March 31, 2012

Battle Spherical Food: Popcorn Balls

Or should I call them Popcorn Spheres?? 

My inspiration for this recipe choice came to me after I read Leah's post about this month's smackdown theme.  Sports, especially basketball, make me think of my childhood.  Basketball was the first team sport I played and we were huge Bearcat basketball fans in my house growing up.  The first spherical food from my childhood that came to mind was popcorn balls! 

My pictures kinda tell the popcorn ball story but I also broke it down into simple steps.

Step #1- Kindly ask your mom for her popcorn ball recipe, if she's really nice like my mom she will rip out the recipe page from her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.  If she's really really nice (like my mom) she will also let you borrow her candy thermometer.  Also, ask your mom to clarify what "soft ball stage" means; giggle quietly as she explains it.

Step #2- Borrow some kids (or use your own if you have them) for the day to help you make the popcorn balls, it's a very interactive and hands-on process, they will LOVE it.  Take them to the candy aisle at the grocery store and let them pick out a candy or two to add to the balls.  We chose sour patch kids, skittles, peanut m&m's and twizzlers. 
Step #3- Prepare the caramel sauce as the recipe states and while the sauce simmers, pop 3 bags of plain popcorn.  I used Cousin Willie's 94% fat free natural flavored microwave popcorn because I couldn't find microwave popcorn with no added butter or salt.  The natural flavor was lightly salted but it made the finished product turn out great; sort of a salty caramel popcorn ball.

Step #4- After you reach "soft ball stage" with the caramel sauce (I think it took about 12 minutes to get to this point) you are ready to pour the caramel over the popcorn.  The easiest way to do this is to dump the popcorn onto the dining room table (or another large flat surface)and then pour the caramel over top; there's simply not a bowl big enough in my kitchen to do this.  One online recipe recommended using dish gloves and coating them in cooking spray to mix everything together; this is a great idea and I will definitely do this next time.  The caramel is so HOT and you have to mix it with the popcorn quickly or it will start to harden.  This is very difficult with bare hands. **Remember to pull out all the un-popped kernels before you pour on the caramel sauce!** Remember to do a taste test!
Step #5- Once all the popcorn is somewhat coated with caramel you can start forming it into balls. Remember, the caramel is hardening by the second so you need to do this all rather quickly and you have to firmly pack the popcorn together to get it to stick and stay that way.
Step #6- Improvise!  Once all the balls were formed it was clear that the candy was not going to stick to the top, sides and bottom- duh! We decided the only way to get the candy to stick to the balls would be to melt white chocolate chips and dip the popcorn balls into the melted chocolate, then the candy would stick:)  Once I was up in my baking cabinet I saw my stash of sprinkles and colored sugar and whipped those out as well.

Step #7- When all the balls have been formed, coat one popcorn ball with white chocolate by either dipping 1/2 of it directly into the bowl or drizzle it generously with white chocolate.
Step #8- After the white chocolate is applied, top the popcorn ball with the candy and sprinkles of your choice- get crazy!  The beauty of decorating popcorn balls is that more is always more.
Step #9- Wait for the white chocolate to set and be careful not to move the popcorn balls around too much or the toppings will fall off.  It took a couple hours for the white chocolate to harden completely.  It's the perfect time to take a break for lunch, pop in another movie or eat all the leftover candy:)
Step #10- Admire the beautiful works of art!  (The first two are Alex's, the third is Taylor's and the fourth is mine.)

Step #11- Eat the popcorn balls.  Wrap any leftovers in plastic wrap to keep them fresh.

March 28, 2012


I recently met some friends at Pole Kittens, located right across the street from Pompilio’s, for a fitness class.  We ended up going to Pompilio's both before and after class.  We were so surprised to find that it was Greater Cincinnati Independent Restaurant Week!  How did I miss this?! Pompilio’s is at the top of my favorite restaurants list; I adore the atmosphere and the eggplant parmesan equally.   

For our pre-workout appetizers we split the spinach artichoke dip, calamari and toasted ravioli.  The spinach artichoke dip was VERY rich and creamy.  The fried tortillas had a nice, nutty flavor to them but the creamy sauce with the fried tortilla pieces weighed me down a little.  This serving is very generous and can easily be enough of an appetizer for 3 or 4 people.
The calamari was served differently than I've had it in any other restaurant.  I'm used to plain fried calamari with a slightly sweet dipping sauce.  Pomilio's calamari was served atop a combination of tomatoes and green and black olives and I really liked the salty/briny element the olives brought to the dish. 
 The toasted ravioli was good but not great.  It didn't have as much flavor as I was hoping for, but their red sauce can make the most bland food taste delicious.  I think baking the ravioli until it starts to brown on the outside would add some additional flavor.
I want to mention that if you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck during restaurant week you should really consider Pompilio’s.  This was my first GCI restaurant week experience and from what I’ve heard and read online, service can be slow and some restaurants do not create their highest-quality meals during this time.  Our experience at Pomilio’s was just as good as any other time I’ve dined there and all of the items were full servings!  I took home ½ of everything and basically had food to eat for the rest of the weekend. 
For my appetizer I chose the sausage with green peppers and onions.  The sausage was nicely flavored and I liked the level of spice.  It was served with a small bowl of marinara for dipping.  When I re-heated this dish the next day I poured the sauce over everything and let it heat in the oven; it tasted even better the next day.
My friend ordered the bruschetta to start and she shared a piece with me.  The sliced baguette was generously topped with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil and the most perfect drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  Shining star of the evening!
For my entrĂ©e I had an easy time choosing the scallops with angel hair pesto.  It was lovely.  I’ve had pesto at other restaurants that is so heavy on the basil that I could only eat more than a few bites.  Pompilio’s pesto sauce was much more of a lightweight, slightly creamy pesto with just enough basil/garlic that it did not take over the entire dish and complemented the 5 slightly crispy/slightly breaded scallops.  This dish also included sun dried tomatoes but I could have taken them or left them. 

I never have room for dessert after dining at Pompilio’s, and this evening wasn't any different, but it was the final course on the fixed price menu so I welcomed it with open arms.   None of the desserts are made in-house because Pomilio's focus is on making their own signature sauces and other dishes from scratch.  I went with the Tiramisu which was delicious and probably the same product served at Olive Garden.  The first time I tried Tiramisu it was at the Olive Garden so I guess I have a special place for it in my heart.

We had a wonderful time dining at Pompilio's twice in one day for restaurant week.  Hope to do it again!  I also hope to re-visit Pole Kittens Fitness, such an awesome workout!

March 8, 2012

Dark Chocolate Cherry Cordial Cupcakes

I woke up last Sunday feeling like I absolutely needed to bake cupcakes.  Cake isn’t my first dessert of choice but cupcakes... those are a different story.  I looked around my kitchen for inspiration and saw that I had an almost-full jar of maraschino cherries, a ½ bag of Ghirardelli white chocolate chips, most of the ingredients for a cake base and my mind started thinking something cherry cordial inspired.

Although I love baking, I don’t love it enough at this point to want to mess around with recipe trial and error.  I’d rather Google “best chocolate cupcake recipe” and find a blogger who has experimented with different recipes and can declare one to be the best.  I found a chocolate cupcake recipe on this site and followed it exactly.  I’m trying to get away from using vegetable oil for baking and I considered substituting butter but figured I have plenty of time to weigh the butter vs. oil dilemma.
The recipe calls for melted semi-sweet chocolate which definitely adds to the rich, dark chocolate taste.  It also calls for baking soda but no baking powder; the chemical reaction of the soda and vinegar allows the cupcakes to properly rise.  

Best Chocolate Cupcake Ever (recipe by A Cup Full of Cake)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's, I know, tisk, tisk!)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate melted and cooled (cooled for about 15 min make sure its still melted though don’t want it to harden back up)
½ cup plus 1 tbsp water, heated to boiling ( have a kettle of water on the stove boiling ready to go)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs room temp
2 tablespoons vinegar (not wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon vanilla
Mix the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl (and now is a good time to pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.)  When I combine dry ingredients for baking, I use a whisk to get out any clumps and the whisking always gets things evenly distributed.

In a separate bowl add the eggs, milk, vanilla, vinegar and oil and mix well.  Melt the bittersweet chocolate and let cool for about 15 minutes and add it to the bowl of wet ingredients. I combined the wet ingredients with the dry and mixed just until it was all incorporated then added the 1/2 cup boiling water.  I did more Googling to figure out why one would add boiling water to cake batter but all I found were speculative bull-crap answers.  The best speculation was that it helps melt and incorporate the chocolate with the rest of ingredients; makes good sense.
I filled each cup about 2/3 full and baked the cupcakes for about 18-20 minutes and they turned out beautifully.  The tops were very evenly distributed and I loved how they sort of "crackled" on top.
I’m aware of what goes into a basic buttercream frosting but I struggle with how stiff and and gritty it gets after sitting for a certain amount of time.  I want “whippy” buttercream frosting; more dense than whipped cream but not a coarse buttercream made with cup after cup of confectioner's sugar.  My solution in this case was simply to use less powdered sugar and add melted white chocolate; did wonders for the consistency and the texture never really hardened into a sugary state.

For the buttercream I melted about 6oz of white chocolate chips in the microwave and let it cool until it was close to room temperature.  In a separate bowl I whipped the butter for several minutes until it increased in volume and looked silky smooth.  I added the white chocolate and 1 cup of powdered sugar to the wipped butter.  I also grated 20 maraschino cherries in the blender as well as a few tablespoons of cherry juice and mixed it into the buttercream.   After several more minutes of mixing I finally reached my desired fluffiness!  The buttercream had a very rich very buttery taste; fine with me but definitely not a traditional buttercream and also not exactly kid-friendly (this was kid-tested). 
Cherry White Chocolate Buttercream
6oz melted white chocolate (this was all I had, but I recommend an 11oz bag)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioner's sugar
20 maraschino cherries (grated in the blender)
2-3 tablespoon of maraschino cherry juice, add more or less to intensify cherry flavor
Once the cupcakes were cool I topped them generously with the buttercream and used the rest of the jar of maraschino cherries for additional toppers.

As far as the "best chocolate cupcake ever", well, these were a little dry and crumbly for my liking.  And as with most things, it all comes down to personal preference. I prefer a cupcake (or any type of cake) to be relatively moist and not result in too crumbly of a mess while I'm eating it.  The flavor was definitely there in this cupcake but the texture has left me searching for the "best moist, non-crumbly chocolate cupcake ever".  I may tweak this recipe a bit and swap butter for oil and also add baking powder and omit the vinegar; both of these things could affect the crumb factor.  The buttercream, on the other hand, is a keeper!

March 5, 2012

What I've been eating and drinking lately...

It was a dark and stormy Friday night and I was especially happy for weekend time!  I started off with this wine tasting trip to Newport Kroger and with evening plans for live music at Sis's Family Affair in Newport, I kept it local and chose Newport Pizza Co. for dinner.

Fruity beer can be overdone and I'm picky when it comes to the strength of fruit flavor in the beer.  Sea Dog Wild Blueberry is the most authentically-blueberry-tasting beer I've ever tried and I love coming to Newport Pizza just to have a bottle.
For dinner I had the garden salad with the house creamy garlic dressing; it's a very substantial salad and I recommend it as a good precursor to their pizza which has an extremely thin crust.  We had 1/2 pepperoni and 1/2 Zeus.  The Zeus is topped with spinach, roma tomatoes, feta cheese, olive oil, garlic and asiago cheese which adds some depth to the mild flavor of the spinach and tomato.  This is my third time dining at Newport Pizza and my order has never changed and probably never will.
Sunday rolled around and with all my chores completed I texted my friend Katie to see if she wanted to get yogurt.  We're usually plain Janes and go to UDF for yogurt but I was feeling spunky and suggested Orange Leaf in Kenwood.  Surprise, surprise there's also an Orange Leaf in Hyde Park plaza which is closer to both of our houses.  This mess is a mixture of Oreo, brownie batter and cheesecake yogurt topped with baby cheesecake pieces, crushed Oreo cookie, peanuts and just about every kind of candy bar imaginable.  Delicious, of course, but next time I'm going to stick with one flavor of yogurt and a three-topping max.  I recommend sampling each of the yogurt flavors to see what kind you like best before you put it in your cup and commit.  Kind of like dating! 
The following Wednesday I celebrated Leap Day with my second trip to Taste of Belgium Bistro and a few Belgian beers- Blanche de Bruxelles and De Koninck. I prefer the Blanche, it's citrusy and refreshing and goes down oh, oh, oh so smoothly.

For dinner I went with the Carbonnades a l'OTR; slow-cooked braised beef served aside frites with garlic mayo for dipping.  Take a fork-full of beef, put a frite on the end and then shmear it with the garlic mayo if you want a little piece of heaven.
I topped it all off with a piece of the caramel toffee flan.  It was nice but not the best flan I've ever had.  Next time I'll stick with a selection from the dessert case or take a few liege waffles to-go.
Another Friday rolled around and we all left work early and headed to Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill at The Banks.  Not my first choice but I tried getting a table here a couple weeks ago and it was a three and a half hour wait so I figured this was my chance.  It's an OK place for happy hour if you want light beer and bar food but definitely not worth waiting for.  The typical chain restaurant food was decent and I am intrigued by the fried bologna but I'd say their signature dish is light beer in a mason jar.
We split almost every appetizer on the menu including potato skins, fried cheese, chili con queso, fried zucchini and chicken nachos.  The chicken nachos were the best tasting of all the appetizers and very substantial.   For $9.95 you get enough nachos to feed about 4 people so they get points for value.  I asked about happy hour specials and the server told me they didn't have any yet. Huh?  Also, just want to warn you, they don't allow more than 4 credit card transactions at one table.  We had 7 people with separate tabs and luckily 3 of us had cash or we would have been forced to combine checks and pay each other back later.  I thought it was suspicious for a national chain to be unable to handle multiple credit card transactions.
The following evening a friend of mine, who had previously decided she wanted to re-live her childhood, got a group of people together to go roller-skating at Fun Factory in Norwood.  We stopped at Gordo's for a quick dinner beforehand and all I have to say is the Gordo burger is delicious, and therefore, there is really no reason for me to try anything else on their menu.  I went with a side of green beans; nice and garlicky with some roasted mushroom and onion on top.  I also tried a bite of my friend's mac'n cheese and it is definitely one of the better macaroni and cheeses out there; LOTS of flavor in the sauce but not in an annoying way. 
Cerberus, by Thirsty Dog brewing company out of Akron, OH, paired well with my burger but because of the strong malty flavor one was enough. It's a Belgian Triple Ale and based on a description I read online, it's made with one grain and 4 different Belgian yeasts which gives it a very malty taste. 
The spinning Slush Puppy at the rollerink tempted me but I figured enough damage had been done.  Excited to see what this week will bring in terms of dining adventures!