Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Ultimate Brownies with Walnuts and Chocolate Chips


Homemade brownies are far and away better than their boxed counterparts. I know it can be tempting to grab a box of brownie mix from the supermarket because those photos and appetizing descriptions sound so tempting, but you can make brownies from scratch in little time, with minimal effort, and achieve outstanding results.

I prefer baking brownies with real chocolate. There are decent recipes that use good quality cocoa powder, but I'm a firm believer in real chocolate in brownies.

It's easy enough to chop up some chocolate and melt it together with butter to create the base of your brownies. Some eggs, sugar, and just a little bit of flour round out your basic recipe.

I particularly enjoy the brownie recipe from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook. A tiny bit of leavening gives these brownies just a bit of lift, while the espresso powder and vanilla extract offer depth of flavor. A combination of chopped unsweetened chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips provide a rich chocolate flavor that isn't too sweet.

I've made these brownies with both chocolate chips and walnuts folded in at the end, and also with just walnuts (I ran out of chocolate chips one time), and both versions are excellent.

With a well-stocked pantry, you can make these brownies any time. I've baked a batch after work once to take to a friend's house for a weeknight dinner, and also baked them this past Saturday morning for my nephew's birthday party. They are always a hit regardless of the occasion!

If you're looking for an excellent brownie recipe to return to over and over again, look no further. This is it.

Cheryl's Brownies
Makes 12 large or 24 small brownies
(From The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook)

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, preferably aluminum-free
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
3 extra-large eggs (I used large eggs)
1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan and line with parchment (I didn't bother greasing the pan first--the parchment is sufficient), allowing the ends of the paper to hang over two opposite edges of the pan.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together in a small bowl and set aside.

Put 1 cup of the chocolate chips, the unsweetened chocolate, and the butter in a large heatproof bowl, set it over a pot of barely simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water), and stir frequently until the chocolate and butter are melted and smooth. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, espresso powder, vanilla, and sugar until thoroughly combined.

Add the egg mixture to the chocolate mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate and mix it until combined. Stir in the walnuts and the remaining semisweet chocolate chips, mixing until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Tap the pan firmly on the kitchen counter to get rid of any air bubbles. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Let the brownies cool completely on a wire rack.

Cut the brownies into squares and enjoy. The brownies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Mojo Pork with Black Beans, Cilantro Rice and Pickled Red Onions


My sister recently upgraded her Crock Pot to an Instant Pot, and thus passed her Crock Pot down to me. Believe it or not, this was my first ever slow cooker. I usually braise and stew meat the old fashioned way, in my beloved Le Creuset French oven, or something similar, for several hours on the stove top. It never occurred to me to purchase a Crock Pot myself, but when gifted one it made sense to break it out and make something slow-cooked.

Speaking of my sister, she was at Disney World last week with her family (WITHOUT ME!) so as disappointing as that is, I figured I would use the Crock Pot to prepare a Disney recipe, so I wouldn't feel quite so depressed about it (I'll be going again in September, so I suppose I can forgive them).

I'm really loving The Best of Epcot Festivals Cookbook, which I purchased this past December at Epcot. It includes wonderful recipes from both the International Food and Wine Festival and the International Flower and Garden Festival. The recipe I'm sharing today was featured on the menu last year at the Food and Wine Festival's Islands of the Caribbean outdoor kitchen.

Mojo Pork with Black Beans, Cilantro Rice and Pickled Red Onions is the ultimate Caribbean comfort. Pork butt slowly simmers in a combination of orange, lime, and lemon juices, white vinegar, garlic, onion, and oregano until it literally falls apart. I removed the pork pieces to shred them, then strained the braising liquid to remove the chunks of onion and spices, then returned the pork back to the Crock Pot with some of the reserved braising liquid to keep the meat moist.

To accompany the slightly acidic, meltingly tender pork is an herbaceous cilantro lime rice and cumin-and-oregano-scented black beans with sauteed onion, garlic, and bell peppers.

The finished dish is served with pickled red onions, but alas the recipe in the cookbook left out any mention of them outside the actual title of the recipe, so I've simply linked to a quick pickled red onion recipe on my blog, but you can use any recipe you prefer. The slightly sweet, acidic onions pack a punch, and balance out the richness of the pork very nicely.

Although it's not quite a replacement for an actual trip to Disney, this mojo pork is delicious and satisfying. It will also make your entire house smell magical!

Mojo Pork with Black Beans, Cilantro Rice and Pickled Red Onions
Serves 6
(From The Best of Epcot Festivals Cookbook--originally served at Islands of the Caribbean outdoor kitchen at the 2016 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival)

Mojo Pork:
3-to-4-lb boneless pork butt, cut into 4 to 5 pieces
2 tablespoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 cup orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano

Cilantro Lime Rice:
2 cups long-grain rice
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems removed and minced
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Black Beans:
1/2 cup olive oil (I only used about 2 tablespoons)
1 small white onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 teaspoon oregano (I doubled this)
1/4 teaspoon cumin (I doubled this)
1/8 teaspoon chili pepper flakes (I doubled this)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Pickled red onions, for serving

For mojo pork: Season pork with salt and pepper. Place all ingredients in slow cooker, mixing well. Cook 8 to 10 hours, or until pork is tender and easy to pull apart. Cool slightly and shred with two forks.

For cilantro lime rice: Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, stir in rice, salt, and oil, reduce heat and simmer, cover and cook until rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in cilantro and lime juice. Set aside and keep warm.

For black beans: Heat oil in a large saucepan and saute onion, red and green peppers and garlic over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add black beans, oregano, cumin, pepper flakes and cilantro and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in red wine vinegar. Simmer or keep warm until ready to serve.

To serve: Scoop serving of rice into bowl, spoon black beans on top, then shredded pork. Top with fresh chopped cilantro and pickled red onions.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Walt Disney World: The Mara


Named for a river flowing through Kenya and Tanzania, The Mara is the quick service dining location at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge featuring some of the most interesting and ethnic dining options at a resort quick service location.

I really enjoy the atmosphere at The Mara. It's made to look like you are surrounded and covered by trees, and the painted walls surrounding the space depict various animals in their native African ecosystems. We sat near some hippos, snakes, monkeys, frogs, and more.

We actually dined twice at The Mara during our recent visit to Walt Disney World. Although it serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, both of our meals were at lunchtime, so I will happily share our selections as well as some thoughts from the experience. Let's begin with some of our favorites off the menu.

There are three flatbreads offered, and we tried one of them during our visit, namely the Mixed Tomato Flatbread topped with vine-ripened tomatoes, roasted garlic, fresh herb ricotta, artichokes, red peppers, and finished with peppery arugula and balsamic glaze. While this flatbread is likely a bit more mild in flavor than its counterparts, it's also the only vegetarian one out of the three, and honestly was quite enjoyable. It wasn't as good as a flatbread at nearby signature restaurant Jiko, but for quick service it certainly hits the spot.

Mixed Tomato Flatbread $9.99

The Mara Salad is a popular choice as well. It's packed with a blend of greens, grilled chicken, lentils, chickpeas, cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese, red onion, and a chili-cilantro dressing. This is no boring salad, it's full of protein even if you asked to omit the chicken to make it vegetarian. My mom actually ordered this salad both days we dined here and was very pleased with her choice.

The Mara Salad $9.69

There are some solid sandwich options at The Mara as well. In addition to your standard Disney burger and hot dog, you can also get a Hand-carved Sandwich served on a brioche bun with a choice of side, in this case a delicious couscous salad. On this particular day, the sandwich was hand-carved turkey, and topped with cheddar cheese and what seemed to be a cranberry mayo of sorts. My sister absolutely loved and raved over both her sandwich and the couscous salad. I would likely try this sandwich myself on a future visit.

Hand-carved Sandwich $10.99

You can also order a Chicken Pita, which is a slightly more ethnic sandwich option, filled with grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, mixed greens, and a mint-yogurt sauce. This was another delicious sandwich option, and a good one to consider for the future. There's also a similar Falafel Pita that is served with the same fillings but swaps out falafel for the chicken.

Chicken Pita $9.99

So here's the part where I tell you about my least favorite dish we tried on the menu. This is sad because it's something I was really looking forward to trying. In theory is sounds amazing: African Stew with beef, turkey, ham, carrots, potatoes, peas, chickpeas, and raisins served over basmati rice. The flavor was actually excellent. I enjoyed the sauce, the vegetables, and most of the meat. What I couldn't get over was that what I believe was the ham in the stew was exceptionally fatty. It was basically just huge chunks of fat, not meat. This made the dish unpalatable, and I ended up picking through the stew and eating the other stuff and removing the ham. This was tremendously unfortunate, as I said, because otherwise this is one of the most "exciting" menu options here, and something more authentic to the resort's African roots. I wish they had done a better job trimming the meat before cubing it up into the stew.

African Stew $8.49

I don't want to end this review on a bitter note, however, so I have one more yummy discovery to share! We finally had the chance to try the epic Zebra Domes! You can purchase them in a small plastic container in the refrigerated section of The Mara. These treats are filled with creamy Kahlua-spiked mousse, and wrapped in a melted chocolate coating that resembles the stripes of a zebra. These Zebra Domes have a cult following, and are available both at The Mara as well as Boma, the nearby buffet dining option. They are everything we thought they could be and more! This certainly turned my frown upside down.

Zebra Domes

Overall we really enjoyed our lunches at The Mara. There was only one menu option we selected that was sub-par, and that was due to technical execution (on any other day that ham may have been trimmed better). Otherwise, the selections at The Mara were quite excellent for quick service, and are certainly more intriguing than many other resort quick service locations (with the exception perhaps of Captain Cook's at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort). If you're staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge or Animal Kingdom Villas, this is a great spot to grab a quick bite before, after, or in between park visits!

The Mara
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
2901 Osceola Pkwy
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 938-3000

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Pho Cookbook: Chicken Pho


I've been a fan of Andrea Nguyen's cookbooks for years! Her Asian Dumplings cookbook is one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, and helped inspire my love of dumpling-making. I also love The Banh Mi Handbook, a wonderful look into these beloved Vietnamese sandwiches.

Her most recent release is entitled The Pho Cookbook, featuring another classic Vietnamese dish. Amidst the current craze for Asian noodle soups from all over the region, from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho, there's really not better time than the middle of a dreary, frigid winter to whip up some warm noodle-laden comfort in a bowl.

Like all of her books, The Pho Cookbook begins with an in depth introduction discussing everything from the correct pronunciation of "pho" to a detailed review of all the key ingredients, techniques, and tools. This is vital for the pho-making novice, and really helps to explain some key terms and processes.

A chapter on Master Pho ranges from Simple and Satisfying (you'll find 3 quick pho recipes, each serving 2 and taking 40 minutes to prepare), to Fast and Fabulous (these recipes utilize a pressure cooker, taking about 1 1/2 hours, and yield 4 servings), several Meatless Knockouts and of course Old-School Stunners (these are the classics, which require 4 to 5 hours to prepare, and serve 8).

Adventurous Pho is the next chapter, and includes playful twists on the classic, including a Chicken Pho Noodle Salad, Pho Fried Rice, and beyond. Pho Add-Ons offer up recipes for garnishes and more, while Stir-fried, Panfried, and Deep-Fried Pho takes these noodles to a whole other dimension. Finally, Pho Sidekicks include snacks and beverages that pair well with pho, or may even take the flavors of pho in another direction, like the Pho Pot Stickers.

For my first attempt at pho, it seemed only right to make one of the actual pho soup recipes, as opposed to one of the many creative variations. My family tends to lean more toward chicken soups versus beef, so it was easy to narrow down the options to Quick Chicken Pho, Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho, Classic Chicken Pho, and even the Rotisserie Chicken Pho (using leftover rotisserie chicken).

The quick version seemed a bit too quick and easy, and while the classic version is ultimately the best, it does require a bit more time, a few more ingredients, and yields twice as much pho as the pressure cooker version.

Now here's the thing, I don't own a pressure cooker! But luckily, the notes at the and of the pressure cooker recipe explains how to make this in-between-style pho recipe using a stockpot. Yeah, it probably would have been a better use of my time and effort to go full steam ahead with the classic recipe, but as a beginner, this one seemed a bit more approachable, and quite frankly, cooked up in a couple of hours, which isn't too shabby.

I think of this recipe as the Goldilocks of the various pho options in the book. It falls in the middle of effort and time, but it really was just right as far as I'm concerned. You develop a lot of flavor in the broth, and the aroma permeating your kitchen and home throughout the process is just sublime. With mountains of snow outside our windows, there really is no better time to indulge in this comforting and satisfying dish.

I would definitely make this particular recipe again in the future (although I may consider asking a friend to borrow their pressure cooker), and I would happily try many of the others within the book. Perhaps in the future, I will try one of the beef variations, which are probably more classic in Vietnam than chicken. As a dumpling lover, I'm fascinated by the Pho Pot Stickers, and also look forward to trying some of the stir-fried and panfried noodles.

If you love pho, then this book is for you. As I've said before, the recipes range in skill level and time, and I think this is what I love most about the book. You can really inch your way toward becoming a master pho-maker by testing out your skills with some of the easier recipes first (or simply if you are short on time).

Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho (phở gà nấu nồi áp xuất)
Serves 4
Takes about 1 hour, plus 30 minutes to cool
(From The Pho Cookbook)

1 (4 lb | 1.8 kg) whole chicken
1 rounded tablespoon (.2 oz | 5 g) coriander seeds
3 whole cloves
Chubby 2-inch (5 cm) section ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, and bruised
1 large (10 oz | 300 g) yellow onion halved and thickly sliced
8 cups (2 l) water
1 small (4 oz | 115 g) Fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
3/4 cup (.7 oz | 20 g) coarsely chopped cilantro sprigs
2 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
About 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
About 1 teaspoon organic sugar, or 2 teaspoons maple syrup (optional)

10 ounces (300 g) dried narrow flat rice noodles
About half the cooked chicken from the broth
1/2 small (2 oz | 60 g) yellow or red onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
1/4 cup (.2 oz | 5 g ) chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
Pepper (optional)
Optional extras: Lime wedges, bean sprouts, thinly sliced chiles, Thai basil

Make the broth Rinse the chicken and set aside to drain. Put the coriander seeds and cloves in a 6- to 8-quart (6 to 8 l) pressure cooker. Over medium heat, toast for several minutes, shaking or stirring, until fragrant. Add the ginger and onion. Stir until aromatic, 45 to 60 seconds, to coax out a bit of flavor. A little browning is okay.

Add 4 cups (1 l) of the water to arrest the cooking process. Put the chicken in the cooker, breast side up. Add the apple, cilantro, salt, and remaining 4 cups (1 l) water. Lock the lid in place.

Bring to low pressure (8 psi) over high heat on a gas or induction stove, or medium heat on an electric stove. Lower the heat to maintain pressure, signaled by a gentle, steady flow of steam coming out of the cooker’s valve. Cook for 15 minutes, or a few minutes longer if your cooker’s low setting is less than 8 psi. If your cooker only has a high pressure (15 psi) setting, cook for 12 minutes. Regardless, aim to gently poach the bird to yield silky cooked flesh.

When done, slide to a cool burner and let the pressure decrease naturally, about 20 minutes. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to avoid the hot steam.

Let settle for 5 minutes before using tongs to transfer the chicken to a bowl; if parts fall off in transit, don’t worry. Add water to cover the chicken and soak for 10 minutes to cool and prevent drying. Pour off the water, partially cover, and set the chicken aside to cool.

Skim some fat from the broth before straining it through a muslin-lined mesh strainer positioned over a medium pot. Discard the solids. You should have about 8 cups (2 l).

If using right away, season the broth with the fish sauce, extra salt, and perhaps the sugar (or maple syrup) (you'll want to season a bit generously since this is the only seasoning that the noodles will get). Or, partially cover the unseasoned broth and let cool, then refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months; reheat and season before using.

Use a knife to remove the breast halves and legs from the chicken. Set aside half of the chicken for another use. Reserve the remaining chicken for pho bowl assembly. The chicken can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months; bring to room temperature to use.

Prep and assemble the bowls: While the broth cooks, or about 30 minutes before serving, ready the ingredients for the bowls. Soak the noodles in hot tap water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and drain well. Divide among 4 soup bowls.

Cut or tear the chicken breast and leg into pieces about 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick. Discard the skin. Place the onion, green onion, and cilantro in separate bowls and line them up with the noodles, chicken, and pepper for a pho assembly line.

Bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. At the same time, fill a pot with water and bring to a rolling boil for the noodles.

For each bowl, use a noodle strainer or mesh sieve to dunk a portion of the noodles in the boiling water. When the noodles are soft, 5 to 60 seconds, pull the strainer from the water, shaking it to drain excess water back into the pot. Empty the noodles into a bowl. Top with chicken, then garnish with onion, green onion, cilantro and pepper.

Check the broth flavor once more, raise the heat, and bring it to a boil. Ladle about 2 cups (480 ml) broth into each bowl. Enjoy immediately with any extras, if you like.

Notes: To make this recipe in a 6- to 8-quart (6 to 8 l) stockpot, toast the coriander seeds and cloves over medium heat, then lightly cook the onion and ginger in the pot. Add 10 cups (2.5 l) water along with the chicken, apples, cilantro, and salt. Partially cover, then bring to a boil over high heat. Uncover, skim the scum, then lower the heat to gently simmer the broth, uncovered, for 2 hours. At the 45-minute mark, if you fear the chicken is not cooking through, use tongs to rotate it. The chicken should be cooked after simmering for 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Transfer it to a large bowl, leaving any parts that fall off in the pot to add flavor. Flush it with cold water, drain well, then set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to cool. When the broth is done, let rest for 15 minutes, then defat, strain, and season. The rest of the recipe is the same.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.


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