April 27, 2014

Chocolate-amaretto gelato

Despite the crazy, we-thought-it-would-never-end, winter we just lived through, I'm amazed to realize I pulled out the ice cream maker and made my fair share of ice cream during those months.  I guess we needed comfort food of all kinds to get through all that snow (plus, there was plenty of time on our hands at home, indoors)!  Now that it's warming up and ice cream season is really kicking into high gear, I took it upon myself to make this flavor I've been hankering for...
I made chocolate-amaretto gelato.  I use the term "gelato" loosely since, unlike actual gelaterias which churn their gelato slowly to incorporate less air, our homemade version is churned in a standard home ice cream maker.  I adapted the recipe from the Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and it does contain a higher milk to cream ratio, something I like about gelato because not only is it a bit lighter, it seems to let the base flavor shine more.
You might know my profile by now: crazy chocolate fanatic and lover of almond-flavored things.  So chocolate and amaretto is a combination I love.  This gelato makes me think of an affogato.   Ever since I started making it last summer (it was a revelation!), it's become a go-to dessert for my husband and I.  And after trying a few combinations (different ice creams flavors and liqueurs), the version with homemade chocolate gelato and amaretto is my very favorite. This gelato is a close mimic of that if you want to skip the hot espresso.  But I can tell you we did used it for affogato and it is terrific drowned in hot espresso and an extra splash of amaretto as well!
I've had a bag of amaretti cookies in the pantry waiting for this gelato to happen.  I thought it would be great to go alongside, to echo the almond flavor and add some always-welcomed crunch.  I went with store-bought though I've attempted a homemade version once before.  I thought I'd go for not only ease but the authentic depth of flavor and intense crunch you get from the "real" kind.  Did you know that amaretti cookies are made with apricot kernels?!  I don't know much about apricot kernels but they sure do help make some intense amaretti cookies.  (Incidentally, David Lebovitz has a recipe for apricot kernel ice cream in his new book.  You hack away at the pit of an apricot and the kernels are hidden inside!) 

I really wanted to post this particular gelato because it's one of those flavor combinations that define what I love.  This gelato or ice cream is smooth and chocolaty and the amaretto liqueur adds an almond flavor, with a zing, that does not go unnoticed.  It's pretty wonderful.  

April 24, 2014

Oven-baked individual French toasts

This past Easter was a bit of a rush job.  We'd just gotten back from a quick road trip to Boston and then dashed off to attend a friend's wedding festivities the day before Easter Sunday.  I didn't have time to plan anything resembling an elaborate Easter breakfast or brunch.  Instead, I tried a little time-saver.  I oven-baked French toast for breakfast.
Skip pan-frying and bake your French toast in the oven
I saw this idea on Martha Bakes.  I particularly like it because we're not talking about a casserole (which generally makes more than we need) but baking individual French toasts so you can make as many or as few as you want.  You skip the time, mess, and calories of pan-frying.  I don't use a ton of oil when I cook my French toast so, for me, the appeal was more in the time-savings.  You put the French toast in the oven and have some free time to prep other things for your breakfast.  In my case, I used the time to make some drinks.
I took out the last two slices of my homemade white bread from the freezer to use for this recipe. Those two mushroom-looking slices you see on the left (photo above) are mine.  I supplemented with other bakery white bread.  Much like those baked eggs-in-a-hole, I really like letting the oven do most of the work.

So, taste.  Here's the thing.  I found that the oven-baked French toast is not as moist and rich as regular French toast.  That shouldn't come as a huge surprise but I better point it out.  You're omitting some fat and while pan-frying on the stove-top quickly seals everything in, the oven tends to dry things out.
It's important to be mindful of the baking time.  The toasts bake in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes, then it needs a couple of minutes on broil to give it some color on top.  The timing thing is a lesson I learned; trying to buy a few extra minutes on a busy morning, I left my French toast in the oven a couple minutes longer than I should have so it dried out more than it needed to.  I will certainly be more diligent next time.

So while baking French toast might not be quite as good as frying them, I think that the benefits make it worth the compromise sometimes.  It's certainly easier on the cook!  I'm definitely willing to try this again soon.

April 21, 2014

Healthy and easy banana oat "cookies"

Hello, fresh new week!  The past week was a busy one.  Not only did we have Easter and the excitement of the Easter Bunny's visit, the little one was also home on a truncated spring break.  He had only three days off from school because of all those snow days but we managed to sneak off for a quick road trip to Boston before coming home and attending the beautiful wedding of friends over the weekend.  

When we got home from our short trip, I had very little groceries on hand.  I don't know about you but I feel like I go grocery shopping constantly.  In reality, it's more like 2-3 times a week (at least) and I've just come to accept it.  It's really amazing how, one minute, the fridge is stocked and loaded down but then you turn around, and it's practically empty!  
Banana-oat "cookies: Made with just banana and quick oats, then mixed with: mini choc chips, peanut butter and strawberry jam, and just chunky peanut butter
So while I always have things in the freezer and dry goods in the pantry, it was still slim pickings.  I did have one lonely ripe banana sitting on the fruit plate and thought I'd use it to make a handful of breakfast "cookies".
Ripe banana and quick oats bind to make the "cookies"...then add a mix-in or two of your choice
I thought I'd try a recipe I saw from Skinnytaste a few months ago.  When I first saw it, it made me think of one-ingredient banana ice cream because it again highlights the versatility of the banana.  These "cookies" are easy and quick to make - plus, healthy, too!  We're talking 3, maybe 4, ingredients and there's no added sugar, or flour, egg, butter/oil involved at all.  Start with a ripe banana (or two), add quick-cooking oats to bind, then add mix-in(s) of your choice.  I couldn't decide so I tried a few variations. 
Three ingredients: banana, oats, and miniature chocolate chips
This will come as no big surprise but of the variations we tried - ones with mini chocolate chips, chunky peanut butter, and chunky peanut butter with strawberry jam - we liked the chocolates ones best.  They tasted like this banana bread.  The ones with jam came in second and next time, I'd love to try a version with some toasted walnuts.  You could use other nuts, dried fruit, cocoa nibs, coconut, nutella, or whatever you like.  I think the mix-ins add a nice layer of extra flavor and texture.  A little goes a long way with these petite cookies so you can be a little less generous with the chocolate chips than I was.

These healthy cookies are ideally eaten warm from the oven.  Obviously, they're not cookies in the traditional sense (hence, those quotation marks) without all the usual ingredients like sugar and eggs. So don't expect a gooey, sweet cookie.  These are chewy and, ironically, somewhat doughy, despite not having any flour in them.  Adding some extra flavor and texture with a mix-in or two is really nice. I think this is a fun way to use up a ripe banana or two and get a sweet treat out of it without any guilt.  I hate guilt, don't you?

April 16, 2014

Tri-color cookie (Easter) cake

Tri-color cookies, or Italian rainbow cookies, have to be one of our top five favorite sweets.  My family and I are seriously crazy about them!  No Christmas is complete without at least one, or more likely 2 or 3 batches of it.  We're talking three layers of almond sponge cake joined together by apricot preserve, encased in dark chocolate.  It's a heavenly combination.  We're such fans I've turned them into mini cupcake bites and now, we can have it in cake form, too!
Tri-color cookies, then cupcakes bites, and now cake too!
Given our love of those cookies, you can imagine my interest when I spied this recipe for "Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake" on Joanne's Eats Well With Others blog.  The post I happened to be looking at was for another lovely cake but it was the rainbow cookie cake that popped up at the end of the post, in the 'related recipes' section, that caught my eye.  I knew I had to make it!
I couldn't possibly wait until Christmastime to try it out.  I know I don't really need a reason to make any cake but thinking of the colors (I was actually aiming for pastel hues but the colors baked up deeper than I expected), I thought I'd pretend to be seasonal and call it an Easter cake.  I added some white chocolate shavings and nestled a few Cadbury mini eggs on top.  To me, once something has a few Cadbury mini eggs on it, it just screams: "Easter!"  They're the first thing I buy when Easter treats start appearing at the stores.  So I hope you'll play along and indulge me on this loose Easter theme.
I made this recently as a little surprise for my fellas (my husband and the little one).  I knew they'd love it and after tasting it, we were all thrilled.  It is literally tri-color/rainbow cookie in cake form!  As you'd expect, it's fluffier and thicker than the cookie (which is really not a cookie...but that's another discussion) and more importantly, the flavor is very much the same.  I've been partial to making smaller 6-inch cakes lately and this one is another example (though my family would've welcomed a 9-inch with this one).  This could very well be the first 3-layer cake I've ever made and, miraculously, I actually had three 6-inch round cake pans so I was able to bake the layers all at once!
Texture and flavor wise, this cake is as it should be - a moist sponge cake that has a lot of body and almond flavor thanks to almond paste.  I use apricot preserve (heated then strained so it's smooth), rather than a combination of apricot preserve and raspberry jam because my family and I are partial to it here. I tried to pack as much of the preserve in the cake as possible since we love the flavor it adds. That got me thinking about possibly baking the batter into two layers next time but splitting the 2 layers into 4 so that we'd have another layer of preserve!  I can call it a quad-layer rainbow cake, maybe?  That might be over-complicating things but I want to make it happen...
I like to use strained apricot preserves - and lots of it - between the layers of this almond cake
This cake is encased in one of my favorite things: chocolate ganache. But because of a higher chocolate to cream ratio, the chocolate ganache is somewhat firmer (so you get more of a shell) than typical ganache frosting you'd use for a cake.  That's just spot on here because it replicates that hard shell/snap I know and love from a good tri-color cookie.

You can probably tell I've discovered a new favorite cake!

April 12, 2014

Chocolate pudding pie parfait

These simple chocolate pudding pie parfaits were inspired by my little guy's love of this chocolate pudding pie.  He recently asked me to make it and I did.  As he devoured it and called it "epic", I was reminded of how much he loves that pie, which is a little surprising considering he isn't a big fan of crusts or traditional pies in general. I'm starting to see he has an obvious affinity for cookie crusts though.
Should you be in the mood for a chocolate pudding pie, I know my little one (who isn't actually that little anymore since he'll be turning 9 in a couple of months!) would highly recommend this recipe For the last one I recently made, I actually used digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers since I had them on hand.  I was a little nervous about shaking anything up since I didn't want to disappoint the little one but I needn't have worried...he loved it!  I think it might have actually tasted better with the digestive biscuits (now if only I had thought to write down the proportions!).  

And so after that pie was long gone and I made a mental note to make it a little bit more often going forward, I thought I'd do an easy twist on it by making a "chocolate pudding pie parfait".  I was really just thinking of dressing up a basic chocolate pudding.  I simply took some digestive biscuits (the last of what I had on hand), crumbled them up, and set them down in a glass as a base layer.  You could use graham crackers or other similar cookies instead, and you could crush some toasted nuts (like hazelnuts) together with it if you want another layer of flavor.  I didn't go to the added step of making that base layer more like a pie crust by tossing the crumbs in butter or sugar - I took the opportunity to skip the fillers.
Then, I made my easy everyday chocolate pudding - a lighter, no-egg/cornstarch-based pudding - and layered it on top of the crushed cookies.  You need layers for a parfait and I considered some lightly whipped cream and chocolate shavings to be another layer to finish off these simple parfaits.

My picky 9-year old is actually not a fan of whipped cream.  I had some plain pudding set aside but he dug in and waved off my offer to take it off after he tasted it.  I do realize that may not be a good thing.
After a bike ride on a lovely Saturday afternoon, father and son came home and polished off these chocolate pudding parfaits as quickly as they would a generous slice of that pudding pie!  That definitely puts a big smile on my face because I love seeing others eating something they really enjoy.  Now I know why my mother used to watch me so intently while I ate.

April 8, 2014

Chocolate raspberry layer cake

Today, let's step into the world of sweets in a more serious way.  I know no better way to do that than with chocolate cake.  I may have been a purist in the past; by that, I mean I never wanted to mix my chocolate desserts with fruit.  But lately, I'd been craving the combination of chocolate and raspberries.  This chocolate raspberry layer cake was my way of fixing that craving.
This 6-inch cake is a pretty straightforward one.  There are two layers of moist chocolate cake (that's prepared without even using the mixer), joined together with seedless raspberry jam and dark chocolate ganache.  I simplified the recipe I worked off of and the cake came together as I ran errands and went about my day.  
Dark chocolate ganache, seedless raspberry jam and fresh raspberries for the cake
The whole cake is lovingly covered with chocolate ganache and simply garnished with a handful of fresh raspberries on top.  This cake definitely satisfied my chocolate-raspberry craving (and we know that cravings must be addressed eventually).  It's not complicated at all but I have to say that I'm always a little amazed when a cake comes together and that I made it from scratch, as simple as it might be.
There's seedless raspberry jam with ganache in the center and top layer of the cake
And a cake is just what I wanted to post here today because it's the 3rd anniversary of this little bumbling blog!  It's funny because for the first blog anniversary, I made a chocolate-hazelnut cake; the next year, it was another chocolate-hazelnut concoction - and both involved meringue!  Noticing the pattern after the fact, I decided to take a break from hazelnuts this year.  But, of course...it still had to be chocolate!

I almost can't believe I'm still chugging along after three years.  I have a lot of fun making the food and treats, then putting these posts together to share and stow away here.  It still feels like a little food diary of sorts but the chance to interact a little, and to learn from others who love food as much as I do, has been a huge perk.  This little blog continues to motivate me to try new things in the kitchen and I love all the learning that naturally happens. 
Thank you for spending a few minutes here sometimes.  I wish I could sit down and eat a slice of cake with many of you.

April 5, 2014

Blueberry oat muffins

Last Sunday, on a rainy afternoon, I thought I'd make a batch of muffins. It's always a good time to make muffins.  Lately, I've been inspired by Cooking Light's Healthy Habits Cookbook, which I picked up on sale after the holidays.  It isn't a diet book by any means, or necessarily a cookbook though there are a good amount of recipes in it.  It essentially consolidates the 12 healthy habits the magazine had been discussing throughout the past year into one place.  I'm glad I bought it because it's like a good reference book; there are a lot of useful information, healthy recipes, and tips that I see myself going back to for inspiration.  
Ground oats and plenty of blueberries in these muffins
These blueberry oat muffins are one of the recipes in the book.  I feel like you can never have too many muffin recipes in your arsenal so I'm always interested in trying a new one out.  Muffins are just easy to whip up and they make for a great snack, treat, or a sweet breakfast if you're so inclined.  My husband's sweet tooth is activated from the moment he wakes up til bedtime so he's always game for muffins.  With a tight schedule in the morning, they make a quick breakfast option on some days for him, too.  The goal, of course, is to find recipes that are more muffin than cupcake.
They turned out more moist than I expected...the brown sugar helps
My husband had recently requested blueberry banana muffins, which I (eventually) made and he polished off.  I thought these blueberry oat ones would be a similar alternative that he'd also like. And happily, I was right.  We both like the sweetness from brown sugar and the background note of cinnamon here.  We also like the flavor and texture from ground oats and whole wheat flour. Buttermilk, along with a little canola oil, provides moisture.  Of course, there are plenty of blueberries, which adds even more moisture, along with some lemon zest that just goes so naturally with it.

I made a half recipe, or 9 muffins.  Using frozen blueberries, it's easy to put a batch together.  The muffins stayed moist for a couple of days at room temperature and I stowed a few away in the freezer for a quick breakfast to come.  The freezer has become a very good friend of mine these days.  
I sprinkled turbinado sugar over the top of the muffins for a little texture

April 1, 2014

Japanese sweet potato wagashi

I think I've made my love of several things pretty clear on this blog.  First, there's chocolate.  That deserved its own sentence but I've also talked about how much I love things like English muffinseggssteel-cut oatmeal, chestnuts, and desserts incorporating hazelnuts, to name a few others.  Today, I want to add something else to the list: sweet potatoes!  To be exact, I absolutely love Japanese sweet potatoes, or "Satsumaimo".

I recently stumbled upon a simple recipe for Japanese sweet potato "wagashiand made some for an afternoon snack.  Frankly, I'm using it as an excuse to talk about one of my favorite foods. Japanese  "wagashi"  refers to small confections served with tea.  Not being Japanese, I'm no expert but I've often admired the dazzling array of wagashi on display at Japanese markets.  They are generally colorful and intricately designed.  Think of this Japanese sweet potato wagashi as a far more simple, homespun kind that you can whip up as a sweet little bite to go with your afternoon tea.  They're basically mashed sweet potato balls, so you can just call it that if you like.
A simple Japanese sweet potato wagashi (or confection) - it's essentially a slightly sweetened mashed sweet potato ball
Back to the Japanese sweet potatoes...have you tried them?  Maybe there are other fans out there. Unlike the more typical orange-flesh sweet potatoes at the market (which I also enjoy and cook all the time), Japanese sweet potatoes have a purplish-red skin and a pale, cream-colored flesh. Its texture is denser, drier, than the orange variety, and fluffier in the sense of being more like a regular potato.  I love its sweetness, and it's a special kind of sweetness that I think is somewhat more subtle than the orange variety.
Japanese sweet potatoes have a purplish-red skin and light, cream color flesh
I have gotten into the habit of eating a big roasted Japanese sweet potato for lunch, along with some other vegetables, most weekdays.  It's a habit I can't seem to kick and don't really want to for now.  
I wrap the sweet potatoes in foil, roast them in the oven, and dig in for lunch
I have to admit I love it for the pure sweetness.  I literally like to lean into one of these piping hot sweet potatoes and just inhale the sweet, caramelized aroma.  It's really heavenly!  It's also super hearty and satisfying.  In other words, it helps satisfy my insatiable craving for carbs and sugar, in a more natural way.
When they caramelize like this, it's better than most desserts!
I got to thinking recently about this little obsession of mine with the Japanese sweet potato, and a light bulb went off!  I realized I love it because it is very, very much like chestnuts in both taste and texture...and I am crazy about chestnuts!  It all started making sense.

The good news (for me) is I can get my hands on these Japanese sweet potatoes pretty much all year round.  They can be found at Asian food markets and I noticed that Whole Foods has started carrying organic ones in the last few months, which makes me so happy.  I remember occasions while shopping at Mitsuwa, a Japanese market, where there would be a vendor outside with a small barbecue pit during the wintertime, selling hot roasted Japanese sweet potatoes.  The smell was unbelievable.  In Japan, you might be lucky enough to find stone-roasted sweet potatoes.  As heavenly as that sounds, I make do by roasting mine in the oven.  It takes at least an hour, often longer, but it is so worth it.  

These Japanese sweet potato balls, however, are simply made by boiling diced Japanese sweet potatoes until they're tender.  They're then mashed with a small amount of milk, sugar, and butter before rolling and baking.  It's a nice mix-up from the usual sweets.


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