Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Strawberry Rhubarb Oat Bars / Rustic Tart

I love summer fruit.  I could easily eat several pounds of strawberries for a meal.  In fact, I have.  That's one of my favorite things about going berry picking.  But what this means is that I rarely ever bake berries when I have them because I find the fresh product so tantalizing.  It's hard to save any for a cake or pie.  This year, however, I impulsively bought some rhubarb at the market and I knew they'd go well with some strawberries, and since you don't eat rhubarb raw, one thing lead to another and before I knew it, I was in the kitchen making these bars.

I want to call them oat bars because the name has a healthy sound that seems to justify my eating them for breakfast.  Both times I made this recipe though, I actually used a 9-inch spring form tart pan and I thought it worked beautifully and would be a lovely way to make this for a picnic or dessert when entertaining so hence why I am also calling this a rustic tart.

This recipe is so simple - it honestly takes no more than 10 minutes of prep time, and that includes washing and cutting the fruit.  There are weight measurements for the oat base, which makes it easy to do everything with a kitchen scale, just kitting the "Tare" button as you go.  Then, the ingredients are mixed in whatever pan you'll be baking with, and the fruit is only lightly sweetened, so the natural flavor is really allowed to shine.

I have a feeling that if you make this once, you may find yourself eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dessert, just as I did.

Strawberry Rhubarb Oat Bars
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
yields one 8x8 pan OR one 9 inch tart pan

1 cup (80 grams) rolled oats
3/4 cup (95 grams) all purpose flour
2 tablespoons (15 grams) whole wheat flour (if you don't have this on hand, just use all purpose flour)
1/2 cup (95 grams) light brown sugar
pinch of salt (1-2 grams)
6 tablespoons (85 grams) salted butter, melted
1-2 stalks of rhubarb, diced small
1 cup (1/2 pin) small-diced strawberries
1 tablespoon (15 grams) granulated or raw sugar

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.  Lightly butter an 8x8 baking pan or a 9-inch tart pan.
Combine the oats, all purpose flour, whole wheat flour (if using), brown sugar, and salt in bottom of baking pan and mix.
Pour the melted butter on top and stir until clumps form.   I find it easiest to do this with my hands.
Optional: set aside 1/3 cup of the crumble mixture if you want a topping.
Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly against the bottom of the pan.
Spread your diced berries and rhubarb evenly over the crust.  Sprinkle with granulated or raw sugar.
Scatter reserved crumbs (if using) over the fruit.
Bake bars on the middle rack of your oven at 375F for 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow to cool in pan before cutting.
Note that bars will crisp up in the fridge if placed there for a few hours after cooling.

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days (if they last that long!).  Bars do get a little softer on the second day, but they remain just as delicious on day 3 as they are when fresh out of oven.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Making Madeleines

On our first Christmas together, my husband got me two trays of madeleine molds.  I didn't use them right away because I had never made madeleines before, but once we moved in together, he told me he would make me a batch.  I'm normally the baker in the house, so it was nice to be spoiled by him.  We used the recipe that had come with the trays, but it wasn't quite what we were looking for.
This week, my husband decided it was time to make madeleines again, so I looked up a recipe online.  One of the first recipes I stumbled upon was Dorie Greenspan.  Her recipes are quite popular among food bloggers and her pictures showed a very big "hump" -- which is very desirable in madeleines.  We had not had humps in our last homemade batch, so I was interested in trying her recipe and her method.

We were quite pleased with our results, and when B. brought some to his office to share with co-workers, he said they enjoyed them as well.  This recipe is not at all intimidating, and I'm glad we decided to try it.  I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to making them, but homemade madeleines are a lovely treat.

I did, of course, alter a few things.  First, the original recipe calls for lemon zest.  I never buy lemons because they're more expensive than limes.  These past few months, however, we've been eating a lot of oranges, and whenever I buy particularly beautiful citrus from a good source, I will wash them, zest them, and freeze the zest for uses in baking, cocktails (mocktails for me; cocktails for the husband), cooking, and so on.  So I had orange zest on hand.  I eyeballed out what I thought was the appropriate amount for one orange (though really, this depends on how well you zest your fruit... on cooking shows when I watch them zest, I am appalled by how much they waste).  I thought the orange flavor was beautiful and I will be repeating the recipe this way from now on.

Second, I used a hand blender (also called an immersion or stick blender) to really chop up the zest and mix it with the sugar and egg.  I thought this helped infuse the flavor, but it's probably not a necessary step.

Third, I highly recommend browning the butter.  This will add a complexity to the flavor, and since you have to melt the butter anyhow, you might as well do it on the stove and make the house smell like magic.

Fourth, I would also highly recommend sifting your dry ingredients into your wet ingredients to prevent lumps.  I did not do this the first time and I think the texture is far better when you sift.  This will also help you in that you won't have to stir as much.

Fifth, this is a nit picky thing, but I always mix salt with sugar in my wet ingredients, as I think this makes the distribution of flavor better than having salt be with the dry ingredients.  I never know why recipe writers always insist on coupling salt with baking soda/baking powder and flour.  Also, I always used salted butter.  Yes it adds more salt, but I think it also adds more flavor.  I almost never use unsalted butter and if I do, it's normally because I ran out of the salted kind.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Love and Lobster Risotto

My husband and I moved into our apartment in July.  It was my first time living with someone (and I mean someone whose relationship with me was not "female roommate"), and it was our first time being truly together on the same side of the ocean.  We were newlyweds.  It was summer, I was on a break from medical school and he was waiting on his international paperwork to go through so he could start looking for a job.
I remember two meals from then.  The first was the meal we had the day we moved into our apartment.  We had signed the final papers at 10:30am, spent all day moving things out of my storage unit and into our new apartment in the pouring rain, and then we'd gone to Ikea to buy a bed.  At this point it was past 7pm and we hadn't eaten all day.  We went to the food court and I had the famous Ikea meatballs for the first time.  I was sweaty, ravenous, and exhausted.  The food tasted amazing.
The second meal was a few weeks later.  The furniture we'd bought had just been delivered so we finally had a dining room table.  We'd been so caught up in all the business of settling into our new place, I wanted us to have a date night at home.  At luck would have it, lobster was on sale at the local market.  We bought two, broiled them, and ate them with steamed broccoli, corn, and rice.  It was lovely.  But this wasn't the meal I want to tell you about.  It was the remnants from that meal that made a second meal.
I'm one of those strange people who likes the "torso" of the lobster more than the tail, and so we had tail meat leftover, plus all the lobster shells and little tiny leg pieces.  There is so much meat you can't get out of shellfish and it occurred to me that this might be an excellent stock base.  I combined some shallot, a little bit of onion, and all the lobster shell pieces into our new pressure cooker and 20 minutes later, out came an incredible seafood stock.  And while flipping through our pressure cooker manual, I saw a recipe for pressure-cooker risotto.  It was too perfect of an idea to let pass.
The seafood stock (with a little help from some butter and rice) became lobster risotto, studded with the pieces of tail meat.  It was heavenly.  That meal we didn't talked much, but we scraped our bowls clean, and afterwards we leaned back in our chairs and smiled at each other in the comfortable quiet of our home.
B. and I have eaten many, many meals together since then -- some great, some ordinary; some memorable, some forgettable -- but this meal and this memory I hold dear.

I have no pictures and so I have held off on sharing this recipe for months, but today I decided that if I only shared recipes for which I had wonderful pictures, I wouldn't share half of my recipes, which is exactly true.  So I shall not be driven by the need to show you all pictures anymore.  This recipe speaks for itself; it needs no image.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Mini Cherry Pies

Confession: I have never truly made pie dough from scratch.

I love to bake, but my thing is normally cookies and cakes.  If I made pies or tarts, normally I just buy a grocery store crust.  Is that terrible?

But then the other week I saw a recipe for mini cherry pies that you can make in a muffin/cupcake tin!  The recipe, which, of course, involved making pie dough from scratch, seemed delicious, and sweet dark red cherries happened to be sale at the grocery store, so it seemed like good time to try the recipe and to try my hand at making pie dough from scratch.  Also, miniaturizing desserts is a great way to make them easy to pack for lunch or even to entertain (no messy cutting and serving)!

I actually made this weeks ago, as a "Welcome Home" dessert for my husband, B., but I was very negligent about sharing the recipe.  I thought about just tucking it away because no one would know better, but honestly, these mini pies are so great, I think you'll want to make them.  I know cherry season isn't at it's peak anymore, but this recipe is perfect, even with frozen cherries or end-of-season bruised/not-so-beautiful fruit.  The cherry, vanilla, and rum flavors are classic, and this pie dough was a cinch to make and tasty just as flaky and perfect as I hoped it would.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fresh Peach and Ginger Beer Cocktail

I am currently sitting in my apartment drinking a cocktail.

I rarely ever drink cocktails because, quite frankly, I don't like the taste of most alcohol.  This is very prohibitive to my drinking.  I love looking at the drink descriptions at bars and speakeasies, but most of the time when I actually taste the drinks the vodka or tequila or rum or whatever hard liquor it is ends up making me wish I ordered a virgin.  Of course most of the time if you go to a bar and try to do that you'll get weird looks.  So this is why sometimes I find it's nice to just fix myself a drink to enjoy at home, while reading a book on the very comfortable couch that B. and I bought.

Recently I've actually been making a lot of these "mocktails" all thanks to the beauty that is my new hand held blender (also called a stick blender or an immersion blender).  Given all the wonderful fresh fruit that is in season right now, I've taken to making drinks built on various fruit purees.  While it's easy to use sparkling water as a base (I highly recommend Perrier), I also love using ginger beer.  I find that the slight "bite" and spiciness of ginger beer – which isn't actually alcoholic – works as a great addition to all fruit bases.  One of the "mocktails" I've made is a lovely plum, ground cinnamon, honey, and ginger beer drink, which I think would be a great pre-dinner drink in the fall (maybe even before Thanksgiving?).  A summer-flavored mocktail I made had raspberries, lime juice, cane sugar, and ginger beer.  This was lovely, although I did discover an unpleasantly large amount of raspberry seeds in the bottom of my glass, which I did not consume.

This particular cocktail that I am sharing today combines the classic flavors of peach, vanilla, and ginger, which to me are all the things that should be in a good peach pie or cobbler.  It captures the quintessential elements of summer in a glass.  If you are so inclined to add alcohol to this, vanilla rum (aka vanilla extract in the making; see my previous post) also is a delicious addition.

In order to make this, if you don't have an immersion blender, go ahead and pull out the big guns.  You can easily double this recipe and make it in a normal blender.  If you don't use all of the fruit puree, you can easily save it in the fridge for another day; it will keep for at least 3 days.

 Fresh Peach and Ginger Beer Cocktail
makes two martini glasses (easily scaled up as needed)

2 peaches
1-2 teaspoons vanilla sugar or regular granulated sugar
splash of vanilla rum or regular rum (recommended: Bicardi Gold Dark Rum)
1 bottle of ginger beer (recommended: Reed's Extra Ginger Brew)

The ratios here are just suggestions.  I like my cocktails a little fruitier than some.  The amount of sugar you need to use will also depend on how ripe and sweet your peaches are.
For each of my cocktails, I used about 3 tablespoons of peach puree (that's a little less than one peach), 1/2 tsp of vanilla sugar, 1 tsp of rum.  Shake this in a cocktail shaker with some ice and then pour into a martini glass.  Top with ginger beer.

Optional: if you're feeling extra fancy, omit the sugar in the cocktail and instead just rim your cocktail glasses with some sugar.  (If you don't know how, this video is short and great.)

Now that you have this idea though, you can run wild with it!  Combine any fruit purees of your choosing, some ginger beer (or sparkling water), and an alcohol of your choice for a great cocktail.
And, before I go, I'll share one last little trick with you: if you want an easy way to clean your stick blender without risking cutting yourself, just fill a cup with some warm water and a few drops of dish soap and blend for 30 seconds, then rinse.  Presto!
Happy Wednesday!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Homemade Vanilla Extract with Rum

Recently, I decided to make homemade vanilla extract.  Because I enjoy baking, I can easily go through about 5-7 bottles of vanilla extract a year.  Each 2 ounce bottle costs about $3 in the grocery store.  When you think about what you're buying and how easy it is to make, the cost of store-bought extract is actually pretty high.  Also store-bought vanilla extract doesn't always provide as much flavor as I would like.  Sometimes I increase the vanilla in my recipes because I just want a deeper flavor profile.  If anything I just said rings true for you, homemade is the way to go.

So how do you go about making vanilla extract?  The process is fairly simple.  I should have done it a long time ago.  All you need is some vanilla beans, a glass container, and some rum/vodka/bourbon.

I actually decided to make homemade vanilla extract because I found a very nicely priced vanilla bean supplier online who had good ratings.  The company (who is not paying me for this and does not know I am writing this) is called Beanilla.  The are predominantly a vanilla bean supplier, though they also sell other products.  Currently, they are having a sale on Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla beans; you can buy a package of ten for $8.95, which, if you've ever looked at buying beans in stores or online you know is a great deal.  They also have free shipping right now for vanilla beans and they have a coupon code SAVE10, which gives you 10% off your order.  When I saw this, I had to order them.

I got my beans in the mail, vacuum packed, within a few days.  And they even slipped me an extra bean (accidentally, I assume), so that I got 11 vanilla beans for $8.05!  When I opened the package the beans were fragrant, moist, and very plump.  They were the highest quality vanilla beans I'd worked with in a long time.  The last time I bought vanilla beans at a grocery store in France, they were rather dried out when I worked with them.

The "recipe" for vanilla extract is very simple.  You just need to take your beans and split them in half.  Using a knife to scrape the seeds (actually called "caviar") from the pods and then add both vanilla seeds and the scraped out pods to a large glass container.  I used a bottle that I bought from Ikea for $3.99 (I'm listing the price here because again, this is far cheaper than anything you can find online).
Now everyone has different ratios that they suggest.  After much reading, I decided that I would use seven vanilla beans (one of which I scraped out the caviar from and used in a cherry compote), and about 4 cups of dark rum.  Many people use a much higher vanilla bean to alcohol ratio, but they also expect their extract to be done in about 6 weeks.  I am fine with letting my extract takes it time to reach maturity.  Also, vanilla beans continue add flavor as long as they are submerged in alcohol, so many people re-use their beans to continue making extract.  I simply started with a more dilute mixture and will wait longer, probably 9 weeks, before testing my solution.  This is what it looks like for now.

One handle of Bicardi Dark Rum (1.75L) cost me $21.39.  I used about half of this, so let's say that was $11.  The 11 pack of vanilla beans cost me $8.05.  I used 7 of them, so that comes to about $5.  The bottle that I bought was $4.  The total cost of making this thus is roughly $20.
That may seem a bit high for now, but again, I can continue to use these beans to make more vanilla extract afterwards.  Also, I used high quality ingredients that will impart far more flavor into my baked goods later on.  I imagine this could also be used to make some pretty amazing mixed drinks.
Hopefully this project turns out well!  I'll give updates as more time passes.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cronuts - a food trend that the Foodie Next Door had to try

 Anyone who keeps track of food fads or reads the news regarding trends in New York City (or in the USA even) should know about Dominique Ansel's Cronuts.

The cronut craze has literally swept the nation.  Bakeries in big cities like LA, DC, and Chicago are taking note of the huge success of this new baked good and selling knock-off creations called doughssants, cray-nuts, and doissants.

So what are these things?  They are hybrids: half-doughnut, half-croissant.  A flaky, deep-fried pastry filled with sweetened cream, rolled in sugar, and glazed.  And apparently something about these creations has them in high demand because even though they are selling at $5 a pop, people have been lining up outside Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho for up to 3 hours to wait for theirs.  The cronuts are so popular that people start waiting around 5 or 6am and the bakery sells out each morning within a couple hours of opening, even though each customer is limited to two cronuts.  Cronut popularity is such that people have started scalping theirs for $20-40!

Still on vacation and now happily settled into our new apartment just 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, B. and I decided to give up some precious sleep one morning and see just how good these things could be.  We woke up at 4:45am, took the train into the city and groggily got in line.  We decided to do this on a weekday, just to make sure we weren't standing in line just to have them sell out before we got to try one.  This ended up being a very good plan, because when we got in line, there were only about 20 people or so in front of us.  The line quickly got longer though, and stretched around the corner and down the block as it got closer to opening time.

When the doors opened at 8am, Dominique Ansel himself came out and allowed a wave of people inside.  Of course, as luck would have it, B. and I were at the exact cut off point and so we had to wait outside.  But then a girl from the bakery came out with a tray of fresh, hot madeleines.  Each person in line was allowed to have one.  It was so nice, especially after a long wait.

At last, we were allowed inside.  The line moved quickly and efficiently, as the cronuts are pre-boxed and almost everyone knew exactly what they wanted.  Because of the new limit of 2 cronuts per order, B. and I split up so that he could order two and I could order two.  I was afraid this might be a bit excessive, especially since that total order came to $21.78 (post-tax), but in the end I'm glad we got that many.

There was space at a table in front, so we sat down to eat ours right away.  B. saw how good they looked and declined my offer to split one, saying that he wanted his all to himself.

The first bite immediately showed the complex texture of the treat.  The fried, sugar coated exterior gives ways to a pleasantly chewy interior, much like a yeasted doughnut, except that it has an airy quality to it.  On the second bite, I got some of the filling - vanilla crème and blackberry jam.  The jam had some acid to it, which perfectly balanced the sweet and fat of the cronut.  The glaze was very sweet (clearly the ingredients were mostly sugar and very little actual flavoring) and a bit of an overkill since there was already a sugar coating.  The cronut is very filling.  You can definitely feel the calories from the butter of the dough and the fat from the frying.  If it hadn't been for the very long wait, I don't think I would have been able to eat an entire one.

Overall, we both enjoyed our cronuts, but the price tag is a hefty one.  I'd never pay more than about $2.50 for a croissant, and a doughnut needs to be really good for me to consider it worth $3.50, so this cronut cost significantly more than I'd be willing to pay for its parents.  The cronut also didn't have the flakiness I would expect from something that is supposed to be half-croissant.

Would I like to eat one again?  Sure.  Would I like to wait 3 hours in line and pay $5?  No, thank you.

Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St (between Sullivan & Thompson)
New York, NY 10012
Tel: 212-219-2773

Hours: 8am to 7pm (Monday to Saturday)
            9am to 7pm (Sunday)
Closest subway stops: Spring St (C-E) or Prince St (N-R-W)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vietnamese Food that isn't Pho - A recipe for Bánh Bao

Being a non-Caucasian in America, I often get asked what my ethnic background is.  When the question is phrased as something less vague than "Where are you from?" (which normally prompts me to respond, "Maryland," because I now live in New Jersey and I am surrounded by the Jersey born-and-bred), I tell people that I am Vietnamese.  More than 90% of the time, the response I get is, "Oh my god, I love pho!"  The last word is always pronounced "foe."

I find it very weird.  Can you imagine if you told someone you have an Italian background the person replied, "Cool, I love spaghetti!"  It's strange.  There is so much more to my heritage and cultural background than phở, which, by the way, is pronounced "fuh-ah?"  Because Vietnamese is a tonal language, "phở" is pronounced like a question and as if the word had two syllables.

So instead of sharing a recipe for a Vietnamese noodle soup like bun bo hue or pho, today I want to share with you how to make Bánh Bao.  First, of course, I will tell you what it is.  Think of a stereotypical pork bun you get in Chinatown.  Now imagine that the doughy outside is fluffy and light and the inside has ground pork, eggs, and vegetables.  That is a bánh bao.

When I was growing up, this could serve as my breakfast, a snack food, or lunch.  The filling can be changed to be whatever you want, but the standard bánh bao has a piece of hard boiled egg, some ground meat, and normally lap xuong (also known as Chinese sausage, for all you non-Asians).  I love them.  They're nutritious and healthy, and once you make them, you can store them in the freezer for at least a month, steaming them in the microwave for about a minute whenever you want to eat one.

While writing this recipe, I was faced, yet again, with the problem of transcribing a Vietnamese family recipe into a recipe that others can follow.  On one hand, I was lucky that this recipe is one of the ones that my mother actually has written down, since most things she makes from memory.  On the other hand, the notes she had written read something like this, "half a bowl of milk, add to the flour until it feels right.  If it doesn't feel good, add more milk" and "1/4 bowl of sugar, if you like it sweeter (it tastes better like this)."  I had to ask my mother exactly what "one bowl" measures out to.  Thankfully, we made these together and I could get some measurements down for you.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Foodie Next Door is married!

After a long break from blogging, I am back to say, I have officially tied the knot with my sweet B.  I am now a married woman!  It's been almost a month now since the wedding (only four days since we got back from our honeymoon) and we finally have had a chance to really look at pictures.  Let me tell you; they are fantastic.  It's great to be able to relive the day again, from a different angle.  Of course, this is a food blog, and so I have to tell you about the food.

For me, good food was a priority when planning the wedding.  We actually chose our venue because of the food; the wedding was catered by one of our favorite restaurants in DC.  After our tasting, I knew we chose right.

We had delicious hors d'oeuvres, a wonderful signature drink (champagne, creme de cassis, Triple Sec, and honey), and dishes that I could eat again and again.

Our hors d'oeuvres included foie gras filled plums (which tasted just as heavenly as they sound), watercress and pea soup shooters with bacon (really good), shortrib sliders (divine!), almond and panko crusted brie with quince puree, salmon tartar served on top of crisp potato, and crabmeat, crème fraiche, and black pepper tarts.  I loved it all.

Our appetizer for the sit-down dinner was poached shrimp and corn ravioli with a golden corn and lemongrass buerre blanc sauce.  I loved it at our tasting and I loved it still at the wedding.
Then, for our main course, we ate green herb crusted rack of lamb with a zinfandel reduction, potato purée, green beans, and rosemary lamb jus.  There was an option of halibut as well (for the guests), but just look at that lamb...

And of course, there was dessert. I loved that the cascade of flower petals on the cake kind of mimicked the flowing pattern of my dress (although this was purely accidental, as I had not talked to our catering manager about this).  We had two different fillings for our pistachio-almond cake: one dark chocolate mousse with cocoa nibs and one vanilla with strawberries.

But if you ask me what the best part of the day was, I'll have to say it was all my moments with the groom.  Cheesy as it sounds, all I wanted was to marry him.  I loved our wedding, I loved having our friends and family with us, and I loved all the things that we planned, but most of all, I loved when the night wound down and we were able to look at each other and know that we were partners, we were an entity recognized by the law and by all those we love.
He is mine as I am his, and there is nothing sweeter than that.

Friday, March 15, 2013

No Bake Matzo Brittle (aka Chocolate Caramel Matzo)

This recipe really speaks for itself.  It's matzo covered in a layer of delicious caramel that snaps satisfyingly, just like a brittle should, and that caramel is covered in a thin layer of chocolate.  There can even be sea salt or chopped almonds sprinkled on top.

This is a fantastic snack, an easy dessert to make without turning the oven on, and it's great for entertaining.  Given that Passover begins this Monday the 25th, I thought it was an appropriate time to share this recipe.  I'm not Jewish, but I grew up with a good number of Jewish friends, so matzo  (note: singular is matzah) is a familiar thing to me.  I've had matzo brownies, matzo chocolate chip cookies, and matzo ball soup (which I love), but this is by far my favorite way of using matzo.  Of course, if you don't have any matzo on hand, you can also make this recipe with saltine crackers.

I feel like I must say, before sharing this recipe, that the photos really don't do this justice.  Melted chocolate and caramel are hard to capture with a digital camera in a way that captures all the beauty of the two.