Monday, December 5, 2011

Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies / Vivaldi's "Winter"

The holidays bring all kinds of sweet temptations to our neighborhood Trader Joe's. One of my favorites is their Peppermint Bark. While grocery shopping last week, I wondered what the creamy, minty stuff would do when added to my favorite chocolate cookie recipe.

My husband's response to these cookies - and I humbly quote - was this:


{Pre-baked balls of amazement, indeed}
These cookies are truly dangerous fresh out of the oven. I made 18 last night, and by my last count, I believe only 5 are left.

Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) room-temperature unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 pouch Trader Joe's peppermint bark, bashed into large and crumbly chunks (should yield 1 cup)
Maldon sea salt (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (If you have a convection oven, these turn out beautifully: preheat to 325 degrees instead.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and the sugars. Mix in the egg until smooth. Add in the vanilla extract, salt, and baking soda. Slowly add in the cocoa powder on low speed until fully incorporated. Do the same for the flour. When all traces of flour are gone, add in the peppermint bark. 

Spoon the dough onto a prepared cookie sheet. Press a few more chunks of peppermint bark into the tops of the cookies. Sprinkle with Maldon salt if desired (YES). 

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until set. Allow to cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheets before transferring to wire racks for further cooling. 

Note: due to the obscene proportion of peppermint bark to cookie, these will need to cool for several minutes before you can eat them all in one piece. But best not to wait too long: they are absurdly good when the chunks are still somewhat melted.

{Warm and gooey with a cold glass of milk, even Poochini can't resist}

For a musical pairing, enjoy a part of "Winter" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The poem that accompanies this movement reads:

Before the fire to pass peaceful
Contented days while the rain outside pours down. 

Most violinists agree that the orchestra plucking their strings represents raindrops falling, and the solo violin represents the individual staying cozy indoors. I love Giardino Armonico's interpretation because the orchestra sounds so gently percussive and rain-like, while the solo line sounds so sweet and warm. 

Here in Los Angeles this past weekend, we were subjected to not rain but rather severely strong winds that left many friends and family members without power or hot water for several days. Amazingly, my neighborhood was unaffected. Hoping that you all are able to enjoy the comforts and flavors of home despite any inclement weather!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Favorite Holiday / Beethoven's "Song of Thanksgiving"

{A centerpiece made of leaves collected on our block - yes, we have fall in Los Angeles!}

Thanksgiving is by far and away my favorite holiday of the year. I suppose that preference befits a gluttonous agnostic like myself. But besides the annual comforts and traditions, I love how our country slows down for several days to reflect on the things we are grateful for.

{Place cards}
Thanksgiving 2010 was the first we'd ever hosted. We had a blast -- and my parents were more than ready to pass the torch to us after decades of hosting themselves. This year, we enjoyed the company of both of our families, plus a few friends.

{Thanksgiving Family Photo 2010}
My husband made two of his signature pumpkin pies yesterday. (Doubling the cloves is his secret; adding orange blossom water to the whipped cream is mine). I prepared my usual tangerine cranberry sauce on Tuesday, and couldn't have been more proud to have scratched even one item off of my T-Day to-do list ahead of time. Pre-turkey, we munched on this delicious goat cheese tart -- smothered liberally with the fig-rosemary jam I made earlier this fall:

For as long as I can remember, my family has prepared the Silver Palate Cookbook's Thanksgiving Turkey with hazelnut, green apple, dried cherry, and sausage stuffing; I can't imagine a turkey any other way. To accompany the bird, we made these pretzel rolls (which were added to the annual recipe canon as of last year), these brussels sprouts with bacon, and a salad with persimmons, pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, and goat cheese. My mom brought over a buttermilk cake with mascarpone whipped cream and fresh berries soaked in sherry; even Poochini was intrigued!

Everything was delicious; but as usual, I found that the best way to savor the holiday was in the company of my family. For a musical pairing, enjoy the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132. Written after Beethoven had recovered from a nearly fatal illness, the piece is titled "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity." It's about profound, humble gratitude for life. I am hard pressed to think of a more appropriate piece of music to encapsulate the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Hope you all enjoyed yours!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Turkey Chili with Cocoa and Cinnamon / "La Cumparsita"

There are three ways that I know fall is upon us:

1) I have an insatiable craving for warm stews and chili,

2) I get insanely busy as the concert season enters full force,

3) The kinds of dishes that make sense for me to prepare are the kind that are made in one pot. (Thankfully, the stews and chilis mentioned in 1) above fall into this category.) Concert season means that I am rarely home nights (both weekend and weekday), and cooking time generally is in short supply. Meals that I can leave on the stove while I practice, teach, or attend to emails -- that will also keep well (or improve) over the course of a few days in the fridge -- are what I inevitably turn to this time of year.

This chili is a favorite in our house. Made with turkey and whatever kinds of beans you have on hand, its flavor benefits from liberal additions of cocoa and cinnamon. Only one tablespoon of oil in the whole dish makes it quite waistline-friendly as well. I like to serve this with cornbread in addition to the toppings mentioned below.

Turkey Bean Chili with Cocoa and Cinnamon
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 pounds lean ground turkey
1/4 cup chili powder
2 bay leaves
1 heaping tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
heaping 1/4 tsp groud cinnamon
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
3 cups beef stock
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
3 15-oz cans beans of your choice (such as white, black, pinto, kidney; I like to mix what I have on hand), rinsed and drained

Heat oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Saute the onions until they turn golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Add in the oregano and cumin and stir for 1 minute. 

Increase heat to medium-high. Add turkey; stir until no longer pink, breaking up with back of spoon. 

Stir in chili powder, bay leaves, cocoa powder, salt and cinnamon. Add tomatoes with their juices, breaking up with back of spoon. Mix in stock and tomato sauce. Bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the consistency is less soupy.

Add beans to chili and simmer until flavors blend, about 10 minutes longer. Discard bay leaves. Serve with accompaniments like fresh cilantro, nonfat greek yogurt (or sour cream), shredded cheese, avocado, and/or chopped purple onion.

For a musical pairing, enjoy what is possibly the most famous tango of all time: Matos Rodriguez's "La Cumparsita."  Preparing this chili - specifically, adding several very different ingredients to the same pot in order to create one dish - made me think of all the work I have put into a big concert coming up (where we will be playing a new arrangement of La Cumparsita). I make my living as an orchestral performer. But as the co-artistic director of the Salastina Music Society, my responsibilities go far beyond practicing and performing. My partner Kevin and I share the entire load, from coming up with what we'll be playing to who we'll be playing with (and where) to printing the programs, handling the ticketing, dealing with the venue, advertising the event, and general event planning. It's a labor of love, to be sure. (And by that I mean, we collect not one penny of our revenue in the interest of helping our baby non-profit grow.)  Our concert is coming up this Sunday, and as the countdown begins, I always look forward to the day of -- when I can, for the most part, enjoy everything coming together in the actual performance.

Different elements coming together to create a satisfying whole... what could be more fulfilling (or just plain filling) than that?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Guest Post on "The Eagle's Nest:" Ghostly Monte Cristo Sandwiches

My good friend Jess (no relation to the Jess featured below!) had a baby last week and asked me to pitch in on her blog. In the spirit of Halloween, I shared some delicious Monte Cristo sandwiches (think "french toast meets grilled cheese" - with some ham and turkey thrown in for good measure) cut into ghoulish ghost shapes.  Beethoven's "Ghost Trio" made for a fitting musical pairing. For the full post, head this way!

And Happy Halloween!

{Our pup, Poochini, in his costume last year}

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Red Velvet Cupcakes / Brahms First Symphony

{Homemade - with a little help. Thanks, Sprinkles!}
In just a few days, I'll be heading to St. Louis to visit one of my best friends. Jess and I became close several years ago while carpooling to Pacific Symphony rehearsals. (Three hours in a car together can do a lot for cultivating friendships.)

{Celebrating her achievement at a BBQ back in 2009}

Although I was, of course, elated that she won a position in the St. Louis Symphony two years ago, I was extremely sad to see her go. Luckily, we've had ample time to spend together during her numerous planned and spontaneous trips to LA. Now, it's my turn to visit! We've got loads planned, including attending an exposition tennis match (her cousin, Michael Chang, will be going head-to-head with fellow legend John McEnroe) and making these bourbon pumpkin pie milkshakes.

{Instructions and Cream Cheese Frosting recipe}
During one of Jess's recent visits, she left me with a sweet parting gift: a package of Sprinkles-brand Red Velvet Cupcakes. I was inspired to make them in anticipation of my impending trip to St. Louis. In all honesty, however, I've been desperate to bake ever since my husband hopped on this cockamamie "diet" bandwagon. (Baked apples are great and all, but moral support might be a tiny bit over-rated.) I saved him one and brought the rest to LA Chamber Orchestra rehearsal.

Having followed the instructions exactly, I thought these turned out fantastically well. I'd made red velvet cupcakes from scratch in the past; and while they were moist and their flavor was great, they almost always left their paper wrappings saturated with unappetizing oil. The Sprinkles mix resulted in cupcakes that were fluffy, moist, and flavorful, but not nearly as oily as other recipes I'd tried. I happily took all the credit for my colleague's complements. The cupcakes looked, smelled, and tasted homemade, so who's to say they weren't? Plus, what they really loved was the frosting - and I had no packaged help there. I subtracted a bit of the recommended quantity of sugar and found the balance perfectly sweet and perfectly tangy.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Recipe adapted from Sprinkles Cupcake Mix

One stick of butter, firm but not cold
3 1/4 cups powdered sugar
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt

In an electric mixer, beat the butter, salt, and cream cheese together on medium-low speed for 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar 1/4 cup at a time. Once it is incorporated, add in the vanilla.

{Hubby couldn't resist}

For a musical pairing, enjoy the last movement of Brahms' 1st symphony. The french horn call in 2:45 always makes me think of my most treasured friendships. While vacationing in the Alps, Brahms heard an Alphorn (of Ricola commerical fame) play a beautiful theme. He jotted down the notes on a postcard to his best friend, along with these words:

"High on the mountain and deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand times."

A pretty poetic way of writing just to say hi! Admittedly, his feelings for this particular best friend of his were hardly just platonic. But regardless, this musical moment always makes me think of the special majesty and sweetness of close friendships. It's like a musical representation of what great friends can do for your mood and your life. Prior to the horn call in 2:45, the music is intense, anxious, and brooding. It's like someone going around in circles inside their own head. And out of nowhere, the noble friendship theme turns music that was dismal and complex into something sunny, simple, and rich with joy.

{In a less-than-serious moment, but one that sums up our friendship quite nicely}
See you soon, Jess! And thanks for the cupcakes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Baked Apples with Bourbon Maple Caramel / "William Tell" Overture

Although I grew up eating baked apples frequently as a "healthy" dessert, it had never occurred to me to make them myself. If it's going to be "apple ____," shouldn't it be apple crisp, apple strudel, apple pie, or otherwise laden with delicious carbohydrates?

{All the fixings: dried figs, dried mixed berries, pecans}
For better or for worse, my husband and I are on something of a pre-holiday diet. Naturally, my version of a diet cannot exclude dessert entirely. When I thought of what kinds of treats I could prepare on chilly fall evenings (yes, we have those in Los Angeles!), my memory darted back to the baked apples my mother used to make for us when the weather cooled down. I would initially be disappointed that oreos weren't in my cards that night. But every time, I bit into a warm and juicy baked apple, I had to concede that I'd underestimated them.

Baked Apples with Bourbon Maple Caramel

Adapted from The Last Course

2 large baking apples (I used Honeycrisps), cored but not peeled or sliced
2 tablespoons dried fruit of your choice (I used 1 tbsp mixed berries and 1 tbsp dried figs)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon nuts of your choice (I used pecans)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon bourbon
splash of vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup apple or pear cider

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine your dried fruit and sugar in a small bowl. Divide filling evenly among the cavities of the apples. Top them off with a thin pat of butter. Place the apples in a shallow baking dish.

Pour the cider, vanilla, bourbon, and maple syrup around the apples.

Bake for 25 - 35 minutes, basting every 5 to 7 minutes, until the apples are tender. Place apples on a serving tray and cover with foil to keep warm.

Transfer pan juices to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; then reduce to a simmer. Simmer the caramel until it reaches your desired consistency and color. Pour over the apples and serve.

(Vanilla ice cream is a great complement to baked apples, although it significantly reduces their dietetic potential.)

{Apples out of the oven, pre-carameled. See how the skin is slightly wrinkled, but not cracked?}

For a musical pairing, enjoy Rossini's "William Tell" overture. The apple theme is the obvious connection here. (William Tell is the legendary man who shot an arrow through an apple standing atop his son's head to win his freedom). But for me, the famous "galloping" section (thank you, Bugs Bunny) perfectly captures what fall means for me in my life. Summer is a relatively calm season for me, since the concert season slows to a crawl. And do I ever relish it: the annual slowdown allows for traveling and socializing on weekends, and accounts for the very existence of this blog. But come September, I am off to the races in a major way. I am never fully prepared for the abrupt explosion of performances and general busy-ness that takes hold. I don't even really have time to bemoan the end of summer; I get swooped up in a mad rush that carries me all the way til the middle of June. It's a lot like Rossini's trumpet blare right as the famous finale begins, at 8:15 in the clip. He wrote absolutely no "transition" between the restful section and the mad dash; it just explodes out of nowhere. The conductor in this version, Riccardo Muti, gives a fantastic cutoff in 8:25 that is awesomely brutal and commanding. As for the craziness that happens in the violins at 10:05: when I've performed this, it's always so unrelentingly fast that you just have to hang on for dear life. God forbid your standpartner makes a mistake - or you second-guess just one of those lousy little notes - and you may fall off the wagon completely.

That's what Fall means to me: hang on for dear life til you start coasting. Along the way, try not to stop and think too hard about having absolutely no weekend evenings free. Savor the manic, unrelenting joy of the concert season. Await summer with no small amount of eagnerness as the wild ride comes to an end. Bask in the bliss of relaxation while it lasts, before being snapped back to reality with a brutal, brassy blare. Repeat.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Guest Post on "Opera Girl Cooks"

{Drunken Fig Jam with Rosemary, Port, and Lemon}
I'm delighted to have a guest post up on Opera Girl Cooks today. Click here for the full post!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pistachio & Cilantro Pesto Shrimp Tacos / Marquez Danzon No. 2

You'd be hard pressed to find a native Angeleno who is not completely addicted to Mexican food. We're also guilty of constantly tinkering with the very basics that we love so much. When I saw this original and refreshing twist on shrimp tacos in last month's issue of Sunset Magazine, I couldn't wait to give it a try - especially since it appeared so simple that even I, the slowest home chef west of the Rockies, guessed that I could probably get it done in 20 minutes or less. Amazingly, that turned out to be the case. While the shrimp were grilling, I threw together a light lemony slaw and warmed up some tortillas on the stove.

Pistachio and Cilantro Pesto Shrimp Skewers
(Adapted from Sunset Magazine)

1 cup lightly packed cilantro sprigs (yes, even the stems!)
1/4 cup olive oil 
1 lime, zested and juiced
1/4 teaspoon salt 
1/8 teaspoon ground coriander 
1/2 cup toasted, unsalted pistachios 
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined 

Heat grill to high. 

In a food processor, combine the lime juice and zest, olive oil, and cilantro. Pulse a few times to combine. Add in the salt, coriander, and pistachios, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until your pesto is smooth.

Coat the shrimp evenly with the pesto, and skewer. (I use metal skewers, but wooden ones soaked in water for 30 minutes would be fine as well.) Grill for about two minutes per side, or until pink, being careful not to overcook them. 

Serve with cole slaw (my recipe below), warm tortillas, and extra lime wedges. (I'll be adding fresh cut corn and cotija cheese next time.)

{As my husband likes to say: "how can this be bad?"}

{We told our nut-allergic friend that this was "epi-pen worthy"}

{Shrimp, ready for the grill}
{Lemony Slaw - recipe below}
Light Lemony Slaw 

1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream or greek yogurt (anything goes here - full fat, non fat, etc)
1 tablespoon sugar
zest and juice of one lemon
One pound shredded cabbage, carrot, and/or broccoli mix
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh scallions
salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl large enough for the finished amount of slaw, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream or greek yogurt, sugar, and lemon zest and juice. Add the cabbage mixture, parsley, and scallions and toss well. We like this with plenty of pepper.

{My patented tortilla-warming technique. Violin-calloused fingers come in handy here, but are not required}
For a musical pairing, enjoy Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra's vivacious performance of what has been affectionately dubbed the "Second National Anthem" of Mexico: Arturo Marquez's Danzon No. 2. It's zesty, fun, simple, and loaded with Latin flavor. I dare you not to dance while listening to it. (Another fun connection: Mexican-born Marquez spent his childhood here in Los Angeles before returning to Mexico for college.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Peach Raspberry Crisp / Appalachia Waltz

Apple Crisp was my grandmother's specialty. The buttery, shortbread-like topping was beloved by every member of our family, and legendary amongst our friends. Even my chocoholic husband came around after tasting it; over the years, crisps have become his "desert island" dessert.

As much as I'd like to think that crisp-making skills are heritable, I can't bring myself to try to replicate my grandma's version. Unfortunately for posterity, she never followed a written recipe. And naturally, I was too busy drooling over her shoulder in anticipation of the finished product to pay much attention to detail. All I can remember with certainty was that copious amounts of butter were involved. Whatever her secrets may have been, she would prepare crisp after crisp for any of our visits to New York. Her tireless baking was just one of the many ways she would tell us she loved us. I can't help but think of her whenever I make one.

{My Grandma & I circa 1982}
For a musical pairing, here is Mark O'Connor's moving Appalachia Waltz. It captures a sweetness and a sense of deep nostalgia that is utterly American, and profoundly comforting. I thought it would be especially appropriate given the tenth anniversary of September 11th. This version is performed by my partner Kevin and myself.

Peach Rasbperry Crisp
(adapted from the Barefoot Contessa)

4 pounds firm, ripe peaches
1 orange, zested
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 cups plus 2 to 3 tablespoons flour
1 pint raspberries
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup old-fashioned oats
2 sticks (one half pound) cold, unsalted butter, diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If you'd like to go through the trouble of removing the skin from the peaches, you can immerse them in boiling water for 30 seconds to one minute, then shock them in ice water. The skins should slide right off when you pinch them. (Personally, I don't mind the skins. They have such a beautiful color; and because they literally hold the peach slices together, they prevent the filling from becoming a complete mush.) Cut the peaches into large wedges.

In a large bowl, combine the peaches, 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour (this depends on how juicy your peaches are; the juicier they are, the more flour you will require to prevent the filling from becoming soupy), 1/4 cup of the brown sugar, the orange zest, and the vanilla. Add the raspberries and toss gently. Pour the filling into any dish that will fit it and the topping.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend the butter, the remaining sugars, the salt, and the oats until the mixture crumbles into pea-sized bits. Spread evenly over the peach mixture. Bake for 1 hour and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

{Nothing beats rivulets of melted ice cream}

{Poochini, intrigued}

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sausage & Goat Cheese Lasagna / Beethoven String Quartet

Lasagna has been one of my favorite dishes since I was little. Every now and then, my Italian mother would indulge us by making her famous version - usually to celebrate a birthday, a satisfactory report card, or the occasional (but very appreciated) "just because." This particular recipe remains a favorite in our house. Adding goat cheese to the traditionally mild ricotta mixture brings the lasagna to a whole new level of cheesy perfection.

{The precise moment my husband announced that "something smells amazing." Needless to say, meat was involved}

The recipe is such a slam dunk as is that I barely make any modifications to it. I usually add crushed fennel seeds and red pepper flakes to the onion, garlic, and sausage mixture before finishing up the sauce.

{Simmering away}

Like many musical masterpieces, lasagna comes together by way of a divinely simple layering process. Though each layer - sauce, pasta, mozzarella, ricotta - is distinct on its own, they all come together to create one deliciously harmonious whole.

{1. Sauce}

{2. Pasta and 3. Mozzarella}

{4. Ricotta/goat cheese}

{Repeat layers 1. through 4... and top it all off with some extra parmesan cheese}

So for a relevant musical pairing: here's a bit of one of my favorite Beethoven string quartets. Like this lasagna, it begins with one layer and adds in the remaining three one by one - resulting in something perfectly satisfying and utterly complete. Enjoy!