December 29, 2013

Curry-ginger carrot soup

Hi there - I hope you had a wonderful holiday!  Maybe you're still enjoying the break, kicking your feet up in the comfort of your home?  I like to think that of everyone.  For my part, I'm home savoring the time together with my family.  The thing is...I've realized that while we can't slow down time, we can try to savor it.  So that's just what I'm doing as we look forward to the New Year and embrace that feeling of possibility that comes with it.

Since my attempt at chocolate-champagne truffles was a dud, I drop in today with a simple soup for my last post of the year.  Maybe it's just as well because while I've been enjoying - really thoroughly enjoying - all the treats the season (and our very own kitchen) has to offer, I hit something of a wall a few days ago when my husband brought home some pastries from Francois Payard.  They were delicious and we polished them off (along with some other treats around the house) but I suppose I just had one piece of cake too many and needed a day or two's reprieve*.  Soup is great for that.
Naturally sweet carrot soup balanced by spices from curry powder and fresh ginger
And I have been on a pretty consistent soup kick since September.  I can't get tired of it because I just find a big piping-hot bowl of soup to go so well, and be so welcomed, with just about anything during the cold months.  It's always smart to have healthy, nourishing, ready-to-eat food in the house and I'm so happy when I look in my fridge and suddenly remember I have some soup ready to go.

Sometimes carrot soup can be too sweet.  A particular Thai restaurant I've been to comes to mind - their carrot soup is so sweet, it can't possibly be from carrots alone.  I think someone's dousing the soup with a little sugar, which should be unnecessary in my opinion.  In fact, I like to balance out the natural sweetness of the carrots with spice.  So I enjoy a version like this one where both curry powder and fresh ginger, as well as a little garlic, add a spicy dimension.

You can use vegetable broth for this soup but I like the more savory note in the background from using chicken broth.  I'm thankful for my immersion blender, which I use to puree soups like this one. The carrot soup ends up nice and creamy but light.  It's a lighter alternative to say butternut squash soup, which I have likewise been doctoring with curry powder. Come to think of it, I've been adding curry powder to quite a number of savory dishes!

I think this is the kind of simple food we all welcome in the rapidly-approaching month of January. Personally, I'm for all kinds of eating, in January and any month for that matter - soup included!

* Happily, it didn't take long for me to re-coup from my dessert excesses.  I'm ready for a slice of cake now.  : )

December 23, 2013

Those Union Square Cafe bar nuts

Everyone seems to love these nuts.  Nigella has made them; Ina has a version too.  Even David Lebovitz likes to serve them with drinks.  So chances are you have heard of, made, and/or eaten these roasted nuts with rosemary, otherwise known as Union Square Cafe's Bar Nuts.
I'm finally giving these nuts a try and the irony is I've been to Union Square Cafe in New York City more than a few times in the past.  It was our date-night restaurant of choice way back in the day. My husband and I have been talking about going back there for a special anniversary coming up in the New Year because it holds so many wonderful memories for us.  We would go there and pig out on their wonderful food and soak in the warm, friendly atmosphere. 

The other ironic thing is I've never eaten these bar nuts at Union Square Cafe despite the times we've dined there.  My husband and I are not big drinkers and we never sat at the bar.  We always went to eat.  But now I got to try them at home.  They are so easy to make - toast some mixed nuts and literally just toss them in a mixture of rosemary, cayenne, brown sugar, salt, and a little melted butter.  The rosemary adds a distinctly warm, savory flavor to these nuts, which are just a bit spicy to make things interesting.  In other words, they're great to have with drinks at your Christmas gathering or for your New Year's toast!

Just two days until Christmas...I have happily checked off most of my to-do list (a miracle accomplished only by keeping my list realistic instead of overly ambitious) and I'm ready to just kick up my heels and enjoy the holiday break.

I wish you and your family a joyful holiday and all the best for the New Year!

December 18, 2013

Chocolate peppermint patty cake

When I think of Christmas flavors, classics like peppermint inevitably come to mind.  One of my favorite store-bought treats is this peppermint bark and we get at least one tin during the season to enjoy at home alongside our homemade goodies.  I've thought about attempting a homemade version but honestly, I have a feeling the real thing would be hard to beat (never mind all the issues with tempering or needing to refrigerate a homemade version - what do they do to the candy cane bits to prevent it from melting?).
So I settled for making a little peppermint cake.  Aside from the bark, I was inspired by the peppermint brownies I made last year that turned out really well.  My son was quick to remind me that I had to make those as well.  I've since accomplished that but beforehand, I thought I'd try something new.  
I scaled this cake down from a recipe in Chocolate Cakes, a book a chocoholic like myself feels she has to have.  There are literally chopped peppermint patties in the cake itself.  It's the kind of "crazy" thing we find ourselves doing during the holidays.  

If, like me, you fear the cake might be cloying, I'm happy to report that it is not.  The proportions work (I did go light on the peppermint patties) and it's almost-surprisingly not too sweet.  I liked this cake even more than I thought I would; it's rather addictive, actually.  That could well be explained by the bittersweet chocolate ganache since I rarely dislike anything with ganache but the cake itself is moist and chewy and the whole effect is somewhat like a peppermint brownie truffle!
Now pardon my wobbly piping job on this cake.  It's the best I can do, quite frankly.  I just thought I'd take the excess ganache I had and pipe a pretty border - it is the holidays, after all!  And inspired by the delicious peppermint bark we're enjoying right now, that border created the perfect little center for me to nestle some festive peppermint bark pieces inside.  The whole thing tasted incredibly harmonious - a little crunch of the bark to go with the creamy chewiness of the cake.  This is a terrific chocolate fix for the holidays!
Rather like a peppermint brownie truffle in cake form

December 15, 2013

Chocolate-covered almond pralines

It's so much fun to make simple candies and confections during the holidays. They take us out of the norm of mixing cookie dough and hovering over our stand mixer, and we find ourselves at the stove-top, stirring and mixing a different kind of edible gift for our friends and family.
Last Christmas season, I whipped up a batch of candied almonds.  It was simple, tasty, and made great little gifts (at least I think so).  This year, I was tempted to step it up a bit and make praline (or candied) almonds coated with dark chocolate and then dusted with cocoa powder.  I think everything's better with chocolate!  And what better time to go the extra mile and dress things up a bit than right now at Christmastime.
These are easy to make and one of those crunchy snacks you keep nibbling and nibbling on.  I love that you don't need to refrigerate these pralines once they're done.  I always find it a little tricky gifting things that need to be refrigerated to friends and neighbors.

I made a batch of these chocolate covered almond pralines, packed most of it up as little gifts to go with our Christmas card, and kept a small handful for ourselves to munch on.  I kept them in a tight tin at room temperature and they should stay in good condition (i.e., the way they were when they were first made) for a couple of weeks. That dusting of cocoa makes them a bit more fuss-free and rustic somehow, which I really like.
I'm whipping up a second batch of these later this week for more gifts.  They're fun to make and to share for the holidays!

December 12, 2013

The minimalist chestnut soup

Surprise! We're taking a break from sweets on the blog today and going savory.  Believe it or not, I eat and cook other things besides cookies and cakes.  It's easier to take pictures of treats though...they seem to sit still a lot better than savory foods, I find.
As I've mentioned before, I love chestnuts!  I love eating them plain, in dessert, or in savory dishes. This time of year, I try to buy as many fresh chestnuts as possible and enjoy them before they disappear from the supermarket.  
I boil chestnuts for snacking...
So I've been eating my weight in chestnuts - or at least making space for them alongside all the Christmas cookies.  And in the spirit of my preference for easy everyday cooking most of the time, I thought I'd share this minimalist chestnut soup with you.  "Minimalist" because the recipe comes directly from the Mark Bittman, the Minimalist himself, and from the sheer fact that this soup recipe is so simple - almost bare-bones.  
Jarred (or vacuum-packed) chestnuts are a big time-saver for soups like these
It's just a few ingredients - chestnuts, chicken stock, onions, and celery, essentially.  I used jarred chestnuts because I can't roast chestnuts for my life and though it's expensive, you might get lucky and find them on sale this time of year.   There's no cream or any dairy in this soup (nor potatoes or other kinds of vegetables, even fruit, that you sometimes find in chestnut soups) but it's robust and creamy.  The chestnut flavor is subtle - I find it almost difficult to describe their flavor here.  It contributes a nuttiness, almost a woodsiness, in the background that's hard to identify but so good.

The smell of this soup simmering on the stove reminded me of chestnut soup my mother made when I was a child.  I honestly don't think she made it very often but I always think about it.  It was one of those special foods I recall enjoying and appreciating even as a kid.

December 8, 2013

Italian-American butter cookies (aka, the ones kids love)

Walk into an Italian bakery and you're likely to see shelves and shelves of butter cookies in an array of varieties and shapes.  They may be decked out in sprinkles, filled with jam or fudge, or dipped in chocolate. 
Before I started baking so often at home, I'd take my little one to a nearby Italian bakery and aside from the almond cookies, he always wanted these butter cookies.  I think they're generally popular with kids since they're so eye-catching with all the chocolate, colorful sprinkles and jam involved. Moreover, the pure flavor of butter and vanilla just goes down easy.

So this year, with my son in mind, I thought I'd try my hand at making these kid-friendly cookies at home.  In all their varieties, but from one basic dough, they are festive-looking and great for a holiday cookie platter.

I kept things traditional and simple, resisting the urge to add vanilla beans or almond extract, or to try the version that contains almond paste.  Those are projects for another time.  This basic cookie dough is fun to play with in terms of the variety of cookies you can make. You can pipe different shapes using one star tip.  For the embellishments, I tucked some of the centers with mini chocolate chips, candied cherries, and fruit preserves before baking.  I sandwich some together with apricot preserve and dipped a bunch in chocolate ganache.  Sprinkles make everything even better.
These cookies made me smile and baking them really put me in the holiday mood.  Before starting, I thought they might be a bit of a hassle to make but not only does the dough comes together in a flash, it was easy to work with in terms of piping.  That was actually a lot of fun - quick and easy, too.

These also make me think of Danish butter cookies - those blue tins have a special place in my heart. I didn't grow up eating many sweets but we did have those butter cookies.  As a child, I loved opening up the tin, taking a long whiff of that delicious buttery aroma, and looking inside, I'd finger those paper liners, deciding which shape I wanted to eat.  I loved the pretzel shape with the coarse sugar on top the best.  These cookies are similar to Danish butter cookies though it seems the Danish ones are more commonly made with confectioners' sugar (somewhat like these cookies).  Now I realize I'll have yet another project for next Christmas!
I hope these little cookies make you smile the way they did for us.

December 5, 2013

What this elf is baking this holiday season

At this time of year, I like to think of myself as a little kitchen elf.  A very happy, joyful little elf who's just content to cook up meals and treats during this cozy time of year.  

I have many things I'd love to bake this month.  I know you can relate!  Realistically, there's only so much time and capacity.  And when it comes down to it, a lot of the baking and gift-giving has to happen right around that week before Christmas so we're working with a very narrow time-frame.  So while there are plenty of cookie, cake, candy recipes I'd love to get to, I end up trying just a few new recipes because there are some true favorites that we just have to have for the holidays.  I thought it'd be fun to share some of these musts with you today.  I'm sure you have your own holiday favorites (and probably don't need any more ideas from me - so consider this pure entertainment)...and I'd love to hear about some of yours if you feel like sharing!

*  First up...these Italian tri-color cookies.  These are one of the best things I learned to bake!  My family and I just love them with a passion.  I love using Scharffen-Berger bittersweet chocolate here; it tastes amazing and gives these "cookies" a genuine chocolate flavor that you might not get from the bakery. We have to have these at Christmastime (and other times of the year) - sometimes I make two batches if time allows.  They are time consuming to make but the recipe makes a big batch and the cookies freeze really, really well so they are a great make-ahead!  I save some for Christmas day because they're that special.

You know I love these cookies so much, I even turned them into mini cupcakes - a little (time-saving) twist I'm actually pretty proud of.

* When I think Christmas cookies specifically, this next cookie is the one.  I really only make these at Christmastime but I think this may have to change because it's just too amazing!  These chocolate gingerbread cookies are soft and chewy, like the best kind of chocolate chip cookie but with fresh ginger and holiday spices that I crave right now.  Even if you're not a fan of gingerbread per se (and I'm not), this is something to try because it'll knock your socks off.  It has the perfect amount of spices and it's so unusual, perfect for the holidays. 

* Given my serious love of baked goods with almond paste, these almond cookies are a must.  I make them all year-round but they are essential at Christmastime.  It helps that I can often get almond paste on sale this time of year, and I stock up.

The classic pine nut/pignoli version is great, too.  I like them all sorts of ways.

* For gift-giving (and munching), I love this toffee recipe. I've made it the last two Christmases and I intend to do it again.  They make great gifts and stored in a tin at room temperature, you can enjoy them for weeks.

* I made these peppermint brownies below on a whim last December and they turned out to be such a successful experiment.  I originally made them as a teacher's gift and my son fell in love after a taste.  It's based on a few recipes I cobbled together but the end result is a super moist, chocolate-mint brownie thanks to unsweetened chocolate and some Andes Mints.  It's fun to play dress-up for the holidays and the extra dark chocolate drizzle and peppermint candy on top make them sparkle.


December 2, 2013

Nutella-hazelnut crinkle cookies...'Tis the season!

It's the holiday season!  It's cookie season!  It's the season for treats and indulgence, and quality time with family!  Can you tell I'm excited?  I have a feeling there's a good chance you're just as excited as I am.   
Chewy nutella-hazelnut crinkle (crackle) cookies perfect for the season
I just love December and Christmastime.  I try to get as much done as possible - as far as Christmas shopping and other to-do's - so I'll have time to savor the season.  

Aside from the twinkling lights and general goodwill floating in the air, one of the best part of the holiday season has to be all the good eats - the cookies and treats, all being washed down with cups of hot cocoa!  I made a list of family-favorites I'll be baking up this month both to savor at home and to pack up as gifts.  I have a ton of things I'd love to make but like all of you, I had to be realistic and narrow it down.  I hope to get to as much as possible while keeping things manageable so it's enjoyable instead of stressful (because if it's stressful, why bother).  It is indeed that time of year when I happily turn into a little kitchen elf, baking up old favorites and trying a few new recipes, too!

On the "new" side of things (for me, anyway), I'd love to share these nutella-hazelnut crinkle cookies with you.  Crinkles/crackles, I can't decide which to call them!  Because of how wintry they look, I like to make them at Christmastime.  Plus, my little one is partial to them and if you have a child, you know it's all about what your child likes - particularly, at Christmastime!  Last year, I really enjoyed adding a little almond extract to our batch of chocolate crackles and this year, I've been saving up this hazelnut version to try for the holidays.
I added chopped hazelnuts to half my batch of cookies and left the other half plain
I'm glad I kicked off our holiday cookie season with these because they were awesome! While chocolate crackles are generally like a light brownie, moist and soft, these nutella-hazelnut crinkles are nice and chewy.  I am a big fan of chewy cookies so they were right up my alley.  With these, I also finally got a chance to make cookies with nutella and I'm happy they didn't disappoint one bit.

I divided my batch of cookies into two: half without chopped hazelnuts inside (for my son) and the other with.  My son loved these cookies and was very grateful for his hazelnut-free half batch - though he wanted a lot more.  For my part, I think the toasted hazelnuts balance out some of the sweetness of these cookies and heighten the hazelnut flavor.  The original recipe called for rolling the outside of the cookies with additional hazelnuts but I opted to keep things simple.  Instead, I upped the amount of hazelnuts I used inside my cookies and skipped the additional roll in nuts.  This way, they also keep the classic, snowy, crackled look I love for this time of year.

November 29, 2013

Orange-dark chocolate-vanilla bean scones (aka, my first scones)

It's the morning after Thanksgiving!  I hope you had a great one.  We had a relaxing day, filled with plenty of good eats and time sitting around the table chatting and laughing.  It doesn't get much better than that.  I have to tell you that my humble little ice cream pie was a huge hit with the little ones!  Oh my goodness - it made me look like a rock star!  It just goes to show that one should never under-estimate the power of ice cream!  I think the kiddies will expect an ice cream pie every Thanksgiving from now on and that's okay with me.  Now...this morning, I may or may not be joining the crowds for a little Black Friday shopping.  I do not enjoy crowds or shopping (for the most part) but I might not be able to resist hopping into a few places.  So for now, I'll leave you with this little story about some scones I made recently...

It's hard to believe but these are my first scones.  As in first time baking and first time consciously eating them.  This sounds harsh (and admittedly a little ignorant) but I always vaguely thought of scones as dry, hard, biscuit-like lumps that I wouldn't like.  It doesn't help that my husband, who's usually quite laid-back and game for anything, tells me repeatedly that he doesn't like scones.  He's had a few bad experiences - times when he bought them at work - that's scarred him.
Breakfast time!  Orange-chocolate-vanilla bean scones with hot chocolate
Well, I finally made scones.  I've been curious about them for a long time because I have a friend who loves them and that fascinated me.  Someone loves scones!  And now that I've widened my horizons, cooked and tasted more, I know that there's possibility and magic in every food.  Sometimes you just have to find the right recipe for you.

There's a happy ending to this story.  These scones I made turned out truly terrific!  I've even converted my husband, who was surprised by how good they were.  He kept telling me, "you don't understand...I hate scones."  Well, no one hates scones in my house anymore.  The little one was a big fan, too, and we all devoured these with some hot chocolate for a recent Sunday breakfast.
I know my scones are not much to look at.  To be honest, I didn't put a lot of effort into making them neat and pretty since I didn't have very high expectations.  I also made these in a hurry first thing in the morning since I wanted to serve them fresh for breakfast.  I kind of like the rustic look and, even more so, the surprising good taste!

So for my first scones, I clearly played it safe.  It's no secret I love chocolate so I wanted to make scones with chocolate.  I love orange and chocolate together so I searched around and low and behold, the uber-cool Joy the Baker had just what I was looking for.  Better still, her recipe was on a small scale, perfect for my family.  The wonderful thing that got me thinking about scones recently is learning that I can freeze them.  The freezer is a very close friend of mine these days.  I love stocking all kinds of food in there and making life easier later on.  This recipe makes 6 (smallish) scones - we ate three right away and froze the others.  Those were happily devoured a week later and I now have yet another batch stashed in the freezer.  That's how much we like them!

I made a few tweaks to Joy's orange-dark chocolate buttermilk scones recipe.  I used to always follow recipes verbatim but now I take a more relaxed approach to cooking and baking, for the most part.  In this case, I added the vanilla beans.  I think I was thinking about those petite vanilla bean scones I see all the time at Starbucks.  Plus, I happen to have a stash of vanilla beans in my pantry. I substituted some of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and I also went ahead and took a little extra buttermilk to brush over the tops of the scones and sprinkled a touch of turbinado sugar over that.  I don't think my tweaks changed things all that much...I'm just happy the end result was so tasty!
Like a flaky, sweet biscuit - full of orange flavor and dark chocolate chips
I realized two things from this baking experience: 1) zest makes everything better, and 2) scones should be eaten fresh from the oven!  The orange zest really makes these - I think it even out-shines the chocolate, although no one's complaining about that.  And I can't help but think that many of us don't like scones when we don't get them fresh.  From the oven - just cooled to about room temperature - they really are like a sweet biscuit, with a great flaky, slightly-crisp-along-the-edges, just-moist-enough, texture.  

It doesn't happen very often but once in a while, I run out in the morning to grab chocolate croissants for a weekend breakfast. These scones are a great alternative to that and with a batch stowed away in the freezer ready to be baked anytime, I don't think I'll feel the urge to go on many more croissant runs.

November 26, 2013

Time flies...and ice cream pie

I can hardly believe Thanksgiving is upon us again.  We've all been talking about Thanksgiving being "late" this year but I still feel like it got here in a big hurry.  I wish I could somehow will time to slow down but it does just the opposite.  I have to admit that it makes me a little sad in a seems to whiz by faster and faster every year.  How is my son eight already (...never mind my own age!) and how does one calendar and school year seem to clip right along one after another.
Keeping it simple - Ice cream pie, with oreo cookie crust and vanilla chocolate chip ice cream
Alright, let me snap out of it because this is no time for wistfulness!  The best thing to do is to enjoy life to the fullest, take each holiday and celebration as a blessing.  While Christmas is my true love, I still think Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday for family and feasting, and I feel lucky to have a very long list of things to be grateful for.

So I'll be in the kitchen on turkey, gravy, and biscuit duty and then I'm off to enjoy an eclectic family feast of Asian-American goodies.  So it's time for turkey, it's time for sides, and it's time for pie!  
For dessert, I'm keeping it basic with a simple ice cream pie.  I've tried my hand at pumpkinchocolate, and brownie pies (in the days before this blog, there was once a sweet potato pie, too) but in thinking about the little ones in our extended family, I know ice cream will be a true crowd-pleaser.  It's never too cold and you're never too full for ice cream, right? So for my Thanksgiving dessert contribution this year, I went with a simple ice cream pie, made with an Oreo cookie base, filled with homemade vanilla chocolate chip ice cream.  So easy and practically stress-free!

I want to wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope your day is filled with good eats and great company.  May your meal meal fill you up in more ways than one.

November 23, 2013

Hot chocolate affogato

Remember when I discovered affogato?  It was love at first bite.  I think my husband and I had it every night for dessert for about 6 nights straight.  Our little one was a little peeved and intrigued. He'd say "you're having affogato again?" when he'd see me setting up for it around his bedtime.
Well, I hate to leave my little one out so this hot chocolate affogato was for him.  I came across a picture of it from Bon Appetit.  I showed it to my son, whose eyes lit up, and he requested it right away.  I managed to make him wait a bit but finally made a version for him recently.

Ice cream drowned in hot chocolate.  I don't need to say we all enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was another instance where I asked myself why I haven't done this before!  Better late than never.
For our cups of hot chocolate affogato, I used vanilla and mint ice cream.  To make it a little extra special, I added a spoonful of freshly whipped cream and sprinkled them with either dark chocolate or peppermint candy.  My little one kept sneaking more of that peppermint topping; I quickly realized I had to remove the bowl from him.
This is my kind of seasonal eating.  You know we're always being told, rightfully so, to eat what's "in season" and I'm hoping hot chocolate counts because it's clearly hot chocolate season and I hope you're taking full advantage of it like we are.

Throughout the holiday season (especially in December but we're starting earlier and earlier), I love to have hot chocolate "breaks" where my family and I drop everything and sit down to a little hot chocolate and some treats on a weekend afternoon.  It's just a way to take a pause and savor the holiday season.  This affogato is a little alternative for those breaks but cookies are still welcomed alongside, of course. 
I love the upcoming month of December.  As busy as it gets, I also feel like it's the calmest month and I make an effort to make sure it's relaxing and peaceful (that means a lot of online Christmas shopping!).  I hope you'll have time to savor the holidays with your family.  On a cold afternoon or night, make some hot chocolate, add some ice cream, and dig in together.  I think it'll remind you that yes, life is good...and that simple things can bring us a lot of joy.

November 21, 2013

Coffee cake muffins, stuffed...

I saw a recipe for coffee cake muffins on the Williams-Sonoma blog recently and thought I'd give them a try.  I'm always on the lookout for good muffin recipes.  I love to make them because they're usually quick & easy and versatile enough to have for breakfast, as a midday snack, or even as dessert.  I love a muffin for dessert, actually.
I don't know if it's a seasonal craving or what, but again, I'm talking about coffee cake muffins today while I posted about an old-fashioned coffee crumb cake this time last year.  Amazingly enough, I looked back and I'm posting this on the same day that I posted that coffee cake last year.  The timing wasn't intentional at all (same with the marble cupcakes previously), which makes me scratch my head a little but however coincidental it is, I'm just happy I made these little guys.  

Coffee cake can be really good, don't you think?  I love the streusel or crumb topping on them.  It adds a layer of sweetness, sometimes a little spice or nuttiness, and a nice coating of crunch that I adore.  There's a key element to this recipe that rounds out the whole thing and that's a little surprise stuffing inside...  
Having fun with the stuffing, using strawberry preserve, apricot preserve, Nutella, and chestnut cream
These muffins are quite moist, thanks in large part to the sour cream in them.  On their own, they don't actually have a ton of flavor or sweetness to them but that's okay because they're not meant to be plain.  The filling is a key component that adds another layer of flavor and sweetness.  The recipe suggests your preferred fruit preserve.  For my half-dozen muffins, I stuffed them with a variety of fillings.  Having some fun with it, I not only used apricot and strawberry preserves but I also went with Nutella and even tried a dollop of chestnut cream in one.
Aside from the filling, I played around with the recipe a bit more by substituting some of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour.  I also added a touch of cinnamon to the streusel topping.  Surprisingly, it wasn't in the original recipe and though I'm not a big fan of too-much cinnamon, I seem to be craving it lately - at least in moderation.  I'm glad I used it because it added a warm flavor and scent to the muffins, and made the kitchen smell like cinnamon rolls while they were baking. 
It was fun digging into these muffins and taste-testing the different fillings.  The little guy called dibs on the Nutella ones and my husband really liked the one with apricot preserve.  I think they all came out great, and the filling of choice is simply a matter of preference so have fun with it.  I like the whole package but I have to admit I'm really partial to that sweet crumb topping!  These muffins go down easy with a cup of coffee or tea.

November 17, 2013

Tiramisu cake for a very special birthday

We've been celebrating a very special birthday around here!  It's my husband's birthday and while he might not want a lot of fanfare on his day, I want to cue the confetti because he truly deserves it.
This year, we don't have the aftershocks of Hurricane Sandy to contend with so things are thankfully calmer.  My husband managed to have a day off from work here and there during the last couple of weeks and it's so nice to have some alone time together during the day.  I'm grateful that he doesn't mind spending some of his free time running errands with me and helping me haul bags and bags of groceries (I'm amazed by the amount of groceries my family of 3 needs!).  My husband's just cool like that.

The two of us managed to have a lovely dinner out last weekend as an early birthday celebration. For the actual event, it'll be a family dinner at home cooked by yours truly.  I asked him what he'd like for dinner and not surprisingly, he picked one of his favorites, a risotto with saffron, clams and shrimp. As for birthday cake, he went with Ina/Beatty's chocolate cake, which is definitely another family favorite. To get a head start on the celebration, I made that cake last weekend and we had no problems devouring it over the course of a few days among the three of us.  We occasionally hoard this cake - it's so easy to do so because it stays moist and delicious for days.
A family favorite (the "first" birthday cake): Ina/Beatty's chocolate cake
But in thinking about my husband's birthday during the last few weeks, I couldn't help but want to make something different, a little surprise, for him.  Somewhere, I saw a picture of a small tiramisu cake and given my husband's love of tiramisu, I started searching for some ideas.  

At first, I thought I'd turn the last tiramisu recipe I made into a cake but the idea of fitting the ladyfingers into a round cake pan sounded like a potential mess.  So long story short, I ended up at Smitten Kitchenagain, and decided to make the tiramisu cake recipe by Dorie Greenspan. Since we just finished polishing off that chocolate cake, I made a small 6-inch tiramisu cake for our birthday boy.
Instead of ladyfingers, this tiramisu cake starts with two yellow cake layers.  The layers are soaked with an espresso syrup.  In between is a creamy filling made with mascarpone cheese and whipped cream, flavored with espresso and liqueur.  There's also a hidden stash of finely chopped chocolate within that adds crunch and additional flavor (chocolate!) to the cake.  

I used amaretto as our liqueur of choice so I went ahead and added a bit of almond extract to the cake layers, too.  After reading some of the comments left by others who've made the cake (big thanks to those people who take the time to do that!) saying the cake could have used more syrup, I doubled-up on it to make sure I'd have enough.  In other words, I made half the recipe for the cake, filling, and frosting but the full amount of espresso syrup to make sure I could properly soak and flavor the cake.
Boy, am I glad I made extra syrup!  I used nearly all of it (the double-portion) and I think the cake could have still handled more!  As you can see from the photo above, the cake is just thirsting for that liquid.  I'm happy with the end result though - I just highly recommend doubling up on that espresso syrup and being patient in giving the cake a good deep soak.

If you're thinking all the dividing and doubling sounds a little convoluted and confusing, it was a little bit.  Shrinking this recipe down by half was a little tricky since there are several components to this cake so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.  I made this cake the night before we planned to eat it since it needs time to sit in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld.  The late hour didn't exactly help my concentration but I did it with joy because it was for a most deserving fella!  And luckily, the fella was a big fan of the cake so it was worth the effort.

November 14, 2013

Fudge oatmeal cookies

I think most of us would agree that oatmeal cookies are a classic.  We can never have too many oatmeal cookies, right?  Every so often (it's really more like very often), I crave one and recently, I was mesmerized by these oatmeal cookies I saw over at The Kitchn - they're soft, chewy oatmeal cookies, studded in the center with a dollop of chocolate fudge!  The very word, fudge, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  And since you really shouldn't have oatmeal cookies without chocolate in some form, here was a great new way to combine the two.  I had to make some of these cookies!
While I would have personally preferred it, I omitted the walnuts from the recipe because I made this batch to take along to my son's final soccer game of the season.  Aside from potential nut allergies, I think it's generally a better bet to remove nuts from the equation when serving a group of kids.  They either love it or they hate it, and many of them tend to fall into the latter group.

These cookies are very easy to make - even simpler when you skip the nuts like I did.  The oatmeal cookie base is a familiar one, which you can easily prepare a couple of days in advance and store in the fridge.  The fudge filling - simply condensed milk and chocolate chips - comes together in minutes on the stove-top.
Once baked, the cookies spread around the little pool of fudge.  The fudge itself sets and firms up so that you can easily store, stack, and transport these cookies.  The texture of the fudge filling is wonderfully chewy.  

I think these oatmeal fudge cookies are familiar yet just jazzed-up enough to appear on any holiday cookie platter.  I'm pretty confident they'd be popular at any bake sale, too.
Happily, my batch of cookies were very well received by the kids, my little one included.  The boys were undoubtedly hungry after their game but you know that kids are brutally honest so I trust that their enthusiasm was genuine.  There's nothing like seeing a group of people devour and enjoy something you made so I was the true beneficiary of these cookies.  

This recipe's a keeper.  And for all you peanut butter devotees out there, there's a peanut butter version too!  

November 11, 2013

Marble cupcakes

What's a girl to do when she has a little bit of heavy cream left in the fridge? I could have tossed it into a bit of pasta sauce for dinner or maybe whipped it up to serve alongside any number of chocolate desserts that I can't seem to resist making regularly, but instead, I thumbed through my little collection of cookbooks for something to bake.  And in this case, I wound up making a batch of marble cupcakes.
I've made marble loaf cake before and interestingly enough, I realized (literally only as I'm writing about it now) that it was right around this time last year, after Hurricane Sandy, that I did that for the first time.  I don't know if there was some memory trigger at work that spurred me on to this but marble cake makes an appearance again.  There's something about the black-and-white swirls that appeal to me.  I was happy to learn the simple technique on how they're made a year ago and I was again happy to play around in my kitchen and make the cupcake version a year later.

Marble cakes are simple yet special - to me, anyway.  You get the best of both worlds: vanilla cake and some chocolate at the same time. The chocolate portion comes together from the same batter, with a mixture of cocoa-water stirred in.  Some recipes use melted chocolate but I like cocoa because it gives a nice strong flavor without adding more sweetness.  Plopping the alternating batters into the muffin liners and running a skewer through it, it's fun to see how they bake up and turn out.  No two are quite the same. 
These cupcakes have richness from butter, whole eggs and a mixture of milk and cream (that's where the extra cream in the fridge came in).  I think they're just right without the need for any glazes or frosting.  These are my kind of simple snack cakes to have around the house, to enjoy any time of day.  I can't seem to have enough of those!  

November 7, 2013

English muffin loaf bread (it's so easy!)

This post does not involve chocolate or almonds for a change and I am still thoroughly excited about it!  Do you watch a lot of cooking shows?  I DVR a bunch and watch them at nights and on weekends, and a couple of weeks ago, I watched a terrific episode of Cook's Country on PBS that started all this excitement.
Let me start by saying I have a "thing" for English muffins.  I'm big on routine and my breakfast routine of choice is a toasted English muffin with fried egg & ham or slathered with peanut butter. English muffins are always on my grocery list and I'm hooked on them so you can imagine my excitement when they started talking about a recipe for English muffin bread - loaf style - on this show!  And the biggest draw of all was how easy this recipe is to make!  I am dead serious - this bread is as E-A-S-Y to make as putting together a batch of brownies.
First of all, you don't even need the mixer, this is a no-knead bread.  No kneading, no shaping, no pinching, nothing!  It's a yeasted batter dough (who knew there was such a thing as that!) so we're literally talking about just dumping in the ingredients and stirring it all together.  There's hardly any more work than that.  Total rising time is just one hour.  I thought: "now, that's a recipe for me!"  So hearing it all and watching this bread come together on this show, I knew I had to try it.  I grabbed a notebook, wrote down the recipe, and headed into the kitchen (admittedly, a few days later...)!
Plenty of pockets and holes like typical English muffins
And it worked!  This bread is unbelievably easy to make and the result is a loaf of bread that's very reminiscent of English muffins, with that signature holey, airy, honeycomb type of texture and bit of chewiness.  I will be making this bread often!  I am so serious about this, I went straight out and bought a second sturdy loaf pan so I can make two loaves at a time from now on.
A good piece of toast is a beautiful thing
A little whole wheat twist...
There was only one thing I wished to change about this recipe and that's to incorporate some whole wheat flour into it.  I actually prefer whole wheat English muffins and that's the kind I buy and eat regularly.  The original recipe uses all bread flour (for the chew) but I decided to experiment and made a second loaf substituting half the bread flour with white whole wheat flour (my whole wheat flour of choice since it's milder but still provides all the whole wheat benefits)!  
The version I made with half white whole wheat flour and bread flour - I loved it!
I absolutely loved the whole wheat version!  Maybe I just feel better knowing I'm eating something a bit more wholesome but If I closed my eyes, I would think I was eating my usual whole wheat English muffin, which is a very good thing.  It is almost exactly alike!  As you can see, this version with the whole wheat flour is a bit darker and it baked up much the same way in terms of height and texture. I thought it was slightly more flavorful.  

As far as the rest of my family, our 8-year old likes the regular version of this bread better; no surprise there since he's not a fan of whole wheat English muffins in general.  My husband, likewise, prefers the one with all bread flour as well.  I suppose I'm in the whole wheat minority in my house because my vote definitely goes for the whole wheat!
Lots of crunch in every bite thanks to the honeycomb texture of the bread
This whole exercise had me thinking about why I adore English muffins so much.  And it dawned on me that it's all about the texture.  I like my toast really toasted - as in this side of burnt - because I love the crunch.  English muffins, with their "nooks and crannies" give me that when toasted.  And as you can hopefully tell from the picture above, this bread also provides just that - it is airy, crunchy, with a bit of chew.  

That's a whole lot of talk about English muffins!!  Even if you're not crazy for them like I am, I hope you'll give this bread a try for the simplicity alone.  This is probably the bread I should have started off making but I really enjoyed the whole wheat bread too and that experience helped slay the fears I had about working with yeast.  I can hardly believe I'm making actual edible bread in my own kitchen and I'm thrilled to discover this particular recipe!
An early Saturday morning breakfast


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