Monday, April 28, 2014

Elderberry Gin Fizzes and Strawberry-Rhubarb Cheesecake French Toast: or, The Time I Won At Brunch

Cooking is not always a competition... but I do enjoy winning. I blame my mother. There are few things more satisfying to me than presenting a concoction of my own making to a receptive crowd. It's not just about nourishment; it's the delight expressed when they take the first bite. The concentrated looks of eaters enjoying something epically delicious. It's a high I can't get enough of. It's not enough to just make something - the dish must be off the charts delicious. My dear friend Corrie invited Keith and I to an Easter brunch celebration at her cozy little apartment in southern Maryland. Would I mind bringing a dish to share?

 CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! After much Pinterest perusing, I saw a recipe for Strawberry Cheesecake French Toast Casserole my sister posted. I asked her about it, and she said it was good... but needed some tweaking. She and her friends enjoyed it, but she would've changed some things for the next time. I took notes, and compared the recipe to my mom's recipe for Apple French Toast - a breakfast treat we had several times a month when I was growing up. 

The original recipe called for 10 - yeah, TEN - eggs. Katy thought the ratio of egg to fruit was somewhat off. She also didn't like the way the strawberries lost their flavor during baking. I chose to up the fruit ratio and lose some of the eggs. Using only 5 eggs and adding in chia seeds still made a custardy concoction that cooked up without becoming a fruit fritatta.

I picked up some rhubarb and local apples and made a more fleshed out fruit filling - the rhubarb and apples fared much better in the oven. An additional pint of strawberries was chopped and macerated overnight, served as a topping with some fresh whipped cream.  The recipe was definitely a hit.

The key ingredient was the bread. We dropped $7 on a loaf of Brioche from Whole Foods and I don't regret a penny of it. The loaf sliced up into 10 perfect slices and was lightly toasted in the oven to better soak up the custard cream cheese mixture. Regular sandwich bread just won't compare - proceed with caution.

Of course, no brunch is complete without some fun, fruity drinks! I have a minor love affair with egg white meringue drinks- the Clover Club is one of my favorites. This recipe for an Elderflower Gin Fizz was frothy and fun. My friend and fave mixologist Molly recommended Gilbey's Gin as a good budget mixer - but you have to shake the crap out of it!  
The sun was out, the food was delicious, and the eight of us enjoyed each other's company and the arrival of Spring. It was strange to not spend Easter with family, but we had a pretty great time. 

 Strawberry-Rhubarb Cheesecake Brioche Bake (adapted from this recipe)

Here's what you need:
  • 1 loaf French Brioche bread, cut into 10 slices and lightly toasted (250 degree oven for 15 minutes)
  • 12 oz neufchâtel cheese
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg yolk (use the white in a drink!)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/3 cup chia seeds
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
  • 2 stalks of rhubarb, sliced
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste

Here's what you do with it:
  • Lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking dish. Whip cream cheese in a stand mixer with paddle attachment until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add sugar, egg yolk, and lemon juice. Set aside.
  • Whisk together eggs, chia seeds, milk, half-and-half, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.
  • In a medium sized bowl, mix the chopped fruit, brown sugar, and spices.
  • Spread a dollop of cream cheese mixture onto a slice of bread, then layer fruit on top. Top with another slice to create a sandwich. Do this with the rest of the bread - there should be about a third of the fruit and cream cheese left over when you're finished. (see the picture above)
  • Cut each sandwich into six cubes - first into thirds, then each third in half. Arrange four out of five sandwich cubes into the baking pan- they should fit snugly.
  • Top with remaining fruit and drizzle remaining cream cheese mixture over the top. Place remaining sandwich cubes on top. Finally, pour egg mixture over the top. Press down lightly and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate over night.
  • Remove from refrigerator and let rest while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 25-35 minutes or until the surface is golden and the center is set.
  • I cut up an additional pint of strawberries and macerated them with sugar and lemon juice for a topping. Additional fruit and fresh whipped cream really put this over the top. 


Elderflower Gin Fizz

1 oz elderflower liqueur
2 oz gin
1 egg white
1.5 oz lemon juice

Combine ingredients, shake vigorously with ice in a cocktail shaker (or water bottle with a top if you're me) Strain into a glass and top with something bubbly - lemon seltzer, club soda, prosecco - pick your poison! Garnish with a twist of lemon peel. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Henry demonstrates being upside-down
The last month and a half flipped my world upside down. It's equal parts refreshing and disconcerting. Baltimore is like looking in a distorted mirror at Cincinnati - a concave one (is that the one where things are bigger?)

There's just.. more. More neighborhoods - and more to each neighborhood. I feel paralyzed with indecision, frantically paging through my Yelp bookmarks, each time we decide to go try someplace new. Cincinnati has a finite number of choices, many of them delicious.

Stepping outside my new apartment lands me in the middle of dozens of options within walking distance - never mind where we can go on a bike, bus, or car. What if we choose wrong, and waste money and calories on crappy food? So far there have been more hits than misses, but it's still overwhelming. Privilege problems? Perhaps.

Everyone I talk to echoes many of the same sentiments about Baltimore that I do about Cincinnati. "There's so much to do here! Every weekend there's so many choices! All the neighborhoods are so great! It's so small town - you run into all sorts of people you know!" Nice to know it's not just Cincy.

Making friends as a grown up is hard. Making friends as a grown up in a new city when you work from home is even harder. It's pushed me to become more outgoing - every time I'm out is an opportunity for someone to smile back - for a conversation to begin, and maybe turn into something more. We've met a few people, who are awesome and genuine and fun.

view from our rooftop. 

Baltimore is refreshing. There's a lot that needs fixed (as in every city), but so far, it seems... they're doing a lot of things right. Maryland as a whole is focusing on important things to help its citizens. The tax rate is high, but the parks are great, there are bike lanes everywhere, neighborhoods are stabilizing, the've passed progressive policies at the state level (healthcare, gay marriage, raised minimum wage, decriminalized marijuana, universal pre-K to name a few). It's a glimpse into Cincy's future- what it's like to have a truly bustling set of core neighborhoods. (hint: the parking SUCKS.)

it's okay to just. be. still. 
It feels wrong to say it... but... it feels good. To be here. to focus on enjoying my little life - planting flowers, making friends, decorating the apartment, living with my guy - instead of tearing myself in two lining the ranks of fighting for tiny victories. The fights back in Cincinnati are important, and are bringing people together - encouraging new people to step up and be heard - giving a sense of purpose and belonging to those in its midst - and it's wonderful to see it continuing on. Without me.

I left my love in good hands. Is it okay that I'm crushing a little on something new?

This season in my life is letting some stillness back in my world. To be okay with a slower pace. To not have all the answers, yet. To renew my sense of wonder, discovery, and even fear. To stretch and grow and see what's inside my overstimulated, Cincinnati-driven little mind. There's a fine line between keeping up with back home and remaining too attached. Like an overprotective mother letting her kid play on the playground by itself, I bite my tongue and work to let go, just a little.

You guys are taking good care of the city. Thanks for that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

First Impressions: Fells Point in Five Senses

These benches are everywhere.
Hard to believe it's been three weeks on the East Coast. There's still plenty of picture hanging and small project doing to finish up the new apartment - I'll keep you posted as soon as it's picture- ready. The temperatures are warming and things are starting to open up! We're planning new projects like container gardening and indoor herbs... domestic life is taking a front seat to getting out and meeting people (for now...)

What's my new neighborhood of Fells Point like? Well, let me tell you!

Sight: Cobblestones, historic architecture. The bay takes my breath away with the sunlight flashing over the water. All sorts of people - pot bellied pig walkers, kindergarten classes, everyone in between. I have a view out my window by the office desk that affords a view of the plaza below. As the weather warms, dozens of different people flock to the square. Soon there will be markets and festivals, summer sunshine and music. It's kind of amazing.

I flew into BWI from a quick work trip last week, and was suprised at the Baltimore skyline. There isn't really much of one that I can tell - so many of the buildings are smaller (and super old). It was an interesting juxtaposition to Cincy's very distintive skyline.

Boats!  The harbor is gorgeous.
Sound: Seagulls. Seagulls? Seagulls! Its been unsettling to hear the squawk of seabirds as I am a landlubber by nature. Though the apartment is situated on a block chock full of bars and restaurants, the bedroom is in the back and mercifully, amazingly quiet. Its been the best sleep Ive gotten in months. On weekends we can hear the noises of people enjoying themselves down below near the front of the place - very similar to Main Street back home. I moved on St Patricks weekend - like OTR, you could feel the neighborhoods collective hangover the next day. Same sort of celebrating, but I don't know any of the revelers. There are bars with live music just a few steps away. It's been nice to play my guitar and listen to records (though I am sadly missing a fire escape on which to do so.)

Touch: So far the weather has been slow to warm up. I spend most days inside, but have ventured out for fresh air, sunshine, and the occasional workout. The streets on my block are cobblestoned, which make for an interesting walking pattern (and feel bumpy while driving and riding bikes) Traffic calming at its finest. Winter wind, sunshine on my face, cobblestones beneath my feet, and kitty fur at my fingertips. Holding hands with my guy isn't too shabby, either. 

Eat crab cakes with saltines and mustard? 
Smell: Believe it or not, the neighborhood has its own smell. There is a local bakery with its main operation three blocks west of my place. The result is walking down streets that smell like cinnamon raisin toast. Heavenly smells of sweet, sweet carbohydrates assault your nose the moment you step outside - especially in the evening. it never fails to make me hungry.

Taste: Keith and I are overwhelmed with the amount of options available for dining out. Over 80 bars, shops and restaurants are within a four block radius. We are trying to watch waistlines and budgets while still trying new things. There's an Aldi within a five minute drive, and a Safeway and Whole Foods to boot. Mexican markets and a small prepared foods market (looks kinda like Findlay, but MUCH smaller) are two blocks away. There is a little specialty store reminiscent of Park and Vine (minus the amazing proprietor) just down the way where I stocked up on fresh bread and nutritional yeast. We've tried a few restaurants - some hit and miss, but always on the lookout for something new. The nice thing is, it's all new to us! The Baltimore Reddit is bursting with food recommendations. We haven't really gotten out of the neighborhood yet.  Soon, very soon, it will be farmer's market season. And then crab season. Let the games begin!

I'm still working to set up house and get everything where it needs to be. Aside from our neighbors and the nice counter manager at the gym, I haven't made a significant effort to get out and meet people yet. There's still plenty of time for that. Still got to work from the inside out.