June 30, 2015

Whipped cream cakes with berries

Living on the East Coast, we feel the seasons so starkly and they affect us in so many ways.  There is a huge difference between our lifestyles and eating habits between the seasons.  In the fall and winter, we're craving hearty soups and stews to fortify us against the cold while we huddle indoors.  In the spring and winter, we throw off our coats, raise our heads and sprint to the farmer's market to feast on the inspiration from seasonal produce like fresh berries.
Individual whipped cream bundt cakes to go with seasonal berries
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live on the West Coast and enjoy more sunshine and longer days.  I figure we'd have a healthier lifestyle and feel less rushed given the longer light hours to do things.  At the same time, I can't help but think I'd miss the cozy feel of winter and the Christmas holidays that just seem more genuine against a cold backdrop.  I guess, like anything else, it's a trade-off equation.  

So what we do is make the best of what we have!  Enjoy the best of each and every season.  And lately, I've been enjoying the vibrancy and colors of fresh local produce. There's been plenty of salads on our table but there's always room for dessert at any season.
Eating fresh fruit plain and straight-up is still my first response but once in a while, it's fun to cook with it or use it for a little embellishment.  I've been in "embellishment" mode lately, preferring to augment or finish my dish with some of these seasonal jewels.

These individual whipped cream bundt cakes pair so nicely with the fruit because I always think of the classic dessert pairing of "strawberries and cream".  These are literally whipped cream cakes, in that they're made with cold heavy cream that's whipped to stiff peaks to anchor the batter.  The heavy cream in essence replaces the typical butter or oil in a cake recipe.
Months ago, I watched Martha make these cakes on Martha Bakes and the recipe actually comes from Rose Levy Beranbaum.  I was mesmerized by the idea of the cream-based cakes, and the presentation itself, so I planned to make them once berries were more readily available.  And now here they are.
I took my small bundt cake tin and baked a few of these little whipped cream cakes.  I grabbed organic strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries from the market (all of which happened to be on sale - score!) and I was ready to assemble this dessert.  I highly recommend whipping up some additional cream to nestle the cakes on top of.  
Not only does the lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream round out the dessert nicely appearance-wise, the extra creaminess just goes so well with the fresh berries. You get a bite of buttery golden cake, with the sweet-tart freshness of the berries, mingled together with the pillowy softness of sweet cream.  It works and it's something to savor over at the table.
Mix up the berries you serve with each cake, go heavy or easy on the whipped cream...however you spin it, I think it makes a beautiful summer dessert that's easy enough to make any time but special enough for a special occasion.  

June 25, 2015

Pancetta fried egg

It's breakfast time again, and I love a post about eggs!  It's just one of my favorite foods and ingredient to use in the kitchen.
An egg fried right on top of a piece of crispy, salty pancetta
Eggs are nutritious, hearty, and satisfying.  It really gives us a big bang for our buck. As many people will agree..."everything's better with an egg on it" and it really is.  I do love it on top of almost anything but on a standalone basis, I start my mornings with it at breakfast.

So this is a riff off of the breakfast classic, "bacon and eggs".  I saw this idea for pancetta fried eggs on a show with Claire Thomas from Kitchy Kitchen.  It sounded like a fun spin on the traditional and it is very quick and easy to make at that.  Plus look - I'm already puttting my mini cast iron skillet to use again, this time in a savory way!
To make this, you basically just need some thinly sliced pancetta and eggs.  Just one or two slices (depending on just how thin your slice is) will do for each egg.  Place the pancetta in a frying pan, let it cook and begin to render and crisp up, then flip it over. Break an egg right on top of the pancetta and let it cook until the whites are set.  I place a lid over the top to help it along.

If you like to embellish the dish a bit - and I highly recommend it - add a sprinkle of fresh parsley on top and serve it with a couple spoonfuls of tomato sauce.  The pancetta naturally had me thinking Italian and since I always have my bacon and eggs with ketchup, tomato sauce isn't too far a stretch here.  If you like a little cheese, how about a sprinkle of parmesan? 
Add a piece, or two, of toast alongside and breakfast is served! This is so very easy to make and a fun mix-up from the usual bacon and eggs.  You've got the same kind of salty crispy bite with the creamy egg, all in one go.  You just gotta love breakfast!

June 22, 2015

Matcha-almond sponge layer cake *redo*

I hope you had a nice Father's Day weekend!  Ours flew by with the usual errands and to-do's.  The weather wasn't very cooperative at first but then the sun broke out yesterday, which I thought was very appropriate.  We enjoyed a nice, relaxing Father's Day, celebrating with family time and some treats.
I mentioned in my last post that when I asked my husband what type of dessert he'd like for Father's Day that he, surprisingly, picked the matcha-almond sponge layer cake that I attempted last month (after first reassuring me that I didn't have to make him anything but of course, I couldn't have that!).  I was a little taken aback by his choice but despite the mishaps I had, the essence of that cake really was very tasty and memorable.  I don't think my husband felt like he got enough of a taste last time to satisfy his craving and he'd been thinking about it.

So I went into the kitchen Saturday and had a little re-do of that recipe!  Mainly, I baked the matcha-almond sponge cake in a rectangular 9x13 inch pan instead of the larger 12x16 inch type sheet pan.  I simplified and streamlined the process a bit and things went according to plan.  Baking the cake in the smaller pan gave me the thicker layers I was looking for so that the cake wasn't invisible-thin and I could move and maneuver it a lot easier.  I sliced the baked sponge cake into just 3-pieces and stacked them with 2 layers of cocoa whipped cream in between.  This time we have 5 very-manageable layers instead of 15!
With the little changes and tweaks, these layer cakes were really easy and quick to put together (dishes and cleanup are a different story).  I literally made the batter and baked the cake in between cooking breakfast and prepping other things. So I call it a success, and I wanted to share this little re-do and my revamped version of this recipe. Now that I've got it figured out - in a way that works for me - I'm glad I'll be able to whip this dessert up any time someone has a craving for it.  
The cake layers are so moist and feather-light.  The mild and delicate flavor of the soft cake layers meld really well with the creamy filling, which adds some sweetness and a lot of flavor.  I'd say my husband has pretty good taste, and he heartily enjoyed his Father's Day treat.  And I'm so glad I did this re-make.  With the essence of this recipe worked out, I feel like there are opportunities to play with the filling. Sprinkle Bakes' suggestion of a creamy red bean filling sounds very enticing to me since the combination of green tea and azuki or red beans is a classic one in Asian desserts; however, my husband insists this is perfect just as it is!

June 18, 2015

Mini skillet brownie sundae

What better way to break into my mini 6-inch cast iron skillet than to bake a brownie in it?  I also have cornbread and skillet chocolate chip cookies in mind but I started with a brownie because frankly, I'll take/make any excuse to eat brownies.
This 6-inch skillet was one of my Christmas stocking stuffers; it's taken me more than six months to put it to use!  Sometimes that's just how it goes but now that I've broken it in, I'll hopefully keep putting it to use.

So this is a very simple story...the familiar plot line of brownies and ice cream, which is just a match made in heaven.  I made this as an easy dessert after we did a little grilling and chilling outside for dinner over the past weekend.  And since we tend to stretch out our birthday celebrations (it has to span at least the weekend prior and up to the actual day), it also served as another birthday treat. 
So I put a candle on it and we sang "happy birthday" again.  I do feel a little bad that the little guy's birthday seems to eclipse Father's Day every year since they are so close together.  Naturally, my husband doesn't mind one bit.  
This is a dense, very chocolaty, cocoa-based brownie via Dessert for Two. It is very much like Alice Medrich's recipe, aka our "house" brownies.  I had planned to halve that recipe for this small skillet but the recipe did the job for me.

June 14, 2015

Mini oreo sprinkle cakes for the June birthday boy

We are getting ready to celebrate a very important birthday!  June is always a busy and important month - it marks the end of the school year, the beginning of summer, Father's Day, and it's the month of my son's birthday.  It is an especially big milestone this year because he turns 10
It's a little mind-boggling that a decade has gone by.  The little infant that wouldn't sleep more than half an hour or so at a time at night has somehow grown by leaps and bounds.  It's been quite a journey and to say that having a child makes time speed up even more than it already does is an understatement.  We're lucky to have this little guy and I hope he will have many, many more happy birthdays for years to come.  My birthday wish for him is, as always, to have a very good, happy life.
Right now, let's focus on celebrating TEN - reaching double-digit age status is a big deal!  I thought these mini Oreo birthday-style cakes would make a great festive treat for my son's birthday because he loves 1) chocolate cake, 2) Oreo cookies, and 3) sprinkles.  So we started the birthday celebrations early and I made these last week to start the birthday "countdown".

Normally, I'd make some kind of ice cream cake for my son's birthday but I went off-script this year with these little Oreo-sprinkle-chocolate cakes because, quite frankly, my son opted for a Carvel ice cream cake for his birthday party.  I take no offense because how can I possibly compare anything I make with the ubiquitous Carvel ice cream cake (which I love as much as anyone else)?  Moreover, I'm planning to surprise him with a small custom-flavor ice cream cake from a local ice cream parlor that he likes so I think we have the ice cream factor well-represented already.
I think these sprinkles-laden chocolate cakes scream "happy birthday", don't you? Beneath the sprinkles and vanilla buttercream lies a very moist chocolate cake with an Oreo cookie imbedded right at the bottom!  You want to hear something funny though?  Children, and the things they say, are always a good source of comic relief and my son can be pretty frank with his opinions.  While he was enjoying his cake and we were sitting down talking about it, I asked him about the Oreo cookie at the bottom.  He very honestly told me, as he gave a little shrug, that the Oreo at the bottom tasted...well, kind of stale!  It just cracked me up because he's just telling it like it is (we believe in honesty in this house).  Truth be told, the Oreo cookie stays intact and still rather crunchy for the most part, with a little softness on top where it touches the cake.  It's still good, and it's still fun, but that's how it is.
These festive little cakes definitely brought some smiles onto the June birthday boy's face, and that makes me very happy.  I think he particularly liked the sprinkles - though I have to say that these little cakes involve a lot of sprinkles.  I actually turned a couple of these cakes into cookies and cream cakes (photo near the end of the post) and those went down quite well also.
The June birthday boy is picking up stray sprinkles to eat before digging in.
So this post is for my favorite boy, who might drive me to distraction on minor things but has always been a kind, forgiving, and loving soul that I learn from everyday.  In this mother-son relationship of ours, I know I have the better end of the bargain. Happy 10th birthday and many, many more for a life filled with happiness and all the good things it has to offer!  : ) 

June 11, 2015

Basil chicken stir-fry

This is a quick chicken stir-fry dish I like to make for dinner on weeknights.  I've wanted to share it here for a while now so I'm finally doing it.
I like this dish because it's quick and it's good.  The slices of chicken breast, which is coated in a little bit of cornstarch and gently cooked, turns out juicy and tender.  The sauce is a savory one.  A lot of sauces for Chinese stir-fry recipes involve brown sugar and other sweeteners for their flavor.  I love those sweet sauces myself but I try to keep dinner on the savory side so we can save a room for dessert.  This is the kind of dish I lean towards most of the time.

I adapted this recipe from Martha Stewart and I've been making it for a couple of years now.  A twist I've made to it is to add fish sauce.  I'm not really sure what gave me the idea initially (other than, likely as not, a desire to find more uses for the bottle or maybe just the general idea of this Asian, somewhat thai-inspired, dish) but I really like that umami flavor it imparts.  If you don't have or don't like fish sauce (it smells stronger than it tastes in the final dish), you can omit it and replace it with additional soy sauce instead.
So what we have is tender pieces of chicken, peppers and onions, and lots of minced garlic tossed in a light, savory sauce made of soy sauce, rice vinegar and fish sauce. It's finished with a toss of fragrant fresh basil leaves.  

And the nice thing is I can pluck the basil right from my little planter sitting out on the deck!  I have to tell you that I have a brown thumb and I am no gardener.  I have never even had much success keeping herb plants alive for more than 2-3 weeks though my neighbor right across the street has everything from tomatoes to peppers and garlic thriving.  I'm not giving up on herbs though!  My awesome husband planted this box for me and it's actually thriving thus far (past the 3-week mark so fingers-crossed!).
The last time I made this dish for dinner about a week ago, I served it with brown rice (you just need to have rice with a stir-fry dish like this) and some garlic-roasted grape tomatoes.
It makes a filling yet light summer dinner.

June 8, 2015

Easy mille-feuille with strawberries and cream

For a girl who grew up with no appreciation for berries whatsoever, I'm amazed by the amount of strawberries I'm consuming and absolutely loving these days.  Strawberries are at their seasonal peak between mid-May and mid-June in New Jersey and I've been taking advantage of this.  How many pounds do you think you've eaten in the last few weeks?  I can't count...
The fresh strawberries are so good, they quickly vanish as I simply eat them.  As much inspiration as I've encountered, despite all the beautiful berry-filled desserts I've admired, I can't seem to muster the motivation to make a fruit tart or even whip up a cake with them.  I'm just gorging on them straight-up while my husband likes a little chocolate or Nutella with it.  

I could only manage to assemble this simple strawberry dessert, and all it takes is assembly.  It's a loose interpretation of a mille-feuille or Napoleon dessert.  I adapted the "recipe" from Gavottes, the original maker of crispy crepe dentelle - amazing wafer cookies that I simply love to eat as is or break up to mimic feuilletine in chocolate crunch bars.  Very sadly, my local World Market stores seem to have stopped carrying Gavottes biscuits so I settled for similar ones available at Whole Foods.  They are good but if you can get the Gavottes brand of crepe wafers, I highly recommend it because they are even better.
The last time I made mille-feuille or Napoleon was back in May 2011 when I followed a somewhat more traditional route using puff pastry to form the crispy layers.  This easy dessert takes that similar idea but instead of puff pastry, the crispy, buttery crepe wafers act as the flaky layers.  To make it, simply lay down a few of these wafers (I used ones coated in dark chocolate but you can find plain or ones coated in milk chocolate), top with some lightly sweetened fresh whipped cream, strawberries, and repeat.  It takes very little time to put together.

I'll be honest with you; this is a messy thing to eat!  Your best bet is to take a fork/spoon and whack it to break the wafers down. It's going to disintegrate and look a mess on your plate but just scoop it up and you're rewarded with mouthfuls of strawberries and cream together with crispy caramelized shards of wafers coated with chocolate. 
For the most part, I'm going to continue just snacking on these seasonal fresh strawberries while they're available but it was fun to do a little something different with my hoard!

June 4, 2015

Chocolate hazelnut-praline gelato

After enjoying the chestnut ice cream, I wanted to get working on a chocolate-hazelnut version.  Because that, together with a scoop of chestnut and a scoop of chocolate gelato, is just about my perfect trifecta in a bowl, and it'd be neat to have those elements in my repertoire.
It wouldn't be summer if we weren't daydreaming about ice cream, right?  Well, I've been doing plenty of that and to get some of those ice cream daydreams out of system, I made this chocolate hazelnut-praline gelato.

I tagged this recipe a while ago (okay, two years ago); the author of this recipe also created the one for chocolate-hazelnut crunch bars, which I love, so I knew I'd be in good hands.  So while I vaguely envisioned making chocolate-hazelnut ice cream using an ice cream or gelato base and adding melted gianduja (that wonderful combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, much like Nutella, and the block form of which you can actually buy), I went with this recipe using hazelnut praline paste.  It's essentially hazelnut praline, hazelnuts coated with caramelized sugar, ground up into a smooth paste.  
Buying the paste - instead of attempting to make your own - is a great shortcut.  I buy the Love 'n Bake brand and it's pretty readily available in supermarkets alongside the almond paste.  I've used it before for hazelnut cake with praline buttercream and chocolate-hazelnut macarons.  It is delicious stuff!  That, along with some melted chocolate, make up the flavor for this delicious chocolate-hazelnut gelato. 

So what makes this "gelato" instead of ice cream?  The distinction is blurred at home since we churn all our homemade frozen treats using the same ice cream machine (in my case, a basic Cuisinart).  I simply think of gelato recipes as being somewhat lower in fat (you'll see a more balanced or lower ratio of cream to milk), with the result being a greater intensity of flavor.  I am a big fan of gelato.     
And in this case, this particular gelato turned out with a thick, almost marshmallow-like mouthfeel!  It's chocolaty, it's hazelnut-y, and it's got some chopped hazelnuts in every bite to accentuate the flavor and give you a little texture.

Unlike classic gelato, which come plain and smooth, I love mix-in's and extra texture. Along with the chopped hazelnuts, I wouldn't have minded a few specks of chocolate running through this gelato either.  That said, if you're more of a purist, you can omit the chopped hazelnuts and have a smooth gelato that still has plenty of chocolate and hazelnut flavor.  It's all about the flavor.

June 1, 2015

Basic barbecue sauce

Summer is "unofficially" here and we've been firing up the grill and enjoying the outdoor space (after a very thorough cleaning by my other half).  The thing I love about grilling is working together with my husband.  I get to be the sous-chef; I usually do the prepping and he takes care of everything else.  One thing I've learned is to keep things simple in order to encourage more spontaneous cookouts.  We usually grill plenty of vegetables to toss with greens and then pick a meat to go alongside.
As you can imagine, we often grill chicken.  I've learned that just a simple rub with curry powder or a marinade in teriyaki sauce makes for some quick and tasty grilled chicken.  Recently, we've been cooking up some barbecue chicken, which is where this simple, basic pantry barbecue sauce enters the story.  

Do you make your own barbecue sauce?  I haven't until now.  Since I don't use it very often, I was satisfied with an Archer Farms barbecue sauce I'd been buying from Target.  Problem came when this particular sauce was discontinued.  I had no idea what to get and one day, about 6 months ago, I took a random stab and bought a similar-looking barbecue sauce for a slow-cooker pulled pork recipe I was making for the first time.  The pulled pork turned out great but the barbecue sauce nearly ruined it because it was so spicy!  I admit the word "cayenne" might have been mentioned on the bottle but, silly me, I didn't expect store-bought bbq sauce to actually be spicy! I had to douse the thing with extra brown sugar and honey and mix it with other things to tame it.  Luckily, I managed and the pulled pork was saved but I learned that I'd better look into a good barbecue sauce alternative.  
So I was watching one of Rachael Ray's shows a while back and found her talking about her basic base barbecue sauce and ways to enhance it from there.  It was just what I needed so I saved the recipe to give it a try.  I went with the simple pantry route - making this barbecue sauce with: organic ketchup, dark brown sugar, maple syrup, cider vinegar, Worchestershire sauce, ground pepper, garlic, and opting for a familiar smokiness, a little smoked paprika.

The end result is a simple, good, barbecue sauce that's just a bit sweet, a bit tart, and a bit smoky.  Nothing earth-shattering but a very "clean" barbecue sauce where you can taste all the flavors going on.  It's a great base to build from if you're more adventurous and looking for more complex flavors. You can strike up the spice factor with cayenne or chili powder or make Rachael's bourbon version starting with this base and adding dijon mustard, orange juice, and bourbon.  
For now, I'm content to stick with this simple pantry barbecue sauce this summer.  


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