Wednesday, December 31, 2008

FoodListing 2008

Some friends of mine gave me EAT: Los Angeles: The Food Lover's Guide to Los Angeles for my birthday (which is a GREAT book), and while using the book to plan out my foodscapades for the next year, I realized that New Year's would be a good time to reflect back on food highlights for this past year. So here's some of my favorite food fun of 2008!

Biggest food obsession in the kitchen: Marshmallows/Guimauve

Without a doubt, marshmallows (and gelatin, as a correllary) have been the food I have most thought about and experimented with in 2008. I have made them in all the flavors, colors, and shapes that have appealed to me, and have more ideas on the horizon (watch out for dessert sushi and vegetarian marshmallows!).

Marshmallow Posts:
Guimauve: Beginnings of an Obsession
Guimauve Part Deux: Some Kosher Fluff
Guimauve Part Three: Gelatin Sheets
The Amazing Gelatin Sheets
Marshmallow Baby Rattles
Guimauve Flavoring
Notes on Guimauve
Marshmallow Christmas Trees

Biggest food obsession in the bakery: French Macarons

This is not an obsession that has slowed down either, but I am running out of places to try macarons in L.A.! It may come down to my own baking efforts before long, but this past year was the year of Parisian inspiration and Los Angeles exploration. Truly, macarons are difficult to describe, but one taste and you'll be hooked (just look at all the exclamation points I use below...). Still the best in L.A.: Europane.

Macaron Posts:
Tasting Paris
Happy Fourteenth of July!
Paulette: Life is like this box of macarons
Europane: Mmmmacarons!
Boule: Another macaron attempt
Happy Foodie Halloween!

Favorite Food Experience
This is an incredibly difficult thing to decide; I've had a great time throwing food-themed parties with friends, going out to eat all over L.A. with new foodie friends (shout out to the AWC!), exploring food in Paris and Jerusalem, gorging myself at a chocolate buffet in Boston, rediscovering going out to eat alone, and just enjoying cooking in my own kitchen. On second thought, I'm not going to choose a favorite...

Favorite Dessert to take to a Party

Cupcakes! I can never resist the temptation to try something new for an occasion, but my method of flavoring boxed cake mixes has allowed me to play around a lot with cupcake flavors and decorations. I also happen to love how photogenic cupcakes are! "A Little More Cupcaking Around" has my favorites.

Cupcake Posts:
Cupcake Playdate
A Little More Cupcaking Around
Fall Cupcakes

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mom's Christmas Cookies

Every December, my mother's kitchen - and living room, and den, and garage - gets taken over by thousands of Christmas cookies. She works for weeks to produce these beautiful platters of cookies that get distributed to business associates, friends, neighbors, and family members; they are given out to so many people that the cookies do, indeed run out! The following are a selection of the traditional repertoire of cookies that she has built up for our family.

Santa's Whiskers cookies: Mom's grandmother's recipe. Green and red candied cherries, pecans, lots of butter, all rolled in shredded coconut. Slightly chewy with nice crispness to the edges.

Gingerbread cookies, of course! Sometimes decorated, sometimes not, but always soft and well spiced.

Pecan balls: Many call these cookies Mexican Wedding cookies, or Russian Tea Cakes, but Mom's version of these buttery, pecany balls are small and light, ready for a quick pop in the mouth. It's a good thing we have cousins who love these enough to spend hours rolling the balls by hand! The powdered sugar that we store these in at Christmas is always left over in abundance, slightly pecan-flavored and ready for sprinkling on pancakes.

Pecan bars: Anyone who loves pecan pie is a sucker for these honeyed, buttery, nutty bars - a layer of shortbread on the bottom with the gooey sugary nut layer on top.

Chocolate peanut butter bars: These require no baking, just mixing, pressing in a pan, and covering with chocolate. Amazing what magic that can come of peanut butter, powdered sugar, more butter, graham cracker crumbs, and chocolate!

Ganache Cups
: My little brother's most recent addition to our selection, and the chocolatiest of chocolate treats. He creates the cups by painting the inside of small silicone baking cups with melted chocolate, and once they are hardened, he squeezes dark chocolate ganache (which is just heavy cream with chocolate) into the middle. Beautiful and so, so rich. The next generation is already making their mark!

To those who celebrate Christmas, I wish a happy and tasty holiday!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Swiss Chard Tart

Since I've made this tart four times in the last week, I feel like I need to share it with you all. I've made it so many times not just because it has a whole wheat crust, or because it's another way to get veggies on the table, or because it's a vegetarian entrée, or to use my new tart pan, but because it tastes so good! This tart is full of unexpected flavors and textures that bring something unique to any meal.

This recipe is based on Chocolate and Zucchini's Swiss Chard Pie, but I swapped out the pizza crust for the pâte brisée in the C&Z cookbook, which I made with whole wheat flour, and I used cottage cheese instead of costlier ricotta.

First, you make the pastry 30 minutes to one day ahead of time (it can be frozen for up to three days).

Pâte brisée
1 1/3 C King Arthur white whole wheat flour (white flour if desired)
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz chilled unsalted butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Ice cold water

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour and salt, and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or a fork until the butter and flour together make a coarse texture (this may also be done in a food processor). Stir in the egg, and then mix in the water one teaspoon at a time until the pastry starts to come together and you can form a ball. Make it into a flattened ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator 10 minutes before you plan to use it. After the 10 minutes, roll it out into a circle the size of your 10-inch tart pan (with removable bottom, if possible) on a floured pastry cloth. Lay the dough over your tart pan and press it lightly around the bottom edge. Use your hands to even the edges of the dough with the pan, removing any extra dough and smoothing out the edges. Now your dough is ready for the filling.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees while you prepare the filling.

Chard filling
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 handful raisins
1 handful pine nuts, toasted
1/2 C cottage cheese or ricotta cheese

Make a cup of tea and soak the raisins in the tea.

Prepare the Swiss chard by washing the leaves and stems. Separate the leaves from the stems and chop the stems to bite-size pieces. Gradually heat the clove of garlic in 1 tsp of olive oil in a saucepan, and then add the chard stems and cook them for a few minutes. Once they start to get translucent, add the chard leaves torn up into bite-sized pieces and cook for a few more minutes until wilted. Drain the cooked chard in a colander and then squeeze out excess moisture by placing cooked chard in a clean dish towel or doubled paper towel, twisting the towel around the chard, and squeezing out as must moisture as possible (if you skip this step, the tart will be watery).

Mix the drained chard with raisins, pine nuts, and cottage cheese/ricotta. Pour the mixture into the tart crust and spread evenly. Add more cheese if you'd like the tart to be more full.

Bake in the oven for 25 minutes and let cool before serving.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mendiant Bark

Need a little last-minute holiday treat? Try this traditional French Christmas sweet that takes very little effort and time. Normally a mendiant is made as 1 1/2 inch disks of chocolate with a nut or two and a piece of dried fruit or two on top (also an easy option), but I made it into a big bar of chocolate that I broke into pieces after it hardened.

You can make this with dark chocolate, white chocolate, or any other kind of chocolate you can think of, and you can top it with any combination of dried fruits and nuts that you like. Here's my favorite version:

Mendiant Bark
12 oz. white chocolate (chips or a bar that you can cut up)
handful of dried cranberries
handful of dried apricots, diced small
a few pieces of crystalized ginger, diced small
handful of toasted sliced almonds
handful of toasted pecan bits
handful of pistachio meats

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave (no more than 30 seconds at a time, with good stirs in between) and pour out onto a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Spread as thin as you like, and proceed to sprinkle the fruits and nuts randomly and thickly over the chocolate. Crowd the toppings together and cover all open areas of chocolate so that every bite is sure to get some goodies. Make sure that all the fruits and nuts are pressed into the chocolate so that they do not fall off when you break the bark into individual pieces. Once the chocolate has hardened, use a large chef knife to break it into random-shaped pieces, or break it with your hands.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Almond and Chocolate Cake

This is for those of you who are looking for a flourless option, a lower-carb and higher fiber option, or just a plain good dessert. It has more of a cake texture than flourless chocolate cakes that are mostly made of eggs, since it uses ground almonds to replace the flour.

Almond and Chocolate Cake
From Paris in a Basket

5 oz/150 g unsweetened chocolate or 6 T cocoa
5 oz/225 g sugar (2/3 C)
7 oz/200 g butter, room temperature
10 oz/300 g ground almonds (found at Trader Joe's)
3 T flour (eliminate if you need this to be gluten free)
5 eggs, separated
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

1. Grate chocolate by hand or in a food processor (or measure cocoa). Mix with the sugar, the egg yolks, and the butter until blended and smooth.
2. Add the almonds and flour and mix well.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt, at soft peak add the baking powder and continue beating until firm. Carefully fold into the other ingredients. Do not overmix.
4. Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Rub an 8-inch pan (springform works well) with butter and sprinkle with flour. Pour the mixture into the pan, smooth even with a spatula and place in oven. Bake approximately 30 minutes or until a toothpick placed in the center of the cake comes out clean.
5. Let cool, remove from pan and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Serve with a spoonful of creme fraiche/whipped cream and/or fresh raspberries (or at least defrosted frozen fresh raspberries!) on the side.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Marshmallow Christmas Trees

After my foray into marshmallow baby rattles, I knew I could get more creative with my guimauve/marshmallow creations, so here's the newest: Marshmallow Christmas Trees.

To summarize, I made mint marshmallow and cut out three sizes of circles, which conveniently left small pointy sections that could act as the top of the tree, and glued it all together with chocolate (one of my recipes made 7 trees like this).

To give more detail, I shook green sprinkles over the marshmallow after I poured it into a pan, and after it sat overnight I cut out the shapes and rolled them in powdered sugar. After those shapes sat overnight, I dipped each piece in dark chocolate and stacked them together. They held beautifully once hardened (while melty they threatened to avalanche), a process I sped up with 30 minutes or so in the fridge.

And there you have a Suess-ical, snow-tipped Christmas tree marshmallow. As close to snow as I'm going to get in Southern California this Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


On my trip to Boston last month, I had a fabulous time at a chocolate buffet, but I also re-discovered another luxurious pleasure: taking myself out to lunch. It was my last day in town, and I still hadn't made it to Sonsie, where I'd been trying to go all week, so I decided to use my last few hours there to take myself out.

I had been there once in 2003, and still remember vividly the gingerbread waffle with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce that I had that time, so I knew I had to go back. In addition to the great food, it is located on beautiful Newbury Street, and is known as a place to see and be seen. Indeed, I saw two members of the Office cast come in while I was there for a late lunch, so that and the meal made my day!

I felt like a burger, so I got this sirloin burger with yummy pickles and fries. And I ate it very slowly, savoring each juicy bite and enjoying the peaceful table to myself. As much as dining with other people is fun, I find it quite relaxing to be able to enjoy my food without making a social occasion of it. Food is versatile, after all - it is good for a party and for your personal enjoyment!

I wasn't ready to leave after my entrée, so I ordered an espresso and this lovely Pear Hélène: a pear peeled and cored, poached in a vanilla syrup that soaked through all the pear flesh, and served with dark chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. The chocolate sauce was so good that I was scooping it up with my little coffee teaspoon when the waiters' backs were turned, trying to not embarrass myself in this nice establishment.

The wait staff were wonderful, giving me a place to set my suitcase, and letting me sit as long as I liked. I enjoyed the experience so much that I took myself out to brunch on my birthday, and it was equally fabulous. I may have to work up to going out to dinner alone, but at the present I plan to reserve breakfasts, brunches, and lunches out alone as a special treat. Take a book or just sit alone with your thoughts and the bustle of the restaurant - you'll love it!

Whole Wheat Pita Pockets

During my time in Israel I got hooked on the fresh, soft pita we had every day (with PBJ, or tuna salad, or lunchmeats, or pickles...), and the experience really made it difficult to go back to packaged pitas here in the States. So, upon my return I asked one of my bread expert friends for a pita recipe, and you see the result here! This was the third time I made them, and they finally came out with satisfactory pockets:

They may be a little funny looking on the outside, but they are soft and very stuffable. Next time you make lemon garlic hummus (or buy it, fine), try whipping up a batch of this dough. It's not hard, really! You mix it up, let it sit overnight or even more, and then shape it and bake it. The shaping takes a little longer than you expect, so take that into account. But do not be intimidated by the length of this post!

The one part I find difficult (which impeded the development of my pockets a bit) is getting the pitas onto the hot pan; I kind of end up throwing each pat of dough into the oven, praying that it does not fold over on itself when it lands. Until I get a cool tool like the Super Peel or even a simpler wooden version of a peel, or until I decide to use a piece of parchment for every pita to transfer it into the oven, I'll probably just continue throwing the pitas in the oven one at a time.

For me, the funnest part of this is that the pockets just form of their own accord - well, really, they form because the oven or pan is so hot that steam forms quickly on the inside of the bread and puffs it up all together - but it looks like magic when you don't know what's causing it. Bread is so fascinating!

So flour your hands and throw this dough together from the ingredients you know you already have; why not have fresh pitas ready for your holiday leftovers? (hm, pita with shredded turkey thigh, a little stuffing and gravy, lined with cranberry sauce, maybe some pesto...remember that idea...)

Whole Wheat Pita Pockets
From The Bread Bible

Minimum rising time: 1 hour
Oven temperature: 475 degrees or higher
Baking time: 3 minutes per pita
Makes: 12 four-inch pitas or 8 six-inch pitas

3 C and a scant 1/4 C White Whole Wheat Flour (King Arthur brand)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp instant yeast
2 T olive oil
1 1/2 C water at room temperature

Mix dough at least 1.5 hours before shaping, or up to 3 days ahead (dough will keep in the refrigerator).

If you have a stand mixer/Kitchen Aid: Place all ingredients in mixer bowl and mix on low speed with paddle attachment (speed #2 for Kitchen Aid) for about 20 seconds until flour is moistened. Change to the dough hook attachment and knead for 10 minutes at a medium speed (#4). The dough should clean the bowl and be soft and a little bit sticky to the touch. Scrape down the sides and bottom at least once during the process (turn the mixer off first!) in order to ensure that the flour on the bottom of the bowl gets incorporated. Add a little flour or water to adjust the stickiness.

If you are mixing the dough by hand: Combine all the ingredients except for the scant 1/4 cup of flour. With a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until the flour is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together. Sprinkle a little of the reserved flour on the counter and pour the dough out onto it. Knead for 5 minutes, adding as little of the remaining flour as possible to prevent sticking. Use a dough scraper to scrape and gather the dough together as you knead it. It will be very sticky. Cover the dough with the inverted bowl and let it rest for 5 to 20 minutes so that it will become less sticky. Knead the dough for another 5-10 minutes until it is soft and smooth and just a little sticky to the touch. Add a little flour or water if necessary.

After either mixing and kneading the dough by mixer or by hand, let the dough rise in a large greased bowl. Press the dough into the bowl and spray or oil the top of it. Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap. With a piece of tape, mark the side of the bowl at the height to which the dough should rise, about double the original height of the dough. Refrigerate the dough overnight or up to three days, checking every hour for the first 4 hours and pressing down if it starts to rise (I often forget to check and it turns out fine).

When you're ready to shape the dough, preheat the oven to 475 or 500 degrees one hour before baking. Have an oven shelf at the lowest level with a baking sheet, baking stone, or cast iron skillet on it to heat with the oven.

On a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 8 (for bigger) or 12 (for smaller) pieces. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp cloth. On a lightly floured counter, with lightly floured hands, shape each piece into a ball and then flatten it into a disk. Cover the dough with oiled plastic and allow it to rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Roll each disk into a circle a little under 1/4 inch thick. Allow them to rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes before baking.

To bake the pita, quickly place 1 piece of dough directly on the baking surface and bake for 3 minutes. The pita should be completely puffed but not beginning to brown. The dough will not puff well if it is not moist enough. See how the pita puffs, then, if necessary, spray and knead each remaining piece with water until the dough is soft and moist; allow to rest again and reroll as before (but even if they don't puff they taste great). Proceed with the remaining dough, baking 3 or 4 pieces at a time if using a baking stone or sheet. Using a pancake turner, transfer the pita breads to a clean towel, to stay soft and warm. Allow the oven to reheat for 5 minutes between batches. The pitas can be reheated for about 30 seconds in a hot oven before serving.

To cook the pitas on the stovetop, preheat a griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the surface and cook the pitas one at a time. Cook for about 20 seconds, then turn the dough and continue cooking for 1 minute or until big bubbles appear. Turn the dough again and cook until the dough balloons. If the dough begins to brown, lower the heat. The entire cooking process for each pita should be about 3 minutes.

Both oven-baking and stovetop cooking are easy, so take your pick!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Boston Chocolate Buffet

Because it is Thanksgiving, I feel obligated to say something about thankfulness and American forefathers, so I will say that just up the coast from Plymouth rock (in Boston), I found something that I was tremendously thankful for: a CHOCOLATE BUFFET. The Langham Hotel's Café Fleuri has a chocolate buffet on Saturday afternoons September through June, $40 per person, and it is completely worth it. The friend I went with told me that this was something she wants to do before she dies, but I would seriously consider going back again.

There was a surprising number of kid birthday parties in the restaurant, and an array of packaged Tootsie Rolls, Hershey's Kisses, and other candies to cater to them, but here are photos of the endless grown up options.

The photo above is the "Wicked" hot chocolate, one of two hot chocolate options with handmade marshmallows; this hot chocolate was quite rich, with a touch of Grand Marnier.

A crêpe bar provided freshly made chocolate crêpes: chocolate batter, and your choice of various chocolate, candy, and fruit fillings, with crème anglaise or whipped cream to top it.

Beautiful little sweets proliferated: an Oreo with a hat of mint cream, a glass of chocolate quinoa pudding and raspberry jam, and milk chocolate caramel layered cake.

We filled our plates with random goodness (clockwise from upper left): salted chocolate caramel, mini whoopie pie, chocolate madeleine, carrot cake with white chocolate icing, cannolli tipped with pistachio, chocolate pecan tart, pink and white cookie, chocolate coconut mound, and a chocolate fondu-dipped marshmallow.

An elegant and subtle Boston cream pie.

Stacks of cannollis!

Macarons! I may have tucked a few of these into my purse: pistachio with chocolate filling (a bit too crisp on the outside) and raspberry (quite good!)

Not chocolate, but very pretty: thick tapioca with fresh blueberries.

Needless to say, I only had one bite of each thing, and worked hard at taking my time to eat things slowly and space them out with coffee. All the staff working there were extremely helpful and in good spirits; who wouldn't be in good spirits at a chocolate buffet? It was a decadent, beautiful experience.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election cake!

On this exciting day for America, I had to make my first patriotic cake! It's half blue and half red to remain bipartisan, but the blue side did get eaten first in honor of our next president. And yes, there are fifty stars. Recipe to come later - a layer of homemade chocolate cake and a layer of white cake, filled in the middle with buttercream frosting, fudge, and crushed Oreos...I should probably go eat another piece...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Happy Foodie Halloween!

While I still enjoy candy corn on occasion, my current inclinations took me back to Euro Pane for a little "trick or treat"-ing. I had some real food for lunch first: the best ham and cheese sandwich I've ever had, pictured above (sorry, non-pork eating friends). On wonderfully crusted, buttered bread, a crème fraîche-like sauce supported thick and tasty slices of ham, under cheese deemed "good fromage" by my Swiss friend. And fresh herbs sprinkled on to boot!

As a sweet finish to the meal, I bought some of the gourmet marshmallows they carry; these are the heaviest and hugest (and most expensive) marshmallows I've ever seen! Each marshmallow is about 2x2 inches, coated in granulated sugar, and made with corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, and vanilla.

Nice texture, soft and chewy; the corn syrup must help make this texture more similar to store-bought jet puff marshmallows than mine are. The egg whites in my marshmallows also make them much lighter. But I loved these mallowy mouthfuls!

And of course, the best macarons in L.A.! That I've tried thus far, that is. Pistachio, caramel au fleur de sel, and espresso with ganache filling. I only tried the caramel last time, so I took the espresso this time and gave the others to my friends. I'm learning to be more generous with my macarons...

I was actually pleased to see that these were delicate enough to get smooshed a bit in the bag. As my previous posts reveal, some are just so firm that they are not reminiscent of meringue; these have the crust on the outside, but are soft and light and chewy on the inside. No tricks here - a "treat" indeed!

Friday, October 31, 2008

White Bean, Bacon, and Spinach Soup

And now, as promised, a hearty and healthy fall soup. I love soups for a variety of reasons; they are a simple, filling, flavorful meal that can be made healthy without losing flavor and comfort. Healthy in this case can mean low-fat, low-carb, high-fiber, and high-protein; it is so easy to incorporate legumes and vegetables that you almost don't notice it (although I would not have agreed with that statement as a child...).

This white-bean soup is a riff on the America's Test Kitchen cannellini bean soup recipe; I replaced the bacon with turkey bacon but doubled the amount, reduced the chicken stock to make it heartier, replaced the dried beans with canned beans to speed up the process, and added spinach to up the veggie count. The turkey bacon gives it a wonderful smokiness, and the beans and veggies make it so filling that you don't need cream to fill it out. Note: fiber in the beans, onions, and spinach, protein in the beans and bacon, low-fat, and all sorts of health benefits from the legumes, spinach, and even the garlic.

It's easy to have most of these ingredients in your kitchen at any given moment, so stock up on your next trip to the store and make this when you're at a loss for a simple good meal.

White Bean, Bacon, and Spinach Soup

16 oz. turkey bacon (one package)
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
4 C chicken stock
2 cans white beans (also called cannellini beans)
2 C fresh baby spinach leaves (or more if you like!)

1. Cut the turkey bacon into strips that you'll sprinkle on top later; brown it until crisp in a dutch oven pot. Place the turkey bacon on paper towels and leave any remaining grease in the pot.
2. Dice the onion and sauté it in the pot. Add a tablespoon of olive oil if the onion is sticking to the pot. When the onion is soft, throw the whole cloves of garlic into the pot (with the loose outside skin removed) for 30 seconds.
3. Add the chicken stock and beans and simmer covered for 10-20 minutes until beans are heated and flavorful.
4. Scoop the garlic out of the soup, crush each clove with the flat of a chef knife, remove the clove skin, and finely chop the garlic meat. Return the chopped garlic to the pot.
5. Add the spinach to the pot and continue cooking over medium heat until the spinach has withered and reduced.
6. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve with turkey bacon strips on top.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Kitchen Aid!

Here she is: my happy new 5-Quart Kitchen Aid! She has produced a number of the recipes I've posted since August, so she is well-inaugurated by now. This was a once-used Craig's List find that my parents agreed to make my big birthday gift...and I even get to enjoy it early.

I love the color, since it doesn't show the dust as much as others (i.e. black) and it's got a bit of texture to it. But most of all, of course, it makes baking so much easier (as referenced in this earlier post). See the lovely buttercream frosting in the bowl! I have yet to make my first batch of marshmallows in it, but that will bond us for life.

Just wanted to share this important addition to my kitchen!

Fall Cupcakes

Since I'm taking forever to write this post, I decided to just post the pictures without the full recipes, but you've got the idea from my previous cupcake posts: make a white cake mix and add flavors, decorate with buttercream or cream cheese frosting tinted with complementary flavors and colors!

Here we go:

These are the vanilla bean brandy and mint chip cupcakes. As you might guess, the former are flavored with the seeds of a vanilla bean and a small touch of brandy, and the latter were given a light touch of mint extract and sprinkled with dark chocolate chunks (and green food coloring reminiscent of the ice cream!).

On the left are the caramelized apple cupcakes, which are based on a Tarte Tatin idea; I caramelized an apple, puréed it, and mixed some in with the batter. Then I made some brown sugar caramel and coated the bottom of each cupcake liner with the caramel and poured the batter in on it. They stuck fantastically to the pan, so greasing it would have been good, but in the end I was able to peel the paper off each cupcake and turned them over into new liners, as pictured here. Since a Tarte Tatin is an upside-down cake, I thought it would be appropriate...and I added more caramel on top for good measure. On the right are pumpkin spice cupcakes, to which I added spices based on my family pumpkin pie recipe, plus some pumpkin purée. Both of these cupcakes were moister than the others because of the fruit purées, and the others were lighter.

Mint chocolate chip, topped with chocolate buttercream that had just a hint of mint extract (the stuff is strong, so be careful!) and dark chocolate chunks.

Pumpkin spice, swirled on top with cream cheese frosting that had a bit of the pumkin pie spice in it (see the flecks?), and an abstract pumpkin piped on with a few green sprinkles to insinuate a stem. The pumpkin decoration is a bit too abstract, since people still had to ask what the flavor was, but I still think it's cute.

I kept the vanilla bean decoration simple, adding more vanilla bean seeds to the buttercream, but again included brandy to keep a thematic kick to the cupcake.

And, finally, the caramelized apple took a squiggly dollop of cream cheese frosting on top, with more brown sugar caramel mixed in.

I've just learned that there is a book out there called The Cake Mix Doctor which basically does what I've been doing with these cupcakes - it tells you how to start with a cake mix and flavor it up in all sorts of ways. This reinforces for me the fact that cake mixes are fairly fool proof; you can do a lot to them and they'll still turn out great!

I've added fruit purées of varying densities, extracts, cocoa powder, coffee, caramel, fruit juice, spices, sprinkles, dried fruit, Oreos, coconut, nuts, honey, almond paste, and candy (i.e., all manner of liquids, fats, and sugars!) and every one has been a success. As my mom says, cake mixes are full of stabilizers that home cooks don't have access to for cakes from scratch, which means that cakes from scratch can be pretty difficult to get right (something I personally have proven with a number of dense, heavy cakes). It takes mastering a number of correct techniques in order to get a good scratch cake.

So, don't feel bad if you rely on cake mixes! Why not use a fool-proof method of achieving a moist and well-textured cake? Just get creative by doctoring the batter up a bit to satisfy your inner food artist. And make sure to use homemade frosting, since that part is super easy and makes an immeasurable difference in the final product.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whole Grain Beer Bread

I've continued to make beer bread on almost a weekly basis, so this past week I decided to try it with some whole grains in place of the flour, and it worked famously! It has also turned out very well with all whole wheat flour. Here's an even healthier upgrade for this super-easy bread:

In place of the 3 C of flour, use 2 1/3 C whole wheat flour, 1/3 C wheat bran, and 1/3 C ground flax seed. Replace the bran or flax seed with other grains at will; I tried out oats.

It may be a bit more crumbly this way, but it's still moist and hearty. I may even try upping the ratio of whole grains to flour, so we'll see how high I can go before the integrity of the bread is compromised...

On another note, I also tried this with a different kind of beer - Bud Light - and could taste the different tenor of the beer in the bread, but it still tasted great.

I'll start posting on soups soon to welcome in the fall weather, so you can keep this bread in mind to accompany some comforting soup.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Almond Puff Loaf

At the request of my mother, I am posting this professional-looking, EASY pastry. It is a light, buttery, just sweet enough puff loaf, great for brunches, teas, desserts...and culinary experimentation. I've already got changes planned for the next time I make it, but here's the recipe from the last time I made it, which was a hit with the family. Since there are only a few ingredients, which you probably already have in your kitchen, I suggest you keep this recipe on reserve for unexpected guests!

Almond Puff Loaf (from the King Arthur Flour website):

First Layer:
1/2 C (1 stick) butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
if using unsalted butter, add 1/4 tsp. salt
1 C flour
1/4 C water

Second Layer:
1 C water
1/2 C (1 stick) butter
if using unsalted butter, add 1/4 tsp. salt
1 C flour
3 large eggs at room temperature (or warm in hot tap water for 10 minutes)
1 tsp. almond extract

2/3 C jam or preserves (try apricot or raspberry)
1/2-2/3 C slivered or sliced toasted almonds

1/2 C powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
~ 4 tsp. milk or water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

First layer: In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the butter, flour, and salt, working the butter into the flour with a pastry blender or fork, your fingers, or a mixer. Mix until everything is crumbly, then stir in the water. The dough will become cohesive, though not smooth.

Divide the dough in half; if you're using a scale, each half will weigh about 4 5/8 ounces. Wet your hands, and shape each piece of this wet dough into a rough log. Grease a baking sheet or sheets that'll allow you to stretch and pat the logs into 11 x 3-inch rectangles on the sheet, leaving at least 4 inches between them, and 2 inches on each side. These will puff up in the oven.

Second layer: In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the water and butter to a boil. Stir until the butter melts, then add the flour and salt all at once. Stir the mixture with a spoon until it thickens, begins to steam, and leaves the sides of the pan; this will happen very quickly. Transfer the dough to a mixing bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat it at medium speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute, just to cool it down a bit.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; beat until the dough loses its "slimy" look, and each egg is totally absorbed. This is very similar to pâte à choux (dough you would use for cream puffs and eclairs). Mix in the almond extract.

*see below for optional step to insert here.

Divide the batter in half. Spread half the batter over one of the dough strips on the pan, covering it completely. Repeat with the remaining batter and dough. With a spatula or your wet fingers, spread the batter until it completely covers the entire bottom layer of dough. Smooth it out as best you can.

Bake the pastry for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until it's a deep golden brown. Remove it from the oven, and transfer each pastry to a wire rack (a giant spatula works well here).

Topping: Spread each warm pastry with about 1/3 C of jam or preserves. Sprinkle the toasted almonds on top of the jam. By this time the puffed pastries will start to sink, as they are supposed to.

Icing: Stir together the sugar, vanilla, and enough milk or water to form a thick but "drizzlable" icing. Drizzle the icing atop the pastries. My icing was a bit too thin, so it formed pools on top of the pastry rather than nice neat lines. Cut into squares or strips to serve.

*Next time, I'm going to try adding a layer of almond paste, beaten with a bit of sugar to soften it up, between the layers of dough. I'm thinking it will make a fabulous almond pastry!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chocolate Saloning

For the past few years I've wanted to go to this huge chocolate salon (i.e., convention) that is in Paris every October; by all reports everything you could possibly want in chocolate is available, there, in chocolate (think wearable dresses, antique chocolatières, and lots of samples!). Plus it's called a "salon" which is reminiscent of intellectually stimulating social events in 18th century France. These historical salons, in my mind, are always hosted by beautiful and accomplished women who are wowing their guests with their abilities to provide excellent and creative food and well-educated conversation - nourishing body and mind. Who wouldn't want to go to a Chocolate Salon?

While I haven't made it to the Paris salon yet, I did manage to get to a much smaller-scale chocolate salon in Pasadena this past Sunday. I thought it was well worth the time and money; $17.50 for a pre-purchased ticket got me access to a large room lined all around with tables representing various chocolatiers, each offering samples ranging from slivers of chocolate bars to whole ganache squares like those pictured above. After once around the room, I had eaten just the right amount of chocolate - satisfied but not sickenly stuffed.

A few highlights: the silk-screened artisan chocolates pictured here, offered in flavors from chili pepper to jelly doughnut and each patterned differently; a haunted house built from modeling chocolate and other kinds of edible decorations; chocolate liqueur made from vodka, Dutch cocoa, and cream (great for desserts or chocolate martinis!); and, not least, some marvelous gourmet marshmallows which we were allowed to roast ourselves (some of the best I've had, made with kosher gelatin).

I purchased the box of silk-screened chocolates after sampling the wares (rather than gathering up the samples in Tupperwares like I saw some people doing...); at $6 for this box, I thought it was actually a good deal, although an unpredictable assortment of flavors. I shared one from the box with my grandmother, who graciously exchanged this little chocolate rat for it (left from Chinese New Year chocolates which each represented one of the Chinese horoscope animals):

I'm now busy scheming about my next chocolate AND marshmallow creation!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Oktoberfesting: Bee Sting Cake

I'm not going to find as much time to cook and post in the next few months, but I wanted to get this up here real quick. I made this Bee Sting cake for a spur-of-the-moment Oktoberfest meal this past weekend, and it was thoroughly enjoyed. I found the recipe simply by Googling Oktoberfest, so I was glad that this random internet recipe turned out so well.

According to this website, "the cake is called 'bee sting' as it is thought that a bee was attracted to the honey topping on the cake, and that the baker who invented the cake was stung." Who knows if that's true, but it's a cute story! The topping of the cake is indeed the best part; almonds in syrup are baked on top of the cake, so that it forms a lovely crackly, sugary crust. There is no need for frosting with that decadent topping and custard in the middle, although a little whipped cream on the side never hurts. In spite of the sugary topping, it is not an overly sweet cake, and the custard is barely sweet at all. Take with tea or coffee, and you'll think that you should have German food more often.

This does produce a fair amount of dirty dishes in order to get the final result, but trust me, it's worth it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Boule: Another macaron attempt

Working my way through this list of places to get macarons in L.A., I finally made it to Boule. I only purchased three flavors here, after having purchased a whole box at Paulette; I realized that it was a risk to buy macarons at a new place, and at $2 per cookie, I felt it prudent to spend less than $10. Yes, prudence applied to a decadent purchase!

I feel that I was wise to choose just these three; I enjoyed the fresh flavors of the rose, caramel, and pistachio, and the colors were much more natural than Paulette. The rose is topped with a sugared piece of rose petal, the caramel was an interesting burnt sugar flavor, and the pistachio was nice.

The delicate macaron texture, however, was lacking. I'm afraid I'll sound picky and pretentious, but these were disappointing. Not as bad as the super chewy ones I had at Paulette, just a little too stiff. I wish I had taken a picture of one after I had taken a bite of it, because a profile shot would show what exactly was disappointing about it: once bitten, the outer layer of cookie remained firm in shape while the inner portion of the cookie sort of collapsed around the filling - imagine a pocket of air under a thin shell on the outside. I can't help but contrast these to those I purchased at Pierre Hermé; PH's macarons were so tender and delicate that they got crushed just a bit when I carried them in a bag for about 10 minutes, while Boule's were in a bag for even longer but didn't have a single dent in them (see above). To me, that is a sign of an overly stiff macaron. What is the point of buying the most delicate cookie in existence if it's not delicate?

So, my favorite L.A. macaron remains that from Europane, with the macaron ice cream sandwiches at Milk a close second. Then again, I'm no expert, so try it yourself and tell me what you think!

408 La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(alternate location in Beverly Hills)