A Birthday Cheesecake

I was watching the cooking show Lidia’s Italy on PBS a few weeks ago, and she happened to be preparing a decadent looking Italian cheesecake. I instantly knew what kind of cake to request for my birthday.

Typically, Jesse will prepare my birthday cake by himself, but he was daunted by the cheesecake idea, so we prepared it together. Cheesecakes require a springform pan, which I have considered buying for years, but didn’t think I would use enough to merit the purchase. (For example, my bundt pan is collecting dust in the cupboard.) Unfortunately, my cake turned out pretty tasty, so I might be tempted to make cheesecake every week!

Lidia’s Italian cheesecake simply had ricotta and mascarpone cheese, as well as rum soaked raisins, an amaretti cookie base, and pine nuts sprinkled on top. Although her version is probably delectable, I went for an Italian-American cheesecake hybrid. My cake used ricotta, cream cheese, and sour cream. We made a blueberry sauce to top it using a recipe from our cooking Bible, The Joy of Cooking.

Birthdays are all about kitchen gadgets in our house. I got Jesse a pizza stone for his in May, which we have used to make cookies and bread as well as pizza. This morning, I unwrapped an immersion blender, and we used it to mix the cheesecake batter. I got a little overzealous with my new toy, overbeating when we added the eggs, so the cake puffed up while baking. Oops. No harm done to the taste.

The end result was a creamy cake that is less dense than a traditional American cheesecake. I may have accidentally dropped some crumbs on the floor that my cat gobbled up, so this cake gets the stamp of approval from the two humans and one feline in our house.

cheesecake 1cheesecake 3

cheesecake 4

Question of the Day: What is your favorite kind of birthday cake?

Spring Walks

In the time it has taken me to post these photos, the leaves have exploded on the trees and thunderstorms have rumbled through the area. The humid air makes running a sticky, sweaty business. Seems like summer is here just in time for Memorial Day.

This was the first time I got to watch spring unfold in central New York. Now that I’ve experienced all four seasons here, I’m starting to truly feel at home. I’m in awe of the hills and the valleys and the natural drama created by glaciers thousands of years ago.

When attempting to get to the parking area for a state forest, we ended up on an unpaved seasonal road that became very steep. A couple walking down the hill informed us that we could only get to the top if we had a jeep with four-wheel drive. To get to the parking area, we would need to drive around to the other side of the hill. Instead, we abandoned my poor Camry where it was and hiked up the hill.

Unfortunately, unlike in Hungary, there was no castle at the top.

A few weeks later, we drove to Pratt’s Falls in southern Onondaga County. We have only begun to explore the parks and hiking trails in the area. I plan on taking advantage of every nice day to get outside.

hammond hilltrees

sign postyellow flowers

h hillpratt signwaterfallrootsQuestion of the Day: Where is your favorite place to hike?

New Ingredient Week Three: Bok Choy

I know that any leafy green vegetable is packed full of nutrients, but aside from salad greens, I bypassed most of them in the produce section. Until several months ago, kale seemed to me like some vegetable from the dinosaur age. Then I discovered that it is a good substitute for spinach in many recipes (think portabello and kale lasagna!).

Soon the bok choy was beckoning me. I have had bok choy (aka Chinese cabbage) in various dishes at Asian restaurants, but one of the intimidating things about getting a new veggie in my own kitchen is deciding how to prep it. That is why the cook book Vegetables Every Day by Jack Bishop is a handy resource. If I am wondering how to prepare or store a vegetable, I turn to this book. Each vegetable has a description and several recipes.

With bok choy, just separate the leafy greens from the stalks (as with kale). But hang on to the stalks! They need to be cooked longer than the greens, but both parts are delicious.

DSC_9267Braised Bok Choy with Garlic (adapted from Vegetables Every Day)

Ingredients:

1 large head of bok choy                                                                                                         2 tablespoons olive oil                                                                                                             3 cloves garlic, minced                                                                                                             1 cup vegetable broth                                                                                                           salt                                                                                                                                             black pepper

1. Separate leafy greens and stalks. Chop and discard the rough ends of the stalks. Chop the greens and stalks and set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan. Stir fry the stalks for two minutes. Add the garlic and stir fry for two more minutes

3. Add the greens, vegetable broth, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about ten minutes. Remove the lid and increase the heat for 3-4 minutes to evaporate the excess liquid. Serve and enjoy!

bok choy bowl

Noodles and Tofu (adapted from Hilary Phelps’s blog Genuine Joy)

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces soba noodles (or pad thai noodles)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 package extra firm tofu, pressed, drained and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 red bell pepper cut into thin strips
  • 1 1/2 pounds of broccoli, broken into florets
  • 1 pound bok choy, stems and leaves separated
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • Red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
  • Sesame seeds (optional)

Directions

  1. Cook soba noodles according to directions on package
  2. Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Sauté veggies and garlic with lid on, stirring occasionally, until they are crisp tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. (add bok choy leaves only for the last few minutes)
  3. In a separate pan, fry the tofu for 3-4 minutes on each side, until golden
  4. Meanwhile make sauce by whisking together peanut butter, vinegar soy sauce, and sesame oil, and red pepper falkes. If sauce seems too thick you can thin with water.
  5. Add noodles, tofu and sauce to pan. Toss and cook until heated through.
  6. Top with sesame (if using)

The verdict? Bok choy is crunchy and delicious. I enjoyed the braised bok choy with garlic as a side dish, but as part of the noodles and tofu stir fry it was truly delicious.

Question of the day: What is your favorite leafy green?

Barley, Take Two

Over the years, I’ve learned that the first three rules of cooking are ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. If I start with good ingredients and don’t burn anything, chances are the outcome will be fairly tasty.

I found this recipe for Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad on Smitten Kitchen’s blog. The recipe originally appeared in Gourmet, and I can see why. The long list of ingredients was a bit intimidating, but they combine to create an explosion of color, texture, and taste.

This would be a great salad to make at the end of summer with veggies fresh from the garden, but I couldn’t wait another four months to test it out. I could see this being a smash hit at a picnic or potluck.

Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad

Makes 4 (main course) or 8 (side dish) servings

1 1/2 lb eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 lb zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 1/4 cups pearl barley (8 oz)
1 (14-oz) can reduced-sodium vegetable broth (1 3/4 cups)
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and halved (I only had green olives in the house, and they tasted fine)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion                                                                                              1/2 cup chopped scallion
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint

Cook barley: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then cook the cumin, coriander, and paprika, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add barley and cook, stirring until well coated with oil, 2 minutes more. Add broth and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all of liquid is absorbed and barley is tender, 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Remove cover and allow to cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes.

Roast eggplant and zucchini: Toss eggplant and zucchini in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for 20 minutes to an hour. Rinse with cold water and pat dry.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Toss eggplant and zucchini with 5 tablespoons oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl, then spread in 2 oiled large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pans. Roast vegetables in oven, stirring occasionally and switching position of pans halfway through baking, until vegetables are golden brown and tender, 20 to 25 minutes total. Remove from the pans from the oven and let the vegetables cool.

Make dressing and assemble salad: Whisk together lemon juice, garlic, sugar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add barley, roasted vegetables, and remaining ingredients to bowl with dressing and toss until combined well.

barley saladThe recipe is vegan, but I’ll admit that I sprinkled a bit of feta cheese on top.

barley salad iiAlthough he was skeptical about the chickpea blondies, Jesse gobbled up this salad and wants me to make it again soon. Success!

First Thirteen Books of 2013, Part II

Now that spring is gracing us with abundant sunshine and warm breezes, I have been taking advantage of the rocking chair on our porch. It is my new favorite reading spot. I invited my cat to sit outside with me while I read, but when a school bus passed by she freaked out, fluffed up her tail, and dashed back inside. The term scaredy-cat is apt.

Here are the rest of the books I’ve read so far this year:

7. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This is a story about story-telling, one that leaves the reader uncertain which version is true. It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking page turner. This is Jansma’s first novel, and it attracted a lot of attention. I heard a piece on NPR about it and then came across it at the local library. The characters reminded me of the trio from Looking for Alaska, a young adult novel by John Green.

8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have never read anything else by this author, but I really enjoyed the movie version of The Remains of the Day. This is a poignant story of friendship and love that endures despite painful conflict and breaches of trust. Although nothing shockingly sad happens, I cried at the end. It took me awhile to realize that this novel is set in an alternate reality and has a dystopian element. It is eerie how Ishiguro drops hints and lets the mystery unfold.

9. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I have neither read anything else by McEwan, nor have I seen the movie version of Atonement, but somehow this connection caused me to grab this book of the New Arrivals shelf. Serena is a math major with a love of literature. Always looking for romance, she falls in love with a married professor who refers her to MI5, and her life is never the same. I was eager to see what happened to the characters, but ultimately felt dissatisfied with this book. I can’t quite decide why.

10. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Set in the same fictional Mine community as Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys depicts a family under pressure. When their nephew throws a pig’s head into the local mosque, the Burgess boys swoop in to try to help diffuse the situation. As they deal with the family crisis, tensions that stem from a childhood tragedy are confronted, and each of the three siblings must face the impacts on their current relationships. Strout is a master at creating characters who are flawed and real and feel like people from every day life.

11. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I have been a fan of Kingsolver since I read The Poisonwood Bible (although I am also skeptical of anything endorsed by Oprah’s book club), but I never got around to reading all her novels. She reliably provides rich characters and settings while exploring the concepts of home and family. The protagonist of this novel, Codi, lost her mother at age three and her daughter at age fifteen. These losses shaped her life. She drifted from place to place, longing for love, but not feeling she deserved it. When she returns to her hometown to care for her ailing father, she slowly discovers what it means to belong.

12. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I never jumped on the bandwagon when the book or the movie came out several years ago. I enjoyed reading it, and in fact read the entire thing on one lazy Saturday. There are loveable characters and evil characters and a plot with abundant entertainment value (hence the movie), but The Help does not have the substance of an enduring classic.

I feel like we readers should be cautious. It is convenient from the vantage point of the 21st century to see all that was wrong with the Mississippi of the 1960s. Of course forcing a black maid to use a separate restroom in the garage is de-humanizing and wrong. It would be so easy to close the book and breathe a sigh of relief that things aren’t like that anymore, and to be complacent about the many inequalities that threaten our society today.

13. L’Empire des Loups (The Empire of Wolves) by Jean-Christophe Grange

Although I normally stay away from crime mysteries/thrillers, a coworker lent me this French novel. Again, it was a good motivation for language practice. It’s easy to avoid conjugating verbs in a workbook for thirty minutes, but I actually worked on reading this novel well beyond the time I allotted myself every day. It seemed to be an average quality book for its genre. I don’t think I’ll be watching the film version any time soon, because I really can’t handle violence in movies.

Question of the Day: Where is your favorite reading spot?

First Thirteen Books of 2013: Part I

I think I must be in heaven, because I have a job where I get paid to go to the library.

One of my jobs right now is to mentor Christine (not her real name), a young woman with autism. I really enjoy spending time with her. Christine is an enthusiastic, positive person with many talents. We are about the same age, and we have a lot in common: we both enjoy music and drama, we both watch Jeopardy, and we both get really excited about reading and going to the library. Many of Christine’s activities are held at local libraries, and so far we’ve made multiple trips to three different branches.

Christine strides through the children’s section with purpose. In under five minutes, she can assemble a pile of books that strike her fancy. I’m not quite sure what her decision-making process is, but I can choose books just as swiftly. Although I have a reading list saved somewhere on my computer, this year I’ve mostly just been perusing the shelves and making impulse check-outs.

I’ve also been keeping track of the books I’ve read in a book journal (thanks to my Kalamazoo book club for the going away gift!). This has been a useful tool for reflection. I often consume books quickly, closing one and opening the next one with barely a pause for breath. In the end, I don’t know that I fully appreciate or remember what I’ve read.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Reading is supposed to be fun, and not every book I pick up has to be a great literary classic. Literary junk food is okay in small doses. But I like journaling and making lists (probably to the point where it’s a borderline compulsion), so here is a summary of what I’ve read so far this year, with links to Amazon if you want more information:

1. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

Imagine if, while traveling down the Nile, French novelist Gustav Flaubert met Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse and statistician, and they struck up a friendship. The personality contrasts are obvious: Flaubert was a womanizer and party boy, and Nightingale was a proper English lady–even if she did disregard nineteenth century gender roles. Yet they each possessed sharp intellects and abundant creativity. Shomer brings these great figures to life in her novel. I mis-read the dust jacket and thought that the entire novel was based on a true story. Alas, although Flaubert and Nightingale were in Egypt at the same time, there is no evidence that they met or were friends. This nearly broke my heart.

2. Scarlett Si Possible by Katherine Pancol

I am proud to say that I read this novel entirely in French! I picked up a copy at the airport in Paris in May 2012, started reading it last summer, and finally finished it in January. It is the story of four young women who move to Paris amid the social upheaval of the last 1960s. I would categorize it as fairly light “chick lit,” which is great for language practice. I kept Google Translate open on my laptop while I read, but I tried to only use it for particularly difficult sentences.

3. The Queen’s Daughter by Susan Coventry

I have a deep love for young adult historical fiction. Basically, when I was a teenager I would read anything that had a girl in an old-fashioned dress on the cover. (Okay, I’ll admit it: I still do.) My mom picked this book for a $1 and passed it along to me. It is the story of princess Joan, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As a teenager, Joan was shipped off to marry the Norman King  of Sicily, where she learned just how difficult the life of a queen can be. Joan’s husband constructed the cathedral at Monreale, which I was lucky enough to visit last spring. This is not an award-winning piece of literature, but will appeal to fans of the genre.

4. Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I have been obsessed with Tudor England since about the sixth grade. So when I came across a novel about the adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, I snatched it off the shelf. The protagonist, Meg, belonged to one of the greatest humanist households in Europe at a time when religious extremism was tearing nations apart. As society (and her father) grapples with these changes, Meg must assert her own views while attempting to keep her family safe.

5. Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide

This novel details the history of an English manor house and the lives of the people who built, occupied, and cared for it. If you like Downton Abbey, you would enjoy Ashenden.

6. The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

The beautiful cover art made me pick this book up, and the setting in India motivated me to check it out. When her father dies, Mair finds her grandmother’s shawl and travels to India to trace its history. The story flashes back from the present day to WWII. I preferred the character of Mair’s grandmother to Mair herself.

Questions of the Day: How do you decide what to read? What books have you read so far this year that you would recommend?

Surprising Ingredient: Chickpeas

For the second week of my recipe challenge, I used one of my all-time favorite ingredients–chickpeas–in an unusual way.

Chickpeas are versatile. I love curried chickpeas, I love hummus, and I love falafel. I could eat chickpeas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . even dessert. When I came across this recipe for Gooey PB&J Blondies from Chocolate Covered Katie in a VegNews Magazine newsletter, I was intrigued. These are vegan and also gluten-free. I am not vegan, but I try to keep my dairy and egg consumption to a minimum. So when I come across a simple vegan dessert recipe, I am eager to give it a try.

Gooey PB&J Blondies

  • 1 can garbanzo beans (or white beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 plus 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup jam (Any flavor. I used grape.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend all ingredients (except jam) in a food processor until very smooth. Scoop into a greased 8×8 pan. Spread the jam on top. Bake for 35 minutes.

Note: My blondies started getting brown on top, so I took them out after 25 minutes. This was too soon! I should have covered the dish with aluminum foil and continued baking them for another 5-10 minutes.

blondies

jelly

The result? Well, I ate them all and didn’t take a picture of the final product. I thought they were yummy. Perhaps more cookie than blondie. If I had done a blind taste test, I would not have guessed that chickpeas were the main ingredient.

Question of the day: What is your favorite way to eat chickpeas?