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.


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