May 23, 2012

Cannoli Sandwich Cookies

These delightful sandwich cookies were inspired by the Philadelphia Italian Market. Specifically, the rich, creamy, crispy cannoli I enjoyed from Isgro's Bakery this Saturday during the Italian Market Festival (appropriately, their website is!

I went to the festival with a couple of friends, and boy was it a scene. There was music and dancing in the streets, giant hollow pineapples filled with Pina Colada (don't know how that's Italian, but oh well), tomato pies, sausage and pepper sandwiches, and enormous arancini abound. We perused, ate, and took it all in.

(Thanks for the photo, A.D.... clipped this off of your chronicle of Saturday from Facebook!)

Of all things, our favorite Italian Market treats were those perfect, wonderful cannoli. We were both so sad when we finished our last bites.

Making cannoli is an art. I'm not great at frying things, and I also do not own a cannoli pan. Fast forward to these spin on the cannoli, which I made for a friend's BBQ today. The light, crisp brown sugar cookie on the outside is a decent nod to cannoli shell, minus the frying. Is it identical? No. But it's got wonderful sweet, toasty flavor and allows the cannoli filling to shine. Isn't the filling what it's really all about?

Of course my filling, a ricotta/cream cheese combo, had to have chocolate chips mixed in. That's just how I love my cannoli. Sweet ricotta with semi-sweet hunks laced throughout each bite. But you can mix in crushed pine-nuts (pignoli), pistachios, sprinkles, or any other flavor and texture you enjoy. It would also be super cute and pretty to roll each sandwich cookie in any of the above toppings so they stick to the outside.

Although I might not have the time or equipment to recreate an Isgro's classic (plus, who else can do it like Isgro's!), but for now these cookies are hitting the mark, fulfilling a serious flavor craving, and bringing me right back to Philadelphia's Italian Market.

P.S. - Don't you love the Italian ceramica these cookies are photographed on? It's my favorite, and I can't collect enough. The beautiful colors and unmistakable patterns are yet one more thing that makes me feel like I'm in Italy!

Cannoli Sandwich Cookies: makes 16-20 sandwich cookies, with cookie dough to spare.

For the Brown Sugar Cookies:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Directions:  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using an electric mixer on low, cream together the butter and brown sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat well. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cardamom, cinnamon, and lemon zest. Add slowly to the wet mixture while beating on low, until just combined. Refrigerate mixture 20 minutes until firm. Drop rounded tablespoons of dough on the baking sheet, 2 inches apart, then press colored sprinkles into the top. Bake 8-12 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Allow to cool on cookie sheet, then cool completely on a wire rack.

For the Cannoli Filling:

32 oz. fresh whole milk ricotta cheese (strained well if at all watery)
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Directions: In a large mixing bowl with electric beater, beat together the ricotta, cream cheese, lemon zest, and vanilla extract until well combined. Slowly add the powdered sugar, beating until completely combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
To assemble cookies: Place half of the cookies top-down on a baking sheet. Top with generous amount of cannoli filling, dividing evenly among the cookies. Refrigerate open-faced until the filling is slightly chilled. Then, gently press a second cookie, top-up, onto the filling of each. Allow filling to press to the sides of each cookie. Keep chilled until serving (filling will be thicker in texture and easier to eat when chilled).

May 20, 2012

"Almond Joy" Blondies... aka: coconut chocolate madness

Oh, hello, you sweet nugget of gooey coconut-chocolate delight. I love you.

Why has it taken me so long to develop this growing obsession with blondies? I don't know, but what I do know is that a.) I was really missing out, and b.) I will never go back.

These blondies were made for Mother's Day. My mother has always loved Almond Joys. She adores the sweet, flaked coconut enveloped in dark chocolate and topped with a crunchy, salty little almond. Needless to say, it must be genetic, because I go weak in the knees for them, too.

I could barely write this post because flipping through the pictures was bringing strong waves of craving. I need to finish this post quickly before I'm back in the kitchen baking a second batch.

Can we just get a close up, please?

Ugh. Too good for words.

Blondie batter is amazing because its mildly sweet flavor allows other ingredients to really shine. It was the perfect canvas for the coconut, dark chocolate, and slivered almonds.  A brownie batter would have stolen the show with its pervasively rich chocolate flavor, but the blondie provides a perfectly buttery, vanilla-and-brown sugar backdrop that instead promotes the other ingredients to elevated status.

I used a high-cocoa content chocolate (72%) to lend a slightly bitter balance the sugary sweetness of the coconut. I loved the results, but feel free to use semi-sweet for a seriously sweet bar. Either way, get ready for a dessert that is rich and luscious. I took a tip from Ina Garten, who swears by under-baking blondies. She advises that the toothpick should not come up clean, but instead have a little bit of half-cooked batter on it. She's right on. It's how you end up with a creamy, moist bar instead of a crumbly one.

Enough chatter about these blondies. I'm getting seriously hungry and can't bear to look at the pictures a minute longer. So have fun, and play with this blondie batter by adding different ingredients if chocolate and coconut isn't your thing. I'm sure that whatever you create will be gone as quickly as these were! Needless to say, mom definitely liked them.

"Almond Joy" Blondies: makes 16 large, deep squares. If you like your blondies flatter, use a 9x13 pan.

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped (small hunks) 72% dark chocolate (I used Trader Joes Pound Plus)
2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, lightly toasted and cooled
For the top of the blondies:
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x9 baking pan. Spread 2 cups coconut on a baking sheet and place in the oven, allowing to toast as oven preheats. Stir every few minutes until the coconut is lightly browned, but still soft and not crispy. Allow to cool completely.

Meanwhile, in a bowl with an electric mixer cream together the butter and the brown sugar. Beat well, until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each, then beat in the vanilla. In a small bowl, sift together the salt, the baking powder, and the flour. Add the flour to the butter mixture slowly beating while adding, until it is just combined. (Over-beating will lead to tough batter!)

Stir in the chocolate chunks and the 2 cups coconut. Spread the batter evenly in the pan, then drop the pan on the counter a few times to release air bubbles. Sprinkle the 1/4 cup almonds, chocolate chips, and coconut on top of the batter. Bake until  it begins to just pull away from the sides of the pan, about 35-45 minutes, and a tester toothpick comes out slightly moist. Cool completely, then cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container.

May 16, 2012

Cucumber, Pineapple, and Tomato Salad

It was warm tonight. It felt like summer, and M and I felt like having a light and cool dinner. It was all we could stomach after a too-hot run outside that left us both wondering just how out of shape we'd allowed ourselves to get recently. Life has just been too busy for regular exercise! But it was delightful to be outdoors, moving, seeing everyone out and about.

Anyway, we had a big platter of sushi, but to me that's never enough by itself. We needed an accompaniment that would compliment the Asian flavors in our meal. I also did not want to light up the stove.

This cucumber, pineapple, and tomato salad was the perfect addition to our outdoor dinner. You'll love the combination of heat from the jalapeno and sweet tang from the pineapple and lemon. The cucumbers and tomatoes are just perfectly crisp and cool. Although the ingredients in this summer salad do not seem like likely companions, they meld together beautifully. When the weather heats up, I can't imagine anything better than a beautiful and scrumptious salad to make for a beautiful and relaxing weeknight.

Cucumber, Pineapple, and Tomato Salad
1 large cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, then halved again, and sliced thinly
sea salt
1 large tomato, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 to 2 cups fresh pineapple, cut into small 1/2" inch slices
1/4 cup diced white onion
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1" of a fresh jalepeno, seeds included, finely minced
1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
1/8 cup fresh chopped basil

Directions: In a medium bowl, toss the cucumbers with a generous amount of salt. Pour into a mesh sieve and allow to sit 1 hour while the excess water drains out. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Add cucumbers, pineapple, tomatoes, and onion to the bowl. In another small bowl whisk together the lemon juice, garlic clove, and sugar. Add the cooking oil and fish sauce and stir. Pour the dressing over the vegetables in the bowl, then add jalepeno, cilantro, and basil. Stir until well combined. Serve immediately. Chill leftovers. 


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