Friday, August 29, 2008

Bulgarini Gelato: Altadena's Best-Kept Secret

All the reviews will tell you the same thing: Bulgarini Gelato is as out-of-the-way as an ice cream store can get, but also the best gelato you can get in L.A.!

Since it seems that I'm making my way there about once a week, I figured I should write about it, although I could just keep the secret to myself...but I'm not feeling that cruel today.

As you can see on their website, they use the real, old-world method of making gelato, resulting in thick, creamy confection with the freshest of flavors. The first time I went there, there were Italians sitting at the next table over who said that this stuff is better than what you often get in Italy, since gelato places there are even starting to use mixes.

While the shopping center in which Bulgarini is located appears to be somewhat run-down, the corner with the gelato shop is set back from the parking lot, cozy and comfortable. The shop is just big enough to serve the ice cream to the steady stream of customers, and out front there are rustic wooden tables and chairs under quaint umbrellas.

Pistachio is by far their most popular flavor, as I confirmed when I found that they had run out of it the first time I was there. The flavors vary by what is freshly available that day, which makes it fun to sample new things each time (generously given out with smiles) before settling on one's selection. If you get a small, you can choose up to 3 flavors in your cup, and up to 4 in a medium, so they happily accommodate the indecisive and the combination-lover. Come to think of it, I am both of those - I never want to limit myself by choosing just one out of many fabulous options, and I revel in trying flavors together, so this works well for me!

This last time, strawberry and pistachio hit it off together in my mouth (new marshmallow flavor, perhaps?) as the softly sweet berry sang in harmony with the ultra-nutty pistachio. I had also gotten almond (see, I had to get 3 flavors), which was so packed full of almonds that I almost felt like I was eating almond butter. Between the natural flavors and reusable cups (remember to throw them in the cup bin inside), this is a somewhat green option, too. Not your average ice cream joint!

Bulgarini Gelato
749 E. Altadena Drive
Altadena, CA 91001

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lemon Garlic Hummus

A lot of people ask me if hummus is difficult to make, and what it is made of, so I say here to all of you: it is easy, and it is made of yummy ingredients. I love hummus because I enjoy its flavors and texture, but I also like that it is a healthy snack since it is high in fiber and protein while low in fat. If you find that it doesn't immediately appeal to you, try it in its homemade incarnation - good hummus had to grow on me over time, and now I can't get enough of it. Either as part of a Mediterranean spread or on its own, you can easily find ways to give this a home in your cooking repertoire. So here's what you need to make it yourself!

Lemon Garlic Hummus
Recipe adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Pictured above in upper right (tabbouleh on the left, chermoula on the bottom)

2 C canned chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained, liquid reserved
1/3 C tahini sauce
4 T lemon juice (1-2 lemons)
zest of one lemon
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 T liquid from chickpea cans, or water
8 dashes Tabasco
1 1/2 tsp. salt (sea salt if possible)

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. May be altered to include other ingredients to taste, including olives, bell peppers, and more. Serve chilled or room temperature with pita, veggies, crackers, etc.

A friend of mine has discovered a method to the ultimate smooth hummus which involves mixing the ingredients in an order that emulsifies the liquids, so I may feature that discovery at some point.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer Heat at Jazz Cat Café

I am lucky enough to have friends who introduce me to new and wonderful fooding excursions; one of the more unique outings I've taken this summer was to Jazz Cat Café, a stylin' modern Taiwanese hotpot restaurant. As with other hotpot places, a meal at Jazz Cat is one you get to cook yourself, but the food provided in the meals is a plentiful spread of all manner of good things, and each person has her own personal pot.

At a table of ten, those of us in the middle of the table were sweating up a storm before long, as each of us had a boiling pot of soup directly in front of us. This would be a wonderful choice for a cold winter day! As it was, the food was worth enduring the heat: broth was picked from a wide selection of soup flavors, meat or seafood could be chosen to go with the broth, and then all meals came with a heap of leafy vegetables, fresh fish ball paste, a raw egg, several kinds of squash, a ball of fish eggs, tofu, and more (all hidden under the meat in the photo below). Even if one was not attracted to some of the items on the platter, there was more than enough food to satisfy any eater.

I ordered the basic miso/creamy broth, which was good but simple; next time I would order a spicy or thai broth to add more flavor to the plain veggies and meat.

To top off the enjoyable eating, the fire under the pot is provided by a lump of what one fellow diner called "pink kryptonite"* - how often do you get to have a meal heated by gelatinous flourescent pink clumps? Just too fun. Here's a blurry pic of the kryptonite before it gets lit on fire:

It gets packed at dinner time, even in the heat of the summer, so get there early if you can! Thanks foodie friends.

Jazz Cat Café
640 W. Valley Blvd. Ste. A
Alhambra, CA 91803

*By pink kryptonite, I did not mean to make reference to this Supergirl storyline, but it's kinda funny!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Guimauve Flavoring: Orange, Vanilla, and Brown Sugar

I am learning that I should not ever announce that a particular food is my favorite, since it will invariably be unseated by the next fancy that captures me - hence the "FoodFancies of the Moment" sidebar of this blog!

While marshmallows have remained a consistent interest of mine this year, one of the reasons I find them so appealing is the fact that I can play with them. I can try out all manner of flavors with them, and can even shape and dip them as I please.

I have recently been enjoying orange, vanilla bean, and brown sugar flavored marshmallows, so I wanted to share these flavor possibilities with you. The orange is fresh and bright, the vanilla bean is sweetly vanilla with a hint of brandy, and the brown sugar is buttery with specks of fleur de sel.

Orange Guimauve Flavoring
Use 4 tsp. orange extract to flavor one half of the original recipe, colored by one drop of red food coloring and 2-3 drops of yellow food coloring. If you eat any of these marshmallows before coating them in sugar, they will taste bitter due to the amount of orange extract; the sugar coating will remove the bitter edge and make them pleasantly sweet.

To coat cut-up orange marshmallows, roll in granulated sugar mixed with the zest of one orange. The granulated sugar adds crunch and sparkle to the pieces, and the zest adds color, texture, and bright flavor.

Vanilla Bean Guimauve Flavoring
In a small bowl, combine 1 tsp. vanilla extract, 2 tsp. brandy, and the beans scraped from inside one vanilla pod. Let sit while you prepare the basic marshmallow recipe, and then add the flavoring to one half of the original recipe when called for.

To coat cut-up vanilla marshmallows, roll in powdered sugar (vanilla powdered sugar if you have it).

I have bought vanilla beans online from this website; it is my understanding that online purchase of vanilla beans is by far the cheapest way to obtain them.

Brown Sugar au Fleur de Sel Guimauve Flavoring
As with my cupcakes of the same flavor, make a caramel in a saucepan on the stovetop by heating 1/3 C brown sugar with 1 T water (do not stir, but swish pan around occasionally) until small bubbles appear on the surface. Pull the pan off the head before it burns, and stir in 1/4 tsp. fleur de sel and 3 T unsalted butter. Stir until thoroughly combined. Once cooled, mix 5 tsp. caramel into one half of the original recipe. After the marshmallow has settled into its pan, pour the remaining caramel over the marshmallow and allow to set with the marshmallow. It will run off the sides a little, but a thin layer should set on the surface.

Coat cut-out brown sugar au fleur de sel marshmallows with powdered sugar; additional fleur de sel may be added to the coating, but use sparingly as a small amount adds a lot of taste. Take care to coat the caramel side well, as the caramel tends to come off of the marshmallow surface easily, and the powdered sugar coating helps it to stick. The flavor is not strongly caramel, but a nice sweet/salty combination with buttery overtones.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Marshmallow Baby Rattles

The marshmallow saga has not slowed down, in spite of the fact that I do occasionally make other things; this week, I discovered that it is very easy to cut my marshmallow recipe out in simple shapes. In this case, I cut the marshmallows out in circles in order to make marshmallow baby rattles for a baby shower. As you see above, the result was quite cute, and very importantly, had good taste and texture.

Once the marshmallow recipe was mixed together with its flavoring (I made the whole batch one flavor this time), it was poured into a pan that let it spread to about 1.5 cm in thickness. After setting for 24 hours, it was ready to be cut out.

Here's a photo sequence that details the steps:

Using a biscuit cutter that was dipped in powdered sugar, I cut out as many circles as I could from the batch.

To prevent continued sticking, I dipped the cutter in sugar before cutting each circle.

The circles pulled away from the parchment paper without a problem, since the paper had been dusted with powdered sugar as the original recipe suggests.

I rolled the cut-out marshmallows in complementary sugar coatings (granulated sugar and orange zest pictured on an orange-extract marshmallow)

and set them out to dry for another 24-48 hours. The longer they sit out, the chewier and the more solid they become; the increased firmness assisted the remainder of the rattle-forming process, since the marshmallows are initially super soft and fluffy. In the end, they were still very light days after they were first made, but held their shape a bit better because they had been sitting out.

After they had dried and firmed up over several days, I cut a small slit in each one with a knife, and then inserted the stick and dipped the backside in melted chocolate, also securing the stick with a dab of chocolate. And with the extra chocolate, amused myself à la Jackson Pollock. They would have been fun with little jingle bells tied on the finished packages, so I guess I'll have to make them again sometime. Perhaps I should also mention that they were fun to eat, tasted good, and the nice light marshmallow fit very well with the chocolate coating.

Next marshmallow adventure: piping it into shapes!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Little More Cupcaking Around

Last week there were 2 occasions that served as excuses to make something special; I schemed for several weeks to come up with something sufficiently inspiring, and this is what came about. I am starting to feel like I need a coup de foudre, as the French would say, in order to want to make something. A coup de foudre could literally mean a "clap of thunder," but it is mostly used to describe love at first sight - a moment of passion that seizes you all of a sudden, with involuntary captivation. Any foodies out there get me? I feel a bit lost in the kitchen without the electricity of creative passion. While this general premise previously inspired me, this time the new prospective flavors and icings got me all whipped up again.

General premise: make a good white cake mix (or from scratch if you have more time and a good recipe) and divide the batter evenly up into 6 bowls. Plan your flavors and make icings to match! Last week I opted to top half of them with buttercream frosting and half with cream cheese frosting, to make some of them a little less sweet and the selection more diverse.

Here they are (left to right): coconut, Oreo, orange ginger, mocha, brown sugar au fleur de sel, and chocolate dipped strawberry.

I find these naked cupcakes to be nicely photogenic, with their varying colors and surfaces, but wait 'til you see what they a general decorating technique, I wanted the decorations to clearly reflect the cake flavor, while being pretty, of course! If you decide to do a batch of only one flavor, do make sure to increase your flavoring proportions appropriately.

Buttercream Icing
1 C butter
1 t vanilla
1 lb. powdered sugar (approx. 4 C)
2 T milk
(reduce for stiffer icing)

Cream the butter and vanilla with an electric mixer or stand mixer until well combined. Add the powdered sugar gradually until smooth. Add milk 1 T at a time; use less for stiffer icing. I recommend starting with stiffer icing for these cupcakes, since you will be adding more liquid for some of the flavors which will make it softer. When you are piping icing onto cakes, you generally want the piped icing to be stiffer than icing spread on the cake with a spatula (stiff icing will pull the cake apart as you spread it, but when piped holds shape better).

Oreo Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in 2-3 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder. Pour batter into cupcake pan and insert a whole Oreo into each cupcake - place flat on top of the batter and gently push down until batter rises over the sides of the Oreo. Fill in the middle top with plain white batter (see the unfrosted ones above with white tops and brown sides?). Once baked, this results in a soft cookie on the interior that you can see the profile of when a bite is taken of the cupcake - so cute!

Decoration: Buttercream frosting: Load plain frosting into a piping bag with a medium round tip. Pipe in concentric spirals on top of cupcake, building up as desired. Top with halves or quarters of Oreos and microplane/grate some dark chocolate over the top. Use reduced-fat or sugar-free Oreos to make this a tad healthier.

Mocha Cupcakes

This mocha guy is very similar to the mocha cupcake I made last time, but I added small chunks of chocolate on top and made the coffee slightly stronger. Still a hit! I love how he stands at attention at the head of the other cupcakes in this picture.

Brown Sugar au Fleur de Sel Cupcakes
It is nearly impossible to pick a favorite for myself from among these 6 flavors, but I will say that this one appeals strongly to my current salty/sweet attraction.
Batter: Make caramel in a saucepan on the stovetop: let 1/3 C brown sugar sit in the saucepan with 1 T water (do not stir, but swish pan occasionally) until bubbles form on the surface; then pull the pan off the heat before it burns, and stir in 3 T butter and 1/4 t fleur de sel or sea salt until butter is melted and all is thoroughly combined. Let cool slightly, then mix into the cake batter. Pour into the cupcake pan and top each with several flecks of fleur de sel.

: Buttercream frosting: Stir in broken-up brown sugar and a pinch of sea salt (to taste). Make sure to break up the brown sugar chunks and only add small salt pieces, as they will block the decorating tip if they are too big. Use a large star tip in your decorating bag and start making concentric spirals on top of the cupcake, building up to a conical swirl on top. Sprinkle with brown sugar and a few flecks of fleur de sel. Use the fleur de sel sparingly, as it is easy for it to overwhelm the sweetness - a little bit goes a long way. If you are not going to serve the cupcakes immediately, you may want to wait on sprinkling the brown sugar on top; it may dissolve into brown liquid droplets if there is any condensation on the cupcakes in the refrigerator.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cube butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese
1 lb. powdered sugar (approx. 4 C)
1 t vanilla

Cream the butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer or stand mixer until well combined. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar gradually until smooth. This icing starts out softer than the buttercream; if you find that this icing gets too thin when you add the flavoring, feel free to mix in more powdered sugar one spoonful at a time until it thickens up as desired.

Coconut Cupcakes
These were the most disappointing to me, simply because I got very excited about the idea of coconut being paired with toasted pecan, but in the end there wasn't a strong coconut flavor to the cake. I was unable to find coconut extract, and ended up using a coconut pudding mix when I could have had more success with coconut milk. Still, the cake ended up moist due to the pudding, and it tasted good if not super coconut-y.
Batter: Stir in 1/4 of Dr. Oetker Organic Coconut Pudding Mix package and 1/4 C shredded sweetened coconut.
Decoration: Cream cheese frosting: Mix in another 1/4 package of coconut pudding mix. Using medium star tip pipe in concentric spirals onto cupcake, building up into a cone. Top with toasted coconut shreds (toast your own on the stove top, stirring constantly) and toasted pecan bits.

Orange Ginger Cupcakes
Lovely, light, freshly orange cupcakes; these were good for folks who preferred less sweet dessert. The ginger is barely discernable.
Batter: Mix in 2 T freshly squeezed orange juice, 1 large pinch orange zest, and a pinch of grated fresh ginger.
Decoration: Cream cheese frosting: Add 2 t freshly squeezed orange juice and a pinch of freshly grated ginger; stir in more powdered sugar to thicken as necessary. Add a small drop of red food coloring and a few drops of yellow if orange color is desired. Pipe onto cupcakes with medium round tip and top with orange zest.

Chocolate Dipped Strawberry Cupcakes
I consider these cupcakes a fabulous success; the batter ended up very moist and full of strawberry flavor with a tint of chocolate, and the cream cheese frosting was a great complement.
Batter: Add 1/4 C condensed strawberry purée (if making 6 cupcakes, reduce for less). Instructions for the purée on this previous post. Use a small grater or microplaner to grate enough bittersweet chocolate into the batter so that when stirred in the occasional fleck is visible in the midst of the strawberry seeds. These will not rise like the other cupcakes, but don't worry! They will taste great.
Decoration: Cream cheese frosting: Pipe on with medium round tip. Top with a strawberry half, stem included, and surround with small bittersweet chocolate chunks. If making a day ahead, wait until right before serving to put the strawberries on top.

Final tip: Take a sharp knife along when you serve them so that folks can try slices of the different flavors without going sugar crazy!