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.