Something to munch on...hazelnut biscotti

I consider learning how to make biscotti one of my earliest accomplishments from starting this blog.  I'm a big fan and used to buy them all the time from the supermarket and order them at coffee shops.  When I tried making them at home and realized it was actually easy (and far tastier than the ones you buy), I was thrilled! 
So ever since then, I bake biscotti pretty regularly.  It's just one of those lighter treats I like to make, to have something crunchy around the house to munch on.  My sister loves it too and I like to make some to share with her if she's around.  We both love our biscotti super crunchy (unlike my husband who is definitely more a dunker and a soft-cookie lover in general).  So when I make biscotti, I go with traditional recipes that do not call for butter.  We just  prefer them super dry and with plenty of nuts.

This time, I made a very simple, plain hazelnut biscotti.  It's a recipe from Alice Medrich that I found in Baking with JuliaWe recently went to Washington, D.C. during Spring Break and I got a chance to peek into Julia Child's kitchen at one of the Smithsonian museums.  That inspired me to check out some of Julia's cookbooks from the library and this recipe caught my attention because unlike other recipes I've made where I start the process with the standmixer, this can be done by hand, very quickly and simply.  I call it "two-bowl biscotti" because it's very much like a muffin recipe where you mix the dry ingredients into the wet and you're halfway there.
Not everyone in my extended family is a big dessert lover but I find that biscotti works for those who prefer something less decadent.  I like serving it with coffee after dinner, like we did this past Saturday night.  But I rarely serve biscotti alone - that night, some homemade mint gelato (and lemon sorbet) joined us at the table too.  It's always nice to have options, right?

Here's to crunchy foods and homemade meals shared with good company!


Lighter, easier buttermilk drop biscuits

If you like biscuits, I have a little discovery to share with you.  This is an incredibly easy recipe for buttermilk drop biscuits.  They can be whipped up in about 20 minutes - no need to cut butter, roll out dough, or haul out any machinery.  As an added bonus, they are also lighter - a little bit better for you -than the average biscuits!
In the words of my 7-year old: "these biscuits are so good!"
This recipe really caught my attention though I was a tad skeptical at first because it sounded maybe a little too good to be true.  Lighter, easy and quick-to-make buttermilk biscuits...and they taste good?  Luckily, it really turned out to be all those things!

I found this recipe in the latest issue of Cooking Light magazine.  I automatically thought about giving them a try for one of our leisurely weekend breakfasts.  We love our pancakes and dutch babies on any given Sunday but I'm always on the lookout for something new to cook up for my family.  These biscuits were a snap to get on the table.  I was able to make them fresh and serve them warm, alongside some scrambled eggs and turkey bacon for an early Sunday breakfast this past weekend.
The easy part of this recipe  was what really lured me in.  The process literally requires simply stirring everything together and dropping the batter onto the baking sheet with a spoon.  There is no butter to cut or roll pin to contend with!  The secret is to stir melted butter into cold buttermilk.   You know how warm, just melted butter will get rather unattractive and clumpy when it hits cold liquid?  That's precisely what you want to happen here.  Those clumps of butter will help create a fluffy, moist buttermilk biscuit!  It's kind of like pancake batter.

And these biscuits are lighter, and a little better for you, by having less butter (just 4 tablespoons for a dozen biscuits) and just a bit of canola oil in them.  And rather than purely all-purpose flour, these have some white whole-wheat flour in them, and you could even use fat-free buttermilk (I used the typical low-fat kind).

These biscuits are fluffy and tender.  I love the bit of whole wheat nuttiness you get from white whole-wheat flour.  I'm not necessarily always looking to cut fat or "go light" if it means sacrificing flavor but I don't usually want a super heavy biscuit that leaves my fingers completely greasy and feels like a meal unto itself.  Plus, I think a lighter biscuit makes a lot of sense given all the stuff we're likely to put on or have with them - whether it be butter, honey, jam, or bacon and eggs as in my case here.

These biscuits are good all by themselves and doesn't even need all those accompaniments.  The little guy's reaction was "mmm..." at first bite and my husband and I were impressed by how good they tasted!  This is a great way to use up buttermilk and I plan to make this recipe a part of my regular repertoire.  In fact, it has not only shown up at breakfast but also been a part of dinner this week!  I'm really glad I clipped the recipe out of the magazine and gave it a try.  It's turned out to be a great little discovery (I'm not often this enthusiastic about a non-chocolate recipe)!



Chocolate crunch bars (no bake)

This is another recipe I kind of fell in love with when I first saw it.  Checking into one of my favorite websites, the kitchn, I saw a post about chocolate hazelnut crunch bars...
Base layer of thin, crispy crepes encased in chocolate and hazelnut spread, topped with ganache
What caught my attention was the use of feuilletine - those crispy, paper-thin, caramelized shards of pastry flakes that are used in many of my most favorite restaurant desserts.  As much as I love pure chocolate, I'm a huge fan of texture and love it when I discover some contrast in my dessert, like a layer of nutty crispiness embedded into a chocolate torte.
The milk chocolate coated "crispy crepes" I used as a substitute for feuilletine
The emphasis here is definitely on the crunch but it is a delicate crunch, a toothsome crispiness that is very pleasant underneath a contrasting, creamy layer of soft ganache on top. 
When I made almond and hazelnut dacquoise, I mentioned a favorite dessert of mine at a nearby restaurant.  It's essentially a small, round chocolate torte - the bottom layer is a "praline croustillant", a combination of smooth chocolate-hazelnut that has a wonderful crispy element to it.  On top of that is a layer of chocolate mousse, and the whole thing is covered in a thin coating of chocolate ganache.  It's all wonderful but the crispy bottom layer is my favorite and what makes it so memorable.  These chocolate bars - far simpler - come really close to that dessert.  The crispiness at the bottom totally makes it!  And the good news is they are easy to make; you don't even have to turn on the oven. 
I had intended to buy pailleté feuilletine online because I didn't particularly want to make them.  But not only do they cost about $12 a pop, I'd have to invest another $10 for shipping, not something I wanted to do for a first-time recipe.  It was time to get a little creative! 

So I used "crispy crepes" - super thin, crispy, wafer cookies coated in milk chocolate.  It is essentially feuilletine coated with milk chocolate.  I crushed them up and it worked beautifully here, with just a minor tweak to the recipe.  I'm proud to say I saved a solid $18 by doing that!
Technically, these are chocolate-hazelnut crunch bars.  A combination of semisweet chocolate and Nutella are stirred together before adding the crispy wafers for the bottom layer.  But in tasting the finished bars, I think the hazelnut flavor is minimal after being mixed with the dark chocolate.  For a deeper hazelnut flavor, I think hazelnut praline paste would be a good choice.

I do love these bars with even more texture, by adding some actual hazelnuts and cocoa nibs on top.  Okay, I may have copied the round design from a tart I had from Bouchon Bakery...I'm rather adept at imitation.
I'm usually pretty good about tasting my baked goods and enjoying them in careful moderation (sharing is key) but I could barely stop myself from eating these once I start. They're addicting and the texture really makes you want more.
And isn't it amazing how we can change something from simple to dressed-up just by how we slice it.  You can go with elongated bars or squares, which make it easy to pick up and gobble up.  Or, to fancy them up a bit, I used a round pastry cutter to make something like a dessert torte or a mini crustless tart.  I think these are also wonderful sliced into 1-inch squares and presented as homemade chocolate petite fours.  Anyway you slice it (literally!), they are very delicious bites!


Ruth Reichl's "Last-Minute Chocolate Cake"

I love to read.  Mystery books are a favorite.  I prefer classic whodunits or "cozy" mysteries, as some call it.  In general, I shy away from anything too serious because real life is dramatic enough as it is.  I enjoy mystery books with a food theme and I figure I'm not alone because there are actually a ton of them! 
 
Lately though, I've been reading a slew of food-related memoirs and biographies.  As I was walking down the cookbook aisles at the library one day, I thought to myself: "why don't libraries put all the foodie books/chef memoirs and the like in one place near the cookbooks?"  Well, what do you know, but the library had already thought of that and I discovered a collection of those exact books.
Ruth Reichl's Last-Minute Chocolate Cake, made simply, with unsweetened chocolate and flavored with Grand Marnier
I'm almost done with that library's collection and among my favorites were the books written by Ruth Reichl, probably best known as former New York Times food critic and editor-in-chief of Gourmet.   Her writing is so natural, the stories so entertaining, that you zip through the pages, sopping up the food memories and stories she shares along the way.  When it comes to describing food and meals, her words capture the taste and sensation of each bite so that I find myself practically inhaling the experience...

As an added bonus, I got a chocolate cake recipe out of it too!  This is Ruth Reichl's "Last-Minute Chocolate Cake" - a title bound to capture my attention and a recipe I found within her book, Garlic and Sapphires.  Chocolate cake and what promises to be a fast and easy one, at that?  I was sold, and I made it a little over a week ago.
I am a big fan of everyday, no-frosting, cakes like this one.  Below a crackly top, this cake has a moist tenderness to it and good chocolate flavor thanks to unsweetened chocolate and coffee.   A couple tablespoons of orange liqueur in the form of Grand Marnier (which you could omit if need be but I really like it here) adds interest and gives it an almost addicting, come-back-for-more, quality.  As an after dinner dessert, I like it slightly warm, with vanilla ice cream on the side.  Whipped cream, a dollop of crème fraîche, and even a bit of Greek yogurt also make good accompaniments to this simple chocolate cake.

If you want to, you could certainly dress or change up this loaf cake.  I'm thinking you can use another type of liqueur or swap it for an extract, add some chocolate chips or citrus zest into the batter, or maybe sprinkle some almond slices over the top.  I think the combination here is pretty good just the way it is though.


Simple slow-cooker beef stew (no meat browning)

I realize this is not very timely.  It's Spring - finally been feeling that way too, although it's cooling down again as we head into the weekend - and I'm posting a beef stew recipe (on a baking blog, no less)!  Well, I think this stew is light enough to enjoy even in the Spring and personally, I want to keep this in my archives and share it with you because it's a simple and delicious slow-cooker recipe.  So let's go on another little savory interlude today...
Beef and tomato stew made in the slow cooker, served with farro
I adapted this recipe from one of those old issues of Everyday Food that I talked about recently (there are tons of great recipes in there).  What I love about it is that it makes a big pot of flavorful, somewhat lighter, beef stew without a lot of work.  I sweat some vegetables in a pan before placing it into my slow cooker but you don't need to brown the meat!  I was skeptical until I tried it and I can tell you after making this twice now that it is really good stuff!
 
My husband loves beef stew and when I think about using my slow-cooker more often, I always think that I'd like to find a good beef stew recipe.  The one thing I really don't like about making it is browning the meat.  Recently, I saw something promising in a magazine from America's Test Kitchen.  It featured a slow-cooker beef stew recipe that didn't require browning the meat as well.  Theirs was a somewhat more intricate process (if I'm not mistaken, there was a foil pouch of potatoes sitting on top of the stew involved) but I recall them explaining that adding certain ingredients like soy sauce helped "beef up" the flavor when not browning the meat. 
Fork tender meat after 6 hours on high in the slow cooker
This recipe I worked from didn't call for soy sauce but I took some of those suggestions I'd read and tweaked the recipe by added a few extra things.  There are no potatoes in this stew, which lightens it up, and the heavy focus is on the tender meat as well as onions and carrots that's cooked down with crushed tomatoes and other flavorings I threw in. 

Long story short, if you have a slow-cooker and like beef stew, I highly recommend this!


Incredible chocolate-hazelnut meringue torte - in miniature

It was love at first sight.  I saw this cake on Smitten Kitchen and knew I wanted (needed) to make it as soon as possible.  I made a small 6-inch version, scaled down for a weekend family dinner for three.
Inspiration is everywhere.  I see so many wonderful sweet and savory dishes on blogs, cooking shows, in magazines, and from restaurants and bakeries that I want to emulate and try at home.  I'm making more progress lately but with so many possibilities and aspirations, things usually get added to my "to-make" list where I hope to get to it...eventually.  Well, this cake just moved me - straight into the kitchen - and would not be relegated into the annals of my to-do list.

I'm being a little overly dramatic but in all seriousness, I wanted to make and taste this torte, or layer cake, not only because a very reliable source says it's amazing but also because it has many of the components I love in a dessert - chocolate, nuts (hazelnuts are one of my favorites), and a contrast in texture... 
Layers of hazelnut meringue, bittersweet chocolate, and whipped cream (it's good just like this!)
And I'm glad I followed my instincts because what I discovered is one of the best things I've ever baked.   I think this torte is a show-stopper, a restaurant-quality dessert that I never would've thought I could make myself a couple of years ago.   And it was actually easy, at least not much more work than making a traditional layer cake.

Not only does it look amazing, the taste is a knock-out combination of flavors in your mouth.  I love the layers of soft nutty meringue, separated by thin, ever-so -slightly hardened sheets of bittersweet chocolate, that's all coated with creamy hazelnut-kissed whipped cream.  It is a hazelnut and chocolate lover's dream!
For a long time now, I've been thinking about attempting a multi-layer almond and hazelnut torte very similar to this one.  I believe it's called a "marjolaine cake", the rectangular kind made with layers of nut meringue, alternating with layers of chocolate ganache and coffee or some similar buttercream.  I've had my eye on a recipe from the Flour Bakery cookbook as well as one from America's Test Kitchen (both are that list of mine).  When I saw this cake, I thought it was a far simplified, lighter, version of the marjolaine cake that I keep thinking about.  Turns out, this is the recipe I've been waiting for! 

Now, about the name of this torte.  Deb calls it a "macaroon" torte but I just can't help but think coconut as in those flourless cookies when I hear the word.  It's also a dacquoise but whether you call it that, or macaroon, or meringue (like I'm tagging it), we're talking about a stacked cake made up of these layers created by combining nuts (in this case, plenty of hazelnuts) with firmly whipped egg whites.  The alternating layers of chocolate and creamy coatings of whipped cream complete the package.
The torte is surprisingly easy to slice, as the meringue is soft (and chock full of hazelnuts)
I will certainly be making this again and most likely, in the full, 8-inch, size.  I reduced the recipe down by half (though I made a little extra whipped cream) to make this 6-inch torte because I baked it for a Saturday night dinner and we  were not planning to be home beyond the next day to take advantage of leftovers.  Cakes with whipped cream are usually best eaten the day they're made but I've had success storing another Smitten Kitchen cake featuring whipped cream in the fridge for 24 hours or so and that's the case with this cake too.  I can personally attest to its quality within the 24 hour timeframe.

A special cake is very appropriate today because it's the 2nd anniversary of this little blog!  You know I clearly have a thing for chocolate and hazelnuts. Without purposely intending to, I just naturally gravitate towards this type of cake for special occasions.   For the blog's first birthday a year ago, I made a somewhat similar chocolate-hazelnut meringue cake and there are other hazelnut cakes in the archives.
I am still really enjoying this little blog endeavor, which has proven to be a fun hobby, a scrapbook of sorts, and the catalyst for so much learning.  I've tried many new things I never would have if not for this blog.  This torte is the perfect example of that!  Beyond baking, it's also encouraged me to be more adventurous in the kitchen in general.  I've been experimenting more on the savory front, learning to mix things up and make tasty and healthier dishes to share with my family.  Dinner time has been a lot more interesting!  I love being in the kitchen and feeling the satisfaction of feeding my family well and making discoveries along the way.  I also love seeing these little posts come to life!


Everyday food...a pad thai recipe

What is everyday food for you?  Until five years ago, we lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan so everyday food was all kinds of food.  There was plenty of diversity - everything from a hearty bacon and egg sandwich grabbed on the way into work for breakfast, to panini, sushi, thai noodles or halal chicken from the street vendor for lunch, to pizza/pasta, Chinese or Korean take-out for dinner.  But after moving to the suburbs, we had to adjust to fewer options.  Because of that, I started to cook a lot more.
 
I would say I have a good dozen or so everyday dishes that I make for dinner regularly.  Certain things come and go (for example, I used to make lemon chicken, or chicken piccata, all the time but just stopped) but some are mainstays.  My son loves ground turkey so I cook with that a lot and I like to put my oven to work baking salmon, pork tenderloin, and sweet potatoes.  I also do a lot of stir-fry since I grew up on it.  I like that, similar to baking, I can use a recurring line-up of basic pantry ingredients (soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, oyster sauce, etc.) to make something quick and tasty.  You can incorporate protein and vegetables in your stir-fry and serve it up with some kind of grain on the side.  In some cases, everything comes together in one pan!

For the most part, everyday food that I cook needs to be fast - the proverbial 30 minute meals. I don't mind cooking things that require some prep work earlier in the day but at dinner time, with a very talkative 7-year old and homework to be done, it needs to be quick or I'll go crazy...on the weekdays anyway. Weekends are far more leisurely...

Lately, I've been trying to expand my definition of everyday food when it comes to home cooking.  Maybe it's thanks to the long, cold winter but I've been staying in and dabbling in new savory dishes, and I thought it'd be fun to post one of them for a change.  (Alyssa, I hope you see this because this post was inspired by you : )

That brings me (finally) to this pad thai.  This is one example of me trying to replicate a favorite restaurant dish at home.  I love pasta and noodles in almost every form and I'm a big fan of Thai food for the interesting balance of salty, sweet, spicy and sour flavors.  When we lived in Brooklyn, we went to Williamsburg for great Thai food.  Where I live now, a good pad thai is hard to come by but I do get my noodle "fix" in part by going to an authentic Malaysian restaurant relatively nearby.  But what I really want to do is re-create some of these dishes at home so I can have it more often and, hopefully, make it a bit healthier. There's always the chance I'll get lucky like I did with the homemade mocha frappucino.

And speaking of Everyday Food...it's really too bad that the magazine is no longer being published regularly.  It was always beautifully laid out and chock full of good seasonal recipes that even listed nutritional information.  Could it have been too good?  I mean, have a couple of years' subscription (that I kept) but admittedly stopped subscribing when I figured that one year's collection probably held enough recipes for me to cook for a lifetime!  In fact, I barely scratched the surface when it comes to cooking from the magazines and now that it's no longer, I'm re-visiting them.  From one issue (the January/February 2012 "Light" issue) alone, I recently made two recipes.  The first was a crock-pot beef stew that doesn't even require browning the meat (it was delicious) and the second recipe is where I derived this pad thai dish from.

It's funny but when it comes to savory cooking, I like cooking without a recipe.  In cases where I do or have to, I'm pretty flexible about adding what I have on hand and making changes - something I rarely can or want to do when it comes to baking!  This was the case with this dish, which started off as a vegetable and tofu pad thai recipe.  I added shrimp and other things, omitted the tofu (though I love it, I didn't use it in this case), and changed up the proportions of ingredients so that the final dish is quite different from the original.  But happily, I think it turned out quite well and my husband and I plan to enjoy it again soon.  It's a nice, fresh homemade version of pad thai, with the combination of sharp flavors.

And this is a far lighter pad thai than what we'd typically get from a restaurant.  I think light food is good everyday food.  Don't get me wrong - I love the real, full-on restaurant pad thai when it's done well but being able to make a healthier, relatively easy, one at home is a homerun.  If you're interested in making this dish yourself, check it out after the jump...


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