May 29, 2012

Last minute cake

I'm calling this "Last Minute Cake" because it is, seriously, so easy to put together that you can make it at the last minute, on a whim, or whenever the need arises.  It's actually a lemony almond cake - a simple, casual, everyday cake you might just pick up and snack on or have with a cup of tea.
Making this cake really requires very little to no advance planning.  It helps to have a lemon and some sliced almonds on hand (and I very often do, luckily) but I think the recipe is adaptable and you could play around with what you have on hand.  As far as the batter goes, it gets mixed by hand within a matter of minutes.   I decided to make this one Saturday night recently when we decided to stay in for dinner.  It was already about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and I started getting some tomatoes ready to roast for pasta and dessert was on my mind.

This was one of the easiest recipes I could think of and comes from Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours.  It's actually called Swedish Visiting Cake in the book, referring to the source of the recipe, a friend of Dorie's whose mom would whip this cake up when she saw guests arriving.  That made me consider calling this "Unexpected Company Cake" too.  But what really attracted me to this cake was the description of it as "soft, chewy, moist and reminiscent of cakes made with almond paste."  I love almond paste so I knew I had to try this recipe one day.
With just the 3 of us for dinner and plenty of dessert-making in my future, I divided the recipe in half and made a teeny 6-inch cake.  The cake is meant to be baked in a 9-inch cast iron skillet (that you can serve the cake directly in), which I don't have (need to work on that).  But you can also make this in a buttered cake or pie pan so again, it's quite versatile.  Without any chemical leaveners (i.e., baking powder/soda) in the recipe, the cake is fairly thin.  The texture is moist in the center, contrasted with a crisp top and edge thanks in part to a scattering of almond slices and some granulated sugar on the surface.  Lemon zest adds freshness to the buttery flavor and almond extract together with the almonds contribute the almond flavor.  It's not quite as moist and robust in flavor as a true almond paste cake but it is similar! 
You just can't beat how easy this cake is to make.  I had it done that Saturday night in well under an hour from beginning to end.  After we enjoyed our pasta with roasted tomatoes for dinner (I couldn't resist including a picture of it here), a small wedge of this cake was a nice way to end the dinner on a sweet note.
Another bonus point for this cake is it keeps well so you can wrap it tightly and enjoy it over the course of about 5 days.  I love cakes like that!

May 26, 2012

Chocolate ganache custard tart

A few weeks ago, I made two tart shells and stocked them in the freezer.  I used the first for that lovely lemon tart and I had plans for that second crust and it was for a chocolate tart - a chocolate ganache custard tart, to be exact.  This is a recipe I've wanted to try for a while ever since I made my first tart last summer because I simply love all things chocolate.  Plus, like the lemon tart, this is another delectable yet simple French dessert we can make and enjoy at home.
I started with that simple, no-roll tart shell.  This time, I pressed the dough into a rectangular, 13 3/4 by 4 1/2-inch, tart pan (I knew I'd use that pan one of these days!).  When you have the tart shell ready to go, the filling is quite simple, calling for four ingredients.
This is all about the chocolate and there are ten ounces of it in this tart, which can serve 10 people.  I used a mix of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate since that's what I had on hand.  Instead of heavy cream, I opted for half-and-half to cut down on some of the fat.  I think the half-and-half provides enough richness but you can certainly use heavy cream if you want the full on effect.  For a chocolate ganache tart, the filling (or ganache=chocolate and cream mixture) would simply be poured into a baked tart shell and then chilled.  Some professionals actually use a hot air gun to get rid of air bubbles on top of the ganache once it's been poured into the tart shell.  I'm perfectly content with some air bubbles on mine but it does explain those perfectly smooth surfaces.

In this case, we're making a custard tart so we whisk an egg and egg yolk into the ganache (chocolate and half-and-half, in this case), along with a dash of vanilla extract before baking in the oven for about 20 minutes.
What you end up with is an elegant dessert fit for a dinner party.  The chocolate custard filling is decadent, delicious, and deep in chocolate flavor, with an added bonus of a buttery, crisp crust.  It isn't too sweet, particularly when you use a chocolate with a high cacoa percentage, but it is a luxuriously chocolaty way to end a meal.  
I really like the idea of a tart like this for a dinner party since it's something you can make earlier in the day and there's something special about a tart, particularly homemade.  A group can help polish off this tart, which should be eaten, ideally, the day it's made since the tart shell loses its fresh crispness after refrigeration.  The center, though, gets fudgier and stays delicious, in my opinion.
If you are a chocolate-lover, I think you'll enjoy this dessert and appreciate the magic that is chocolate ganache.  The filling is like a set pot de crème.  It's smooth and almost fudgey in texture.  I strongly recommend a scoop of vanilla ice cream to go with a slice of this tart.  When the two mix together, the center tastes like molten chocolate cake and you didn't need to bake it at the last minute.  If you skip the ice cream, maybe a sprinkle of sea salt over the top would be interesting.

May 23, 2012

"Smart" cookie

I have a special little place in my heart for Smarties - not the American candy rolls you see during Halloween but the sugar-coated chocolate ones that are basically the European version of M&M's.
Growing up as a kid in Hong Kong, they were probably my favorite candy/chocolate after the Toberlone.  I certainly enjoyed the taste but I think the colors - those bright yet pastel hues that make me think of Easter - appealed to me just as much.  The ones we had in Hong Kong came in a round paperboard tube, with a little plastic pop top that I'd take on and off (I think the tops came in different colors too but I can't be sure now).  I loved shaking my little tube around.
While it's not impossible to find Smarties around here in the States, they're not exactly everywhere in your local drugstore either.  Whenever I see them, I can't resist snapping one up, particularly if I'm on vacation and feeling indulgent.  So when I saw Smarties while shopping in Paris recently, I grabbed a few packets to bring home.  Just couldn't resist...

So I found myself with extra tubes of Smarties even after divvying up some of my stash, and thought it'd be fun to make some Smarties cookies.  I've dubbed them "Smart cookies" but I'm certainly being tongue in cheek about the whole "smart" thing since we are talking candy in our cookies here (although you'll notice they're no longer made with artificial colors or flavors - that's something, right?).  So we won't take the name too seriously; I wouldn't make these very often but I was in the mood to do something silly and fun.  I made an oatmeal cookie dough and stirred in some Smarties as well as mini chocolate-chips (since my cookies are on the small side) to make these.
My "Smart" cookies
I thought about incorporating the Smarties as part of monster cookies and throwing in some salty pretzels (another thing I have a lot of lying around since my son decided he was no longer into them - right after I'd bought a 50-pack sack of them for his school snack, of course).  In the end, I kept it simple and used an easy oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe and substituted some of the chocolate chips with Smarties.  Truth be told, you can't see the Smarties too well in the cookies after baking but I think they're fun nonetheless.  And if Smarties aren't your thing, stick with regular chocolate chips and make yourself and your family a nice batch of chewy oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies instead.  I divided my cookie batter in half and did both.
Plain oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies

May 21, 2012

Baked "fried" chicken

This is a rare savory post today.  I wanted to post it because I love this chicken dish - it's easy and delicious.  Plus, I've been making it often enough that I'd like to be able to pull the recipe up right here rather than dig out my paper copy when I need it.  It is baked "fried" chicken or "fake-fried chicken", as it's called in the recipe I discovered from theKitchn.
I saw this recipe a few months ago and have been making it pretty regularly since.  It is really good!  It doesn't require much advance planning to make and it's easy - baked on a wire rack in a 425 degree oven for about 25 minutes - and you end up with crisp chicken that when dipped in some ketchup (the little one prefers barbecue sauce) reminds me of that famous fried chicken with three initials.  Needless to say, it's a whole lot healthier than the fried variety and something you can cook and eat often and feel good about it.

I've baked chicken before but this one is the most crisp I've made thanks to the use of panko breadcrumbs.  And for me, the best part of this dish is the flavor - the chicken is very flavorful thanks to a well-seasoned, dijon mustard based wet dip.  I use chicken thighs, which besides being more forgiving to cook, leaves you with a richer flavor and moister result. 
A typical weeknight dinner - Baked "fried" chicken and roasted sweet potatoes
So if you're looking for a dinner idea or another good chicken recipe, check out this recipe.  I hope you like it as much as we do.

May 18, 2012

Cornmeal griddle cakes (pancakes)

One of the best things I discovered this past year was the rewards of making pancakes from scratch.  Sounds like a simple thing, and it is, but I used to rely on the boxed stuff and didn't realize the real thing was way better with just a bit more effort. 

I've now banished those box mixes from the pantry in preference for the homemade variety.  Since we love our pancakes (we love waffles too but I've yet to invest in a waffle maker), it often makes its appearance on a lazy Sunday morning when we decide to have a long, relaxing family breakfast.  A cup of coffee (or milk for the little one) and some ham or bacon alongside is a very nice thing.  I really savor those breakfasts, not just for the food but for the company and quiet time that it is.  I find myself setting more time aside for these family breakfasts lately - it's a leisurely way to start the day.  I also find that entertaining at breakfast or brunch time is a lot less stressful too.
That was my very long-winded way of saying I recently tried another pancake recipe.  (I apologize but I am just not a concise speaker or writer.)  What I should simply say is I made some cornmeal griddle cakes or cornmeal pancakes/hotcakes/flapjacks recently in hopes of expanding my pancake making repertoire.  This sort of "old-school" cornmeal griddle cake recipe, which I found in Baked Explorations, appealed to me since my husband is a particular fan of cornbread and I saw buttermilk as an ingredient and we know how good that kind of pancake can be.
Alas, I did not discover a new favorite in the pancake category.  On the plus side, these cornmeal griddle cakes are fluffy yet have a nice, slightly grainy texture to them courtesy of the stone ground cornmeal.  We just prefer those melt-in-your mouth buttermilk pancakes and they remain our favorite, followed by the more basic but still fluffy version.  This cornmeal variety was a bit more involved to make and it took a couple of batches for me to get the pancakes to brown properly.  It was worth a try but I'll reserve it for the true cornmeal enthusiast. 

And that concludes this morning's kitchen experiment.

May 16, 2012

Chocolate macarons - the final saga

The time has come for me to complete my chocolate macaron saga.
It all started last November with my very first attempt, which I dubbed a "delicious disaster" (those looked bad).  The second time around, they came out a little better but still a far cry from how they should be.  After those two tries, I learned a lot and did more research plus I got a properly working oven (the lighter needed to be replaced).  Subsequently, I successfully made coffee, hazelnut, and pistachio flavor macarons, with lovely "feet" to boot.  Now my chocolate macaron "trilogy" comes to an end with this batch...though I do fully intend to make chocolate macarons again since my family and I love to eat them.
Maybe it's my imagination but is there something about chocolate macarons in particular that makes them harder to master?  Is there some tricky chemical balance/imbalance between the cocoa powder and almonds?  It can't be but though I finally got a good batch of chocolate macarons after three tries, they still seemed a bit shaky, the foot a little less self-assured, than the other flavors I've made.  Maybe I'm just over-sensitive when it comes to chocolate macarons...
I'm still a little amazed by how finicky yet easy macarons can be to make.  But it's very satisfying to make a successful batch.  I love making my own where I get that lovely chewy texture that I love (we eat them within a couple of days so they don't have a chance to get too soft).  These chocolate macarons were delicious.  I filled them with my favorite, standby and simple chocolate ganache, and no one had any complaints. 

May 12, 2012

Mini fruit tarts for moms

Happy Mother's Day!  For all loving, hardworking, well-meaning moms out there, I wish you a very happy day, and I hope you'll celebrate in a way that brings you a lot of joy.
I feel very lucky to have my family and to be able to celebrate Mother's Day as a mom myself.  For me, this day is a reminder to continue to strive towards being a better mom.  Of course, it's also another lovely occasion to sit down with my family for a celebratory meal or two.  What's a holiday without a good meal - It wouldn't be right without it!  So I'm off to have brunch with my "men" in the morning and then I'm looking forward to a rousing dinner in the evening with my own mom and extended family.  It also happens to be my nephew's 9th birthday so we have lots to celebrate!
Mother's Day is a great reason to make something pretty.  I decided this was a perfect occasion to make some mini fruit tarts - these are great for moms and anyone, really!
Personally, I may prefer a mini chocolate cake over a mini fruit tart typically but there's something about these colorful tarts that seem right for the occasion.  I made my first fruit tart last summer and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it (I'm not a big fruit dessert person).  The crisp tart shell, the cold, creamy pastry cream against slightly tart fruit is a terrific combination.  I've been wanting to make mini versions of them because, frankly, everything is cuter in miniature.  So I turned the standard recipe I've used into six tartlets and shared them with a few of my favorite moms.  And I do mean a few; I know many great moms but obviously couldn't give one to everyone I wanted to.
Happy Mother's Day!  I send you virtual mini fruit tarts and flowers.

May 9, 2012

Dutch baby pancake breakfast

Mother's Day is coming up this weekend!  When I think of Mother's Day, I think of sunshine and breakfast in bed or a nice brunch.  There's no right or wrong way to celebrate but for me, food is love and the act of sitting down together to share a nice meal is as good as it gets.  So where there's a celebration, I'll always bring food into the picture.
So may I suggest making a special breakfast for your Mother's Day celebration?  I thought a Dutch baby pancake was in order.  This was my first Dutch baby; I had never tasted one until now.  My sister once described having one while on vacation somewhere and how delicious it was.  That got my attention because although my sister and I share a love (a healthy obsession, really) of food, she's really not a big sweets person so it's unlike her to wax poetic about pancakes or anything remotely sweet.  But I never tried making one because I always thought you needed a cast-iron skillet and a blender to do it - both things I do not have.  Well, I did a little research and realized I could use my nonstick skillet and whip the batter up in my food processor - even by hand with a whisk.  Things are often not as complicated as we make them out to be.
So this past Sunday, I did a little Dutch baby pancake experiment and discovered a delicious alternative to my pancake breakfasts.  A cross between a popover, a pancake, an omelet, and even a souffle or thick crepe, the Dutch baby is theatrical enough for a special occasion but simple enough for any weekend morning.  It puffs and rises rather theatrically in the oven but deflates quickly (as in ten seconds quickly) into something like a pancake that's slightly crisp at the corners but moist, eggy, and a little sweet and buttery in the center.
Traditionally, the Dutch baby (or German pancake) is served with lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar.  We tried it that way and also with maple syrup and even Nutella.  All were good though we preferred maple syrup best.  I'm really thrilled that I tried this and I know I'd be happy to see it on my breakfast tray come Mother's Day.  And don't forget Father's Day; I think dads would love this (my husband did)!
For other varieties, I've seen smaller, individual-size Dutch babies, those served with fresh berries on top, maybe with some lemon zest added into the batter.  I think you could even dial down the sugar in the recipe and go a more savory route, using it as a base for, say, some cooked spinach and mushrooms.  I think it's adaptable to many possibilities.

May 6, 2012

Low-fat and vegan (super-easy) chocolate cupcakes

Do you remember the days as a child when birthdays meant a little party and cupcakes at school?  Nowadays, food (not to mention sweets) is essentially prohibited at classroom birthday celebrations.  Maybe it's not the case everywhere but where I live, that seems to be the protocol once we reach past preschool.
I totally respect parents' desire to limit their children's intake of sweets and the proliferation of food allergies these days but I really miss those days of birthday cupcakes in the classroom.  When I made these cupcakes, I thought about that.  Since these are low-fat and vegan chocolate cupcakes, I wonder if they might even pass muster with the school nurse and be allowed in the classroom.  And as an added bonus, these cupcakes are a real cinch to make.  You mix wet and dry ingredients together with a wooden spoon and the batter is done.
These chocolate cupcakes are very moist, light, with a chocolate flavor that comes from cocoa and espresso powder.  A little bit of molasses might be the secret ingredient.  The recipe, which comes the Flour cookbook, makes a 6-inch cake but I opted for cupcakes and divided the recipe in half (like I often do) to make a small batch.  I liked these cupcakes because unlike many other low-fat foods, they are not loaded down with sugar so they're not too sweet and there's no cloying aftertaste.
You might wonder how a chocolate cupcake that has no butter, eggs or other dairy tastes.  They're actually really good and I liked it more and more as I tasted it.  When I first took a bite, I thought "ok, they're pretty good but I can definitely tell the difference between these and 'regular' cupcakes."  But the lines blurred the more I ate, and even if they are a little different, it's different in a good way.  It's like my love of frozen yogurt; it's not quite the same as ice cream but a good fro yo is very satisfying too. 

These reminded me of the basic chocolate cupcake recipe I often use and they're even not very far removed from the everyday chocolate loaf cake I once made (just way less fat and calories involved).  The two kids that tried these cupcakes certainly didn't notice anything unusual about them.  And you don't leave the table feeling weighed down after eating one; it is a great option when it comes to getting a chocolate fix in a more healthful way.  And since they are so easy to make, it's a great treat to prepare with kids.
Now, if you don't mind throwing "low-fat and vegan" out the window, you can add frosting.  I couldn't resist and topped a few with some whipped chocolate ganache.  I figured it was alright to mix a little bad in with the good but I might've been a little too generous with the topping since I had more than I needed.  I've been thinking that as a compromise, coating the tops of these cupcakes with just a little bit of chocolate glaze (spoon slightly warm ganache over the top) would be a nice medium ground.  But topping or no topping, I see myself making these again. 

May 4, 2012

Cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris

When we first starting planning our trip to Paris, I knew I wanted to squeeze in a short cooking class if possible.  My top choice was Le Cordon Bleu, for obvious reasons.
A search on their website quickly revealed a list of recreational classes and in the end, I signed up for a macaron class, specifically on making "violet macarons".  Though I adore macarons, I wasn't looking specifically for a macaron class since I felt I'd already come a fair way towards making them and there are so many other French pastries I'd love to see/learn how to make.  In truth, it was the only class that worked for our schedule and the timing was just a mere 5 1/2 hours after our overnight flight touched down in Paris from New Jersey.
Well, I very happily and excitedly arrived at Le Cordon Bleu Paris around noon the first day of our trip.  And I'm so glad I made it.  The class was informative, enjoyable, and an overall fun experience I won't soon forget.
The nearly 3-hour course started with us doning our fresh Le Cordon Bleu aprons (I think that alone was worth the price of admission for some of us) before heading upstairs to our classroom.  Chef Daniel Walter conducted the course, with help from a lovely translator, who provided the English for those of us who didn't speak French.  There were roughly a dozen students in the class and we all watched Chef Walter demonstrate the steps to making a batch of violet macarons shells, with a cassis (black currant) and white chocolate ganache filling.  Now in general, I am certainly more of a "conventional" chocolate or coffee macaron type person but I was excited to try a different variation.
Chef Walter thoroughly demonstrated each step of the macaron making process.  He was professional, humorous, and informative.  I really adored him.  After he showed us how to make the macarons, it was our turn.  Ingredients were laid out in front of us and two other assistants swapped out equipment and provided help when we needed it. 
So for almost three hours, I watched and learned, shared a few laughs, mixed up my own batch of violet macarons, and got a batch of tasty treats to take with me.  The recipe for the macaron shells we used during the class was very similar to the one I use at home and the taste and texture was likewise similar to what I expected.  I picked up a few tricks and Chef Walter showed us a couple of interesting techniques such as brushing edible gold powder on the macarons and spraying chocolate on a separate batch of chocolate macarons.
I think my macarons came out pretty well.  My husband says they were the best he tasted in Paris (of course...*wink, wink*).  I thought the combination of white chocolate ganache with the black currant jam was an interesting and fairly easy technique to do at home.  The chef mentioned we could do this with a variety of fruit from say raspberries to mango, which is a very intriguing thought and opens up a host of possibilites for the adventurous...
One of my violet macaron creations. The topping is chopped candied violets
At the end of the class, we were each presented with our certificate of completion (another wonderful momento) and I left, armed with a box of macarons and thrilled that I'd been able to attend this class.
My husband and son met me in the lobby (they'd gone exploring and getting lost for the last three hours) and we set off to really begin our vacation in Paris...but not before I stocked up on a couple more souvenirs to go with my newly acquired Le Cordon Bleu apron and dish towel.

Thank you, Le Cordon Bleu, for a wonderful experience!


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