Chocolate amaretti cookies

It is well-documented that I love almond paste and making cookies with it.  It is just a quick way to chewy-cookie heaven, with a pungent dose of aromatic almond flavor thrown into the bargain.
I was watching Giada De Laurentiis make chocolate amaretti cookies on her show the other day and turns out, it's the almond paste (or "macaroon") cookies I make all the time, with a dose of cocoa thrown in.  Sounds great!  Of course, I need to make a chocolate version of my favorite chewy almond cookies so I got right into the kitchen to do just that.
Giada uses a food processor but I made these cookies in the stand mixer like I usually do because the mixer is sitting right on my kitchen counter whereas the heavy food processor is wedged into a corner of the pantry downstairs.  

It works out just fine whichever equipment you use.  It's just a matter of breaking down the almond paste with some sugar and dark cocoa in this case.  Egg whites bind the whole thing together, without the need for any flour in these recipes.  You could add some orange zest if you like but I kept it as is.  I had a vague concern that the cocoa might mask the almond flavor too much so I tossed in a few drops of almond extract; turns out, that wasn't really necessary but a little extra almond insurance doesn't hurt as long as you don't go overboard.  
I topped the cookies with a sprinkle of coarsely chopped sliced almonds for a little bit of crunch without using more sugar.  These cookies are naturally sweet but they do beg for a little decoration on top.  And I can tell you these chocolate amaretti cookies were delicious, being the familiar almond paste cookies I know and love.  You've got a ton of sticky chewiness in every bite.  The edges are just a little crisp giving way to a very chewy center.  The cocoa or chocolate flavor is actually not very strong.  I think it nicely tempers some of the sweetness of the almond paste and gives you a hint of cocoa but while they look dark and chocolaty, the almond flavor and chewy texture remain the star of the show.  I'm very good with that.


Diner-style buttermilk pancakes

Since I'm still waffling about whether or not I should buy a waffle maker, I keep busy flipping pancakes on the weekends!  Truth be told, it's a good crisp waffle that I crave more often than pancakes but because my son and husband enjoy pancakes so much, I make them all the time (as you might have noticed).
In the last few years that I started making pancakes at home (from scratch, because, yes...I once used boxed pancake mix), I have discovered some delicious recipes and I make most of them very often.  It dawned on me recently that I don't have a basic buttermilk pancake recipe.  

The buttermilk pancakes I do make are Gwyneth Paltrow's overnight recipe; honestly, those babies are so delicious that I didn't really feel the need for another buttermilk pancake recipe but they are quite different from your typical diner-style buttermilk pancakes.  Whereas the diner ones are your fluffy, relatively mild-tasting flapjacks, the overnight recipe makes relatively thin, super-soft, ultra-tender and tangy pancakes.  The overnight sitting is pretty much a necessity and I like the idea of having a simpler, more familiar buttermilk pancake recipe in my repertoire.
Well, mission accomplished.  I spotted this diner-style buttermilk pancake recipe from the latest issue of Food Network Magazine.  I was particularly intrigued by the idea of adding a little baking soda in the pancakes to help with even browning.  I do have to say, even after making these, that I'm pretty convinced that the evenly browned pancakes we get from our diner comes from a well buttered griddle more than anything else (I use a little cooking spray). So while my homemade buttermilk pancakes didn't look exactly like the ones I get at our local diners, they were fluffy, moist, and tender, with a familiarly milder buttermilk flavor that we recognize.

I'm happy to have this easy, tasty recipe for buttermilk pancakes that I can whip up very quickly for breakfast.  Since I always find myself with extra buttermilk whenever I do buy it for a recipe, I know it'll come in handy.


Toasted steel-cut oatmeal with brûléed bananas

So we go now from cake to oatmeal.  I am a huge oatmeal eater (I eat more oatmeal than cake).  I know I've mentioned my affinity for it before.  It started as more of a subtle liking, occasional bowls of old-fashioned oatmeal growing up. The smell of plain oatmeal has always been something familiar that I love.  
Toasted steel-cut oatmeal, slightly sweetened with honey and topped with brûléed bananas
In the last few years, oatmeal has become such a regular part of my diet and I honestly love it.  It started about five years ago when I wanted to shed a few pounds. If you can believe it, I started eating oatmeal as an after dinner dessert to fill me up! Eating it became a habit and I discovered steel-cut oatmeal and became hooked.  I now often have a big bowl of steel-cut oatmeal as the basis, or carb portion, of my dinner.  My son either assumes or will ask me if I need an "oatmeal spoon" when he sets the table for dinner. 
A warm bowl of steel-cut oatmeal is one of my favorite things
So I have been really intrigued by the idea of toasting the oats before cooking.  I think the idea's been around a while but I'd never thought about it.  With the growing interest in eating whole grains and books like Whole Grain Mornings and Good to the Grain (I love the titles of these book, by the way) bringing it to our general attention, I started seeing it touted everywhere in the last year or so (here and here, for instance).

Being a creature of habit, I didn't finally try toasting my oats until recently.  You take a little bit of butter (a tablespoon for 1 cup of oats; I use steel-cut), melt it in your pan, then add the oats and let it toast for about 4-5 minutes.  The oats will brown a bit and you'll smell a nutty aroma by the end of that time.  Then, you add your liquid and continue to cook your oatmeal as you normally would.
This toasted oatmeal makes for a firm and chewy texture 
Toasting the oatmeal should bring out the oats' nutty flavor.  I think when we eat anything, we want maximum bang (flavor) for our buck (calories).  So is toasting the oats worth the extra fat and calories from that pat of butter?  Here's what I came away with:

- The added flavor in the final oatmeal from toasting the oats was subtle.  I think I expected a big punch of extra flavor (like you get when you freshly toast nuts for baked goods) but it was more of an accentuation of the oats' nutty flavor.

- The big surprise for me was actually the impact on the texture of the oatmeal! Toasting the oats seems to keep them firmer, to keep the integrity of the oats more intact so they don't break down as much during cooking (I think the effect of toasting makes the oats cook more slowly, absorbing the water a bit less readily).  So if you're like me and love your steel-cut oatmeal firm and chewy - as opposed to more creamy - toasting them is a great way to ensure the texture. 

- While I don't have plans to toast the oats for my near-daily doses of oatmeal, I would when I want to make a truly "special" bowl of oatmeal.  Like many great recipes, it's often the culmination of small steps and ingredients that make for something special on the whole.  So for times when I want to "do up" my oatmeal and make a true meal out of it, I would toast the oats.  Maybe I'd cook the oatmeal with a bit of milk (instead of just water) for a little more sweetness and richness, and add a pinch of spice.  I would think about adding other special touches to it like, say, some brûléed bananas and nuts on top.  This was the first time I added caramelized banana slices to my oatmeal (I knew that kitchen torch would come in very handy!) and it was so delicious that it almost stole the show.
I generally have my oatmeal quite "plain".  That is, I cook it in water, and eat it with a little honey.  I love that simplicity but now, I'm more inclined to think about jazzing it up on occasion to keep things interesting!

Part II...
So maybe you figured I couldn't possibly talk any more about oatmeal but no...there's a little sequel to this story!  Bear with me, if you're willing...  

After making this and writing about it, I was watching a cooking show with Bobby Flay and he made toasted steel-cut oatmeal by dry-toasting (no butter) the oats first in the oven.  He asserted that the way to make the creamiest steel-cut oatmeal was to cook the toasted oats for just 1 minute before storing it in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 8 hours).  When the time comes to finish it, the cooking time should be cut by about half.  I may prefer a firmer, chewier bowl of oatmeal in general but I wanted to give his method a try...



Two-tier pistachio-orange-chocolate cake

Birthdays and anniversaries require cake so we're having cake today for this little Blog's 4th Anniversary!  
When I realized this anniversary was coming up, I started thinking about cake. Surprisingly, I didn't have a queue of cakes I wanted to make sitting on the sidelines so I kept it simple and just asked myself: what kind of cake do I want to eat?  And pistachio cake popped into my mind.  I've been on a pistachio kick lately and, to me, they're kind of like pears in that I'll go for a while without eating them and forget how good they are until I eat them again. 

So pistachios it was!  In the back of my mind, I was seeing this chocolate pistachio cake of Martha's that I always found alluring.  I stuck with the torte idea (which I tend to think of as nut-based, European-style, cakes) but instead of making a chocolate-pistachio cake, I made it a pistachio cake with chocolate.  I wanted the bright, nutty flavor of the pistachios to shine.  I based the cake on a recipe from epicurious and added the chocolate elements.  Pistachios and orange with chocolate is one of my favorite combinations so that's what we have. 
I didn't give this cake a lot of pre-thought before making it and wow, I was very pleasantly surprised by the cake I ended up with!  It was totally scrumptious, really moist and full of nutty citrus flavor, capped off by that coating of chocolate ganache. I will be making this one again and again.

The cake is made with ground pistachios but since it's not propped up solely on ground nuts (there's flour in it, too), the texture is moist and dense but also stands firmly in traditional cake territory as well.  I find cakes made entirely with ground nuts can be too rich and moist for my taste so this was a great balance.  There's a lovely chewiness to it also that I adore.  Orange zest works so well with pistachios and while I already have chocolate well represented in the coating, I couldn't resist adding another hint of chocolate in the cake itself.  So I grated an ounce of dark chocolate and folded it into the batter at the last moment.  You might not be able to detect the shaved chocolate within the cake but I'm comforted to know it's there.  
I attempted to make this a little more special by creating a two-tier cake, a 4-inch on top of an 8-inch base.  As you can see, I swaddled the cake in chocolate ganache, which is like an irrepressible reflex for me.  I am exploring my new interest in water ganache so it was made with just dark chocolate and water.  I'd use a little less water next time for a thicker consistency but I'm so far very happy with the water ganache option.  I topped the cake with a little decoration of chopped pistachios and cocoa nibs.  I would say this cake is a good representation of the kind of cake I love to eat - a moist, flavorful cake featuring nuts and chocolate!
I'm so glad I made cake to celebrating four years tapping away on this blog!  When I first started here, I didn't know how long I'd keep at it, and I still don't.  I'm almost surprised I'm still plugging away here but the truth is this continues to be a fun outlet for me and a motivation for learning.  I love thinking, talking, reading, writing, cooking, and eating food and that hasn't changed.    
I've learned to be comfortable in this space and I enjoy the freedom to make and show what I want without being pinned down to anything.  For a non-creative person like me, I really love the act of creating these pages - seeing these posts come to be with a recipe, some time in the kitchen, and then some words and a few pictures. There is a great sense of satisfaction in it that I'm very grateful for.  

If there's one thing that I feel a little sad about in the last four years of joining the food-blogging world (in my own very amateur, minor way) is the exiting of blogs that I got to know and enjoy.  While many blogs I started visiting four years ago are still going strong, some have stopped blogging altogether or reduced their posting significantly.  I didn't realize how much I enjoyed their words, recipes, inspiration until they were gone and I miss many of them.  I trust that those who have stopped blogging are happy and busy, and I'm sure they continue to eat well.  So I'm having a piece of cake and celebrating food blogs of old, the ones that continue to go strong, and ones yet to come that do so much to inspire and entertain me.  Thank you!  : ) 



Rice Krispies Easter eggs

I really wasn't planning on making any Easter treats this year.  I was content to munch on my little bags of Cadbury mini eggs and to just stockpile Easter goodies (for my son, of course...) from Target.  But then I watched The Pioneer Woman's Easter episode and saw the rice krispies eggs.  Since I had about half a box of the cereal sitting in the pantry, I just couldn't resist!  
The Pioneer Woman stuffed a Cadbury mini egg - those delicious little chocolate eggs ubiquitous at Easter - inside each of her krispy eggs and since I love any excuse to buy and eat more of those crispy, creamy, dreamy chocolate eggs, I was all for it. But then I was telling my husband about my plans and he had a funny idea.  Why not stuff a Cadbury creme egg (he's the creme egg lover in the family) inside instead? Then, you've really got the whole egg theme going.  I think he thought that's what I meant in the first place when I was describing the project but after he said it, it seemed such a hysterical idea that I had to try it.
So I did and you can see what I ended up with!  Those eggs totally cracked me up (haha...corny joke alert).  We all had a good giggle out of these creme-egg-within-an-egg eggs!

Besides the creme eggs, I did make a bunch of rice krispies eggs filled with a mini chocolate egg inside and also a few with some classic M&M's tucked into them too.  I was a little worried about the rice cereal setting before I had time to mold each of them around the plastic egg but it really wasn't a problem if you work relatively quickly.  Being rather impatient and given that fear of the cereal setting up, I started with large plastic egg molds before switching to a few smaller ones.  I think the smaller ones look a bit more realistic but the larger ones make quick work of it. 
I had a good time whipping these eggs up.  These tasty little eggs, with their chocolaty surprise inside, are just plain fun.  


Egg and toast cups

It's almost Easter and I'm taking the occasion to once again pay homage to eggs, my favorite ingredient to cook with!  So I'm holding back on those Cadbury mini eggs this year (I'm happily munching on them straight from the bag) and instead of posting something sweet - like a cake or cupcakes - I'm talking eggs in a savory way with these very simple little egg and toast cups.
What's cuter and more fun than an a little egg cup for breakfast or brunch!  It doesn't even have to be Easter.  I think these egg and toast cups are rustic, cute and casual, but a little bit special at the same time.  The whole thing is portable and edible; it's essentially your egg and toast in one!  
The cup is simply made with lightly-buttered bread (white bread in this case), which becomes the cup or nest for the egg to bake in.  It's really easy to make in your standard muffin tin and while the egg cups are baking in the oven for about 20 minutes, you can pull the rest of your meal together.
I've wanted to make eggs in hash brown nests for a long time but it always sounded a bit labor-intensive and messy.  When I saw this recipe from Martha Stewart for bacon, egg and toast cups, I had a feeling this was a simple route more suited for me.  I opted to leave the bacon out of the cups to keep it super simple. I think it's easier (and better) to serve the bacon or any other accompaniments you want on the side.
I don't think you need me to describe how these egg and toast cups taste but funny enough, the fellas insist they taste like deep-dish pizza!  After a good laugh, I realize that the lightly buttered toast makes for a browned, flaky, almost pie-like crust that does call that to mind!  And when you eat it alongside a slice or two of bacon, it can be reminiscent of the kind of deep-dish pizza they like to eat.  How funny is that!  
So whether you make these little egg-toast cups as part of your Easter brunch, have them with some bacon, ham, or just on its own for a quick breakfast, I highly recommend it.  I'm big on having some fun with our breakfasts!



Chinese paper-wrapped sponge cakelettes

If you walk into a Hong-Kong style Chinese bakery, you won't find many buttercream-frosted cupcakes, brownies, or bar cookies.  You're more likely to find plenty of simple egg-based cakes, buns (sweet as well as savory), and tarts.  One of my favorite things to get from the Chinese bakery is a simple paper-wrapped sponge cake.  They are light as air, soft and fluffy, and taste mildly sweet and eggy.
At the Chinese bakery, these paper-wrapped sponge cakes are tall, probably 3 times the height of these mini cakelettes that I made at home using a regular muffin tin.  To make the traditionally tall/large versions, you could buy specific molds made for the purpose or use a large muffin tin or try a popover tin.  I've also seen it made using freestanding paper cups lined with parchment paper.  
These little cakes are very much like my favorite chiffon cake, in a smaller, portable form.  In keeping with my small-batch tendency lately, I made half a dozen of these little cakes and realized this is one instance where small batch might not be the way to go.  They vanished in no time, and they make a great little afternoon snack if you want something sweet but not overly so.
The little cakes are really light and fluffy.  As a big fan of eggs in every form, I love this kind of simple dessert that's full of egg-flavor, lightly sweetened and boosting a hint of vanilla in the background.  It may sound silly but I love the eggy aroma that permeates the house when I'm making something like this.  I wouldn't mind if my house smelled like that all the time!
This homemade version tastes just like the ones at the bakery.  Texture-wise, I think I need to work harder at reaching the supreme fluffy/airiness of the ones I get from the bakery.  I'll also own that size-wise, the traditionally larger ones make more sense. Because they are so light, a large one is probably just more appropriately portioned. With these cakelettes, you just want to eat three in one sitting!  So the way I look at it, I need to either make larger ones next time or at least double the recipe.


Norwegian-style thin pancakes

I get to talk about a couple of my favorite things today: breakfast and pancakes! They are familiar topics here because I truly love breakfast - it's what I look forward to when I go to bed at night!  

For me, weekday breakfasts are more about quick nourishment - they are important and enjoyable but not the true meal we get to make on the weekends when we have more time.  Everyone is home and there's time to set the table and linger over a hot meal together to kick start the day; I never want to leave the breakfast table!  The fellas in my house love pancakes so I make them often (still no waffle-iron here). While we already have a few favorite recipes, I welcome the chance to try something new every once in a while.
Folded Norwegian (thin) pancakes served with strawberry jam
Which brings me to these Norwegian pancakes, a recipe I've been eyeing from Sweet Paul's Eat and Make.  These are thin unleavened pancakes, very much like crepes or Swedish pancakes.  I honestly couldn't tell you the difference between them, if any, but whatever you call it - these pancakes are wonderfully tasty.  They are tender, light, delicately flavorful on their own and a beautiful canvas for filling with jam, fresh fruit, Nutella, what have you.  

They were also surprisingly easy to make.  I found the thin batter easy to cook and handle, and they cook up very quickly.  When it comes to prep, the key is to let the batter rest for about half an hour before using.  When it comes to serving, make sure to keep the pancakes nice and warm in the oven while you make the batch so everyone can enjoy them that way.  
Filled with Nutella
My pancake-loving family and I gave these a big thumbs up.  This is a great change-up from our traditional thicker American pancakes.  Certainly, both kinds are great though I think there's something special about these thin crepe-like pancakes. It may just be that they're different from our typical thing, or maybe because they look delicate and harder to make than our usual flapjacks.  Whatever the case may be, these are delicious and it's always nice to have some variety.  Now that I have this easy recipe in my back pocket, I plan to make these pancakes a part of our weekend breakfast rotation.  
When those summer berries start to arrive at the farmer's market, I will be loading my plate up with them to enjoy on top of these delicious thin pancakes.


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