February 25, 2014

Time for banana pudding

I had never had banana pudding before.  It's a little hard to believe since banana pudding is such a classic American dessert.  But since there is such a long list of things I've never eaten, it doesn't really come as a huge surprise either.  Regardless of the circumstances, it was time for banana pudding.
I like to unwind at night by watching cooking shows (and snacking).  A show I've taken to recording is The Chew and one of the co-hosts, Daphne Oz, loves banana pudding.  It seems to come up all the time and that got me thinking about it and realizing I've never tasted banana pudding before.  I asked my husband, who has had it, to describe it but he wasn't able to explain it to me as fully as I like. That made me all the more curious so I figured I'd just have to whip up a couple of banana pudding parfaits one day so I could give it a try for myself.

I was a little surprised that banana pudding isn't banana pudding, as in banana-flavored pudding in itself.  I did find a couple of recipes that incorporated caramelized bananas into the pudding but those seemed to be your more "gourmet" variety and not typical of classic banana pudding recipes. After tasting it, I can see why just plain vanilla pudding is all you really need. I'm not sure why I wasn't expecting it but I was somewhat surprised by how much flavor the sliced bananas infused into everything.  It literally became banana-pudding when the plain pudding merged with the fresh bananas.  No wonder my husband always thought it was "banana pudding", not vanilla pudding plus bananas!
This taste-test came together pretty easily last week.  I'm sure you can relate to this...once in a while, I crave some particular store-bought cookies or crackers, usually something I remember fondly eating as a child.  Not long ago, it was Nilla wafers.  Just a few seems to satisfy my craving for a long time so I had plenty to spare.  With that, my first taste of banana pudding was on hand.

I can't help but think banana pudding is similar to icebox cake.  The pudding softens those vanilla wafer cookies and become this soft cake layer, nestled among the creamy vanilla pudding and sliced bananas that somehow turns the whole thing into banana pudding.  My husband, who is the banana pudding expert by default in our house, really enjoyed my experiment.  It brought him back to his childhood and eating banana puddings made by his friends' parents.  For me, I love tasting something new to me - a classic that's familiar and nostalgic to so many others.  I may still be a lot more likely to reach for the chocolate pudding but now I know what the love of banana pudding is all about!

February 20, 2014

Leftover oatmeal muffins

Am I a little weird for being very excited about a recipe for "leftover oatmeal muffins"?  This might be a bore to non-oatmeal lovers but if you're a fan like me, you might enjoy this as much as I do.  I've been casually looking for a good oat muffin recipe for a long time since I adore oatmeal and oatmeal cookies.  I haven't had much luck but then Molly came along recently with something very interesting...
This one's for my fellow oatmeal lovers: Leftover steel-cut oatmeal muffins, with walnuts and mini chocolate chips
Why had I never thought of oatmeal muffins?  As in cooked oatmeal in the muffins as opposed to using rolled oats.  And I get to use my favorite steel-cut oatmeal at that.  I loved the idea and I had to try it.  

To explain why I really wanted to make these, you have to understand that I really, seriously, love oatmeal - crunchy, chewy steel-cut oats, to be exact.  I buy tins of McCann's Steel-Cut Irish Oatmeal almost as regularly as I buy eggs and milk.  I eat it almost everyday, not because I'm purposely trying to be healthy but because I honestly crave that texture and it fills me up properly. My son once asked me why I always eat oatmeal at dinner because I often have it as the carb portion of my meal.  I had to explain that I just really love it; he's used to it now and accepts it as one of my quirks.
The bulk of these muffins: leftover steel-cut oatmeal and a blend of walnuts and miniature chocolate chips
So maybe it'll come as no surprise that I really, really dig these oatmeal muffins!  They are hearty, not heavy.  With very little butter and just a bit of milk in them, the flavor is mild but texturally, they're a little magical because the steel-cut oats snap under your teeth in a very satisfying (at least, for me) and somewhat unusual way.  If you use old-fashioned rolled oatmeal instead, I imagine you'd get the more standard chewy texture, which is surely not a bad thing at all either.    

These muffins leave some room for add-ins and I went with walnuts and miniature chocolate chips. You could use other nuts or some fruit.  I feel like you could never go wrong with the subtle crunch of walnuts in baked goods and I'll grab any chance to add a little chocolate into anything so those were my natural choices, and I'm sticking with it.   
I think it's safe to say that no one will mistake these muffins for cupcakes and that's perfectly suitable here.  I feel good eating it.  The bits of chocolate chips add just enough allure and a little extra sweetness to make the muffins satisfying.  Because there's just a small amount of butter in these muffins, they are one of those baked items that are inevitably best fresh.  In fact, they taste best fresh from the oven, eaten while they're still warm

I made a small, half batch, of these in my first endeavor because of that very reason but I'm happy to report that a day-old leftover oatmeal muffin was still very tasty after it'd been refreshed for a few minutes in a warm oven.
One last thing...in my attempt to jazz things up and since it was on hand, I had the idea of crumbling some homemade granola over the top of the muffins so I tried it on a couple of them.  In the end, I discovered that granola makes a great add-in for cookies but they have no place here. It just did not work well on these oatmeal muffins.  All of us (surprisingly, even including the little one who I thought the crunchy top would appeal to) much preferred the muffins without the granola.  It was just too distracting and took away from the gentle warmth and snap of the oatmeal muffins.  There's no knowing without trying, I suppose, but I won't be doing it again...and I do plan to make these again.

I can finally say I found myself a good oatmeal muffin recipe.

February 18, 2014

First granola, then cookies

I've never made granola so this was a first.  Granola is my topping of choice when I go out for frozen yogurt but at home, I opt for nuts alone to top on my yogurt or to snack on.  I eat a ton of oats in the form of oatmeal so, in a way, I eat a lot of granola without all the binders.  
I was reluctant to make granola since recipes typically make a heaping mound (and you might as well when you go to the trouble) and I was a little afraid of overindulging in the face of abundance. Well, the plan was to share and to make good use of my first batch.

I made maple-almond granola.  The recipe is heavily Smitten Kitchen but minus the big clusters. Well, it's also minus the coconut, wheat germ, and dried fruit.  Oh, and I use almonds instead of walnuts.  I like my granola bare and simple - oats, almonds, and barely a hint of spice (I like seeds, too, and maybe I'll add it next time).  Big chunks and clusters are not a requirement for me (since I use it more as a topper than as a snack) but I do like the use of the egg white in this recipe. It acts as a binder and reduces the amount of oil you need to use.  
It's a good thing I wasn't going for clusters because mine really didn't bake up that way.  I fussed with it a bit more than necessary during the initial flip since I actually wanted to break them up a bit and I suppose that did the trick.  I ended up with wonderful toasted bits of crunchy granola - lightly sweetened with maple syrup, softly scented with cinnamon, and altogether fresh and delicious.  All I can say is fresh, homemade granola is a really good thing.  

I shared some of this batch with my sister.  At our house, I paired it with yogurt, using it to make mango yogurt parfaits as well as mixing it with some fruit.  I was on a Greek yogurt kick for a while but maybe it was too much of a good thing because I grew tired of it.  This batch of homemade granola has helped rekindle my interest in yogurt again.
Granola can be stored in an airtight container on the counter for about 2 weeks and it's great to know that it freezes well too.  I didn't need to freeze any this time around.  Besides enjoying it with my yogurt, I moved on to...cookies!  I made granola chocolate chip cookies with a cup of this granola.
I always figured I'd do this if I ever got around to making some granola.  As far as chocolate chip cookies go, these are your classic: soft-in-the-middle, crisp-around-the-edges, and oozing with bits of chocolate, kind.  

I used a mix of all-purpose and white whole wheat flour here - I think it blends together nicely.  The toasted oats and almonds in the form of the ready-made granola adds a bit of crunchiness, a little chew, and maybe even a hint of maple flavor if you savor it hard enough.
So if you ask me, definitely make some cookies with your granola.  The way I look at it...you may have some extra granola on your hands but you can never have too many cookies.

February 15, 2014

Playing pretend

This has been one long slog of a winter.  A few snow days here and there can be charming but after #7, you turn weary...and may start to lose it.  Snow-shoveling has been our predominant form of exercise (okay, more so for my husband) and I am just generally tired of feeling tired.
A picture from a few storms ago - our snow piles have reached a lot higher since
On the positive side, I'm really grateful we don't have any power outage issues this year.  We're lucky to be snug inside our home and I have plenty of time to putter in the kitchen so I won't complain too long.  At this point, I just have to resist the urge to sit or sleep all day in the face of all this continuous cold, snow, and ice.  I'm seriously ready for a change.  I know that this year, I will appreciate the warm seasons - when it eventually gets here - like never before!

There's a whole lot I miss about the spring and summer...the fresh produce, the farmer's market, the sunshine!  Not having to put on six layers of clothing to head outside would be amazing.  And I'm ready to crave lighter foods again, to put on t-shirts and open-toe shoes, to sit outside for a meal! Well, the time for all that is not quite nigh but I can pretend in the meantime...and I'm doing it with food.
This quinoa pilaf is one example.  It makes me think of spring and summer for some reason.  It's a lighter, vegetarian option, and the Asian influences of ginger, rice vinegar, mirin, and scallions make for bright flavors.  It also makes me think of this cold soba noodle I like making and stowing away in the fridge during the warm months.  

So while hearty stews, chili, big bowls of hot soup, and plenty of starch have been welcomed companions to these cold days and nights, I'm switching up my eating pattern a bit to cheer things up.  I've been buying grape tomatoes like it's in season and pretending my zucchini and (frozen) corn are fresh from the farmer's market.  Who says adults can't play pretend!

February 11, 2014

Chocolate-hazelnut cups (for my Valentine)

Maybe for special occasions like Valentine's Day, I feel the urge (or I can justify) the effort to try and make my own confections.  I took on this little project because I wanted to make some homemade Valentine treats for my husband.  I mean, why simply buy delicious chocolates from the store when you can really show your love by toiling away on a snow day, brushing miniature candy cups with chocolate and filling it with your own chocolate-hazelnut concoction?
Well...these little chocolate-hazelnut cups didn't exactly turn out the way I envisioned - visually, anyway.  The goal was a cross between a Ferrero Rocher and Baci Perugina - those heavenly bites of chocolate-hazelnut goodness that my husband and I are partial to.  I think these really hit the mark on taste.  They're delicious!  Visually, however...my chocolate-hazelnut cups are certainly wanting but I hope the taste makes up for it.

If you love the combination of chocolate and hazelnut - what the Italians beautifully call, gianduja - and those particular chocolates I mentioned, these are for you and your sweetheart.
The cups are just bittersweet chocolate.  The filling I made is a mixture of semisweet chocolate and Nutella, mixed with chopped toasted hazelnuts.  When I think of chocolate-hazelnut desserts, I think of feuilletine - those super crispy yet light-as-air, thin pastry flakes that I could eat all day.  So for that extra special texture (and taste), I added bits of crushed crepe dentelle, or crepe cookies, into the filling.  It's a shortcut way of getting feuilletine without actually buying it or making it yourself.
Bittersweet chocolate cups are filled with a mixture of chocolate-nutella spread, coarsely chopped toasted hazelnuts and crispy crepe dentelles (crispy, light pastry flakes)
These chocolate-hazelnut cups were mainly inspired by a recipe in a Cupcake book that I picked up a long time ago.  I also leaned on a recipe I found from epicurious.  I've had these little cups in the back of my mind for a special occasion for a long time; I think Valentine's Day certainly qualifies.  And like some ideas that land in your head and sticks there, and just won't go away, I'm glad I finally made this idea into reality so I can stop thinking about it.

I made several changes to the recipes, scaling it down but mainly making the process easier so that the filling is one you can easily mix together and fill into the dark chocolate cups.  After spending the time to "paint" chocolate into little baking cups, patience and concentration levels start to run low and I think the rest of the steps need to be quick and easy.  I did have visions of a neatly piped filling in the center of each one of these.  That didn't happen but I promise these taste wonderful.
I'm glad Valentine's Day is on a Friday this year.  I'm ready for a simple, relaxing at-home dinner with my hubby after bedtime for the little guy.  And I've stashed away a couple of these chocolate-hazelnut cups for us.  I just may have a few other, store-bought - "real" - chocolates for my Valentine as well.  
Have a sweet Valentine's Day!

February 7, 2014

Chocolate chip shortbread cookies

Making and tasting these shortbread cookies reminded me that classics, and simple things, are often the best.  Sometimes, I could use a little reminder like that.  If I didn't fully appreciate the goodness of the simple shortbread cookie before, I am fully aware now.
I didn't make these shortbread cookies because I was craving it.  It came about because I was putting together a little care package for a friend and thinking of treats with a good shelf-life that would be conducive to shipping. With all the snow storms coming and going, I didn't know how long my package would be in transit.  Shortbread seemed to pop up as a universal answer.

This is very simply: butter, confectioners' sugar, flour, vanilla extract, and miniature chocolate chips. The result is a shortbread with a signature sandy and crumbly texture.  But while it's crisp on the outside, these cookies are soft on the inside.  The confectioners' sugar somehow lends a melt-in-your-mouth kind of tender texture (the magic of cornstarch) that leaves you wanting a few more bites.  That's the impact it had on us.
This is Dorie Greenspan's espresso-chocolate shortbread recipe, minus the espresso.  It made me think about what you can add to, and the spins you can take with the classic shortbread.  But ironically enough - as I was tasting these cookies, I almost wish I'd made plain ones.  The plain base is that good (and that's saying a lot because you know how much I love chocolate).

February 4, 2014

Chinese dessert soup with glutinous rice balls

A couple of weeks ago, I was shopping at the Asian grocery store.  It was early and so quiet after a snow storm (one of many snow storms...I've stopped counting at this point).  I was relishing it and taking my time, a somewhat rare occurrence since I'm usually rushing from place to place.  It's in my nature to rush but these days, I'm trying - with some success - to chill out and slow down the pace.

As I was walking around, I thought about grabbing a packet of glutinous rice balls to make dessert soup.  "Glutinous rice balls" don't sound very attractive, do they?  Well, they are not rice balls as in balls of rice.  These are mochi-like chewy, doughy, sticky balls made with rice flour that we enjoy as dessert.  I like to cook and enjoy them in a classic sweetened ginger soup.    
A Chinese dessert soup:  Two-ingredient chewy, doughy glutinous rice balls in a sweetened ginger broth
Dessert soups are very common in the Asian culture.  Mostly hot, sometimes cold - there are many kinds.  A common one you might come across is made with red beans, and one of my favorites is a very simple one made with sweet potatoes.  With Chinese New Year, I've been feeling nostalgic and have Asian food (particularly, sweets) on the brain. 

Circling back to these rice balls, I usually buy pre-made, frozen ones that are stuffed with peanut butter or sesame paste.  But as I took a packet from the freezer, I remembered I made these little chewy, doughy rice balls myself once or twice back in the day.  I remember making them with my family and my mother telling me how good I was at it.  She was joking.
I bought some frozen, pre-made glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste to go with the plain ones I made
So on a whim, I went to the flour section and grabbed a bag of glutinous rice flour.  I remember the flour we use goes by the same name as these little dumplings.  And I also remembered that to make them, all you need is the flour and some warm water, enough to make the dough come together.  I thought it would be fun to make some with my little guy and teach him a little something about Chinese dessert soups - something he's not a fan of because he does not enjoy anything warm. Give him a cup of lukewarm water and he'll say it's scorching.  Hot chocolate must be cooled, preferably with a scoop of ice cream.  You get the idea...

So make a batch of glutinous rice balls, we did.  I even taught my son how to sing this silly song in Chinese about how we roll these little dumplings "round and round".  I made mine plain, for ease and the fact that I actually like plain glutinous rice balls against the sweet "soup".  The plain ones are clearly not flavorful (made with just flour & water) - what I love about them is the chewy, doughy texture.  Fillings are certainly good as well. I picked up some black sesame ones this time and mixed those together with the homemade (pictured above).
These plain glutinous rice balls don't offer flavor but a unique chewy, doughy texture against the sweetened soup
Alas, I did not convert the little one over to the joys of dessert soup.  He tried one, deemed it alright, but wasn't overly impressed.  He is neither a fan of soup or warm things still.  But I have a feeling, one day years from now, we'll talk and marvel at all the things he didn't enjoy eating as a kid that he will like then.  My husband and I always joke that he'll likely be a vegetarian and hate sweets since he is the polar opposite of that now.

February 1, 2014

Palmiers with orange zest (and a little dark chocolate)

It must be the thought of upcoming Valentine's Day that had me thinking about and making a batch of palmiers recently.  I haven't made them in years but there was already puff pastry in the freezer so I went with it.  I always called these "butterfly cookies" when I was younger but whether you more likely know them as palmiers or elephant ears, I love these cookies for their signature heart-shape.  I'm a sucker for all the frilly pink and red heart-shaped things we're seeing right now.
Supposing, like me, you don't feel the compulsion to make puff pastry from scratch and simply head to the freezer section of the supermarket, palmiers are truly easy to make.  At its barest, it only takes two ingredients: puff pastry and sugar.  That got me thinking about adding a little twist, layering on a different flavor for a change...

My mind naturally went to chocolate and I considered using a combination of cocoa powder with sugar to roll the puff pastry in but I wasn't sure how the cookies would look after baking.  I switched gears and got to thinking about fresh flavors and something to maybe offset or brighten up all the sweetness and richness of these cookies.  I went with orange zest (it seems to be the answer to lots of things).  I simply zested an orange right into the sugar and rubbed the two together to release the flavors and essential oils from the zest before using the mixture to roll the puff pastry and shape them into these palmiers.
I ended up with palmiers infused with a gentle but clear presence of orange flavor.  Of course, I couldn't completely shake my need for chocolate.  You know orange goes so well with chocolate.  So I did the natural thing and drizzled a few of my orange palmiers with bittersweet chocolate.  The light drizzle of chocolate seems to bring out the orange flavor even more.

Somehow, palmiers seem to simultaneously call for a cup of hot tea or a cold bowl of ice cream to go along with it.  I'm game with whichever option you choose to go with.


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