May 31, 2013

A simple lunch: chilled soba noodles

Somehow this baking blog has been serving up more savory items lately, something I didn't intend to do when I first started this little spot but now feels like a natural progression as I play around more in the kitchen in general.  So here's to mixing up some more savory with all the sweet...

I thought I'd post this simple soba noodle dish that I've been making in the past few months.  It's a nice summer lunch or even dinner option to consider since it's pretty quick and easy to put together - and I think those are the kinds of recipes most of us want for our everyday lives, particularly in the summertime.  
I've mentioned before that I like to watch Nigella Lawson's cooking shows.  Well, I've seen Nigella make these soba noodles many times (re-runs) and I'm glad I finally got up and started cooking this for myself.

You need some basic pantry ingredients to dress the soba, and then you can add to it as you see fit.  Make it and leave it in the refrigerator so that it's ready when you want it.  It makes a great meal or side dish during the warm months when you want something filling but not too heavy.  I often make extra so that I'll have lunch for a couple of days.

These soba noodles are lightly dressed with rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a little sugar for a nice balance of flavors.  I was actually surprised by how restraint this Nigella recipe is in terms of dressing.  If you prefer more dressing on your noodles, feel free to make more but I like it this way.  It keeps the dish light, and I think there's just enough dressing to give it flavor.  A generous amount of toasted sesame seeds and fresh scallions add crunch and great flavor to the dish.
I love to add sauteed shiitake mushrooms to these noodles; I think shiitake mushrooms just go really well in many Asian dishes.  And to make more of a meal out of it, I sometimes eat it with some sauteed shrimp.  Salmon or leftover chicken are also excellent proteins to pair with it.  It's a whole lot easier to think about and whip up the add-on's when you already have the noodles in the fridge!  I recently picked up a simple method of poaching chicken breast from America's Test Kitchen (another cooking show) and I've been poaching a few at a time, dicing it, and keeping it in the fridge to eat with noodles like this one or with salad.  

Anyway, noodles of all kinds are my idea of everyday food and this is a good one to add to the rotation.

May 28, 2013

Adventures in ice cream making

Last summer, I caught the homemade ice cream-making bug.  It started innocently at first, with no-machine vanilla ice cream.  Then I tried no-machine chocolate ice cream.  And then you can probably guess what happened...I bought an ice cream maker.

Store-bought ice cream is convenient and, frankly, often cheaper than homemade but there really is something magical about homemade ice cream.  It's just the freshest tasting ice cream that you can tailor for yourself.  I've already shared a couple of recipes that put my ice cream maker to good use: Philadelphia-style (no egg) vanilla ice cream and chocolate gelato - two of our household favorites!  This past Memorial Day weekend, I took some homemade vanilla ice cream and made a few ice cream pops for our cookout.  I have to tell you that ice cream balls like to melt very quickly!  But seeing the kids enjoying them made the work worthwhile!
I've been putting my ice cream maker to work since it's come into my life and I thought I would indulge myself with a little ice cream "show-and-tell" today.  After all, prime ice cream making and eating season is upon us!  So here's some of what I've been churning up, both hits and misses!
Vanilla Fudge Ripple Ice Cream
Let's start with vanilla fudge ripple ice cream.  Did you ever buy those little  clear dixie cups with vanilla ice cream and fudge at the bottom and top?  I used to love digging into one of those with a wooden spoon as a child and this is the grown-up, far better, homemade version.  You make the fudge ripple sauce separately, chill it, and layer it between layers of homemade vanilla bean ice cream to create the panda pattern swirl.  It is divine!  I can't get enough of that fudge ripple!

On the topic of vanilla ice cream, I bought one of those enormous Tahitian vanilla beans and made Tahitian vanilla ice cream with it.  Whoa!  Tahitian vanilla beans are seriously intense!  Have you tried it, and if so, do you like it?  It was too strong and sweet for me and my 7-year old; my husband really liked it though.  
Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream
Now coffee is a popular flavor in my house - for my guys, anyway (I'm more Team Chocolate).  We adore this Vietnamese coffee ice cream because it's both tasty and easy to make.  You simply take very strong brewed coffee and combine it with condensed milk to create this rich, creamy, full-flavored coffee ice cream.
Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream with Chocolate-Covered Espresso Beans
Make it a little more interesting by adding some chopped chocolate-covered espresso beans into that coffee cream.  Gotta get some chocolate in there somehow!  Ironically, I think I'm the one in our house who likes a ton of crunchy mix-ins in my ice cream!  The boys lean more towards purists.
Caramel Ice Cream
Fan of caramel?  Do what I did and try making homemade caramel ice cream.  Caramel is not generally one of my favorite flavors on its own but the homemade version was luscious, smooth, slightly salted - great for caramel enthusiasts.

Click on...There's more ice cream, gelato, and sorbet that I'd like to show you!

May 25, 2013

ONE ingredient crostata crust

This probably sounds as hard to believe to you as it did to me, but the crust for this blueberry crostata I made really just takes one ingredient.
And that single ingredient is...almond paste!  I saw this wild idea on TV and I was seriously amazed and had to try it for myself.    

Almond paste is one of my favorite baking ingredients and I normally prefer canned but the recipe calls for the kind in a tube (bonus: it's easy to find in most supermarkets) and I took the safe route and followed directions.  I say just stick with the tube variety for this purpose because it works; I was impressed by how easy it was to roll out.  You literally divide the tube of almond paste into 4 pieces.  Take one piece at a time, smash it down with your palm, and roll it out into a rough 6-inch round.  It literally takes a couple of minutes to make one!  I was worried the almond paste would break apart, be either too dry or too wet and sticky but none of that was the case.
Guess who this fairly-genius idea came from?  Brian Boitano!  As in...the figure skating champ, gold medalist.  He had a show on the Cooking Channel a while back and he was on The Chew recently promoting his new cookbook.  Funny enough, I always thought Brian Boitano was the very picture of seriousness and intensity so who knew (after watching his cooking shows) that he's actually so fun-loving, not to mention good in the kitchen!  

So on this show, he prepared pear and almond crostatas, made with the almond paste crust.  I sat up straighter and kept asking my husband if I was hearing it right!  I hit rewind a few times (watching on DVR) to make sure.  I'd never heard of such an idea and you don't often hear something new...
Now, I know about using almond paste as a layer of filling in rustic tarts, like a galette.  Last Fall, I made an apple-frangipane galette that I'm actually really proud of (because it was my first attempt and was delicious).  In it, I layered frangipane - an almond pastry cream made of almond paste, butter, sugar, and eggs, under the apples.  The frangipane not only added great flavor but created a barrier between the fruit and the galette crust that kept the crust firm and crisp.  But using just almond paste and nothing else for a crust?!
As you can see, I opted to use blueberries instead of pears to make blueberry crostatas (I particularly like blueberry tarts).  I winged it a little and just tossed my blueberries with a little sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch before layering it over the rolled out almond paste.  

I need to tell you that I took shortcut to the extreme with this!  I skipped the cream cheese filling that Brian spreads on top of the almond paste and under the fruit.  Here's my rationale: I was simply making two to eat with my husband and to test the general idea of this crust.  I also wanted to keep it light and quick.  I actually thought mascarpone cheese might be even better than cream cheese but I had neither in the house.  Without the filling though, the bottom of my crostata crust was wet and it was hard to remove from the parchment.  I expected that (though hopeful for a miracle) but if you are making these to serve to guests, follow the recipe and make the cream filling, which will not only add some richness but should act as some barrier to the moisture in the fruit to keep the crust firmer on the bottom.  A "normal" pastry crust would obviously hold up a lot better without a filling.
Now that all disclosures have been made, I have to tell you that I'm really impressed by this idea from Brian Boitano.  You get this nice, tasty crust with so little work.  The crust obviously does not taste rich and buttery.  I love that it's a lot lighter.  There's almond flavor and the texture is crisp yet chewy as you expect from almond paste.  You know the fold-over is the best part of a galette or crostata crust and it's the same way here...that edge is crisp yet chewy and a little extra sweet with the turbinado sugar dusted on top before baking.  

It's always great to learn something new and I think this is a really cool trick!  

I hope you're having a good Memorial Day weekend!  I have a lot of admiration and gratitude toward those who served, and are currently serving, our country.  We are truly lucky to have the freedom that we enjoy.

May 22, 2013

Nutella-banana stuffed French toast

I made this particularly for my husband, who is a big fan of French toast and nutella and banana crepes.  This is something like a marriage of the two: French toast stuffed with nutella and thin slices of ripe bananas.
When the boys (my husband and our 7-year old) took me out for Mother's Day breakfast recently, my husband ordered French toast and it reminded me of how much he likes them.  I actually used to make it for him for dessert sometimes; I haven't done that in a long time given all the "real" desserts I'm often fixing up.  We've also moved more towards pancake territory recently  for our weekend breakfasts so I haven't made a batch of French toast in a while.

So this is just a reminder to make some French toast if you and your loved ones enjoy them.  If you're like me, you probably have nutella in the house at all times.  It's been a childhood favorite of mine and my pantry is never without an extra container.  Also, if you're like me, you're always looking for ways to use ripe bananas.  Bananas are another thing I buy consistently.  This little recipe is a good way to take advantage of all that.

May 19, 2013

Intense orange-chocolate-almond cookies

I had the idea to make these cookies a few weeks ago.  I call them intense orange-chocolate-almond cookies.  That's quite a mouthful for a title but it sums them up.  They look like ordinary chocolate chunk cookies but they're filled with a strong burst of orange flavor and embedded with bits of almonds, surrounding by that dark chocolate.  Some special chocolate bars provide a shortcut to achieving those flavors but to boost it further, I added fresh orange zest and almond extract to the cookie dough.
I snuck in a little bit of whole wheat pastry flour and you really can't tell one bit.  For half of my batch, I also added additional chunks of toasted almonds.

I got the idea to make these cookies after seeing a cookie recipe using chopped Toblerone chocolate bars.  Now, Toblerones and I go way back and they have a very special place in my heart.  I think they're pretty perfect on their own  and while I'd be thrilled to taste them in a cookie, I got to thinking about what other chocolate bars would work and hold up well baked in cookie form.  Right away, I thought of these...
I'll restrain myself from calling the Lindt Intense Orange chocolate bars one of my favorites because, while I do love them, anyone who knows me well knows I am a chocoholic and, thus, my list of favorites is rather long.  That said, they are really delicious both in flavor and texture.  The thin dark chocolate bar has bits of orange peel in it that really makes it deserving of that "intense-orange" description.  Plus, there are slivered almonds embedded within them.  I mean, what better combination is there than chocolate and orange, and with nuts as a bonus (well, okay...I could think of others like, say, chocolate and mint)!
I was confident these chocolate bars would be great in a cookie, and they really were!  The flavors stay intact and you get texture with the pieces of chewy orange and almond slivers already provided by the chocolate bar.  To heighten the flavors, I added orange zest and some almond extract.  I divided my cookie dough in half and added toasted, chopped almonds to one portion of the dough.  We actually preferred the ones without the additional almonds more since it really allowed the orange and dark chocolate flavor to shine.  
If you like the combination of dark chocolate and orange, I think you would enjoy these very flavorful cookies.  My family and I really did!

My 7-year old called this my "fractured recipe".  You see, his second grade class just finished a fairy tale unit at school.  They've been reading fairy tales and writing their own versions, basically creating "fractured fairy tales" with their own spins on the classics.  When we sat down to eat these cookies and I told him how I started off with a chocolate chip cookie recipe that I really liked but changed ingredients and added different components to alter the flavor, he said "Cool!  It's like a fractured recipe!"  It gave me a good laugh, and I think he's absolutely right in his description.  I don't often "fracture" recipes, if you will, but I'm so glad I tried this idea.  It took me just a little outside my box and led to a rewarding result!

May 16, 2013

Singapore (curry) rice noodles

Besides chocolate, I have an extreme weakness (or should I say, fondness) for pasta and noodle dishes.  I'm still trying to get over the fact that a mere two ounces is considered a proper portion!  Although I do practice portion control these days (ignorance - and youth - was bliss), I'd go with Nigella and say that 4-ounces seems to be a more realistic parameter, particularly if it's being treated as a main course.
I adore all kinds of Italian pasta dishes and I also love Asian noodles - whether in soup or stir-fry form.  This Singapore rice noodle is one of my (many) favorites, something I crave and order often from Chinese restaurants.  The beauty of the dish is there's plenty of room to bulk up with add-ins (from vegetables like onions and peppers to different types of protein) if you are looking to stick to that framework of 2-ounces of noodles per person.

Singapore rice noodles is essentially just curry rice noodles.  From what I hear, it's not an authentic Singaporean dish at all but a Chinese/Cantonese invention.  Aside from being delicious, it may have been created as a way to repurpose leftovers because you can largely throw in leftovers or what you happen to have in the refrigerator to make this stir-fry. 
You'll often find sliced onions, peppers, and scallions in Singapore rice noodles, along with eggs, chicken, shrimp and/or roast pork and ham. The flavor (and golden color) comes from curry powder and aromatics like ginger and garlic, along with pantry items like soy sauce and a maybe a dash of vinegar or fish sauce to round things out.
Shrimp, chicken, eggs, and ham - some of the ingredients I added to my Singapore noodles
It dawned on me one day while browsing around Penzys Spices that I could make this dish at home.  I bought a jar of sweet curry powder (I've since "graduated" to hot curry powder for when we want a little more heat), which became the impetus for making this dish.  Another way to save on take-out!  And this dish isn't difficult to make - you need to be generous with the curry powder and because of the various ingredients you're likely to add, mise en place is essential before the actual stir-fry takes place. 

This recipe makes a big portion thanks to all the add-ins I like to throw in.  The good news is this dish is ideal for leftovers!  The curry flavor deepens and melds into all the ingredients.  It is super tasty, very flavorful, reheated a day or two after!

May 13, 2013

Chocolate olive oil cake

I hope you had a wonderful Mother's Day!  I had a lovely, lovely day.  It's been seven years but I can still hardly believe I'm a mom and get to celebrate Mother's Day as such.  Now, here we are in the midst of May already...
Last week, I made a cake for my family and I to snack on.  I had never made (nor do I remember eating) an olive oil cake before so when I saw Nigella's chocolate olive oil cake in her latest book, I thought I'd give it a try.  I think what's held me back from making olive oil cake is the very idea itself; I had qualms about olive oil and cake together.  I really wasn't sure the additional combination with chocolate was the best idea either but since I do love chocolate, I figured that if all else failed, the chocolate flavor would hopefully carry me through.

The result was nothing overly dramatic (which I'm happy about).  This cake turned out to be extremely moist - thanks to that olive oil.  Plus, almond meal instead of flour (though you could use flour if you wanted to)  made for what Nigella calls a "squidgy" interior and I think that sums up the texture exactly.  I'm not sure I would've been able to tell the cake was made with olive oil, rather than vegetable or canola oil, if I hadn't made it myself.  It adds a little bit of a fruity background but using a mild, ordinary (as opposed to extra-virgin) olive oil makes for a more neutral impact.  I think that's a good thing.  Despite the somewhat rich texture, this cake is actually pretty light, without dairy and with just cocoa powder contributing to the chocolate flavor.
Since I cook with olive oil all the time, I don't necessarily need to incorporate it into my baking.  But this cake did finally satisfy my curiosity about it.  It was a fun experiment that resulted in an enjoyable everyday cake.  The one thing I wish I'd done was to substitute some of the vanilla extract with almond extract in this cake.  I think that could have been good given the almond meal and how nicely almond goes with chocolate.
I am still enthralled with strawberries and picked up some more the other day.  I had some with this cake and instead of using whipped cream, I was oh-so-good and topped my slice with some Greek yogurt instead (boy, have I changed!)  But my son will tell you that the cake is far better eaten with vanilla ice.  

May 7, 2013

Simple strawberry shortcakes

I've never been the person to order a fruit dessert if given a choice.  Growing up, when my friends ordered strawberry ice cream or milk shakes, I was always the one asking for chocolate.  The only thing I liked about those strawberry or fruity desserts was the color.  I'm a creature of habit and, unfortunately, not a very adventurous eater.  Luckily, I've branched out a little in recent years.  Though fruity desserts may still not be my first choice (though I do love lemon tarts), I've come to appreciate them like I never have before.

Can I tell you something?  A couple of years ago, I noticed that my mid-section (and other places) had expanded when I wasn't paying attention.  I'd never been concerned about my weight before then, just assuming my metabolism would straighten things out.  Blame it on getting older but I had to do something about it and trim down a bit.  Ironically, that was near the time I started this blog but, luckily, moderation seems to work.  Now, I don't want to get bogged down talking about weight or "diets".  What I did want to get at was the good thing that came about from paying attention to my weight and scaling back: I learned to eat (to love to eat) a lot healthier.  I enjoy fruits and vegetables like I never did before.  In trying new things and becoming more educated, I discovered that I actually like many of the healthier stuff, like whole grains, that we hear so much about.  Plus, I learned to cook more.  Of course, I still love treats and chocolate in particular, and I fully embrace it, but I have also discovered the pleasure of a plain strawberry or blueberry.
That said, I'm going to segue into dessert because while plain, in-season strawberries might be great all by themselves, sometimes you want to turn it into a special dessert (otherwise, there'd be no blog...)!  The occasion could well be Mother's Day.  A bright, colorful dessert always seems appropriate.

Now, remember those lighter and easier buttermilk biscuits I raved about?  The ones where you don't need any equipment or to roll anything out.  The last time I made them, I stowed a few away in the freezer.  I picked up some gorgeous organic strawberries from the market and made old-fashioned strawberry shortcakes.  If you go ahead and make the biscuits ahead of time, putting these shortcakes together is pretty simple.  Just bake the frozen biscuits straight from the freezer, adding a couple extra minutes to the bake time.  While the biscuits cool, macerate your strawberries with a little bit of sugar.
A dollop of whipped cream comes next.  I lightly whipped the cream with a just a bit of sugar and a touch of pure vanilla extract.
The result is a great combination of flavors and textures.  Believe it or not, the old me wouldn't have even tried it; the new me loved it!  The berries seem to bring out the buttery flavor of the biscuit.  The crunchy edges of the biscuits contrasted with the silky whipped cream.  The strawberries are just sweet enough and add a lightness to it all.  I am a fan! 
My husband has always been a fan of strawberries and shortcakes (he loves getting waffles with strawberries at the diner), and I'm happy to say he adored the ones I made here.  I just have to figure out how to get my 7-year old on board.  I think he might have inherited some of his mom's tendencies when it comes to eating (i.e., he would like to exist on a dark chocolate diet).  It makes me laugh when I think back to his first birthday when I made a strawberry shortcake - not with biscuits, the cake kind with sliced strawberries in the center and whipped cream icing.  I think I read somewhere that strawberry cakes were proper for a first birthday.  It was not a very pretty-looking cake and I don't think I took more than a bite.  Needless to say, my son wouldn't pick that now for his birthday cake but I have hopes that he'll become more adventurous in time.  For my part, I know I would take more interest in that cake now than I did then.
I think I've rambled on enough for today.  Let me just wish all you loving and well-meaning moms, future-moms, and lovely people a very Happy Mother's Day this coming weekend!

May 2, 2013

Nigella's cappuccino pavlova

For the most part, we've been enjoying a lovely spell of Spring weather.  It almost makes the memories of all the snowfall and storms of the winter fade away.  Apart from (and despite of) seasonal allergies plaguing the fellas in my household, it's been a beautiful time to be outside and to even fire up that grill!  The kitchen is my domain but my husband is in charge of outdoor cooking.  But since I am the "Commander in Sweets" at my house, I like to make sure we end our meal on a sweet note. 
To cap off our recent inaugural barbecue of the season, I made a pavlova - but not the typical kind topped with fruit.  Maybe that would've been an appropriate way to go given the season and warmer temperature but I'm just naturally drawn towards deeper, darker flavors.  So I made Nigella Lawson's cappuccino pavlova, topped with just a bit of whipped cream and a sprinkle of chocolate shavings.   You could very well serve it with a scoop of ice cream on the side and I have to admit, I did just that.

I've said it before, I'm a big fan of Nigella's.  I love her wit and, above all else, her wholehearted love of food and eating.  I also appreciate her relaxed style - anyone who has no qualms about using paper napkins at a dinner party is my kind of girl!  I watch her shows all the time...when Hurricane Sandy came along and we were without cable connection for over 2 weeks (not to mention virtually housebound because of the lack of gas), I took to watching episodes of Nigellissima via youtube on my iPhone!   Sounds crazy, I know, but watching the shows made me feel a little more sane somehow.   And the few episodes I caught were really good! I wish I'd been able to watch more but for whatever reason, the shows disappeared after a few days and I moved on...
This cappuccino pavlova recipe comes from Nigellisma, the cookbook that's filled with Italian inspired recipes.  Looking through it, I was taken aback (in a good way) by how modern it looks compared to Nigella's other cookbooks.  There's a photo of every dish (a huge selling point for me) and I enjoyed ogling over the luscious pastas and wicked-looking desserts.  This pavlova jumped out at me possibly for the fact that my fellas enjoy coffee flavored desserts and because it's so easy to put together.  With the warmer weather, ice cream making has begun in this household, and that means leftover white eggs to deploy for projects like this one.

I scaled down the recipe by half and what you see here is a 6-inch version that's better suited for a small group.  This being my first pavlova, I was a little worried about nailing the texture - achieving a soft and slightly chewy pavlova rather than a teeth-shattering kind of crispy meringue.  Luckily, it worked!  I think a touch of vinegar does the trick.  While the sides may be crisp and crackly to the point of breakage at the lightest touch, the center is reassuringly soft and almost marshmallow-like, with a chewier edge around the sides.   
I'm no expert on pavlovas and it may not be something I'd necessarily crave, but we enjoyed this cappuccino spin of Nigella's.  For his age, my 7-year old has a somewhat unusual affinity for coffee flavored desserts!  The instant espresso powder adds bitterness to this "cap pav" that offsets some of its natural, inevitable, sweetness.  It is a good substitute for that cup of joe or cappuccino that some of us enjoy at the end of a meal, just without an actual cup involved.


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