Chocolate chocolate-chip pancakes

Yes, sometimes breakfast gets a little extra indulgent and borders on dessert.  I can think of no better excuse (though who needs one) to indulge than Valentine's Day so the weekend beforehand, we did just that as I served up these chocolate pancakes for breakfast.  
These chocolate pancakes are made with buttermilk - tender, fluffy, and light, chock full of chocolate flavor from cocoa powder as well as mini chocolate chips that I folded into the batter.  I substituted some of the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour and I think these pancakes can really handle it.  In fact, I think chocolate and whole wheat flour work really well together in general, often giving the finished product a subtle nutty flavor and texture.  
It's a little like eating a light and fluffy chocolate cake.  Think of it as an alternative to chocolate muffins.  I'd like to think I showed some restraint in not topping the pancakes with chocolate sauce like you often see.  As tempting as that may be, some berries and a few extra sprinkles of mini chocolate chips does the trick.
Looking at these pancakes is helping me deal with Valentine's Day withdrawals.  I hope you had a lovely one, filled with love and plenty of chocolate!  Lucky for me, there's Chinese New Year to continue the celebrations and the feasting on sweets.  I can't complain at all!


Valentine "Kisses"

It's almost Valentine's Day!  I love this little holiday because I adore all the hearts, the pink & red, the treats, the chocolate, and symbols of love.  We can all use more expressions of love and we can all appreciate a little sweet treat!  
I've been in the Valentine spirit and trying to spread a little of it through food.  These cookies are an example of that.  I'm calling them "Valentine Kisses" - essentially, they're soft chocolate cookies with a Hershey's Kiss on top.  I first saw this recipe as rainbow kiss cookies from Sally of Sally's Baking Addiction; I spotted them around Christmas and the colorful nonpareil sprinkles caught my eye and I haven't stopped thinking about them.  
Since I didn't get a chance to make them over Christmas, I thought I'd make them as a Valentine treat, and simply swapped the rainbow nonpareil sprinkles with pink-and-white ones.  You can easily customize these cookies for any holiday/occasion.  Sprinkles are versatile and always, always smile-inducing!  These cookies are not only fun to look at but really tasty.  They are soft and a little fudgy inside, packed with plenty of deep chocolate flavor.  The little chocolate Kiss on top makes the cookies what they are (and they are so cute to look at) but they're frankly equally good without it.  You'd just have to rename them from "kisses" to "bon bons" or something.
I could not resist making them in their original rainbow version as well.  They really make me smile!
Whatever sprinkles you roll these kiss cookies in, I think they're bound to make you smile and remind you of the joy of chocolate (not that anyone needs a reminder of that)!



Easy English muffin recipe!

Here's another first for me and something else I didn't expect to be making myself at home: English muffins!  I can hardly believe I made these and how incredibly easy it was!  I'd already hit the jackpot recently with the easy bagel recipe but, believe it or not, these English muffins could well be even easier and just as good.  I'm floating on cloud nine in the kitchen lately.
English muffins are actually one of my favorite things.  Whether slathered with almond or peanut butter, or in breakfast sandwich form, they feature heavily in my breakfast routine.  I really never felt the urge to make them given how complicated and mysterious the process seemed - from the yeast dough to shaping them into tart rings and then cooking over a griddle rather than baking in the oven.  I was satisfied with the English muffin bread recipe I learned a couple years ago.

So what changed?  Well, I was watching Gesine Bullock-Prado's show (which is really terrific), Baked in Vermont, and she said making English muffins was as simple as making pancakes!  She said she wasn't kidding, and let me tell you...she really wasn't kidding!  
I was a little skeptical that it might be too good to be true but there was little risk to trying so I decided to make a half batch of 4.  I literally stirred the dough together right before I left to pick up my son from school and the dough was ready when I got home.  Using instant yeast, it only takes a half-hour rise before the dough is ready to be cooked over a griddle!
I did not use tart rings to cook these English muffins.  I simply shaped them with wet hands into a rough round; I don't know about you but the English muffins I buy are never perfectly round and I'm more than fine with that.  The dough is sticky and is firm and thick enough to handle and to hold its shape.  I cooked the first side for about 10-12 minutes under medium-low heat, then flipped it and let the other side cook for the same amount of time.  It was truly minimal work and I was shocked!

I was amazed to see English muffins in my kitchen in such a short time and almost equally surprised when I sliced it open for breakfast the next day and saw nooks & crannies accounted for!  I used an equal mix of all-purpose flour and white whole wheat flour.  Since these are made via a quick rise, I thought they would be quite bland but I think the whole wheat flour added a great nutty flavor to them that I always enjoy.  They were really terrific - just toasted and slathered with butter and whatnot.
Equally, they made excellent bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches!  My son actually said these English muffins are better than the regular ones that I buy.  That is a serious testimonial.  I just couldn't believe I made breakfast sandwiches using homemade English muffins.  It took me a few days to get over the wonder of that...



Mont Blanc chestnut tartlets

There are many pastries/desserts I love that I frankly never plan to make.  They are far above my skill level and it just makes much more sense to leave it to the professionals.  I would say Mont Blanc - a dessert I adore featuring pureed chestnuts - was one of them.  Somehow I'm able to say "was" because I recently made some in my very own kitchen!
I suppose it started with a jar of roasted chestnuts.  After the holidays, I look out for them at William Sonoma when they typically go on sale.  I was only able to get my hands on 2 jars this year and after using one to make a rag├╣, I kept thinking about two Mont Blanc recipes I'd spotted lately...one from Angelina's in Paris (which I have tasted and well-remember) and a feature in the November/December issue of Bake from Scratch.

I had particularly high hopes for the recipe from the magazine but upon looking at it, I was totally intimidated because it involved a good half a dozen steps - from making the pastry crust, an almond cream, then meringues, the chestnut paste, and whipped cream before assembling!  But I still couldn't stop thinking about it and I thought I could make a simplified version leaning on the Bake from Scratch recipe(s)...
So that's how mine came about - a simplified Mont Blanc in tartlet, or mini tart  form, each just a little over 2 inches in diameter.  And while there are variations on the Mont Blanc, mine starts with the almond pastry crust.  Inside the crust, I nestled a little sweetened chestnut puree or chestnut paste before I piped a peak of sweetened whipped cream on top.  Finally, I piped the chestnut paste all around the whipped cream.  
In essence, I skipped the meringue you sometimes find at the bottom of a Mont Blanc (it's not my favorite component anyway) and there's no almond filling.  Instead I just added some of the chestnut puree at the base of the tart for a little more chestnut flavor.

Since Mont Blanc means "white mountain" and that's what the pastry is supposed to resemble, a dusting of confectioners' sugar is very appropriate...but as I discovered, the confectioners' sugar melted very quickly on top of the chestnut puree, seemingly before I could lift the camera and focus. [Interesting tidbit: I just learned that there are 2 types of confectioners' sugar, 10x finely ground that we typically see in the supermarket, and 5x, which is coarser and what you'd use for garnishing when you don't want it to melt on contact with the food.  Makes so much sense!  Now I just need to find out how to get my hands on the 5x variety.]
If you could do me one favor, it would be not to look too closely!  If you don't scrutinize too hard, you might not notice the uneven piping and wiggly lines.  Needless to say, my version is not only simplified but rustic.  That said, I couldn't help but feel excitement - and a little sense of pride - at having made one of my favorite desserts, even if it is a simplified version.



Easy bagel recipe!

I found my first 2018 baking inspiration in the form of these incredibly easy - and tasty - homemade bagels!
I first saw them from Skinnytaste's Instagram account and when she posted the recipe, I barely waited a day to try them.  If you like bagels and wish you could eat them more often (like me), you'll surely be tempted because they are practically 2-ingredient bagels that takes very little time to make from scratch!

Even if you don't use self-rising flour and break down the components (adding baking powder and salt yourself), you only need 4-5 ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, non-fat Greek yogurt, and an egg white to brush the top with, plus any optional topping you might like on them.  I had everything I needed to make these without going to the grocery store.  It sounds incredible but really, it works and it's tasty to boot!  
Did I also mention, they're only about 150 calories each, with 26.5 grams of carbs?  I don't know about you but though I adore bagels, I don't eat them very often as I try to watch my intake of refined carbs.  Making them myself and having this lighter option is a fabulous discovery.  Not to mention...I made bagels!  How neat is that!

For my inaugural batch of bagels, I used 2/3 all-purpose flour and 1/3 white whole wheat flour.  Next time (and there will be plenty of opportunities), I plan to increase the whole wheat proportion further.  
The non-fat Greek yogurt is key.  They work some kind of magic so that the bagels turn out with a nice soft texture and have a slightly tangy, salty bite.  These are not the traditional super-dense, heavy bagels.  My bagels were still very soft inside after 2 days sitting at room temperature.  
I toast them up and they're good plain, with butter, cream cheese, and almond butter - to name a few options.  All I can say is if you enjoy bagels and want a lighter option, try making these very easy ones!  These are going to have a place in our breakfast routine from now on.  I think that's a pretty great way to start of the new year in the kitchen!



Chocolate hazelnut toffee

Happy New Year!  It's that time again when I slowly float back down from cloud nine, and settle back into our everyday post-holiday life.  And believe me, I'm landing on some very freezing cold ground!  I sure hope you had a wonderfully relaxing and happy holiday!  We enjoyed every moment of it.  My family and I so look forward to the quiet time of that last week or so of the year and even with all the high expectations, it never seems to disappoint.  
It made me realize how wonderful the gift of time really is.  Not having to rush and having plenty of time to spend with each other, cozy and snug (which we were in general except for a 16-hour power outage), lingering over meals and savoring the calm for about 10 days straight is really as good as it gets for me.  I think my husband and I get recharged and live off of the annual holiday hiatus for months after.

Now, while the holiday baking frenzy has come and gone (and it was glorious while it lasted!), I wanted to share the last treat I made before the New Year.  I always like the idea of making toffee and candies because it's not only a lovely little nibble to add to all the Christmas cookies, it's great for gift-giving.  Pop some into a bag, jar, or tin, and you've got a lovely little hostess gift.  
This time, I made hazelnut toffee, with big chunks of whole roasted hazelnuts, topped with a coating of dark chocolate.  You can add a sprinkle of sea salt on top to finish but I kept it plain.  I'm always a little nervous when it comes to making toffee but it's so rewarding in the end.  If you use a candy thermometer and cook the mixture to 300 degrees, you'll end up with toffee that's just properly firm and crunchy but infinitely easy to bite into and eat.  

I'm a big fan of this since I love hazelnuts and there is obviously plenty of delicious hazelnut flavor and aroma in this toffee.  And the dark chocolate layer on top is a must-have in my book.  Honestly, a great homemade toffee isn't hard to make and maybe we shouldn't relegate it to the holidays.  I'm sure most people would enjoy a little homemade toffee in their life any time of the year!  Although with Chinese New Year coming up, I can't help but think this toffee would make a great sweet gift for the occasion as well.



Almond Roca shortbread

As I mentioned before, I tend to think of shortbread and icebox cookies at this time of year.  If you're like me, you've probably had quite a few batches of Christmas cookies coming out of the kitchen and been savoring plenty of holiday goodies in general.  That said, let's squeeze in one more recipe for this holiday season.
Have you ever had Almond Roca?  They are small log-shaped buttercrunch/toffee coated in chocolate and almonds.  Growing up, they were the only candies I can remember my mother liking.  I used to eat them, too, and while they weren't my very favorite, I certainly enjoyed them and loved scraping off the chocolate and almond coating and then biting into that crunchy toffee center.
Last month, I caught a cookie roundup over at Kelly's blog (I do enjoy seeing all the holiday recipe roundups and gift guides at this time of year) and saw a recipe for Almond Roca cookies...it made me think of all those red tins of Almond Roca we used to have around the house during the holidays or around Chinese New Year.  

So I thought it would be fun to make these cookies, which are essentially shortbread with sliced almonds and toffee bits folded in.  To simplify things a little bit, I used chocolate-coated toffee bits (instead of plain) and omitted the chocolate coating on top of the baked shortbread.  
These were a fun version of shortbread to make and eat!  They have that classic sandy texture with extra crunch from the almonds and toffee bits.  If you like nuts and crunch in your cookies, this Almond Roca shortbread is a great rendition to try one day.



Checkerboard icebox cookies

It goes without saying that the clock ticks on and that seems never more true than during the holidays, around December, when time is precious and it really flies.  That said, I've been making an effort to be organized and realistic in my December plans.  I think I'm doing well this year - I don't feel rushed and I'm savoring the season, which means simple things like family gatherings, an outing or two to see the lights and sights of the city, and time to enjoy all the wonderful seasonal treats.
I love seeing, buying, and enjoying all the festive holiday goodies at this time of year!  I can hardly resist a colorful box or any kind of foil-wrapped chocolates.  I make sure we indulge in plenty of that along with some homemade treats. Holiday baking is a real pleasure and I love days when the kitchen turns into a mini cookie factory and I churn out a batch or two of Christmas cookies.  
Come this time of year, I think of all kinds of cookies but particularly, I think of shortbread and icebox type cookies - the sandy, crumbly cookies that I frankly don't make too often otherwise.  They always seem to hit the spot - a great accompaniment to a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.  The slice-and-bake kind of cookies are also convenient, great for impromptu enjoyment or for gift-giving.   

For fun, I recently tried a batch of checkerboard icebox cookies.  Not only is the pattern fun (like that Battenberg cake I made a while back) but you also get to combine two classic flavors - vanilla and chocolate - in one cookie.  Best of both worlds!
I was afraid the cookie might be tricky to pull off but the recipe comes from The Perfect Cookie book by America's Test Kitchen, which gave me the convenience to tackle it.  It really was easy to do and the cookies came together like a charm.  I'm happy with how my first attempt turned out and the pattern of the cookie is not only fun to see but tasty to eat.  I think we were partial to the chocolate part of these checkerboard cookies but that probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me.



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