Berry crisp for one...and other happenings

I'd intended to call this post weekend recap but time flies and here we are nearing the start of a new weekend.  It's been a busy and exciting week or so here and being the introvert that I am, I needed to take a few days to recuperate.  
Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting I recently auditioned made their birthday reappearance
To recap just a little bit...last weekend was a big one - first, we celebrated the little guy's 12th birthday!  A birthday is always special but this year, the excitement was heightened by the fact that I had planned a little surprise birthday party for him!  It's nerve-wracking trying to pull off a surprise party even on a small scale - in this case, a small group of kids gathered at the house to spring the surprise, digging into some pizza and cake, followed by a trip to the bowling alley for a couple of games.  
I was a nervous wreck by Saturday morning, as we tried to figure out all the last minute details from the weather to timing, to all the little things in between - all the while hoping our secret was still safe!  Happily, the planning and effort was worth it because wonder of wonders...we actually pulled off the surprise!!  The birthday boy was shocked!  It helps that my son is pretty laid back and undemanding.  It's hard to believe but he literally did not ask about birthday plans and made little mention of his birthday beforehand.  That made it easier to pull off the little surprise.  All in all, I'm glad we did it and I hope he'll think back on it with a smile as he gets older... 

On the heels of the birthday festivities, we celebrated Father's Day.  These two events always converge and make for a busy weekend (not to mention plenty of prepping beforehand).  Here's a little snapshot of our Sunday.
It involved strolling around a car show in our town early in the morning.  Then, we came home for brunch.  I made one of my husband's favorites, a Dutch baby pancake.  Even though we have it very often, he always requests it!  For dinner, I made crab cakes, served over some cappellini with lemon and caper sauce.

In between meals, I whipped up a little sweet treat for my husband (who has a major sweet tooth to match his personality), a simple berry crisp for one.  It was thoroughly appreciated.  I'm very lucky that my husband is a great person to cook and bake for!
June is full of celebrations.  It's both exhilarating and a little exhausting at the same time!  My son just wrapped up 6th grade - another milestone we happily toasted.  And by "toasted", I mean we had more cake!
A 6-inch version of our favorite chocolate cake
Now, things are quieting down and I'm ready to savor the slow days of summer!



Berry compote with Belgian waffles

On my last brunch post, I talked about inspiration from eating out.  I love it when we enjoy something at a restaurant that I can easily recreate at home.  This time, it's a simple berry compote, served warm with Belgian waffles, inspired by a menu item from the restaurant, Balthazar, in NYC.
Ever since I got my waffle maker, we have waffles pretty often for weekend breakfast. I mix it up between several recipes and these Belgian waffles, adapted from The Pioneer Woman, is one of those on our rotation.  Folding whipped egg whites into the batter helps make the waffles crisp and we really like their simple sweet, vanilla flavor. Usually, we reach for maple syrup but I thought I'd change it up and make a berry compote, much like what we had at Balthazar a few months ago.  
It's often the little things, small touches, that make something special and so, sometimes it's nice to take an extra step like making a berry compote to go with your waffles.  While fresh berries are a great option right now, I used frozen mixed berries so that I could have a mix of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, as well as blackberries in this little compote.  It's so convenient and literally takes just minutes to make.  
Into a pot, I simply added frozen mixed berries that I thawed the night before (you can use fresh berries, of course), along with some orange zest, sugar, and if you like, a splash of Grand Marnier.  I love the hint of orange flavor in the background.  It just takes a few minutes to heat up the mixture and melt the sugar.  In the last minute of cooking, stir in a little cornstarch slurry to thicken the liquid...and your berry compote is ready for breakfast!

It's easy to scale how much compote you want to make and aside from serving it with waffles, you could certainly use it to go alongside pancakes or French toast.  You could layer it with yogurt to make a parfait, or serve it as an accompaniment to a slice of pound cake or something similar. 
We enjoyed it with the waffles and I made it particularly with my husband in mind. His sweet tooth starts early in the day with a preference for sweet breakfasts. Frankly, he also prefers his fruit with extra sugar.  This is right up his alley and a nice treat to enjoy on an occasional weekend morning.  


Chocolate cake for the weekend

I'm calling this a "chocolate cake for the weekend" because that's just what it was.  I made it last Friday going into the weekend.  It's always nice to kick off the weekend with a cake!  On a practical level, it was partly an effort to clean out the fridge and use up some extra ingredients.  On another level, it was just part of the ongoing effort to satisfy my insatiable chocolate cravings.
After making a few loaves of banana bread and churning a batch of ice cream, I had extra whole milk yogurt and heavy cream on hand so I decided to use those things to make this cake.  I'm actually revisiting a recipe I've made before, in a different form. In fact, my very first post featured this in cupcake form.  I've also made it as a single-layer cake years ago.  This time, it comes in the form of a double-layer 6-inch cake.
When we had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London back in April, I tasted a delicious slice of chocolate ganache cake...maybe that put the idea in my head.  But to be honest, I think about chocolate and things like chocolate cake and ganache all the time.  It's amazing how much I love chocolate, and it's a love that goes way back for as long as I can remember.
But back to this little cake...make it for the chocolate lover in your life because it is all about the deep flavor of chocolate (a recurring theme here).  Thanks to yogurt and oil rather than butter in the batter, the cake is wonderfully moist and tender.  It gets a deep chocolate flavor from not only cocoa and chocolate but also freshly brewed coffee.  The chocolate ganache frosting and filling is rich and creamy, basically a chocolate-lover's delight.  This cake made this chocoholic very happy and I can say that I definitely put my leftover yogurt and heavy cream to very good use!
It's strawberry season and I've been diligently stocking up on strawberries and raspberries as much as possible.  While my fridge is overflowing with it and I'm perfectly happy snacking on it and having it with some yogurt for breakfast, I'm always still craving a little chocolate!  And in my humble opinion, the best way to eat berries just might be...with a slice of chocolate cake!  Who's with me?



Sweet potato pancakes

Is it too late to talk about this past Memorial Day weekend?  Where does the time go! It's shaping up to be a busy week of catch-up following the nice, leisurely 3 days of family time. Three-day weekends are so right - you get so much done and that constant sense of rushing, of not having enough time, fades away.  It made me really appreciate how lucky we are, and thankful to all the service personnel who protect our precious freedoms so we can enjoy such great lives.  
Weather-wise, the Memorial weekend was a mixed bag but we did manage to fire up the grill on Sunday for the first time this year, which was great fun.  I churned my first batch of ice cream of the season, a mint Oreo flavor requested by the little man; it was a big hit and vanished quickly as ice cream usually does.  I also went to the farmer's market again on Sunday and scored some sashimi-grade tuna to make my first poke bowl!

In between that, we savored 3 consecutive leisurely weekend breakfasts and I got to try a new pancake recipe during one of those.  These are sweet potato pancakes, a recipe I spotted in a new cookbook, American Girl in London.  It caught my eye given my love of sweet potatoes and my constant interest in finding new breakfast foods to put on the table.
I'm constantly roasting sweet potatoes for lunch or dinner so it was no sweat to set one aside to mash up for these pancakes.  They're also made with some whole milk yogurt, which I also happened to have on hand after baking a couple batches of banana bread.  

At their core, these sweet potato pancakes turned out fluffy (I used the trick I learned recently of stirring the egg white into the batter at the end of mixing) and super moist, almost custardy, in texture.  The original recipe does not call for any additional sugar, relying on just the natural sweetness from the sweet potatoes.  I tried it that way but in retrospect, I would add a tablespoon or so of sugar to the batter to better offset the tang from the yogurt.  That said, a generous douse of maple syrup does the trick of adding sweetness.
Do you like sweet potato or pumpkin pie?  Or those warm Thanksgiving flavors and spices? This will likely remind you of that because of a touch of both cinnamon and nutmeg in the pancakes.  Some, like my son, may not be a big fan so it's good to know what to expect going in.  For my husband and I, these soft pancakes were a fun thing to try and we had no problems cleaning our plates.  I particularly liked taking a bite with some toasted walnut because they add so much welcome flavor and a crunch.
It's always good to try new things, even if they're not home runs for everyone at the table each time.  Hopefully, we learn it's important to simply welcome different things and to widen our palate a little bit.



Easy braised sausages in tomato sauce

Let's take a short break from sweets and chat about dinner today.  I'm constantly on the lookout for dinner recipes and ideas to try out (I tend to focus heavily on breakfast and dinner when it comes to cooking).  I'd like to say it's all about finding great meals for my family but in truth, it's as much about keeping things interesting for myself, as the cook.  
It's invigorating to try something new, learn something, and potentially find a new family favorite or something you'd want to whip up again and again.  I love simple and easy recipes because those are the ones we fall back on and rely on day-to-day. Of course, more elaborate dishes and meals certainly have its own rewards. 

But for the most part, the recipes that catch my eye are simple ones like this one.  It's a near hands-off way to cook sausages and I ultimately ended up making two meals with it.  All you have to do is place sausages (I used sweet Italian sausages) in a mixture of tomato sauce and chicken stock and let it simmer until done.  No messy pan-searing of the sausages first!  Check on it a couple of times to give it a stir and it'll be ready in about half an hour or so.  I served the sausages, along with some of the sauce they cooked in, over grits (the quick-cooking kind that only takes a few minutes) but you could go with mashed potatoes or say, polenta.

For the second act:  Here's a bonus - take the leftover sauce and turn it into a quick pasta sauce for the next day!
Even if you do not have any sausages leftover like I did, you could just use the extra sauce for a tasty pasta dish.  If you like a somewhat creamier red sauce, add a couple spoonfuls of ricotta cheese.  I didn't have ricotta on hand so I only used Parmesan cheese.  It was easy and tasty.

And that was two easy dinners that were well worth making!



Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting

Whenever I make cupcakes, I realize why they've remained so popular. Like donuts, they are such cheerful little things!  They conjure up bake sales and children's birthday parties. They're a forum for colorful sprinkles and other fun embellishments and decorations.  It's a personal mini cake just for you, and you can have more than one if you want to - it's hard not to love all that!
So maybe I should make cupcakes more often.  Right now, I'm "auditioning" this latest batch of vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting for my son's birthday next month.  He's turning 12!  That's amazing because it seems like only yesterday when I was carrying him around in a baby carrier and tucking a blanket around him in his car seat.  Now, that baby is growing more and more independent and I can almost see clues of the adult he's going to become.  
Everyone's birthday is special, and I think that's especially the case when it comes to kids.  We're always trying to find some extra little ways to show our love, especially on their big day.  For me, food is a part of that.  Now, to be honest, my son would likely choose pizza and a classic store-bought ice cream cake for his day. I'm totally okay with that (those being things I love best as a kid, too)...but that doesn't stop me from making a little something extra - it might be a cake or cupcakes, something that I can put my imprint on and personalize.
So while I've got a lot of things in the archives I can make already, I thought it was a good time to audition another cupcake recipe.  This is a recipe from Jessica Seinfeld's new book, Food Swings; the cupcakes sounded easy to make and lovely to eat. Verdict: they passed their audition with flying colors!  

The vanilla cupcakes are rich in flavor, moist and tender, yet firm enough that you can eat with your hands without them falling apart.  The frosting is smooth and creamy, full of chocolate flavor.  I used to say I'm not a big frosting person but I've had to re-evaluate that claim because I'm not so sure it's true anymore - at least not when it comes to chocolate frosting! 
My son is certainly a frosting person and he was readily licking this frosting off! These cupcakes go down easy.  I know I often say that about desserts I like but it's really true and the best way I can think of to describe it sometimes.  So the upcoming birthday boy was a fan and so was everyone else eating it.  If you have a birthday coming up and you're looking for a good cupcake recipe to make - one that's great tasting and uncomplicated, I can say these are an excellent choice.
As my son was devouring the last of these cupcakes, he asked me if I'd make them again soon.  You know what?  He just might see them again next month!



Raspberry soufflé

I hope you had a good Mother's Day!  For us, this past weekend started with a deluge of rain all Saturday, but somehow, I had a feeling Mother's Day would turn out nice if history was any indication.  Sure enough, the sun was shining most of the day...what a nice gift for us moms.  
I spent Mother's Day morning relaxing and enjoying breakfast in bed.  It's become something of a tradition and a lovely treat.  I took my time enjoying it but then I got up and started the day because I realized a while back that if I spend too much time relaxing or doing nothing, it starts driving me crazy.  So I took some time savoring my breakfast, then I got up to do what I like to do best - you know cooking/baking was involved!
My husband bought me some delicious raspberries; I devoured a good chunk of it at breakfast but managed to save some for a few soufflés. I had spotted a pretty straightforward recipe from French Country Cooking that I've been wanting to try...I finally managed not to eat all the raspberries before getting a chance to use them in this recipe!  
I can now tell you I'm really happy I tried this recipe because it worked very nicely and the result tasted light, sweet, airy - everything good about a glorious soufflé!  And it wasn't difficult to make.  

In this recipe, you simply crush the raspberries and whisk them into the soufflé base. In other words, there's no pureeing raspberries, cooking them down with lemon juice, then straining the mixture in order to make a raspberry syrup to start with that you often see in other recipes.  In fairness, you won't end up with as even a pink hue as you would expect if you were to do that but I think it's a fair exchange for the ease here.  
While the raspberry soufflés were baking, the kitchen started smelling like cotton candy!  I loved how they rose steadily in the oven and didn't split and spill overboard like they sometimes do.  Of course, the very best part is that moment when you dig your spoon into the warm soufflé, and taste it...it's like a warm egg custard with a punch of sweet raspberry flavor.
I think soufflés are always a treat and this raspberry version (that's not at all complicated to make) was no exception.



Olive oil chocolate chip cookies

While it's been a lot of fun talking about afternoon tea and making British-style biscuits, I'm stepping back onto home turf and talking cookies today - as in the soft and chewy, warm-from-the-oven, kind of chocolate chip cookies we love in America!
Incidentally, the only instance where I ran into American-style cookies in London was from a shop called Ben's Cookies; the logo caught by eye (turns out, it was illustrated by Quentin Blake, well-known for illustrating Roald Dahl's books) and seeing the cookies made me a little nostalgic for home.  And if the British have tea time, Americans have our coffee break and what better to go with a cup of coffee than a classic chocolate chip cookie (except maybe a brownie)?
These cookies and some others from DisplacedHousewife caught my eye recently when I saw them on Instagram.  They looked delicious and sounded so interesting, I was eager to try one as soon as possible.  These are called "olive oil chocolate chip cookies" but they actually have both butter and olive oil in them.  

Visually, they reminded me of my favorite whole wheat chocolate chip cookies and made me think of Ovenly's vegan chocolate chip cookies.  Not only that, they also have a mix of bread flour and all-purpose flour in them, making me think of Jacques Torres' much touted chocolate chip cookies.  So as you can see, it had a lot of promising qualities going for it (and I wish there was some way to incorporate it all in the title of these cookies) and I was more than happy to give them a try.  
Let me tell you - I wasn't disappointed because these cookies have an amazing texture - incredibly chewy and soft yet firm, with a slight crispness at the exterior. Those are qualities I personally love in a chocolate chip cookie.  
When I first took the cookies out of the oven, I have to tell you that they looked great but they smelled rather fruity - from the olive oil.  I'll be honest...I was concerned the flavor from the olive oil might be too strong for us, but it didn't turn out to be the case.  Sure, you smell the fruitiness and I think it's discernible in the first bite but you really don't taste it thereafter.  I'm thinking the olive oil + butter combination might be the best of both worlds...you get the chewy texture from the oil and flavor from the butter and a bit from using olive oil specifically, too.  Next time I make these, I might be tempted to try it with a neutral-flavored oil but truly, the olive oil taste in the actual cookie is fairly mild.



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