Monday, July 27, 2015

best shortbread . . . and an 'affogato with tea'

I celebrated my 41st birthday a few weeks ago, and thought that it would be fun to celebrate with a simple and amazing dessert inspired by one that I had at Chado's Tea Room last year when I celebrated my 40th birthday.


But first, because I couldn't imagine celebrating a birthday without chocolate, my husband surprised me with a slice of Claim Jumper's famous Chocolate Motherlode Cake. It's 6 layers of deep, dark, rich chocolate cake that's layered and frosted with chocolate ganache frosting. Amazing. Thanks, honey!

Ok, back to shortbread . . .

I'm a big fan of it! I adore this buttery, golden-colored, sweet, crumbly cookie . . . especially with a cup of tea!

I can't believe it's taken me this long to make my own shortbread! Out of curiosity, I researched shortbread recipes, and noticed that there are very simple versions . . . and then there are more complicated ones. Some call for special flours, while some don't; and some call for varying baking temperatures, while others don't. So which method is best?

Since I'm not Scottish and don't have a recipe that's 'the real deal,' I turned to my favorite (and trusted) Cook's Illustrated Cookbook for their 'best shortbread' recipe . . . and it delivered a superlative shortbread that was crisp and buttery rich. Perfection.

Although shortbread is amazing eaten all by its lonesome, I had special plans for this batch!

I thought I would recreate a memorable dessert we had at Chado's Tea Room last year . . . vanilla bean ice cream doused with hot Madagascar Vanilla Bean Tea. How can something so simple be so good!?

Often, it's simple dishes and desserts (like this one) that are the best and most memorable. 

My sister gifted me a bag of one of my favorite loose leaf teas called Velvet Tea. It's heavenly!
So I thought I would drown vanilla bean ice cream with hot Velvet Tea . . . and enjoy it with fresh, home-made short bread. What a treat! It was so good . . . and brought back happy memories from last year's birthday.

If you love affogato al caffe, then you might be interested in trying this spin off . . . affogato with tea! Just pour your favorite tea, whether it's a cup of chai, earl grey or even green tea, over vanilla ice cream. I think stronger tea works best to really add some flavor. So if you're brewing a loose leaf tea, double the amount that you would normally prepare for a stronger flavored tea.

My husband and little ones weren't interested in my Velvet Tea drowned ice cream with shortbread, so I assembled peaches & cream over shortbread for them . . . and they loved it!

The 'best shortbread' was a win WIN for everyone!

best shortbread
courtesy Cook's Illustrated
.     .     .     .     .     .
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/8-inch thick slices
.     .     .     .     .     .

Preheat oven to 450 F. Place the collar of a 9-inch spring form pan upside down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. (The groove of the collar should be at the top.)

Pulse the oats in a mini prep or food processor until reduced to fine powder, about ten 5-second pulses. In bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix ground oats, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt on low speed until combined, about 5 seconds. Add the butter to the mixer and continue to mix on low speed until dough just forms and pulls away from sides of bowl, 5 to 10 minutes.

Press the dough into the spring form collar in an even 1/2-inch-thick layer, smoothing top of dough with back of spoon. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut a hole in the center of the dough. Place the round alongside spring form collar on baking sheet and place the biscuit cutter back into the hole in the center of the dough. Open the spring form collar all the way, but leave it in place around the dough.

Bake the shortbread 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 250 F. Continue to bake the shortbread until the edges turn pale golden, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove baking sheet from oven and turn off oven. Remove the biscuit cutter and spring form pan collar; use a chef’s knife to score surface of shortbread into 16 even wedges, cutting halfway through shortbread. Using a wooden skewer, poke 8 to 10 holes in each wedge. Return the shortbread to the oven and prop door open with handle of wooden spoon. Allow the shortbread to dry in turned-off oven until pale golden in center, about 1 hour.
Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and cool the shortbread to room temperature, at least 2 hours. Cut shortbread at scored marks to separate.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

a few of my favorite Summer reads . . .

My kids (and family life) keep me busy, so I look forward to opportunities for 'down time.' That's often when I edit photos, write/blog, and peruse through my favorite magazines. 

A few months ago I added a new 'down time' activity to my repertoire . . . reading! And I love it!

A beautiful gal, S, told me about the book Garden Spells. She said that the main character reminded her of me, and that I had to read it. So before the school year ended she gave me two books to read over Summer break . . . Garden Spells and The Candy Queen.  

Since I don't read novels very often (if at all), I wasn't sure how I would embrace the book; but I fell in love with the author's writing style - and content - immediately.

If you know me, then you know that I'm passionate about my family and FOOD. So when I learned that Garden Spells had all the things that I love - nestled between two covers - I was excited to read it.

Garden Spells is beautifully written! 

I've truly enjoyed following the stories/women of the Waverly family

I particularly fell in love with the main character, Claire, who clings to her roots and tradition . . . and tends to the enchanted soil in the family garden from which she makes her sought-after delicacies. I enjoyed reading about her baking & cooking, and catering events, as her menus were impeccably described . . .

Business was doing well, because all the locals knew that dishes made from flowers 
that grew around the apple tree in the Waverly garden could affect the eater in curious ways. 

The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tea cookies, 
and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise 
the Ladies Aid ordered for their meeting once a month 
gave them the ability to keep secrets. 

The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms, 
and rose-hip soup ensured that your company 
would notice only the beauty of your home and never the flaws. 

Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, 
and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. 

Honeysuckle wine served on the Fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. 

The nutty flavor of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, 
and the salads made with chicory and mint 
had you believing something  good was about to happen, whether it was true or not. 

I enjoyed Garden Spells so much that my husband surprised me (for my birthday) with First Frost, the sequel to Garden Spells. I was so excited!

When I opened the book and saw Claire's First Frost menu, I knew that I would love this novel too.

Fall is my favorite time of year . . . and what makes this this story extra special to me is that it's set in the Fall. So the text is filled with visions of pumpkins on porches, sidewalks lined with red leaves, cooler temperatures, and bare branches.  LOVE!

For all of you who are also passionate about gardening, cooking, and baking . . . and would love to get lost in a fun, light-hearted, and magical story that encompasses all these things AND MORE . . . then I totally recommend these two books!

Do you have any favorite Summer reads?

Monday, July 20, 2015

strata with spicy Italian sausage, Gruyere, spinach, and shallots

My history with stratas go way back to my wedding day. I chose it as one of the entrees served at our brunch reception at the charming Cedar Creek Inn. 

I love that I can bake such a delicious dish that's filled with happy memories ~  for my family. 

Have you ever eaten a strata? 

They're so delicious . . . and remind me so much of a savory bread pudding, of sorts. 

The base of a strata is similar to that of bread pudding . . . bread, eggs, milk, and cream.

The big difference between the two are that the ingredients in bread pudding are typically all combined into one big bowl and then poured into a dish and then baked. A strata, on the other hand, is typically a layering of ingredients, so that you have a perfect distribution (and layering) of savory ingredients. 

Strata, like bread pudding, is incredibly versatile. That's another reason why I enjoy them so much. And . . . you can serve them any time of day. 

They're great for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner . . . and if you don't like my combination of ingredients - you could add your own. 

In the Fall, I love adding spicy Italian sausage, roasted butternut squash, Gruyere, and thyme . . . It's amazing!

Since I had Italian sausage left over from our Fourth of July celebration and Gruyere cheese, I thought I would make an Italian version of this dish over the weekend. 

I added spinach and caramelized shallots for added color and flavor . . . and then topped it with lots of fresh herbs from our garden. 

The spicy Italian sausage adds a warm heat  . . . the Gruyere cheese adds creaminess . . . and the caramelized shallots add a tender sweetness. Such a great combination . . . Yum! 

I think the fastest way to make this dish is by preparing the ingredients first . . . brown the sausage, grate the cheese, saute and shallots, and squeeze all the moisture out of the spinach.  

Put all the 'layering ingredients' into separate bowls and set aside. Then prepare the bread/egg/milk/cream mixture and set aside. I find it quicker to assemble this dish when I have an assembly line in front of me. 

Take your time when layering so that you ensure that every bite has a little sausage, shallot, spinach, cheese, and herbs . . .  making every single bite delicious.

Since we have an abundance of garden tomatoes, I served them alongside our strata; but I also love to serve a simple salad with a creamy tarragon dressing . . . making it perfect for dinner. 

It might seem like a lot of work, but it's worth the effort! 

6 cups cubed day-old French bread, with crust
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
2 Tablespoons cooking oil
3/4 pound Spicy Italian Sausage
2 large shallots, halved and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
one 10-ounce bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
10 large eggs
2 cups grated aged Gruyere cheese
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
fresh basil, chopped
fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Put the bread on a baking sheet and toast until lightly golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. Cut into 3/4-inch cubes. Set aside.

Combine the butter and oil in a large saute pan over medium heat and cook until it begins to shimmer. Add the shallots, toss to coat in the butter, and then add the salt and pepper. Cook the shallots, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.


Place a small amount of cooking oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Remove sausage casing. Crumble sausage into the pan and allow to cook until the meat browns and there is no pink. Drain the meat into a strainer to eliminate grease and oil. Pat dry with a paper towel to further remove grease. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1/2 cup cheese, milk, heavy cream, mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg. Add the bread cubes and gently combine. Set aside for 20 minutes.


Butter a 9 by 13-inch decorative baking dish. Pour 1/2 of the egg/milk/bread mixture in the dish, and then sprinkle 1 cup cheese, half of the spinach, onions, and sausage on top of the mixture.

Add the other half of the egg/milk/bread mixture on top, and then evenly sprinkle with 1 cup of cheese, spinach, onions and sausage. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake the strata uncovered until the mixture has puffed up slightly, is golden brown on top and doesn't shimmy with uncooked custard when you shake the pan, about 1 hour. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top during the last 10 minutes of baking. Let cool 5 minutes before serving. 

Sprinkle a handful of fresh parsley and basil on top of the strata before serving. Enjoy!

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Monday, July 13, 2015

strawberry & basil water

A small group of friends and I met at one of our favorite Tea Cafe's a few weeks ago to enjoy lunch, desserts, and tea.

It's a darling Cafe and Bakery that's set up in a floral and gift shop. They serve the most delicious food and desserts!

Our server brought us tall glasses of water before she took our order.

It wasn't until I/we sipped on the water that we all ooh-ed and aah-ed. The water was amazing!

I could taste a hint of basil, and my friends could taste a hint of something sweet.  Whatever it was, it was so good! You see, there was nothing in the glasses but water and ice . . . so we were all wondering what made the water taste so good.

I had to ask . . . So what's in the water!?!

Our server shared that it was infused with strawberries and basil. Ahhhh!

Poor thing . . . I must have asked her 20 questions about it, as I knew that it was something that I had to re-create at home for family and friends.

CLASSICS strawberry : basil : water ratio is perfect. It's mild enough to give your taste buds a hint of sweet basil and strawberries, yet strong enough to make it special.

I even asked our server how many strawberries and basil leaves she adds to each pitcher of water, so that I could re-create the perfect ratio . . . 2-3 sliced strawberries and 2 basil leaves.

I feel a little silly sharing something so simple, but it's too good not to share!

I always have strawberries, but now I keep basil, too.  I make a big pitcher every morning, and enjoy it throughout the day.

It's the perfect Summer drink to share with friends and family when they come by for a visit!

strawberry & basil water
.     .     .     .     .
32 ounces of water
2-3 strawberries, sliced
2 large basil leaves
.     .     .     .     .
Combine strawberries and basil in a large pitcher. 
Add water and ice. Refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving, or up to 2 days.

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