Berry crisp for one...and other happenings

I'd intended to call this post weekend recap but time flies and here we are nearing the start of a new weekend.  It's been a busy and exciting week or so here and being the introvert that I am, I needed to take a few days to recuperate.  
Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting I recently auditioned made their birthday reappearance
To recap just a little bit...last weekend was a big one - first, we celebrated the little guy's 12th birthday!  A birthday is always special but this year, the excitement was heightened by the fact that I had planned a little surprise birthday party for him!  It's nerve-wracking trying to pull off a surprise party even on a small scale - in this case, a small group of kids gathered at the house to spring the surprise, digging into some pizza and cake, followed by a trip to the bowling alley for a couple of games.  
I was a nervous wreck by Saturday morning, as we tried to figure out all the last minute details from the weather to timing, to all the little things in between - all the while hoping our secret was still safe!  Happily, the planning and effort was worth it because wonder of wonders...we actually pulled off the surprise!!  The birthday boy was shocked!  It helps that my son is pretty laid back and undemanding.  It's hard to believe but he literally did not ask about birthday plans and made little mention of his birthday beforehand.  That made it easier to pull off the little surprise.  All in all, I'm glad we did it and I hope he'll think back on it with a smile as he gets older... 

On the heels of the birthday festivities, we celebrated Father's Day.  These two events always converge and make for a busy weekend (not to mention plenty of prepping beforehand).  Here's a little snapshot of our Sunday.
It involved strolling around a car show in our town early in the morning.  Then, we came home for brunch.  I made one of my husband's favorites, a Dutch baby pancake.  Even though we have it very often, he always requests it!  For dinner, I made crab cakes, served over some cappellini with lemon and caper sauce.

In between meals, I whipped up a little sweet treat for my husband (who has a major sweet tooth to match his personality), a simple berry crisp for one.  It was thoroughly appreciated.  I'm very lucky that my husband is a great person to cook and bake for!
June is full of celebrations.  It's both exhilarating and a little exhausting at the same time!  My son just wrapped up 6th grade - another milestone we happily toasted.  And by "toasted", I mean we had more cake!
A 6-inch version of our favorite chocolate cake
Now, things are quieting down and I'm ready to savor the slow days of summer!



Berry compote with Belgian waffles

On my last brunch post, I talked about inspiration from eating out.  I love it when we enjoy something at a restaurant that I can easily recreate at home.  This time, it's a simple berry compote, served warm with Belgian waffles, inspired by a menu item from the restaurant, Balthazar, in NYC.
Ever since I got my waffle maker, we have waffles pretty often for weekend breakfast. I mix it up between several recipes and these Belgian waffles, adapted from The Pioneer Woman, is one of those on our rotation.  Folding whipped egg whites into the batter helps make the waffles crisp and we really like their simple sweet, vanilla flavor. Usually, we reach for maple syrup but I thought I'd change it up and make a berry compote, much like what we had at Balthazar a few months ago.  
It's often the little things, small touches, that make something special and so, sometimes it's nice to take an extra step like making a berry compote to go with your waffles.  While fresh berries are a great option right now, I used frozen mixed berries so that I could have a mix of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, as well as blackberries in this little compote.  It's so convenient and literally takes just minutes to make.  
Into a pot, I simply added frozen mixed berries that I thawed the night before (you can use fresh berries, of course), along with some orange zest, sugar, and if you like, a splash of Grand Marnier.  I love the hint of orange flavor in the background.  It just takes a few minutes to heat up the mixture and melt the sugar.  In the last minute of cooking, stir in a little cornstarch slurry to thicken the liquid...and your berry compote is ready for breakfast!

It's easy to scale how much compote you want to make and aside from serving it with waffles, you could certainly use it to go alongside pancakes or French toast.  You could layer it with yogurt to make a parfait, or serve it as an accompaniment to a slice of pound cake or something similar. 
We enjoyed it with the waffles and I made it particularly with my husband in mind. His sweet tooth starts early in the day with a preference for sweet breakfasts. Frankly, he also prefers his fruit with extra sugar.  This is right up his alley and a nice treat to enjoy on an occasional weekend morning.  


Chocolate cake for the weekend

I'm calling this a "chocolate cake for the weekend" because that's just what it was.  I made it last Friday going into the weekend.  It's always nice to kick off the weekend with a cake!  On a practical level, it was partly an effort to clean out the fridge and use up some extra ingredients.  On another level, it was just part of the ongoing effort to satisfy my insatiable chocolate cravings.
After making a few loaves of banana bread and churning a batch of ice cream, I had extra whole milk yogurt and heavy cream on hand so I decided to use those things to make this cake.  I'm actually revisiting a recipe I've made before, in a different form. In fact, my very first post featured this in cupcake form.  I've also made it as a single-layer cake years ago.  This time, it comes in the form of a double-layer 6-inch cake.
When we had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London back in April, I tasted a delicious slice of chocolate ganache cake...maybe that put the idea in my head.  But to be honest, I think about chocolate and things like chocolate cake and ganache all the time.  It's amazing how much I love chocolate, and it's a love that goes way back for as long as I can remember.
But back to this little cake...make it for the chocolate lover in your life because it is all about the deep flavor of chocolate (a recurring theme here).  Thanks to yogurt and oil rather than butter in the batter, the cake is wonderfully moist and tender.  It gets a deep chocolate flavor from not only cocoa and chocolate but also freshly brewed coffee.  The chocolate ganache frosting and filling is rich and creamy, basically a chocolate-lover's delight.  This cake made this chocoholic very happy and I can say that I definitely put my leftover yogurt and heavy cream to very good use!
It's strawberry season and I've been diligently stocking up on strawberries and raspberries as much as possible.  While my fridge is overflowing with it and I'm perfectly happy snacking on it and having it with some yogurt for breakfast, I'm always still craving a little chocolate!  And in my humble opinion, the best way to eat berries just might be...with a slice of chocolate cake!  Who's with me?



Sweet potato pancakes

Is it too late to talk about this past Memorial Day weekend?  Where does the time go! It's shaping up to be a busy week of catch-up following the nice, leisurely 3 days of family time. Three-day weekends are so right - you get so much done and that constant sense of rushing, of not having enough time, fades away.  It made me really appreciate how lucky we are, and thankful to all the service personnel who protect our precious freedoms so we can enjoy such great lives.  
Weather-wise, the Memorial weekend was a mixed bag but we did manage to fire up the grill on Sunday for the first time this year, which was great fun.  I churned my first batch of ice cream of the season, a mint Oreo flavor requested by the little man; it was a big hit and vanished quickly as ice cream usually does.  I also went to the farmer's market again on Sunday and scored some sashimi-grade tuna to make my first poke bowl!

In between that, we savored 3 consecutive leisurely weekend breakfasts and I got to try a new pancake recipe during one of those.  These are sweet potato pancakes, a recipe I spotted in a new cookbook, American Girl in London.  It caught my eye given my love of sweet potatoes and my constant interest in finding new breakfast foods to put on the table.
I'm constantly roasting sweet potatoes for lunch or dinner so it was no sweat to set one aside to mash up for these pancakes.  They're also made with some whole milk yogurt, which I also happened to have on hand after baking a couple batches of banana bread.  

At their core, these sweet potato pancakes turned out fluffy (I used the trick I learned recently of stirring the egg white into the batter at the end of mixing) and super moist, almost custardy, in texture.  The original recipe does not call for any additional sugar, relying on just the natural sweetness from the sweet potatoes.  I tried it that way but in retrospect, I would add a tablespoon or so of sugar to the batter to better offset the tang from the yogurt.  That said, a generous douse of maple syrup does the trick of adding sweetness.
Do you like sweet potato or pumpkin pie?  Or those warm Thanksgiving flavors and spices? This will likely remind you of that because of a touch of both cinnamon and nutmeg in the pancakes.  Some, like my son, may not be a big fan so it's good to know what to expect going in.  For my husband and I, these soft pancakes were a fun thing to try and we had no problems cleaning our plates.  I particularly liked taking a bite with some toasted walnut because they add so much welcome flavor and a crunch.
It's always good to try new things, even if they're not home runs for everyone at the table each time.  Hopefully, we learn it's important to simply welcome different things and to widen our palate a little bit.



Easy braised sausages in tomato sauce

Let's take a short break from sweets and chat about dinner today.  I'm constantly on the lookout for dinner recipes and ideas to try out (I tend to focus heavily on breakfast and dinner when it comes to cooking).  I'd like to say it's all about finding great meals for my family but in truth, it's as much about keeping things interesting for myself, as the cook.  
It's invigorating to try something new, learn something, and potentially find a new family favorite or something you'd want to whip up again and again.  I love simple and easy recipes because those are the ones we fall back on and rely on day-to-day. Of course, more elaborate dishes and meals certainly have its own rewards. 

But for the most part, the recipes that catch my eye are simple ones like this one.  It's a near hands-off way to cook sausages and I ultimately ended up making two meals with it.  All you have to do is place sausages (I used sweet Italian sausages) in a mixture of tomato sauce and chicken stock and let it simmer until done.  No messy pan-searing of the sausages first!  Check on it a couple of times to give it a stir and it'll be ready in about half an hour or so.  I served the sausages, along with some of the sauce they cooked in, over grits (the quick-cooking kind that only takes a few minutes) but you could go with mashed potatoes or say, polenta.

For the second act:  Here's a bonus - take the leftover sauce and turn it into a quick pasta sauce for the next day!
Even if you do not have any sausages leftover like I did, you could just use the extra sauce for a tasty pasta dish.  If you like a somewhat creamier red sauce, add a couple spoonfuls of ricotta cheese.  I didn't have ricotta on hand so I only used Parmesan cheese.  It was easy and tasty.

And that was two easy dinners that were well worth making!



Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting

Whenever I make cupcakes, I realize why they've remained so popular. Like donuts, they are such cheerful little things!  They conjure up bake sales and children's birthday parties. They're a forum for colorful sprinkles and other fun embellishments and decorations.  It's a personal mini cake just for you, and you can have more than one if you want to - it's hard not to love all that!
So maybe I should make cupcakes more often.  Right now, I'm "auditioning" this latest batch of vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting for my son's birthday next month.  He's turning 12!  That's amazing because it seems like only yesterday when I was carrying him around in a baby carrier and tucking a blanket around him in his car seat.  Now, that baby is growing more and more independent and I can almost see clues of the adult he's going to become.  
Everyone's birthday is special, and I think that's especially the case when it comes to kids.  We're always trying to find some extra little ways to show our love, especially on their big day.  For me, food is a part of that.  Now, to be honest, my son would likely choose pizza and a classic store-bought ice cream cake for his day. I'm totally okay with that (those being things I love best as a kid, too)...but that doesn't stop me from making a little something extra - it might be a cake or cupcakes, something that I can put my imprint on and personalize.
So while I've got a lot of things in the archives I can make already, I thought it was a good time to audition another cupcake recipe.  This is a recipe from Jessica Seinfeld's new book, Food Swings; the cupcakes sounded easy to make and lovely to eat. Verdict: they passed their audition with flying colors!  

The vanilla cupcakes are rich in flavor, moist and tender, yet firm enough that you can eat with your hands without them falling apart.  The frosting is smooth and creamy, full of chocolate flavor.  I used to say I'm not a big frosting person but I've had to re-evaluate that claim because I'm not so sure it's true anymore - at least not when it comes to chocolate frosting! 
My son is certainly a frosting person and he was readily licking this frosting off! These cupcakes go down easy.  I know I often say that about desserts I like but it's really true and the best way I can think of to describe it sometimes.  So the upcoming birthday boy was a fan and so was everyone else eating it.  If you have a birthday coming up and you're looking for a good cupcake recipe to make - one that's great tasting and uncomplicated, I can say these are an excellent choice.
As my son was devouring the last of these cupcakes, he asked me if I'd make them again soon.  You know what?  He just might see them again next month!



Raspberry soufflé

I hope you had a good Mother's Day!  For us, this past weekend started with a deluge of rain all Saturday, but somehow, I had a feeling Mother's Day would turn out nice if history was any indication.  Sure enough, the sun was shining most of the day...what a nice gift for us moms.  
I spent Mother's Day morning relaxing and enjoying breakfast in bed.  It's become something of a tradition and a lovely treat.  I took my time enjoying it but then I got up and started the day because I realized a while back that if I spend too much time relaxing or doing nothing, it starts driving me crazy.  So I took some time savoring my breakfast, then I got up to do what I like to do best - you know cooking/baking was involved!
My husband bought me some delicious raspberries; I devoured a good chunk of it at breakfast but managed to save some for a few soufflés. I had spotted a pretty straightforward recipe from French Country Cooking that I've been wanting to try...I finally managed not to eat all the raspberries before getting a chance to use them in this recipe!  
I can now tell you I'm really happy I tried this recipe because it worked very nicely and the result tasted light, sweet, airy - everything good about a glorious soufflé!  And it wasn't difficult to make.  

In this recipe, you simply crush the raspberries and whisk them into the soufflé base. In other words, there's no pureeing raspberries, cooking them down with lemon juice, then straining the mixture in order to make a raspberry syrup to start with that you often see in other recipes.  In fairness, you won't end up with as even a pink hue as you would expect if you were to do that but I think it's a fair exchange for the ease here.  
While the raspberry soufflés were baking, the kitchen started smelling like cotton candy!  I loved how they rose steadily in the oven and didn't split and spill overboard like they sometimes do.  Of course, the very best part is that moment when you dig your spoon into the warm soufflé, and taste it...it's like a warm egg custard with a punch of sweet raspberry flavor.
I think soufflés are always a treat and this raspberry version (that's not at all complicated to make) was no exception.



Olive oil chocolate chip cookies

While it's been a lot of fun talking about afternoon tea and making British-style biscuits, I'm stepping back onto home turf and talking cookies today - as in the soft and chewy, warm-from-the-oven, kind of chocolate chip cookies we love in America!
Incidentally, the only instance where I ran into American-style cookies in London was from a shop called Ben's Cookies; the logo caught by eye (turns out, it was illustrated by Quentin Blake, well-known for illustrating Roald Dahl's books) and seeing the cookies made me a little nostalgic for home.  And if the British have tea time, Americans have our coffee break and what better to go with a cup of coffee than a classic chocolate chip cookie (except maybe a brownie)?
These cookies and some others from DisplacedHousewife caught my eye recently when I saw them on Instagram.  They looked delicious and sounded so interesting, I was eager to try one as soon as possible.  These are called "olive oil chocolate chip cookies" but they actually have both butter and olive oil in them.  

Visually, they reminded me of my favorite whole wheat chocolate chip cookies and made me think of Ovenly's vegan chocolate chip cookies.  Not only that, they also have a mix of bread flour and all-purpose flour in them, making me think of Jacques Torres' much touted chocolate chip cookies.  So as you can see, it had a lot of promising qualities going for it (and I wish there was some way to incorporate it all in the title of these cookies) and I was more than happy to give them a try.  
Let me tell you - I wasn't disappointed because these cookies have an amazing texture - incredibly chewy and soft yet firm, with a slight crispness at the exterior. Those are qualities I personally love in a chocolate chip cookie.  
When I first took the cookies out of the oven, I have to tell you that they looked great but they smelled rather fruity - from the olive oil.  I'll be honest...I was concerned the flavor from the olive oil might be too strong for us, but it didn't turn out to be the case.  Sure, you smell the fruitiness and I think it's discernible in the first bite but you really don't taste it thereafter.  I'm thinking the olive oil + butter combination might be the best of both worlds...you get the chewy texture from the oil and flavor from the butter and a bit from using olive oil specifically, too.  Next time I make these, I might be tempted to try it with a neutral-flavored oil but truly, the olive oil taste in the actual cookie is fairly mild.



Lemon curd biscuits

Let's not stop the tea party just yet...and extend it just a teensy bit longer, shall we? I need to put the little tea cups and china I bought on our recent trip to London to good use.
So let's sit a spell and have another cup of tea.  Nothing fancy, but we need something to nibble on.  I know!  How about some lemon curd biscuits to go with our cuppa?  Doesn't that sound good?  A traditional crisp, buttery, British-style biscuit with a refreshing taste of lemon is just the thing to go with a cup of tea on a spring afternoon.  
After we braced the long lines and gawked at the crown jewels at the Tower of London, I bought a couple of souvenirs...the tea cup I'm using here and a little book full of recipes for afternoon tea.  This biscuit recipe in that book called out to me because I adore lemon (and other citrus flavors in desserts) and these biscuits actually have a bit of homemade lemon curd stirred into the dough itself to give it a nice strong lemon flavor.

The dough is a bit dry and I likely handled it a little more than I should have.  I found these biscuits best eaten the day they're made and I really enjoyed the flavor of them...a lovely blend of sweet-and-tart from the lemon curd.  The neat thing is you start the recipe by making a small batch of lemon curd.  After using a portion of it for the biscuits, you end up with a little extra lemon curd as an added bonus!
These lemon curd biscuits are great on their own.  But you know me...I dipped some in chocolate.  Absolutely not necessary but it's a near reflexive move that I can't control at times.  Either way, with or without chocolate, it's just about taking a break and enjoying simple things.  Even if it's a tea party for one sometimes, it's nice to take a moment to treat yourself.  
After the biscuits are made, you still have a small bonus amount of homemade lemon curd leftover.  It's an excellent excuse to bake a fresh batch of (British-style) scones, which is just what I did!  Maybe we have a renewed appreciation for British-style scones now because my family and I enjoyed these immensely over Sunday breakfast.  Lemon curd is simply delicious with scones! 
Use the extra lemon curd from this recipe as a spread for scones


Battenberg cake

I'm back with a second inspiration from London: Battenberg cake!  You've no doubt seen this cake before.  There's a whimsical quality to it, with its alternating colors and checkerboard pattern.  I know I've seen it and smiled, thinking maybe I'll give it a try one day but never quite finding the motivation to actually take action.  Well, traveling and the desire to recreate good food that you had along the way is a great motivator.
Battenberg cake is an almond sponge cake (though we're referring to British sponge cakes like the Victoria sponge, which are buttery batter cakes) fused together with apricot jam, and wrapped in marzipan.  It was reportedly created in honor of the marriage of Princess Victoria to Prince Louis of Battenberg back in 1884.  

Being a classic British afternoon tea cake, it was one of the desserts we sampled during afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London a few weeks ago (I ate a lot of delicious things there during that tea). The cake was one of several desserts we could choose from following the tiers of finger sandwiches, scones, and desserts we were served at the table; we were stuffed by the time it came to choose from the dessert trolley but somehow managed to make room for a few more bites, and I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty the Battenberg cake was. 
So that got me seriously thinking about trying my hand at making Battenberg cake at home. Surprisingly, the cake is not all that hard to make!  You make one almond sponge cake batter, color half of it in pink, and bake both colors in one pan (using a makeshift divider).  Once baked, it's a matter of slicing the cake into logs, fusing them together alternately with apricot jam, then rolling out marzipan and wrapping the cake in it.  
It's not just fun to look at, this cake tastes good as well!  You have buttery almond sponge cake with the extra flavor and moisture from apricot jam that goes so well with it, wrapped in the sweetness of the marzipan, which also adds a lovely chewiness to the bite.  It really is a great cake to enjoy with a cup of tea.  And I can't help but think it would be a lovely bake for Mother's Day coming up!
To be honest, I didn't think I'd find a lot of cooking inspiration that I could tackle at home from London and I'm glad I was wrong.  I'm really happy I made this cake; I'm not sure I ever would have if not for tasting it on the trip.  It felt great to be able to recreate it at home and I think my family was pretty happy with my efforts, too.  It's wonderful to be able to extend your vacation and travels by reminiscing with food. And the only thing better than making something is watching it disappear quickly as everyone enthusiastically polishes it off!


Jammy Dodgers

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I had a wonderful vacation in London.  So while I know most of you see cookies, we're actually talking about biscuits today.  British biscuits, that is.  In general, British biscuits are what we call cookies in America, with the distinction that biscuits are of the crunchy, drier variety that's so perfect with a cup of tea! 
Tea and biscuits go hand in hand. Think of the history and tradition of taking tea and you can understand the natural pairing of sweet crunchy biscuits such as shortbread. I naturally gravitate towards soft, chewy, gooey cookies but it never ceases to amaze me how good a simple biscuit is when I do have it.  Tins of Royal Dansk butter cookies are part of my earliest childhood biscuit/cookie memories and growing up during the first handful of my years in Hong Kong, British foods, including biscuits, have a special place in my heart.
It's always fun to pay homage to something by making something to eat!  Our trip to London was such fun - we were lucky to enjoy great weather and we soaked up the beautiful city, friendly people, and classic eats.  From Sunday roast to afternoon tea, it was wonderful to be in a place so familiar, yet so different from home.  

One of the best experiences I had in London was afternoon tea.  My fellas and I enjoyed all the comfort and deliciousness of a true English tea experience at Fortnum & Mason (which, incidentally, is now my favorite shop in the world). Honestly, I had modest expectations (because, so often, afternoon tea looks appealing but doesn't quite match up taste-wise) but I walked away realizing that afternoon tea can not only look beautiful but also taste incredible. Everything - from savory to sweet - was delectable, enjoyed leisurely in a beautiful and comfortable setting.   
While it might be fun to recreate afternoon tea at home one day, I started with a small inspiration to pay homage to afternoon tea.  My son had the children's array of afternoon tea eats and among the treats on the top of his 3-tier cake stand was a Jammy (or "Jammie") Dodger, or so we were told.  It was a simple shortbread sandwich biscuit (cookie) filled with jam; they're much like linzer torte cookies, minus the almond meal. Jammie Dodgers are apparently a very popular children (and adult) biscuit in the UK, made by Burton's Biscuit Co. for over 50 years. If you're wondering about the "Dodgers" part of the name, it was named after a comic strip character.

Maybe it's the catchy name but the little biscuit stuck with me and I made a small batch of them at home to enjoy with my family.  These shortbread biscuits are tender and buttery, plus they melt in your mouth thanks to the powdered sugar used in the dough.  Jammy Dodgers are usually filled with strawberry or raspberry jam; I filled mine with strawberry and apricot jam and breaking away with the "rules", I also sandwiched a few with Nutella for my son.
Much to everyone's surprise (particularly his own), the 11-year old truly enjoyed the formal afternoon tea experience and while he wasn't eager to attack his Jammy Dodger there (he's not a fan of fruit jams unless it's in a tri-color cookie), he was a huge fan of my at-home Nutella version.  He's asked me to make more again for him soon - now I call that a successful bake!  



Brownie cookies

Have room for more cookies?  I sure hope so because I can't seem to stop making them lately and it's fun to share!
The latest contribution to the cookie jar is a small batch of deep, dark brownie cookies.  I saw them, dubbed "the browniest cookies", come across my Instagram feed from Smitten Kitchen a few weeks ago and was surprised I hadn't seen or made them before.  How can I resist brownie cookies...well, I can't!
I quickly made some.  I say "quick" because not only was I motivated by the promise of "brownie cookies", there was also the much-appreciated added bonus of being able to make these cookies in one bowl, without a fuss.  They materialized onto my kitchen counter very quickly.
These cookies are dark and deeply chocolaty, made with unsweetened chocolate and Dutch-processed cocoa powder, combined with pieces of chopped bittersweet chocolate.  I baked them for just about 11 minutes and I wondered if I should have taken them out of the oven even a bit earlier because the center looked a bit dry to me and I was aiming for fudgy all the way.  When I tasted them, they were actually quite moist in the center so I was happy...but I do still wonder whether I could get away with taking a tablespoon or so of flour out from the recipe...

Since these are not very sweet, this is for those who enjoy that balance of the bitter-sweet (I sure do).  If I had a qualm about it, it's that they're a bit messy to eat since the cookies tend to break off and be a bit crumbly at the corners.  I have to say I still prefer straight-up brownies over brownie cookies if I had to choose but fortunately for us, we usually don't have to and can enjoy as much variety as we want.  Aren't we lucky!



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