Pistachio, orange and chocolate muffins

Call me crazy but I'm still turning on the oven and baking away in the midst of this sizzling hot summer.  Thank goodness for air conditioning!  
When it comes to routine or relaxing through baking, I think of cookies and muffins. They're easy, low-maintenance bakes that are always appreciated around the house. It is undeniable how convenient it is to grab and plate a muffin or two for breakfast on a busy weekday morning, whatever the season!
This time, I made muffins and I zoomed in on one of my favorite flavor combos: pistachio and orange, with a little chocolate thrown in to make it even better. I'm quite fond of this combination in cake and cookie form and I've been itching to make a muffin version, so here we are.
This is a tender muffin, not too sweet, nor too rich.  I didn't feel like I was eating a cupcake in disguise and that could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.  You could easily make and top these muffins with a spoonful of glaze (confectioners' sugar mixed with a bit of orange juice or milk) to add extra sweetness on top.  I didn't since I figured the chocolate provided enough richness.
While the recipe I started with called for yogurt, I substituted with buttermilk, which was what I had on hand.  A little fresh orange juice and zest adds bright fruitiness and I tossed in a little vanilla extract to complement it.  Chopped pistachios are stirred into the mix (I reserved some to sprinkle on top).  Finally, I added some finely chopped dark chocolate.  I really liked the chocolate (no surprise there, I suppose) and, in retrospect, I actually wish I had added more because, inevitably, you keep looking for that chocolate bite!

Texas sheet cake

It's summer and that means making time to hang out in the kitchen and work on a cooking project or two with my son.  Most recently, we made a Texas sheet cake together, and it was such fun!
I'm calling it "Texas sheet cake" rather loosely because although there doesn't seem to be a definitive explanation for the term, "Texas sheet cake", our version omits a lot of what makes it what it is.  Specifically, we didn't bake the cake in a sheet pan; rather, I divided the recipe in half and baked it in a 9-inch square brownie pan (hence, the cake isn't Texas-style "big", either).  We also omitted two things - ground cinnamon and pecans - that you often find in a classic Texas sheet cake.  I decided to forego them because my son isn't a big fan of those ingredients and frankly, I wanted to make sure he'd enjoy what we baked. 
Even with the modifications we made, I'm still keeping the "Texas sheet cake" moniker because ultimately, the way the cake is prepared is so unique. Even my 11-year old could tell that the method of making this cake - cooking wet ingredients over the stove and pouring the hot mixture over the dry components to combine - was unusual!  But that's what made it fun and part of the reason why I picked this for a baking project.  It provided a lot of hands-on cooking for the little guy and he did an admirable job!  For a boy who isn't too interested in cooking, quite frankly, he seems to be pretty comfortable in the kitchen.  Maybe these little cooking sessions, even if relatively infrequent, do more and have a bigger impact than I realized...
There was another reason I thought of making this cake with my main man (aside from the somewhat obvious consideration that this super sweet treat would go down well).  We recently took a road trip to Virginia.  After many hours on the road (traffic on I-95 is no joke and we also had to contend with a flat tire midway there), we stopped into a Cracker Barrel to eat and I ordered a slice of Coca Cola cake for us to try for dessert.  Not surprisingly, the little one was a big fan of that and I thought this cake would be very similar (it is) and a fun thing to make now right after the trip.
To make a long story shorter, my little guy gave our cooking collaboration two-thumbs up!  I tell you - this is a sweet cake, with a moist, fluffy texture.  The icing is poured on the top of the warm cake and it seeps slightly into the cake, making it all the more moist.  It goes down very easy and has a nostalgic flavor to it somehow.  

It's certainly true when people say that kids will enjoy things they helped to make (though maybe I should make something vegetarian with him next time to test that theory); I just think it's doubly true when what they made was cake - and Texas sheet cake, at that!  He gobbled up his fair share of this cake and his dad was certainly another very happy beneficiary of this kitchen session of ours.  For my part, the best thing was spending the time in the kitchen together, watching my son do so much now, and sharing an enthusiasm for something together.  That's even better than eating cake!

Chocolate bouchons

Chocolate therapy can come in many forms.  Aside from unwrapping a bar and taking a bite, I find that baking with chocolate is a form of therapy in itself.  When things are a little crazy, I find all is right with the world when I fall back on making chocolate desserts.  Thank goodness for chocolate!
With the kitchen mishaps I'd been having, I reached for one of my trusted sources for good recipes and dug into David Lebovitz's The Great Book of Chocolate for inspiration.  I decided to make bouchons, or what I think are best described as small brownie-like cakes.  
When I think of bouchons, I think of Bouchon Bakery; I've had their signature chocolate bouchons and they are little cakes, shaped like a "bouchon", which means "cork" in French.  I've always wanted to make bouchons because any chocolate lover welcomes the chance to make/eat a chocolaty, fudgy, brownie-like cake.  I always figured I had to get the little bouchon mold for the job but I finally realized I could just bake them in a regular or mini muffin tin - or better yet...make somewhat larger - yet still mini - cakes using individual paper molds.
So I made the chocolate bouchon batter and baked a few in individual freestanding paper molds.  These molds make great single-serve portions.  They un-mold perfectly and you have a lovely little chocolate cake to serve each person.
Much like brownies, it's important not to overbake these cakes.  They should be soft inside, revealing a moist middle when you dig into it.  These cakes are solid - hearty and rich chocolate cakes that are a little crumbly and a whole lot chocolaty.  We're talking chocolate cake batter made with dark as well as unsweetened chocolate and some mini chocolate chips thrown in to drive the point home.

I think this will satisfy any chocolate lover's craving.  And I can tell you that if there's anything better than baking with chocolate, it is eating chocolate (or chocolate cake). I think we should all work this into our summer schedule.

Chocolate crème caramel

I can now say with confidence that if offered a choice between "regular" crème caramel or chocolate, I would wholeheartedly recommend the chocolate!
Crème caramel (or flan) is a custard dessert with a signature layer of soft caramel on top.  You coat the bottom of your ramekins with a little caramel, then fill it with custard.  They're baked in a water bath, then chilled in the fridge until nice and cold. It's a great make-ahead that you can prepare a day in advance.  To serve, turn the custards out onto a rimmed plate.  As you flip it, the soft liquid caramel oozes out and puddles on the dish, making a little sauce.
It's like crème brûlée but with a soft caramel sauce instead of a hard topping.  It also reminds me of panna cotta but where panna cotta is made with cream and set with gelatin, crème caramel is custard based and made with eggs and in this case, milk instead of cream.  And clearly, this version deploys chocolate (I used 62% dark), which makes it even better.

I'm a big fan of any and all-things chocolate and my husband enjoys the occasional panna cotta when the opportunity comes up.  We both love a good egg custard.  In other words, I thought this would be a great dessert for us to try...and we both loved it! The bittersweet chocolate flavor is front and center here, the flavor is not-too-sweet, and the texture is smooth and creamy.  It's also actually quite light on the palate given the use of milk rather than cream in this case.
You do have to turn on the oven to bake the crème caramel but you'll be rewarded with a cool, smooth, chocolaty dessert that's both satisfying yet relatively light.  I thought it was well worth the effort.

Mini roll cake with Nutella filling

Hello there!  I hope you're enjoying the summer so far and staying cool.  We're in the midst of a heat wave and I feel like I'm in the middle of a summer haze myself, trying to get used to the summer schedule and all the activities that come with it.
Shall we sit a spell and virtually share a slice of this mini roll cake I attempted? It was not a very successful endeavor, to be honest, but at the rate I've been going...I was happy to have something to show for at the end!  It's a mini roll cake from the Dessert for Two cookbook - essentially a sponge cake that I decided to fill with Nutella instead of jam.  All's well taste-wise but rolling the cake was a harrowing experience as it cracked pretty significantly.
Maybe I should have known that simply rolling the cake in foil (as per instructions; and instead of the usual powdered sugar with towel method) was too good to be true. I really wanted to believe and gave it a try...so I watched the cake stick and stick to that foil.  Lesson learned!  With shaky hands, I persevered best I could and in the end, though cracked, we had a roll cake!
The petite cake is baked in an 8" square brownie pan, a good small size for our little family for a mid-afternoon treat.  To be honest, it can be hard to find time to sit down to a mid-afternoon treat in the summer but we managed to gobble this down.  
So...I hinted at not being exactly "on a roll" (haha) lately in the kitchen.  Aside from forgetting the baking powder in a batch of pancakes the other day, I also had a total dud trying to make Dominique Ansel's flourless chocolate cookies.  We went out to brunch in Manhattan last weekend and happened to stop by Dominique Ansel Kitchen (Cronut creator, Dominique Ansel's bakery/restaurant).  We were full but took home a flourless chocolate cookie, which turned out to be amazing!  Aside from being perfectly chocolaty, I couldn't believe how it could be flourless because the cookie was so thick and dense - yet moist.  I found the recipe online and was so excited.  But suffice it to say, the making of that cookie is still a mystery to be because mine were a delicious gooey puddle.   I ended up using some of the warm cookies as a chocolate "sauce" with vanilla ice cream and I froze the rest so we could handle/eat them - they were very tasty but nothing like the ones at the shop.  So maybe you can see why I'm grateful I had some cake to show for this latest kitchen endeavor, cracks or not!  

Chilled red bean dessert soup

In the mood to consider something different?  It's time for another Asian dessert, this one using red azuki beans.
An Asian dessert soup of red beans and tapioca pearls, served cold
Dessert soups are very common in Chinese culture.  I've talked about a few in the past - from a sweet potato one, to taro-tapiocaglutinous rice balls, and my husband's favorite, mango sago.  This red bean dessert soup is a very common one, often served at the end of a meal in a Chinese restaurant or as a dessert in a Chinese banquet (for say, a wedding).  After seeing a recipe for it on a blog recently, I realized I'd never made it at home so why not give it a try!

There are just a few ingredients in this red bean dessert soup.  The main one is the red azuki beans.  Red beans are very popular in Chinese and Japanese food - whether as a sweet paste stuffed in buns or pancakes, or as a filling in cake, or in the form of popsicles or ice cream, to name a few uses.   
Red azuki beans used for this dessert soup
One of my favorite food memories growing up, in my early days in Hong Kong, was of eating little red bean pudding cakes that were served on a stick.  I really love all things red bean but I don't get to enjoy them nearly as much as I wish so I'm making up for things a bit today by whipping up a batch of this red bean dessert soup.
Besides the beans, all you need is water, sugar to sweeten, and, if you feel like it, a few tablespoons of tapioca pearls to thicken things up a little further and give it a fun extra texture.  This soup is often flavored with tangerine peel (or you could use a little orange zest, as I've seen suggested).  I opted to omit this because in all cases where I've had red bean dessert soup flavored with tangerine peel, the flavor has always been too strong for me.  I never knew what it was for the longest time but I knew I didn't like it all that much.
As for the cooking process, the beans should be soaked for a few hours and there will be about 1 1/2 - 2 hours of cooking time on the stove.  I know stovetop cooking isn't the most appealing thing in the summer but I tried to make up for it by cooking this and chilling the soup to serve cold.  While this is typically served hot/warm, you can usually enjoy most Chinese dessert soups either hot or cold.  I am extreme - I like things either really hot or really cold!  The benefit, to me, of chilling the soup is it thickens up rather substantially (it's almost pudding like) and personally, I like a thick hearty texture.  If that's not your preference and you prefer a more fluid "soup", serving it at room temperature would be a better option.

Frittata muffins

The other day, I found myself with a couple ounces of leftover pancetta (after making spaghetti carbonara for dinner) and decided to use it to make a few mini frittatas for breakfast the next morning.  I'm calling them frittata muffins, and I baked them in a regular-sized muffin tin.
Mini frittatas have been one of those things I've wanted to make and possibly have extra to freeze and have handy for a quick weekday breakfast.  Somehow, I'd never gotten around to it but here was my chance to whip some up.  I didn't have enough ingredients to make a big batch to stash any away in the freezer but it was just right for a fresh, hot breakfast.
I cooked and rendered the leftover pancetta and added it to the basis of 4 eggs and about a quarter-cup of milk.  The fun thing about frittatas is the flexibility for customization; add any ingredients - as much or as little - as you like.  In this case, I kept it pretty simple by adding the pancetta, a few tablespoon of Parmesan as well as Gruyere cheese, plus a little parsley I plucked from my herb box.  
I placed my frittata mixture into 5 muffin cups and watched them puff up and set, ready in less than 15 minutes.  Add a few slices of toast and breakfast was ready! These little frittata muffins are easy to make and another great way to enjoy eggs for breakfast.  

Pinata cupcakes

This past weekend was a very eventful one.  My son turned 11!!  It's incredible how quickly each year flies by, and equally shocking to see the little guy growing by leaps and bounds before our very eyes yet seemingly overnight.
We were lucky to enjoy a gorgeous weekend - sunshine, low-humidity in the high 80's, with a light breeze - the perfect backdrop for a little birthday barbecue we had for the birthday boy on Saturday.  

Dad was on the grill and the kids were busy working up an appetite playing and just being kids.  This year, I bought a classic ice cream cake for our birthday boy but I made him some fun cupcakes.
They're chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting...but there's a little surprise inside. They're stuffed with some celebratory goodies...in the form of sprinkles, miniature m&m's, and other colorful candies!
They're pinata cupcakes!  Slice them open and let the colorful treats spill out!  They are such fun!  When I first saw them a couple of months ago on the Food Network show, The Kitchen, I knew I wanted to make them as a little surprise for my son's upcoming birthday and that's what I did for him and the other kids at the party.
The little guy thought they were just regular cupcakes but I gave each child a plastic knife and asked them to slice their little cakes open for a surprise.  And seriously, the best reward for this small effort of mine was the smile that came to the birthday boy's face and the look of surprise, and happiness.  It was such a great feeling and a wonderful moment.
My birthday boy loved the pinata cupcakes and said they were the best thing at the party.  I think he was just saying that to be nice but it was lovely how appreciative he was.  And I know he did enjoy them because I turned around to slice his ice cream cake and when I looked down again at his plate, his cupcake - including the pinata filling - was all gone.  He ate it all! Somehow, I had envisioned the candy and sprinkle filling as more of a decorative element as opposed to for eating.
These were such fun and easy to do.  I'm really glad I made them and thankful for another year of happy birthday memories.


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