September 26, 2013

Honey & oats

It's not Christmas yet but this is a great time for baking cookies.  If you're thinking any time is a great time for cookies, I totally agree with you (and like the way you think!) but with the cooler temperatures, I feel an unmistakable urge to turn on the oven and permeate the house with the warmth and smell of cookies baking away.  I want to tuck those homemade cookies into a jar and have them around and ready for my son when he comes home from school.  I want to sit down, have a warm cookie and something hot to drink.  Is anyone else craving hot chocolate or am I just a little bit crazy?
Personally, I'm craving all sorts of things right now as the temperature drops. Soups, stews, cookies, and everything in between that's a bit more hearty. I've been daydreaming about oatmeal cookies lately.  Talk about a wonderful creation! I absolutely love, even crave, oatmeal - particularly the steel cut variety - but if you're not like me and don't like oatmeal, chances are you enjoy a good oatmeal cookie, right?  My son is one of those people.  He asked me for chocolate chip cookies the other day.  Apparently, he was craving cookies too.

So I made a batch of these honey oatmeal cookies, inspired by a recipe I stumbled upon in a magazine. They caught my attention because honey is the only sweetener in them.  I really liked the sound of that because honey & oats just go together and since honey is my sweetener of choice when it comes to my oatmeal, this is right up my alley!  I also know that I love what a little maple syrup can do for oatmeal cookies so with this, I envisioned a soft, chewy cookie, flavored with the natural sweetness and goodness of honey, and that's essentially what I got!
Some key mix-ins: chopped semi-sweet chocolate, toasted walnuts, oats, and the honey
Since the original recipe is very much about the honey, it actually calls for Tupelo honey, which isn't all that easy to get your hands on.  With it being the sole sweetener for these cookies, use the best quality honey you can find, which basically just means a honey you love the taste of.  I went with a recent farmer's market find - a regular wildflower honey that I've been enjoying immensely with my regular bowls of oatmeal.

The cookies in the original recipe also included raisins and pecans but since I'm not a fan of either of those ingredients (particularly the raisins), I switched it up and added chocolate and toasted walnuts instead.  I used coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate here but if you're low on time, chocolate chips would work nicely, too.  Putting chocolate in the picture means that some of the flavor of the honey will be overpowered by it, but I'm totally okay with that!  My family would not be happy with me if I made oatmeal cookies without chocolate in it.
The end result: a chewy oatmeal cookie chock full of dark chocolate and toasted walnuts, with the notes of honey and a hint of cinnamon.  With just half a cup of honey in my batch of cookies, they're not overly sweet and you taste each ingredient.  I think there's just something really satisfying about an oatmeal cookie and this was no exception.

September 21, 2013

Shrimp with lobster sauce (because I love Chinese takeout)

No surprise, I love Chinese food.  It's part of who I am, after all.  I was born in Hong Kong and lived there for the first eight years of my life until my family and I moved to the States (to Brooklyn, to be exact). Growing up, I always felt so lucky to have another heritage, to know another culture. Specifically, I'm thankful to have inside knowledge of the delicious food of my background because, for me, it always comes down to food!

I love authentic Chinese food and growing up, my grandfather was somewhat of a professional home cook and made all types of dishes that I can't even name.  Somehow, he made amazing food using the most affordable ingredients.  He made dumplings, dim sum, noodles, dessert soups, and everything in between.  I don't think I realized how lucky I was.  My mother is a good cook, too.  I was never hungry for long.  
Somewhat ironically, I also adore Chinese-American food or what I think of as "Chinese takeout". They're dishes I never ate (or heard of) as a child.  Yet the appeal is very strong.  I can't resist taking a peek at the Chinese-American offerings at a mall food court, and neither can my mother.  I think the sweetness of many of those dishes has something to do with the appeal. The fact that there's usually a good amount of spice and a tendency for these dishes to be fried or bathed in sauce might also have something to do with it.

So you can imagine that when I heard about The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, I had to check it out!  I quickly bought myself a copy after seeing lots of easy recipes for dishes I'd like to make at home. Most of them call on a familiar rotation of Chinese cooking pantry items, many of which I already have.  

I don't know if you feel the same way but I find myself with less and less desire to eat out lately. Instead, I'm drawn to the kitchen to cook and to the dining room table to eat with my family.  Part of the reason for that is I've learned that cooking really is key to eating better and healthier.  I want to feel good after eating instead of feeling weighed down like I often do when eating out. And eating at home is all the better and more fun when I can make restaurant-favorites that are far lighter and just as tasty, if not more so, than what we'd order for takeout.
This dish is an example of that.  Shrimp with lobster sauce is one of those Chinese takeout dishes that I love.  It's the first thing I made from the book and I've made it about four times now so I thought I'd share it here.  The thing is, I love a good sauce!  This one is not sweet (I use enough sugar for baking so I try to limit it in savory cooking) and I like that it's not a rich, heavy brown sauce that comes with many typical Chinese takeout dishes with protein.  As you probably well know, there's no lobster in this dish.  The name has something to do with the fact that the sauce resembles a kind that's used to serve over stir-fry lobster at Cantonese restaurants.  

I absolutely love shrimp as an adult but funny enough, I didn't like it much at all as a child.  It showed up fairly often on our dinner table and for some reason, I always remember my mother serving stir-fried shrimp with celery...and I hated celery as a kid!  Celery and I have become friends now (though I still dislike it raw) but it was a major turn-off for me then and I associated shrimp with it.
There's no celery in sight in this dish but I did add peas.  I keep several bags of petite peas in the freezer and toss it into many things I cook, and I did that here.  It's a good way to bulk up the dish a bit, too.  

The recipe reminded me that some versions of shrimp with lobster sauce contain fermented black beans and ground pork.  It's good that way, too - I particularly like the ground pork - but I left both of those ingredients out to keep the dish simple and light.  I do throw in an extra egg and make a little extra sauce.  Just make sure you have plenty of rice to soak it all up with!  I love a chewy, nutty brown rice with this.  My husband and I have become big fans of this for dinner.  It's easy and quick to make - if you have shrimp and some classic Chinese pantry ingredients on hand, you're in business!  If you 're a fan of this classic Chinese-American dish like we are, I hope you give it a try for yourself.  It just might end up being a part of your regular dinner rotation since it's that easy and that tasty!

September 17, 2013

You can't have enough flourless chocolate cakes

We are over a week into the new school year - 3rd grade for my little guy! After more than ten weeks of summer vacation, we were both ready for school again (okay, maybe mom more so than child).  This was the first year that I slept easy the night before school began - no nerves or nightmares!  Maybe it was a sign because so far, so good...I have a really good feeling about the year but I'll continue to keep my fingers crossed!
To kick off the school year, we like to have a little celebration dinner and I've gotten into the habit of making a "back-to-school cake" (like this one and this one).  You don't need a reason for cake but it's certainly nice to have something to celebrate so I appreciate every opportunity.  I had intended to try the Hershey's chocolate cake as our back-to-school cake this year but since that became a birthday cake for a family gathering, I looked for another idea. Forgetting that I'm supposed to be "playing with flour", I went with something sure to please (us, anyway) - flourless chocolate cake!
I've made and enjoyed many flourless chocolate cakes; this everyday version and this far more decadent one comes straight to mind but there have been many.  Much like molten chocolate cake or brownies, I feel like you can't have enough flourless chocolate cakes so here's another recipe to try.  If, like us, you love chocolate and use the kind you like to eat to make the cake, it can be a little slice of chocolate heaven.  Add some vanilla ice cream into the picture and you have a pretty great way to cap off a celebration dinner at home.

This particular flourless chocolate cake is called "Racines Cake" because the recipe comes from a restaurant in Paris by that name.  It's a recipe I've bookmarked for a long time from one of my favorite cookbooks.  With the exception of the cocoa nib topping for this cake, there's frankly not a whole lot separating this particular flourless chocolate cake from others.  So in other words, it was predictably good!  Simple as that.  It's a moist, chocolaty, smooth cake.  I think it has just the right amount of richness to it.  To make sure you end up with a fudgy, moist interior, check on the cake early so that you pull it out while it still seems just a bit wet in the center. My little cake only needed about 16-17 minutes in the oven.
You'll notice I shrank this cake down to size to make a small-family friendly 6-inch.  It's not that we can't handle a 9-inch cake of this kind but I like to make room for other desserts!  When we were vacationing in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I got a chance to check out the adorable Miette Bakery at the Ferry Building.  Known for their small cakes, I saw they had some 6" baking pans with removable bottoms for sale.  I was very tempted to buy one on the spot (I liked them because small springform pans never seem deep enough). Long story short, I ended up ordering one online after coming home and used it for this cake.  I was worried removal might not be as easy as using a springform pan but it worked very well.  I'd definitely use it in the future to make small cheesecakes or to make smaller versions of other cakes that require a springform type pan.

September 12, 2013

Curried red lentil soup

It's time for some soup.  When the leaves start falling (and they already have here in NJ) and it starts to cool down and get dark earlier at night, I start craving warm, heartier foods.  One thing I love is soup and being able to make a big pot so I have leftovers for a quick lunch or as a starter for dinner. Making soup at home makes all the sense in the world because it's easy, nutritious, and you save a ton of money doing it yourself.  So I've gotten into the habit of trying out different soup recipes around this time of year. Generally, I like them all as long as it's hot and plentiful.
This time, I tried making a curried red lentil soup.  I was inspired by a similar soup I had at a neighborhood restaurant back in late Spring.  I wanted to replicate it back home but it started getting warmer, summer arrived, and it wasn't the right time for soup.  It's a great time to make soup now.

This was the first time I cooked with red lentils.  Not as firm and less hearty than brown or green lentils, they cook up and break down fairly fast - within about 20-25 minutes.  The red lentils, which turn yellow when cooked, pretty much dissolve right into the soup. 

My husband and I enjoy curry so we really like the curry flavor in this soup. Since we like a good amount of heat, I also added some red pepper flakes, paprika, and cayenne pepper into the mix. That, along with fresh ginger, makes for a zippy soup.  When the soup was initially finished, I thought I should have used more lentils for a thicker texture but I was glad to realize that it thickens up as it sits, and as you reheat the leftovers.  And this made great leftovers!  After enjoying this soup for a couple of days, I just want to keep batches of soup in the refrigerator all through the Fall and Winter.

For me, soup always hits the spot when it turns cooler and I crave something warm and nourishing. This one was a welcomed addition at our lunch and dinner table.  My husband was a big fan of it and that always makes me feel good.
It might be a bit weird but I topped my soup with some shrimp I sauteed with a little curry powder, turmeric  and other spices.  No real rhyme or reason for it besides the fact that I like adding shrimp to lots of dishes!  Here, I figure we have the curry flavor tying things together.  I was actually thinking this soup would work well with chicken in it (yes, clearly I'm thinking the obvious: curry chicken)!  I suppose I like soup so much because it's flexible; you start with a base and can often put in whatever you like, and eat it alone or with just about anything.

I hope you're adjusting well to the change in seasons.  My mind is definitely thinking hearty meat dishes and ways to use my slow-cooker.

September 8, 2013

Hershey's (vs. Beatty's) chocolate cake

I'll begin this post by saying that I love chocolate.  I may have mentioned it once - or a million times - already.  So obviously, I love chocolate cake.  Years ago (before starting this blog), I discovered what I consider the ultimate classic chocolate layer cake: Beatty's chocolate cake, or what I also think of as "Ina's cake" because it was brought to us by Ina Garten.  I have made that cake many times.  My extended family loves it - even those who are not big cake or dessert lovers.  I could very happily just eat that cake all by itself (it is so moist and chocolaty) but the chocolate buttercream that goes with it is an ideal pairing.  I'm not a big fan of buttercream frosting usually but it just works perfectly with that cake, and I've tried other pairings.
Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake
Aside from Beatty's/Ina's cake, I have also heard plenty of raves about Hershey's chocolate cake. Many people say that is the ultimate chocolate layer cake (this testimonial, for example) and I've long wanted to compare the two but never wanted to take on the opportunity cost.  Apologies to Hershey's but I've been reluctant to try their recipe because I was pretty sure Beatty's cake would be the better version.  

Compare the ingredient list between the two cakes and Beatty's just seems to be the evolved - dare I say, "improved", - version of the Hershey cake.  The two recipes are very similar but whereas Hershey's uses milk and water, Beatty's cake uses buttermilk and coffee.  I was betting on buttermilk and coffee for the win.  But how can you be sure without actually trying both?
Beatty's Chocolate Cake, via Ina Garten (I've made it many times)
Which is better?

So now...let me try to get to the point before I lose you completely.  I finally made Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" chocolate cake so I can give you an informed opinion.  Taste is subjective so this is purely our opinion   We didn't do a simultaneous comparison of the two cakes but believe me, we have eaten many slices of Beatty's chocolate cake for it to be indelible in our minds.

And after tasting the Hershey's cake, I can tell you, definitively...that my family and I do, in fact, prefer...Beatty's chocolate cake!  The Hershey's cake is good - it's really good - but it lacks the depth of chocolate flavor and fluffiness of Beatty's cake.  The Hershey cake, particularly the frosting made with cocoa powder and a generous amount of confectioners' sugar, was pronounced "too sweet" by my taste-testers. We happen to have 3 family birthdays just a few weeks apart so this Hershey cake became the vehicle for a 3-way birthday celebration, resulting in plenty of taste-testers.  
The frosting on the Hershey's cake is easy to make and goes on smoothly.  The surface does dry out/crust given the generous amount of confectioners' sugar in it.
In particular, the kids (my son and his eldest cousin, in particular) kept saying the other cake is better because this one is too sweet.  Kids complaining about something being "too sweet" took me by surprise.  I mean, this coming from children who devour neon icing on cupcakes at birthday parties!  When did children become so critical, I thought!  In all fairness, maybe they wouldn't have been so vocal about this if they hadn't had Beatty's cake often in the past and were doing a direct comparison.  Everything is relative.

Speaking for myself now, I might have liked Hershey's cake more than the kids did.  Yes, it is sweeter than Beatty's cake.  Three cups of confectioners' sugar in the chocolate icing can't help but leave an aftertaste of sugar in your throat.  But I didn't find it too overbearing.  I thought it was a very good chocolate layer cake, reminding me of the kind I ate and loved as a child (apparently, children's tastes have evolved).  If there's a cake you'd eat with a tall glass of milk, this is the one.  It's just got that old-fashioned flavor to it, and I mean that in a good way.  Interestingly enough, it reminded me of Brooklyn Blackout Cake, which I really like and attempted once.  This cake is far simpler to make than that one.
The inside of the Hershey cake.  It's very moist but not quite as fluffy as Beatty's cake.
And one important point going for the Hershey cake is how easy it is to make! There's no fresh coffee to brew or chocolate to melt.  It is most definitely the easier of the two cakes to make by far.  And to its credit, the Hershey cake is very moist though heavier and denser than Beatty's cake, which is not only really moist but also delicate - airy, almost.  The buttercream in Beatty's cake uses melted chocolate instead of cocoa, and with more fat than confectioners' sugar, it stays soft and creamy instead of crusting on the surface like the Hershey's cake does.

Making this cake and frosting, much like making those cocoa brownies, gave me a renewed appreciation for cocoa powder.  It's the driving force behind this cake and created far more chocolate flavor in itself than I would've thought possible.  I think the cake really could use a boost of coffee to heighten that chocolate flavor even more.  That, alas, brings me right back to Beatty's cake. You know which I'll be making in my house whenever we get the craving for a chocolate layer cake.  

If anyone has tried both these cakes, I'd be very interested in your take on it!

September 4, 2013

Homemade bread at last

finally made bread!  It's been on my list of things-to-try for quite a while now after being inspired by many posts I've seen of wonderful homemade loaves.  After making pizza dough and the brioche pretzels, working with yeast became much less mysterious and intimidating.  So much so that I finally felt ready to tackle homemade bread myself...

So, my first attempt at actual bread-making - my, shall we say rather "rustic" looking, loaves of semi whole wheat bread!
Despite my love of white bread, I decided to go with a whole wheat combination because it's what my family and I generally eat these days.  I used a recipe from The Kitchn, which calls for an equal mixture of whole wheat and all-purpose flour.  I opted to use white whole wheat flour, which is what I have on hand and like to use for recipes calling for whole wheat.  I like that it's less assertive, milder, than typical whole wheat but offers all the same nutritional benefits.
This is just my third experience working with yeast and I have to say I'm in awe with the process...watching the dough come alive, expand, and ultimately transform into something nourishing. I have a ton to learn but I've been surprised that working with yeast is a whole lot less "scary" than I thought it would be.  I suppose I've always assumed it would be extremely difficult, with little room for error.  I know my first loaves certainly need work but it was a rewarding experience.
I'd go so far as to say the entire process was fairly smooth-sailing, right up until I got to the stage where I placed the dough into my loaf pans.  One mistake I made was not covering the pans with plastic wrap the whole time; that meant the tops dried so that when it came time to slash the loaves before baking, I ended up with a crinkly Frankenstein-scar on the surface.

The loaf pans themselves were another issue.  The pans I used are old - as in late 1990's old - and I think they're slightly larger than "regular" 9x5 loaf pans.  I used them since I happen to have two, which is what I needed for this recipe (for once, I did not divide the recipe in half!) and the only other loaf pan I have is an 8x4 one that I feared would be too small anyway.
I think it might be time to invest in more loaf pans.  Given the pans were a bit roomy, the loaves didn't rise or fill up as much as they should have in the pans and I ended up with rather squat loaves. That's my theory anyway.  It could very well be that I needed a warmer place to let the dough rise in the pans but whatever the case, this is what I got and I'll gladly accept it.
My homemade bread likely came out denser than they were suppose to but they sure made great little pieces of crunchy toast (and that makes me happy because I like my toast very crunchy).  We had fun spreading all kinds of toppings - butter, peanut butter, strawberry jam, Nutella - on them.  Making your own bread is a great excuse to just eat more bread!  I mean, you have to experiment and taste them in all different ways, don't you?

Now that Fall is almost here, I'm starting to crave breads and heartier foods. I might be in the minority but I'm ready for Fall in many ways.  We had a little breakfast gathering over Labor Day weekend to bid an unofficial farewell to summer.  I love a breakfast buffet at home, and cooking breakfast or brunch for a group is far easier and more relaxed than other meals.  I skipped the pancakes this time and went for savory items.  It was an excellent opportunity for me to press some of this homemade bread on my peeps. 


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