January 28, 2014

Let's talk about Cantonese egg tarts

My love of eggs goes way back...all the way back as a child eating egg tarts.  Are you familiar with them?  These little egg tarts are a classic from Hong Kong, where I was born.  You can find them here in Chinese bakeries and at some dim sum restaurants (I ate a lot of dim sum growing up; it was something of a ritual for my mother).  We eat egg tarts any time of day, whether at breakfast or midday as a snack.  With Chinese New Year a couple of days away, I thought it was a perfect time for me to try making a batch of my very own.
When it comes to childhood favorites (and I admit I have many), these Cantonese egg tarts are right up there with those little red bean pudding cakes.  I loved them as a kid and my preference has always been for the ones set in a sweet, crispy, shortbread cookie-like crust, as opposed to puff pastry. I've wanted to make them at home for a long time.  Even though I can actually buy them pretty easily (and inexpensively, at little more than a dollar each), the idea of producing a batch in my own kitchen has been something of an aspiration.  I suppose it's natural for those of us who love to bake/cook to want to recreate things we love to eat with our own two hands.
For me, there'd always been some angst at the thought of making these little egg tarts.  The idea almost seemed "scary", which is interesting and odd because when I stepped back and thought about it, we're really only talking about a sweet pastry crust and a variety of egg custard.  I've certainly made both of these - albeit separately - before.  But I think the angst comes from fear of messing up something that's pretty special in my mind.  Egg tarts are all wrapped up in my food memories and I suppose I may have felt that anything I made should live up to the amazing, warm egg tarts of my youth - the kind that I probably had too few of but somehow lives on in my mind.
It was time to stop being silly and to check this off my want-to-do list.  For my first attempt at these egg tarts, I used the recipe I found at The Missing Lokness.  I had looked for, found, and bookmarked a few recipes before I found hers.  You see...the problem is I can't read or write in Chinese and I had trouble finding an easy to follow recipe in English.  I got lucky when I found her post.  The only addition I made was adding a little vanilla extract to the custard.

I have to tell you I feel such a sense of happiness (and a little relief) at accomplishing these egg tarts!  The process was not without drama though.  I was worried because I made the mistake of stretching my crust too thin.  It was my fault for not following instructions better!  I took the crust all the way to the top of the mold instead of 1/4 inch shy of the upper edge as the recipe says.  I read that but reflexes took over and I didn't realize my mistake until they were done.
I was afraid the tarts wouldn't unmold or the crust might break apart because of the thin edges. Luckily, very luckily, the tarts unmolded!  As you can no doubt tell, the fluted edges are fragile but I only had one small piece break off from one of the six tarts.  I was so relieved - and once again reminded that it's simply best to plow on in the face of problems and that things somehow usually work out in the end.  

And taste-wise, it was the real McCoy - a tender, crisp, buttery crust with a lightly sweetened creamy, eggy filling.  Maybe an egg tart doesn't appeal to everyone but it is really precious to me. And the best thing about making them at home is being able to enjoy the tarts warm from the oven, as fresh as it gets.  They might not compare to those truly authentic, fragrant egg tarts found along the streets of Hong Kong but it is certainly a worthy at-home endeavor.
I made these egg tarts Saturday morning and thought I'd extend breakfast into a Hong Kong tea shop eats theme by also making toast with condensed milk.  It's a classic Hong Kong breakfast concoction, made simply with white toast, a little salted butter and a slathering of sweetened condensed milk.  As you can tell, we had a sweet start that morning.

January 24, 2014

French toast with an orange twist

Maybe because I'm more of a morning person, I really love the first meal of the day.  On weekdays, my routine is usually a ham and egg sandwich or toasted English muffin with peanut butter, alongside a homemade mocha frap.  On weekends, it's nice to set the table (the little one does that, actually) and start the day lingering over breakfast.  The boys often enjoy a little something sweet.  Pancakes, in some form, are regularly on the menu and sometimes there's French toast.
I once heard someone, somewhere, say that the "secret ingredient" to everything is booze.  I don't drink a lot but I'm starting to think that's a very true statement.  Take this French toast.  Regular French toast is delicious as it is but add an element of citrus with not only fresh orange zest and juice but also some orange liqueur and you've got something special.
Of course, the little guy enjoyed his French toast minus the liqueur but I have to say it adds a nice punch here for the grownups.  The trick is not to overdo it because I find it can be bitter if used too generously.  

This orange French toast was part of the "baking bonus" segment of Martha Bakes that I watched recently.  I took the essential idea of adding the orange flavors but leaned on the lighter Cooking Light recipe that I'm partial to.  I use low-fat milk (and not too much because I like the flavor of the eggs to come through), just a touch of sugar, and bakery-style white bread, as opposed to richer brioche.
It was tasty...very tasty.  You know the magic orange zest imparts on baked goods and it does that to this French toast.  The orange liqueur heightens the flavor and the whole thing is refreshing and sweet - a lovely breakfast and good start to a weekend morning.  I love the sunny golden hue of French toast, particularly brightened here by the burst of orange.  

I'm all for the classics and occasionally trying different spins on them to keep things interesting.  It's not only fun to eat but keeps cooking interesting, I think.  This French toast is a good example.  It's something very familiar yet a little special for your weekend breakfast.

January 21, 2014

Chocolate chip donuts (Déjà vu)

Well...here we go again!  We find ourselves in the midst of another snow storm.  As I type this, there's a good feet of snow on the ground and another half-dozen or so inches expected before dawn.  This one snuck up on us.
Another snow day, another batch of donuts...
The little one had a half-day at school today and it'll be a delayed open or, more rationally, a full snow-day tomorrow.  The last snow day we had was little more than two weeks ago and if you recall, we kept busy by finally breaking in our donut pan and making donuts together for the first time.  It was fun because donuts are not only tasty but so pretty to look at.  Turns out, we found that baked donuts are easy to make and awesome to eat, too.

So this is where the déjà vu comes in.  With the afternoon ahead of us, I thought it'd be fun to do it again.  I wasn't planning on making donuts (and thus post about it) again so soon but it was such a good snow day project last time that I thought of it again today.
After that first batch two weeks ago, the little one and I had a few other varieties in mind to try. Being very much like his mother in this kind of thought process, the varieties essentially boiled down to...chocolate, or adding more chocolate!  So this time, we made chocolate-chip donuts.

We very closely followed the recipe from last time but omitted the nutmeg altogether and added one-third cup of miniature chocolate chips into the batter.  Mini chips are definitely the way to go here and I like using it in cupcakes and muffins in general.  I made things even easier by using plain melted butter this time instead of browned since the chocolate chips give us plenty of extra flavor.  With the same easy chocolate glaze, these came together quickly and the little donut chef was very pleased!
The white nonpareils were our ode to the snow day
The little one loved these so much that I think we'll be making this version for a while to come.  The pure vanilla-chocolate flavor is familiar and the moist spongy donut itself just make for a great package.
These donuts were ready by the time the little one's dad walked in the door from work.  After a long and messy commute, dad was hungry and more than ready for some donuts.  He raved endlessly about them, as dads/husbands are supposed to do.  Needless to say, the donut chef and I were very satisfied with our second donut project.

January 19, 2014

Chinese almond cookies

Chinese New Year is just around the corner (starting on January 31st this year) and I actually have time to think about and anticipate it.  Growing up, Chinese New Year was a huge deal in Hong Kong, with a ton of preparations and many meals being cooked and eaten.  When we moved to New York (I was eight), Chinese New Year festivities scaled down a bit but it's still a big occasion to mark.  Truth be told, we enjoy Chinese New Year courtesy of our parents, who prepare the traditional foods and keep the customs alive for us.  Now that my son is getting older, I'm trying to be more mindful of those traditions.
Red is the traditional color of Chinese New Year (though I do have Valentine's Day on the brain, too)
With Chinese New Year on my mind, I made Chinese almond cookies.  I think the best way to describe them is they're slightly crisp almond-flavored butter cookies, with a sandy (almost cornmeal-like) texture to them.  And they're really more Chinese-American treats because while we certainly have Chinese desserts in the form of dessert soups, for instance, sweets as in cookies and such are not a huge part of Chinese culture.  The few cookies I did eat as a very young child were mainly those tins of Danish butter cookies and almond cookies. My favorite ones are actually the ones pictured below:
I have to mention them because they're really unusual cookies in that they're super crumbly and sandy - powdery on the surface, even - with full-on almond flavor and bites of almonds within. They're so fragile, the cookies - biscuits or "cake" as it's called on the tin - are individually wrapped and packed with bubble wrap inside the tin.  They're incredible, and while I love Italian-style soft and chewy almond paste cookies, these particular Chinese almond cookies above have a special place in my heart.
Chinese almond cookies are sandy in texture and essentially almond-flavored butter cookies
I know it's anti-climatic to say I'm not making those fragile cookies today.  I would love to know how they're made.  I've heard it involves shortening and clearly, there's some sort of mold involved.  In other words, not something easy to replicate at home so I think I'll have to settle for buying them. However, I'll still attempt to tip my hat to almond cookies and the crispy type typical of Asian cookies in the form of the Chinese-American ones I made.  They are likewise sandy and crisp in texture, with a buttery flavor accented with almonds from almond extract.

A little bit of egg wash on top gives the surface some splotchy touches of gold.  It's a familiar look for me when I think of cookies and buns from the Asian bakery - to me, that crusty golden top always signal a bit of crunch to come.  

January 15, 2014

Chickpea, black-eyed pea and parsley soup

I didn't expect to like this soup as much as I did.  It's very simple but it turned out so well - hearty yet light, a combination I strive for often in everyday eating.  This is the kind of food I like to wrap myself around during the frigid days and weeks we've been having.
I've always loved soup but whereas I used to make it at home occasionally, it's become almost a non-stop deal this season.  My husband's become more of a soup fan himself.  Typically, he's not into piping hot, burn-the-roof-of-your mouth, type food like I am but I think this frosty winter has turned him around to my side.  Because of all this, we've been digging into many bowls of homemade soup and I've been on the lookout for more ideas.  

This particular soup was inspired by Martha's chickpea with parsley and parmesan soup recipe.  I skipped the cheese and instead of using all chickpeas, I decided to mix it up with black-eyed peas. Over New Year's, I cooked black-eyed peas (somewhat succotash style with onions, corn, peppers, and avocado) and it reminded me of how much I like it so I decided to incorporate it here for a little diversity.  I also added some carrots (don't you always think carrots when you think soup?) for some extra flavor and a splash of color.  Finally, when I tasted the soup, I thought it needed a little extra brightness from a splash or two of lemon juice. I think the lemon brings the flavors forward and rounds the whole thing out.  
I made skillet cornbread (and pot roast) a few weeks ago and decided to defrost a slice to serve alongside this soup
My husband and I both agree that the parsley does a little something special here in this soup so don't skip it!  If you knew me as a child, you'd know how ironic it is for me to say that.  I used to hate parsley and generally dislike things with little specks of green on top.  Now, I can genuinely say I like parsley and it makes this soup.  Come to think of it...I once thought I disliked chickpeas, too. I disliked far too many things and I'm glad I've come a long way!

So if you're like me, craving soup all the time, and looking for another easy recipe to try, here's my contribute for today.  Stay warm!

January 12, 2014

Baked egg-in-a-hole with homemade multigrain

This recent breakfast was inspired by an email.  It was a New Year's day one from Cooking Light and there was this picture of an egg-in-a-hole in it.  It was the bread, or toast, in the picture that caught my attention because it was multigrain toast and I'd only just made my first loaf of multigrain bread. What perfect timing! So I took some of my multigrain bread and decided to get cracking (literally).
I'm sure you've seen egg-in-a-hole (or toad-in-a-hole, etc...) a million times.  Maybe like me, you've seen it but never actually made them?  Or is it just me?  Every Father's Day, I get the notion to make egg-in-a-hole as a fun little "special" breakfast but I never have.  I somehow figured I'd never be able to flip the egg and toast in the skillet and get it looking right (these are crazy things I "worry" about). And that brings me to another reason why this recipe appealed to me - it's baked egg-in-a-hole.  In other words, no flipping in the skillet!
Baking egg-in-a hole sounded like such a great idea to me.  It's a little lighter than sizzling them in an oil or butter-laden skillet.  It also means no flipping so you get a nice bright yolk front and center, and you can make quite a few all at the same time with minimal work.

It sounded so simple, and it was.  I lightly toasted my multigrain bread (luckily, I'd frozen about a third of my homemade loaf), then cut a 2 1/2 inch round from the center of each.  Lightly grease a baking sheet (I used olive oil) and set the bread on top.  Drop an egg in each and bake at 400 degrees for 5-8 minutes, until the egg whites are set but the yolk is still soft.  What you've essentially got is a sunny side up egg with toast for breakfast but in a fun little way.
I cooked some bacon alongside.  That makes my son very happy!  You could get a little fancier and dress your egg-in-a-hole up with some grated cheese and fresh herbs, and crumble crispy bacon or prosciutto over the top.  You can take it for any kind of spin you can think of but it's the general baked factor of this that I really like.  

Egg-in-a-hole is somehow simple yet special. You can use any kind of bread you like but I have to say multigrain toast goes so well here. You can really enjoy the nuttiness and flavor of the toast with the soft egg, without a lot of interference.  The multigrain is so flavorful, you don't really need or miss the butter (or maybe that's just me).  

I just love a good breakfast!

January 9, 2014

Donuts with my dumpling (on a snow day)

A few months ago, I saw baked doughnuts at Joy the Baker and I literally went out within a few days and bought a donut pan (I realize the proper spelling is "doughnut" but I've always gone the shortcut route so I'll stick with it here for the most part).  There was something about those gorgeous chocolate-glazed donuts. They are the very kind I always went for as a kid (albeit fried, of course) and the same ones my son likewise favors now.  Chocolate-frosted donuts with sprinkles have a special place in my heart. 
My little one presenting the results of our snow day project
I took it as a sign that I really should get a donut pan and make donuts - baked donuts - at home.  I showed my little one and he was certainly enthusiastic about it since he is, not surprisingly, a big donut lover.  I think I may have simply used him as an excuse because I was thinking all along about the many times I walked over to a local donut/coffee shop (a non-franchise one in the neighborhood) as a kid, to order one, two or a half-dozen donuts.  Once in a while, I went for a toasted bagel with cream cheese instead.  
It took about 4 months for us to get to this project.  Meanwhile, I was happy to have the little donut pan tucked away in the pantry.  This was essentially my first real baking project of 2014 and I'm thrilled I got to share it with my little dumpling - my rapidly-growing 3rd grader!  We made these last Friday, on a snow day from school.  As my husband shoveled the 8-9 inches of snow outside in the frigid cold, the two of us "toiled" away in the warm kitchen making these beauties.
I learned that baked donuts are easy to make, a great project to do with kids since it's simple, fast, and there's no frying involved.  I love working/playing in the kitchen with my son and I'm so glad he's shown more interest in it lately. To hang on to that interest, I try to keep it simple and interesting because like most 8-year old boys, he has the attention span of well...an 8-year old boy!  I think he does get a kick out of these food experiments and learns a little something along the way too.  I know it makes me feel useful and we all certainly enjoy eating these "projects"!

And in this instance, we get to play with sprinkles so you know it's fun!  The only problem I have with sprinkles is deciding which and what colors to use.  Rainbow is too classic to resist but it's certainly fun to decorate them for different holidays.  I was thinking ahead to Valentine's Day for one of them.
The young donut chef and his parents enjoyed this inaugural batch of homemade baked donuts. They're somewhat spongy and moist, a bit denser than cake, which makes it easier to dip them in the glaze.  We went light on the nutmeg in this recipe - I usually prefer it in moderation and so does the little one.  

The chocolate glaze is very simple and as you might imagine, we had some leftover glaze after dipping our half-dozen donuts.  You know what we did with it?  We used it as a dip so we enjoyed our donuts, fondue-style! Talk about guilty pleasure!  I was channeling how churros, and even beignets, are eaten (at least these donuts are baked).  So yes, it's indulgent but we had so much fun.  And we will all attest to the fact that baked donuts, served with a side of extra chocolate glaze for dunking is a very delicious experience!

We are looking forward to more homemade baked donuts in our future.  Would you believe my son just told me that we should dip the entire donut in chocolate glaze next time?  I don't know where (or who!) he gets these wild ideas from!  ; )

January 5, 2014

Making wontons

I'm sure it needs no introduction but wontons are simply Chinese dumplings, typically filled with some combination of ground meat, shrimp, and vegetables.  The thing that makes wontons special is the very thin wrapper used to form them - once cooked, it's silky soft and being so thin, it allows the filling to take center stage.  For me and many others, dumplings like wontons are pure comfort food, particularly when paired with some hot soup or noodles.  It's no wonder that every culture has its own dumplings in some form.
Wontons, with pork and shrimp filling
I remember making wontons at home once when I was a kid.  I remember that it was a lot of fun but somehow, I also associated it with a lot of work and as a project that I never could quite find the right time to research and do.

So even though I sound like a broken record, I have to say I've wanted to make wontons at home for a long time but didn't until recently, over Christmas vacation.  My little guy loves to eat wontons when we go out and it's on the menu.  That was one motivation behind this project.  And finally, I was inspired to get practical, and get cooking, by The Chinese Takeout Cookbook.  It just sounded easy, as many of the recipes in the book are.
And you know something?  I really enjoyed making wontons!  Set yourself up, pull up a seat, and just start filling and sealing.  It's kind of therapeutic and a lot easier than you might think.

Seriously...consider having a little wonton-making party or just set a little time aside one day to make a big batch because right now, I'm discovering that having a bag of homemade, ready-to-go, wontons stashed in the freezer is a wonderful thing in the winter.  You make the wontons, lay them on a baking sheet to freeze, then pop them into a bag and store in the freezer. Then, you can have wontons any time you want and quick - just put a pot of water to boil and the wontons are cooked and ready to eat in less than 10 minutes!
Wontons tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce for lunch
For these wontons, I used traditional pork and shrimp filling.  The richness is balanced by a little fresh ginger, rice vinegar, and chopped scallions.  I added a touch of sesame oil out of habit.  It's practically reflex since my mother taught us early on to add it to our meat marinades.  I think a little sesame oil never hurts an Asian dish!  It adds great aroma as well as flavor.

I got about 50 wontons in this batch (and I wish I had more).  I made them one afternoon and used some to make wonton soup for dinner, ladling some hot, spiced-up chicken broth over it and serving with bok choy.  You could certainly add some noodles and make a more substantial meal.  A few days later, I took some out of the freezer and cooked them for a quick lunch.  I simply cooked them in some boiling water and then stirred the wontons in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce, which gives them a little sweetness.
Wonton soup with bok choy for dinner
Do you like fried wontons?  The kind you dip in that bright sweet and sour sauce?  These are the very same wontons - just fry them instead of boiling!

January 2, 2014

I love multigrain bread

Happy New Year!  My goodness - it's really 2014 already!  While it may take me a while to remember to write '14 from now on, I'm ready to throw confetti onto the New Year and hope it's the start of a happy and healthy one that's filled with causes for celebration for us all.  

For my first post of 2014, I thought I'd go with bread - that most basic, nourishing, nurturing food that most of us would find hard to live without.
Multigrain bread made with 7-grain hot cereal and pumpkin seeds
I love bread in general, and you might recall my love of english muffins (I straight-up just love carbs), but multigrain bread is one of my very favorite types.  I adore the flavor from the grains and seeds embedded inside.  The nuttiness and texture you get from a loaf of good multigrain bread is so addicting and satisfying.  I love it so much that I tend to talk a lot about places, restaurants, where I can get a good slice or roll of it.  Here's an example...my husband and I used to go to a little restaurant in New York City called King's Carriage House.  It's a cozy place and their food - as in the actual dishes - was terrific (whether for lunch, brunch, tea, or dinner) but what I always think about is a great multigrain roll they served there.  Am I a little odd for putting so much emphasis on the bread?
So for me, good multigrain bread just makes me smile and brightens up my day a little.  It's the little things in life!  And when it's good, I feel it hardly needs anything more than a light toasting because the bread itself is so full of flavor all on its own.  I love to savor it and appreciate all its nuances.
That said...a little salted butter or some jam (as my husband likes to have it) - not to mention ham and eggs on the side for breakfast - never hurts either.  But honestly, I think it's really delicious all by itself.
So given my passion for it, you can imagine I wanted to try this recipe from America's Test Kitchen when I first saw it.  It was bookmarked for a long time, I made a couple of other bread recipes first to get a little experience under my belt, and now I've done it.  And I'm so happy to report that this bread - this monster of a loaf - turned out completely delicious!  It certainly hits the mark in flavor and texture.  It has nuttiness and chewiness in spades. 

The "secret" or shortcut to attaining the multigrains in the bread is hot 7-grain cereal.  Why is it when you want to buy 7-grain cereal at the supermarket, all you can find is 9-grain!  Not wanting to mess up the recipe in any way, I ordered a four-pack case of 7-grain cereal via amazon.  And I'm glad I did.  Not only have I been enjoying bowls of the stuff for breakfast occasionally, this bread is worth searching out the cereal for.
I felt such a sense of accomplishment taking this bread out of my oven and onto our table.  If I can do it, you can bet it was fairly simple.  I have very little experience in bread-making, having only worked with yeast a handful of times and in the last few months only.  What I've learned is that it's a fluid, live process - one you have to flow with and adjust around.  It's honestly exciting and a bit scary at the same time.  Just when I'm feeling confident everything is going according to plan (or the recipe), I'm thrown a curve ball.  In this case, the bread was rising faster - and more - than I expected.  I had to switch the bread pan I intended to use to accommodate the size of the loaf! And what a big, lofty, fluffy (not tough or overly dense) loaf it turned out to be!  It worked.  It really worked.
Bread-making is clearly a skill honed with time and practice, and while I'll never be any expert, it is definitely rewarding.  The other week (before this experiment), I found myself out of bread and with bad weather making it inconvenient to go out and buy some.  So I made my own That is a very cool feeling, to make your own bread and provide your family with a basic that is at the same time very special.  I feel empowered as I'd never envisioned being able to make multigrain bread myself, at home, by following a recipe.  Thank you, America's Test Kitchen!

Aside from trying to make good eats to share and linger over with my family at the table, this whole thing of puttering in the kitchen, playing with flour, and what have you, is also about learning and discovery in an area I'm passionate about - food!  I hope to learn more and make a few more discoveries this year...


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