"New babe" browned butter and vanilla banana muffins

Greetings from Tuscany! I'm writing from the long wooden table of our temporary home in San Gimignano, a tiny town of cobblestone streets and sun-soaked vineyards. Queen Anne's lace bursts from the sides of the dirt roads, and at night, you get to gaze out the window, listen to the croaking frogs, and imagine what is must have been like to lust after Romeo from a second-story balcony. (I don't think the height difference was beneficial. Things would have been hotter if they could have snagged an "accidental" arm stroke, just saying.)

Since arriving in Rome Thursday morning, I've eaten four flavors of gelato, freschi ravioli con funghi, freschi ravioli con pomodoro, apricots buffalo mozzarella from a buffalo, a million sheets of prosciutto, melanzane grigliate, a milka bar filled with butter crackers, pizza, pizza, pizza, and more. Also, in an effort to "culture" myself, I'm going to the Colesseum, reading lots and lots, and staring thoughtfully at Renaissance paintings. But I'll get to all that later. 

Before I left, there were muffins! And a new baby! My friend Jessica, who is the glorious new mama, and I were playmates in the heyday of our youth. We transformed her basement into the streets of New York, pretending to be famous models who were also homeless, and hanging paisley sheets across the bars of the treadmill to build a makeshift shelter. Our families once took a shared vacation to the Outer Banks, where we stuffed our sea salt-crusted mouths with trolli sour octopi to recuperate from an afternoon of boogie boarding. Now she's got a kid of her own and will need to stuff his mouth with sour trolli insects. (When he gets teeth, I guess.)

For now, the family has muffins. 

Not just any ordinary muffins! Browned butter and vanilla and (if you dare) semi-sweet chocolate! The browned butter adds an enveloping sweetness, one that curls its arm around you like a slightly flirty but mostly friendly old Italian man. 

I think banana bread is quite sneaky, because it can tiptoe into the breakfast category of life even though it is clearly cake. If you painted these guys with a cream cheese frosting (which would be delicious, BTW), you would have a cupcake fit for any occasion. I would pair them with midnight fairy picnics, a sweet white wine, or strong espresso. 

"New babe" browned butter and vanilla bean banana muffins

Heat the oven to 350. Fill 12-16 muffin tins with paper liners. 

Add the butter to a medium pan over medium heat. Allow the butter to melt, using a rubber spatula to occasionally swirl it around the pan. Once the butter is fully melted, allow it to sit until the sizzling dies down and remove from heat. The browned bits (yumyumyum) will sink to the bottom of the pan. 

In a large bowl, add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and whisk to combine.

To a food processor or blender, add the brown butter, bananas, eggs, brown and white sugars, yogurt, orange juice, and vanilla Blend until smooth.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold to incorporate. Fold in the chocolate chips, if using. Add about 1/4 cup to each muffin cup. 

Bake for 18-20 minutes, checking within the last few minutes of baking. Allow the muffins to cool for 20 minutes, and then top with powdered sugar, if desired. 

 

1/2 cup unsalted butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt 

2 very ripe bananas

2 eggs

1/3 cup brown sugar 

1/3 cup organic cane sugar

1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (optional)

powdered sugar (optional)

 

Cheers to the middle of summer, beautifuls.

- Stay cozy 



"Truth-telling" chamomile and honey scones

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Stephen King's On WritingI highly (!!!) recommend it; the book was more humorous than I anticipated, illustrating Mr. King's wit and immaculate ability to weave a story. The first half of the book was a memoir of his career as writer, and the second half consisted of advice to aspiring writers. Much of what he had to say was very useful (kill your darlings, nix the thesaurus, and the road to help is paved with adverbs), but what I really took away was his fervent encouragement to tell the truth. 

"Fiction is the truth inside the lie." 

Of course, nonfiction plays a similar game. Cheryl Strayed says that good creative nonfiction comes with the universal transcends the personal. So these two genres possess one similar objective: find the truth, and then share it like a box of Wheat Thins. 

I originally started this blog to have an outlet where I could write and be free to write without working for the opinion of anyone else. I would write simply to write, just as I had as a child on my family's first Windows Desktop. Occasionally there might be a recipe and a travel story. Since then, this blog has transformed into an online profile of sorts, and a place where I practice reporting, photography, and telling stories. But sometimes when I'm only one glass of wine in, I'll lift my hands of the keyboard and pause. Too much? Which leads to a question that maybe other bloggers begin to wonder: "how much truth do I tell???"

Here's the challenge: I think we should tell all of it.  Part of the fun is finding creative, beautiful, inspiring ways to share the most human and scary things ever. It's not easy. It's very, very, hard to communicate life's most intimate moments in a way that's not over share. But truth can be communicate in a clause, image, or tune. There are many photographers, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who are wildly successful at achieving this, but they find a gentle way of connecting to those universal heartstrings. Simplicity works. 

Last week, when I was visiting K1, we spent part of our last day with one another in the town of Spring. I was sad that our time together was nearing an end, especially because it was likely the last time we would be spending with one another for a long while. He had been sick, and I had been a overly-romantic  24-year old, but in the midst of my pouting and his need for cough drops, we found a bookstore bathed in emerald vines and smelling like glue. The selection was impressive, and featured a plethora truth-telling writers. It was melancholic and a little rainy and I was happy that this bookstore existed.  We made our way to dinner, and music played as he drove and I read. And then we had margaritas. And the next day we said goodbye and I got a plane and read some more. And then I had scones. 

Like a moment of truth or a traditional margarita, scones are simple and good. Unlike some fussy morning baked goods (cough-cough, CROISSANT), scones come together all in one bowl and move all mellow yellow-like to the baking tray. They rise without ego and look a little lumpy. And they go really, really well with a book and a blanket. I made the recipe for a series of "relaxed" foods, for Wanderlust, and the article also includes recipes for rosemary popcorn and boozy blueberry and basil lemonade.

See the recipe on Wanderlust here //

Speaking of truth-telling and Toni Morrison, look how she's killing it over at The New York Times Magazine. Also, my friend Kathryn has recently started a lovely blog about going Zero Waste, and I'm so impressed with her ability to combine language and environmentalism.

Cheers for telling the truth! Fictional George Washington would be proud. 

- Stay cozy


Spiced rum caramel and a gingerbread cake

Christmas day has come and gone and I've looked at Orion's Belt from the cracks of evening branches, so proud of Virginia and the secrets between the birch trees. Thus far, highlights have included a Lego Movie Quote-Along with Aaron, chilly afternoon runs decked in fleece, going shot-for-shot with Dad's side of the family (who knew the Kohrs could handle their tequila so well?!!?!), and excitedly brushing up on my Italian...(!!!!!!) 

On Christmas morning we ate cinnamon buns with an orange cream cheese frosting and I painted a gingerbread cake. Gingerbread is my all-time favorite treat when it comes to holiday goodies. I love that the cookies look like little people and that I can dress them in whatever edible outfit I so choose. I love blending molasses and spices and then licking the beaters for that spicy warmth. I love it because it's so perfectly cozy. 

It's the season we long for extra arms to cover us in hugs and lips to soak our skin in kisses. Peppermint hot chocolate reminds us that we are not alone, and gingerbread traces our back with gentle fingertips. The holidays are SO DAMN COZY; a season for warm laundry and secrets and I really love that.

After we had sipped our port and the grownups retired the couch, Alec, Felix, Tina, Alex, and Ian all floated into my family room and down around the poker table. This location has served as our stomp-ground for many, many moons.  Back in the old days, our evenings consisted of truth or dare and shots and tumbles into the hottub. One night there were 25 sleeping bodies in my basement, and Al, Fe, and Teens and I made a nest out of blankets on the floor of the bathroom, allowing fifteen-year-old kids to climb over our bodies as we stayed up all night and told stories. Now that we're older, we casually drink beer and talk about our lack of funds and our excitement for what has yet to come.

gingerbread2.jpg

Whenever these kids come over, I make them eat. I made them eat this cake, which sounds like it's not very good, but I promise you it is. The gingerbread and caramel and buttercream play together in a sweet game of leapfrog perfectly suited for the holidays. This year, I made them a pile of desserts: chocolate covered marshmallows, toffee, mexican wedding cookies, vanilla cupcakes, and gingerbread cake.

You can find the entire recipe, including the cake and caramel buttercream HERE, at Top with Cinnamon's adorable little blog. This cake demanded I make wet caramel for the first time ever, finally succeeding on attempt #3 (the first two attempts burnt as I stared over the saucepan and swore.) The original recipe calls for whiskey, but my cousins brew a mean spiced rum so I threw that in there instead. And then I threw the rum caramel into the frosting and OH WOAH. Four layers of nothing but cozy, delicious sugar.


spiced rum caramel sauce

1 cup plus 2 tbsp  granulated sugar sugar

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup unsalted butter

3 tsp spiced rum 

1 – 2 tsp flaky sea salt

Heat the sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar starts to melt, swirl the sugar around the pan to break up any clumps without stirring. If necessary, use the bottom of a rubber spatula to gently smash any of the clumps.  

While the sugar melts, warm the cream and the butter in a separate saucepan until the butter is fully melted. Set aside. 

After the sugar is melted and has taken on a warm, amber color, remove the saucepan from the heat. Immediately whisk in the warm cream and butter. If the sugar begins to solidify, return the pan to the medium heat until the mixture is liquid. Stir in the salt and the rum. Pour the caramel through a sieve and then into a heat-proof bowl.  

You can put this caramel sauce on anything. Brownies, vanilla bean ice cream, apples, or the gingerbread cake. And said cake consumed with some sort of fire (candles always do) and sweet wine and laughs on a late night.

- Stay cozy 

 

Salted candy bar cookies

It's hard to improve perfection.

Halloween candy, for example. There's something about this seasonal treat that sets it a few notches higher than the average Milky Way, or heck, even a Milky Way Midnight. Halloween candy comes in a diverse cluster, filling a plastic bag with bright colors and foreign treats. It can  leads us down the road to the more evasive candies, like Caramel Apple Tootsie Roll pops or Rolos.  I rarely eat candy, and when I do, I stick to the classics. Enter Halloween, and it's fun-sized buffet of everything from malted milk balls to dark chocolate Kit Kats. 

That being said, after a week of dipping my hands into the pile of plastic and sugar, I was ready to think outside of the box. And I was reading Paris Letters, specifically the chapter when she's quotes Hemingway and says that if we ever feel stuck, all we need to do is "write one true sentence." Okay!

1. Halloween candy is good. 

And then I wrote another. 

2. Chocolate chip cookies are good.

BOOM! Halloween candy + chocolate chip cookies + a sprinkling of salt (because salt makes everything sparkle) = Candy Bar Cookies that sing like the sirens and taste like a fancier version of childhood. 

I made these on a late Saturday afternoon, after two yoga classes and a walk that was was too long to be doing with a yoga mat strapped to my back.  I felt all zen-like and was super into the idea of hanging out in the stillness of the kitchen for a few hours. The sun sunk down early, and I opened a bottle of red champagne and began chopping the cold chocolate. 

When I poured the candy out onto the table, the made an adorable clunkthudclunk and lay splayed out like a painting.  The snickers cut quite nicely, revealing flat squares of nougat, peanuts, and caramel. The Butterfingers were another matter, and flaked, sprinkling the cutting board in a sweet orange powder. Said orange powder ended up being an entirely new ingredient within the cookies, giving them a hint of salty, peanut-y-ness throughout. No complaints whatsoever. 

The resulting cookers were like a party; lots of candies invited and I want to hang out with all of them.  Snickers and Babe Ruth dominate as beer pong partners, and Milky Way makes sexy eye contact with Hershey's. Whoppers instigates a game of strip poker, and all the candies squeal, remove their wrappers, and then I eat them all. (!!) 

The base cookie recipe comes from Crepes of Wrath, and it's perfect.  Crispy edges, soft interiors, and a delicate balance of salt and butter. I ate them at the kitchen table, breaking the edges off and dipping them into a glass of milk. It was cozy and fun and I've never more like a child and a grownup at the exact time. 

Salted candy bar cookies 

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup unsalted butter, melted

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups chopped fun-sized candy bars

fleur de sel or sea salt, for sprinkling

 

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Use a chef's knife to chop the candy bars into small, 1-inch chunks and set inside. Using a hand or stand mixer, beat the melted butter and sugars until incorporated. Add in the egg, mix until combined, then the egg yolk, and mix until combined. Add in the vanilla and mix.

In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add it to the sugar mixture and use a large spoon or rubber spatula to mix until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Fold in the chopped candy bars. 

Line a baking sheet with parchment parchment paper or silpat, and scoop out 2-tablespoon sized balls onto the sheets. Sprinkle a bit of salt onto each cookie. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until just lightly golden and set. All to cool on the sheets for a few minutes before removing. 

I find this whole thing is a bit easier if the candy bars are refrigerated beforehand. I made these using Hershey's, Milky Ways, Reeses, Butterfingers, Snickers, Whoppers, and Take 5. 

-stay cozy

 

 

Dark chocolate brownies with strawberry cream cheese frosting

I've been keeping a secret. Well, several secrets, really.  Somethings just aren't meant to be discussed right away, and it's nice to keep a teacup full of private thoughts. But now I'm feeling guilty and it's time to do some sharing.  1) At summer camp, I once hid under the bunkbed during a fire drill so that I could read the sex scene in Judy Blume's Forever without fear of judgement  2) I wrote fanmail to gay Broadway actors asking if they wanted to get coffee on my NYC school field trips and was sad when I never got a response, 3) I have a brownie recipe. (!!)

While now I tend to gravitate toward the homemade version, I was raised a boxed brownie kid. They were simple and I thought the batter was better. Artificial Ghiradelli was the best, and my mother taught me to swap out the water for some espresso, leading to a very hyper, chocolate-covered child. Then I started to blossom, slapped on my baker's backpack, and ventured out into a world of homemade brownies.  I explored my palette, sampling brownies with caramel, often chocolate chips, and then the occasional super brownie that came decked out with a cream cheese design and lookin' like it was headed to the Tony's. 

About two weeks ago, my friend Blake celebrated his 26th birthday. Blake and I get along well; as fellow libras we understand the value of balance and can appreciate a really good party. Blake's soiree consisted of a backyard decked with fairy lights, iron-wrought tables and chairs, and an outdoor bar for wine and whiskey consumption. The dress code was "Sunday Best" and the menu consisted of cannolis, birthday cake oreos, chocolate chip cookies, and red velvet cupcakes.  It was so fancy, the beer pong table had a tablecloth. 

As for my contribution, I envisioned something a la "Alice in Wonderland", where the frosting doesn't completely cover the cake, but rather glops over in a rustic-storybook-kinda-way.  Cake would have been nice, but brownies sounded better. Don't get me wrong, I worship all sorts of flavors and types of cakes,  but if it's gonna be chocolate, I say go big or go home. Go for the brownie. 

This brownie recipe is not just any ordinary brownie recipe. These are the brownies that cause diets to crumble and tears to fall. These are the brownies that you give to potential lovers to keep them around and to your mother to say "thank you." They're deeply chocolate-y, a good median between cake and fudge, and when cold, quite literally, melt upon meeting the tongue. If I sent these bad boys instead of some stickers plastered on Hello Kitty stationary, those broadway actors may have written back. 

dark chocolate brownies with strawberry cream cheese frosting 

Ingredients 

3/4 cup all-purpose flour 

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder

4 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

3/4 cup granulated sugar 

1/4 packed brown sugar 

3 eggs, at room temp

2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 8x8 or 9x9 baking pan with aluminum foil and grease with butter. 

Whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder until incorporated. 

Place the chopped chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

Add one egg to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey!!

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula (not whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, or until a knife comes out clean. Let the brownies cool completely, then lift them out of the pan using the foil. For a super clean cut, chill the brownies in the fridge before slicing. 

The brownies were adapted from Michelle over at Brown Eyed Baker, and there are plenty more delicious recipes to choose from over there. To make the frosting, I simply used this super easy recipe here. 

These brownies are pretty stellar hot and gooey, but they're out-of-this-world after they've been chilling in the fridge for a few hours.  For me, it's reminiscent of mornings I would head downstairs for breakfast, check the fridge for eggs, and quickly opt for the cold, melt-in-your-mouth-y brownie leftovers instead. 

-stay cozy

Funfetti shortbread

Let's talk about celebration.

Sprinkles come at a time when it feels necessary to throw one's hands up in the air and shout "party!" How is that the slight addition of multi-colored bits of sugar can us feel so special? Sprinkles cause the clapping of hands and jumping up-and-down of a 23-year-old Libra alone in her kitchen. They are cute, they are very fun. 

Besides, there are several things to celebrate.  Six months in LA, the up-and-coming launch with Salted, and a red-eye leaving tomorrow (!!!) back east (!!!) to see my long distance love.  Oh, and for the potential airline travel wait, I've downloaded A Little Princess onto my Kindle. 

The protagonist, Sarah Crewe, was a storyteller and self-declared princess, wowing her faithful audiences with tales of leathery skinned elephants and the pleasant strum of an evening mandolin.   I have a hardcover version of the book hiding somewhere, still maintaining it's magic since I first digested Sarah's story several years ago.

When it comes to cookies and classic storybooks (the ones with crackly spins and pages that smell like glue), I always think of shortbread. I used to call shortbread, "Grandma cookies" because I envisioned them as the type of a cookie an afghan-owning woman would snack on as she poured herself a second glass of Irish Breakfast Tea. They would crumble with each bite, and were eaten on the front porch.

Now, however, I see shortbread differently. It cannot fit into one category. Like a story, it's universal, and melts into several of life's occasions. Shortbread is simple, and sometimes sneaky. Shortbread can be a snack. It can be breakfast. It can be eaten in a nearly-black kitchen late at night, paired with a glass of cold milk and the glow from the light in the fridge.

In every sense, it is very much romantic. If  I hadn't already slid funfetti into the title, I might call it "storybook shortbread." 

The few ingredients make it simple; the sprinkles make it special. It tastes like butter and coconut and looks like a celebration. Eating it, especially eating it while packing my travel dress, is just enough of a reason to say "party."

funfetti shortbread

1/2 cup softenend butter

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/2 cup funfetti sprinkles

 

 

 

 

Preheat the oven to 300.

Using a hand-mixer, combine the oil, butter, sugar, and vanilla until thoroughly mixed. Add the flour and blend until the mixture resembles sand.  Stir in the sprinkles using a wooden spoon, or something like that.

Press dough into a greased 9x13 pan or two 8x8s. Use your hands to create a smooth surface, and then a fork to create tiny pricks along the top of the shortbread. 

Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the shortbread are golden brown. Allow to cool completely before cutting. 

Drink with tea, milk, red wine, or whatever your celebrating self desires. 

 

You can taste the comfiness.

-stay cozy