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.