Pecan Toffee Popcorn.

Sorry for the delay, but the weather here over the past week in Chicago has really put a cramp in my cooking and baking. It’s just too nice to stay inside and do either.

The past couple days have been a lovely blur of seltzer water, iced drinks and freezes, and slurpees. Things you can savor out in the heat and play well with the beach. Things that require not a lick of flame or the zap of a microwave to make ready. I’ve consistently gone to the beach the last five days in a row. Ah, the end of college and the beginning of summer.

What a wonderful thing.

Of course, chocolate just doesn’t hold up to this kind of heat, so I’ve had to tap out my treats. Ice cream is in constant rotation, but sometimes you just need a little crunch.

Homemade pecan toffee popcorn fits the bill. Every Friday from January to May I would commute downtown for an internship, and every Friday I would get off a couple stops early in the Loop to stop by Garrett’s popcorn. It’s the smell, really, that gets you. More piquant and rich than wafts of homemade ice cream cones, Garrett’s popcorn really fills the air. For months, I was powerless against such smells. And then, I decided to make it at home.

The only hour the oven has been on in the past week was yesterday, quite early in the morning before the 95 degree day really set in. A nibble here, a bite after lunch, this popcorn is the sweetness of summer, distilled. Or rather, caramelized and toasted. And clearly, there isn’t anything better than a caramel summer.

Recipe on the following page.

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Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel.

Everybody should love to ski, even betches. If you don’t love skiing because of the actual sport, the downhill rush, the swish as you cut through powder, wiping out because oops! skiing backwards is not as easy as it looks, then you should love skiing because of everything else that comes with. Après ski for one, which can mean a variety of things from sweaters to hot tubs to naps to fires, but always comes with something warm to drink. Add a cup of hot chocolate, hot toddy, buttered rum, spiced wine, etc. to something sticky and sweet, and you’ve got everything wonderful about skiing distilled in the perfect snack. Similar to the camping phenomenon, everything tastes better when you’re skiing. (It may have something to do with removing yourself from the routine, from the couch, from the desk, but hey. Don’t worry about the why.)

You know you love caramel, you know you love nutty blondies. Throw in some peanuts and the salty crunch of crushed pretzels, and you’ve got the perfect skiing snack—Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel, courtesy of the December issue of Bon Appetit. (I know I’m late to the game getting behind the Bon Ap redesign, so let’s get right to it. Sweets and treats have never had a better close-up.)

These bars are everything wonderful about a blondie, enhanced by a rich, salty-sweet topping. Real talk: blondies are the pale, inferior cousin of brownies. You know it, I know it. It’s the sad truth when you’re down a half-pound of dark, luscious chocolate. But in these bars, with the help of browned butter and the equivalent of a crack-topping, the cousin has got a tan, and is killing it for ski season.

They’re easy and delicious. Just in time for the holidays. Make a tray, and watch them fly- down the slopes. (Then turn right around and make another. They’re that good.) 

Recipe on the following page.

Goat Cheese Brownies.

There are some truly irresistible combinations, pairs that are stronger than the sum of their parts. These pair are replicated both in actually life amongst people, communities, and organizations. But, more relevant to this blog and as such a little bit less serious, perfect partnerships happen frequently in food. And if you live in the lovely, slightly deluded world where food remains supreme, where the perfect combination of textures in ice cream is really the pinnacle of happiness, perfect partnerships, evolved taste pairs, and unexpected combinations are plentiful.

While killing time in an airport, I picked up a copy of this month’s Atlantic. This month, the Woman’s Dilemma was on the cover, and two-thirds of the way through the magazine in no less than 12 pages of text. This Atlantic, carried the woes of upper-middle class, intellectual white women folded in amongst pages of other worldly happenings, sandwiched between insider trading and Canadian tolerance. This opus to the single woman’s status is neither disheartening or uplifting, tired or particularly innovative. What it is, however, is a practical look at modern day coupling. Surprise, the relationship is evolving alongside society into to something new, and equally exciting if you choose to take the optimistic outlook. In parallel to food, where combinations are continuously revisited, revamped, and repaired, evolving relationships is nothing new.

Goat Cheese Brownies, for example, are something that have been done before and yet they remain unusual. My roommates, my friends, they all approached the tray of deep, chocolaty brown fudgey brownies with apprehension. “Goat cheese? In brownies?…”

“Yes.”

And that’s the only correct response. With unexpected pairings, particularly in food, the only thing to do is to present the most visually appealing selection possible, state a couple times that, yes, there is tangy, creamy, savory goat cheese in the brownies and just wait. Give the surprising a try, chances are that you’ll like it.

Wait for that first, complex, confusing bite where the play of the earthy, slightly sour goat cheese resonates in perfect harmony with the sweet, endlessly rich bittersweet chocolate brownie. Unexpected and perfect. The Goat Cheese Brownie, although odd, is greater than either two components separately. But that’s not to say goat cheese and a brownie are individually inferior. It’s just a different sort of taste, for a different sort of time and place.

Recipe on the following page.

Georgetown (Baked and Wired).

If last week’s testimony to Georgetown coffee shop and bakery Baked and Wired didn’t convince you to visit, if the idea of banana cupcakes topped with peanut butter frosting and chocolate drizzle somehow didn’t justify a leisurely stroll, Metro ride, drive, train trip, plane flight, sail…let me try again.

Yes, it may takes upwards of ten minutes for espresso drinks, yes there is never anywhere to sit and yes, sometimes the lines are extreme.  But, it’s worth it.  That’s what I’ve concluded.  While, during the ten minutes after you place your espresso order, it may seem like torture, caffeine-deprived torture, once that perfectly capped, wet-foam drink is in your hands, in your stomach, poured over your head or drizzled onto your eye if eyeballing is the game du jour, the wait is worth it.  Always.

On the plus side, if you go during normal hours on the weekdays, for a mid-morning, lunchtime, mid-afternoon or casual evening visit, there are generally nominal or no lines.  (Though the requisite ten or so minutes still happen. Good espresso takes time, a sentiment that is rapidly becoming the ultimate Catch-22 of my short life.  I desperately need it to wake up and function, but I have to go, purchase and wait.)

In a town that seems to run on good espresso, with Dupont’s Dolcezza and Filter and Chinatown’s Chinatown Coffee Company rounding my top favorite espresso shops, Baked and Wired has the additional plus of a lovely pastry case.

Never a bad thing.

Cornflake Cookies, Pecan Bars, and Tasty Burgers.

There’s something about trashy and low-end that’s appealing.  Especially when it comes to good.  Curly fries anyone?

So one of the more interesting food trends of the first decade of the new millennium—as I get closer and closer to two decades old, using all-encompassing time periods becomes more appealing—is the high/low-end mixture of food.  And my little holiday-time visit to the Momofuku militia only confirmed that.  Pork buns, ramen, and fried mochi sticks?  Asian street-food, the equivalent of Ian’s Pizza and In-N-Out.  But delicious and redone, with pork belly, spicy sauce, and ginger-noodle redux.  The Milk Bar especially caters to all the foods-stuffs of a forgotten childhood from the infamous Compost Cookies, Cereal Milk Soft-Serve, to the streusel butter cream chunks on numerous cakes.

But the Cornflake Cookies, oh the cornflakes.  While great in theory, the cookies were reminiscent of dim sum.  (Which I’ll attribute to being a little old perhaps, quite unfortunate.)  But I just couldn’t get over the idea.  It was phenomenal.  Combine marshmallows, cornflakes, and fine chocolate in the best kind of cookie, huge and caramelized with the requisite outer and inner rings of cookies texture. So I tried it and in the spirit of the high/low-end trend, I made these cookies—along with some tried-and-true Pecan Bars—for a little New Year’ après ski. (Yea, yea, it’s almost February.)

Lemon Pucker.

One of the best Christmas presents of the year was, of course, not necessarily one of my own.  Not to be ungrateful or trite, it’s just honestly hard to beat the over three hundred glossy—oh so glossy—wide and satisfying pages in Thomas Keller’s newest book Ad Hoc. For anyone even vaguely interested in food, so most of the well-fed and happily pneumatic human race, it’s a sort of pilgrimage to Mecca Delicious, reading that book.  A strange and delicious enlightenment if I may be excessively hyperbolic.  Excited to fangirl status am I, really, and Trekkies got nothing on me.

But even in the midst of my slightly embarrassing infatuation, there are moments when, reading Keller’s instructions, I just have to sigh.  “Really, Thomas Keller?” I ask, sometimes aloud.  It’s like my best Seth Meyer’s impersonation. “Really, Thomas Keller, really?”