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

November 3, 2013

Almond-hazelnut cupcakes with ganache frosting

I don't make cupcakes very often but once in a while, I do get the urge.  I had all the ingredients I needed on hand so I decided to make these almond-hazelnut cupcakes with my favorite frosting - chocolate ganache - on top.  I kind of think that if I were a cupcake, I'd be something like this...a little nutty and full of semisweet chocolate flavor. 
I'm usually all about the cake and not a big fan of buttercream frosting,  icing, glazes and the like. But chocolate ganache is the exception.  That velvety smooth chocolate is hard for me to resist. Just stirring the cream and chocolate together, seeing that puddle of chocolate come together, and getting a whiff of that scent is like therapy for me.  And it tastes so good!
So in some ways, these cupcakes were an excuse for me to make and have some ganache frosting. And I'm happy to report that it all worked according to plan.  My husband and I really enjoyed these. The cupcakes are made with a combination of ground almonds and hazelnuts (two of my favorites), giving them interesting texture and flavor. The cupcakes themselves are relatively light, thanks in part to folding some beaten egg whites into the batter to lift them up.  I do realize I'm talking about cake and sugar so "light" is a relative term here but as far as cupcakes go, they are moist and spongy, not overly rich so they paired well as a balance to the decadent ganache on top.  
This is my kind of frosting!
The ganache frosting does hog a lot of the attention and take over a bit when you eat these cupcakes.  I'm totally okay with that.  For a more delicate touch, you could go with a fluffier butter-based dark chocolate frosting (part of the original recipe, actually) but I'm all for ganache, all the time.

* I'd like to send a "thank-you" over to Shannon at A Periodic Table.  As I was enjoying these very cupcakes with my husband a little over a week ago, she literally posted a recipe for almond cupcakes with ganache and said she had me in mind!  Thank you, Shannon!  Shannon's site is one of a treasured group of food blogs I've had the pleasure of discovering in the last year or so.  Thanks to her and many of you, I'm constantly being inspired and educated.  I eat better because of you and I'm not just sitting here talking to myself (like I figured I always would be) on this blog because of it, too.  Thank you all for stopping by occasionally and for your kind words and virtual pats on the back. I really appreciate it!  : )


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