My 10th USAnniversary!

bilbo quote

August marked 10 years since my arrival in the USA and I have found myself reflecting and reminiscing a lot lately. As a result, today’s post is very different than normal as I set the scene for a week of some of my favourite eateries from our summer vacation.

It is still strange to me sometimes when I think about how this little wandering Greek- Cypriot Londoner finally found her home with a tall southern gentleman at the foot of the Smokey Mountains, in a little town just north of Chattanooga, TN. And, little did I know that I would have to leave that majestic view to graze in the flat lands of Texas, just a few years later, while my husband finishes his doctoral work. That is life my friends. You never know how it is going to unravel as each foot is placed in front of the other.  You just move, hoping, trusting, squinting into the distance and believing somehow that you will look back at the end of your life and feel peace with all you have learned and experienced. Even those who meticulously plan 10 years at a time can never truly know what is ahead. I think somewhere deep down that is my favourite thing about life; the mystery. It’s the peace we find when things aren’t as we imagined. The hope, and knowledge, that things can change means we can focus on present moments that are still positive and draw strength for the patience required as we wait for the up and coming. It is also the hope of all the adventure that is yet to come.

 

Ski Lift

In the summer of 2003, when I was still living in London and a month away from moving to the States, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the ski resort of Pamporovo in Bulgaria. Being July, we were not there to ski but an afternoon outing had been arranged to ride the ski lifts across the beautiful mountains. I learnt something monumental that day as our journey unfolded. The first ski lift at which we arrived was pretty modern with large cushioned seats, a thick strong safety bar that locked into place, and a short little ride to the first mountain. Being slightly afraid of heights, I felt as safe as possible under the circumstances and decided to move with the flow of people making their way to the lift. It was rather quite pleasant as we smoothly sailed up to the tops of the trees, enjoying the crisp summer air, and landed safely on the other side of the valley.  

However, the next ski lift was not as sturdy-looking and a little older than the first. The view from the mountains was stunning and, despite my trembling knees and the strong desire to go back alone, I decided to hop on this next set of ski lifts and just grip the flimsy bar with all my might. As we bobbed along the line, I could not get enough of the natural beauty around me. I have always loved the mountains and these were stunning.

Once we reached the final ski lift, at the very height of the resort, I was pretty mortified at the sight of the contraption that would be carrying us down. The safety bar was a thin rope of metal that came half way across the body, the entire chair was paint pealed and somewhat rusty, and as each empty seat rolled around the top of that highest mountain, it swung wildly, squeaking and taunting its next victim. Even though I could hear my heart pounding in my head, I somehow managed to muster the courage and rode this lift of death to the bottom of the mountain. The view was silently breathtaking and completely distracting from the fear I had initially experienced. It is an experience I will never forget.

Every moment of the journey that day was only visible as I approached each leg and for that, I am so very thankful. If I had seen that final terrifying lift from the beginning, I would have turned around and mulled on back to the hotel with the few others who did not want to go into the mountains. Instead, each stage was revealed gradually and I managed to find just enough courage and strength to get to the next point and experience some of the most incredible scenery. One month later, I arrived in the States for what was to be two short years and here I am ten years later, with so many hill top moments behind me, and still enjoying the ride!

Why do I tell you all this? Because it seems fitting to celebrate my USAnniversary by highlighting the food in a city that became a very significant mountain top for me during the early years of my life in this country. I will be spending this week focusing on the wonderful eateries we love so much in Chattanooga and I truly hope to inspire you to visit this beloved city. Who knows, maybe one of life’s ski lifts will take you there someday too.

chattanooga

S’more Truffles

Smore Truffles

Ahhh S’mores. The quintessential American summer campfire dessert. The first time I ever heard of a S’more was when I moved here in 2003. My friend just casually mentioned making them as part of a camping trip and I guess my blank expression prompted her to ask if we had them in England. There was so much shock and horror in her eyes as she tried to imagine a childhood without S’mores. Needless to say, she soon arranged the whole experience for me as if to undo a great injustice.  She pulled out a graham cracker, added a slab of Hershey’s chocolate, toasted a marshmallow and pressed it onto the chocolate with another cracker on top creating a little cookie sandwich. There were not many American food items that I had not heard of either from friends or American media so I too was surprised that these little squishy-oozey-delights had not made their way across the pond.

Of course once I thought about it, large toasting-style marshmallows were not available in England in the 80’s. Plus, the UK is not thought of as a summer camping haven because of the terrible weather. Yes, we may go camping but it’s usually in a water protected camping vehicle or a warm and cozy chalet because you just never know if the sun is going to be out even in the middle of July or August. As a result, there is not really a market for extensive camping cuisine like there is here in the States. (heated Heinz Baked Beans from a tin does not count!). This doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy other outdoor cooking like barbecues as soon as there is even a hint of summer (not the american kind of barbecue -barbecue is just the generic English word for grilling out) but we mostly stick to kebabs, burgers and hot dogs. Greeks in London, don’t even wait for the sunshine, if we have a barbecue planned, rain is not a deterrent. Some poor male creature is assigned to build a makeshift ‘gazebo’ out of whatever can be found and stand out there grilling meat even if it means the aid of an umbrella!

So what did I think of my first S’more? It was messy and gooey and sticky and warm and crunchy and just delightful. I am not a purist though because I actually really dislike Hershey’s (sorry!) so I prefer my S’more with a less sugary chocolate but otherwise, good call America! In celebration of Independence Day, I decided to turn these delicious treats into truffles to take to a friend’s fish fry yesterday. It took me a couple of tries to really get these right but they were a huge hit. The challenge with trying to add marshmallows to anything is that they don’t have an actual unique flavour- they are just sugar. What finally made this recipe click for me was capturing the fluffy chewy texture as well as the toasted sweetness, and I think I got there in the end. But hey, make a batch my American friends and let me know what you think.

S’more Truffles

(makes a lot of truffles but the exact number depends on the size you chose to make them)

12oz good quality milk chocolate chips

12oz good quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like using both kinds of chocolate to balance out the sweetness)

1 large bag of mini marshmallows (I don’t recommend using a store brand- go for the good stuff, you will really taste the difference)

1/3 cup of heavy cream

1 tbsp butter

1 cup of graham cracker crumbs

1/2 -3/4 cup of marshmallow vodka (optional)

Place chocolate chips, cream and butter into microwave safe bowl and heat at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir and heat for 30 seconds more at 50%. Stir again and heat for another 30 seconds if needed until half the chips are melted. It’s really important to stop heating BEFORE all the chips melt otherwise you will burn the chocolate. If you stir well, the remaining chips will melt away nicely without becoming grainy. Transfer to a large bowl. Stir in vodka if using- add as much as you like but it is very sweet so be careful not to make the mixture too sickly. Line a baking sheet with foil and cover with non-stick spray. (I learnt the hard way by not using the non-stick spray when I did this the first time.The marshmallows will stick to everything if you don’t spray!) Spread marshmallows over baking sheet in a single layer so they toast evenly (you will have to toast the marshmallow in two batches to fit them all). Place under the broiler and watch until they become nice and golden brown. Take them out and allow them to cool for about 20 seconds and then spoon them into the melted chocolate. Finish toasting the remaining marshmallows and add them to the chocolate as well. Do not stir until all the marshmallows are in the bowl as this is key to capturing the flavour and texture of the truffles. Once they are all in the bowl, fold them in just enough to be incorporated but not too much so they completely dissolve. You should still be able to see lots of white flecks and strings of marshmallow throughout the mixture. Cover the surface of the chocolate with plastic wrap and place in fridge for about 3-4 hours. Put graham cracker crumbs into a small bowl. Scoop out a spoonful of chocolate mixture and roll it in the palms of your hands to form a ball. Drop ball into crumbs and roll around to get a nice cracker coating. Place the truffles back into the fridge in an airtight container until ready to serve.

S'more Truffles

Crazy Good Buffalo Chicken Mac n’ Blue Cheese

Recently I shared about some of the perils I experienced when first learning to make a sauce from a roux (browning flour in butter and then adding a liquid).  This led me to share a delicious easy alternative using cream cheese for my Enchiladas Suizas recipe. Even though I still hold to this quick fix technique as a useful tool in your weeknight dinner artillery, there’s something wonderful about successfully achieving the real deal when you have more time. My hope is that my Buffalo Chicken Mac n’ Blue Cheese will motivate you enough to try out this technique! It’s rich, spicy and creamy comfort in every bite.

Buffalo Mac n Cheese

By now you probably must all think I have an IV of constant cheese running through my veins where I just replace the bag with different kinds every morning (can you even do that …hmmm?!) but I promise I don’t!   The truth is, I have to actually limit my dairy intake for the sake of my lactose intolerance. For the most part, I don’t eat any other dairy items (yes this means no ice-cream) but when I do, it’s going to almost definitely be for cheese and it just so happens that a lot of these are the recipe triumphs that I love to share with you.

It’s hard to believe that for the first 10 years of my life, I actually didn’t like the stuff…if only I could remember that fateful moment when the winds changed and I began my descent into cheese addiction so I could go back in time and replace that slice of Brie (or whatever it was) with a carrot stick! Like most kids however, I thought Blue cheese smelt like feet and didn’t want any of it until about 10 years ago when, as with most addictions, I kept delving deeper and deeper for the ‘harder’ stuff! By the time I moved to the States and had my first introduction to the Buffalo Wings experience, I didn’t have to think twice about answering ranch or blue!! The pairing of that fiery, red, sweet tang with the smooth, creamy, richness of Blue Cheese Sauce was a wonderful new sensation. It is no surprise therefore that a timer was set somewhere in the depths of my soul waiting for the right moment to awaken my hands at combining the great delight of Mac n’ Cheese (another American Favourite) with Buffalo Chicken!

I confess that this isn’t one of those throw-it-together-while-getting-everyone-settled-at-the-dinner-table kind of meals. It’s more involved ..yes.. but well worth it for a special weekend treat. 

Buffalo Chicken Mac n’ Blue

2bsp butter

2 tbsp flour

2 -3 cups of cold milk (add more if you like your sauce to be thinner but keep in mind that the cheese will help the sauce to thicken once it melts)

1 8oz pack of crumbled blue cheese

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 – 1/2 cup of Buffalo wing sauce (I know it sounds like a lot but the cheese really mellows away the heat.)

2 cups of shredded rotisserie chicken

About 2-3 cups of elbow macaroni

Add half the wing sauce to the shredded chicken and allow to sit for about an hour before making the mac n’ cheese. Cook macaroni according to instructions. In the meantime, heat butter in the pan on medium heat. You want the butter to get hot but not to the point of browning or burning. Add the flour and, using a wire whisk, mix it quickly around into the butter. (I always test my butter by adding just a tiny pinch of flour and making sure it sizzles). Keep whisking around the pan for about a minute until the flour cooks and is slightly golden. At this point you want to start adding the milk very slowly but making sure to whisk rapidly the whole time. I usually gradually add the first half of the milk while whisking, but then take a small break to keep stirring and working out the lumps. I then continue to gradually add the rest of the milk. Once it is smooth and beginning to thicken up, pour in the blue cheese and continue whisking so it melts and is fully incorporated. Add the chicken and the remaining wing sauce. (We also added some Mango Habanero sauce….just coz that’s how we roll! Amazing flavour but very little of the heat actually managed to fight through the richness of the cheese.)

Once the macaroni is cooked and drained, pour it into the blue cheese sauce and serve.

Buffalo Blue Mac n' Cheese

Those lovely little blue flecks of cheese let you know that this a seriously good, rich and creamy mac n’ cheese. Even with all that Buffalo wing sauce, we added some extra on the side for a more powerful punch of flavour and heat.

Did a Brownie Recipe Predict my Future?

I think I was always destined to live in the States. From a young age, there were a lot more American influences in my life than most English (and definitely English-Cypriot) kids growing up in the 80s. I am not just talking about media influences when I say this as we were all consuming iconic American TV shows, music and movies of the era. You see, my family was extremely close with an American couple who were living in London. We spent a huge amount of time with them every week and, as well as many other influences they had on our lives, they shaped some of our childhood food experiences. For example, marshmallows in England were the nasty pink and white twisted sponges that didn’t seem to provide much eating pleasure. But on their visits home, our friends brought back real American style Marshmallows to toast together in our wood fireplace (of course we used Greek kebab style skewers for roasting!). On Pancake Day, they made us American style pancakes with syrup and gave Mum a box of Aunt Jemima mix for us to try at home. I deeply loved this couple and I think America felt more like home when I moved here in 2003 because of those warm memories as a kid.

This wasn’t all though. When I was in my late teens, my aunt bought an American kid’s cook book which I borrowed and started using. I tried out several recipes but it was the one for brownies that sealed my destiny. In my early twenties, I used that recipe to raise about £1000 in Sunday morning bake sales for a church youth group. It became my trademark and I should have known that a move away from England was looming!

OK so perhaps it may sound like I am being slightly extreme in suggesting that making brownies all the time in the late 90s was a sign that I was destined to live on the other side of the Atlantic BUT you have to remember that a) I was brought up in a tight-knit Cypriot community so b) no one else around me made them! At the time brownies were really only found on the newer American style restaurant dessert menus, buried under heapings of vanilla ice cream finished with a waterfall of caramel and chocolate sauce swirling into the bottom of the dish; Or, they were found on the shelves of cool bakeries in trendy parts of town. I was the brownies diva in my little London community and I moved over here in 2003 with confidence that I could make an excellent American classic.

Then, I met (through the TV of course, not literally!) Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa and my former inferior brownie recipe was completely abandoned. Our ‘friend’ from Food Network introduced me to the world of real chocolate brownies, sans-cocoa powder, and I can NEVER go back! Please understand, this is not because I had a ‘bad’ recipe but because these were so indulgent, rich and fudge-y that I would never use cocoa powder again! Brownies are still one of my trademark desserts and wherever I have taken these for pot lucks or served then at dinners, people can’t get enough. So, it seems only natural that I now share my brownie (not so) secrets with friends. Don’t be frightened by the recipe. Yes, as with all exquisite food, it does begin with lots of things that are not healthy BUT you can have your other zucchini or black bean brownie concoctions the rest of the year. Why waste that one moment of indulgence on something that is sub par? If you’re going to splurge and allow yourself a moment of true guilt free pleasure, make it count and this is the recipe you need! Also, this recipe makes a HUGE amount of brownies so you won’t be eating the whole pound of butter and chocolate in one sitting! I have only adapted a couple of very small elements over the past 5 years of making this but if you want the original you can find it here or in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook where Ina originally adapted it from chocolate globs in the Soho Charcuterie Cookbook.


Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 sticks of butter
  • 1 pound plus 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 6 ounces dark chocolate chips (as dark as possible!)
  • 6 extra-large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons instant coffee granules (feel free to use decaf if you want to avoid the extra caffeine).
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups chopped walnuts (optional)

Let’s get to my favourite part- the chocolate! And this has lots of it. You begin by melting almost all the chocolate (hold back about 12 oz of semi sweet chocolate) with the butter over a double boiler (this is my sorry version of one but basically any glass bowl that can fit comfortably over the top of some gently boiling water will do)

Two important things to note: Heat is on low and the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl. Keep stirring and eventually it will become this beautiful Wonka-esque river of chocolate. See…

mmmmmmm

And if you resist drinking the whole thing, you can step aside to mix some of the other ingredients while the chocolate cools. (but licking a finger that ‘accidently’  gets covered in chocolate is acceptable as long as you don’t double dip!)

Next gently combine (no beating) the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. It just effortlessly comes together with a fork so no need to even think about plugging in the mixer. Take that, store-bought mix!

Stir in the cooled chocolate mixture. Don’t add the melted chocolate while it is still hot or you will cook the eggs. Sift together the cup of flour (set aside the 1/4 cup for now), baking powder and salt, then gently stir this dry mix into the chocolate abyss. Now you can begin to see from the colour of this batter that something magical is taking place!

For a final touch, toss the walnuts (if using them- I generally don’t because of so many people with nut allergies these days) and 12 ounces of chocolate chips in a medium bowl with 1/4 cup of flour.

Can we pause and just talk about how I love the sound the chips make as they tumble in and bounce off the sides of the bowl…just me?

This little secret is marvelous for a couple of major reasons. First of all, dusting them with flour helps the chips stay mixed into the batter instead of sinking to the bottom. Don’t skip this step- you will regret it when trying to remove the brownies from your pan! Secondly, even though they melt during the baking, once the brownies have cooled, the chips turn hard and offer a  bonus textural element and extra chocolatey yumminess! (which you can never have too much of in my opinion!)Then, add this dusty mix to the chocolate batter.

Pour into a 12×12 greased baking sheet or cake pan. I tend to find that if you are using a good non-stick pan, you can get away with a spritz of canola cooking spray but it’s important to cover the pan well without adding extra grease to your batter.

Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, then tilt the pan up towards you and then bang it down on the oven shelf.  I know this sounds weird but don’t skip this step, it forces the air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough making your batter cook evenly.Bake for about 15 more minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not overbake! Allow to cool thoroughly and then refrigerate. I recommend taking them out and bringing them to room temperature before serving.

I promise once you have tried this recipe, it will change your whole brownie life and no box or previous attempts will ever match up to this pure indulgence. I have experimented with a lot of different flavoured brownies using this as a base (such as peanut butter, raspberry cream cheese and even bacon) and some are trickier than others to figure out successfully. If you make suggestions below of brownie variations you would like to try, I will pick the most interesting, try them out and post my suggestions so you too can make them at home.