Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hello, Fall!

Today is September 22nd, the first day of fall. Did you know that? Goodbye summer, hello fall!

If you don't know me really well, you probably don't know that fall is my favorite time of the year. I don't really understand how people can like any other season more. Winter? Too cold, and Christmas is slightly overrated. Spring? It's much more fun to see the leaves fall off the trees than grow back, and pastels are certainly not my fave (I'm more of a dark purple type of girl). Summer? Sure, if you like heat and humidity and frizzy hair!

But fall... there is something to be said for fall. I don't have any recipes for you all today, but I do have my top ten favorite things about fall....

10. Foliage. At my high school, there were a group of trees out by the tennis courts that turned the most insanely vivid shades of red, orange, and yellow. Actually, those standard colors really don't do these trees justice. If these leaves were OPI nail polish colors, they would be "Yucatan If U Want," "Chop-sticking to My Story," and "The 'It' Color." I love seeing the leaves turn from green to these bright shades, and I really love seeing these leaves litter streets and yards and the "crunch-crunch" they make when you happen to step on them.

9. Sweaters and cardigans. Wow, I just realized how elderly this makes me seem. Last week I wore jeans and a cardigan twice, in hopes of willing the gods to make it just a little bit cooler. While mornings have been really nice here, by noon it's once again unbearably hot. Fall weather is just cool enough that you can wear jeans and a sweater and be comfortable for the entire day. I'm eager to return to my tried and true favorites this year.

8. Birthdays Birthday cakes. We have three fall birthdays in my family (my mom and dad, plus me), which means that in the past there has always been lots of birthday cake-eating. Thankfully these three birthdays are spaced almost exactly every two weeks, so you 1) are allowed enough time to eat the cake from the previous birthday and 2) forget how much of the birthday cake you ate from the previous birthday, so you are free to start the whole process over again. Cheesecake is of course my all-time favorite birthday cake, but the Million Dollar Cake I had last year comes pretty close.
In case you're wondering: a layer of flourless chocolate cake, a layer of cheesecake, and a layer of chocolate mousse, all topped with ganache and surrounded by cake.

7. The transition to winter. I know, I know, I shouldn't start babbling about winter when it's only just become fall. However, my family is unique in that we begin preparing for winter during fall. Really, once Thanksgiving is over, we kick into Christmas mode right away. And by right away, I mean the very next day. Also, the December editions of all our food magazines arrive about a week before Thanksgiving, so that's just their fault for making us think Christmas thoughts too early.

6. The new television season. In the past, when I watched multiple TV shows, I loved this time of year because it meant that all the new seasons were premiering. I now have only enough time and emotional energy for one show at a time, and it happens to be Grey's Anatomy. The premiere is tomorrow. I am so excited. I can't wait to see what happens with Derek and Meredith, especially after the shooting and the miscarriage, and I really hope Mark and Lexie get back together because Lexie certainly doesn't love Alex, who by the way is still in love in Izzie, and Cristina...

Sorry. I lost you there, didn't I? (P.S. I still miss George.)

5. College football. Hello, I live in the South. I go to college. I think I'm required to love college football. I'm trying to limit emotional involvement this season... we'll see how that goes. On a related note, I was walking today and heard Kenny Chesney's "The Boys of Fall" from a car radio. First of all, the fact that I even know the artist and song title is pretty amazing. Second, I didn't totally hate it. I actually kind of enjoyed it. I think I have been converted into a country music listener. Taylor Swift is my new guilty pleasure. Third, I wish I just hadn't admitted that.

4. Fall produce. Now it can be hard to tell what traditionally "fall" produce - apples, butternut squash, and Brussels sprouts, for example - really is, since most of these items are available year-round in grocery stores. Nevertheless, no one really wants to eat roasted butternut squash in the summer, do they (well, I do, but I'll eat roasted vegetables any time)? And there is no denying that these foods (sweet potatoes and cranberries are some of my other favorites) just taste better this time of year. They're more likely local and you can eat them at their peak of deliciousness. My favorite way to enjoy fall produce is simple (or boring, you decide): Take a Honeycrisp apple, a sweet/tart and crisp variety, and slice it very thinly. Savor.

3. Being able to turn the oven on without feeling guilty. Really needs no explanation, except that being able to bake and roast foods not only becomes acceptable during these next few months but also completely welcome, since it makes the house (or residence hall floor) smell so good!

2. The return of my favorite fall dishes (plus the arrival of a few new ones). Among the best are Ina Garten's split pea soup, a savory saffron chickpea soup with rosemary walnut biscotti, pumpkin cheesecake, carrot ring, homemade applesauce (or pearsauce - try it some time!), toasted cheese sandwiches, roasted Brussels sprouts and all kinds of root vegetables, pumpkin scones at Starbucks, and butternut squash risotto. I'm eager to see what this year will bring in terms of new recipes.
One of my all-time favorite Thanksgiving desserts: pumpkin bread pudding with rum raisins.

1. Thanksgiving. So much eating. So much baking. All day (and in days prior). Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Watching Friends, or maybe Gilmore Girls (another thing that reminds me of fall). Getting dressed up for dinner at home. Taking a walk in the park before cooking. Saying what you're thankful for. Stealing one more bite of stuffing (and/or pumpkin cheesecake) before bed.

But enough about me. What are your favorite things about fall?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Getting Organized and Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars

This whole college thing is pretty demanding.

I probably sound surprised at this fact. ("What? I actually have to work harder now than in high school?!") However, I assure you that I was fully aware that Georgia Tech would challenge me more than I've ever been challenged before. Four weeks in, I can safely say that I've been tested in more ways than I originally thought: academically, socially, mentally, and physically. A lot's happened, and I won't bore you with the specifics, but rest assured that I am comfortably settling in. It (and by "it" I mean "everything") is an adjustment, but every day is easier, even if the calculus seems to be getting harder.

One of the things I've had to change has been my organizational habits. In high school, I didn't keep an agenda or calendar, unless you count the one in my head. My assignments and activities never became so overwhelming that I lost track, but last week I gave in and bought an agenda.

It's so official. Anyway, it's been very helpful keeping everything in line: tests, papers, studying, weekend stuff, you name it. An extra perk: it gives me peace of mind. Somehow writing all this stuff down makes the long list of things to do seem less imposing and stressful.

Nevertheless, this upcoming week is a busy one. On the agenda:

Monday: My first newspaper article due to the Entertainment Editor of the Technique. Stay tuned for news on that front.
Wednesday: My first Calculus test of the semester. I'd really appreciate it if you could some good vibes my way during the 9 am hour.
Thursday: Grey's returns!!!!!!!!!!! Note my excitement, as I rarely use more than one exclamation point.

But onto the food. You certainly didn't expect anything less, right? I know these posts are becoming few and far between, but my opportunities to cook have also been infrequent. Of course, that means that my "foodgawking" (or "photograzing" or "tastespotting") has been going into overdrive. In non-foodie speak, that would translate to "I've been stalking food blogs more intensely than ever before." In fact, I finally succumbed (again) and began a formal bookmarking system for all my recipes. These bookmarks have been steadily accumulating for about two weeks, and I'm so excited to share them with anyone willing to listen (you all, perhaps?).

The largest (and my personal favorite) folder in the bunch is the "Thanksgiving and Christmas" folder. It's only September 18, and I'm already thinking about the desserts I'll make this Thanksgiving. It seems crazy to be thinking about Thanksgiving now (or even a few months ago, when I actually started to), especially when it regularly hits 85 degrees here, but I can't help myself. I can't wait to see this campus during the fall, when everything looks beautiful. But, until then, I'll leave you with a recipe for a treat our floor cooked up last night.
A few of us while we baked last night (left to right): Me, Chen, Audrey, Mercedes, Sarah

Once again, the recipe was a bit unorganized, but it ended turning out really great. I've adapted it a bit here to reflect our changes (and ones that I would make in the future), but in the end these are totally foolproof and absolutely delicious.

No-Bake Peanut Butter and Chocolate Bars

When we made these last night, we melted the chocolate along with the butter, instead of adding the butter to the crust mixture. It ended up being perfectly fine; we just added more peanut butter to the graham crackers and powdered sugar to moisten it. The original amount of butter was actually 9 tablespoons, but that extra tablespoon seems pretty useless to me, so I've omitted it here. Honestly, you could probably halve the butter and these would still be wonderful (you just may need to add some more peanut butter). You can melt the chocolate chips either in the microwave or in a double boiler.

Yield: About 50 1 1/2-inch squares

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup peanut butter
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 (12-ounce) bag semisweet chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, powdered sugar, peanut butter, and melted butter. Using a hand-mixer (or old-fashioned elbow grease), beat until the mixture forms moist clumps. Press the crust mixture into two square 8-inch pans (using your fingers or the bottom of a measuring cup).

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate chips. If you opt to use the microwave, microwave in 30-second bursts at 50% power, stirring throughout. To use the double boiler method, bring a saucepan of water to a simmer and place the chocolate in a glass bowl set on top of the saucepan. Make sure the bottom of the glass bowl doesn't touch the water. Stir often until the chocolate melts.

Once the chocolate is melted, divide it evenly among the two pans, pouring it over the crust. Refrigerate until the chocolate is hardened. Cut into squares (about 25 per pan).
As you can tell, we all really liked them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My First College Baking Experience

I don't want to brag or anything, but I would consider myself a pretty accomplished baker and cook. I read a lot about cooking and food, I do my research before making something for the first time, and I understand the science behind kitchen chemistry. While this knowledge can be a good thing (say, when suggesting recipes or substitutions), it can also get you called a food snob. I admit it: I'm kind of a food snob. Much of my snobbery is warranted, though. I wholeheartedly believe in my right to scowl at the horror that is Sandra Lee (God help us). But I'll also admit that I have some preconceived notions about cooking. For instance, I generally abhor the use of packaged cake mixes and the like. I won't say it directly to your face, but I'm usually judging on the inside. I'll admit it: I'm a food snob when it comes to certain things.

But today I have been humbled.

Today was my first experience baking in a dorm kitchen. Surprisingly, this opportunity was rather unplanned. After being locked out (unintentionally) by one of my roommates, I found myself with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Seriously, you need an ID or money to do just about anything on this campus (and my iPhone, wonder of wonders when you have time to kill, was locked in my room, too). But then someone came on our floor to bake, just as she does every Wednesday afternoon. I offered to help, seeing as I had nothing else to do, and quickly went to task preparing this week's treat.

We were making "monster" cookies, or a cutesy name for a hodgepodge of sugar, butter, peanut butter, M&Ms, and chocolate chips, all bound together with oats (not flour). My inner food snob surfaced as I read through the "recipe." Of course, I use this term lightly as it was basically a listing of all the ingredients, along with some general guidelines for how to combine them and bake the cookies. Everything was very approximate ("bake for 8 to 10 minutes, I think"), so already I wasn't so sure about these cookies. (Food Snob Alert #1: Recipes for baking need to be precise and thorough. You can't mess with science.)

And seeing as how we had no real baking tools, I set to work creaming the butter and sugars by hand in a large soup pot, as it was the only vessel large enough for our doubled recipe. It was the first time I can ever remember creaming a cookie batter by hand, and it was actually kind of fun, save for the abundance of lumps in the brown sugar. (Food Snob Alert #2: Keep your brown sugar in an airtight bag to avoid getting lumps in it. Proper storage of dry goods used for baking is essential.)

As I was laboring away at the butter and sugar, I also couldn't help but notice the wayward measuring techniques of my baking companion, as she poured dry ingredients into a liquid measuring cup. (Food Snob Alert #3: Measure dry ingredients in a dry measuring cup and wet ingredients in a liquid measuring cup. There are two different types of cups for a reason!) And I was also judging the other person in the kitchen who was making some kind of boxed Reese's no-bake concoction thing. (Food Snob Alert #4: Make it from scratch.)

But I kept on mixing away anyway. The cookie batter actually looked pretty tasty, and it smelled incredible, too. Really, I don't think there's a finer smell than peanut butter, melted butter, vanilla, and brown sugar. That's an intoxicating combination right there.

As I was mixing, I told everyone how much I loved to bake. People were asking me what kinds of things I liked to bake, how you would make this or that, and I truthfully loved getting to spread my knowledge. Everyone was interested in my dream of opening up a bakery. (Food Snob Alert #5: I love talking all about food and baking and Bon Appetit and Clinton St. Baking Company's pancakes and food blogs, but I'll always try to do so discreetly, gauging your true interest so as not to completely bore you to death.)

After mixing the dough, it was time to portion the batter out and bake the cookies. We had three cookie sheets so inevitably our first batch baked up unevenly. The cookies didn't even spread (Food Snob Alert #6: Use baking soda in conjunction with acidic ingredients, not just for no good reason), and the candy coating on the outside of the M&M's burned on the cookie sheet, sending a smoky aroma throughout the hall. But the second and third sheets of the first batch seemed to fly out of the kitchen, and everyone on our hall enjoyed them. (Food Snob Alert #7: Let your baked goods cool before devouring. Also, have the patience to wait until the particular item is finished baking before eating it. The finished product will be so much better than raw cookie dough. I promise.)

I had a few crumbs of a cookie, and I'll admit, it was actually pretty good, but how can something with peanut butter, brown sugar, chocolate, and butter not be tasty? I'm used to more refined recipes and a more refined kitchen. I'm also used to the compliments I receive when I bake different things in the kitchen, as well as overwhelmingly consistent end results (not cookies with burned bottoms). Cooking in college will take some getting used to (I can still mix up a delicious jello, though, so there's that), but until then, there are lots of opportunities to practice.

Tomorrow there is a cook-off/bake-off between a few of the dorms and next Wednesday we've already planned to make red velvet cupcakes. I said I'd provide the recipe, and I'm thinking about this one. What about you? Do you have food snob tendencies? Or did I just totally offend you?