Saturday, March 30, 2013

Peanut Butter Cup Brownie Bites

Peanut Butter Cup Brownie Bites
Peanut Butter Cup Brownie Bites

Brownie bites are nothing new. I've been making them for years and you can pick them up pre-made in boxes on grocery shelves and at bakeries. I've also made them with cherries in the center (Cherry Brownie Bites) and made them with orange, as well (Orange and Chocolate Brownie Bites) but for this Easter I decided to pop a mini peanut butter cup into each one and see what happened.

YUM is what happened. I posted a quick Instagram pic and people loved it. So, without waiting I wanted to share the basic recipe and a tip or two for getting these to turn out right.

Brownie Bites
Makes 24 Bites
Printable Recipe

1 c semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 stick (1/2 c) butter
1/2 c plus 2 Tablespoons flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
3/4 c packed light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 24 mini-muffin cups with paper liners or grease well.

Melt chocolate chips and butter together until smooth and let cool to room temperature. Set aside.
Mix flour and salt together in a small bowl-set aside.
Mix eggs and brown sugar together until thick and pale. Stir in vanilla and cooled chocolate mixture until well blended. Stir in flour until just combined.
Fill each muffin cup 2/3 full (about 1 tablespoon)
Bake 12-15 minutes (I find 14 works well) until the edges are set but the centers are moist and fudgy.
Cool for 15 minutes before removing.

Now, the only addition here is a mini chocolate covered peanut butter cup pushed directly into the center of each bite. You can add the tiniest bit of dough to the top of each to completely seal them in, but I found letting the top open worked well, too.

Here's the important part: You MUST let these cool completely before attempting to remove from pans. The PB cup is very melty after baking and needs to set or the whole bite will cave in or fall apart; trust me on this one, I already made the mistake of trying to remove them too early. Once cooled, enjoy to your heart's content!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

At Work, We Eat!

I have a job that is at once challenging beyond all belief and rewarding beyond all belief. When I'm not developing recipes or writing about food, I have a day (well, night) job at a local group home caring for two women with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Every need of theirs is met with the help of the women who work at the house and every moment of their lives is spent under the care and supervision of others. Downtime is rare for us, but I know that none of us would have it any other way.

Once you've been with these women for any length of time you begin to care for them on a level that you didn't think was possible, and though we are told we're not their friends, but workers hired to care for them, you can't reign in your heart and feelings sometimes.

Days spent caring for another's personal hygiene isn't glamorous or even something most would choose to do, but we do it nonetheless because eventually we all genuinely care for them as family. And, when you spend so much time with other workers in a setting like that you also begin to care for them like family.

We've witnessed everything from deaths to births to divorce to marriage to broken down cars to losses of homes to illnesses and beyond and we're all there for one another in a way I've never seen in any other job I've ever had. For as difficult as my job can be, I'm very grateful and fortunate to be where I'm at.

So, once in a while we hand over care of the girls to another and we party in the best way we know how; We eat!

The house I work in is filled with women from all walks of life and all areas of this world. Each one has their own food history, as well and we all love to share that on potluck days. Sometimes we have a worker who will make pastelillos, or one who loves sweets and will bake any cake you want. We have feisty Italians who love food and, of course, there's me.

This week we were celebrating the birthday of one worker and the moving on of another. Sometimes we have no reason to eat and celebrate, but we do it anyway because we love to eat!

This time I was in charge of the cake and it turned out to be the cake that failed - twice. I couldn't get it out of the pans properly no matter how I tried, so I gave in and made cupcakes. I also threw together a bowl of Black Bean and Corn Salsa. The other girls brought in various goodies and we all went away full and happy, as usual.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Veggie Wednesday: Pickles

Cold Pickles
Cold Pickles

It's been quite some time since I've posted for Veggie Wednesday, but recently I got the inspiration to do so from pickles I made for the first time.

Pickles aren't really hard to make,  but it's one of those things so easily bought that most people don't think about making them. The recipe and method I'll share is for a very fast cold pickle that doesn't have the depth of flavor of ones made with heated liquid. I'll be making more and changing the method, but for a start these were really good. They're very crisp and perfect with sandwiches.

I started with pickling cucumbers from a local farmers' market and fresh dill and garlic. Not much else, really.
I've come to learn that pickles benefit from a quick blanch in boiling water and also from boiling the brining liquid as well. I went cold on all fronts here and they turned out very good, but I can tell they would be better  using a slightly different method.

Cold Pickles
Makes 2 quarts
Printable Recipe

Two 1-quart canning jars, washed and dried well
10 small pickling cucumbers - washed and quartered lengthwise
Cold water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (I use Bragg's organic)
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
2 large springs of fresh dill
6 cloves garlic - roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Place 3 cloves garlic, 1 sprig dill, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 Tablespoon kosher salt and 1/4 cup vinegar in the bottom of each canning jar. Stir until salt dissolved.
Add cucumbers, standing up and crowded (this won't hurt them) into each jar.
Add water to cover the cucumbers, leaving a 1/4" space at the top of the jar.
Add lids and set in refrigerator for at least 3 days.
I take mine out and shake them gently each day to keep the flavors distributed well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fabio's Italian Kitchen

I think I'm a fairly lucky person. I've had my fair share of opportunities that seem to have nothing to do with anything but sheer luck. I'm not saying I don't have talents or abilities that people might find desirable  but a lot of my blogging work and connections seem to have been complete flukes.

I have a feeling Saturday was that way, as well. I know I can write a cookbook or restaurant review fairly well, but to have been invited to meet with Chef Fabio Viviani was something I didn't think would happen again in my lifetime, much less right now in my career as a blogger.

Nonetheless, I leapt at the offer. Fabio has long been a favorite in our household and after meeting him at the NYCWFF in 2010 and reconnecting through emails and Twitter as he found his footing online, it just solidified the fact that I truly admired him.

I had the chance to sit with Fabio and discuss a few things with him about his newest cookbook, Fabio's Italian Kitchen (due out April 23rd, Hyperion) and newest restaurant endeavor Siena Tavern, in Chicago.

I couldn't stick to the usual questions, because I had so many for him and so little time. What I really wanted to do was ask him to tell his life story, but I had to try and stay in the present. So, my first question for him was, if he was so successful in Italy, why leave it all behind and come here? His answer surprised me, "I wasn't happy." He then said this, which explained it all very well, "Success is not measured by how much you have or how much money you make, but how happy you are." Indeed. So I asked him if he was happy now and he simply said, "Happy? Yes. Much happier than I was in Italy, but not fulfilled yet."

I think he's on the right track. I think leaving yourself open to be happier and more fulfilled just gives you the drive to succeed even further, which is another thing he pointed out. It's a person's drive to succeed that gets them there, but they have to be willing to take the steps and not just expect to be what they wanted to be immediately, "You can't climb a thousand step ladder in two steps."

Are you taking in here just how smart Fabio really is? He's goofy and funny and an endearing character on-screen, but it's his business sense, intelligence and drive to succeed that have taken him as far as he's gotten.

Did Top Chef help? "It got me there faster. It took something I was already on the path to and sped it up." I can see that after having the chance to speak with him face-to-face. He's tenacious and methodical about his career and it's taking him to great places.

I asked him how difficult it is to run restaurants so geographically distant from one another, pointing out that my perfectionist self would get in the way and want to be making sure every dish was done right before heading out the door. He said he has a good system in place for each restaurant and he knows how to delegate (something that even with 7 children I've not mastered yet). "This is the recipe for meatballs, make the meatballs! That's it." He also pointed out that it's a simple 5-hour flight and he can check in whenever he needs to.

When asking about the new cookbook, I wondered how many recipes were mom and nonna's and how many were his. "Out of 150 plus recipes, I think 10 are mine!" Something I can tell he actually prides himself on. I pointed out a recipe for special gnocchi in the book I had a sneak-peek at and when I said, "They're baked! That's so much better for you." He told me, "We don't fry in my house there's never enough oil there to fry anything in. What's to fry?"

Which led me to the question I'd been waiting to ask. Fabio has worked with children and their families in an effort to get them to eat healthier for quite some time now and I wanted to know what his #1 tip to get children to eat healthier was and he said, "Lie to them." When I laughed out loud he said, "No, really. Sneak it in, hide it, lie. They never know what hit them." I wondered about how they would eat well later on if they didn't know what they were eating all along. How would they continue to make good choices? "Well, once they're old enough to understand, you let them in on it."

We talked about how the way parents eat affects the way their children eat and how children are more likely to eat something they helped make (which gave me a moment to show him my kids making pizza with me). He told me of a class with hundreds of children and parents in attendance and how, when he held up a soft drink can and asked, "Who knows what this is?" They ALL had hands up. But when he held up a head of celery and asked the same, he had only a few hands raised. "We're too disconnected from real food." I agreed and then we both said at the same time, "And kids have too many choices."

He told me, "When I was growing up, I never heard, 'What do you want to eat? What do you want for dinner?' Dinner was whatever was put in front of us!" I feel exactly the same way and many nights you'll hear me telling my own kids, "This is what's for dinner, eat it or you'll be hungry!" I think we can all use the lesson taught here: Get back to basics with food, limit processed foods and don't confuse kids with too many food choices.

I wish I'd had several more hours to talk to Fabio and ask questions, but I was off to work and he was off to an event that night, so we parted ways, he thanking me for coming to speak with him and me thanking him for the opportunity  He really is one of the most personable celebrities I've had the pleasure to meet and I hope you'll take the time to get to know him yourself by following him along online on one or all of his venues.
You can find Fabio at:

Twitter: @FabioViviani
Facebook: Fabio Viviani
Pinterest: FabioViviani

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ravioli in Walnut Cream Sauce

Ravioli in Walnut Cream Sauce
Ravioli in Walnut Cream Sauce

I love to make homemade pasta, not for the actual making, which can be tedious and painstaking at times, but because the result is so worth the while. When I can't make my own pasta refrigerated fresh is second-best to me, especially when it comes to ravioli, but a really good homemade sauce can make just about any pasta sing.

Something I've seen used often in pasta sauces used with stuffed pasta especially, is walnuts. Most often they're paired with sage and top a squash stuffed pasta, but I've taken them and paired them with lemony Italian parsley, heavy cream and shallots for a delicious and surprisingly light pasta sauce.

The California walnuts were given to be by California Walnuts and I can tell you now, I'd purchase them anyway; they're lovely, large and perfectly yummy with no trace of bitterness that I've found in other brands of walnut.

Here's what I did with my latest bag of beauties;

Ravioli in Walnut Cream Sauce
Serves 4
Printable Recipe

1 pound fresh cheese ravioli
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup California Walnuts, roughly chopped
Pinch of Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend, crushed
2 Tablespoons minced shallot
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream (light cream or half and half is fine here, as well)
2 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1. Cook ravioli according to directions and keep warm.
2. Heat oil and butter over medium-high heat in a medium non-stick frying pan just until melted. Add Italian seasoning and salt and stir briefly.
3. Add walnuts and stir several times. They will brown quickly, so don't leave them unattended. As soon as they begin to brown, remove from heat and take them from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper toweling.
4. Add shallot to pan and stir until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add wine and bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in cream, reserved walnuts and Parmesan cheese until smooth. Toss in parsley, adjust seasoning with salt and serve on top of warm ravioli.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Black Bean and Corn Salsa

It doesn't get any easier than this ... really. When it comes to simple recipes with just a handful of ingredients, I'm all ears. With so much going on in my life daily it helps to have tried and true recipes with few ingredients  that are frugal to boot.

I make this for the kids fairly often and it never fails to disappear completely within minutes. As soon as they realize it's being stirred together they're waiting with tortillas in hand to scoop up and devour. I've made it in different ways before, but this is the one we all like best.

You don't need to rinse the black beans, and feel free to use your own beans cooked from dry and freshly cooked or thawed frozen corn, as well. I've also made this with fresh salsa that I make myself. The cumin and garlic are optional depending on the seasoning used in the salsa.

Black Bean and Corn Salsa
Black Bean and Corn Salsa

Black Bean and Corn Salsa
Makes 6 cups
Printable Recipe

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed (or two cups cooked from dry)
1 can whole kernel corn, drained (or two cups fresh or thawed frozen)
1 jar (16 ounces) salsa (or two cups fresh)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 clove garlic, minced

Combine all and stir well to blend. Eat right away or refrigerate for up to 5 days. Watch it disappear!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Fondue Date Night

Cheese Fondue
Cheese Fondue

Fondue seems to be making a comeback lately. Not just in homes, but there are whole restaurants devoted to the smooth, warm dipping sauces. I recall back in the 70's the big joke was how many Crock-Pots® or fondue pots a couple would get as wedding gifts.Some had 4 or 5 fondue sets, so it's no real surprise to me that I can find many for sale on sites like eBay or Etsy.

Cheese Fondue
Cheese Fondue and dippers. L to R: Meatballs, fried cooked salami cubes, steamed asparagus tips, grape tomatoes, bread cubes and pretzel sticks. Provide extra small skewers (left) and plates in addition to the longer skewers that come with your set. The longer skewers aren't meant for eating from, they're simply made for dipping foods that are then set on plates.

I even found my own set at a local yard sale a few years ago. It sat in the box until I stopped at Pier 1 the other day and found a brand new contemporary fondue set on sale. It was too cute to pass up and I started thinking about dual fondues for dinner one night.

Tonight was that night and the kids thoroughly loved it. Fondue is so easy to make if you take your time and do it right. The list of 'dippers' is endless for both cheese and chocolate and it's easy enough to do for a party or just a weeknight dinner at home. It's especially good with lots of kids because there's usually something for everyone.
Chocolate Fondue
Chocolate Fondue

Fondue is derived from the French word "fondre" meaning, to melt. Simple as that. Bread as a dipper was the traditional, though almost anything you like dipped in cheese or chocolate will work these days.

Chocolate Fondue
Chocolate fondue and dippers. L to R: marshmallows, coconut cookies, strawberries and carrot pound cake. 

I have to say, as cute as the new pot is, the original was better at keeping heat and a much larger capacity for the crowd I have, though the smaller new one was better for the dessert fondue, so it worked out having two sets.

Here are two very basic recipes for cheese fondue and chocolate fondue.

Classic Cheese Fondue
Printable Recipe

1 pound of cheese, shredded - typical is Gruyere and Swiss, but almost any will do
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
Spices if desired
Assorted dippers

1. In a small bowl, toss the cheeses well with cornstarch and set aside. The cornstarch helps to ensure a smooth fondue.
2. Cut the garlic in half and rub the inside of the fondue pot with the cut side and set pot aside until fondue is ready.
3. Over medium heat in a heavy bottomed saucepan, add the wine and bring to a simmer. Very slowly and about 1/2 cup at a time, stir the cheese into the wine. Once each addition has melted add in more and stir and melt until all the cheese is incorporated and the fondue is smooth.
4. Transfer to fondue pot and keep warm over a low flame.
5. Serve with assorted dippers and reheat gently if necessary to keep fluid and smooth.
6. Add spices such as a pinch of cayenne pepper or freshly grated nutmeg at the end of cooking and stir well.

Classic Chocolate Fondue
Printable Recipe

1 pound bittersweet chocolate - grated or cut in small pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 to 2 Tablespoons flavored liqueur, if desired
1/2 teaspoon grated cinnamon, if desired
Assorted dippers

1. In a small double boiler, heat chocolate and cream, stirring frequently, until chocolate is smooth.
2. Add liqueur and cinnamon if using and stir well.
3. Keep warm in a fondue pot with a flame beneath. Stir often to keep from burning and make sure chocolate is still fluid.
4. Serve with dippers.

*Note: The post title is a reference any "Everybody Loves Raymond" fan will appreciate.