January 28, 2015

Jamie Oliver's chocolate malt cookies

It's time for some chocolate cookies!  February is just a few days away and to me, the month is synonymous with Valentine's Day and chocolate.  Needless to say, I'm a big fan of February and I'm ready to get an early start on the chocolate talk and consumption.
Chewy chocolate malt cookies with crushed Maltesers and milk chocolate bits
Most of us know our way around chocolate cookies but these called out to me because they're pretty unusual ones, different from what I'm used to here in the States.  It's a recipe from Jamie Oliver and, maybe not surprising given the British association, the flavor is a combination of chocolate and malt.  Specifically, malted milk powder and crushed pieces of Maltesers provide the malt flavor.  
Some key ingredients: sweetened condensed milk, dark chocolate to be melted into the dough, Maltesers, as well as some milk chocolate bits
But wait...the recipe stays interesting.  Condensed milk is the sweetener in these cookies and right away, I envision a very chewy cookie and that's exactly what we end up with.  A little bit of ground almonds make things even more interesting; it adds a tiny bit of texture in the background that maybe you wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly if you weren't the baker but appreciate nonetheless.  Dark chocolate - as in 70% to counter the sweetness of the condensed milk - is melted into the dough to create the chocolate base.  Along with crushed Maltesers, the recipe calls for a little bit of chopped white chocolate but I opted for milk chocolate instead. (While there's a place for everything and I remember an old fondness for Nestle's Alpine White chocolate bars, I just can't seem to gather much enthusiasm for white chocolate these days.)
As for dry ingredients, some ground almonds and malted milk powder make things more interesting
For me, there's so much that's unusual yet familiar about this cookie recipe.  Growing up in Hong Kong for the first handful of years in my life, I'm fairly familiar with British eats and snacks, and malt as well as milk powder are some of those familiar things. We are also no stranger to condensed milk; I've been known to put it on toast occasionally.
I totally thought of my husband when I saw this recipe.  He not only loves malted things - as in drinks, milk shakes, and cookies - but chewy cookie are also his favorite. Happily, he was a big fan of these cookies and devoured them readily (though I admit he is hardly objective when it comes to my food). 

For me, I'd say these cookies are largely about the texture - they are very chewy and moist.  The center is almost brownie-like (my husband goes so far as to say they're like a chocolate truffle).  Those are all good things.  Now let's talk flavor.  The malt factor isn't overwhelming but to be honest, neither is the chocolate.  I used 70% bittersweet Scharffen Berger chocolate in these cookies.  It's a dark chocolate with strong overtones that you usually can't miss.  Here, the sweet condensed milk wipes those flavors out so you don't get intensely deep chocolate taste.  Personally, I prefer chocolate intensity so that's not a selling point for me.  However, life is about variety and this is a great cookie experience for that special chewy texture and sweetness. It's just important to go into things knowing what to expect.

January 24, 2015

Orange chiffon cake

Chiffon cakes are one of my favorite things.  So it's part of my regular programming to make one.  I was getting ready to make my favorite, a classic "plain" vanilla one, the other day when I saw an orange version from Martha.  I've always wanted to make an orange chiffon cake and since I've enjoyed other occasions where I branched out, I made the orange version.  I have no regrets!
I think of this as one big, bright, bouncy orange chiffon cake.  It's just as it should be - lofty, fluffy, light and moist.  Orange zest and fresh orange juice give it plenty of flavor so there's no doubt it's an orange chiffon cake.  Adding citrus is a small way of adding some sunshine and brightness to these winter days.  I think we can all lighten and brighten our moods a bit with our food.
This is a great cake for January, before we bring on the richer chocolate treats for February and Valentine's Day.  You are planning on making some chocolate treats, aren't you?  It's hard to believe we're already at the tail end of January already.  Once upon a time, I thought the first month of the year dragged on but as I get older, time flies out the door and vanishes somehow.  Nevertheless, there's still a few days left to the month.  If you're in the mood for cake, I'm offering this as my suggestion.

January 20, 2015

Fish in coconut curry

Maybe it's the cold or a need for deeper, more satisfying, flavors during these cold winter days.  Whatever the reason (or maybe for no particular reason at all), I've been craving curries.  During the holiday break, I made coconut chicken curry and that really hit the spot.  Along the same lines, I thought I'd try a recipe I'd saved up for a while now and make a fish curry.  In this case, it's Cod Coconut Curry.  
Cod cooked in a light coconut sauce with curry, onions, red bell peppers, and tomatoes
I was interested to learn that this is a dish from Tanzania and that many dishes from Tanzania use Indian spices.  I pulled this recipe from the April '14 issue of Cooking Light.  It's easy to put together and light; I love dishes like this that are full-flavored, healthy, and hearty at the same time.

Since I'm always looking to incorporate more fish into our diet, I'm happy to add this to my repertoire.  I used cod but any flaky white fish would work nicely (in the recipe, halibut is used).  The fish is first rubbed with hot curry powder and then seared and partly cooked on the skillet.  Then comes a mixture of onions, red peppers, and some fresh garlic and ginger.  Tomatoes break down and their juices help create this broth that's combined with some light coconut milk for a richer flavor.  The light coconut milk contributes a tropical note to the dish without being overpowering or making the dish too heavy.
The fish finishes cooking in the sauce and it's all done, ready to be served with some extra lemon on the side.  I never under-estimate the power of lemon juice; sometimes, it's just what you need to round out the flavors of a dish or to make all the flavors pop, as in this case here.  

I served this fish curry with some brown rice.  It's perfect for soaking up the sauce and makes for a satisfying dinner.  This is a great meal for fish and spice/curry lovers.

January 15, 2015

Almond buns (small batch)...with an almond paste filling

Calling all almond lovers - this one's for us!
Soft almond buns/rolls - filled with almond paste, toasted slivered almonds & a little dark chocolate
Ever since I had that atypical craving for cinnamon rolls early last year and made some from scratch, I've been hooked!  I've made those chocolate and orange cinnamon rolls several times and now, I have some amazing almond buns (or call them "almond rolls" or "almond cinnamon rolls") to share with you! 

I've now discovered yet another great use for almond paste, and I'm so excited because I'll jump on any excuse to eat more almond paste and almond-based pastries!  The idea for these almond buns came from Sweet Paul's Eat and Make.  In the book, he has a recipe for almond buns that featured grated marzipan and slivered almonds as part of the filling.  That got my attention!
Main ingredients for filling: toasted slivered almonds, grated almond paste, and finely chopped chocolate
I took that amazing-sounding idea and adapted it to suit me.  I used the small batch cinnamon roll recipe I've been using, which makes 4 beautifully soft and pillowy rolls, and instead of marzipan, I used almond paste.  Marzipan is sweeter than almond paste.  I've never used marzipan for baking, and knowing what I do about almond paste (it is sweet enough for me), I was pretty confident it would work just as well - if not better - for this purpose.  I was intrigued at the idea of how the almond paste (or marzipan if you go that route) would melt into the dough while baking to create this gooey almond filling for the buns.  After eating it, I can tell you it is divine!    
I also added a bit of chocolate.  Honestly, I showed restraint here.  I added a mere 1/2 ounce of dark chocolate in total to these 4 rolls.  I wanted the look and taste of some chocolate without overpowering the almond flavor.  And almond is most definitely the headliner here.

To amp up the almond flavor even more, there are crunchy almonds in the form of toasted slivered almonds in the filling.  Other than that, I have a little bit of butter, sugar, and a touch of cinnamon to pull it all together.  It's hard to describe properly in words but...fresh from the oven, it's basically biting into a warm pillowy mound of gooey almond bun.  It's literally oozing with almond flavor and especially tasty with a drizzle or two of the super simple almond glaze I made for them.  
I tasted the buns without a glaze and they are good even without it because there's enough sweetness and moisture from the almond filling.  But in the end, I'm glad I whipped up a quick glaze.  I simply whisked some powdered sugar together with milk (or use almond milk if you have it) and a few drops of almond extract - heavenly!  I think I'll stick with the glaze going forward because it just makes for a more tactile, more memorable experience.  And if you're going to have a sweet bun or roll like this, you might as well go all out and fully immerse yourself in it!

January 12, 2015

Cheddar-bacon biscuits

A couple of months ago, I was seeing twice-baked potatoes everywhere.  After seeing it in yet another magazine one day, I decided to make a couple for dinner.  You could get very creative with the filling but knowing my family, I made classic bacon-cheddar ones with scallions, and those potatoes turned out to be a big hit!  So I've been making twice-baked potatoes with some regularity recently.  When your little one makes a request for something you cook, you can't help but want to comply.
Easy breakfast (or anytime) biscuits with cheddar, bacon, and scallions baked in a muffin tin 
I really shouldn't have been so surprised those potatoes were such a hit.  The little guy loves bacon; if you ask him, everything really is better with bacon (particularly, pancakes and eggs).  Because of that, I usually have some center cut bacon in the fridge or freezer and a few crispy slices often find their way onto our weekend breakfast table.  It always makes me think about my own earlier obsession with bacon-egg sandwiches.  In more recent years, I've switched over to ham but I'm getting reacquainted with bacon again. 
So it was the somewhat-surprising hit of those bacon and cheddar twice-baked potatoes that had me making these biscuits.  I figured it was a safe bet that the fellas would enjoy the same flavors in biscuit form and sure enough, I was right!

To me, just hearing "biscuits" makes me think something delicious is coming my way. And, well, if you like cheddar cheese and bacon, you know the salty, sharp flavor these biscuits promise to provide.  To the mix, I added some sliced scallions.  I think cheddar and bacon just begs for something in the onion family to balance it out.  I used mild scallions/green onions but whether it be chives, leeks, shallots, or regular onions, I enjoy that combination.  Even the little guy enjoys his biscuits (and twice-baked potatoes) with scallions in the mix.
I've really been getting familiar with the simple recipes in my Sweet Paul book.  These biscuits are another adaptation of a recipe I saw in the book.  I turned his morning biscuits with cheddar, dill and pumpkin seeds into this rather more mundane, but still very delicious, cheddar-bacon-scallion rendition.  Once you cook the bacon and shred the cheese, the dough is simple to put together.  I like baking these biscuits in a muffin tin...you get nice crusty, cheesy edges all round.
These biscuits are a nice treat to make for Sunday morning breakfast.  That's what I did, serving them with some easy-over eggs.  Instead of morning biscuits, these would be equally great alongside a bowl of soup or chili, or with a crisp salad.  

January 9, 2015

Chocolate eclairs

I made chocolate eclairs!  I've been wanting to make eclairs for a long time and these were one of my baking projects during the holiday break.  It was an interesting experience and I was happy that they ultimately turned out (quite deliciously, but it took two attempts) and we were able to enjoy them with my sister and her family during a relaxing little after-Christmas dinner at our place.
Eclairs filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with ganache
Here's the story: Over a year ago, I made pate a choux and used it to make cream puffs and profiteroles.  They turned out nicely and I was pretty proud of myself.  I wanted to make eclairs next; after all, it's the same dough and all I'd have to do is make pastry cream and either a ganache or chocolate glaze for the topping - things I've done before.  But there was something about the idea of making eclairs (and even making cream puffs and profiteroles again) that seemed daunting and I put it off, and off.  I was reluctant for some reason...and I may now know why.
Maybe we sometimes have a gut feeling about these things.  I was worried about something - I thought maybe it was the steps involved or about wielding that piping bag with my naturally shaky hands.  Turns out...it was the dough!  The dough that should be simplicity to make and involving just a few ingredients.  

I made the pate a choux dough following the same recipe I used successfully last time and it turned out...watery!  I just stared at it, a little shocked because this kind of fail doesn't happen very often.  That's not because I'm "good" but because I'm a bit of a control-freak; I know what I like, and I research and pick reliable recipe sources.
Well, there was absolutely no way I could pipe the dough that sat in front of me; it was almost as thin as the consistency of soup and ran right through the pastry tip. What did I do?  I tried to fix it by placing it in the fridge and giving it some serious whipping with my wooden spoon every so often to see if it would stiffen up.  
I then remembered that the last time I made the dough for those cream puffs, I'd noted that the dough was thinner than I expected!  Looks like I was lucky last time! So while I was awaiting the fate of that watery dough, I started thinking maybe I should use less eggs.  But then I looked around some more...and consulted Dorie's latest cookbook (Jo's chouquettes recipe instructions helped me, too) and realized that I needed to cook the dough longer on the stove, on the heat, to remove the liquid from the dough to dry it out!  Not doing that was what made the pate a choux runny! I love David Lebovitz, the source for the recipe I used, but the instructions did not cite that.  
I decided to abandon that first attempt (the dough had thickened some but no where near enough and I didn't hold much hope for it) and make another batch.  By cooking the dough on the heat a couple of extra minutes, I had a wonderfully thick dough that was a world of difference from my first attempt!  It's a good thing I only sacrificed half a stick of butter and a couple of eggs for the re-do! 

So that was the little drama behind my eclair-making experience.  I feel really good about it after the fact because I learned something!  I also no longer feel a weird reluctance at the thought of making eclairs or pate a choux!
Dark chocolate pastry cream
After all that back story, we can finally talk about these actual eclairs!  They were worth the drama because these little eclairs were not only fun to look at but also so easy - and delicious - to eat!  

As you've clearly seen from all the pictures I threw in as backdrop to my story, I was true to form and went with a chocolate pastry cream for my eclairs.  While a vanilla pastry cream would be very good (I might try that), I can never get enough chocolate and that's just a plain fact for me.
Topped with chocolate ganache, I decided to sprinkle some of the eclairs with pistachios after Nigella reminded me that any cake becomes instantly more beautiful garnished with it.  I think she's right and the same goes for eclairs.  Interestingly enough, I think the eclairs tasted all the better with that bit of crunch and flavor!

My little batch of chocolate eclairs disappeared quickly at the dinner table that night I served them...and there is no better feeling!

January 6, 2015

Crème brûlée, two ways (vanilla and green tea)

I got a new toy for Christmas.  I've wanted a kitchen blow torch for years but always talked myself out of it.  I couldn't quite justify another gadget that I'd rarely use.  But I couldn't resist putting it on my Christmas list this year, and Santa delivered!  So, of course, I had to make crème brûlée!
Vanilla Crème Brûlée
I made two kinds - the first being a classic vanilla crème brûlée.  I'm always happy to make and taste anything showcasing eggs.  If I had to pick a favorite ingredient to cook with, eggs would be it.  I love egg custards, and crème brûlée is like its glitzy, glamorous, rich cousin.
Thanks to my new kitchen blow torch, I can get that signature thin layer of hard, almost bittersweet, caramel on top of the cool, creamy, eggy, sweet vanilla custard. It is an easy thing to love!  And with that kitchen torch, crème brûlée is a magical little dessert that's actually really easy to conjure up.  Cook the custard ahead of time since it needs to chill and keep it in the refrigerator until time to serve when the theatrics begin and you can shower the top with sugar and turn that torch on!

For my custard, I used half heavy cream and half milk. The crème brûlée was plenty rich and utterly delicious with flecks of vanilla beans running through every bite.  
Green Tea (Matcha) Crème Brûlée
That was the classic...and now let's chat about the second rendition I made: green tea crème brûlée.  I had a green tea (or matchacrème brûlée once well over ten years ago that I loved so much, it stayed with me all this time.  So I knew that if ever I got that kitchen blow torch and made crème brûlée, I'd have to try a green tea version.

Once upon a time, I worked in finance as an investment research associate.  Every so often, we would go on roadshow presentations - lunches hosted by companies looking to hold an offering, selling company stock to raise funds.  I'd be sitting there, listening and taking copious notes (fun times) that I'd need to turn into reports and such.  At least these meetings came with a good meal.  One time, I was at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City for one of these roadshows and while I don't remember any other specifics about that day, I do remember the most delicious green tea crème brûlée served for dessert.  I was really surprised by how good it was and that's why I've thought about green tea crème brûlée for years.
That's my little story.  And really, the green tea version is so good.  I suppose that slightly bitter, grassy note to the tea gets mellowed by the sweet custard and there's a nice balancing effect happening. The green tea crème brûlée did not disappoint and lived up to the hype I had in my mind from that one experience.

My husband and I enjoyed both the vanilla and green tea crème brûlée together and we tried to decide which we liked best.  There was a lot of oohing and aahing in general and I think we remain undecided.  The vanilla is such a classic - thoroughly sweet.  Ironically, though the green tea tastes less sweet, there's actually a bit more sugar in it than the vanilla.  Both are divine and I'm really glad I decided to finally ask Santa for my little kitchen torch.

January 2, 2015

Spinach, onion, and mushroom quiche with a quinoa crust

Happy New Year!

It's 2015 and time for the first post of a whole new year.  I hope you had a wonderful holiday break!  The last couple of weeks have been wonderfully relaxing.  My husband took a holiday from work (the little guy was in heaven spending so much time with dad at home) and we loved the quiet time spent hanging out together.  I cooked a ton and got to try out a few new recipes. Being able to sit down together a few times a day to enjoy a hot meal around the table was a real treat.  Those are the moments I treasure the most and I hope there are many more in the years ahead.
One of the recipes I got to try out during Christmas vacation was this quiche.  I am talking about a quiche with a quinoa crust!!  Talk about genius!  The idea/recipe popped out at me from the December 2014 issue of Cooking Light and as someone who's always looking for ways to eat healthier yet still deliciously (as well as a fan of quinoa), I knew I had to try it.
I know the trend is to lighten up in January.  That's sometimes a necessity after the holidays but I have realized that I am just not into dieting.  I don't like gorging one day only to deprive myself the next (I speak from experience).  So I try not to approach January with a sense of repentance for my December indulgences.  I try to maintain a year-round eating philosophy of balance - eating plenty of healthy, whole foods and also savoring my sweets because dessert makes me happy and sweeten my life in more ways than one!  To that end, I tried to "indulge responsibly" during the holiday season, and I think I did pretty well.  But of course, the emphasis is always on "trying" and in general, I think it's good to remind yourself not to be too uptight about it one way or the other.

So I don't think of a recipe like this lighter quiche as "diet food".  I think it's just a smart way to eat.  You swap out the rich, buttery crust that you typically expect with a quiche for this hearty fiber-full quinoa crust that's built on just quinoa and an egg as binder (along with some seasoning).  It acts as a great foundation for whatever you wish to fill your quiche with.  That's the beauty of a quiche or a frittata - the filling options are endless and infinitely customizable.
I built on the Cooking Light recipe, starting with spinach and onions and adding some mushrooms.  You can keep your quiche vegetarian or add some meat, like I did with a little ham.  I couldn't help but think that just a little bit of cooked chicken sausage would be great if you're looking for something a bit more substantial.  Instead of feta cheese, I used some parmesan cheese in my quiche.  And with just half a cup of 1% milk, a few eggs and egg whites to pull everything together, I had a flavorful quiche that didn't weigh me down at all.  
This is great for breakfast, lunch (brunch), or dinner, and leftovers rewarmed quite well.


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