Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tri-color cookie (Easter) cake

Tri-color cookies, or Italian rainbow cookies, have to be one of our top five favorite sweets.  My family and I are seriously crazy about them!  No Christmas is complete without at least one, or more likely 2 or 3 batches of it.  We're talking three layers of almond sponge cake joined together by apricot preserve, encased in dark chocolate.  It's a heavenly combination.  We're such fans I've turned them into mini cupcake bites and now, we can have it in cake form, too!
Tri-color cookies, then cupcakes bites, and now cake too!
Given our love of those cookies, you can imagine my interest when I spied this recipe for "Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake" on Joanne's Eats Well With Others blog.  The post I happened to be looking at was for another lovely cake but it was the rainbow cookie cake that popped up at the end of the post, in the 'related recipes' section, that caught my eye.  I knew I had to make it!
I couldn't possibly wait until Christmastime to try it out.  I know I don't really need a reason to make any cake but thinking of the colors (I was actually aiming for pastel hues but the colors baked up deeper than I expected), I thought I'd pretend to be seasonal and call it an Easter cake.  I added some white chocolate shavings and nestled a few Cadbury mini eggs on top.  To me, once something has a few Cadbury mini eggs on it, it just screams: "Easter!"  They're the first thing I buy when Easter treats start appearing at the stores.  So I hope you'll play along and indulge me on this loose Easter theme.
I made this recently as a little surprise for my fellas (my husband and the little one).  I knew they'd love it and after tasting it, we were all thrilled.  It is literally tri-color/rainbow cookie in cake form!  As you'd expect, it's fluffier and thicker than the cookie (which is really not a cookie...but that's another discussion) and more importantly, the flavor is very much the same.  I've been partial to making smaller 6-inch cakes lately and this one is another example (though my family would've welcomed a 9-inch with this one).  This could very well be the first 3-layer cake I've ever made and, miraculously, I actually had three 6-inch round cake pans so I was able to bake the layers all at once!
Texture and flavor wise, this cake is as it should be - a moist sponge cake that has a lot of body and almond flavor thanks to almond paste.  I use apricot preserve (heated then strained so it's smooth), rather than a combination of apricot preserve and raspberry jam because my family and I are partial to it here. I tried to pack as much of the preserve in the cake as possible since we love the flavor it adds. That got me thinking about possibly baking the batter into two layers next time but splitting the 2 layers into 4 so that we'd have another layer of preserve!  I can call it a quad-layer rainbow cake, maybe?  That might be over-complicating things but I want to make it happen...
I like to use strained apricot preserves - and lots of it - between the layers of this almond cake
This cake is encased in one of my favorite things: chocolate ganache. But because of a higher chocolate to cream ratio, the chocolate ganache is somewhat firmer (so you get more of a shell) than typical ganache frosting you'd use for a cake.  That's just spot on here because it replicates that hard shell/snap I know and love from a good tri-color cookie.

You can probably tell I've discovered a new favorite cake!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Chocolate pudding pie parfait

These simple chocolate pudding pie parfaits were inspired by my little guy's love of this chocolate pudding pie.  He recently asked me to make it and I did.  As he devoured it and called it "epic", I was reminded of how much he loves that pie, which is a little surprising considering he isn't a big fan of crusts or traditional pies in general. I'm starting to see he has an obvious affinity for cookie crusts though.
Should you be in the mood for a chocolate pudding pie, I know my little one (who isn't actually that little anymore since he'll be turning 9 in a couple of months!) would highly recommend this recipe For the last one I recently made, I actually used digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers since I had them on hand.  I was a little nervous about shaking anything up since I didn't want to disappoint the little one but I needn't have worried...he loved it!  I think it might have actually tasted better with the digestive biscuits (now if only I had thought to write down the proportions!).  

And so after that pie was long gone and I made a mental note to make it a little bit more often going forward, I thought I'd do an easy twist on it by making a "chocolate pudding pie parfait".  I was really just thinking of dressing up a basic chocolate pudding.  I simply took some digestive biscuits (the last of what I had on hand), crumbled them up, and set them down in a glass as a base layer.  You could use graham crackers or other similar cookies instead, and you could crush some toasted nuts (like hazelnuts) together with it if you want another layer of flavor.  I didn't go to the added step of making that base layer more like a pie crust by tossing the crumbs in butter or sugar - I took the opportunity to skip the fillers.
Then, I made my easy everyday chocolate pudding - a lighter, no-egg/cornstarch-based pudding - and layered it on top of the crushed cookies.  You need layers for a parfait and I considered some lightly whipped cream and chocolate shavings to be another layer to finish off these simple parfaits.

My picky 9-year old is actually not a fan of whipped cream.  I had some plain pudding set aside but he dug in and waved off my offer to take it off after he tasted it.  I do realize that may not be a good thing.
After a bike ride on a lovely Saturday afternoon, father and son came home and polished off these chocolate pudding parfaits as quickly as they would a generous slice of that pudding pie!  That definitely puts a big smile on my face because I love seeing others eating something they really enjoy.  Now I know why my mother used to watch me so intently while I ate.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chocolate raspberry layer cake

Today, let's step into the world of sweets in a more serious way.  I know no better way to do that than with chocolate cake.  I may have been a purist in the past; by that, I mean I never wanted to mix my chocolate desserts with fruit.  But lately, I'd been craving the combination of chocolate and raspberries.  This chocolate raspberry layer cake was my way of fixing that craving.
This 6-inch cake is a pretty straightforward one.  There are two layers of moist chocolate cake (that's prepared without even using the mixer), joined together with seedless raspberry jam and dark chocolate ganache.  I simplified the recipe I worked off of and the cake came together as I ran errands and went about my day.  
Dark chocolate ganache, seedless raspberry jam and fresh raspberries for the cake
The whole cake is lovingly covered with chocolate ganache and simply garnished with a handful of fresh raspberries on top.  This cake definitely satisfied my chocolate-raspberry craving (and we know that cravings must be addressed eventually).  It's not complicated at all but I have to say that I'm always a little amazed when a cake comes together and that I made it from scratch, as simple as it might be.
There's seedless raspberry jam with ganache in the center and top layer of the cake
And a cake is just what I wanted to post here today because it's the 3rd anniversary of this little bumbling blog!  It's funny because for the first blog anniversary, I made a chocolate-hazelnut cake; the next year, it was another chocolate-hazelnut concoction - and both involved meringue!  Noticing the pattern after the fact, I decided to take a break from hazelnuts this year.  But, of course...it still had to be chocolate!

I almost can't believe I'm still chugging along after three years.  I have a lot of fun making the food and treats, then putting these posts together to share and stow away here.  It still feels like a little food diary of sorts but the chance to interact a little, and to learn from others who love food as much as I do, has been a huge perk.  This little blog continues to motivate me to try new things in the kitchen and I love all the learning that naturally happens. 
Thank you for spending a few minutes here sometimes.  I wish I could sit down and eat a slice of cake with many of you.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Blueberry oat muffins

Last Sunday, on a rainy afternoon, I thought I'd make a batch of muffins. It's always a good time to make muffins.  Lately, I've been inspired by Cooking Light's Healthy Habits Cookbook, which I picked up on sale after the holidays.  It isn't a diet book by any means, or necessarily a cookbook though there are a good amount of recipes in it.  It essentially consolidates the 12 healthy habits the magazine had been discussing throughout the past year into one place.  I'm glad I bought it because it's like a good reference book; there are a lot of useful information, healthy recipes, and tips that I see myself going back to for inspiration.  
Ground oats and plenty of blueberries in these muffins
These blueberry oat muffins are one of the recipes in the book.  I feel like you can never have too many muffin recipes in your arsenal so I'm always interested in trying a new one out.  Muffins are just easy to whip up and they make for a great snack, treat, or a sweet breakfast if you're so inclined.  My husband's sweet tooth is activated from the moment he wakes up til bedtime so he's always game for muffins.  With a tight schedule in the morning, they make a quick breakfast option on some days for him, too.  The goal, of course, is to find recipes that are more muffin than cupcake.
They turned out more moist than I expected...the brown sugar helps
My husband had recently requested blueberry banana muffins, which I (eventually) made and he polished off.  I thought these blueberry oat ones would be a similar alternative that he'd also like. And happily, I was right.  We both like the sweetness from brown sugar and the background note of cinnamon here.  We also like the flavor and texture from ground oats and whole wheat flour. Buttermilk, along with a little canola oil, provides moisture.  Of course, there are plenty of blueberries, which adds even more moisture, along with some lemon zest that just goes so naturally with it.

I made a half recipe, or 9 muffins.  Using frozen blueberries, it's easy to put a batch together.  The muffins stayed moist for a couple of days at room temperature and I stowed a few away in the freezer for a quick breakfast to come.  The freezer has become a very good friend of mine these days.  
I sprinkled turbinado sugar over the top of the muffins for a little texture


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Japanese sweet potato wagashi

I think I've made my love of several things pretty clear on this blog.  First, there's chocolate.  That deserved its own sentence but I've also talked about how much I love things like English muffinseggssteel-cut oatmeal, chestnuts, and desserts incorporating hazelnuts, to name a few others.  Today, I want to add something else to the list: sweet potatoes!  To be exact, I absolutely love Japanese sweet potatoes, or "Satsumaimo".

I recently stumbled upon a simple recipe for Japanese sweet potato "wagashiand made some for an afternoon snack.  Frankly, I'm using it as an excuse to talk about one of my favorite foods. Japanese  "wagashi"  refers to small confections served with tea.  Not being Japanese, I'm no expert but I've often admired the dazzling array of wagashi on display at Japanese markets.  They are generally colorful and intricately designed.  Think of this Japanese sweet potato wagashi as a far more simple, homespun kind that you can whip up as a sweet little bite to go with your afternoon tea.  They're basically mashed sweet potato balls, so you can just call it that if you like.
A simple Japanese sweet potato wagashi (or confection) - it's essentially a slightly sweetened mashed sweet potato ball
Back to the Japanese sweet potatoes...have you tried them?  Maybe there are other fans out there. Unlike the more typical orange-flesh sweet potatoes at the market (which I also enjoy and cook all the time), Japanese sweet potatoes have a purplish-red skin and a pale, cream-colored flesh. Its texture is denser, drier, than the orange variety, and fluffier in the sense of being more like a regular potato.  I love its sweetness, and it's a special kind of sweetness that I think is somewhat more subtle than the orange variety.
Japanese sweet potatoes have a purplish-red skin and light, cream color flesh
I have gotten into the habit of eating a big roasted Japanese sweet potato for lunch, along with some other vegetables, most weekdays.  It's a habit I can't seem to kick and don't really want to for now.  
I wrap the sweet potatoes in foil, roast them in the oven, and dig in for lunch
I have to admit I love it for the pure sweetness.  I literally like to lean into one of these piping hot sweet potatoes and just inhale the sweet, caramelized aroma.  It's really heavenly!  It's also super hearty and satisfying.  In other words, it helps satisfy my insatiable craving for carbs and sugar, in a more natural way.
When they caramelize like this, it's better than most desserts!
I got to thinking recently about this little obsession of mine with the Japanese sweet potato, and a light bulb went off!  I realized I love it because it is very, very much like chestnuts in both taste and texture...and I am crazy about chestnuts!  It all started making sense.

The good news (for me) is I can get my hands on these Japanese sweet potatoes pretty much all year round.  They can be found at Asian food markets and I noticed that Whole Foods has started carrying organic ones in the last few months, which makes me so happy.  I remember occasions while shopping at Mitsuwa, a Japanese market, where there would be a vendor outside with a small barbecue pit during the wintertime, selling hot roasted Japanese sweet potatoes.  The smell was unbelievable.  In Japan, you might be lucky enough to find stone-roasted sweet potatoes.  As heavenly as that sounds, I make do by roasting mine in the oven.  It takes at least an hour, often longer, but it is so worth it.  

These Japanese sweet potato balls, however, are simply made by boiling diced Japanese sweet potatoes until they're tender.  They're then mashed with a small amount of milk, sugar, and butter before rolling and baking.  It's a nice mix-up from the usual sweets.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Double chocolate banana bread

I'll try to keep this one short and sweet because it's a no-brainer.  When I saw double chocolate banana bread pop up on Smitten Kitchen recently, I knew I had to make it asap.  I'm guessing there's a good chance you might also be a fan of the site and felt a similar urge if you saw it too.  
My husband and I already have a favorite banana bread recipe, one I slightly adapted from Molly Wizenberg's book.  As nearly perfect as that banana bread with chocolate is, I've wanted to make a double-chocolate version because I naturally feel the urge to add more chocolate to things!  I thought about taking that recipe and tinkering with it to incorporate cocoa but my ideas were vague ones that floated around in my head without a clear direction.  Well, the answer came with this concrete recipe from Smitten Kitchen; not only did it look scrumptious but you just know you can trust Deb.  
She didn't let me down.  This double-chocolate banana bread was as good as I expected and I had high expectations.  It's chocolate cake, it's banana bread, it's both melded together but still standing individually on its own.  This is moist, dark, rich, delicious chocolate-banana cake.  Make it, enjoy it, and let's thank Deb together.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Moroccan chickpea stew

I'm going savory again today with this Moroccan chickpea stew.  I think this is the kind of light-yet-hearty food that suits this seesaw weather we've been having.  I know we'll be able to ditch our boots and put away our winter coats permanently one day soon...but please, hurry!  
A few years ago, I would have definitely considered myself a serious meat-eater.  And now, while I'm no vegetarian, I'm fairly amazed by how much less meat I eat and how much more I appreciate and enjoy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.  I find myself satisfied with a small portion of meat and savoring all the flavors of everything on my plate.  

This chickpea stew recipe is one that jumped out at me from the Cooking Light Healthy Habits Cookbook because I'm always looking for nutritious yet hearty dishes that are easy to put together. This one fits the bill!  And here again, I come to appreciate how important spices are to our cooking arsenal when it comes to healthy eating.  This chickpea stew gets flavor from cumin, chili powder, and turmeric.  Almost by reflex, I like to toss in some paprika and cayenne for extra heat.  This stew is light - with a tomato-base - but hearty at the same time thanks to some chunks of Yukon potatoes and the chickpeas.  

I think this qualifies as what Rachel Ray would call "stoup", a soup/stew hybrid.  It's not intended to have a lot of broth but you can certainly add more vegetable broth and turn it into more of a soup if you like.  You can serve it with brown rice (and some yogurt), as the recipe suggests, or go with another grain.  Couscous popped into my mind because of the Moroccan theme but I served it with farro.  Adding some grains really turns the stew into a full meal.  The farro is nice and chewy and soaks up the great broth.
Moroccan chickpea stew, with farro and sesame-spiced turkey meatballs
This stew is certainly a great meatless option but I happened to have some leftover turkey meatballs that I thought would go well with it (my husband certainly doesn't mind a little meat to go with all this other good stuff).  I had made sesame-spiced turkey meatballs from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (thanks, Marie!) the night before and I thought the flavor profiles of the two would go well together.  Molly (at Orangette) dubbed her lamb version "falafel-spiced meatballs" and that title is spot on in describing the flavor.  It paired very well with this stew.

So there's clearly a variety of ways to enjoy this...all on its own, with grains, or even a little extra protein with some meat.  This makes excellent leftovers.  I re-heat it with an extra splash of broth, and you could even add more to turn it into a soup for lunch the next day.  I love it because this is the kind of meal I enjoy eating any time of year.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Classic American loaf bread

Having finally worked up the nerve to start using yeast and making breads like the English muffin loaf and multigrain bread, there was a classic that I really wanted to try.  That would be the basic American loaf - or sandwich - bread...otherwise known simply as: white bread.
Nowadays, I'm all about whole wheat breads both for nutritional reasons and because I actually prefer that inherent nuttiness you get with them.  But growing up, it was all about the white bread and it certainly has a special place in my heart.  Sometimes, only a good slice or two of classic old-fashioned white bread will do.  And a piece of buttered white toast is like a taste of childhood; it makes me think of breakfast at the local diner and the stack of very-buttery white toast I used to devour. 
This white sandwich bread recipe from Cook's Illustrated did not disappoint.  It turns out a big loaf of the best kind of fresh, sweet white bread that you might find at a good bakery.  It reminded me of the loaves I buy at Japanese bakeries when I get the chance, and was better than the ones I sometimes pick up at an Asian bakery nearby.  The one thing that always bothered me about the white bread at that bakery was how thin/hallow the bread is.  Once toasted, I could barely butter a slice without ripping it.  No such problem here.  This bread was sturdy enough to be sliced as thin or thick as I liked.

I enjoyed the nice chewiness to the bread, and more importantly...the flavor!  I think it's easy to forget that white bread can actually have great flavor because of the bland options we're used to from the supermarket.  Combined with the lovely sweet aroma, homemade bread is something a girl can get hooked on. 
One thing I was taken aback by was how huge the loaf turned out!  I'm not complaining because I'd much prefer a big, lofty loaf to a squat, flat one but it took me by surprise.  I suppose it was the result of using high-gluten bread flour, without any whole wheat flour in the picture.  When my son and I peeked into the oven, we both thought something had to be wrong.  I half-expected the loaf to collapse but luckily, there were no such problems.

I used bread flour and I've read somewhere that sandwich bread made with it - as opposed to all-purpose - tends to rise higher given the higher amount of gluten.  The recipe called for bread flour but all-purpose can be used as well if not available.  Since I had both flours on hand, I went with the first option.  Next time, I just might use a mix of the two and see how that turns out.

My family and I enjoyed this bread a whole lot.  I've stowed a few of these big slices in the freezer for French toast.  Otherwise, we ate the rest, toasted and slathered with an array of toppings.  
And, of course, it makes a great sandwich!  My son was partial to this grilled cheese and salami one I made for him.