Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Orange Dark Chocolate Brownies with Orange Blossom Cream / Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges"

Our favorite little Italian restaurant in Hollywood serves what might be the most exquisite dessert on earth. (Vivoli's "Mattonellina di Cioccolatto" is essentially a silky, dense dark chocolate terrine covered with a light orange syrup and candied orange peel.) Several days ago, I found myself craving the dark chocolatey, fudgey, orangey goodness of Vivoli's Mattonellina. Brownies proved to be the perfect guinea pig for my first chocolate + orange experiment.

Double Orange Dark Chocolate Brownies with Orange Blossom Whipped Cream
Recipe loosely adapted from Earthbound Farm Organic Farmstand

20 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 1/2 tbsp instant espresso powder
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp orange extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans
3 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp orange peel

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
Line a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan with foil. Generously butter or spray the foil. 

Melt the chocolate and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until melted and smooth. Add the espresso powder, vanilla, and orange extract and stir to blend. Cool the mixture for 15 minutes. (You'll be adding eggs later, and don't want to accidentally cook them!)

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the nuts and orange peel; toss to coat evenly. 

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until just blended. Add in the cooled chocolate mixture and stir until just blended. Add in the flour mixture and, again, stir until just blended. (Overbeating will result in deflated brownies.) Pour the mixture into the foil-lined pan.

Bake the brownies for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle comes out with moist crumbs attached. Cool the brownies completely in the pan and stick them in the refrigerator for 6 hours. (Eating them sooner is definitely ok; just know that the texture is so fudgey that they won't hold together in your hand, and need to be refrigerated for 6 hours to properly congeal). Keep chilled. 

To make the orange blossom whipped cream: in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat 1/2 cup of cream with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar (to your taste) and one tablespoon of orange blossom water. 

{Why no, doctor; nothing is wrong with this picture}
{Adding in the espresso powder and extracts created beautiful swirls}
{Fresh out of the oven. Should you fail to resist the urge to chill these before testing, I won't blame you}
{Somebody call animal cruelty!}
For a musical pairing, enjoy Sergei Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges." The opera is based on an Italian fairytale, in which an evil witch curses a prince with an obsession for three oranges. He finds two oranges and opens them; beautiful fairy princesses emerge, but quickly die of thirst. He opens the third orange and falls in love with the fairy princess inside. It's strange, absurd, surreal, and beautiful in the way that most fairytales are. Musically speaking, it's written neo-classically - meaning taking classic ideas and giving them a modern, sophisticated, playful twist. (Sort of like the addition of three oranges to a classic brownie recipe.) Enjoy!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies / Ravel's "Petit Poucet"

The charming simplicity of thumbprint cookies has always appealed to me. But after tasting one, I would inevitably find myself disappointed by a crumbly, dry, and flavorless cookie.

This recipe, however, yielded moist, buttery cookies coated in prettily sparkling raw sugar -- with just the right dose of silky, rich, melts-in-your-mouth dark chocolate.

{this recipe calls for raw sugar, also known as "demerara" or "turbinado" sugar}
{we had a lot of fun molding the dough into balls and making the indentations}
{the thumbprint can be as deep or as wide as you like depending on how much chocolate you'd like to fill it with}
{ganache over the double boiler}
Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies
Adapted from Sunset Magazine

For the cookie dough:
1 cup (1/2 pound) butter, at room temperature
1/2  cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 heaping teaspoon salt
About 1/3 scant cup raw (such as turbinado or demerara) sugar

For the ganache:
6 ounces bitersweet chocolate
2 tablespoons whipping cream
1 tablespoon dark corn syrup
1 tablespoon butter

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugars on high speed until smooth. Add in the egg yolks and vanilla and beat until blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. 

In another bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt by hand until blended. Reduce the speed of the electric mixer to low and gradually incorporate the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill until the dough is firm but still pliable, about 30 minutes. While waiting, preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Place about 1/3 cup of the raw sugar on a plate. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and roll them in the sugar until evenly coated. Place the cookies one inch apart on a buttered or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Make the indentations by pressing your thumb into the center of each cookie. The indentations should be about 1/2 an inch deep. 

Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes. If you're baking more than one pan, rotate them halfway through baking. If the indentations you made have puffed back up, you can reshape them while they are still warm on the cookie sheet. (Do not do this on your cooling rack as you will effectively be pushing the still-pliable dough through the grating of your cooling rack, resulting in unevenly shaped bottoms.) Transfer to a rack to cool. 

Meanwhile, prepare the ganache. In a double boiler, combine all the ganache ingredients over barely simmering water until blended. Remove from the stove and let cool about 15 minutes, until thick but not hardened. 

Fill each indentation with about 1 teaspoon of the ganache. Let the filled cookies stand until the ganache is firm, about 1 hour.

{these keep well with no dry-out for several days in an airtight container}
For a musical pairing, enjoy Ravel's musical retelling of the "Tom Thumb" fairytale. The French version of the pint-sized boy is far less macabre than the English-language version -- in which Tom gets eaten and regurgitated by various creatures before meeting his untimely death via spider bite.  In the French version, entitled "Le Petit Poucet" (and painted so sweetly and innocently by Ravel in this piece), Tom steals a pair of magical boots, and presumably lives happily ever after. 

Wishing you an equally magical year ahead!

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.