Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Caramel Banana Smoothie - snack or dessert??

Here's another super fast smoothie recipe to add to your repertoire that goes outside the usual fruit and yogurt. I made it as an excuse to try out my fancy new immersion blender and it worked great! Just dump the ingredients in the measuring cup, blend, add the ice, blend, pour into cups and serve! No fumbling with a setting up a big blender and only 2 small things to clean when I was done. I felt so spoiled and my sisters didn't mind being my guinea pigs :)  Whether it's a rich snack of a lighter dessert is your choice, it's good either way! The recipe is for a large single serving or 2 small servings, but its is very easily multiplied.

§ 1 very ripe banana
§ ½ cup dulce de leche (or more, to taste)*
§ A tiny pinch of salt
§ A few drops of pure vanilla extract
§ ¼ cup 2% or skim milk (or heavy cream for a richer drink)
§ 1 cup crushed ice
§ (optional) whipped cream and caramel or chocolate sauce

* you can make your own dulce de leche by cooking a can of sweetened condensed milk (must be done carefully!) or you can usually find already prepared cans in the international aisle at the grocery store with the Mexican food.

1.       Break up the banana into roughly bite-sized pieces and place in blender (or you can use an immersion blender and just place the ingredients in a 2-cup measuring cup instead). Add the dulce de leche, salt, vanilla, and the milk or cream and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the balance of banana/dulce de leche to your liking.
2.       Add the ice and blend again until thick, adding more ice if needed. You should not hear any crunching when you are done blending, meaning all the ice is blended and any other bits.
3.       Top with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate or caramel sauce if you like.

 You can go simple...

 Or dress it up with some whipped cream!

Caramel Sauce and banana slices look great too!

 Don't confuse this with an iced coffee though!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What to do with Nori? Cabbage Seaweed Rolls Of Course!

So the other day I happened to be in the grocery store (not an unusual occurrence...) in the international aisle ogling all of the Asian sauces and ingredients that I DIDN'T have (it was rather sad), when suddenly I saw a package on the bottom shelf that caught my attention: NORI! (aka: a type of edible seaweed) I never knew my favorite grocery store actually had any so of course I had to get some (AFTER checking the price and affirming the bank would not be broken of course)!
I felt very adventurous indeed when I arrived home and reverently placed the flat square package in my overcrowded baking cabinet, but in the back of my mind was the doubtful voice saying "now WHAT am I going to DO with this??". Once again I pushed that thought away and decided I would be making something Asian for dinner very soon.
My first attempt a few days later was a project I've been experimenting with for a while now: Miso Soup. However, though it would most definitely make a good story...I won't bore you with the detail of that epic. fail. Not this time anyways...let's just say I found out that nori cooks up great in soup, but rehydrated shitaki mushrooms not so much. Oh well...we'll revisit miso soup some other time. This is the seaweed adventure.
SO...I decided to make up for that grossness the next day by coming back with a delicious stirfry. A cabbage stirfry. Without a recipe. I'd never tried making this before, but my thought was to sort of mimic my favorite store-bought eggrolls that have this amazing cabbage and carrot filling except make seaweed rolls instead. This was quite a risky endeavor in my opinion...dabbling with Asian food that I have little experience working with and all...but I had a good feeling...and I was hungry :)
I'll try to keep the whole experimental cooking process short (as I could easily make it all long and drawn out and blah). So yeah, I went with a combination of 2 parts cabbage to one part carrots and left out white onions because I had some scallions I wanted to throw in. The sauce I used is typically made using teriaki sauce, but I wanted some soy sauce too, so I used half and half, but I'm sure using only one or the other would work. I also added LOTS of freshly ground black pepper throughout the whole cooking because I know it tastes especially good in my eggrolls. The finished stirfry actually was quite good I thought! People kept coming up and just eating it right out of the pan with forks before I could even roll it up in the nori! As for the seaweed rolls themselves...I thought they were really good! My family is not really accustomed to the taste so they weren't huge fans (my brother compared it to licking the inside of a goldfish bowl...) but they didn't mind it so much after the ocean flavor was masked a bit with soy sauce or teriaki dipping sauce. There ended up being NO leftovers and I now have a new favorite recipe that is fast, easy, tasty, and healthy! Booyah! I just wish people hadn't gobbled them up QUITE so fast so that I could have gotten a few better pictures, but I won't complain :)

NOTE: I used eggs and brown rice to thicken up the stirfry and add some nice flavors and textures, though if you wanted to lighten it up, you could just add some bean sprouts or bell peppers instead. Also, if you don't care for the vegetarian factor, my brother and I agreed, some pork would compliment the flavor very well.

Vegetarian Cabbage Seaweed Rolls:

-4 c shredded white cabbage (about half a large head)
-2 c shredded carrots (about 4 large)
-2 T canola, vegetable, or sesame oil
-salt and LOTS of freshly ground black pepper, to taste
-1/2 c vegetable stock
-3 cloves garlic, minced
-1/2 c soy sauce or teriaki sauce OR a combination of both
-3 T cornstarch
-1 c cooked brown rice
-4-5 large eggs, beaten
- 1 bunch of scallions, sliced, not too thinly
- 1 package of roasted nori (10-15 sheets I think)

1) Prepare the vegetables ( I used the shredding blade attachment on my food processor, but I think hand-shredding would have given a bit nicer of a product)*also if you haven't cooked your rice yet, DO IT NOW. Mine was quick-cooking rice so that helped :)
2) In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil to med-high and then add the cabbage and carrots. Season with the salt and pepper and saute for 5-10 min, stirring occasionally, until not-quite soft and fully cooked. Meanwhile, whisk together the garlic, stock, sauces, and cornstarch.
3) Pour the sauce mixture over the cooked vegetables and stir until evenly covered and thickened (the sauce should thicken quite quickly) then add the cooked rice.
4) Reduce the heat slightly to med. Push everything in the pan over to one side if using a frying pan, (if using a wok, just get out small frying pan and oil lightly) and add the beaten eggs. Scramble the eggs and then incorporate into the rest of the mixture. Then stir in the scallions and remove pan from heat.
5) Set out a sheet of nori and work quickly to scoop stirfry mixture onto the sheet and spread around so that there is a fairly even layer all over (you can do a practice one to see how much filling you want to add, but it shouldn't be a whole lot). Then quickly roll up the nori and allow it to sit for a minute or two. The idea is that the heat from the stirfry will slightly cook the seaweed and make it nice and soft. 
6) With a very sharp knife, slice the seaweed logs thickly ( I got about 6 slices per log) 
7) Serve immediately with dipping sauce if you are very hungry, or chill and save for later. I liked them best chilled, while my mom liked them hot so experiment and see what you like!

 Be ready to go, the cooking goes pretty fast!

 If all the veggies don't fit at first, wait til they cook down a bit and add the rest

 Tee hee I like how my burner is purple in this pic!

 Looks kinda gross right now, but it really was yummy, promise!

 I thought they looked fairly decent for not having a sushi roller or anything fancy

 Sweet 'n sour sauce would probably have been good too...

 I'm pretty sure I ate this many all by myself!

Mmm teriaki and fake sushi, don't love it til ya try it! :p

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Brussels Sprouts...yes, I had to!

When you read the title for this post, you were probably thinking "ugh, I hate Brussels sprouts!" or "not another one! Everyone is blogging about these guys!" or maybe both things came to mind, but nevertheless, I couldn't resist! As a "future chef" I want to record my adventures in the kitchen for my own benefit even if everyone else is sick of the topic (sorry!). If your still reading, you must not be completely sick of hearing about Brussels sprouts or you just like to hear what I have to say...I'll take either! :)
Anyways, moving on, I had actually first wanted to make some Brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving as a little something different. Unfortunately when I went shopping for all my food, they were out :( so I had to postpone my adventure til later...which ended up being yesterday!
I've had Brussels sprouts only one other time before and it wasn't a very noteworthy experience. My mother made them the way she had had them as a child: steamed. Now don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against steaming, it's just that that was it. No salt, pepper, herbs, butter, or anything to give them flavor, it was just steamed little balls of cabbage, period. If you've ever had 'em, you understand why I wasn't too thrilled, if you haven't, be glad I'm clearing this up for you.
I'd read numerous posts on how wonderful and amazing Brussels sprouts were if cooked properly and I was very interested. Also, many of my classmates at culinary school agreed, saying that roasting was the way to go. They said it was fast and easy and that the little outside leaves got all crispy and delicious. This sounded too good to be true to me. So I HAD to give it Brussels sprouts another try, and roasting was my plan.
I went back through some blog posts and recipe sights and got the basic idea for making roasted Brussels sprouts. Coating with olive oil, salt, and freshly ground pepper was the basic preparation and a common variation I found was adding some balsamic vinegar to the mix. I had all of these items on hand as staples and decided to give it a shot. I also read that cutting off the tough stub at the end of the sprouts was a way to make them less bitter and cutting each one in half allowed for more even cooking and better flavor penetration, so I thought I'd do that too. With all of these proven methods I felt sure I had a winner on my hands!
Cutting up 4 cups of Brussels sprouts took a little time, but only because I had to go one at a time. Then I threw them all in a big bowl, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, a little balsamic, and a pretty good amount of salt and freshly ground pepper.
Threw THAT into the oven preheated to 400 F and set the timer to 15 min, as was the recommended time.
15 minutes later the kitchen smelled strongly of cooked cabbage and the little half Brussels sprouts were shiny and slightly browned, with the fallen-off leaves turning almost black. They looked done to me and I was trusting the "recipe" so I took 'em out and served 'em up! The evaluation? Well...even my mom, who LIKES Brussels sprouts, was slightly skeptical about this side dish, but my picky younger sister surprisingly tried ONE, which was pretty impressive. My dad ate quite a few, but he wasn't a huge fan. I ate a lot of them, but not really because I thought they were good, but because I was trying to figure out what to make up them. First off, all I could taste was cabbage, despite the fact I thought I hit them really well with S&P. Then there was the textural issue: they were not soft and tender as I had been aiming for, but still kind of on the chewy, not-fully-cooked side of things :/ STILL, I noticed that the dark, crispy little leaves that had fallen to the way side were pretty tasty and I felt there was still hope yet.
The next day for lunch I decided to go round two with these puppies and REALLY hit 'em up with seasoning and fix the texture problem. I could have just roasted them again, but I wanted to be able to monitor them better, plus I thought I could keep more flavor on the sprouts if I were stirring them around in a pan and getting them completely and evenly cooked and covered, thus I chose to saute!
I dumped all the Brussels sprouts in a large saute pan on med-high heat, with about a tablespoon of olive oil and started cooking! I added LOTS of salt and pepper, a clove of garlic, and about 2-3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar since I couldn't taste it AT ALL before. I cooked the cabbages until I could easily piece them with a fork, but they weren't mushy.
Then I tasted...WHOA! Total difference! The flavors came through great and the texture was perfect!!! The vinegar definitely helped a lot and I think I might add more garlic next time. My mom agreed, they were waaaay better the second time. Later that day I pulled the left-overs out of the fridge for a snack and they tasted better yet with the flavors just really soaked in. I ended up eating all the rest of the Brussels sprouts and now...I want some more. Honestly, I do! They were such a tasty little finger food snack and so fast...I can't wait to go to the store to get more!! Sorry I don't have a real recipe typed up for these guys since I just winged the whole thing, but I can tell you what I might recommend. I'll try a more precise procedure next time and hopefully have some real measurements for you all! Then again, you may prefer to just experiment and do everything to taste like I did. Sometimes the adventure is more enjoyable than the end result anyways :)

- about 4 cups Brussels sprouts
- olive oil
- salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- a few cloves of garlic, minced
- balsamic vinegar

1) Wash the Brussels sprouts and remove any wilted or discolored outer leaves. Trim off the tough stem on the end and cut in half lengthwise (some outer leaves may fall off, that's fine, just at them to the mix, they will be reeeeally yummy!).
2) Preheat the oven to 400 F and heat the olive oil in a large saute pan (or do this in batches) to about med-high heat.
3) Add the Brussels sprouts and VERY generously season with the salt and pepper.
4) After a few minutes, add the garlic and stir.
5) When the Brussels sprouts are beginning to soften, remove the pan from the heat and add the balsamic vinegar, stirring to let it absorb and coat evenly.
6) If your saute pan is oven safe, put it directly into the preheat oven, if not, put the sprouts on a jellyroll pan or other pan and place it in the oven and cook for about 10 minutes, watching carefully after 5 to see that they cook to the amount that you would like. Take one out and taste it to check if you like. 
7) Serve warm with MORE pepper OR chill and eat later with your fingers because it's sooo good you won't be able to wait to get a fork :) 

 ~ Oh and as a side note, just for of my sisters asked the question of whether Brussels sprouts get their name from the city of Brussels, the capital of Belgium. The answer is...yes! These sprouts were thought to have been first cultivated in Italy and Belgium as early as 1200s, but it was their popularity in Belgium, near the Brussels area that won them their name. So now if you get will know!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homemade Jam: great snowday activity and Christmas gift!

Well...December is here!!! For me this is both exciting and frightening as it means I have a great excuse to do TONS of baking and cooking, but I have SOOOO many other things to do! I got a Cook's Country magazine in the mail the other day and it had some great cookie recipes as always, but the first place winner was the one that really caught my eye: Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprints. The flavor combination intrigued I've never made thumbprints, but always wanted to. I scanned the list of ingredients...I still had some hazelnuts just begging to be used....and one fat lemon should be enough to whip up some lemon curd, yep the stars were aligned!
However, before I got to work on those yummies, I decided to find a second thumbprint recipe to make while I was at it (not that I have all this time on my hands, but because I just can't help myself when I get cooking and then I pay for it later when I have done nothing but made cookies all day). So anyways...I went searching for something festive and I kept seeing lovely raspberry jam-filled cookies, but I wanted to kick it up a about replacing the raspberry jam with cranberry? Yes? Yes! But where to buy cranberry jam? Hmm...well I did just stock up on fresh cranberries, but I've never made jam before, it was always so intimidating-looking! Still, I decided to look around for some cranberry jam recipes just to humor myself. Turns out I actually found one that sounded REALLY easy and I had ALL the ingredients, was this fate or what?
I made the lemon curd for my Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprints first, using a recipe that I really like from Bon Appetit magazine. It is a really easy recipe and just the right flavor in my opinion. The only thing I think I will try next time is straining the whole eggs first to get out those stringy white things (called "chalazae" prounounced kaLUHzee, which is like the umbilical cord for a baby I was told by one of my chefs) because when the lemon curd is cooked they get all...nasty >:p so yeah...other then that it was fantastic and I probably would have eaten all of it, but I still needed some to fill my cookies!

Lemon Curd:

- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
- Pinch of salt

1) Whisk eggs and egg yolks in medium bowl and strain to remove lumps and chalazae.
2) Melt butter in medium metal bowl set over large saucepan of simmering water.
3) Whisk in sugar, lemon juice, lemon peel, and salt; gradually whisk in egg mixture. Whisk until thick and thermometer inserted into curd registers 178°F to 180°F, about 8 minutes.
4) Transfer to small bowl. Press plastic wrap on top of curd; chill 4 hours.
Deliciousness <3 (especially on toast, rolls, ice cream, or pretty much anything!)

K anyways, so then I worked on the cranberry jam while I threw together the Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprints. The cookies came together really quickly as the dough was nice and soft (and VERY tasty). Unfortunately, this softness meant they spread out a bit more than I would have liked, but it wasn't too bad...

 (I'm def going to have to double the recipe next time...)

Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies:

- 1 c all-purpose flour
- 3/4 c shelled, toasted hazelnuts
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 c (1 stick) butter, softened
- 1/3 c granulated sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- 3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
- Lemon curd (about 1/4 c)
- powdered sugar (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 F. Process flour, hazelnuts, and salt in a food processor until finely ground (not too long or it will get mushy when the nuts release their oil)
2) With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and mix until incorporated. Reduce the speed and gradually add the flour mixture. The dough should be very soft.
3) Roll dough into 1 inch ball by the Tbsp (or smaller if desired) and place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats, about an inch apart. Gently create indents with your finger or a teaspoon. 
4) Bake the cookies until just set, about 10 min.
5) Remove the cookies form the oven and gently reinforce the indentation with a teaspoon. Fill the cookies with 1/2-1 tsp of lemon curd. Bake again, 8-10 min until lightly browned on the edges.
6) Cool completely on a wire rack, dust with powdered sugar if desired and serve or store.

Anywho...back to what you have been wondering about - the JAM! The recipe said I could use a whole vanilla bean or a tsp of vanilla extract, but I wanted to go all out and make my very first jam REALLY good, so I opted for the vanilla bean, expensive as they may be. Plus I didn't have any oranges so I had to use orange juice from concentrate and thus I was hoping using the high quality vanilla bean would balance out the lack of fresh orange juice. Other than that I followed the recipe exactly and I thought it came out quite well. The vanilla was stronger than the cranberry I think, but yummy all the same. I'm more eager to try more jams now :)

Cranberry Vanilla Jam:

- 1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise (or 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract)
- 3 1/2 c. fresh or frozen, unthawed cranberries
- 1 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/2 c. fresh orange juice
- 1/2 c. water

1) With tip of a sharp knife, scrape vanilla seeds from pod into a 2-qt. heavy saucepan.
Add pod and remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickening, about 20-30 minutes.
2) Puree jam through a food mill set over a bowl OR (I don't have a food mill) force it through a fine-meshed sieve, pressing on the solids, occasionally scraping the bottom of the sieve with a spatula to get every last drop. Discard the cranberry skins and vanilla pod. Cool, stirring occasionally.

Removing all the teeny tiny (very good smelling) vanilla

Vanilla and orange juice and water

 You can use either fresh or frozen cranberries, I used frozen

 Some sugar...ok a LOT because it's jam...and cranberries are quite sour

 The mixture got really foamy and cool looking, don't be alarmed, but don't let it boil over either!

 The berries got dark and mushy as they cooked

 Being food mill -less I had to go this slow, difficult route to lumpfree, skinfree jam, but it wasn't too bad...I actually felt very old fashioned and resourceful (still, I would NOT do this everyday!! If you are lucky enough to have a food mill I say USE IT!)

Here is the visual ratio of jam to waste products (the bean pod and the cranberry skins)

Finished product :) Wouldn't that make a lovely gift?

 Or even these guys?? Mmmm

Cranberry White Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies

- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 to 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- Cranberry Jam (about 1/4 c)
- White chocolate chips

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla on medium-high speed until smooth. Beat in flour, beginning on low speed and increasing to medium high, until a dough forms – it shouldn't be sticky.
2) Roll dough by tablespoons (or smaller if you prefer) into balls, and place 1 inch apart onto prepared sheets. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, and press thumb or spoon into tops of cookies to make indentations. Fill with 1/2 -1 tsp of jam.
3) Return to oven, and bake until light brown on the edges, about 10-12 minutes more. Remove to a wire rack to cool.
4) Melt about 1/3 c white chocolate chips (or baking squares) in the microwave (microwave on high for 1 min, stir and repeat process until the chocolate is almost melted, then remove from the microwave and stir until it completely melts) spoon the melted chocolate into a pastry bag or small plastic bag, snip the end just barely and then drizzle the chocolate over the cooled cookies. Allow the white chocolate to harden before serving or storing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Light Cream of Celery Soup: a change of pace after Thanksgiving

There are two major problems I find after the Thanksgiving weekend passes: 1) all the feasting and indulging in rich food is beginning to catch up with you 2) you filled up your refrigerator with a huge turkey and all the trimmings and now its gone and you're stuck with a hodge-podge of ingredients that don't quite make up a meal...or at least a meal that doesn't look like more leftovers. I found myself in this predicament today as I stared into the now-bare-looking fridge. I had some celery and spinach that would be past their prime soon and a few pounds of potatoes that needed some attention, but these ingredients didn't look too appetizing on their own. I was really needing some carrots and peppers or something that could really round out the nice soup and salad meal that I was envisioning. It's days like this that I eagerly turn to my Mollie Katzen books as she always has great recipes that use simple ingredients to make something delicious - always helpful in utilizing lots of veggies!
As I thumbed through her soup book I already had a recipe in the back of my mind that I had come across numerous times while performing this same ritual. Found it! "Light Cream of Celery", yep, that's the one! I scanned the recipe and it fit the bill perfectly: it would use up some celery and potatoes real fast and provide a meal that wouldn't be rich and Thanksgiving-y.
This soup was very fast and easy to prepare, especially since I could be sloppy with my knife cuts knowing it was all going to be turned into mush anyways. Within two hours I had a nice, simple, wholesome meal on the table with my warm soup, spinach and greens salad, peaches and yogurt, and crackers with nut butter for something more filling. My parents really enjoyed the change of pace and especially liked trying small bowls of soup with different toppings including Parmesan cheese, crackers, plain yogurt, tortilla strips, green chili sauce, horseradish, and croutons. My mom said the soup reminded her of Christmas, gazpacho, split pea soup, and leek soup. How she got all that out of Light Cream of Celery I'll never know, but as long as she liked it, whatev.

Light Cream of Celery

- 2 average person's fist-sized potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 3 smallish potatoes)
- 4 cups chopped celery
- 3 cups of water (I added a tsp of vegetable stock concentrate to round out the flavor)
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 to 2 Tbsp butter (I used 2 because I had the perfect-sized chunk, but it would have worked just as well with less)
- 1 cup finely diced onion
- 1 cup finely diced celery
- 1 tsp celery seed (I used 2 tsp for some more flavor)
- 1 cup milk, warmed (I used 2%, warmed in the microwave for 1 min)
- white pepper to taste
- 4 to 5 Tbsp sour cream, half and half, or heavy cream, optional (I left this out because I had no more room in my pot and served plain yogurt on the side instead, still very good!)
- minced chives, parsley, celery leaves, to garnish (or the fun options that I mentioned above!)

(I added the celery tops and leaves to my 4 cups because they also contain flavor and their texture won't be noticed once its all pureed so it's a great way to utilize the whole vegetable with no waste!)

1) Place potatoes, 4 cups of celery, water, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until the vegetables are soft (5-10 min, depending on particle size and the strength of your stove)
 2) Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet and saute the 1 cup of onions and the 1 cup of celery. Season with the celery seeds and some salt and pepper if you like.

 3) Puree all the ingredients in a blender or food processor in as many batches as needed and return to pot and heat to low.

 4) Stir in the cup of milk and the optional sour cream/heavy cream.

 5) Serve warm with your choice of garnishes and enjoy feeling light once again!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jezebel Dip: Out of the ordinary appetizer ideas #1

When parties or large get-togethers appear on the calendar, one of the first things I do is start looking for new, cool, fresh ideas for things to bring, usually dessert of an appetizer of some sort. Thanksgiving is one of these events and with large numbers of people bringing food for potluck meals, I'm even more anxious to find an unusual dish that will stand out from the crowd and yet thoroughly please the crowd.
Last year, during my exploration I came across a dip that caught my attention with its strange name: Jezebel Dip. Ever heard of it? I hadn't, so of course I went about reading the recipe and all of the reviews on it. I was intrigued and disgusted with what I found. The dip consisted of a block of cream cheese covered in a warm sauce of (ready for this?) apricot jam, Dijon mustard, and horseradish! The intriguing part of this was the reviews, not only were there many of them (meaning there were lots of brave people in the world who had tried it), but almost all of them were very, very positive with high marks!  Still, these comments were not enough to sway me and I went on to choose something a bit safer to bring to the party.
Now here I am, a year later, with another year of cooking under my belt and a widened taste bud horizon, and holiday parties arriving once again. Although our celebration this year took place in our own home, my immediate family was still enough of a crowd for me to find myself cooking up a few things in the kitchen. After making some favorite snacks like Muddy Buddies and Stuffed Mushrooms I thought it was time for something a little different...that Jezebel Dip had been in the back of my mind for a while.
Right off the bat I almost forgot the first step of the directions to mix up the ingredients the night before serving to allow the flavors to meld. Thus, at about 11:30pm I quickly, quietly whipped up the sauce, feeling very strange sneaking around in the dark kitchen with such odd ingredients. I had to resist the great urge to taste the smelly goo as I was about to go brush my teeth and had no desire to taste minty horseradish all night. Instead I put the mixture in the fridge and away to bed I went, wondering if I would find something magical or something horrific the next morning.
It turns out the orange glob was not much different after its over-night flavor-development period thingy. While the contrasting tastes of the horseradish and the jelly were much more unified, it still wasn't something I would consider delicious, in fact it was still in the "weird" category for me. But now that I'd gone this far with the experiment I certainly wasn't backing down so I followed directions and heated the sauce in the microwave until it was slightly more than warm, then I spooned that mixture over a block of room temperature cream cheese in a platter with slightly inclined sides. When all of the sauce was out of the bowl and into the platter, the cream cheese looked like an island in a sea of marmalade except that this definitely was NOT marmalade. This look was really not doing anything to advertise the dip, but I was not feeling very inspired so I just sprinkled some dried red chili pepper and paprika over the top and stuck a cracker in the side. It was far from beautiful, but it was better and if the reviews had been correct then the dip would be devoured so fast that the appearance would not be too much of an issue.
In the end, the results were about what I expected: the more daring of my family members who sampled the dip thought it was great...unusual, but still tasty. My not-so-open-minded siblings just gave it a few wary glances before reaching for safer snacks. Personally, I was somewhere in between these opinions as I thought it was interesting, but that it had lots of room for improvement. The sauce and the cheese went very nice together with the spicy, tangy, sweet and creamy all balancing out well, but the plating made it hard to get a good scoop on a cracker and of course lacked visual appeal. I also thought nuts would have added a nice element, texturally and flavor-wise, but these ideas will have to wait because my I've only got a few months left of holiday parties to try the other weird names on my list. In the meantime, if any of you wanna mess around, here's the recipe, have fun!

Jezebel Dip

- 1 (12 ounce) jar apricot preserves (some of the reviews also suggested peach and apple)
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
- 2 tablespoons Dijon-style prepared mustard
- a few grinds of black pepper, to taste
- 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1) In a medium-size bowl, combine apricot preserves, horseradish, mustard and black pepper. Taste the mixture and add more horseradish, mustard, and pepper to taste. Cover and chill this mixture overnight.
2) When ready to serve, place the cream cheese on a serving plate gently warm the sauce in the microwave. Pour or spoon the apricot mixture over the cream cheese.
3) Sprinkle with dried red chili pepper or black pepper.Serve with a basket of your favorite crackers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Nutella Experiment

One of my sisters is very limited in her eating choices. There are many things that she does not like for one reason of another and thus, when she finally finds a food that she REALLY likes, she eats it like it's going out of style! One of her latest fads is the famous Nutella hazelnut spread, which she likes on bread for breakfast or lunch.
One day while I was whipping up some natural peanut butter for myself, my mother asked me absentmindedly if I could make my own Nutella. Bing! A light goes on in my head. A challenge. Could I make my own Nutella? I could make my own peanut butter just hard could Nutella be? Just switch nuts and add some chocolate, no problem!...right?
This challenge was quickly deterred when I failed to find any hazelnuts at the grocery store, however, a new store opened about a week later...and THEY did! :) So, fearing it too good to be true, I quickly snatched up 2 bags of "large Californian hazelnuts" and hurried home to see what suggestions I could find on making my own Nutella. I was pleasantly surprised to find several recipes and blogs on the subject, but due to lack of various ingredients or tools I did not pick a single recipe to go off of, but rather decided to approach the matter like making peanut butter with with additions as I had originally planned. Again I asked myself, "how hard could it be?"

I realized my first problem right off the bat: the hazelnuts were not shelled. Ugh. This probably something I should have realized at the moment I bought them...but I'd never actually SEEN a hazelnut before (ok so there is a picture on the Nutella jar, give me a break!) So no big deal, right? I'll just shell these puppies real quick before I toast them and I'm back on track. While I did manage to locate the nutcracker successfully, the actual shelling process proved a bit difficult with shells flying everywhere and most of the nuts ending up in pieces, but after about 30 or so I finally got the hang of it and it was pretty smooth sailing from there.

The next step was to toast the hazelnuts as I always do with all my nuts for peanut butter, cookies, salads, whatever! It just brings out their flavor so nicely I didn't even think twice about it. Next was the tedious work of rubbing and scratching the flaky skin off of the cooled nuts, which I actually think was less fun than the shelling part, but I persevered nonetheless.

So now, with my hazelnuts nicely shelled, toasted, and skinned, I was ready to begin the real Nutella-making business that I had started 2 hours ago!! I placed the whole nuts in my food processor and they ground-up even nicer than the peanuts usually do and quickly formed a grainy paste.

Now I began the very unscientific method of adding small increments of flavorings until I achieved the taste I was looking for. It went something like this: mix, add a tbsp melted semi-sweet chocolate, mix, add a few drops of vanilla, mix, add a tbsp powdered sugar and a tsp cocoa powder, mix, scrape down the sides and bottom, add a little salt, mix, etc. I went through this sequence over and over, inching closer to that unique Nutella flavor. The problem I found when I tasted the mixture and when I had others taste it, was that the toasted flavor and the hazelnut flavor were coming in too strong and the texture was off. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing if you didn't mind that taste, but it just wasn't Nutella. Finally I took a sample to my Nutella-loving sister to try. She said it was close, but not the same, which I already knew. As I headed back to the kitchen to experiment some more she said "you could try adding some milk, Nutella has milk in it you know?" Hmmm...milk? Could that be the key to the ungraspable flavor and  perfectly smooth texture?? It was worth a try.
I thought it was quite an ingenious idea to use heavy whipping cream instead of milk, that way I would get a nice creamy flavor without making the spread too runny. I eagerly added about a tbsp of cream, flipped on the processor, and watched as it disappeared into the chocolaty goo. When I sampled the new creation I was disappointed to find little change. More cream. This time I added twice the amount thinking "it's all or nothing!" and I again turned on the processor to watch the magic. What I saw was actually quite horrifying as my slightly-gritty spread became a thick fudge, something I had witnessed years before when I unwittingly added milk to scorched chocolate. I looked into the bowl with dismay at the mixture that was now far from resembling the jar of Nutella next to it.
With a final act of desperation I trickled a few drops of canola oil into the processor and turned it on to see what the effects would be. The effects were pleasantly surprising! I watched with glee as the the chocolate glob gradually became a nice, glossy, mayonnaise-like consistency! When I sampled the new creation I found it was much smoother than before and though it still lacked a certain sweetness when compared with the Nutella, the distinct toasted flavor was greatly muted to more of a pleasant nuttiness. I decided it was time to stop experimenting before my luck ran out. I quickly toasted a piece of bread and smothered it with some of my still-warm spread and anxiously presented it to my sister. She chewed it carefully before turning to me and declaring: "Awesome!" So in the end, I did not discover the secret to the Nutella flavor *sigh*...but I can live with awesome. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Deceptive and Delicious German Chocolate Cake

I'm really not much of a cake person. Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of great cake in my day and I make cakes often enough, but if I'm going to choose a dessert, cake is usually not my first pick. Maybe it has something to do with growing up on rectangle-shaped, sprinkle-encrusted cakes that came from boxes. I'm not sure, but I do know there are two types of people when it comes to cakes: cake people...and icing people. I belong in the latter group as I've always been one of those always-ask-for-a-corner-piece-because-it-has-more-frosting sort of people. But before I get too far off track, what I was getting at was that (in my opinion) you can't have a good cake, without a darn good icing to complement it! Thus, when a circumstance arises in which cake is the must-have dessert, I'm going to choose my cake AND icing recipe very carefully.
In this case I have picked a cake that I have had only once before (sadly): German Chocolate Cake. I fell in love with this cake a year ago after tasting the creamy, flavorful frosting which perfectly balanced the dense, chocolate cake beneath. However, at the time, I was too busy savoring the incredible tastes to actually figure out WHAT it was that made it so different from other dry and dull chocolate cakes. It was time to find out...
I chose the German Chocolate Cake recipe from my favorite baking source, After reading through the recipe once I quickly realized there was much more to this cake than meets the eye, which explains the intricate flavor combinations.
For starters, the cake itself has Dutch cocoa powder and milk chocolate going for it as well as coffee and buttermilk for the liquid agents (coffee and chocolate? now I know why I love it so much!). The coffee adds depth to the chocolate and the buttermilk makes for a wonderfully moist crumb. So far so good, but it gets better. The famous frosting is a combination of evaporated milk and sugar, cooked and thickened with egg yolks and then combined with coconut and toasted pecans for a flavor and texture combo that is out of this world! I absolutely love it!
*Short story time!* I had worked hard on making sure this cake was perfect, right? And then it finally comes time to serve it and it looks all impressive and great with its rich brown colors and three layers and all. Things were going smooth so far and I had everyone under the impression that I was all that as I suavely told them what was in it and how I came to create such a masterpiece. Then my friend innocently asks: "what is German chocolate anyways?" followed by a pause for thought. Now I had everyone wondering the same thing and all I could give them was this blank stare. How had I just made a German Chocolate Cake and not know what German chocolate was?! Woops. Well as soon as we started eating, I'm pretty sure we all could have cared less if there what German chocolate was (thank goodness), but I do plan to redeem myself now. Once again I turn to my trusted Deluxe Food Lover's Companion for the truth behind this mystery and here's what we find out: German chocolate is actually NOT from Germany, but rather it is named after its creator, Sam German who developed the chocolate for Baker's company in the mid-1800s. This chocolate is simply a sweet chocolate similar to milk chocolate and is best known for its place in German Chocolate Cake, which was first published in a Dallas newspaper in 1957.
So there we have it, the a story behind German chocolate and German Chocolate Cake that will surely impress any guests and save you from looking ...well like me.
This cake goes great with a nice vanilla ice cream or a cup of milk to balance the richness. Although it is difficult to cut due to being three layers and rather crumbly, do your best to slice it thinly as a little of this goes a long way. Hope you enjoy!
NOTE: My only troubles with this cake I had with the milk chocolate and the pecans.
The milk chocolate was more my own fault really. I melted the chocolate perfectly in my microwave and then was interrupted to watch Jeopardy! so when I came back I had to reheat it. This should have been no problem, but I must not have melted it well enough because when I "folded" it into the batter, it became stiff and clumpy. This meant the cakes were harder to invert because of all the chocolate pieces stuck to the bottom, but it just tasted like it had chocolate chips in it so that was OK.
As for the pecans, just watch them carefully while toasting. I had to do several batches to get them to come out right. Some of the problem was timing and some was quantity, it just depends. I would suggest sticking with the minimum toasting time and then adjusting from there. Whatever you do, DO NOT eliminate the toasting step, it does such wonders for the flavor of the nuts and the cake as a whole.

German Chocolate Cake

- 4oz semi-sweet or Baker's German chocolate, chopped
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch processed)
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup hot coffee (or water, coffee heavily suggested though)
- 1 cup buttermilk (or milk with a little acid added)
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 1/4 cups granulated white sugar (I only had brown and that worked just fine)
- 5 large eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1) Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave for 2-3 minutes, stirring after each minute until almost melted. Stir until completely smooth and set aside to cool.
2) Preheat oven to 350 F and place rack in the center of the oven. Grease 3 8" round cake pans with Wilton Cake Release or butter and dust with flour.
3) In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl combine the coffee and the buttermilk.
4) In a big mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until smooth and then add the sugar gradually and continue beating until the mixture is fluffy (2-3 min).
5) Scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each and then add the vanilla and beat to combine.
6) Add a little of the liquid mixture to moisten and beat until uniform. Add a little of the dry mixture and beat to combine until uniform. Continue this process with the rest of the liquid and dry mixtures.
7) Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cake pans and back for about 35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
8) Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. When cool, line 3 large plates or medium cutting boards with wax paper and invert the cakes onto them one at a time.
9) When ready to assemble the cake, Place the thickest, sturdiest cake on your serving plate and center it as best as you can. Cover the top (not the sides) of it with 1/3 of the frosting (about a cup). Continue with the other two layers and the rest of the frosting. Garnish with extra pecans or coconut.
10) The finished cake can be stored at room temperature for a couple of days or it can be refrigerated.

Coconut Pecan Frosting

- 1 1/4 cups raw pecans
- 1 cup granulated white sugar (again, I used brown and it was awesome)
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1) Preheat oven to 350 F and place the pecans on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, watching carefully, until lightly browned and just becoming fragrant (if you can smell them outside the oven they will probably be over-done). Let cool, then chop into small pieces (about 1/6 the size of a pecan if you cut it in half lengthwise and then into thirds)
2) In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, milk, egg yolks, butter, and salt. Whisk to mix in the sugar and beat up the egg yolks.
3) Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for a few minutes until thickened (the mixture should boil for a little while) then add the coconut, pecans, and vanilla extract.
4) Let cool until spreadable and then assemble the cake (and try not to eat too much of the frosting while you are waiting!)
 First base
 Two layers of cake and icing
 Total construction: triple layer (yumm)
Finished product :)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let's Do This Thing: Crème Brûlée

Well, here it is! After lots of consideration, research, insecurity, and much prompting from friends, my blog is here at last and I'm already excited about sharing my love for cooking through this venue. 
So, without further ado, what better way to start off a cooking blog than with the favored, the feared, the famous....crème brûlée! 
For those not familiar with this confection, I will give the definition from  The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion (a fantastic book that I HIGHLY recommend): "The literal translation of crème brûlée is "burnt cream". It describes a chilled, stirred custard that, just before serving is sprinkled with brown or granulated sugar. The sugar topping is quickly caramelized under a broiler or with a salamander. The caramelized topping become brittle, creating a delicious flavor and textural contrast to the smoother, creamy custard beneath."
If any of these words are daunting or discouraging, I assure you they need not be. In fact I used to be one of those who kept my distance from this praised dessert, whether because it is associated with upscale restaurants and skilled chefs or simply because of the French title. Whatever the reason, you can imagine my delight when I finally got up my nerve and just tried it! I first made it about a year ago for my mom's birthday, wanting something extra special. Although this virgin attempt included a boxed flavoring and thickener (shameful, I know), it broke me of my past intimidation of crème brûléand I decided that I really needed a cooking torch. 
Thus, a while later, I now am a proud owner of a Professional Cooking Torch by Bonjour and I have added creme brulee to my list of successful, homemade "masterpieces"! And now, I'm sharing that recipe for others still holding back in uncertainty can take full advantage and see just how easy it really is!
NOTE: This recipe was very accurate for the most part, but there was one spot I found a problem. The recipe claimed I could refrigerate the custards after caramelizing the sugar to serve later, but I would NOT recommend this! I finished "brulee-ing" all of the custards and whatever was not claimed I stored in the fridge for later eating. The next day what I found was creme brulees covered in watery sugar syrup and grey banana slices (ew!). When the topping was removed, the custard still tasted wonderful, but the presentation was ruined.

Crème Brûlée (with chocolate, banana, and berry variations!)

- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp plus 1/3 cup granulated white sugar
- 2 extra large egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract    

Preheat oven to 300F and prepare some boiling water. Get out four 4oz, ungreased ramekins.
  1. In a saucepan over med-low heat, stir together the cream and the 2 Tbsp sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally until small bubbles appear around the edges (about 5 min). Set aside.
  2. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks and vanilla until smooth and light. Spoon in the cream mixture a little at a time, whisking continuously until blended. Divide the mixture among the ramekins.
  3. Arrange the ramekins in a baking pan (I used a jellyroll pan, but a roasting pan would work fine also, or anything with enough space and substantial sides on it!) and place on the middle oven rack. Fill the pan with boiling water at least a little ways up the sides of the ramekins and as much as halfway up.
  4. Bake about 25 min, until JUST set. Chill for at least 2-3 hours.
  5. Just before serving, sprinkle the remaining sugar evenly over the tops of the custards. Caramelize the sugar with a cooking torch (recommended!) or under a broiler until evenly melted and nicely browned and bubbly. Allow to cool for 5-10 min and let the sugar harden up a bit.

chilled crème 
 + sugar
 + fire :)
+ brûlée

= Crème Brûlée!
For chocolate variation:
Use the directions above and add 2oz semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped to the cream and sugar in step 2.

For banana variation:
 Use the directions above and top the cooled custards with a few arranged banana slices before sprinkling with sugar and caramelizing.

For berry variation:
Use the directions above and add 1 tsp freshly grated orange zest to the cream and sugar in step 2 and then top the finished crème brûlées with fresh berries such as strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries. 

Banana Crème Brûlée