Sunday, July 27, 2008

SaucyScheming: Sesame Peanut Sauce

One of the things I most enjoy about developing cooking skills is having the ability to tailor good foods to various needs and preferences. I've got lactose-free alternatives for myself, low-saturated-fat options for those watching cholesterol, vegetarian recipes and locales, sugar-free opportunities, gluten-free baking, kosher dishes - and I'm sure the list will continue to grow. I'm on a long-term quest to understand how foods work so that I can create tasty and visually pleasing food experiences that hopefully remain faithful to the qualities of the natural foods AND permit my friends to forget that they are having to eat carefully. Not everything I make is healthy, of course, but I'm shooting for a good mix of healthy and decadent!

This sesame peanut sauce is one that I see fitting all the categories above: no dairy, no gluten, no sugar if desired, vegetarian (vegan, even!), low-fat - and VERY tasty! It is versatile; I put it on a noodle dish and on a stir fry, but it could be thinned or thickened to be a dipping sauce for tofu, a marinade for chicken, or whatever else you want it to be. It's easy to halve or double, and once you have the ingredients on hand you may want to make it regularly (as I did this past week). I discovered this recipe in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, a much-loved book full of quality basic recipes and cooking techniques, including reviews of food brands and cookwares that go along with the recipes. Costco is a great source for these cookbooks, so keep an eye out for them whenever you're there.

All you need is a food processor or blender and you're set to go:

Sesame Peanut Sauce (from Cold Sesame Noodles recipe in ATKFC, p. 78)

5 T sesame seeds
5 T soy sauce (sub. light soy sauce to reduce sodium)
1/4 C chunky or creamy peanut butter (sub. Better than Peanut Butter to reduce fat)
2 T rice vinegar
2 T light brown sugar or Splenda brown sugar
1 T grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp Tabasco
1/2 C hot water

Toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring, until golden and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Purée the sesame seeds with the soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic, and Tabasco in blender or food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, add the hot water, 1 T at a time, until the sauce has the consistency you desire (you may not need all the water).

Euro Pane: Mmmmacarons!

As a little girl I loved a book called Take Tarts as Tarts is Passing, in which two brothers are advised to live their lives according to the axiom "take tarts as tarts is passing"; one brother interprets the phrase literally and grabs tarts and eats them any time he sees them, while the second brother takes the advice metaphorically and tries to take every economic opportunity that comes his way and work it to his advantage. I feel like I have been living my life like the first brother recently; I have been taking macarons as macarons is passing, and they've passed by twice this week!

This time my path brought me to Euro Pane Bakery in Pasadena (okay, fine, I slightly detoured my path to bring me this way), a place I've heard much about and have been meaning to try for some time. I already knew that I was going to choose a macaron to try, and when I heard the flavors there, I knew I had to choose the caramel with fleur de sel. The other macarons included hazelnut, pistachio, and orange, of which the pistachio was most tempting, but my recent caramel au fleur de sel marshmallows have me on a salty-sweet bent. I had to ignore some hand-made marshmallows at EuroPane this time, but I shall return for them another day.

I really enjoyed the flavor of the caramel with the fleur de sel, the cream in the middle was lickalicious, and the cookie retained a lightness in the midst of its chewiness that reminded me that I was, indeed, eating a macaron.

At the end of Take Tarts as Tarts is Passing, it is the brother who interprets the advice literally and eats tarts as they pass who is the happy brother - he has chosen to live life to the fullest by taking joy in the things that cross his path, rather than trying to force life to serve his purposes. A simple lesson, perhaps, but one which has brought me joy this week!

Ready to take tarts as tarts is passing?

Euro Pane Bakery
950 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91106

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Flourless Orange Ginger Cake Edged in Chocolate

For some reason this Flourless Orange Ginger Cake recipe jumped out at me this week; I was just scanning the dessert recipes on my favorite food blog, and remembered how it once appealed to me at a time when I did not have 2 hours to boil oranges. I've enjoyed baking other flourless cakes this year, including a chocolate almond cake that was marvelous with raspberries and crème fraîche, so I was eager to see how this would go.

Unlike some flourless chocolate cakes whose content is mostly eggs, this (and the previously mentioned chocolate almond cake) is built with ground almonds. A friend pointed out to me that this makes for an expensive cake, but I will point out that is also makes a fabulous cake texture in the right recipe. Trader Joe's ground almond packages are probably the most affordable and easily accessible option for this; I stock up whenever I can, since sometimes the stores are out of them. Some recipes that call for almond meal or ground almonds need a fairly fine grind, so TJ's ground almonds would need to be passed through a food processor prior to using them in those recipes, but for these cakes the rougher grind has been fine. On the same note of pricey-ness, these cakes also tend to be denser and richer than traditional American cakes, so a smaller amount can serve more people since you will want to cut smaller pieces to serve.

After finding an occasion that would serve as an excuse for baking, I followed Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe pretty closely (but not perfectly, of course!). When it came to the icing, I didn't have a whole lemon, nor pearl sugar. I did have some frozen lemon juice, so I stirred some raw sugar into the defrosted juice and spooned it over the finished cake while it was still warm. I added some extra orange zest on top, which was in big enough pieces to add a bit of texture to the top surface. The last change I made was add dark chocolate edging to the cake; to be completely truthful, I was afraid the edge of the cake was a little too browned, so I cut the browned edge off all the way around and then painted the open edge with chocolate. Since I had already planned on pairing chocolate in some way with the cake, this worked out well! This was a good proportion of chocolate to orange, so that the orange/ginger was not overwhelmed by chocolate.

The result received very good reviews from the tasters, and I myself very much enjoyed eating the cake. It was incredibly moist due to the whole puréed cooked oranges that were mixed in, the fresh and candied ginger bits were a great compliment to the orange, and the chocolate was wonderful with the things I added to it (see below). It also traveled quite well - another benefit of smaller cakes without damage-able icing. It should be stored in the refrigerator wrapped tightly in plastic to preserve the moistness.

Chocolate Edging
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, broken into bits if bar chocolate
2 tsp. orange zest
1 T butter
optional: 1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger

Microwave on high for 30 seconds in a bowl; stir well, and return to microwave for another 30 seconds if necessary to melt completely. Spoon mixture onto the edge of the cake and let solidify either at room temperature or in the refrigerator if in a hurry. May also be used to decorate the top surface of the cake.

Paulette: Life is like this box of macarons

My macaron destiny placed me a few mere blocks from another macaron bakery on the list of places in L.A. that make them, so I gave in to fate and made the pilgrimage to Paulette in Beverly Hills.  Reviews online by fans of French macarons were mostly negative, but I needed to see for myself how this bakery devoted exclusively to macarons would be.

Walking in the door, the sterilely modern white room simply housed a glass counter lined with 14 flavors of the cookies.  I ended up purchasing a box of 13 of the flavors, since I had a friend to help me eat them; I wanted only 12, but the lady threw in one for free since the box needed a 13th to keep them from moving around too much in the box while traveling.  At $18 for the box, I was fine with getting one free!

The one flavor I didn't get was peach; the rest were violet cassis, chocolate, chocolate coconut, vanilla, strawberry, lemon, coffee, raspberry rose, almond dragée, pistachio, caramel pecan, praline, and Earl Grey.  Varied offerings, and as it turned out, varied quality.  I was glad that I got as many as I did in order to sample the variety.

The first ones we ate were very, very chewy - not what one expects with what should be a light, airy bite of macaron.  My friend said that the chocolate one was like a brownie, and the praline I had was similar in texture.  The raspberry rose I took, however, was much lighter, and I enjoyed the rose flavoring.  Still, as we worked our way through the box, more chewy ones arose - caramel pecan, violet cassis, and vanilla - with some semi-chewy ones mixed in - pistachio and coffee (lest we sound like gluttons, this was over a period of time, and my friend only had 2...).  The most disappointing were the strawberry and lemon; the flavors were not very apparent at all (have they heard of lemon zest?).  I think my favorites in both texture and flavor were the chocolate coconut, raspberry rose, almond dragée, and the Earl Grey, to my surprise.

I think the most disappointing aspect of this experience for me was the inconsistency of the goods; it almost seems like they just haven't spent enough time working out how to make a quality cookie with each of their flavor recipes, and that seems irresponsible to me considering that they only make macarons.  Who knows if the same flavors are regularly better than others, or if the quality completely depends on the batch.  I agree with some of the online reviews that criticize the lack of flavor in the macarons, since about half of them could have been much improved in that regard. Others of the reviewers felt strongly that the cookies were far too sweet, which is something I admittedly am not very sensitive to: I have a high tolerance for very sweet baked goods.  I think the chewiness was the greatest downfall, however - by definition a macaron should not be thickly chewy as these were; it completely removed the idea that these are to be delicate and subtle vehicles of flavor with light but complex texture.

In the end, even though I enjoyed a few of these expensive treats, the experience was like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: I never knew what I was going to get.  This is certainly not the end of my quest for good macarons in L.A.!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oven-Roasted Cauliflower and Chicken Salad

Now that Bastille Day is over, I feel free to eat healthfully (until the next excuse not to!) so I am returning to the idea of a cauliflower/chicken salad.    This idea originated with a potato salad on a cooking show I saw on TV last weekend; I cannot remember the name of the show to give proper credit, but I've changed it significantly enough that all I've gleaned from that show are the cooking methods and a few ingredients.  

In the name of reducing refined carbs and fat and increasing the proportion of vegetables, I replaced the potatoes with cauliflower, used turkey bacon instead of full fat pork bacon, and added shredded broccoli and two kinds of onions for crunch.  This gives us a fiber- and protein-packed salad that tastes great.

The thing I get excited about with this recipe is the infusion of flavors - the variety of complimentary flavors and the variety of healthy and effective means to infuse them.  The chicken is poached with fresh herbs and spices, the cauliflower is roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and onions, and the pan-fried turkey bacon adds smokiness.  All this mixed with fresh green onions, thyme, and minced garlic gives you an aromatic salad that doesn't even need mayonnaise and mustard unless you're looking for something creamy.

This is easy to put together in 30 minutes or so, so here's the how-to's:

Oven-Roasted Cauliflower and Chicken Salad

2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
24 oz. cauliflower florets
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
5 slices turkey bacon
6 oz. packaged broccoli slaw
2 green onions, chopped
7-10 bunches of fresh thyme
2 small cloves or 1 large clove garlic, minced or pressed
2 bay leaves
black peppercorns
olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper for oven roasting
optional: low-fat or fat-free mayonnaise and yellow mustard to taste, approx. equal parts each

Step 1:  Poaching the Chicken
Before preparing the chicken, preheat the oven to 500 degrees with a rack in the middle of the oven.  Place both chicken breasts in a sauce pan and sprinkle several peppercorns, the 2 bay leaves, and 2-3 bunches of thyme over both breasts.  Cover the chicken with water, place a lid on the pan, and set over medium-high heat on the stove.  Start step 2 while chicken is poaching.  Chicken should be cooked through after about 15 minutes; cut into one of the breasts to make sure they are cooked completely.  Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

Step 2: Roasting the Cauliflower
Using a baking pan with low sides, cover the pan with heavy duty aluminum foil.  Spread the cauliflower florets and 1/2 chopped yellow onion on the foil, cutting the larger florets into bite-sized pieces.  Once the salad is assembled you will want the chicken and the cauliflower pieces to be of similar size.  Sprinkle the cauliflower liberally with olive oil, which will permit it to brown well, and with sea salt and black pepper.  Roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes, checking for your preference of tenderness.  Set aside to cool while you prepare the remaining ingredients.  
Side note: This method of roasting vegetables results in a great easy side dish on its own! Cooking times will vary from 5-15 minutes depending on the kind of vegetable and desired tenderness.

Step 3: Assembling the Salad
Heat up a frying pan and brown the slices of turkey bacon on each side.  Slice up the bacon into small bits.  Cut the chicken breasts in bite-sized chunks.  In a large mixing bowl, combine bacon, broccoli slaw, chopped green onions, minced garlic, chicken chunks, cauliflower and yellow onions, and thyme leaves stripped off 5-7 thyme bunches.  Stir well.  Add mayonnaise and mustard to taste if desired.

Serve alone, in lettuce wraps, or in pita halves and enjoy!

(without mayo and mustard)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Fourteenth of July!

Instead of cooking myself a healthy dinner tonight, I decided to celebrate Bastille Day (it's not the 14th of July every day, is it?) by searching out my newly favorite French delicacy: the macaron.  Starting with this list that a friend passed to me, I picked out the one place open late enough to fit my schedule and headed out through some slightly snooty neighborhoods* to find it.

I came upon Milk in an area with fancy synagogues sprinkled amongst funky shops and restaurants - and incidentally a few blocks from the CBS studio where Dancing with the Stars is filmed**.  I quickly found parking on the street next to it and headed in with items from the online menu in mind.

This was not going to be the pure macaron experience - the list of macaron places notes that Milk only uses macarons to make ice cream sandwiches - but I figured this new incarnation would mitigate any potential disappointment with the macarons themselves.  All the reviews online make it sound like the macaron situation in L.A. is pitiful, so this seemed a good way to ease in.

They were beautiful in the ice cream case, stacked in their varying flavors and colors; the green macarons with pink watermelon ice cream and chocolate chips in the middle looked the most interesting, but I opted for a coffee/toffee sandwich and a vanilla bean one dipped half in chocolate.  I also purchased the pain au chocolat pictured above to have a loyally French choice in hand (whose chocolate, by the way, was fabulous).  There were no madeleines available today, even though they were listed on the website, and I was sorely tempted to say to the cashier girl, "Did you know that today is Bastille Day?  It would be a good day to have madeleines."

In the end, I was glad that I did not say anything, because she very kindly asked if I was taking the ice cream sandwiches far (which I was) and then offered to place them on ice to keep them cold.  She then inserted a reusable little ice pack in the carry-out bag, and carefully stapled closed a bag around each of the sandwiches and inserted them over the ice pack.  "They'll keep better this way," she told me.

And indeed, upon my return home 20 minutes later, they were in perfect condition to eat: slightly melty, so you could cleanly sweep your tongue around the ice cream sides and come away with heavenly ice cream in your mouth.  The macarons - which I could not resist tasting just a little bit immediately outside the store - were a bit stiff when straight out of the freezer, but by the time I got home, they were wonderfully chewy and just solid enough to hold things together.  If it had not been for the picture-taking process, they would have been just right when I ate them, but as it was, I had to endure a bit more meltiness for the sake of this blog:

So, instead of cauliflower-chicken breast salad tonight, I had macaron ice cream sandwiches for dinner.  And they were wonderful.  In terms of lactose pill worthiness, they get a 5 out of 5.  
The End.

*Places like Beverly Hills and Bel Air crack me up; when I drive through there it seems like there are obvious signs every few blocks declaring that you are in that city.  Not so much the subtle, private upscale neighborhoods - more the in-your-face proud to be upscale kind of places!  ALL the macaron places are there, go figure.
**A show which I may have seen filmed twice in the last year and a half, and yes, it is a CBS studio, even though it airs on ABC.  Sorry if you thought it was a real ballroom.  

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Amazing Gelatin Sheets

I had to share more photos of the gelatin sheets in their different incarnations, mostly because they are fascinating to me, but also to be helpful to anyone else who wants to work with them. When I read about them online, I had a hard time picturing how something in "sheet" form could be softened yet still retain enough shape to be squeezed out.  It's still somewhat of a miracle to me (which is why I'm still fascinated...), but here's a small bit of the mystery revealed.

Above we have 7 sheets after they've been soaking in water for about 10 minutes. 
Pretty, non?

And here is their lovely profile.  I love how those ripples form on the lines that were dotted across the dry sheets diagonally.

Getting squeezed out.  This time they were not like Chinese jellyfish appetizer because I soaked them longer and they got softer.

One of the guimauve steps, where the softened and squeezed-out gelatin sheets are added to the syrup of agave nectar, sugar, and water.  It foams up quite nicely when stirred, and then settles down as it dissolves.  

This batch resulted in the best marshmallows ever: caramel and orange blossom.  The caramel guimauves had fleur de sel and brown sugar sprinkled on them, and the orange blossom ones had orange blossom water in them, with granulated sugar and orange zest on the outside. Beautiful and delicious, especially dipped in chocolate!  Definitely my new favorites...until the next batch.