February 21, 2015

Chocolate Coconut Date Bars

I’m still comfortably basking in the realm of chocolate goodness but this time the magic comes in the form of energy bars.  That’s right!  These awesome Chocolate Coconut Date Bars are actually considered to be power bars; homemade power bars.  So, forget about shelling out your money on pre-packaged energy treats and whip up these flavorful super snacks that will conveniently power you through your most hectic days. 




These Chocolate Coconut Date Bars are laden with nutrient-rich elements and tons of flavor.  They are fudgy, intensely chocolatey and pleasantly chewy.  The bars are not overly sweet and they sport the right punch of salt to balance out the sweetness and slight bitterness of the chocolate while the coconut atop is the perfect finishing touch.  One tiny bar can effortlessly replace the mid-afternoon-pick-me-up espresso shot.  





Although they are named energy bars, I personally view these Chocolate Coconut Date Bars as a super easy, no baking required energy dessert.  But whatever you want to call them, dessert or power bars, the truth remains that nothing beats a homemade sweet treat.  Enjoy!    





Chocolate Coconut Date Bars
Adapted from Bon Appétit (January 2015)

Makes: 12 bars

Ingredients:

·         Nonstick vegetable oil spray
·         Parchment paper or aluminum foil
·         2 cup Medjool dates, pitted
·         ¾ cup cocoa powder
·         1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, divided
·         ¼ cup cacao nibs
·         2 Tablespoons agave nectar
·         1 teaspoon kosher salt
·         2 Tablespoons water





Instructions:

Coat an 8x8” baking pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray and line it with parchment paper or aluminum foil leaving overhang on all sides.  





In a food processor, process the dates, cocoa powder, ¾ cup coconut, cacao nibs, agave nectar, salt and water until smooth (you may need to stop and scrape down the sides a few times).  Press the mixture firmly into the prepared pan.





Scatter the remaining ¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut over the top and press to adhere.  Cut into bars. 
 




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

January 31, 2015

Chocolate Loaf Cake

With all the cold and snow outside, I’ve been longing for some warmth and coziness in the house.  And there’s nothing better than some good ol’ baking and a dense, fudgy effortless Chocolate Loaf Cake to sooth you on icy, winter days.  Even if you’re not particularly keen on chocolate you’ll easily and unequivocally appreciate this dreamy concoction.  You won’t be able to resist it, I guarantee it.  One bite and you’ll be craving more, not to mention all the points you’ll score with everyone in the family.  And, yes, you’ll be adding another solid brick to the chocolate repertoire!   




This cake is the epitome of all things chocolate.  It’s so plain and easy to whip up yet intensely elaborate tastewise conveying a heady, damp (as Nigella might say), chocolatey aroma.  It’s almost like gingerbread: slightly sticky, borderline soggy and very, very tasty.  Nigella’s recipe doesn’t call for toasted walnuts but I tossed them in the mix for that subtle and distinct crunch kick that elevates the flavor and chocolate intensity of this wonderful dessert.  



This is not your elegant, sensual and seductive chocolate cake, and it probably wouldn’t excel in a beauty pageant.  I mean, the thing is more than likely to collapse in the middle while it bakes.  But if you’re willing to overlook the less than appealing appearance, you’ll be in for a mouthwatering ride; this cake with rock your world.  



The Chocolate Loaf Cake is absolutely lovely with coffee or tea or whipped cream or ice cream or simply by itself.  And it will make for a great sweet treat during the highly anticipated Super Bowl Sunday.  Enjoy!




Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake
Adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

Makes: 8-10 slices

Ingredients:

·         1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1 2/3 cups dark or light brown sugar
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         4 ounces best bittersweet chocolate, melted
·         1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
·         1 teaspoon baking soda
·         1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons boiling water
·         ½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped





Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Grease and line a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.  The lining is important as this is a very damp cake: use parchment paper, heavy duty aluminum foil or one of those loaf-pan-shaped paper liners.





In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar, with an electric hand-held mixer, then add the eggs and vanilla, beating well.  Next, fold in the melted and now slightly cooled chocolate, taking care to blend well but being careful not to overbeat.  You want the ingredients combined: you don’t want a lightly airy mass.  Then gently add the flour, to which you’ve added the baking soda, alternately spoon by spoon, with the boiling water until you have a smooth and fairly liquid batter.  



Pour the batter into the lined loaf pan.  Sprinkle the walnut pieces on top.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Turn the oven down to 325ºF and continue to cook for another 15 minutes.  The cake will still be a bit squidgy inside, so an inserted cake tester or skewer won’t come out completely clean. 





Place the loaf pan on a rack, and leave to get completely cold before turning it out.  (If you leave it for a day or so: like gingerbread, it improves.)  Don’t worry if it sinks in the middle: indeed, it will do so because it’s such a dense and damp cake.  





Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

December 30, 2014

25 years of remembrance

On November 9, 2014 the world celebrated 25 years since the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall.  Romania, though, had to wait for another month and a half to properly rejoice in the prospects of a future filled with freedom and democracy.  The Romanian Revolution of December ’89 occurred 25 years ago, yet I remember it as if it was yesterday.  I was only four years old; but the memories of those bloody events and gory week in late Dec. ‘89 are some of the most vivid memories of my life and I truly believe they will accompany me forever.  It’s funny how a child’s brain works – just like a sponge – it absorbs anything and everything whether it’s a foreign language or graphic, gruesome events and images.  Sometimes, I feel that my memory came to life during that week.  I don’t have any specific recollections before Dec. ‘89; everything was a mere blur, but after that things and life came into focus. 




My hometown, Arad, was one of the pivotal cities of the revolution.  Situated only thirty miles north of Timișoara, the birth city of the Romanian Revolution, it didn’t take long for my hometown to join the manifestations against the communist regime.  Unfortunately, the many victims were a bitter aftermath. For me, the days back then all blended together in a cacophony of rich memories.  As it turns out, what I remember the most were events that actually transpired during the bloodiest night my hometown experienced during the revolution.  




It was the night of Saturday, Dec. 23 through Sunday, Dec. 24.  I was at my nanny’s place across the street from my grandparents’ house.  Her grandson, Alex, was there too.  I recall it was a fairly mild winter; there was no snow on the ground just yet.  That specific evening, strange, repetitive firearm sounds came from outside, which prompted our curiosity to rush to the window and investigate.  The sounds were coming from the river bank.  So, Alex and I, two four-year olds, perched on the window, craned our necks and were met by a blazing spectacle of red and green colors displayed above the river.  They were fairly loud and colorful but they were not fireworks.  I was smiling in awe until my nanny stormed through the bedroom door and yanked us down from the window before securely closing it.  My grandpa showed up a few minutes later to take me home.  




While crossing the thirty yards from my nanny’s house to my grandparents’, I glanced over my shoulder to steal another peek of the back and forth display of colorful lights clearly visible above the river as my grandpa was purposefully dragging me home.  That night, I slept on the floor of my room with my grandparents.  My parents were not with us and it was only later that I discovered where they spent that dreadful night.   The next day, on a very sunny and clear Christmas Eve, I wasn’t looking for Christmas gifts from Santa under the tree; I was scavenging for bullets on the street outside the house.  Luckily, my grandparents’ house was untouched, but we still found a handful of bullets on the street.  Not to mention the bullet surprise in my very own bedroom at my parents’ apartment. 




The night before Christmas Eve, while I was at my grandparents’, my dad was at home in our flat on the sixth floor of a ten story apartment building located on one of the most assaulted streets during that frightening night.  Our neighbors from across the hallway found refuge in our bathroom, the only room in the apartment with no windows, since their apartment was shattered to pieces.  That same night, a bullet was shot through my bedroom window.  The bullet went through the balcony window, the bedroom window and the curtains before hitting the wall above my bed, recoiling back underneath the window and eventually melting on the hardwood floor.  




Fortunately, I was not sleeping in my bed that night, but my dad was lounging on the couch in the next room over. After a few hours in the bathroom, he decided that he would not spend the entire night hiding there and grabbed a bottle of wine and sprawled on the couch in the living room.  In his own words, ‘if I were to die tonight, at least I would do it with my stomach full.’  A few years ago, my mom finally replaced the old curtains that bared the black rimmed hole of the bullet and held intact the memories of that horrific night, yet the melted mark of the bullet still mars the hardwood floor of my bedroom to this day.     




While my dad was in our apartment my mom was stuck at work and couldn’t come home due to the slaughter throughout town.  She only returned home in the awfully sunny morning covering the five long miles from the factory to the apartment on foot through the blinding layers of freshly laid snow that was barely coating the bloody and bullet scattered grounds.




The horrendous events of those days escalated with the speedy trial and execution of our former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day.  I was sitting in my own little chair next to my family gaping at the incredible events unfolding on TV.  It was like watching live reality TV but with people being shot with real bullets, laying in puddles of blood and never getting up again.  And yes, I witnessed it all.




My parents were exactly the age I am right now when the revolution took place.  Would I be as brave as they were, gathering during tumultuous times in the town hall square and protesting against an oppressing regime while handing out holiday candy to the armed soldiers?  I don’t know… I don’t believe so… But they did and so did many other Romanians who experienced the revolution and lived to tell about it. 




Aside from my personal story and because we’re still in the midst of cookie season, I also want to share with you my grandma’s recipe for one of my family’s favorite holiday cookies: Sugar Snails.  These adorable concoctions are always present on our Christmas table.  It’s rather easy to guess why – you get a heap of servings, they’re great with coffee or tea, cute, a little crunchy, a lot nutty and good, really good.  And as my mom likes to say – ‘anything with walnuts is a winner.’  I absolutely agree with that.  Enjoy this sweet treat and Happy New Year everyone!    




Sugar Snails
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 55+ servings

Ingredients:

For the Dough:

·         250 grams (1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
·         300 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more to roll out the dough
·         1 teaspoon fast rise dry yeast
·         2 Tablespoons sour cream
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         Up to ¼ cup milk, if necessary

For the Sauce:

·         280 grams (10 oz) walnuts, ground
·         280 grams (2 ¼ cups) Confectioners’ sugar
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         Lemon zest from 1 lemon




Instructions for the Dough:

Separate the egg whites and egg yolks.  Set the egg whites aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, yeast, salt, sour cream and egg yolks until the dough gathers into a ball.  If the dough is too dry, add a bit of milk to the mixture (a couple of Tablespoons).  The dough should be neither too dry nor too soft.  Gather into a ball and divide in four pieces.  Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and put it in the fridge for 1 hour.




Instructions for the Sauce:

In a medium bowl, combine the ground walnuts with the confectioners’ sugar and lemon zest.  Set aside.  Using an electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the vanilla extract until firm peaks form.  Using a spatula, gently mix in the walnuts and sugar mixture.  




Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Transfer the dough to a working surface.  Flour the rolling pin and working surface and roll out the dough into a ¼-inch thick rectangular sheet (work with one ball of dough at a time).  Spread a fourth of the walnut sauce all over the rolled out dough leaving a 1-inch margin.  Gently roll up the sheet into a log and cut (flour the knife so that the dough does not stick to the knife) as many 1-inch pieces as possible placing them on one of the baking sheets.  Bake the snails for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.  Repeat with the rest of the dough.  




Once out of the oven, allow the snails to cool on a cooling rack before dusting them with more confectioners’ sugar.      
  



Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

November 30, 2014

Pumpkin Tiramisu

I was born in Arad, a fairly large city for Romanian standards located on the Hungarian border in the western part of Transylvania.  As I mentioned before in this blog, the German, Austrian and Hungarian influences are strikingly visible everywhere in my city from the grand architecture to the rich and flavorful food.  But recently, a thick tide of Italian interests, businesses and investors added a new dimension to the food scene of my humble hometown with Italian restaurants springing up like mushrooms after rain.  In no time, Romanians happily embraced the new cuisine with many local owners striving to keep it as authentic as possible with just the right amount of Romanian touch.  My parents were no exception and for several years, they owned the most popular Italian restaurant in town, Il Padrino




Il Padrino, a very suitable name for the two story restaurant, was a place that screamed Italian flair from the dark green linens and deep brown wooden chairs to the intrinsic movie-based artwork displayed all over the white walls, and the faithful, real Italian patrons that would mob to the restaurant every time they came to town.  The locale had an extensive menu that incorporated homemade pasta dishes, thin crust wood oven pizza, mouthwatering meat plates and antipasti, fresh salads, and delicious Romanian offerings interjected through the menu to satisfy the demanding local palette.  But what would please any palette, Romanian and Italian alike, would be the ever-present tiramisu.  This iconic coffee-flavored Italian dessert would always do the trick.    





Leafing through this month’s Food & Wine issue, I came across a very intriguing tiramisu recipe that brilliantly incorporates the season’s most valued ingredient.  Curiosity won out and I had to try it.  So glad I did!  The Pumpkin Tiramisu is everything a classic tiramisu should be plus the added bonus of the pumpkin.  The layers of coffee-soaked ladyfingers and smooth pumpkin-spiced mousse topped with sweet whipped cream, a dust of cocoa powder, shaved chocolate and peppery candied ginger meld in a beautiful carnival of autumn flavors.  Although this Pumpkin Tiramisu is intended to be a fancy trifle dessert, if you’re like me and don’t own a proper trifle dish and don’t entertain the thought of buying one, I can fully attest that the end result looks beautiful and is just as wonderfully tasty in a plain cake pan.  I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving!      




      
Pumpkin Tiramisu
Adapted from Food & Wine (November 2014)

Makes:  12 servings

Ingredients:

·         1 15-oz. can pumpkin puree
·         ½ cup light brown sugar
·         ¾ teaspoon ground ginger
·         ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
·         Pinch of ground nutmeg
·         ¾ cup granulated sugar
·         1 ½ cups mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
·         2 ½ cups heavy cream
·         2 cups brewed coffee, cooled
·         2 7-oz. packages dry ladyfingers
·         Cocoa powder, chocolate shavings and candied ginger, for garnish





Instructions:

In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin puree with the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and ½ cup of the granulated sugar.  Add the mascarpone cheese and 1 ½ cups of the heavy cream.  Using an electric mixer, beat the pumpkin mixture at medium speed until soft peaks form; do not overbeat.  




In a medium bowl, whisk the brewed coffee with 2 Tablespoons of the granulated sugar until it’s dissolved.  Dip both sides of the ladyfingers in the coffee and arrange them flat, one by one, in a single layer in the bottom of a 14 by 10-inch baking pan.  Spread half of the pumpkin mousse on top.  Layer the remaining ladyfingers over the pumpkin mousse.  Spread the remaining pumpkin mousse on top.  Cover and refrigerate the tiramisu overnight. 




In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the remaining 1 cup of cream with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of granulated sugar until soft peaks form.  Spread the whipped cream over the tiramisu, dust with cocoa powder, garnish with shaved chocolate and candied ginger and serve.




Note:  If you have a trifle dish and intend to use it, this is how you adjust the recipe.  Follow the instructions up to dissolving the 2 Tablespoons of sugar in the brewed coffee.  Then, dip both sides of 6 ladyfingers in the coffee and arrange them in a single layer in a 4-quart trifle dish.  Spread 1 cup of the pumpkin mousse on top.  Repeat the layering 5 more times, ending with a layer of the pumpkin mousse.  Cover and refrigerate the tiramisu overnight.  Once you’ve prepared the whipped cream, dollop the whipped cream over the tiramisu, dust with cocoa powder and garnish with shaved chocolate and candied ginger and serve.  I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving!      




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)