Breaking in the baby bundts

I'm not big on shopping when it comes to clothes and things but I could shop for hours when it comes to housewares, kitchen, and food related items.  Leave me at Sur la Table and I could go missing for an hour or two easy.  I actually live minutes away from a mall - no Sur la Table there, unfortunately (or maybe it's fortunate), but I often find myself nipping into Williams-Sonoma or to Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie to check out the home section.
A mini spongy honey bundt cake
Inevitably, I often walk away with a little something - a plate, a mug, some kitchen tool I just realized I should have.  I do try to control myself because I feel like I have all the essentials I need nowadays (and, as importantly, no place to store much else!), but as you know, need and want are two separate things.  And about a week ago, I succumbed to the temptation of the bundt pan.  It's one of the things I don't have and probably don't really need but have always wanted.
Four cakes with toasted walnuts and two (on righthand column) have mini chocolate chips
Well, hey...Williams-Sonoma was running a sale and I was being practical here.  I bought a mini bundt pan - the smaller capacity works better for my small family and with the holidays coming around, I just know I'll have plenty of use for them by being able to make gifts of pretty little cakes.  Right?  Right!

So when you think Fall desserts, maybe you think bundt cakes like I do.  Why is that? I think it might have something to do with the rich, dense pound cake-like texture I often associate with bundt cakes.  They're great spiced with all the flavors of Fall and they conjure up hearty and homey, the kind of things you want when the weather turns cool and the leaves start drifting down.  Well, I know that sounds terrific but I went on a slightly different tangent with my inaugural batch of baby bundts.  
These little cakes are on the lighter side.  They are spongy honey cakes, with toasted walnuts.  I adapted a recipe I saw for Russian Honey Cake on Food52.  I messed with the recipe by scaling it down to make just enough batter for my 6 mini bundts.  That made it easy to then make the batter by hand.  Rather than sour cream, I used whole milk Greek yogurt instead.  I also added some vanilla extract for a little extra flavor. And I couldn't resist switching up the mix-in and making a couple of the little cakes with mini chocolate chips instead of walnuts (plus, I went with a more generous dose of them).  Using two kinds of mix-ins confuses the process a bit but I just couldn't resist.
Spongy honey cake with toasted walnuts
These sponge cakes are lightened by whipping egg whites separately from the yolks. Besides the Greek yogurt and eggs, there's no oil or butter added to them.  Don't expect cakes that are dense and rich like a pound cake though.  What we have here is moist as in spongy, practically bouncy, little cakes that have a sweetness in part from honey.  It was a good place to put the raw honey that I stock up at the farmer's market to good use. 
Spongy honey cake with mini chocolate chips
If you pick the cake with walnuts, you get a punch of nutty flavor from pre-toasting them (a must).  If you go with chocolate chip, well...you pretty much can't go wrong. My son was a big fan of those and they were reserved for him.
To be totally honest here, as dainty as these little cakes look, they're more like snack cakes, the 'pick up with your hands and eat with your fingers' kind of casual cakes.  If I was into sweets for breakfast, these are the types of cakes I'd reach for.



Roasting eggplant...with soy sauce

I recently discovered something so utterly simple yet just a little bit genius.  I had to share it.
Eggplant, oven-roasted with oil and soy sauce in place of salt
The subject is eggplant.  As a kid, I was not a fan of eggplant.  I always thought cooked eggplant was rather slimy and just generally questionable.  It's always been one of my mother's favorite vegetables and growing up, it would show up on our dinner table stuffed with fish paste and pan-fried (like this); she would order the same thing at dim sum restaurants.  I always passed on it and went for the straight-up filling instead that she would likewise pan-fry.

Now, you know how the story goes.  I grew up, I got more open-minded and I now enjoy eggplant almost as much as my mother (okay, maybe not quite).  But the one thing I still dislike about eggplant is how much oil it absorbs.  I figured roasting was the best answer and in a quest to eat more eggplant, I stumbled upon a recipe from this America's Test Kitchen magazine for "soba noodles with roasted eggplant". It was the way the eggplant was roasted in this recipe that intrigued me.  It's quite simple: you roast cubed eggplant with some oil and instead sprinkling some salt over them as you would naturally think to do, use soy sauce instead!
Soy sauce adds a jolt of flavor and increases the meatiness of the eggplants
And here's what happens - the eggplant soaks up that soy sauce, which gives it such a great boost of flavor (you can really taste it).  The meatiness of the eggplant works so well with the almost-beefy flavor of the soy sauce itself.  It makes me think I really don't need meat in my life.  It is totally delicious!  I've made a few batches already in the last few weeks and my husband and I are loving it.  It's so good as a side dish; we have it alongside stir-fries and noodles or rice, and it'd clearly be good with soba as the original recipe outlined.    

This is so simple but such a neat little trick for anyone who likes eggplant and is looking for an easy way to prepare it.


Mini monsters

Maybe it's the Halloween season or, more likely, just my constant craving for cookies and peanut butter that had me wanting to make some monster cookies.  I had the notion for a while to make some "mini monsters", a diminutive version of the typically gigantic-sized monster cookies.  I was totally thinking of my son, who is my very own little "monster" (just a corny little joke - haha).  So who better to present you with our mini monster cookies than the little man himself (I told him I would write all this so he's in on the joke).   
My resident little "monster" holding a handful of our mini monster cookies
These are based on the same monster cookie recipe I've made before from Baked, the one that made me realize I'd been missing out by never having had them before!  It also made me realize that m&m's in cookies are a very good thing.  This recipe is so very tasty, chock full of oats, loaded with peanut butter, and all the better with chocolate chips and those m&m's.  The change I made here was to use white whole wheat flour - though, believe me, you hardly notice since there is minimal flour in this recipe. I also used miniature chocolate chips and mini m&m's for the obvious reason.  
Miniature things are always fun.  And an excuse to make (and eat) a favorite cookie recipe and give it a fun little twist is a cool thing in my book.  In seriousness, the texture of these cookies - the soft chewiness of them throughout - make them a good candidate for baking in miniature.  The little cookies are great little bites and perfect for sharing. The only problem is having the patience to actually execute it...
...because even a half batch of the recipe makes a ton so I won't lie to you and I'll tell you that I made not only mini monsters but also medium monsters and even a few traditional big monsters.  All were devoured and we had fun picking out the sizes we wanted and joking around about them.
Pick your monster (size)!
But the most important thing comes down to taste.  If you love peanut butter, super chewy cookies with oats, with chocolate thrown in (or mix in whatever else you like), these are so satisfying!


Beef lo mein

In an earlier post and on the general topic of quick Asian dishes, I alluded to how much I rely on oyster sauce for everyday stir-fries.  I would be a little lost without it because I use it for flavoring and as a base for mixing up a quick sauce for a variety of dishes.  
If you're into Chinese cooking, oyster sauce is definitely something to keep on hand. It's a thick, dark-colored sauce with deep, savory flavor (it reminds me of Japanese miso in some ways) that's more complex than soy sauce since it's made with oyster extractives (oyster, water, and salt).  Generally, a little goes a long way. "Authentic" Chinese cuisine leans on the savory side so oyster sauce is far more common and likely to be tossed into the frying pan than hoisin sauce, which is sweet and tends to be used more as a dipping sauce (though there's a time and place for everything). I grew up eating oyster sauce drizzled over sautéed greens and tossed in a wok with meat and whatever else is cooking to add an instant concentrated savoriness to the food.  

Given all the talk I've been doing about stir-fries, Asian pantry ingredients, and simple cooking, I wanted to post this easy beef lo mein recipe that I often make at home. It's special to me because it's one of my son's favorite dishes that I make.  He's actually pretty selective when it comes to pasta/noodles but this is one he slurps right up.
To make this, I buy noodles in the refrigerated aisle at the Asian market, which makes it even easier to get the dish on the dining room table since you don't need to boil water and cook the noodles first.  If I haven't planned ahead, I substitute the noodles with regular spaghetti and it works quite well.

You can obviously make lo mein with all kinds of add-ins but my family prefers beef.  I marinate thinly sliced flank steak and like to incorporate some scallions and onions but you could obviously load it up with all kinds of vegetables (I like to use Chinese chives sometimes) and meat.  To flavor and add a quick "sauce" to heat up the noodles and give the dish some moisture, all I do is stir about a tablespoon of oyster sauce into some beef broth.  If you're not making lo mein with beef or don't have broth, you could just use water (I used to all the time), in which case up the amount of oyster sauce a bit.

It's really easy and, for me, it a surefire hit for dinner with minimal effort.



Hot milk sponge cake with (attempted) caramelized almond topping

Do the words "hot milk sponge cake" make you want to yawn and move on or does it sound like a throwback that you just want to get up and make?  For me, it's the latter since I love simple everyday cakes.  I can again thank browsing through magazines for how I learned about this one.  
Hot milk sponge cake, in which I attempted to place a caramelized almond topping (with moderate success)
Hot milk sponge cake falls in the category of foam cakes - the kind where the cake's lift comes predominately from whipping eggs until they're, well...foamy.  In some cases of sponge cakes, egg whites and yolks are separately whipped and no additional fat is added; in other instances, like with a genoise, you have whole eggs and additional yolks that are whipped together to a foamy texture before some butter or oil gets incorporated.  In comparison to chiffon cakes, sponge cakes are less rich, with less fat, and their spongy texture make them great candidates for soaking up syrups for things like layer cakes or for rolling into a roulade.  That's how I understand it anyway...the lines between the variety of sponge cakes and recipes can be blurry.  All I know for sure if that basic sponge cakes always appeal to me.

So about hot milk sponge cake.  I'd never heard of it before stumbling upon it in a magazine recently. It's made here with whole eggs as well as a few additional yolks.  Given my love of eggs and egg-rich cakes, that works for me!  A little baking powder ensures lift and a mixture of hot milk and a little melted butter folded into the batter at the final step creates a light and springy cake that's also rich in flavor and sturdy enough to handle.
This recipe from Alice Medrich I found offered three ways to turn this base hot milk sponge cake into various desserts with fillings.  Sponge cakes are a great blank canvas for that but the options didn't appeal to me because I generally like to keep sponge cakes at their most basic as a simple at-home snack cake. But I started thinking (uh-oh)...and got the notion of putting a caramelized almond topping on the cake like the topping on this (very delicious) almond semolina cake.

Well...as I was placing the topping on the cake, it dawned on me that the topping might very well sink into the batter as the cake rises in the oven.  I would have allowed the cake to bake a bit before adding the topping but since the cake is done in about 20 minutes, I didn't think there was time for that.  In the end, I crossed my fingers and I'd say the outcome was moderately successful.
It wasn't quite how I had envisioned it, and as you can see, there were a few pockets of heavier almond clusters that did sink into the cake.  However, all was not lost.  The almonds added flavor and a little extra sweetness (since they were coated with some egg whites and brown sugar), and definitely made the cake more interesting and flavorful without any other adornments.  That's good enough for me and I'll count that as another experiment, another lesson in the kitchen!


P.S. - My little blog got a mini makeover!  I hope you like it as much as I do.



An apple and a pear crisp

In the land of "things I've never made", live many, many dishes...

Fruit crisps are among the long list of inhabitants in that world.  How can that be?  Well, I've never been one for fruit desserts growing up.  I was always the girl who preferred chocolate without fail.  I'm basically still that girl but I've expanded my horizons, and my palate, quite a bit in the last few years to include a taste for a wider variety of things.  
Why not make more than one kind:  Individual pear (left) and apple (right) crisps baked together
This past weekend, we went apple picking.  It was more like apple, pumpkin, and tomato-picking (I not-so-secretly enjoy picking the grape and cherry tomatoes best of all and now have an extra batch of roasted tomatoes stowed in the freezer).  The fresh apples we walked away with, as well as this Fall season, inspired me to tackle fruit crisps.  They always appealed to me on a small scale - being less complicated than pie and more manageable for my family and I to polish off (though we couldn't convince the little man to join in...he's currently like his mother when it comes to a preference for chocolate over fruit, I'm afraid).  
I used a Bartlett pear and a combination of Golden Delicious and Macoun apples for my individual crisps
Then I got to thinking: why just limit it to apples?  I have not forgotten pears since I talked about it about this time last year and I've been making sure to buy and eat plenty of them.  So I thought I'd make two individual-portion crisps - a pear and an apple.  I used the same streusel topping for both - a classic combination of oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter.  I also added some chopped walnuts because, for me, nuts usually make things better!  

For the apple crisp, I tossed the thinly sliced apples with some cinnamon and brown sugar.  
Digging into the apple crisp
For the pear crisp, I coated the diced pears with granulated sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, and a teeny bit of freshly grated ginger for a little zip.
The pear crisp
And when in doubt, add ice cream!  Warm desserts just scream out for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Anything 'a la mode' works for me. 
I can now check fruit crisps off my things-to-make list.  Never mind that there are something like ten thousand other things on that list!


Ground chicken in hoisin sauce, two ways

As much as I like to try out new recipes, I always fall back on simple stir-fry dishes for many of our family dinners.  When time is short (and it always seems like everything needs to get done right around the dinner hour), it's easy to stir-fry up some meat, throw in some vegetables or tofu, and add a little sauce to bring it all together.  Meanwhile, the rice cooker bubbles away and provides the rest of the meal.
Ground chicken cooked in hoisin sauce, topped with scallions and peanuts, served over rice
If stir-fry "recipes" are my secret weapon for putting a quick meal on the table, then I must have certain Asian pantry ingredients in my arsenal.  The very basics include soy sauce and sesame oil; beyond that, I'd say oyster sauce is my secret weapon.  I like to stir it together with some water and cornstarch - then pour it into the pan with what I'm cooking, and I have an instant sauce for my stir-fry. 

Today though, I'm thinking about another Asian pantry sauce that I like to keep on hand and use for both cooking and as a dipping sauce.  It's hoisin sauce, or what translates into "seafood sauce" in Chinese.  It doesn't actually have any seafood in it.  Some call hoisin sauce the Asian barbecue sauce but I'd describe it as a thick, sweet sauce that has a certain umami flavor to it.  It's made with soybeans, sweet potatoes, sesame seeds, and sugar, to name a few ingredients. 
Hoisin sauce is often used as a dipping sauce, slathered onto the wrapper or bun for Peking duck, for instance.  We like to put some on Asian fish balls.  When I was growing up, I loved drowning some steamed rice noodles with hoisin sauce for a snack or meal.  The sweetness is a little addicting!  I don't use it all the time but if you're looking for a quick Asian flavor boost for your stir-fry and you're in the mood for some sweetness, this is a good option (I particularly like to use it to make a sauce for diced chicken and cashew nuts). 

I often make stir-fry with ground turkey because my son loves it.  For a little variety, I also like to use ground chicken.  This stir-fry dish here is simply ground chicken cooked with some grated garlic, ginger, and scallions.  A simple mixture of hoisin, soy sauce, water, and sesame oil makes for a quick sauce.  I topped it with some crunchy peanuts and served it over rice but it makes a great filling for lettuce wraps.  If I had some shiitake mushrooms on hand, it would be great in this dish, as would some shredded carrots.  That's the beauty of a stir-fry; you can add so many things to it and use what's lingering in your fridge.

Repurpose leftovers...and make spring rolls!

I was watching the Pioneer Woman this weekend and the show was called "one thing leads to another" and that's what I had in mind here.  I'm saving some leftovers to make something else.  Now, speaking of leftovers, I've come to truly appreciate it to the point of making sure I make too much so that I'll have leftovers!  When I was making this Asian chicken stir-fry dish, I thought I'd reserve some and use it as a filling for...spring rolls.  
You see...I've wanted to make spring rolls at home for ages now.  This is actually my inaugural batch. Years ago, I'd always opt for the crispy, fried kind but being more health-conscious in recent years, I now go for and appreciate the soft kind of spring rolls that you'd typically find filled with shrimp, vegetables, and some thin vermicelli noodles.  Unfortunately, the ones I order at restaurants are often hard and dried out so making some at home, to eat fresh, has been a goal.

So right in time for Fall, I made "Spring" roll...but I think this warm version makes a nice snack/meal at any time of the year.  It took me this long to make spring rolls because they always seemed a bit of a project, requiring you to steam shrimp and chop up/prep the various fillings to do the job.  Well, I had the idea to go for a bit of a short-cut, by using some appropriate leftovers as a filling, when I saw this post that uses leftover peanut noodles as the primary ingredient for the rolls.  I thought it was a great idea, and I could picture lots of possibilities.   In short, re-think spring roll fillings!  (Though maybe I'm the only one who'd never thought of the possibility!)  Repurposing leftovers like this cuts the prep time down and makes for tasty results.
So for my shortcut rendition, I used some leftover ground chicken in hoisin sauce we had the night before as the primary filling in my spring rolls.  I added vermicelli noodles (that only require a few minutes soak in hot water, which I then used to soak my wrappers) and some shredded carrots (another easy task thanks to my julienne peeler).  Best part - I made the easiest, 2-ingredient dipping sauce by stirring a little bit of warm water into hoisin sauce to thin it out.  It was fast and very tasty!  


Hazelnut marble coffee cake

When I go to the big bookstore (you know the one since there are so few nowadays), I'm always drawn to the magazine racks and to the cooking magazines.  These days, aside from the usual monthly issues, there are all these special edition magazines featuring everything from seasonal cooking/baking to one-pot meals.  I'll find myself flipping through these mini cookbooks and with all the great photography, everything looks delicious.  Every once in a while though, for whatever reasons, something especially calls out to me.  This hazelnut marble coffee cake did that the other day and I just wanted to make it. 
I wasn't really sure what it was that made me want to make this little cake so much.  I supposed we simply like what we like, and this cake has a lot of the characteristics that I like in a cake.  I'm a big fan of basic cakes that don't need frosting; I love hazelnuts and anything with chocolate (the duo/marbled layers really appealed to me).  I've also realized that old-fashioned coffee cakes need to make a serious come back and that crumb toppings are something to swoon over.  

As it turns out, this was also something of a light recipe - another thing that appealed to me because ideally, I'm looking for tasty, balanced, treats I can enjoy everyday.  But I have to admit I started second-guessing my decision to try this out when I looked deeper...I started thinking: "Really?  Just 1 tablespoon of butter (never mind that the original recipe uses vegetable oil spread) for the crumb topping?  Light sour cream, 7 tablespoons of water and just 3 tablespoons of canola oil in the cake?" Is that going to taste good?
I decided to go for it and give it a try.  The recipe left some room for interpretation as far as using other types of flours and even sugar substitutes.  I stuck with the framework of the recipe but used a tablespoon of butter (as opposed to oil spread) for the topping, an actual egg (instead of egg product, which I've never bought) in the cake, and I choose to substitute half the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour.  A little extra vanilla extract worked out well, too.

I really wasn't sure this coffee cake would taste as appealing as it looked in the magazine but the good news is it was very good!  The cake is moist and tender, and you can taste the cocoa of the top layer. That really makes a difference, adding some dimension and giving you the feeling that you're eating some hybrid between coffee cake and a marble loaf or light pound cake.  Though the cake itself isn't very flavorful, it goes nicely with the strong flavor of the crumb topping.
The hazelnuts in the topping packs a punch of flavor.  If you're not a fan of hazelnut, I see no reason not to substitute with something else like walnuts or almonds.  For me, the hazelnuts work really well with the cocoa layer and gives you a ton of flavor in the topping.  And speaking of the crumb topping, I found that just one tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar does get the job done here! If you are feeling generous (or a little greedy), I wouldn't discourage anyone from making a bit more topping to go on top of this coffee cake.  Thanks to those flavorful, toasted hazelnuts though, I think it works just as it is.
All you need is a cup of coffee...



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