November 28, 2011

More pancake breakfasts

Sitting down with your family for a nice, leisurely meal has got to be one of the greatest joys of life.  A leisurely Sunday (or any day) breakfast is one of my favorite things.  And with all the hustle and bustle that's bound to come with the holiday season (which I do love), slowing things down with a warm plate of pancakes and a cup of coffee in the morning is a very good thing.   
A few months ago, I discovered the art and reward of making pancakes from scratch.  I've been making these buttermilk pancakes rather frequently, and I just love them.  But as our six-year old sits at the table and chows them down, he keeps telling me how he likes them "just a little bit."  Apparently, he finds some fault in that tang that comes from the buttermilk.  So I tracked down another recipe for "classic" pancakes that's still fluffy and delicious but without that tangy buttermilk flavor.  Again, I have to say that those super soft buttermilk pancakes are so good.  These are very similar and seriously fluffy and yummy but the buttermilk version remains my favorite.   

November 24, 2011

Chocolate pudding pie

As I sit here writing this, I am seriously stuffed from our Thanksgiving meal.  I'm not complaining; I feel very lucky to have so much but I do wish I had indulged just a little less.  After the turkey and a long list of side dishes, we scrounged up a bit more room for this chocolate pudding pie.
I considered this our alternative to the traditional pumpkin pie I also made for the first time this year.  As I suspected, the chocolate dessert edged out the pumpkin in popularity at the dinner table (particularly with the kids), although my husband was a big fan of the pumpkin.  There's something about pie that belongs with Thanksgiving.  Any other day, I'd likely go with a lighter alternative and just make chocolate pudding (i.e., without the pie crust).  This is a cornstarch and milk based pudding, rather than the richer egg based variety.  It's slightly richer than Ellie Krieger's lighter chocolate pudding since we use whole rather than 1% milk but it's still relatively light, not overly sweet, and just generally yummy.

Pumpkin pie

For my first serious foray into pie making this Thanksgiving, I knew I wanted to make a classic pumpkin pie.  So I made this "silky smooth pumpkin pie" from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Cook's Illustrated (and if you're familiar with the people at this publication, you'll have high expectations for this pie.)
The "secret" ingredient in this pumpkin pie is candied yams, which I think boosts the flavor of generally rather bland pumpkin significantly.  Secondly, taking the extra effort to strain the cooked filling through a sieve gets rid of any lumps and ensures you have the silkiest possible result.  I would just note that when straining the cooked filling, use a medium-mesh strainer as opposed to fine-mesh.  It's nearly impossible to do with a fine-mesh strainer, which I tried using first.  On my long list of things to be thankful for, I had to make a little room at the bottom to be thankful I recently tracked down a medium-mesh strainer for my macarons. 
I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration.  I hope your table was bountiful and you were surrounded by some of the most important people in your life.  I have so much to be thankful for and I think about it almost everyday of the year.  May we always have a whole lot to be thankful for both during Thanksgiving and the rest of the year. 

Pie crust

For this Thanksgiving, I'm venturing into the world of pie making.  I'm talking real pie, with homemade pie crust.  Yes, I make this lighter chocolate pudding pie on occasion and I've ventured into the world of tarts.  I even made a sweet potato pie a couple of years ago but those pies use a graham cracker crust, which, to me, doesn't quite seem like an authentic pie.   
I guess the reason I haven't made pie before is, well, I don't like them much.  I like a flaky pie crust but I'm not a big fan of fruit desserts (or maybe I just haven't tried enough of them); you know I'm all about the chocolate.  But I'm expanding my horizons while staying true to what I love.  So this Thanksgiving, I'm giving pie a try.  I'm going to make pumpkin pie and chocolate pudding pie.  I hope they turn out and I'm curious as to which will be more popular at the Thanksgiving table.  But before all that happens, I'm starting with the pie dough - an all butter one.
I learned that making a pie crust is harder than it looks and definitely takes practice!  But done right, the recipe is quite simple (particularly when you use a food processor, in my case) and the dough takes less a few minutes to make. 

I've got to tell you that this was actually my second batch of pie dough and the one I made using the food processor.  The first time, I got a little too ambitious and thought I could make the dough by hand.  After reading so much about the importance of not over-incorporating the butter so that the crust bakes up nice and flaky, I completely under-mixed and ended up with large lumps of butter in my dough.   I knew it wasn't right and started reading disaster stories of butter popping out of the crust in the oven when baking because the butter wasn't incorporated enough.  The next morning, I threw that batch out and started anew in the food processor.  I'm so glad I did!  The result of the second batch felt and looked so different from the first.  This one is well mixed but I can still see small specks of butter throughout, which is how it should be.

November 21, 2011

Chocolate macarons: Take 2

Remember that delicious disaster of mine?  I chronicled our macaron infatuation a few weeks ago and if you recall, my first attempt at making chocolate macarons was far short of perfect...but still ever so tasty.  I wasn't about to go down without a fight - or at least try a few times to see if I could figure it out.  I had to try again and this time, I wanted to gather all the right equipment to see if I'd have better luck. 

So this is the making of Chocolate Macarons: Take 2.   
First, the good news:  this batch came out a lot better!  I have a few authentic macarons!
But the bad news: I still encountered some of the same problems I did last time.  The macarons didn't crack this time but out of 2 sheet pans, the first once again had barely any "feet" (that foamy looking bottom that's a signature of a macaron).  And I still had a hard time removing most of the macarons from the baking sheets.
Nevertheless, this attempt was far better than the first and certainly motivation for me to keep trying.  Instead of ending up with just one quasi-macaron looking confection, I had several serious macarons at the end of this experiment.  I was more careful to salvage what I could this time (instead of eating most of the imperfect macaron shells right off the baking sheet like last time) so I had a good 17 finished cookies to savor with my family. 
Our resident six-year old macaron-lover was again very happy!  I'll never get tired of hearing him say, "they're really good, mommy!"  And considering said child is usually busy running around trying to light-saber something in my vicinity, I'll greedily take the accolades and hope he remembers this the next time we're arguing about him finishing those green beans at dinner. 

November 18, 2011

A special birthday - with chocolate cloud cake

Happy Birthday to my husband!!  He is my best friend and confidant.  He also doubles as my therapist and occasional life coach. 
For the birthday boy, it's Chocolate Cloud Cake with cocoa whipped cream

My husband knows how I feel about him so I won't get all mushy and wordy again here.  I'll just wish him countless more years of good health and happiness.  May your life be filled with joy, laughter, good fortune, hugs and kisses (from people you know and love, of course).  May all the movies you watch be action packed and gory the way you like it.

My husband and I have celebrated many birthdays together.  He always goes out of his way to do up my birthday.  We are always jokingly celebrating my birthday "week" or referring to August as my birthday "month."  So I hope he doesn't mind my meager offerings of a meal, cake, and small gift on his special day.  I know he doesn't; we both appreciate the little things in life and realize how lucky we are.
We're celebrating this birthday with what I'm calling "chocolate cloud cake".  I found a version of this cake months ago on one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, and filed it away for this occasion.  It's a flourless chocolate cake,  one of my husband's favorites.  The texture is super light and airy and made me think of clouds, hence, the name I've tagged on to it.  It's called "lighter-than-air chocolate cake" on Smitten Kitchen - also very appropriate!  This cake is far lighter than the Gotham Bar & Grill chocolate cake (also another flourless cake) and more along the lines of the basic flourless chocolate cake I often make without any filling.  I think this cake is the perfect "dressed up" flourless chocolate cake.  We liked having a bit of chocolate shavings on top, which adds extra chocolate and a little bit of crunch.
While the cake tastes ever so light, it's full of chocolate flavor.   I made a 2-layer cake here but you can do it up and make 3 or 4 layers for a larger crowd.  Since  the cake and cocoa whipped cream are so light, smooth, and silky, it goes down ever so easily and  you end up packing it away (in your tummy) rather quickly.  It was a little bit of a risk making something new for a birthday celebration but this cake really met our expectations; we'll be making it over and over again in our house, special occasion or not!

November 14, 2011

Cook's Illustrated's chocolate chip cookie recipe

These cookies are billed "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" by Cook's Illustrated, those kitchen perfectionists I've come to admire.  So I filed this recipe away and had high expectations for them.  I recall watching these cookies being made on the PBS cooking show and the technique is really interesting - it's all done by hand, with lots of whisking and timing involved.  This recipe also uses melted butter, which has been rumored to be the key to an amazing chocolate chip cookie.  I've been wanting to test that theory for a while.
Since this blog is essentially a journal of my kitchen experiments, I try recipes I'm interested in and see if they're as good as they sounded or looked.  I've discovered a lot of terrific recipes already thus far but not everything is a home run.  Did this one earn its billing as the "perfect" chocolate chip cookie?  In my humble opinion, it did not.
I think this is a matter of personal preference.  There's a deep caramel flavor to the cookie that maybe I'm just not accustomed to.  This comes from melting the butter until it gets golden brown and nutty.  A combination of whisking and resting works the batter until it's thick, smooth, and rich.  The texture of the cookies is nice - crisp on the edges, soft in the center, but the flavor was not what I expected, or liked very much.  When it comes to chocolate chip cookies, I found that I much prefer the recipe from David Lebovitz or say some whole wheat chocolate chip cookies

Making a great chocolate chip cooking is a bit like cooking chicken or eggs.  It's such common food but difficult to nail.  I'll chalk this one up as a great learning experience.  The technique in making these cookies is really interesting.

November 9, 2011

Simple cornbread

Now that Halloween is behind us, we have Thanksgiving to look forward to.  Are you dreaming up your Thanksgiving menu and loading the pantry?  I think Thanksgiving is such a lovely American holiday - it's all about food and family.  How much better can it get!  For my family, Thanksgiving is a collaborative effort and a multi-cultural affair.  We'll have the usual like turkey and gravy but also loads of Asian dishes my mother will cook up (she does most of the work not only for Thanksgiving but all the other family meals that take place very often).  It can be anything from oyster pancakes to noodles and seafood on our Thanksgiving table.  Today, I thought I'd post this super easy, basic cornbread recipe.  It might make an appearance on our table this year - if there's room.  I actually cooked this up recently for our six-year old after he'd tasted some at school and really enjoyed it.
In our elementary school, we recently held a "Colonial Day" where the children, teachers, staff, parents dressed up in Colonial garb and "went back in time" to experience what life was like then.  It was a fun and educational day and part of the event included tasting of food typical of Colonial times.  That meant turkey, ham, cornbread or corn muffins, apple cider, and pumpkin pie.  My son said he liked the cornbread best of all.  That sent me in the kitchen to make a batch for him at home.
This is a very easy, basic cornbread recipe to mix up quickly.  I like using yellow stone ground cornmeal for a bit more texture.  Buttermilk makes these tender and the flavor is fairly mild so it's a nice accompaniment to the robust Thanksgiving meal.  If you're going to someone's house for Thanksgiving this year and need to bring something, this is an easy side dish to whip up.

November 6, 2011

Delicious disaster - Chocolate Macarons

I must've thought about making French macarons - those dainty, delicious little bites of airy yet crisp and chewy cookies - for years now.  But like so many others, I've been deterred by how complicated they sound and by the many firsthand accounts of things gone awry.  The macaron is a perfect example of baking as a science.
Chocolate macarons with chocolate ganache filling
I wish I could sit here and tell you my macarons came out great and I'll be making them over and over again from now on.  Alas...the lone macaron you see above is essentially the only one that came out nearly right (it's as close as I got).  Some things worked and other things didn't.  I got that shiny, crispy top and chewy center but didn't achieve the coveted/signature "feet" on the macarons.  I had a horrible time removing most of the baked cookies from the tray; each tray that came out of the oven seemed to have a distinct problem.  But I call it my "delicious disaster" because they tasted awesome.  My son and I had a great time eating the broken cookies and frankly, even though most of the ones that made it on to the plate were far from perfect, they tasted really good.  If you close your eyes, you could be tricked into thinking you were biting into the real thing.  When I was telling my little guy that they didn't come out right, he kept telling me "but they're still really tasty, mommy" and he's right.
So I was motivated to finally roll up my sleeves and dust off my piping bag to give the macarons a go by a recent visit to Ladurée, the pâtisserie based in Paris that started it all.  They just opened their first shop in New York City and on a cool Fall day, we went to sample the goodies.  Naturally, I loved the macarons.  Just stepping into the cozy shop and seeing the pretty pastel packaging is almost enough for me.  I wanted to take every gift box home.  To do what with, I don't know, but they're just so beautiful. 

But I have to say that our six-year old son has an almost unnatural love for these cookies.  Each time I've had any and attempted to hoard them for myself, he manages to sniff it out and is chomping at the bit for a bite.  What is up with that!  Like mother like son perhaps?  So we sampled an array of flavors that day in the city and I'll never forget sitting in Central Park and my son eagerly awaiting each taste.  He took a bite of the coffee macaron and told my husband and I: "the coffee one is really good!"  He was totally right again; I think the coffee flavor is so good because it offsets the sweetness that comes with meringues.  We had to go back for seconds and he has since asked often for macarons.  It came to the point where he started asking if I knew how to make them and if I could make some for him.  Of course I had to try with motivation like that.  He really wanted coffee ones but I told him I had to keep it simple and start with chocolate.  He had no problems with that.  He seriously loves macarons, even the ones I made.
Now you've seen my attempt and I'll go into details of what I think went right and what went wrong after the jump.  But how about taking a look at the real deal. 

This is the Ladurée shop on the Upper East Side in New York.  I kept telling my husband not to take out the camera (I've heard stories of people being kicked out of the shops in Paris for taking pictures) until I saw plenty of locals playing tourist as well. 
I think we tried about ten flavors that day.  Of the ones we tasted, coffee was the clear winner for my husband and son.  I'm a bit on the fence.  I stay eternally faithful to chocolate so that gets my vote, as well as pistachio.  On our return trip to the shop for seconds, I heard the woman behind the counter explain to a customer that praline was hazelnut and I had to try it given my love of hazelnuts.  The praline macaron turned out to be (another) favorite of mine; although it was quite sweet, the strong hazelnut flavor more than made up for it.
Another great place we can get our hands on some macarons is La Maison du Chocolat.  I love their chocolate to bits.  My husband got me some macarons from there a while back and I remember the caramel flavor was surprisingly my favorite.
Check out the serious "foot" (that sort of foamy bottom) on them.  When you bite into one, the crisp shell shatters and the center is soft and slightly chewy mixed with a creamy filling.  It is so delicious.  And everyone loves the array of colors that come with macarons; it's really visually appealing. 
I plan to give these macarons another try.  I've learned a lot from my first attempt and I'll arm myself with the exact equipment I need next time around (I had to make due with what I had on hand in a couple of instances).  Saving nearly $3 per macaron is a huge incentive, not to mention my child's love for them (he literally licks up every bite).  I'm always telling my son that practice makes perfect.  In this case, even when the end result is imperfect, it can still be quite good and worthwhile.

November 1, 2011

Milk chocolate hazelnut cookies

Oh, the insanity!  Before we proceed on to our regularly scheduled post below, I'd like to mention that we're living through another few days of insanity again.  As Claire Huxtable (from the Cosby show) would say: "let the record show" that not more than two months after Hurricane Irene hit us in the Northeast, we experienced a snow storm right before Halloween (yes, in October!), leaving us with plenty of downed trees/tree limbs and major power outages in the New Jersey area.  Schools closed for five days, more than wiping out the 4 alloted snow days in one fell swoop, and neighborhood trick or treating was canceled.  We consider ourselves very lucky for only losing power for about 30 hours.  Ironically, our neighbors who have lived here for decades can't remember having power outages.  It leaves you scratching your head and wondering what's going on these days.  I really hope this is not a sign of a long winter to come. 

Now...back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Making those delicious hazelnut shortbread cookies recently reminded me of how much I love hazelnuts.  And chocolate and hazelnuts are a magical combination, in my opinion.  I love chocolate with gianduja (I'm not even sure how to pronounce it but it's hazelnut paste) and things like nutella.  During college when I worked part-time in midtown Manhattan, there was an eatery across the street from the office that carried these small Cadbury milk chocolate bars with whole hazelnuts.  I never could resist those purple Cadbury bar wrappers and the ones with whole hazelnuts where I could literally feel the lumps of hazelnuts in my hand always wound up in my hand and at the cash register with me.  It's probably a good thing those particular chocolate bars are hard to find.  I used to eat a bar (I figured they were "small" at about 3-4 inches long, maybe an inch wide) in one sitting.  
So with that in mind, I had to try this recipe for milk chocolate hazelnut cookies from Boston's Flour Bakery.  These were really good, like a warm Mrs. Fields cookie you'd get at the mall (and that's a compliment).  Ground hazelnuts in the cookie dough give the cookies extra chew (and we love chewy cookies over here) while the larger pieces of chopped hazelnut provide crunch and drive home the hazelnut flavor.  The milk chocolate is sweet but balanced by the relatively mild (not too sweet but still nicely caramelized) cookie dough.  My family and I loved these...even the little one who insists he does not like nuts was a big fan.
These cookies are a bit more work since it involves toasting some hazelnuts (I couldn't find blanched hazelnuts so I toasted and rubbed off as much of the skin as possible), grinding some of them finely, and chopping the rest.  You also need to plan a bit in advance since the dough needs to rest in the fridge for a few hours or overnight before baking.  But the good news is you can keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to a week and bake some off fresh when you want it.  I choose to make these small but it wouldn't be a bad idea to follow the recipe and go the heftier route since they do spread when baking and come out on the thin side.  I prefer having more as opposed to one giant cookie. 
So if you like the combination of chocolate and hazelnut, I recommend giving these a try.


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