Tender pancakes with a secret ingredient

As I mentioned, I've got breakfast on the brain now that summer break is here and we have more time on our hands.  One of my 8-year old's favorite breakfast requests is pancakes. Needless to say, I see myself flipping many batches throughout the summer.
Generally, if I have buttermilk, I make these irresistible buttermilk pancakes, which even the little one has grown to love (the tang, though subtle, took a little getting used to for him).  When I only have milk, I make a classic, which involves whipping egg whites and separately folding them in for a fluffy texture.  Those pancakes are terrific but I've been looking for a recipe for light, tender pancakes that don't require that extra step.  Not that it's a huge hassle but - given the option - why not do away with extra dishes and having to remember to separate the eggs when they're cold, whipping the whites when they're room temperature and all that, first thing in the morning.  And that's how we come to today's recipe.

I think I found what I've been looking for!  A recipe for tender plain pancakes without the need for folding in egg whites.  The secret ingredient in these pancakes is...potato starch!
I found the recipe in Gale Gand's Brunch! and it's credited to a woman named Ina Pickney, who apparently specializes in breakfasts.  She calls these pancakes "Heavenly Hots" and I understand why after tasting them.  The explanation behind adding potato starch (which is much like cornstarch) is that it helps soften the texture of the wheat flour, because it holds liquids differently, so that you end up with a finer, more tender pancake.  Supposedly, the use of potato starch is one of the secrets behind Krispy Kreme doughnuts!  

Though I haven't tried it, I've heard of including cornstarch to create a soft, fluffy, tender cookie so maybe this is much the same idea.  Another cookbook I read recently said that the use of cornstarch and cocoa powder was done way back in Victorian times to create a finer cake crumb. I wonder why the habit went out of style but these pancakes have convinced me that there's definitely something to it!  Some people say vinegar or lemon juice also helps make a tender pancake. I've made whole wheat pancakes using lemon juice but those were not as good as these.  I'd love to hear it if you have any insight!

I highly recommend giving these pancakes a try - they're easy to make and turn out light and tender.  I am officially inducting them into my family's pancake rotation.  It's hard to believe that not very long ago, I only made pancakes from a box!



Orange-hazelnut muffins

This Monday morning is the official start to our summer vacation!  Second grade has officially wrapped up for the little one and he is eager and more-than-ready to enjoy the leisurely summer days ahead.  We have a few short camps and activities on his schedule but plenty of time left to just chill and be.  (Wish me luck!)
I've got breakfast on my mind because now that summer is here and we don't need to make it to school before 8:15am, there will be time to experiment with breakfast and to have pancakes on weekdays!  We all enjoy muffins and I'm always on the lookout for a new recipe.  I'll even have time to make them fresh in the morning (though I personally prefer muffins as a midday snack or even as dessert).

Muffins are great because, in the majority of cases including this one, they are just so easy to put together.  Since I'm not a big fan of most icings or buttercream, muffins are also perfect for me since I can just focus on the cake.
These are orange-hazelnut muffins, a recipe I slightly adapted from the latest July issue of Cooking Light.  I love hazelnuts and anything with orange zest so these flavors called out to me.  Plus, they are a breeze to make and healthy with hazelnut meal (I'm all for healthy fats like the kind from nuts), just a touch of sweetness from honey, and a bit of milk and canola oil in the batter.  

The original recipe calls for agave nectar but I used honey instead.  I wish I was a fan of agave but I'm not.  I admit I've only used agave once so maybe I need to give it more of a chance but I just find the flavor too strong.  I think maple syrup would also be a good, easy substitute here too.  
This recipe makes 12 mini muffins but I opted to go for a small batch of 4 regular size ones instead for our breakfast.  Call them muffins or snack cakes, they are fragrant with the nuttiness from hazelnut meal and the fresh flavor and aroma of orange zest and a bit of fresh juice.  They are moist though without butter in them, I wouldn't call them rich, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  The texture is a bit like a corn muffin actually.  Again, not a bad thing.  I think these make a great breakfast muffin or a light snack.



Three-layer brownie mint-ice cream cake

Time to talk cake - ice cream cake!  I love that my son's birthday falls in June - it's perfect ice cream season.
Brownie, mint chocolate-chip ice cream, and peppermint ganache topped with crushed Thin Mint cookies
Ice cream cake was always my favorite kind of birthday cake growing up.  It makes sense since my birthday's in August but given how much I love ice cream, I'd have wanted ice cream cake for my birthday even if it happened to be in January!  My now 8-year old is an equal fanatic when it comes to ice cream and this is the third year in a row that I've made some kind of ice cream cake concoction to celebrate his big day.

Two years ago, I simply stacked 3 layers of ice cream together in a loaf pan and topped it with some melted chocolate and sprinkles.  Last year, I got a tad more adventurous and made a 3-layer coffee ice cream cake for the birthday boy.  The child is a big fan of coffee ice cream, cookies, and such!  That cake had a base layer of dark, dense chocolate cake, followed by coffee ice cream, and another layer of chocolate ganache.  It was scrumptious and I used that framework for this year's ice cream cake.

The difference is I went with a brownie base this time instead of the cake.  While the fudgy chocolate cake was possibly the best part of that ice cream cake for me last year, it was very difficult to cut.  I got to thinking of making a thin brownie layer instead; I mean, you just can't go wrong with brownies and ice cream, right?  Right!
As you can probably tell just by looking it, the cake is simple to put together but I'll tell you all about it anyway because I could talk about food all day long...

I started with half a recipe of this brownie cake, which is just the Smitten Kitchen brownie recipe baked in the round.  (Incidentally, I think it just might be my favorite brownie recipe and that's saying a lot because I love them all!)  Half a recipe makes a nice thin layer at the bottom of this ice cream cake (after all, it's about the ice cream).  You just need to take care not to over-bake the brownie.  It takes only about 10 minutes in the oven to bake this thin portion in a 9-inch springform pan.  And the brownie bottom did turn out much easier to slice.

In an ideal world, I'd fill this cake with homemade ice cream but in reality, this is a crazy time of year and I'm grateful to use some good store-bought stuff.  If I went homemade, I'd have to make more than one batch to fill this cake since you need at least 3 pints of ice cream for the cake.  This year, we decided to go with mint chocolate-chip ice cream.  It's another one of the birthday boy's favorite (and mine, too).  We talked about maybe going with vanilla next year for a classic spin.
The crushed Thin Mint cookie topping was a big hit with the birthday boy!
To finish this cake, I added a top layer of dark chocolate peppermint ganache.  I think a ganache topping is great not only because it is rich and delicious but because it stays so soft and easy to cut through and eat.  I thought about making a mint brownie base but decided not to so I thought a touch of peppermint flavor to the ganache would be nice.  Knowing I was going to make this cake for my son's birthday, I saved a few Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies to crush up and decorate this cake with.  Some colorful sprinkles always make a birthday cake better, too.


Birthday bonbons and other treats for my 8-year old!

My little guy turns "8" today!  Needless to say, I want to give my son a great big shout-out on his special day:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, J!! 
Homemade brownie ice cream cake
It's funny but I'm always referring to my son as the "little" guy here but I don't call him that in "real life".  It may occasionally be my big guy or "big man" when I'm talking to him.  But I am the queen of nicknames so I call him by many things.  

In all seriousness, he is growing up so fast!  Having a child speeds up time (and ages you) like nobody's business!  We were at the library the other day  checking out a few books when the lady asked him what grade he'll be going into next Fall.  When he answered "third", she was really surprised and said: "weren't you just in kindergarten!"  That just about sums it up because it really was yesterday that he was in kindergarten and now he's finishing second grade and looking forward to third.
Some homemade birthday treats: Ice cream cake, birthday bonbons, and Ninjago cupcakes
So here we are again, another milestone!  A child's birthday is a major thing.  We did some celebrating on Saturday since his birthday, today, is a school day.  I wanted to make a few treats for the special occasion.  I'll be posting the recipe for the ice cream cake next - it's very similar to the one I made last year.  

As per the birthday boy's request, I also made Ninjago cupcakes again, this time in blue and green.  He was really into Ninjago for a while and is still a fan (he'd love some new episodes to watch but it seems the TV series was a short one).  He actually asked if I could make gold ninjas but since I don't have gold food coloring, he settled for these.  The recipes and directions for the cupcakes are available in an old post.
I think he got a kick out of these little treats; I feel like I'm the real beneficiary to get to see the quirky smile on his face!  And he was a good sport, taking some pictures with us earlier in the day so I can blog about it here.  When it came time to blow out the candle and actually dig into our birthday goodies, we switched over to Star Wars disposable tablecloth and plates!  With a few old-school streamers floating overhead, it was a festive little celebration.  Happy birthday, sweetie pie!
Now for today's post, I'd like to talk birthday bonbons!  I just love the sound of that!
Brigadeiros: Fudgy, chocolate, caramel-like birthday bonbons
These are Brazilian Brigadeiros - chocolate bonbons or candies typically served at children's birthday parties in Brazil.  I saw these on a show once and just loved this tradition the Brazilian people have of serving these festive truffle-like candies at kids' birthday parties and other celebrations like weddings.  I'm told that every serious Brazilian children's birthday party has to have brigadeiros.  

My first boss out of college is something of an expert on Brazil.  He used to vacation there at least 2-3 times a year but while he educated me plenty about Caipirinhas (the drink), Carnival, and women's beach attire, he never did mention brigadeiros.  So while I can't personally confirm whether they really are such a staple at children's parties, it sure sounds like a good idea to me!
The cool thing about brigadeiros is they are made with just 3 main ingredients: sweetened condensed milk, a little cocoa powder, and a bit of butter, plus toppings such as sprinkles of your choice to roll them in.  As you can tell from the ingredient list, they are a cross between fudge and caramel.  As my son would tell you: "they are fudgy, 'caramelly', and chewy."  He really liked them and you can see they are appealing to children on looks alone.  Upon trying one, I think his exact words were "mmmm....mmmm" with a nod.  The birthday boy approved.  To me, they're a sweet sentiment and just fun to look at because sprinkles tend to make people smile, don't you think?



A banana tarte tatin for my husband

I made this little dessert two nights ago for my husband, who I'd like to wish an early Happy Father's Day to!  I wish this had turned out a bit better for my hubby but he doesn't mind one bit - he's cool like that!

I wasn't sure I'd be able to squeeze in a little Father's Day post here because, invariably, this week in June is one of the busiest in our household.  The little guy's birthday is coming up on Monday so it always coincides with Father's Day.  On top of that, we're approaching the last day of school and there are always a healthy handful of year-end related events and to-do's to attend to.
A bit hard to tell...Banana Tarte Tatin (a recipe I made with mixed results but a lot of love)
This Sunday, I'm planning to cook Father's Day brunch (eggs and skirt steak with chimichurri) and I've got some tri-color cookies stowed away in the freezer; they are one of my husband's favorite treats so I'm ready to go in that sense.  But I also wanted to make him a little something different and my mind keeps going back to the banana tart at Union Square Cafe in New York City, an old-favorite restaurant of ours (before and after marriage, but pre-child).  

We usually went there for some kind of special occasion and often asked to sit in the tiny alcove balcony on the second level.  We always had a delicious meal...raw oysters, fried calamari, garlic chips, pasta, duck, steak (pretty much all in one night between the two of us).  It was delicious food in a friendly environment.  For dessert, while I always looked for something chocolate, my husband would pick the signature banana tart without fail.  It was a beautiful caramelized tart, topped with macadamia nuts and ice cream.

So I've been toying with the idea of trying to make that banana tart at home (emphasis on "trying").  The recipe is printed in the restaurant's cookbook but it's not exactly the same and I, honestly, had trouble understanding the directions.
Enter this banana tarte tatin.  I found this recipe hard to resist...you only need 4 ingredients (store-bought puff pastry shaves a lot of the work), it's simple, and you can easily scale the recipe to make as few or as many as you want.  Too good to be true?  Maybe so in this case because it did not work out - visually, at least - as well as I hoped.  I'm sure my own shortcomings had something to do with it but without actually making caramel first, the filling or sauce just didn't turn out dark and caramelized like I hoped, and I think visual appeal is important since we eat with our eyes first.  I actually ended up sprinkling some extra brown sugar on top of the baked tart after turning it out, and popping it under the broiler a couple of minutes to get some color on it!  

...So forgive me if today's post isn't the story of an amazing recipe I discovered but more of an ode to food memories and great dads like my husband...
The saving grace, though, is that this banana tarte tatin actually tasted far better than it looked out of the oven.  We are talking puff pastry, sugar, butter, and ripe bananas (not to mention ice cream), after all.  In general though, one of the best things about cooking/baking for my husband is the encouragement and appreciation I get regardless of the outcome.  Nothing has to be remotely perfect and he's always so enthused and complementary about  my cooking that I actually believe him most of the time.  But all joking aside, I  taste-tested this myself too.  My husband said it tasted "just like" USC's banana tart.  Now that is a stretch but I appreciated it.
I hope you have a great weekend.  It's been wet and dreary here so I'm looking forward to some sunshine.  Happy Father's Day to all the wonderful dads out there!  To my husband, thank you for being such an awesome dad - the little guy is one lucky fella!!



Double-chocolate espresso bean cookies

There's something truly comforting about making and eating homemade cookies.  It's like going back to basics and making a sure-thing.  So I always get the hankering to make a batch of cookies. Today, let's have some double-chocolate espresso bean cookies!  If you like the combination of chocolate and coffee, this one's for you.
The cookies are very brownie-like, with a crackly surface and a soft, moist, and even slightly chewy interior!  I add a touch of instant espresso powder to coax out the chocolate flavor but the real source of the espresso flavor comes from ground up chocolate covered espresso beans.  The beans perfume the entire cookie with an aromatic coffee flavor throughout.  It also adds an interesting bit of grittiness and texture to the cookies that I like.  With plenty of chocolate to balance it all, it's a combination that I can really get behind.
Some important components: chocolate chips and ground chocolate covered espresso beans
Not only is there melted chocolate in the cookie dough itself, there are chocolate chips mixed in as well (hence, the double-chocolate).  I used callets, or chocolate discs, made by Callebaut (60%-cacao) for the mix-in.  I find these callets super convenient since they make for easy measuring and eliminate the need for chopping.  I think they work really well in cookies.  The callets are really smooth and slightly flatter than typical chocolate chips; they also melt and don't sort of re-harden once cooled like the standard chocolate chips so it's similar to using chocolate chopped from a bar.
These cookies smell good, taste good, and make a great afternoon pick-me-up!  I like this recipe because you get a moist, rich chocolate-coffee brownie cookie but one that's not ridiculously rich or cloying.  I make them on the smaller side but since they're thick, even having just one is satisfying.  You won't even need coffee to go with it since it's practically built right in!



Hazelnut financiers

Oh, I love financiers!  I've sang their praises before and I'm here to do it again.  It's pretty startling to me how something so plain looking could taste so surprisingly delicious!
Their deliciousness has a lot to do with browned butter. I say that as a person who does not automatically swoon at the sound of those words.  All I know is that the browned butter really works and packs a ton of flavor here.  In financiers, it creates the most delicious flavor, a nuttiness that's accentuated by a generous amount of ground nuts.  In this case, I used hazelnuts instead of almonds.

Even though I am in no way any sort of professional blogger, I still like to try new things so I have something to post and write about here (not to mention, have something new to taste and discover).  That said, I do frequently make our family favorites - most of which are recipes I've discovered thanks to starting this blog.  Since I made financiers the first time last September, it's been one of my favorite ways to take adventure of extra egg whites (from, say, making ice cream).  And I love this recipe from Dorie Greenspan where you essentially stir the batter together over the stove-top.  It just requires a little patience or advance planning since the batter needs to chill for at least an hour.  I usually put it together in the evening to bake the following morning so that we can enjoy fresh baked financiers for breakfast.  They are golden, crisp (the edges are so crisp!), and just scrumptious freshly cooled from the oven!
So in the interest of posting something "new", I thought I'd revisit financiers and make a hazelnut version.  I love hazelnuts and baking with nuts in general (my son seems to take no offense to the presence of nuts when they are ground up).  Financiers usually come in a variety of flavors - from almonds, hazelnuts to pistachio, chestnut and chocolate - so there are plenty of variations to try.  I was really tempted to try pistachio (for some reason, I'm always drawn to that flavor when I buy treats) but I had hazelnuts on hand and it never disappoints me.  And considering how the French call browned butter, beurre noisette, or "hazelnut butter", hazelnuts are a natural partner.

I also thought I'd make mini financiers this time.  We all love things, particularly desserts, in miniature, don't we?  I baked the little guys in a mini muffin tin.  They are done in about 10 minutes when they puff up, spring back lightly to the touch, and the sides are golden.  Let the little cakes cool to room temperature and enjoy them - those golden corners are crunchy against the moist and very flavorful center.
I added a dab of Nutella to a few of my mini hazelnut financiers.  They're actually better without it since the Nutella flavor is strong and, believe me, you want to enjoy the full flavor of the financiers themselves.  I do love stuffing the regular almond financiers with chestnut cream.  I think that works really well because the sweet nuttiness of chestnut cream is milder.  



Profiteroles and Cream Puffs

I've wanted to make profiteroles for ages since I've certainly enjoyed my fair share of them at restaurants.  I loved being able to recreate this dessert at home - crisp yet soft pastry wrapped around cold ice cream with plenty of chocolate sauce (preferably warm) drizzled around.  Yum!  So with all my recent ice cream talk, I finally made profiteroles!
I filled mine with some homemade vanilla ice cream.  I took the classic route but there are no rules and any of your favorite ice cream flavor would be great.  Unadorned, they are possibly the coolest little ice cream sandwiches I can think of but I really believe chocolate sauce is a must.  Instead of making my own, I took a shortcut and warmed up some good-quality store-bought mint chocolate sauce that I had tucked away in the fridge to go with it.  It was really good!  My family and I had a good time polishing these off, and I was somewhat surprised to see my little one enjoying it since he usually turns them down at restaurants.  Unlike his mom, he's not big on carbs so the pastry doesn't appeal to him on sight.  But he loves eclairs...go figure!
And can I tell you something?  I had fun making the Pate a Choux dough for these puffs!  I simply stirred the ingredients together in a saucepan over the stove.  After it cools a bit, stir in a couple of eggs vigorously.  It's really that easy.  Then, watching the squat rounds of dough puff up in the oven is like a magic trick!  I must remember that when it comes time for my son to do science projects or enter science fairs, we need to consider doing something on eggs and how they make things magically inflate when heated.


Being that I hate to waste (and it's not always practical to share), I'm happy to report that you can freeze any leftover puffs you don't use.  My batch makes a dozen puffs - a manageable amount but, if necessary, you could freeze extras for another time.  You can actually store baked puffs in an airtight container for a couple of days; refresh them by popping them in the oven for a few minutes and they dry and crisp back up!  For longer storage, you can also either freeze the unbaked piped dough or the baked puffs once cooled.

And as most of you most likely already know, the dough, or Pate a Choux, is the basis for profiteroles that we stuff with ice cream as well as cream puffs, eclairs, and even savory gougeres (cheese puffs), too.  While I was only initially planning to make profiteroles, I decided to go double-duty with my dough and make some cream puffs too!  And, of course, instead of plain whipped cream, I had to make cocoa-whipped cream to go in it.
Don't you love it when you can take one thing and turn it into something else?

The pastry's hallow centers make perfect little wells for the cream in the cream puffs and the ice cream in the profiteroles.  A creamy filling works great with the light shells.  I have to admit that, asked to choose, I prefer something with ice cream rather than without so the four remaining puffs in my freezer are destined to be filled with some and made into profiteroles in the very near future.

I hope I've convinced you to make some profiteroles - they are a great excuse to eat more ice cream!



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