Pistachio-orange biscotti bites

These biscotti bites are a very happy recent discovery of mine!  Picture biscotti that does not need to be twice-baked, and in round, bite-size form.  This is a fun, easy, and very delicious way to take a twist on classic biscotti (which I love).
I found the idea for these biscotti bites from Martha Stewart Living's Jan/Feb 2014 issue.  It really caught my eye given my love for biscotti so I promptly ripped the recipe out...and then left it to languish in my "things to cook" folder for over a year.  I meant to try it during Christmas but it didn't happen but 'better late than never' certainly applies here!  

There's so much I love about these cookies.  Taste - first of all, they're delicious!  In my case, I went with one of my favorite biscotti flavor combinations, pistachio and orange.  The original recipe is made with shredded coconut and grapefruit zest so you can see how you could very much customize the flavor to your liking.  The original recipe has chocolate bits in the cookie itself as well as a chocolate coating at the base but I choose to only dip mine when it comes to the chocolate.  Once in a while, I like to practice restraint when it comes to chocolate.  In all seriousness, I think the thin layer of bittersweet chocolate at the bottom of these cookies is enough to add richness and to complement the orange zest and pistachios.  The cookies are good even without the chocolate.
Texture is another key thing we need to talk about because I think taste and texture go hand in hand in making this a great package.  I don't normally make biscotti with butter but I see the appeal after this.  There's just enough butter in this recipe to soften the cookies to the liking of the majority of people (I think most prefer a softer texture than I do).  More interestingly, there's ground cornmeal in the cookies to give it a grittiness and coarse texture that you associate with biscotti.  It's like a little shortcut to the biscotti texture without having to bake them twice.
Ease - these are easy to make and aptly called "speedy biscotti".  No need to roll into a log, bake, cool, slice, and re-bake.  Make the dough, scoop it out and let it chill for about half an hour before baking just once.  You could get playful and make these tiny bites (the recipe suggests teaspoonfuls) but I made them more normal in size, just slightly over a tablespoon of dough per cookie.  

As someone to loves to bake, I don't necessarily mind the steps needed to make traditional biscotti so the real selling point for me here was just how tasty these are! The texture is firm and crunchy but not too hard, the cornmeal adds a lovely element of texture, and there's plenty of flavor and richness from the pistachios, orange, and thin chocolate coating. I highly recommend this to any biscotti fans looking for a fun, easy, tasty twist to the typical!


Butter chicken paratha

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make butter chicken for dinner.  I use an easy, light recipe (there's actually no butter involved) I discovered last year that's flavorful yet neutral enough for my whole family to enjoy (including the little guy). Now the timing is going to sound suspect but I swear this is the truth...a couple of days before I was planning to make it for dinner, I happened to catch a cooking show featuring butter chicken parathas (same source for the original butter chicken recipe so it makes sense).  The idea was to use your leftover butter chicken and turn them into parathas, or unleavened flatbread. 
Homemade paratha dough is made with just whole wheat flour, some spices, and water
I am not making this up!  The timing was perfect so I knew I'd have to set aside some butter chicken to try making my own parathas.  Since I'd never done anything of the kind or considered that I could, the prospect was very exciting!  I couldn't resist the idea of being able to say I've made my own parathas.

It wasn't just for the fact that I'd have butter chicken on hand to make this that made it happen.  The real clincher was how incredibly easy the parathas are to make!  It is practically 2 ingredients - whole wheat flour and water - to make the dough.  You flavor the dough with salt and some spices (you could play around a little here, and I choose to use some curry powder) but it is as simple as combining that spiced flour with water until a dough comes together.  Then roll out the dough, fill it with your leftover butter chicken, and cook it in a dry skillet.  To give it moisture and a lovely shine, brush the paratha with a little bit of oil when it's done.
Filled with leftover butter chicken inside
I have no doubt that my technique is sadly lacking and that there are different, more involved, paratha recipes out there.  In fact, my favorite is type of paratha is aloo paratha, stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes, and I associate it with a fluffier dough that's different from this (I don't think the ones I've had are made with whole wheat flour but the difference could just well be my poor technique).  But regardless, the happy fact remains that this easy whole wheat dough worked and my family and I thought this simple paratha was quite tasty!

Please pardon my inauthentic presentation of slicing the paratha up like something of a quesadilla!  I was just trying to give a look into the filling inside.  I served the paratha with some plain Greek yogurt but it really doesn't need anything since the filling is juicy and flavorful.  It holds up well against the nutty whole wheat paratha.  

This is the kind of recipe I learn that opens my eyes to new possibilities and reinforces the idea that we can make so many things at home if we don't mind our own more rustic interpretations.



Peanut butter sandwich cookies

A long while back, I saw an episode of America's Test Kitchen featuring a recipe for peanut butter sandwich cookies.  It promised full-on peanut butter flavor, which caught my attention as I suspect it would any other PB lover.  Not long after that, Tricia from Saving Room for Dessert did a beautiful rendition of those cookies. That did it!  They left an impression on me and I would think of those cookies often, particularly at breakfast times when I'd be enjoying a nicely toasted English muffin slathered with crunchy peanut butter.  
Peanut butter sandwich cookies with peanut-butter and milk chocolate-peanut butter filling
What took me so long to finally make these?!  I don't know...maybe I was just torturing myself.  I have no real excuse for the delay so I'll just move on and say I finally made them recently and they did not disappoint.  There's so much peanut butter goodness wrapped up in one of these sandwich cookies!
The cookies themselves were better than I expected.  They are meant to be crisp and I worried about them being hard but they turned out crispy and...airy.  I would readily enjoy these cookies, imbedded with their bits of toasted peanuts, all by themselves...but the filling...it amps up the peanut butter flavor several notches and really drives it home! 
The simple peanut butter filling is made with creamy peanut butter, a little butter, and confectioners' sugar.  It's easy to make and easy to love for any PB fan (it's hard to stop eating it, actually).  In fact, the whole sandwich cookie package is rather easy to make!  You don't even need to use the mixer.
Besides the peanut butter filling, I couldn't resist trying a second, chocolate-peanut butter, one as well.  You know me with my chocolate obsession so I wanted to give it a try (hoping I'd get a Reese's pieces effect) but this is one case where I should have stuck with my gut and gone with the all-out peanut butter story.  My family and I all unanimously agree that the plain peanut butter filling was better.
Peanut butter and chocolate-peanut butter fillings.  The plain PB won hands-down!
There's no knowing without trying so the chocolate-peanut butter filling was worth a try.  We just thought it was a bit too sweet and the milk chocolate muted the peanut butter flavor more than we wanted when the theme here is definitely peanut butter, and more peanut butter!
You know something though?  When we ran out of the cookies with peanut butter filling, the chocolate-peanut butter ones started tasted better and better.  Maybe the key is to not offer/eat them together because everything's relative!
This is my way of showing some peanut-butter love and appreciation today.  I've been making up for lost time when it comes to PB.  I didn't grow up eating a lot of it and didn't really re-discover my love for PB until a few years ago when I started eating better and looking into healthier fats.  I began to trade my Nutella in for peanut butter (though both occupy its own space in the kitchen cupboard) and it's just a staple I need to have around.  I may not always enjoy peanut butter in cookie form but when the mood strikes, these cookies are a must-try!



Super-streusel muffins

The combination of a snow day and the presence of extra sour cream in the refrigerator can be a dangerous thing.  It can lead to the making of decadent treats. For me, it led to the making of these "super-streusel" muffins a couple of weeks ago.
I think our winter started off pretty calmly...after last year's relentlessly long winter and countless snow storms, I initially thought that maybe we would be lucky this year.  Looking at it now, it seems we just had a late start!  We've had our share of snow, a couple of snow days/school closings, and in general, it has been extremely cold and icy out.  All that said, I'm really grateful we haven't had issues with power outages like we did a couple of years ago.  It's hard to complain when you're warm and toasty in your own home.

The cold leads me - and keeps me - in the kitchen, and it seems to be making us hungry all the time!  During a snow day, we seem to be doing the following on repeat: cook-eat-shovel.  I can barely keep up with my fellas' appetites!  But with all the calories we're burning from snow-shoveling, I think we can handle some hearty meals and a few sweet treats.  
And these muffins were one of the sweet treats I baked during the last snow day.  I had leftover sour cream after making the mini chocolate bundt cakes.  Since sour cream always makes me think of coffee cakes, it's no surprise I ended up here with what I'm calling "super-streusel" muffins.  I call them that because these muffins are loaded with streusel/crumb topping - the ratio of muffin to streusel topping is almost 1 to 1.  No one's going to complain about insufficient streusel here!

This recipe I used was intended for large, or jumbo, muffins.  Since I don't have a jumbo muffin tin, I improvised.  I used my regular-size muffin tin and set tall paper baking cups within the openings.  This gave me the height I needed to imbed all that streusel-goodness within.  I bought these paper cups eons ago (they must have been on sale) and I'm happy I finally had a reason to use them.  Alternatively, you could buy and use similar tall parchment cups or make your own!
Instead of following the recipe and doing a layering of streusel in the middle of the muffins and then placing more on top (which would work better if you had the jumbo tin), I kept all the streusel on top of the muffin batter.  To get it all on there, I lightly pressed some of the streusel on top of the batter first and then topped them off with more.

The cake itself is super moist and fluffy, the topping is simply sweet and crunchy. Frankly, these muffins have many of the elements that provide you with an express route to goodness in baked goods: butter, sugar, sour cream...It's full-on muffin indulgence for a snow day!



Chinese rice porridge (congee), my way

If the title of this post suggests that I might have some special wisdom to share on the topic of Chinese rice porridge, or "congee" (we also call it "jook" in Cantonese), I apologize because that's actually very far from the truth.  Unfortunately, I am not a knowledgable Chinese cook (I'd give that crown to my mother).  My Chinese cooking is relegated to basic stir-fries and recipe-following with tips I picked up growing up.  I get by and it suits me for now.
There are so many variations of Chinese rice porridge - this one has beef and dried scallops
With Chinese New Year a few days away, I wanted to post a Chinese recipe and this is one I wanted to write down and "save" on this blog (I have these daydreams where my son, grown up, looks up some of his favorite childhood recipes from this blog to cook for himself).  So this is Chinese rice porridge, my way.  And "my way" is essentially a thick rice porridge.  Maybe it's my general preference for hearty, filling foods but I like my rice porridge to be substantial - thick and full of flavorful meats and other ingredients.  My family is on the same page.

Growing up, I remember seeing my grandfather have plain congee (made with just rice and water, maybe a pinch of salt) for breakfast and it was so thin, I thought of it as more like boiled water with some rice floating in it.  He'd open up a jar of some kind of black fermented beans to have with it and that made breakfast.  My mother makes a mean congee, too.  Her's is on the thinner side (maybe I should just say it's more on the "normal" side) but she'll thicken it up if she knows I'm coming.  But there's really no right or wrong way to do it.  It's all a matter of preference and adjusting the water to rice ratio accordingly.
So congee is something of a staple and a comfort food for us, often eaten for breakfast.  You can usually find it when you go for dim sum at Chinese restaurants.  I started making congee at home some time after I got married.  For the longest time, I'd just "eyeball" things in a pot and I never measured the ingredients.  I just had to make sure I used the same pot each time!  So a while ago, I finally did a little measuring (so I could start using different pots and write things down here) and realized that I make my congee in a ratio of about 1:7.  That would be 1 cup of rice to 7 cups of water.  Typically, the ratio is more in the 1:10 range for medium thick porridge, and for a very thin consistency, as much as 13 cups of water could be used for one cup of rice!
Rice porridge with pork,preserved duck eggs, and dried oysters
There are so many kinds of congee.  It can be flavored with beef, pork, chicken, fish and other seafood.  I really like beef with dried scallops (it adds a great saltiness) while my husband's favorite is pork with preserved eggs (also called "thousand-year eggs").  These eggs (usually duck eggs), with their oddly dark appearance and gray yolks, might not look very attractive but we love the creaminess and deep flavor of the yolks.  Taking a cue from my mother in law, who makes her delectable pork and preserved egg congee with dried oysters, I often make the same.  
 A side of noodles with congee makes for a complete Chinese-style breakfast
That congee, with a side of noodles, is probably my husband's favorite Chinese-style breakfast.  I like to buy dried "shrimp-flavored" noodles at the Chinese market. It takes a few minutes to boil and while that's happening, I gently heat up some oil with a few cloves of crushed garlic.  After the noodles are drained, I toss them with the hot garlic oil along with some soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a touch of sesame oil.  

We might have congee for lunch or dinner but it's a fun change for breakfast.  We get to break out our chopsticks and shake things up from our usual pancakes and eggs!



Mini chocolate bundt cakes for two

It's time to get back to dessert!  Valentine's Day is a few days away and we should have more chocolate for the occasion.  You can't go wrong with a classic so let's have chocolate cake!  I put my mini bundt cake pan to use and made a couple of mini chocolate bundt cakes to share with my Valentines (that would be my husband and our rapidly-growing 9 year old).  We love simple, straight-up chocolate cake - it never gets old, it just has to be good.
These cakes themselves don't just look chocolaty, they also taste that way.  Because of that, you don't necessarily need a glaze (a pretty dusting of confectioners' sugar would do) but since it's for Valentine's Day after all, I topped the cakes with chocolate ganache.  Some of that ganache pooled into the hollow of the cakes and I told my son that was the "tunnel of love".  I know...I'm so corny!
This small-batch recipe from America's Test Kitchen makes two mini bundts so it's perfect for date night or an occasion like Valentine's Day.  Like many of you, we prefer to stay in for Valentine's Day.  More often than not, my husband and I celebrate early (on the closest Friday or Saturday night), with a relaxing dinner in the comfort of our own home.  Dessert is naturally required and a chocolate cake like this would be more than welcomed.  

Because of the small scale and since I don't have a hand-held mixer, I made this recipe the old-fashioned way with my trusty wooden spoon and spatula.  I enjoy being able to do that once in a while.  The effort it takes to make this recipe - from blooming the chocolate in a bit of boiling water to carefully transferring the batter into your two mini bundt molds - are well worth it since you end up with two adorable little chocolate cakes that are just how they should be - chocolaty.  It has the kind of tight, dense crumb I expect when I think bundt cakes; it's moist and the icing on top is just that.
I hope you have a very sweet Valentine's Day!  I hope it's cozy and involves plenty of chocolate.  



Small batch spelt biscuits

Like all of you, I crave all kinds of foods.  It isn't always the gooiest chocolate cake or the creamiest pasta (though those are obvious, and good, choices).  Sometimes, I see something like whole-grain biscuits that call out to me.
That's what happened here.  I saw this recipe in my recent copy of Cooking Light and jumped at another use for spelt flour, which I really like for its slight sweetest and mild texture in the world of whole grain flours.  These biscuits are 100% whole grain, made entirely with spelt.  The recipe makes four biscuit and the small batch makes the batter easy to pull together, shape, and cut out.  It's truly quick and easy.

So in between eating chocolates during this sweet month of February, let's have some whole grain biscuits, too.
But that's not to say I was totally virtuous.  You see...I paired my spelt biscuits with chicken fried steak.  It's not something I make often but once in a while, I get the urge to make some classic American comfort foods.  It's all about balance, right?  So when you're having a hearty meal like that, making some lighter whole grain biscuits rather than more traditional ones, is a nice way to continue the comfort food theme in a somewhat more nutritious way. These biscuits are just the thing to have to soak up the extra milk gravy (which I make with low-fat milk...not that I'm being defensive about it or anything).

And more on the biscuits themselves...I love the texture.  The edges are flaky and crisp; I love the slight graininess of them.  They are not the rich, buttery biscuits that will leave their mark on your fingertips (like the ones we expect with our bucket of fried chicken) but they're hearty and have a staid character all on their own.  Topped with a bit of extra moisture from a gravy (whether you make milk gravy with chicken fried steak like I did or pair them with sausage gravy and eggs for breakfast like the original recipe concept), it makes for a nice balance.
These are simple, rustic, and satisfying.


Chocolate-amaretto crème brûlée

It's a crème brûlée encore today.  Given the chocoholic that I am, how could I not make a chocolate version.  In fact, any time I make or eat a non-chocolate dessert, some part of me is wondering if there is or could be a chocolate version of it.  That is just how I was programmed.  
Before I even got my little kitchen blow torch for Christmas, I saw and pulled out a lightened-up milk chocolate crème brûlée recipe from Cooking Light that I wanted to try.  I was a little presumptuous, I admit, in expecting Santa to bring me that torch.  

Now with blow torch in hand, I looked at that recipe and decided to change it up.  I did away with the milk chocolate and went with dark.  My heart wanted dark chocolate despite the rationalization that the sweeter milk chocolate would probably work better in a "lightened" version using milk instead of cream for the custard.  Not only that, milk chocolate melts better with liquid than dark chocolate, which tends to be stubborn.  But regardless, I generally prefer dark chocolate these days.
I did stick with using milk (instead of cream or half and half) for this chocolate custard.  You just need to be a little patient in the melting process.  I also kept the amaretto in the recipe.  That was an element that really appealed to me because my husband and I love a good splash of amaretto in our desserts.  

This is kind of like a bruleed pot de crème, except there's no "crème".  But even without cream, it's certainly creamy and what you might give up in richness, you make up for with more pronounced chocolate flavor.  Using milk in the custard leaves you with a clearer taste of that underlying chocolate, and the touch of amaretto liqueur.  It's kind of like gelato versus ice cream.
I called on my handy stash of pistachios to break up the visual monotony of all the darkness (chopped almonds would be a great choice, too) but taste-wise, I am all for full-on deep chocolate flavor.  This chocolate-amaretto crème brûlée is a real treat but it didn't leave us feeling weighed down.  This is the magic of cooking/baking at home and being able to tweak a few things here and there to your own liking.  My recipe makes two and I say this qualifies as a very romantic dessert for Valentine's Day if chocolate is your thing.  I hope it is.



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