February 28, 2016

Small batch coffee cake muffins (and other things)

I have been having a great time baking and cooking from Christina Lane's books and website, Dessert for Two.  You might know that I favor small-batch baking; it meshes well for our family of 3 and lets me bake and cook (i.e., have fun) more often.  It took me a while to discover Christina but it's certainly better late than never!  I love her signature small-batch recipes and I've had a lot of delicious success with them.
I know I can't (or shouldn't) post every one of the recipes I've tried but I had to post this one for a small-batch of 4 coffee cake muffins.  They were just glorious!  Plus, I always feel the need to give muffins some love and attention every once in a while because they are just so darn lovable.
These coffee cake muffins have crumb topping not only on top of them but also a bit tucked in the center...because if you're going to eat coffee cake or crumb cake, you want plenty of those sweet crunchy crumbs

I whipped the batter up one morning by hand (many of Christina's recipes use a handheld mixer and since I don't have one, I've found they can easily be done by hand with a whisk or a wooden spoon given a little patience) and had these 4 muffins fresh for breakfast.  I was impressed by how nicely risen they turned out, with a sturdy firm cake lightly infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, anchoring all the delicious sweet crumbly goodness.
Some mornings call for a muffin, or two.  Next time you feel like indulging in a sweet treat for breakfast, this is a great way to do that with a little restraint.  After all, it's only 4 muffins...but I think they're 4 fabulous ones!

February 23, 2016

Chicken teriyaki

Teriyaki sauce...who doesn't love the stuff.  The savory sweetness of it is just so appealing.  You can pretty much put it on top of anything and it's going to be addicting.
Since we have dessert often, I tend to shy away from sweet sauces for my stir-fries. However, this is a worthy exception.  Also, I have to admit that I was sometimes reaching for a store-bought teriyaki sauce anyway whenever I was looking for a quick flavoring so when I spotted a recipe for homemade teriyaki sauce a couple of years ago, I gave it a try.  It was truly so much better than what you can get from a bottle!
So I've been making this sauce once in a while for the last couple of years.  The other day, I realized I should post it here and spread the word so I cooked up some chicken teriyaki for dinner.  Of course, you could use this sauce for many things - from seafood to meat, vegetables to tofu.

The sauce is made with soy sauce, water, sweet rice wine (or mirin), brown sugar, granulated sugar, as well as grated garlic and ginger that give it such great flavor.  I simply place the ingredients, with the exception of the grated garlic and ginger, into a measuring cup, warm it for a handful of seconds in the microwave and stir until the sugar is melted.  Then, I stir in the garlic and ginger, and the sauce is done.  
I use it as a marinade, as a glaze or sauce.  If you want a thicker consistency - to create a sauce you can pour over a final dish - you can thicken it with a cornstarch slurry.  In this case, I took some of the teriyaki sauce to marinade chunks of chicken (I used thighs) that I tossed with a small amount of cornstarch, then I stir-fried it in a skillet until cooked through.  Near the end, I add the remaining teriyaki sauce I reserved to the pan.  The sauce will thicken slightly and coat the chicken as you stir it all together.  You end up with plenty of sauce to pour over the final dish.
Of course, you need rice!  I served this chicken teriyaki with brown rice, letting it soak up all that sweet teriyaki sauce.

February 19, 2016

Crème brûlée French toast

Sure, I've been making a ton of waffles but that doesn't mean I've given up on other breakfast mainstays like pancakes and French toast.  Variety is where it's at!
So with the upcoming weekend, let's talk about the wonderful meal called breakfast, or brunch, and let's revisit French toast!  Specifically, let's make crème brûlée French toast.  Doesn't that sound good?  I saw the recipe from Martha Stewart and thought it would be fun to give it a try.  And since we had a long weekend this week, I had the chance to whip this up during one of the mornings.
The idea is really quite simple.  If you think about it, the custard used for French toast is very similar to crème brûlée (i.e., eggs, milk, vanilla, and sugar).  What's missing would be the signature caramel crust we all love in a crème brûlée.  So here, with this crème brûlée French toast, what you do is sprinkle the top of the bread with granulated sugar, cook it until it develops a caramel crust, then flip it over and do the same on the reverse side.  You end up with this golden sweet crust on your French toast!
What a creative yet simple little twist on basic French toast!  Sometimes, a little spin on things is just what you need to keep it interesting, for both the cook as well as everyone eating.  I had fun making it and this was a hit at our house; my French toast-loving husband heartily approved.

February 16, 2016

Black bean soup

I hope you had a lovely Valentine's Day weekend.  After all the chocolate talk we've been indulging in, I'm ready to take a trip on the savory side.  Let's make soup!
Soup is one of those hearty, comforting things I enjoy all year round.  But when the temps drop, as it did this past weekend into negative territory, I really get the hankering to make and eat some.

I've rarely met a soup I didn't like.  It's hard to go wrong with you're starting with things like onions, carrots, and garlic.  So I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to soups.  For the most part, I'm looking for something simple, delicious, and nutritious that could fill in as a meal or be a great starter.  I keep an eye out for good possibilities and this latest soup caught my eye and comes from the current issue of Rachael Ray magazine.
This is a thick black bean soup that reminds me a lot of chili.  It's made with pantry staples like canned diced tomatoes and black beans, as well as fresh ingredients in the form of onions and carrots.  Flavored with garlic, chili powder and dried oregano, everything cooks together and then you take an immersion blender and blend about one-third of the soup to make a thick consistency.

This thick, creamy, satisfying soup was just what we needed over the past weekend with the freezing temps.  I wish I had some more left but we seem to plow through soup very quickly here.  Looks like I'll need to make more soon!

February 12, 2016

Chocolate waffles

Happy Valentine's Day weekend!  We are facing a freezing cold one but I'm looking forward to the extended weekend with my family.  We're still celebrating Chinese New Year, and I'm eagerly anticipating copious amounts of chocolate consumption on Sunday (though we've had quite a head start on that all month).  
The only snag in my plans is my little guy is under the weather.  Knock on wood, he usually manages to bounce back quickly so I'm keeping an eye on him and hoping he's back to his usual rambunctious self very soon.

While the little guy is resting for the night, let's talk about Valentine's Day one more time.  I really take it as an excuse to make all kinds of chocolate treats.  And with my new waffle maker, I just had to make some chocolate waffles.  
You can call it breakfast or dessert - enjoy it as it is, top it with fresh whipped cream and berries, or with a scoop or two of ice cream (my husband and I managed to do all that already). I'm leaning towards dessert on this one but if ever there's a day for something chocolaty for breakfast, it must be Valentine's Day.
These chocolate waffles are made with whole wheat as well as all-purpose flour, dark Dutch-processed cocoa powder, and a touch of instant espresso powder.  To make them as chocolaty as possible, there are mini chocolate chips in the batter.  You can't go wrong with that, can you?  

These waffles are not very sweet and I'd say the taste is almost like a cakey brownie, with a crisp edge and a soft, dark cocoa-flavored interior.  I was very happy with how they turned out.
My little one wasn't well enough to enjoy one of these waffles with us yet but I've got his share stashed in the freezer for when he's all better.  Hopefully, we'll all be healthy and enjoying all the chocolaty goodness of Valentine's Day on Sunday.  Have a wonderful weekend!

February 9, 2016

Double chocolate cookies

I revel in February and Valentine's Day because it gives special meaning and purpose to all the chocolate baking and eating that I readily do.
I think that if there's one thing I've established, it's how much I love chocolate. Chocolate treats are commonplace here.  However, Valentine's Day puts a special light on it.  Yes, I'm a sucker for the frills, the ribbons, the heart-shaped boxes...how can I possibly not love a holiday that's synonymous with chocolate!
So I took the occasion to try out a cookie recipe I've had my eye on for a while. Of course, they're chocolate.  In fact, they are very chocolatymade for full-on chocolate lovers like myself.

This recipe comes from the Flour Bakery cookbook.  As I've mentioned before, this bakery based in Boston is special; they offer a lot of classic baked goods but there's some element or twist in what they do that makes the food just really good. In the case of these cookies, I think the special element, what makes them truly chocolaty, is the use of unsweetened chocolate.
There's really no shortage of chocolate in these cookies - both unsweetened as well as bittersweet chocolate.  The two get melted as part of the cookie base while more unsweetened chocolate is finely grated and folded in with chunks of bittersweet chocolate to make the final cookie dough.  
What you end up with is a cookie that my husband describes as a mix between brownie and flourless chocolate cake.  I think he's pretty spot on.  You've really got to take a big bite and get into the center of these cookies.  It's a bonus when you hit a chunk of bittersweet chocolate and overall, the moist center is brownie-like and full of a deep chocolate flavor that comes from the unsweetened chocolate as well as the bittersweet component.  

As a serious chocolate lover, I heartedly approve of this recipe.  It's good enough for Valentine's Day!  And I think sharing a couple of homemade cookies with your sweetie is a very good plan for a simple V-Day celebration.

February 5, 2016

Waffles...a taste test!

After years (and I do mean, years) of "waffling" on the question of buying a waffle maker, I finally got one over Christmas!  It's been the most exciting new "toy" and I've been having such fun taste-testing classic waffle recipes with my family.  I can tell you there sure are a lot of waffle recipes out there and I'm only talking about your basic waffles. I haven't even gotten into savory waffles or flavored waffles, or using the waffle maker to make other things like omelettes or pizza.
There's been a lot of "waffleing" at my house lately!
I've made and taste-tested six basic waffle recipes so far.  I thought it would be fun to lay them out here and share what we thought of them.  The weekend is just around the corner so let's settle in and chat about waffles, and if you have a favorite waffle recipe, please send it my way!

Before we get into specifics, I did come to a few overall conclusions: 
  • There were no "bad" waffles.  We ate all the versions I made thus far and enjoyed each variety. They each had something going for them and were tasty and enjoyable in their own way.  All waffles were happily eaten and nothing wasted in our taste experiment.
  • A lot of waffle recipes are quite similar.  With the exception of the yeast waffles, we're generally talking milk or buttermilk, butter vs. oil, whole eggs or folding in separately whipped egg whites.  Proportions are about the same but little nuances make small changes, and you just have to try them to see what you prefer...or discover that you like them all and just want to mix it up at different times.
  • Making waffles is fun!  I haven't flipped a pancake in a few weeks and it's been such a nice change.  While the waffles are cooking, you can do other things and prep the rest of breakfast.  Keep them warm on a rack-lined baking sheet in the oven while you cook the batches and freeze extras for a quick breakfast on the weekdays.  Waffles are definitely a good thing.
Now for the fun part!  Here are the 6 waffle recipes my family and I have been noshing on in the past month or so.  I'll give you an intro, our taste-testing takeaway, and what I might want to do differently next time.  I might even name a favorite!

1. Classic Belgian Waffles

The waffle maker I got for Christmas is a deep-pocket Belgian-style waffle maker so I suppose all the waffles I tried were technically "Belgian" waffles.  But for lack of a better title, I'll say this first recipe is what we think of as a "classic" Belgian waffle in terms of what we expect here in the States. 
Recipe: I used The Pioneer Woman's recipe.  The highlights or main ingredients are milk (vs. buttermilk), butter (vs. oil), a good amount of vanilla extract and sugar, and separately whipped egg whites that are folded into the batter to lighten and crisp the waffles.  

Taste-taste takeaway: These waffles earned the "taste award" at our house!  They had incredible flavor - sweet, with a strong undertone of vanilla.  They reminded my husband and me of Hong Kong egg waffles in their sweet custardy flavor.  On the slight downside, they didn't turn out as crisp as we wanted and were perhaps slightly too sweet for me personally.

What I'd like to do different/try next time: I'd love to make these again, with a little less sugar.

2. Overnight Yeasted Waffles

Long before I got the waffle maker, I'd been compiling a mental (then written) list of recipes I had to try.  I have to say this yeasted waffle recipe has been the one I was most eager to try after hearing so much about it and knowing the magic of yeast.  
Recipe: The classic overnight raised - or yeasted - waffle recipe comes from Marion Cunningham and I used the recipe I found via Smitten Kitchen.  The batter is actually not suitable for a deep pocket Belgian-style waffle maker like the one I have but I increased the baking soda to 1/2 teaspoon (from 1/4 teaspoon...a tip I picked up here) and it worked quite well.

The highlight of this recipe is the use of active dry yeast in the batter, which you let sit overnight.  You can set the batter in the fridge to rise but room temperature is recommended for a more flavorful waffle.

Taste-taste takeaway:  My oh my, these waffles were unusual and special!  If the Belgian waffles above took the "taste/flavor award", these yeasted waffles certainly earned the "texture award"!  The texture is something ethereal that's unlike anything we've had before.  The waffles are so crisp and light as a feather.  When you bite into it, you get that sharp crispness that practically shatters but it isn't harsh or rough...and the waffles just melt in your mouth.
My husband took the pic above to show the airiness and texture of these remarkable waffles.  

Taste-wise, I let my batter sit overnight and I can tell you we tasted the complex, somewhat fermented, yeast flavor.  I want to tell you we loved that but actually, we didn't.  It was interesting and we didn't exactly dislike it but it was just a bit too strong for us.  It left us wishing we could take this texture and combine it with the flavor from the first waffles we tested.

What I'd like to do different/try next time: These overnight waffles are pretty amazing.  Next time, I'd let the batter sit in the refrigerator overnight (instead of on the counter at room temperature) and see if it results in a slightly milder flavor that my family and I might actually prefer.

*Update (April 2016): We happily re-tested these overnight yeast waffles by letting the batter sit overnight in the refrigerator instead of on the counter (though I set it out for about an hour in the morning before cooking).  The batter does not rise as much and as expected, you end up with a milder flavor waffle.  You can still detect the yeast flavor but it is distinctly less sourdough-like than the alternative.  I also noticed that the waffles were not quite as ethereally crisp, but still airy and light and still crisp yet slightly chewy.  Overall, we liked it a lot (on par with the winning waffle recipe)!  The milder flavor suits us but I recommend trying it both ways to see what you prefer.

February 2, 2016

Flourless chocolate-chestnut cream cake

I started sitting down to write this post right after I just ate the last piece of this cake. I think the overriding thought I have is that a little dessert - a little something sweet - just makes the day a bit better.
So since it's February and Valentine's day is circled in red on the calendar, and more importantly, because chocolate is a beautiful part of my everyday life that I wouldn't want to live without, let's make and savor another chocolate cake and make life just a touch sweeter.
At this point, I think I've established the basis of my favorite things so this is going to sound familiar.  This small 6-inch cake is essentially a flourless chocolate cake (a cake we adore that I most recently made a couple of weeks ago after realizing I'd neglected it for too long), with the addition of chestnut cream.  

The chestnut cream lends extra moisture and adds a sweet nuttiness that I love.  It makes the cake a bit heftier or denser compared to a regular flourless chocolate cake, in a wonderful way by giving it a satisfying mouthfeel.  The texture is very smooth and velvety, with a creaminess that has substance to it. 
I know I like to find all sorts of ways to bake with chocolate and chestnut cream and, in fact, I made a very similar torte two Christmases ago using a recipe that started with chestnut puree (something I accidentally bought and wasn't at first sure what to do with) rather than chestnut cream.  This cake, using chestnut cream, is even easier to make!  And since I have plenty of chestnut cream on hand, this little cake will not be a stranger in my house.  In fact, I may not divide the recipe in half next time to make just a 6-inch version; it's definitely special enough for a dinner party.


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