Sunday, March 29, 2009

First Macaron Attempt

I have never been more proud of something I've baked than these Parisian macarons. A less-successful attempt today made me a little sad, but I am still very happy with my first two batches.

After reading about them on countless blogs and websites, and trying many professionally-made macarons that were disappointing, I was very hesitant to even try. But friends and relatives (who had not read about the difficulties of macaron baking) talked me into it, so I decided to make it a vacation project.

I have now tried three recipes out of the millions out there. I know a truly scientific baker would use the same recipe and vary one discrete factor each time, but I just couldn't stop myself from trying something entirely different each batch. Still, I've learned 2 initial things that I think are key:
1. use aged egg whites - set out in a bowl at cool room temperature for 24-48 hours minimum
2. use no more than 50 strokes to incorporate the dry ingredients in the whipped egg whites

I'll let you know as I discover more helpful tips!

Here's the first recipe, from a great online magazine called Desserts Magazine. The macaron article was written by the foodblog author of Tartelette, and it is a wonderfully detailed and informative article.

I overwhipped the egg whites and sugar, but that didn't seem to cause major problems (the instructions were a bit vague; David Lebovitz's egg-whipping instructions below were clearer).

And I was delighted to find they had baked with the desired little "feet," the ridge around the bottom.

Unfortunately, they stuck to the parchment when I peeled them off (which could have meant they were underbaked, or that I needed to follow David Lebovitz's trick of steam removal). Still, they tasted just fine with buttercream in the middle. I have never been so impatient to see something come out of the oven!

David L's chocolate macaron recipe had slightly different proportions, and said to bang each cookie tray on the counter several times before baking instead of leaving the unbaked cookies to sit for an hour before baking.

They also developed lovely little feet, although the outside of the shell was a little too crunchy and not shiny enough.

But, again, with chocolate buttercream in the middle, no one complained.

This macaron-making journey is just beginning, but I look forward to keeping aged egg-whites around until my hand is well-practiced in the art of macaroning. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fave Fish 'n Chips in Morro Bay

Since I'm on vacation this week I have to report at least one restaurant of note; I was reminded how very good the fish 'n chips at The Whale's Tail in Morro Bay are. This photo reveals my decimated plate, from which my fried fish disappeared much more quickly than expected. I always think of fish 'n chips as heavy fried food, but this fish has the perfect balance of substantial yet light breading on freshly fried, flaky fish (didn't really intend all of that consonance, these are just the best words to describe the fish!). Perfectly crisp breading on tender fish - what more could you ask of fish 'n chips? The chips are round disks of potato, which are not the little crunchy fries I prefer, but they can be substituted with onion rings upon request.

And, well, the view from the restaurant kinda makes up for the peeling linoleum floors...

Not to mention my favorite (non-food) stop in Morro Bay, the Shell Shop! An amazing selection of international shells that you can browse and handle to your heart's delight; this store always takes me back to my childhood, when my parents would buy me one shell each visit. Still a treat for me, even though I now realize that each shell costs 15 cents...

Don't miss Morro Bay on your next drive up the CA coast!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mom's M & M Cookies

Since I'm reaping the benefits of my mom's kitchen this week (read: all sharp knives!), I thought I would share one of her most popular cookie recipes. Just ask the college students that mobbed our house last night. This chewy/crunchy goodness will disappear in no time!

Mom's M & M Cookies

2 C butter
2 C sugar
2 C brown sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
4 C flour
5 C oatmeal (after measuring, blend to powder in a blender/food processor)
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
4 C chocolate chips
M & M's to decorate the tops of cookies

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cream together the butter, sugar, and brown sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix flour, powdered oatmeal, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in another bowl. Add to batter and mix thoroughly. Blend in chocolate chips.

Place golf ball sized balls of dough two inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and slightly flatten each one with the bottom of a glass. Press seven M & M's onto each cookie.

Bake for 7 minutes and then switch to an opposite position (if on top, switch with bottom shelf, or turn front to back of oven) for another 4-5 minutes until done.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Vegan Sweet Potato Soup

Yeah, soup again. It may be spring officially, but things are still chilly enough in my part of the world that soup sounds good to me (the winter-spring divide in California is very fuzzy). I've made this soup twice in the last month for friends who have been in the hospital because it is a inexpensive meal that I feel like I can feed anyone. It has good flavor from the aromatics and dried herbs, but it is incredibly healthy - all vegetables, with a little bit of olive oil to draw out the onion and garlic. Unlike most soups, it doesn't require any broth/stock, so there is no chicken or beef stock to offend the vegetarian, and there's no vegetable broth to notch up the sodium content. To top it off, it's got a bright orange hue to liven up a cloudy March day. Time to pull out that immersion blender!

Vegan Sweet Potato Soup

From "A Simple Soup" on Chocolate and Zucchini

1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced
3 medium zucchinis, sliced
dried herb blend, like 21 Seasoning Salute from Trader Joe's (or fresh herbs if you've got some)
salt & pepper

1. Prepare vegetables according to ingredient list.
2. Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan and cook the onion and garlic over medium heat until limp and translucent.
3. Add sweet potatoes, carrot, herbs, and salt and pepper.
4. Add water to just cover the vegetables (more water will make the soup thinner, less will make the end product thicker). Cover and bring to a boil. Cook covered for 15 minutes once it has reached a boil.
5. Add zucchini and cook for 5-10 minutes longer. Test vegetables with a fork or knife to determine level of tenderness (I prefer more firm zucchini, so 5 minutes is sufficient for me).
6. Taste and adjust seasoning.
7. Mash up the vegetables with a fork or potato masher, or blend with an immersion blender or in a food processor to desired consistency. It gets thicker the more you break up the sweet potatoes.

Make buttermilk biscuits (recipe to be posted later) to serve with the soup, and use the remaining sweet potatoes and buttermilk to make Sweet Potato Pound Cake with Buttermilk Glaze! Oh yeah, and the leftover zucchinis for Zucchini Pancakes. The possibilities are endless.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spinach Egg Drop Soup

I almost feel guilty posting this recipe, because it's just so simple - it's something my mom and grandmother would make out of the natural contents of their kitchens for a cheap and easy meal. You could dress it up with all manner of seasonings, but I find it comforting and tasty just the way it is. And let's face it, we all need something that can be thrown together quickly out of the cupboard now and then. So keep a few cans of chicken broth and creamed corn on hand for the day that you feel like a healthy, comforting soup.

Spinach Egg Drop Soup

1 can creamed corn
2 cans or 1 box chicken stock
3 eggs (or more, for more substance and protein)
several handfuls of fresh baby spinach (optional)

Start heating the corn and chicken stock in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, crack the eggs into a small bowl and scramble well; if you prefer thin streams of egg in your soup then thin the eggs out with a few teaspoons of water, but if you like bigger pieces of egg as in the photo above, leave the eggs as they are. Once the broth/corn mixture starts to steam (but not boil), give the broth a stir with a spoon, and while the liquid is swirling around, pour the egg into the broth and let it swirl with the broth. If you want to break up the egg, stir actively; if not, wait on stirring until the egg has cooked for a little while. Stir occasionally to keep corn from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add spinach if using, in any amount desired, and let cook until leaves have wilted. Salt and pepper to taste.

Or, if you want the simple version: dump everything in a pot together, cook, and eat!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Salted Lemon Butter cookies

I've found another sweet-salty dessert that I love! This is what the French call a sablé, a light, crisp butter cookie - just the right size to pop in your mouth. Not too sweet, tanged with lemon juice and zest, with little salt surprises throughout (trust me, you don't want to skip the salt in this recipe). And you get to rub the butter into the dough with your fingers! You need to freeze the dough before baking them, and the glaze takes a little time to set on the cooled cookies, so plan ahead. It's recipes like this that motivate me to keep lemon zest and juice in the freezer at all glad I know people with Meyer lemon trees!

Salted Lemon Butter Cookies
Sablés au Citron, from the Chocolate and Zucchini Cookbook

1 lemon
1 C 2 T flour
1/3 C sugar
1 tsp fleur de sel or kosher salt (Coarse Sea Salt from Trader Joe's is great)
7 T (3 1/2 oz.) chilled unsalted butter, diced
1 large egg yolk
1/2 C powdered sugar

1. Grate the lemon to yield 1 T of finely chopped lemon zest. Reserve half of the lemon for the glaze.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest. Add the butter and rub it into the dry ingredients with the tips of your fingers or use a wire pastry blender. Add the egg yolk, stir with a fork until blended, and knead the dough until it comes together and forms a ball. If the dough is too dry, add a little ice-cold water, a teaspoon at a time, and knead again. If it is too sticky, add 1 T flour.

3. Divide the dough in two and roll each half into a log, about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap each log in plastic and put in the freezer for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove one log of dough from the freezer, unwrap, and slice in 1/4 inch rounds with a sharp serrated knife, rotating the log by a quarter of a turn after each slice so it keeps a rounded shape. Transfer onto the baking sheet, leaving 1/2 inch margin between them. Repeat with the second log.

5. Bake for 12 minutes, until lightly golden at the edges. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely before glazing, about an hour.

6. Squeeze the half lemon to get 1 1/2 T lemon juice. Put the powdered sugar in a bowl, add the lemon juice, and whisk until smooth and syrupy. Use a pastry brush or the back of a teaspoon to glaze the cookies. Let stand until the glaze is set, about an hour. The cookies will keep for up to a week at room temperature in an airtight container. The dough can also be frozen for up to a month.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Buttermilk Glaze

I am in love. with this glaze. this lusty, rich, buttery, scotchy glaze. As so often happens in affairs of the heart, I realized my true feelings when I saw my friend scooping the glaze off the serving platter with her finger, and thought "hey, I think I love that glaze!"

There was nothing wrong with the Sweet Potato Pound Cake that was dressed in the glaze, but the glaze's sneaky likeness to old fashioned donuts just got under my skin. I've found myself thinking about it, wondering what else to drench in it...chocolate cupcakes? homemade donuts? anything I can get my hands on?

So last night I made a classic Sandtorte Pound Cake, and took care to make the glaze early on so everything could cool sufficiently (warm cake + warm glaze = cake sauce all over my car two weeks ago). Then I experimentally dipped pieces of the pound cake in the glaze, at which point my affection for it deepened: this glaze can even make slightly burned cake taste good!

I also left a piece of the cake soaking in the glaze overnight to see how the result would be...only to find that my roommate had consumed the piece in the night. You see how alluring this glaze is? How utterly useless you will be in the face of it?

You have been warned:

Buttermilk Glaze
from Orangette, deceptively listed as "optional"

1/2 C low-fat buttermilk
1/2 C sugar
4 T (1/2 cube) unsalted butter, cubed
1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch or flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Combine the buttermilk, sugar, butter, cornstarch, and baking soda in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and stir well. Let cool. Stir in vanilla. You may want to pour this through a sieve if clumps of cornstarch remain.

Proceed to pour the room temperature glaze over desired cake, but beware of disappearing pieces and the affect this glaze may have on your soul!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Zucchini Pancakes

As I gravitate more and more towards a plant-based diet, I find myself remembering ways that my mom used to get vegetables into me as a kid. Zucchini was a much hated item in the kid-world of my family, and apart from its incarnations in zucchini bread and these zucchini pancakes, its appearance created quite a panic at the dinner table. I won't tell you what my brother used to do when forced to eat it - it wasn't pretty!

I have completely gotten over my dislike of plain zucchini, but I still enjoy these pancakes. They remind me a bit of onion and veggie cakes that I've had at Korean and Chinese restaurants, and are a great way to use extra courgettes (as anyone with a summer garden will certainly appreciate). You can probably even make them with ingredients you already have in your kitchen. Enjoy!

Zucchini Pancakes

1 1/2 C zucchini, grated (1-2 small zucchinis)
1/4 C white or whole wheat flour
2 T chopped onion
2 eggs
1/4 C Parmesan cheese
2 T plain nonfat yogurt OR mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together and fry on an oiled frying pan or griddle, just as you would make normal pancakes. Make sure to spread the batter thin enough so that they won't take too long to cook (less than a 1/4 inch thick).

Makes six-5 inch pancakes.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cupcake Couture

I like to make cupcakes mainly because they provide many mini opportunities to get creative, but I actually enjoy eating normal cake more than eating cupcakes (the chance to cut extra slivers off a whole cake is irresistable!). I have yet to go crazy for the cupcake couture that has swept the middle/upper classes of our nation; every time I hear someone raving about one of the famous shops, their ecstasies focus on the icing of the cupcakes. Great icing is simple to make at home (see my buttercream, dark chocolate buttercream, and cream cheese frosting recipes), but good cake is difficult to make from scratch consistently (see my comments at the end of this post).

Judging by the fancy cupcakes I've tasted, the couture shops also struggle with producing good cakes from scratch, as my tastings have ranged from bread-like cake with mediocre texture to very nicely flavored, moist cake. I have also noticed that people often comment about the sweetness of a cupcake when gauging the quality of the cake; in my book, good cake is more a product of flavor and texture than the level of sweetness. Sweetness is a personal preference that often ranges widely according to cultural upbringing or just individual taste.

In the end, however, I am not avoiding cupcake bakeries (or any bakeries, for that matter!), and have enjoyed the majority of cupcakes that I've tried. I'm not criticizing my friends who love these cupcakes, I'm just saying that my love for food requires me to honestly speak my mind and expect the best from well-renowned and even award-winning bakeries. I would love to learn from their clean decoration designs, flavor combinations, and, yes, their quality recipes. So here are some samples!

Vanilla Bake Shop: one of Martha Stewart's favorite cupcake shops in the country, found at Wilshire and 5th in Santa Monica. These cupcakes were NOT disappointing! They had mini cupcake versions of their full-sized cupcakes (a brilliant idea for those of us who want to try different kinds), pictured in the two photos above: coconut, bittersweet chocolate, chocolate with vanilla icing (top photo), and mocha, mint chip, and black berry (lower photo), amongst other flavors. It was also notable that they had a small selection of Parisian macarons; the pistachio macaron (top photo) was just the right consistency with natural flavor, but this strawberry one was the worst macaron I've ever had - see the stiff outer layer and the crumbled interior? Despite the strawberry macaron (whose demise I will chock up to seasonal un-tested recipes), I very much enjoyed Vanilla's cupcakes, especially the blackberry cupcake that was filled with a light custard reminiscent of fruit tarts. Well done.

Dots, in Pasadena, has mixed reviews online, but I found their mini cupcakes to be nice. The cake did not amaze me, but it wasn't bad. They are cute, have a variety of flavors, and were a nice treat when brought to a party.

Plus the box was really cute!

I would also like to mention Miette, which I visited at the Ferry Building in San Francisco; their shop is adorable, and I had to buy a cupcake there just because I loved its design (the Old Fashioned below, on the left; gingerbread on the right). I waited a bit to eat it, so the 7-minute frosting was starting to melt a little. With such light frosting, the cake is key, and it was not quite right. This was a typical so-so cake from scratch for me. Just a little too heavy and too roughly textured. So sad that such a beautiful cupcake was disappointing to eat!

Others I've tried: Auntie Em's in Eagle Rock (bread-like cake texture, but good frosting) and Violet's Cakes in Pasadena. I had red velvet from both, but have never had red velvet cake that I LOVED. Another trend that I haven't gotten into - I prefer straight up chocolate.

I think I'll stick to Parisian macarons if I'm going to splurge on a luxury baked good that I can't make myself! For now, that is.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pitas in Action

Just in case you, like me, are procrastinating, I have prepared a series of time-consuming videos of pitas being baked. This is tangentially related to an archaeology exam I have coming up, so we'll just say that I'm only half-procrastinating. Click on the photos below to view the videos on youtube.

Disclaimer: This is not the complete history of the pita bread. This is for procrastinatory purposes only.

This is the first video I came upon, which most closely reflects the process of ancient pita baking: a round oven, heated so that the walls retain lots of heat and the bread puffs within minutes of being stuck it in (there, that's somewhat studious).

I couldn't make it through this whole video, but I thought it was funny. Be glad I do not present my recipes this way.

The first of two very different industrial pita machines; beware, the dough at the beginning looks a little gross. And then it just stretches, and stretches...I found myself wondering if I was watching the wrong video, because it took a while to look like pitas.

This is a thorough machine that makes the dough in circles from the beginning rather than cutting them out:

And for those of you who want to just sit in front of the screen and watch a pita rise in real time:

And to think that you could have made your own pita dough in the time you took to watch those videos - ha! That's what procrastination is all about.