital part of our culture for centuries. The Kentucky Derby showcases the best of the best: thoroughbreds whose pedigree and training have made them amongst the most valuable animals in the world. The average speed of a thoroughbred is about 36 mph, and can go up to nearly 40 mph. Like I said, they are truly remarkable creatures. For the musical pairing, I chose a classic “horse-themed” work: Franz von Suppé’s Overture to the Operetta Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry). Premiered in 1866, the operetta itself is fairly esoteric and is rarely (if ever) performed. The overture, however, has stood the test of time and has become to most well-known composition of Suppé’s legacy. The operatta’s story doesn’t contain any actual horses or riders – it concerns the love affair of a Baron and a Hungarian countess. Nevertheless, the overture’s thematic material has come to be closely associated with horse-racing and actual cavalries. It’s a classic, and a perfect pairing for an event as time-honored and exciting as the Kentucky Derby. The below recording comes from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Years Concert, with conductor Franz Welser-Möst – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Leichte Kavallerie,” Wikipedia.com
*California Chrome Photo – courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

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Playfully Sweet

Cookies & Cream Cupcakes 1I’ve gained somewhat of a reputation for my cupcakes, with weddings, recitals, parties, and more all part of my catering repertoire. Friends and colleagues will almost always request cupcakes when it comes to my making a contribution, with the expectation for something sweet and delicious. This past week was my friend Elise Krob’s birthday party, and she asked me to bring dessert (preferably in the form of cupcakes). I could have easily gone with straight-up chocolate or vanilla, but am admittedly insane when it comes to baking. So I decided to vet some new recipes, and sent my ideas to Elise. We both agreed that these Cookies & Cream Cupcakes would be perfect for the occasion.
Cookies & Cream Cupcakes 4For the OREO® fanatics out there, this is absolutely the cupcake for you! That being said…I used the 365 Everyday Value® chocolate sandwich cookies (there’s a Whole Foods right across the street from my office, what’s a girl to do?!) It doesn’t really matter what brand you choose so long as it has the same loving components of the original. What’s truly excellent about these cupcakes is the surprise on the bottom: a whole half of a cookie! Don’t expect to have any sandwich cookies leftover because you will be using an ENTIRE package for this recipe…
Cookies & Cream Cupcakes 3Chunks of cookie are folded into the actual batter, giving these cupcakes a texture unlike any I’ve ever experienced. On the one hand you have a vanilla cake that’s moist and flavorful, and on the other you have chocolatey chunks that add a toothsome crunch to every bite. The cream cheese frosting pairs perfectly with these cookie-dense cakes. Cream cheese is the easiest frosting type to work with since it won’t melt or deflate (case in point: the adorable dollops pictured below). It’s also the yummiest, but that is clearly a subjective opinion. These cupcakes can be frosted and decorated a full day in advance, just be sure to refrigerate them (covered) if you do so. They were an absolute hit at the party, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my friend Elise – click HERE to see the recipe for these lovable treats! 
Cookies & Cream Cupcakes 2For many of us, OREO® cookies are strongly reminiscent of childhood. They’re a dessert that nearly anyone can enjoy considering they are incredibly fun to eat: swirled into milkshakes, crumbled atop ice cream, paired with a tall glass of milk, and more. The playful nature of these cookies (and cupcakes, for that matter) has made them one of America’s most beloved treats. When it comes to classical music, one might draw a parallel to the polka: a genre that’s difficult to listen to without a smile. It is a Central European dance form that is both lively and fast-paced (and is often written in 2/4 meter). For this pairing, I decided to go with Johann Strauss, considering he wrote over 40 polkas in his lifetime!! Perhaps the most famous is his Pizzicata Polka – written with his brother Josef Strauss, the strings play only pizzicato (plucking versus bowing the strings). The result is a playfully sweet piece that runs just over 2 minutes in length. At its Russian premiere in 1869, the piece was so well-received that it was performed a total of 9 times for the enthusiastic crowd. Cupcakes and polkas are a surefire way to liven up any day – enjoy!

A Natural Charm

(I would like to dedicate this post to my friend, Sarah Knapp Kidd – Sarah passed away earlier today, having lost a hard-fought battle with cancer. She was loved by many, and will be truly missed. We will forever keep her joy and smile in our hearts.)
Rosemary Tart 1I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, which is ironic given my love of baking! While many see desserts as a godsend, I am often more inclined to choose natural sweets: fresh fruits, floral honeys, maple syrup – all possess a great deal more character than Mary Poppins’ beloved “spoonful of sugar.” We often forget the simple beauty of organics ingredients, and opt for convenient and distilled substitutes. Though I’ve yet to forgo the joys of making cookies and cakes, I’ve been steadily moving more towards rustic alternatives…like this Almond & Mascarpone Tart with Honeyed Fruits.
Rosemary Tart 3This crust is by far one of the best I’ve had – the almond flour adds a crumbly lightness to the texture, while the rosemary lends a savory hint. The two pair quite beautifully with fruits, making it the ideal crust in this setting. This was the first time I had made an actual tart crust, and it was breeze! I just purchased this pan, to which I owe most of the credit – the crust came right out, and the ruffled edges were perfect.
Rosemary Tart 2This tart does little to hide its agrarian beginnings – fruit, rosemary, and honey are discernible in every bite. The beauty of this dessert comes in the preservation of these ingredients, which are easily interchangeable – figs in lieu of apricots, thyme instead of rosemary, maple syrup rather than honey (to name a few!) The trick here is to give yourself enough time since the fillings need to chill prior to serving. It’s even better the next day – in fact, I had a slice for breakfast the next morning (which is when I snapped the below photo). Click HERE to see the recipe for the beautiful tart!
Rosemary Tart 4Given the organic qualities of this dessert, I was compelled to consider a piece of music that had been inspired by nature. Of course…there are TONS of options in the classical repertoire – how can there not be? Music has an ideal voice for capturing nature’s most breathtaking elements. I wanted a piece with a pastoral character, and thus chose Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Premiered in 1920, the music is highly evocative of an English countryside, with a violin solo portraying the flight of a lark. While Vaughn Williams certainly drew inspiration from his surroundings, English folk tunes and works by the English poet George Meredith played key roles. In fact, he included the following poem by Meredith in the final publication of the work:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Vaughn Williams never forces the orchestration, giving this poem an ideal musical setting – the strings and winds play beneath the aerial violin, which renders the image of a balletic lark soaring above the rolling hills and valleys of the countryside. It ends on serene note, where the orchestra is silent as the violin line drifts into the distance and becomes “lost on his aerial rings.” The following recording is with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and David Nolan on the violin – I hope you enjoy it!

Sources Cited:
Heninger, Barbara. “Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending” http://www.barbwired.com

Giving Thanks for Family

DSC_0331For the first time in 6 years, I decided to travel home for the holidays – following a series of unfortunate events (including a missed flight and nearly dropping my suitcase from onto a passenger’s head from the overhead compartment) I landed in the world’s busiest airport: Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International. I navigated my way through swarms of travelers and frustrated families – stepping outside into the passenger pickup area was a welcome relief. I spotted my mother’s taupe Toyota, and watched as it inched its way towards baggage claim. Despite the vehicular chaos all around us, I could see her small face beaming through the front windshield. That brief moment reminded me what this holiday is all about – Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate with loved ones and reflect on all that we are truly thankful for. I hoisted my luggage into the trunk knowing that there would likely be drama and frustration, but at least I would be with family.
DSC_0082Every household has its own traditions for Thanksgiving – fortunately for ours, the requirements were fairly minimal: turkey, potatoes and gravy, and pie. The rest of the menu was left to my crazy scheming, which of course resulted in a family with distended bellies. Our plates were filled with a colorful array of both traditional and unconventional dishes. Given the following menu, you can understand why we experienced food comas shortly after the meal:

  • Cider Brined and Glazed Turkey with Sage Gravy
  • Honey-Glazed Ham
  • Brie Bites
  • Stuffed Mushrooms
  • Indian-Spiced Roasted Vegetables over Lentils
  • Apple-Orange Cranberry Sauce
  • Cornbread Stuffing
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Chocolate Chip Blondies
  • Bourbon Pumpkin Tart
  • Apple Pie with Spiced Pastry

Turkey 1I’ll be sharing the recipes in bold for this post (even though I’d love to share them all with you!) A lot of these have make-ahead components, which (for a Thanksgiving chef) is vital to one’s sanity. So to start, let’s go right for the gold: the turkey. This was my fourth time making a turkey, and it weighed in at a whopping 20 POUNDS; just lifting this thing was a workout. Brining has become my go-to method, so I decided to try a different recipe this year using apple cider to make a Cider-Brined and Glazed Turkey with Sage Gravy.
Turkey 2The turkey brines for a full 24 hours, and then sits uncovered in the fridge for an additional 24 hours (to help the skin “dry out” post-brining). The broth, glaze, and even the fillings can all be prepared the night before. Cooking times will vary (depending on size and your oven) but ours took close to 4 ½ hours. Turkey is stressful, considering it’s not necessarily a “weekly staple”. Many of us have one shot to make this dish perfect – I tend to supervise for the first 3 hours, standing in the kitchen with oven mitts and a glass of wine at the ready. This recipe was a great twist on the classic, and I’m curious to try it again next year (especially since I didn’t manage to catch a photo of the finished bird – we were starving by the time it was ready!) Click HERE to see the recipe for this epic turkey.
Cranberry Sauce 1Cranberries are sold everywhere during the holiday season. These small berries find their way into a variety of dishes, from fruit cocktails to meat condiments. Grown in acidic bogs, the berries turn from white to deep red when ripe and ready for harvest. They are too tart/bitter to be eaten raw, and thus are sweetened with sugar or other fruits. Spices (like cinnamon or nutmeg) can also be a welcome addition.
Cranberry Sauce 2Cranberry sauce is a holiday staple in England, Canada, and the United States – it is a tradition that I personally love. That being said, I can’t stand the canned variety as it does no justice to this seasonal fruit. Making your own is so simple that it makes little to no sense to buy a tine of flavored jello. Granted this Apple-Orange Cranberry Sauce is a little “fancier” than others: the citrus and spices give the sauce a warmer depth, and your kitchen will smell like heaven. While there is a good deal of sugar in this recipe, you can use more or less depending on your preference. Click HERE to see the recipe for this gorgeous side dish!
Indian-Spiced Vegetables 2When initially considering a vegetable side, the majority of the recipes I had were in-line with traditional menus: pan-seared brussels sprouts, creamed spinach, roasted carrots. After rummaging through countless Pinterest boards, I came across a unique alternative: Indian-Spiced Roasted Vegetables over Lentils. I sent the recipe to my mom, and was surprised to get an approval (and from the Stepdad, no less!) I tripled this recipe (heh…) but the original makes the perfect amount for a “meatless Monday” option any old time. The presentation was breathtaking – the colors combined with rustic veggies made for a lovely wild card at our holiday spread. Click HERE to see the recipe for this colorful veggie side!
Apple Spice Pie 1Dessert is nearly as important as the turkey (but not as stressful, thank GOD). While we’re not a family with a sweet tooth, we certainly had our fair share of options. To start, let’s talk about this Apple Pie with Spice Pastry – pie is the unwritten requisite for the holidays. A Thanksgiving dinner without pie is like Bach without figured bass…This is the type of dessert that can be enjoyed year after year, and it never gets old. I ended up choosing a recipe that includes spices in the actual pastry.
DSC_0364The result was a beautiful presentation of chopped apples nestled in a browned crust speckled with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. The kitchen smelled heavenly, and the crust held up beautifully for serving. I might use this crust for future pies, and give a few other spices or herbs a try. Rosemary crust with pear filling, fennel pastry with spiced plums – the options are endless! Click HERE to see the recipe for this lovely pie.
Bourbon Pumpkin Tart 2This Bourbon-Caramel Pumpkin Tart had been on my list for a LONG time – it was on the cover of an issue of FineCooking magazine, and I knew I had to give it a try. Bourbon caramel sauce?? Sold. We served smaller slices…because our food comas would have been incurable had they been any larger. The bourbon helped to balance out the sweetness, while also giving giving the spices a smoky complement. I highly recommend this recipe – it’s a great alternative to pumpkin pie, and (though inordinately rich) will have your guests begging for seconds: click HERE to see the recipe for this decadent dessert!
Bourbon Pumpkin TartThis was not the first time I’d prepared a Thanksgiving dinner (see the 2011 and 2012 feasts, respectively) yet it was the first time preparing one for my family. Unlike hosting a party for friends, there is a certain level of expectation involved with one’s family during the holidays – you’ve already spent the better part of a week together, and a great meal becomes the thread that keeps everything in tact. My thoughts were awash with doubt: ‘They’ve been doing this without me for years – who am I to impose my cooking on their age-old DSC_0142traditions?’ Thankfully, my family is far more loving and supportive than my apprehensive thoughts may lead you to think. Remarkably, the fear of letting others down in the face of legacy is a timeworn theme. In the world of classical music, it is especially notable: the drive to innovate interpretations while also respecting that which came before is expected of any musician. Take Brahms: a German composer whose music had reached acclaim at the ripe age of 20 (having received written praise from his to-be mentor and friend Robert Schumann). Yet despite this success, Brahms felt his writing was constantly shadowed by the German “greats” whose works had redefined the standards of music. Beethoven’s precedent was especially harrowing, having said himself: “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”

The symphony was a feat that Brahms had yet to undertake. He feared a venture into the symphonic idiom would have no value in the face of Beethoven’s symphonic masterpieces: how could his symphony have any commensurate measure? After nearly 15 years of compositional sketches and second-guessing, Brahms finally completed his first symphony: Symphony No. 1 in C minor – today it is one of the most celebrated in the orchestral repertoire.
DSC_0222Overcoming the pressure of precedents may be a difficult task, yet will lead to new traditions and values. Our Thanksgiving meal was an overwhelming success – while I could have dwelt on the setbacks or imperfect outcomes, they were ultimately of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Laughter, joy, and family – that’s what Thanksgiving is all about, after all. The following recording of Brahms’ first symphony is with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Phil: enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.” The Kennedy Center

Autumnal Panache

Recital CupcakesI am often asked if cooking is what I do for a living – there have certainly been times that the thought has crossed my mind, from throwing a pitch to FoodNetwork on behalf of Classical Kitchen (I would be an awful TV chef, in all honesty) to opening a small hole-in-the-wall bakery with organic everything. But the reminders as to why I do this simply for the love of cooking are endless – my dear friend Kate Lemmon’s flute recital was one of those reminders. Kate had asked me to bake “Fall-themed” cupcakes for the event – I spent the entire day prepping, baking and decorating. By the time I arrived at the concert hall, I was exhausted and covered in powdered sugar…but then Kate performed one of THE best recitals I’ve heard and was practically glowing by the end. Moments like these are why I could never do this for anything but my friends. So for Kate, I ended up making Carrot Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting & Walnut Praline and Apple Spice Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting.
CarrotsKate had originally asked me to bake pumpkin cupcakes…yet as proven by this post, I’d already had my fill of pumpkin. I was wavering between several recipes when I remembered carrot cake: that one dessert that people rarely see in cupcake form, and yet it is perfect in this context! I purchased carrots that were pre-shredded, and further diced them in a food processor…you are welcome to do this by hand if you so wish (and have the time). My only recommendation is to make the pieces as small as possible, as this is what makes or breaks the texture.
Carrot Cupcakes 1For this recipe, I’d have to say the walnut praline was the most difficult step…I burned myself more than once, which was my own fault on all counts (patience is a virtue, especially when dealing with boiling sugar). I actually double-candied the walnuts to give them an extra oomph of sweetness. And that frosting…good lord was it amazing! All together, the resulting cupcakes were adorable, and they were devoured by a crowd of hungry hippos (aka musicians, and we LOVE food) – click HERE to see the recipe for this gorgeous cupcake!
Apple SlicesCinnamon and apples are the epitome of fall-like flavors in New England – orchards are EVERYWHERE, and they all offer some type of delicious baked good doused in cinnamon. So for me, it was a no-brainer to go with an apple spice cupcake. The garnish was a last-minute touch – I didn’t have time to make caramel for a drizzled effect, and needed something to top the frosting. I remembered the success of this cupcake, and thought an apple garnish would be equally as loved. These apple chips took almost 3 hours to make, so I would suggest starting with the garnish and then baking the cupcakes…so you don’t pull an Anne and just barely finish these decorations in time!
Apple Spice Cupcakes 1What I like most about these cupcakes was the visual aesthetic – they were both cute and rustic, which may seem antithetical, but the two work quite well in tandem. The batter had noticeable apple pieces, which gave the texture a moist crumb. The winner was the salted caramel frosting, which proves that there is nothing wrong with adding a little salt to your sweet. Click HERE to see the recipe! The best part of the night was handing Kate a plate full of both cupcakes after her recital – she was ecstatic, which made all of that hard work completely worthwhile.
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Kate’s recital program featured a variety of great rep, but one piece with which she showed a special affinity was Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major (transcribed for flute). Just before performing, Kate shared the following memory with the audience:

“I heard the Fauré [Violin Sonata] for the first time last year when my colleague Alicia Mielke played flutist Paula Robison’s recording for us in studio class. I always know whether a recording is great based on whether or not it makes me cry, and I was in tears within seconds. The sheer power and beauty of her performance had me hooked, and I knew that I had to program it on my master’s recital.”

The work itself is quite remarkable. It is the first of Fauré’s chamber works, and can be seen as a milestone piece for the genre at-large. The opening phrase blossoms from the piano, immersing listeners into a world of color to which the violin gently joins. The two voices become an intricate coalescence of ideas and gesture, alternating between tranquility and ardent fervency. The second movement takes a step backs from the sweeping passion of the first, though remnants of this spirit can still be felt. Witty humor and crisp expression constitute the third movement, and is charged with a sparkling vitality. The fourth movement is an almost happier echo of the first, and weaves through unexpected turns of key and melody.

Aside from the dynamic elements of the piece, one could say that Fauré and Kate share a similar ethos concerning the purpose of art. As a flutist, photographer, and designer, Kate is someone who sees beyond the face value of art – this ideas translates into everything from her music to her photography even to her recital invitations. As for Fauré, he famously once stated:

“For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” – Gabriel Fauré

For the sake of sharing both the original and the transcription described above, I have included two recordings. The first is with Joshua Bell (violin) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) performing the first movement:

And the second is by a wonderful colleague and friend, flutist Benjamin Smolen, also performing the opening movement with pianist Jennifer Hsiao:

Sources Cited:
“Gabriel FAURÉ,” 52Composers.com
“Program Notes: Scorpion Tales by Duo Scorpio” MusiMelange.com
Kate’s Recital Photos courtesy Caroline Sonett and Kate L Photography

Some Cheesy Pleasure

ChickenRoulade3You know the old adage “tastes just like chicken?” Well, if you’ve been eating as much chicken as I have, the taste of chicken becomes just that: a flavor as unique as grass. Your daily cognizance of its presence reaches the point of tedium. Chicken is wonderful, don’t get me wrong – yet the “lean protein” and “cross-cultural” accolades lose their luster after the 10th meal you’ve had with chicken…similar to hearing Vivaldi’s Spring for the umpteenth time. So here I was again, facing the inevitable task of creating a chicken dinner that didn’t taste like chicken. I went for the easy win, and chose the one thing that makes any meal beautiful – a pungent, fatty hunk of cheese. And I daresay these Blue Cheese Chicken Roulades were to DIE for!
Blue CheeseNot to gross you out, but blue cheese is quite literally a “molded” cheese – it has been infused with Penicillum (yup, it’s the same genus that produces the antibiotic) to create those distinctive blue “spots”. It’s this addition that gives the cheese such fabulous depth – a salty, sharp taste that pairs well with honey and fruit (apples or pears especially). Like many a wonderful invention, blue cheese was a total accident – cheeses being stored in caves started to develop mold under the humid circumstances, and yet the flavor was a surprisingly welcome deviation from the original….WHY they ate the moldy cheese in the first place beats me, but I’m thankful they did.
ChickenRoulade2This is one of those recipes that looks more difficult than it actually is…well, you might accidentally prick yourself with a toothpick, but it’s a minor threat for such an irresistible result. The trick is to soak the toothpicks for 30 minutes at least, so they are “heatproof” and won’t splinter easily. We decided to include spinach as an afterthought, but it was more for color than anything else. Basil would have been too overpowering, and any other green would defeat the purpose.
ChickenRoulade6These roulades are the paragon of “comfort food” – no frilly sauces or special seasonings, just cheese doing what it does best: MELT. A castiron pan is best for this recipe, but any ovenproof skillet will do (or you can simply transfer the chicken to a baking pan post-searing…but then you lose all of those glorious pan juices!) Warning – you might attack your friend so that you can have his/her share…don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉 Click HERE to read more about this sinful recipe.
ChickenRoulade5“Nutritional” and “daring” rarely define comfort food – this is a genre whose sole intention is to portray the joy of eating, a pleasure that is by no means a triviality. The goal is analogous to the philosophy of many a French composer during the 20th century. Conveying pleasure through art was a priority, as Debussy famously describes:

“There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” – Claude Debussy

While the music of Debussy is among my favorites, I chose another French composer as the subject of this pairing: Jean Françaix (a fan of Debussy himself!) Françaix was a musical prodigy from the start, telling his family that he would become the next “great French composer” following the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. 1240471_504518966291893_466927587_nWhile this may seem overly ambitious (if not arrogant), his musical abilities by and large merited such confidence. His Wind Quintet No. 1 (written in 1948) is a remarkable example of the virtuosic, joyous style that guided most of his writing. The opening is a slow dance, with a horn melody soaring above a texturally rich harmony. In an instant, the winds take off on a series of running scales – yet the horn is still singing, reflecting on the calm from moments before. The second movement is playful, alternating between a fast-paced presto to a lilting, honeyed waltz. We encounter a theme and variations in the third movement, where each instrument takes a turn. The fourth is pure fun – the winds are flying through runs and articulated passages, while the horn and oboe recall the opening’s joyful respite. It ends on a humorous note, as though Françaix is reminding us to smile – for after all, isn’t that what music (and food) are all about? The below recording is with the Berliner Bläserquintett – enjoy 🙂

Sources Cited:
“Blue Cheese,” Wikipedia.com
“Claude Debussy,” Wikipedia.com
“Programme: Zephyr Wind Quintet,” Chamber Music New Zealand
PHOTO: Interlude.hk

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

Morsels of Entertainment

BourbonEvery May, there is a sporting event that has a reputation for lots of food and good bourbon: the Kentucky Derby. My close friend Beth hosts an annual party that is true to tradition, and for a 90-second race it is always a total blast. Friends pack into the apartment with crazy hats and summer attire for an evening of southern-style cuisine and Kentucky-style drinking. Every year I make a TON of food for this, and it’s a chance for my Georgian roots to shine 🙂
BourbonSausagesFor large parties I always make Bourbon Smoked Sausages – they are easy, filling, and amazing! You can use any type of meat you would like, though I highly recommend smoked sausage. I used sliced sausages in this instance, but the cocktail sausages are even better. The sauce is pretty easy, and acts as a great foundation for a sweeter, spicier, or smokier dish. For parties like this one, I keep it simple, and it still is the star of the night – click HERE to see the recipe for this must-have party app!
DeviledEggsYou can’t have a southern-style spread without Deviled Eggs, Paula Deen would be furious! Since the Queen of Butter has a love for these little bites, I always make a “lighter” version for my guests. The traditional method requires a LOT of mayonnaise, while  I prefer to highlight the eggs’ natural flavor (in other words, using only a touch of mayo for substance). Shallots and hot sauce are my staples in this dish, though this also a very customizable recipe – click HERE for this “devilishly” good appetizer!
HummingbirdCake1I also made a Hummingbird Bundt Cake – a southern gem I have always been curious to try. While the combination of pineapples and bananas is what you would only expect for Daiquiris (or similar boozy concoction), they work wonders in this cake. It is basically a glorified banana bread, with a moist crumb and a nutty topping. Are you drooling yet? The result was quite lovely, and guests were practically “humming” after every bite – click HERE for the recipe to this southern classic.
HummingbirdCake2A rule of thumb for any southern chef – you can never have too much dessert. Why this is the case…I have no idea, but I listen to it. So among the many desserts that evening, these adorable Oreo Truffles were one of my favorites. Like almost everything else for the party, they were simple to make – a mere three ingredients, and yet each was bite-sized piece of heaven. I make these the night before serving them so they are ready to go (especially since the chocolate coating can take a little while). Click HERE to see the recipe for these adorable treats! 
OreoTrufflesFor the musical pairing, I wanted something that was celebratory…and there’s rarely anything more joyous than good ol’ Mozart. While many of his compositions were written for staged performances, he also wrote a number of works for the entertainment of nobility (which were often premiered at parties). It was a much-needed form of income, and served as backdrops for a number of social occasions. These works often included divertimenti – a genre known for being lighthearted and entertaining. Written for smaller ensembles, this genre often served as “background music” for social settings and occasions. Because of this, Mozart didn’t extend too many complexities or profundity to these compositions, and they were for the most part quite simple and playful. For this particular pairing, I chose his Divertimento in D major, K.251 – written for oboe, 2 horns, and strings, the piece has six movements in total. There is only one slow movement, while the other 5 movements each have their own character. The more notable movements are the first, which is a flirtation with the sonata-style, and the last, which is based on the French style of a traditional march. Though it’s no Requiem or Symphony, this “morsel” of Mozart’s is the perfect pairing for such an entertaining spread – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
Morrison, Chris. “Divertimento No. 11 in D major, K. 251” Reno Chamber Orchestra Program Notes
Samson, Charley. “Mozart Divertimento K. 251,” Colorado Public Radio

Going All-Out for Quality

DinnerPartyThere are times when all I want to enjoy is a simple salad with canned tuna (maybe I’ll get fancy and add some capers…), but there are also times when I like to go all-out with cooking. More often than not, the latter scenario is attached to a social event or dinner party. My inner chef was dying for a challenge, and so I went on a Whole Foods excursion – I grabbed two bunches of carrots, some apples, lemons, and thyme (my favorite herb) to create a gorgeous dinner, with Tilapia with Carrot-Apple Purée as the main event.
Carrot-Apple Puree2I have discovered that I am obsessed with roasted root vegetables: sweet potatoes, carrots, beets…I can’t have enough of these beauties. Depending on the type, roasting can imbue a sweeter taste that almost gives them a “candy-like” flavor (they are much healthier for you than candy, of course). I roasted whole carrots for this dish, and then sautéed an apple with some herbs and shallots…I’m not really sure what came over me, but folks this was ridiculous. Please try it…you can even skip the fish, but this purée
BlackenedTilapia2Tilapia is probably one of my favorite fish – it cooks in a flash, and doesn’t have a strong “fishy” flavor. For this recipe, I made a quick dry rub and added some fresh thyme to create a beautiful blackened texture. You can use any spices for rub that you like, or even a store-bought one (though I promise that homemade will yield a much better result). My advice is to allow the rub to sit on the fish for about 15 minutes or so, to let the flavors settle.
BlackenedTilapia1After plating the fish, I gave each a squeeze of lemon for an added burst of freshness. It was a stunning entrée, and paired with the purée it was truly irresistible. To see how I made this dish, click HERE. I paired the fish with two sides: the first was a favorite, Lemon-Garlic Broccoli(recipe HERE). The second was a creation all my own, driven by my love for colorful salads that can pack a nutritional punch: Quinoa Salad with Orange & Cumin Vinaigrette. I tried to tie all the flavors together in this meal, and added cumin to the dressing to complement both the tilapia rub and the carrot-apple purée. You’ll go back for seconds on this one, I promise – click HERE to see the recipe.
QuinoaSaladAn “all-out” kind of meal meant a special musical pairing. Anyone who has ever attempted to perform a Baroque edition in it’s natural notation understands that interpretation of this genre is a true art. It’s not about adding a trill here or appogiatura there – it’s about having an understanding of the foundation, which should inform any added colors and expression. This led me to two true afficionados on this approach: Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, performing their rendition of Corelli’s Sonata for Violin in E Minor, Op. 5 no. 8. In considering how to describe this piece, Manze himself says:

“Arcangelo Corelli published Opus 5 on 1st January, 1700, his one and only set of violin sonatas, and arguably the finest and most influential ever assembled…all other baroque sonatas can be defined as being pre- or post-Corelli…”

What’s brilliant about their performance is both the synergy and natural flow they maintain throughout – Correlli only includes a basic bass and treble line in the score, with no adornments or harmonies included. As is the case with most Baroque works, this music requires a very intuitive performer who can give musical voice to an otherwise austere composition. The knowledge can only get you so far, as inherent understanding of musical expression is a vital piece as well. This performance shows that when you go “all-out” on interpreting the written meaning and foundation of a piece, the result will be utterly breathtaking – enjoy!

Source Cited:

“Corelli Violin Sonatas Op. 5 Review,” by Andrew McGregor. BBC-Music.com