April 28, 2011

A crackly, chewy, chocolate cookie

Do you have a preference when it comes to the texture of a cookie?  For me and my family, we ultimately love the soft and chewy kind.  But of course, I think there's a time and place for everything.  Something crunchy is a great pick-me-up and I certainly like a dense, rich treat to go along with a cup of strong tea but nothing beats a soft, chewy cookie fresh out of the oven. 

If I had a top ten list of favorite cookies, this double chocolate cookie would make the top half of my list.  It comes out of the oven looking a bit like a brownie and it tastes somewhat like it too given the chocolate but more than that, you get this shiny, crackly top that you sink your teeth into to reach a chewy and slightly gooey texture within that is to die for.  The texture reminds me a bit of a macaroon, another type of cookie I love.

April 26, 2011

Really good banana muffin for breakfast or a snack

I highly recommend these banana muffins.  They're fragrant and sweet, with a nice mild hint of spices from some cinnamon and nutmeg.  Just cooled from the oven, the crunchy sweet muffin top is the best part. 
These are the muffins I referred to in my post on banana bread with chocolate.  Compared to the bread, this has a fluffier, more cake like texture.  I've been making these banana muffins for a few years and I whip some up probably at least twice a month.  They are very easy to make!  We enjoy them for breakfast or as a sweet little snack or treat.  My son loves these so much and they don't even have any chocolate in them!  If they are around, he insists on eating them for breakfast until they're all gone.  He might take 30 minutes to finish up a mini bagel for breakfast but he'll polish one of these off in less than 10.

I love these banana muffins studded with walnuts inside.  My son was also a fan of this until about 9 months ago when he announced that he no longer liked nuts.  So when I make a batch of these muffins, I  make some with nuts and some without (though he has eaten ones with nuts if nothing else is available).  I'm hoping he'll come around again on his own.  Either way, you can have it plain or with nuts if you like them.  It tastes great either way.

April 24, 2011

A super moist chocolate cake

I think this is the ultimate chocolate layer cake.  The thing that really knocks you out is the cake itself.  It is sooo seriously moist and dark and ultra chocolaty - everything you'd want if you're a fan of chocolate cake.  The buttercream frosting is a great accompaniment to the delicate, moist cake. 

When I make and look at this cake, it reminds me of one of those black and white sitcoms from the 60's where the kids would come home from school and have something like this with a tall glass of cold milk.  It's traditional and that's not a bad thing.  

Cookies, brownies, and cupcakes are all great but a cake says celebration or a special occasion.  And we should all celebrate more often.  I just made this cake for our little Easter party this past Sunday and I've made this for birthdays and often when we just have a hankering for it.  It requires a bit of effort but I think it's worth it.

April 21, 2011

Happy Easter!

Easter Sunday is coming up in just a few days.  In our house, my little guy is very eager for this holiday because it means the Easter bunny will come and leave him a trail of eggs to find in the backyard.  He is very curious about when the Easter bunny actually comes and whether he talks or knows how to drive a car.  He can't wait to open up those plastic eggs and see if the Easter bunny remembered to leave him a few of those matchbox cars he loves so much. 

This is a beautiful time of year, when the grass starts to turn green and flowers begin to jut out from the ground.  Despite battling the allergies that come with this, it feels like the world is waking up from the long, cold winter's sleep and everything goes from black and white to color.  I'm glad to say goodbye to all that snow we had this year!  So how ever you are celebrating Easter and what it symbolizes for you, here's to the start of something new.  

I thought I'd mark the holiday by making some classic sugar cookies and cutting them out into some Easter theme shapes.  I decorated a few with some royal icing but this is definitely not my area of expertise!  But hey, it's all about having fun and learning in the kitchen.

April 19, 2011

Is this a glimpse of what it's like to work in a restaurant?

I mentioned in my previous post on flourless chocolate cake that I had taken a cooking class recently.  For years, I've talked about taking cooking classes just for fun and my husband finally took action for me when he gave me a gift of one at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.  I thought we'd take a little dessert reprieve and I could share with you some of the thoughts and pictures I have from that day.

Generally, I prefer to bake at home.  It's easier, requires far less time (I don't count waiting for a cake to bake in the oven as time), and involves minimal ingredient-hunting.  But if I took a cooking class, I always figured I'd go the savory route instead of more baking.  This particular course was called "Great New York Restaurants' Signature Dishes."  It looked great though I had some qualms about going to a hands-on class without knowing anyone.  Turns out, there were about 15 people in the class (about half from New Jersey like me, incidentally), and a number of people came alone.  It really didn't matter if you knew anyone else because you were basically too busy cooking anyway.

The class was 4.5 hours long and we went over-time by more than half an hour.  I think I can sum up the experience by saying I have newfound appreciation for those who work in the professional kitchen.  I salute all those people and thank them for doing it.

First off, the recipes.  Goodness, now I know why they have to charge us $20 for that salad!  We made the Balthazar Salad, which involves something like 5 kinds of lettuce greens, about 4 other vegetables that needed to be blanched or roasted just so, and a lemon truffle vinaigrette.  It's not exactly something you'd whip up at home, even for company.  (Actually, I checked online and saw this salad is just $13 at Balthazar...I am telling you, that is a bargain.)

April 16, 2011

Flourless chocolate cake...takes me down memory lane

When I lived in Brooklyn and went to school and worked in New York, one of my favorite things to do was to go eat at some of the amazing restaurants in the city.  We'd grab that annual Zagat and check out the list of most popular restaurants and decide which we really wanted to try.  Now that I have a child and moved to the burbs,  we don't get to do this very often but we still love to eat out locally and do so a lot. 

I think one of my first visits to one of these "fancy" New York restaurants was when I was about 17 or 18 years old.  My brother took us (that would be me, my then boyfriend/now husband, and my sister) to Gotham Bar & Grill.  I hate to date myself but that was roughly 15 years ago and this restaurant is still extremely popular today.  I remember almost everything I ate that day.  I had a leek soup with a dollop of goat cheese on top (I'm not sure I'd ever had goat cheese until then), seared cod with some kind of potato puree, and this deliciously decadent warm chocolate cake.  We still reminisce about that meal today.  And fast forward all these years later, my brother, sister, and I try to get together every 6-8 weeks or so for a siblings' night out to eat and chat.  We love to eat and hang out together.

When I make this flourless chocolate cake, it reminds me of that warm chocolate cake I had at Gotham Bar & Grill.  I know I'm supposed to be playing with flour in the kitchen but we won't take that too literally.
The warm chocolate cake served at Gotham Bar & Grill is similar to this one in that they're both flourless.  Both are essentially all about the chocolate and that lofty texture that melts in your mouth from the whipped egg whites.  But this one that I often make at home is quite simple and quick in comparison to the restaurant version.  I know this firsthand because my husband recently gave me a present of a cooking class in the city, where the theme was recreating "Great New York Restaurants' Signature Dishes".  Gotham's warm chocolate cake was the dessert so now I have the recipe and got a chance to help make it in class.  I can tell you that the restaurant cake is far more rich and decadent, and involves working with both egg whites and whipped cream, as well as baking in a water bath and chilling for hours after baking before re-heating it back up before service.  It is a lot of work!  I took pictures of the dishes we made at this class but I regret not taking one of the cake....I was too busy devouring it (plus, I didn't realize then that I would be starting this blog/journal).  While the cake was delicious, it isn't something I could eat everyday and I think is probably best reserved as an indulgence at the restaurant.

April 14, 2011

Chocolate panna cotta...hit or miss?

Last mother's day, we had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.  For dessert, a special chocolate panna cotta was on the menu.  Panna cotta means cooked cream, which basically sums up this Italian custard.  Usually, it's plain, infused with vanilla.  We saw chocolate and had to try it.  It was really delicious...smooth and creamy, chocolaty, rich but not too heavy.  My husband was a big fan of it.

That chocolate panna cotta has stayed in the back of our mind.  The restaurant doesn't offer the chocolate version on a regular basis so we can't just go back and order it.  So almost a year later, I came across a similar dish on a cooking show (surprise, I was watching a cooking show!) and thought I would change it up a little and give it a try.

Not everything in the kitchen comes out a knock-out hit and I am very critical about what I make.  Some things become favorites and we make it over and over again but there are plenty of other experiments that fall short or need some tweaking.  I have to admit this panna cotta was good but it fell short of that velvety chocolate goodness we had at that restaurant.  Regardless, I thought I'd show you and see what you think.  Maybe someone out there has a good chocolate panna cotta recipe to share with me... 
First, I chopped some semi-sweet chocolate that gets melted with a hot mixture of half cream and whole milk.  I've seen different versions of this recipe, with some using all cream or another ratio of cream to milk.  I like this idea of going half and half since it is a bit less indulgent.  This recipe was originally for mocha panna cotta, using a generous amount of instant espresso powder.  I used just a nominal amount since I wanted to stick with a chocolate, rather than mocha, flavor.

April 12, 2011

Banana bread with chocolate

Who likes bananas?  Everyone feels ok about them; I can't think of anyone I know who hates bananas but it doesn't generate much excitement.  It's not glamorous or exotic.  Rather, it is humble, but sturdy and satisfying.  It's kind of like that good friend you have that's always reliable and there when you need someone. 

The banana is always there for you at the supermarket.  I keep them stocked at home and it's a great snack to have on the run.  I've been baking a banana muffin for a few years now that our family loves (I'll save that for another day) so when I have some extra bananas getting ripe, I'll just whip some up.  And while everyone knows/says bananas go great with chocolate, I've been reluctant to try it since I didn't want to add more chocolate to our meal plan and our five-year old is perfectly happy with the plain banana muffins.

But when I was reading A Homemade Life, which I've mentioned in an earlier post, I knew I wanted to try the recipe for "banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger."  I adapted the recipe by eliminating the crystallized ginger altogether.  While it's probably a great combination of spice and added texture against the chocolate, I know my young son wouldn't be into it.  Instead, I decided to substitute with a little bit (3/4 teaspoon but you could use more if you're not concerned about young sensitive taste buds ) of ground ginger. 

I've made three loaves of this banana bread (one is in the freezer) so far.  In one case, I used cinnamon instead of the ground ginger since cinnamon and chocolate is another nice combination.  The spices are not overpowering when used sparingly and adds a nice hint of something to the flavor and balances well with the chocolate.  You can really play around with the spices.  I think ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon are a few good spices to use here.  Next time, I might make a less indulgent version by skipping the chocolate and adding walnuts and some spices.
My husband is a huge fan of this banana bread with chocolate.  It must be the chocolate that makes it a bit addictive to munch on.

I like making these quick breads and muffins because you can do it the old-fashion way by hand with spoons and bowls.  We get the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet in another and get ready to mix.  I used chocolate chips here for convenience but you can chop up some chocolate and get a more interesting uneven distribution of chocolate throughout.

Be careful not to over mix the batter once the wet and dry ingredients are placed together or the finished product will be tough.  I slightly over mixed the first loaf I made and I'm talking literally just over mixing by one or two strokes.  It really makes a difference.  When in doubt, err on the side of under-mixing.  As you might be able to see below, there are still some specks of flour in certain parts of the batter.  For my second attempt, I stopped mixing at this point.

April 10, 2011

Lace cookies

There is this cookie called a lace cookie, or sometimes referred to as Florentines or tuiles cookies, that I remember first tasting some time in high school.  For home economics, I took a series of cooking classes and I was so happy learning about food and nutrition and just cooking away during these classes.  I think that was my first real cooking experience with following a recipe.  I remember first taking a basic class where we made things like zucchini bread and coffee cakes.  Then there was a course in French food and we would put together meals like beef bourguignon (this teacher even snuck in a bottle of red wine for us to cook with).  After we'd cook the meal, the class would set up the table with linens and glasses, warm French bread and real butter, and we'd sit down to eat what we made.  I couldn't believe how good everything tasted!  Needless to say, I have fond memories of that class. 

Besides going to class, I used to stop by during some of my free periods to earn extra credit by helping out with clean up (I sound like such a nerd but honestly, I just liked going there and being around the kitchen).  Basically, I'd go and help wash the dishes.  One day, I remember the teacher had some lace cookies baking and I got to try one.  It was a sort of crisp cookie with a deep caramel flavor.  It looked very delicate, just like lace, but it was crunchy.  The one I had at that time had chocolate drizzled on it and maybe some nuts also.  I just loved it but didn't think I'd ever be able to bake anything like that on my own!

Many years later, I learned it's actually pretty easy to make these lace cookies.
In fact, you only need five ingredients.  No mixers or major equipment necessary.
This recipe is featured in the Martha Stewart's Cookies book, which I love.  They're called Honey Florentines there and it's basically a lace cookie, flavored with honey and brown sugar.

You heat the butter, brown sugar, and honey up in a pan until it's melted.

April 9, 2011

Orange cake

When I was pregnant with my son over six years ago, I started watching cooking shows regularly as a way to relax and take my mind off of work.  Since then, I've been hooked and it is practically the only thing I watch on TV now.  I DVR my favorite shows and catch up at night and on weekends. 

The other night, I was watching a new show called Extra Virgin on the Cooking Channel It features actress, Debi Mazar, and her Italian husband, Gabriele Corcos, who shares a bunch of his Tuscan recipes.  It's a neat show and I've already seen a few things I could see myself making.  But what really caught my eye that night was this orange sponge cake, called "Schiacciata alla Fiorentina", which I learned is a Florentine Easter cake or a cake typically made for carnival in Tuscany.  It is supposed to be spongy, light, and not too sweet.  Not only did it sound great but I had all the ingredients to make the cake except for an orange.  I couldn't wait to get that orange the next morning and try it! 

It always amazes me what we can bake with a handful of ingredients that we can use over and over again in different recipes.  In this instance, the result was a light, airy sponge cake with nice orange flavor.  Not too heavy, this is a great option when you want something lighter than chocolate (although, I have to mention that orange and chocolate are sooo awesome together).  I would make this for someone like my sister, who isn't into very rich, heavy desserts. 


April 8, 2011

It begins with chocolate...

I realize I am by no means alone when I say I love chocolate.  But I do love chocolate and I want to make that statement right up front because there will be a lot of posts involving chocolate.  I have a picture of myself at around five years-old holding a bar of Toblerone at the airport and to this day, it's still one of my favorites but I've since added lots of other chocolate treats to that list.  And not only do I love chocolate but my husband and son do too and that means many chocolate baked treats come out of our oven. 

Today I had the urge to make some chocolate cupcakes.  Everyone loves an individual chocolate cake - they're cute, they're portable, they're all yours.  And to pair off the very chocolaty cupcakes, I used an equally chocolaty ganache frosting.  I'm going all out here. 

Just put it on a plate and I'm ready to eat...



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