January 24, 2012

cranberry clementine muffins (or bread)

I have a cooking crush on cranberries.  The little red gems are just gorgeous.  I love when the Official Day Of Eating Too Much (y'know, Thanksgiving) approaches, and the bags of cranberries are abundant in the store.  Sometimes there's even a makeshift bog in the produce section, and gosh, is that ever exciting to me.  I love the beautiful crimson color.  I love the shape of the berries.  I love watching them burst into delicious pockets of flavor as they bake.  Of course I love eating them. 

There's a coffee shop slash bakery in town that offers delicious cranberry muffins.  Since it just so happens to be across the street from my office, I could easily eat a baker's dozen in a month's time.  My waistline and wallet are begging me to reign it in a bit.  I've got good news for my wallet and bad news for my waistline: I've perfected a recipe for these muffins at home.  And - shh, don't tell - I think they might even be a bit better.

The first time I tried this recipe, I actually made a cranberry bread loaf.  It was good, though I missed the abundance of crunchy outside bites that come with making muffins.  So I tried it again - and again - with muffins, and my crush has blossomed to true love. 

The cranberry-orange flavor combination is popular for good reason, though I love replacing the citrus with clementines.  The sweet little guys add a fantastic contrast to the tart berries.  For me, the best part is the sprinkle of raw sugar on top, which gets crunchy as it bakes.  When I fill the muffin tins, I'm careful to dollop a few berries right on top, because when those berries burst & meet that crunchy sugar, something magic happens. 

Cranberry & Clementine Muffins
makes one dozen muffins*

1 3/4 c all-purpose flour
2 3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 dark brown sugar
zest of one clementine
2 tbs fresh clementine juice
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 c whole milk
1/3 c vegetable oil
2 c fresh cranberries, rinsed & dried
1 tbs granulated sugar
demerara or turbinado (natural) sugar for garnish

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl, mixing completely.  In a separate bowl, combine zest, juice, egg, milk & oil.  Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid mixture.  Stir until just combined.  Toss cranberries with the granulated sugar, then stir into the batter.  Spoon batter into greased muffin pans, about two-thirds full.  Sprinkle a generous amount of the raw sugar on top of each muffin, then bake at 400 degrees F for 18-20 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.

Remove muffins from pan & enjoy within two days.

*Also makes one standard loaf of bread, if desired.

January 19, 2012

Chicago, part one

Cliches don't bother me. They're actually comforting in a way, like little pieces of evidence that prove I'm not alone.  See, I've been teased my entire life for being a whiner.  This might bother me if the whole 'squeaky wheel' cliche didn't exist.  But it does, and it cements my whininess into a self-proclaimed usefulness.  Yes, I whine.  And guess what?  I often get my way. 

A few months ago I whined about not getting to go to Chicago.  *squeak squeak*

Lo and behold, in December I got my wish.  Darling husband and I stole away for a weekend to my favorite city in this country.  *grease grease*

hello, city.

Though we were there just 53 short hours, we managed to do some serious eating.  Enough that I feel compelled to spread this out over a post or three. 

I'm dedicating this post to our first meal there.  Every time I go to Chicago I run straight for one of this man's restaurants.  Chef Rick Bayless is responsible for some of the best bites of food I've ever put in my mouth, and I'm so thankful his authentic, delicious style of Mexican food is one that is accessible, both to my palate and wallet. 

Though it was difficult to stray from Frontera Grill, we popped around the corner to XOCO.  Holy goodness, am I glad we did.  The menu is succinct, but every offering is as enticing as the next, making it difficult to decide.  Thankfully we were in a celebratory mood and opted to order many things. 

Always a sucker for avocado, my husband insisted on starting with the guacamole and house made chips.  The guac was fresh and zesty, and the chips were stellar - flecked generously with salt and a squeeze of lime.  Two salsas - tomatilla and 3-chile - rounded out the offering. 

Though the torta menu was impressive, the burst of fresh, cold air in downtown Chicago pushed us straight for the caldos - piping hot meal-in-a-bowl soups.  My husband got the pork belly vermicelli, which was a heaping bowl of rich broth laden with toasted noodles, woodland mushrooms, zucchini, avocado, salsa negra, and crispy-tender pork belly.  Though mild in spice, the complex flavors were worthy of an audible 'mmm' between each slurping bite.


I was looking for some serious heat, and was advised to order the carnitas.  Thank goodness.  The slow-cooked pork carnitas were nestled in a gloriously spicy bowl of green broth made with roasted serrano chile.  It was filled to the brim with goodies, including handmade potato masa dumplings, avocado, fresh arugula and chayote - a squash I had never tried before.  Hands down, this bowl of food is something I will crave frequently for the rest of my life.

If you know me, you know I live for dessert.  I could, and often do, eat it after every meal.  At XOCO, we opted for a bit of hot and cold.  We started with a bowl of homemade Mexican vanilla bean soft serve, topped with maple bacon pecan streusel and salted caramel sauce.  Did you get that?  Maple bacon pecan streusel and salted caramel sauce

We wrapped things up with a cup of, well, heaven.  The Mexico City thick bean-to-cup chocolate (champurrado) changed my standards for hot chocolate forever.  It was barely sweet, incredibly thick and pudding-like, and coated your mouth like a hug.  When I tipped up the cup, I had to wait several seconds for the drink to leisurely roll down the side before it got to my mouth.  This decadent drink is made with love - the beans are ground by hand, and it's also mixed to that perfect thickness by hand.   

As we were leaving, we stopped at the big picture window to watch the kitchen team assemble empanadas - again, by hand - and I wish I had returned to try them.  Next time...

This will forever be a fantastic food memory for me.  It was such a good experience that I have almost nothing to whine about.  Here's the thing: while in line, I looked up to see Chef Bayless himself standing in the restaurant.  Honestly, I was so hungry that I wanted to order first, then see about meeting him.  Big mistake - he popped in the back and he didn't return.  Chef Bayless, if you happen to lay eyes on this, thank you for your sharing your gift.  The food was truly incredible. 

January 11, 2012

new year, old recipe: baklava

Fair warning: I'm not sharing this recipe.  The only way you'll get to taste the best baklava in the world is by becoming my friend and/or family member.  A good place to start is by visiting this blog often. *cough* and commenting *cough cough*

My husband is half Lebanese, and his family has an arsenal of recipes that will make you weep with joy after just one bite.  If I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be the baklava.  Thing is, I always thought I hated baklava.  It was often heavily laden with honey and filled with chunky bits of pistachios.  I do love pistachios, but not purposed that way.  The baklava I previously tasted was...heavy.

Then I met my husband and fell in love.  Then he made his family's baklava and I fell head over heels. It is light and intricate and floral and amazing.  You can actually taste the care and effort put into layer after layer of phyllo, and layer after layer of butter.  I do not possess the patience needed for this.  In fact, it's such an undertaking that my husband only makes it once a year - at the holidays - and I typically stay in the other room because my impatience would be visible in those incredible layers.

This version combines ground walnuts & pecans, more butter than I care to admit and some beautifully fragrant infused syrups.  It's delicate, yet rich.  It's crunchy, yet moist.  It's sweet, yet subtle.  It's perfect.

I wanted to share the recipe with you.  I really did.  But after some basic online searching I couldn't find another recipe quite like this one, and I like the idea of having a 'secret' family recipe to hand down to my kids someday.  I like the idea of honoring my husband's culture by making this once a year and sharing it with those we love. 

That, and I like to be difficult. 

Do you have a treasured family recipe?