Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Great Cannelés Pretenders*

I have long wanted to make cannelés at home.  For those of you who don't know what a cannelé is, let me do my best to explain.  A cannelé is a small French cake/pastry that is the specialty of the Bordeaux region.  Flavored with vanilla and rum, cannelés are known for their amazing texture.  The outside of a good cannelé is defined by a deep, dark caramelized crust that half-cracks, half-gives way to a rich, custard-y, chewy interior.  You can easily become addicted to these things, especially if you've ever had them fresh.

The problem with making cannelés is that they are typically made in very specific copper molds which give them their distinct dome-like shape.  They also have a glisten or a shine to them that is due to the light coating of beeswax which you are supposed to give the molds before pouring in the batter.  Given that copper cannelé molds and beeswax are not cheap things to come by, I never attempted to make these myself.  But then, this summer, by a stroke of luck, my grandmother (who lives just outside Paris, in France) stumbled upon some silicon cannelé molds that she forgot she had.  I knew, from avid reading of other food blogs, that silicon molds are not as good for baking cannelés, since they don't provide the same deep caramelization and beautiful crust, but I appreciated the gift.

Then, I found an extremely detailed post from another food blog that I read about how to make the "perfect cannelés."  At the same time, I found someone who said that they had made cannelés that turned out just fine in a muffin tin.  And the two things melded together in my mind into one giant scheme.  Plus, I wanted to try out the silicon molds and see how large the difference was between the cannelés they produced and the cannelés produced by metal pans.

The resulting "pretender" cannelés were delicious.  The long resting time really allowed the scent of the vanilla and rum to permeate throughout the entire pastry.  The muffin tins resulted in a slightly uneven caramelization, with the sides getting much darker than the bottoms, but they were addictively good.  I ate them both hot from the oven and once they had been allowed to cool.  After 10 or 15 minutes of cooling, the cannelé caramel crust becomes firmer, and the custard-y interior becomes more chewy, in a deliciously contrasting way.  The crust will soften overnight so there won't be much of a contrast anymore, but you can pop them into a 400F oven for 5 minutes, or you can enjoy them as they are.  My family didn't bother with the reheating step, since we found them great as they were.

The batter in the mini cannelé silicon molds did not caramelized ideally at all.  After their baking time was over, I actually gave the mini cannelés a brush of butter and popped them, naked, baking into the 400F oven to caramelize some more.  My roommate looked at them and called them "little minions."  They were as tasty as they were cute.  If you are using silicon molds, I suggest you heat your mold first, not butter it, and then pour the batter into the hot molds.  The results from the muffin tin were much closer to perfect, however, and that is the method I will be using in the future when I repeat this recipe (because I definitely will be repeating it).

The recipe was definitely a huge success, even when used to make "pretenders."  My family was asking for more of them the second we finished the last one, and we've had real cannelés before.  I really liked the caramelization that I got from the muffin tins, and I will definitely be making these again.   Don't make the same mistake I did and live without these delicious little beauties simply because you don't have copper molds and beeswax.

*For those of you who are too young to know, the title to this blog post is actually a reference to a song by The Platters.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nutella Cupcakes & Bailey's Irish Cream Cocoa Frosting

I'm not really a huge fan of hazelnuts and I really don't like when hazelnuts get mixed into my chocolate—like in boxed truffles and chocolate ganache in restaurants—but there is one exception to my rule: Nutella.  I love Nutella.  I still remember those school lunches in elementary school that my mom used to pack for me.  It was also such a thrill to discover a sandwich in my lunchbag, because a sandwich could only mean one thing: Nutella.  We didn't really do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my house because we didn't often have jelly or jam, and if we did, then we probably didn't have peanut butter.  Our fridge also didn't always have bread, so sandwiches were a rare lunch item.  I grew up eating rice for lunch.  But that's another story, for another day.

Those Nutella sandwiches were such a treat.  The soft white bread with the creamy chocolate-y filling.  I didn't even know Nutella had hazelnuts in it until I was a teenager; I really thought it was just a chocolate spread.  And by the time I actually read the label and discovered my mistake, I was too in love to back out.  Nutella and I, we're in it for the long haul.

Come on, who doesn't love Nutella?  And it's not just for sandwiches.  I have friends who dip strawberries in it, who will eat a spoonful of Nutella with an apple, who use nutella as frosting.  It was the last one that really struck a chord with me.  Nutella as frosting?  Well, what about Nutella inside baked goods?  There was something I wanted to try.

And sure enough, I stumbled upon a Nutella cupcake recipe that I liked enough to completely redesign and make my own.  That's how I work.  I see ideas, I like them, and then I scrap the original and rebuild things my way.  Kind of like Disney does with classic fairy tales.  I use recipes as only a backbone or foundation.

This Nutella cupcake is definitely good and I will be making it again, but perhaps with two changes: I doubled the amount of Nutella from the original recipe, but next time I would increase it more to give the cupcakes an even more pronounced Nutella flavor.  Also, I neglected to throw in my usual little pinch of salt because, well, I forgot, and I think that's something that would have rounded out the flavors more.  I like this recipe as a mini cupcake recipe because the bite-sized cakes are cute and perfect for serving, but if you want to make full-sized cupcakes, just increase your baking time to 18-20 minutes.  Either way, this cupcake is a crowd pleaser.  My parents loved it, as did my sister, and my friends who tried it.

I don't normally do frosting, but this time I thought it would be appropriate, especially since I was making them for my sister's birthday.  I found a recipe for a Kahlua frosting that I really wanted to try, especially because I thought the coffee and chocolate notes of the liquor would complement the Nutella flavors well.  But, to my surprise, our house was out of Kahlua.  I was shocked.  It's one of those things that we always have.  Like flour or cinnamon or lime zest (we keep that stocked in the freezer).  I was at a lost for a while, until I remember hey, I don't normally work from recipes!  And so I made something up.

I saw that we had Bailey's Irish Cream, and that's not too different from Kahlua, so I decided to improvise.  But, as luck would have it, we also happened to be out of powder sugar, which is inconvenient if you want to make frosting.  I thought about running to the store, but I was feeling lazy and this frosting was just for family, so I knew I would be forgiven for a slightly grainy texture.  I ended up using just what I had on hand, and it turned out very well.  My mom says the frosting is the most addictive thing she's ever tasted, and she's not into frosting.  My sister mourned the fact that she forgot to bring the cupcakes and frosting to work with her the next day.  These two recipes are definitely keepers.  Easy to make and definite crowd pleasers; what's not to like?  Plus boozy frosting is great for an adult twist on a childhood dessert like mini cupcakes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lunch at Kushi

Now that my sister and I live in different states and live busy lives, it is hard for us to see each other often.  We text, email, and call each other and often as we can, but it's not the same as actually spending time together.  Thus when I came home for the week—and by home I mean to the house I grew up in, in Maryland—we planned to have a nice lunch out together.  She had read an article about a new restaurant in DC called Kushi, and shortly after that article, a coupon for $25 on Groupon came out that was worth $50 at Kushi.  So it was decided: to Kushi we would go.

On Saturday I stopped by her place in Virginia to pick her up, and then we drove to DC.  We managed to find street parking pretty easily and then walked a short distance to the restaurant.  For a Saturday at 12:30pm, it wasn't very crowded.  The restaurant itself was fairly spacious, brightly lit with natural light from the large windows, and the tables were arranged around an open grill/work area where you could see rolls being made and meats being grilled.  It wasn't exactly an open kitchen, since there was a closed kitchen area in the back, but it was nice to see some of the "cooking" action.

We decided to order the pork belly lunch set, buta kukuni ($8), which is served with miso soup and pickled vegetables, and the 3 piece skewer lunch set, which is served with 2 pieces of nigri, a California roll, miso soup, and pickled vegetables ($18).  We also ordered a special roll for ($7).

The miso soup was good, nothing amazing, and the pickled vegetables—daikon, cucumber, and carrot—didn’t taste so much pickled as brined.  Average.

The braised pork belly, which was served with a bowl of rice, was good.  The meat was tender, soft, and flavorful.  The braising liquid was very good and mildly sweet with the typical dark, caramelized flavor of good braises.  After the pork belly was gone, we ended up mixing the remaining liquid with the rice to make sure we got all of it.  It wasn't a wow dish, but it was good; a solid 7.5 out of 10.

For the 3 piece skewer set, we were allowed to pick from a long list of options.  We decided to try, from left to right, crispy chicken skin (kawa), duck sausage, and black angus strip loin and eringi.  We ate the strip loin first.  This skewer was very average.  The meat was not well seasoned, and though it was perfectly cooked and moist, it just didn't have the flavor punch that I was expecting nor did it have any smoky flavor to it, which was disappointing, because why else do you grill meat?  The eringi mushroom was odd; we actually didn't realize it was mushrom at first.  With the spicy salt combination, it was better, but still not amazing.  We gave it a 5 out of 10.
The duck sausage was a nice improvement.  It was smooth, flavorful, and tasty without being fatty.  I like the full meatiness of it and the distinct flavor it carried of "game" meat.  We gave this a solid 7.5 or 8 out of 10.
The crispy chicken skin definitely lived up to its name.  The skin actually surprised me with it's crispiness; it was very different from the "crispy" that you get from baking a chicken.  For a relatively small piece, it had surprising textural differences.  While the outside was pleasantly crispy, the piece was also chewy, but in a very good way.  My sister commented on the fact that she was surprised that it didn't taste stringy, leathery, or fatty.  We both agreed that if we hadn't been told, we wouldn't have been able to tell that it was chicken skin.  My sister, who is very much a white meat girl (she actually enjoys eating chicken breasts, which is something I do not understand), enjoyed this even though she is not a fan of the skin on chicken normally, so that was quite a feat that Kushi accomplished there. An 8.5 out of 10.

(Note: These skewers don't have to be ordered in "set," but we chose to do so because it was cheaper.  For example, the duck sausage alone would have been $6, the strip loin would have been $8, and the chicken skin would have been $4)

Along with the 3 piece lunch set was two pieces of nigri and a roll.  No choice was offered, but I happily accepted the tuna and whitefish nigri and the California roll with real lump crab meat.  The fish was fresh and flavorful; I don't normally like nigri, but this was good.  The California roll was also well executed, and it was nice to actually eat one that has real crab meat in it, rather than the imitation stuff.  A 7.5 out of 10.  Good, but nothing mind-blowing.

We had read reviews about a live uni roll and we asked our waiter if they had it (certain rolls are "limited" or not always available) and when he returned to answer our question, he gave us the list of all of the restaurant's special rolls of the day.  My sister and I got hooked on the idea of the wasabi scallop roll and so we decided to order that one.  We were glad we did.  It was very good.  The orange balls you see on the outside of the roll were actually flaky and crunchy, like puffed rice, and the scallop itself was sweet and a little spicy and absolutely delicious.  A 9.5 out of 10.  We actually didn't know the price of this roll until after we'd eaten it, when we asked the waiter (since it was a special, it wasn't on the menu); we assumed that it would be at least $12, given the fact that it was a special roll and we were eating in DC, but it was actually only $7.  Unbelievable!

Once we saw the dessert menu, my sister and I knew that we want to order basically all of it.  Plus, given how little the actual lunch had cost, we still needed to spend about $20 on dessert.  We looked carefully over the selection of sorbets and gelatos and decided on which five we would order and then, to prevent the frozen desserts from melting, agreed to order them in 3 rounds.  This meant, however, that we had to do dessert pairings.  Which flavors would go well together?  What did we want to start with and end with?  It was serious business, and I took out my pen so we could work it out on paper.

For our first round, we decided to start with a pear sorbet (right) and a wasabi gelato (left).  I definitely thought the wasabi gelato should go first, since it was a risk, and it needed to go with something more tame and "normal," thus the choice of pear.  We tried the wasabi gelato first, with some reserve and apprehension since we didn't know what to expect, and we were surprised by how it was executed.  It truly was a palate cleanser.  It was sweet, but also boldly spicy.  We didn't think the flavor of the wasabi would be captured quite so, uh, honestly.  It really cleared the sinuses.  While we enjoyed the wasabi gelato and appreciated the bravery and creativity of the kitchen, we couldn't continue eating it for long.  As my sister aptly noted, it was like a shot of tequila: good, strong, but not exactly something you can keep coming back for more of.  We let it sit to the side while we ate our other desserts, and then we discovered something: if we let the gelato melt, the creamy melted liquid was not as spicy as the still-frozen gelato.  The gelato became much more bearable and fun to eat once we discovered this, since we could then handle more of it.
Compared to the intensity of the wasabi and the intensity of the other flavors we later ordered, the pear sorbet was very tame and mild.  It was sweet and it tasted of summer, but it just lacked a little character.  It this sorbet was a person, she would be quiet (the wasabi would have been very overwhelmingly chatty); a 7.5 out of 10.  I told my sister that this ice cream could probably benefit from a little bit of salt, and so...

To join our first two orders of dessert was a sea salt gelato, pictured in the center.  Sound a little strange?  Take the jump.  It was creamy; it was sweet; it was salty with an oomph.  We were wowed.  The gelato had a  lot of character, and it was very well balanced.  For those of you who have had caramel beurre salé ice cream or salted caramel, this was comparable, except, not so buttery.  A 9.5 out of 10.
My sister and I loved the taste of the pear sorbet combined with the sea salt gelato.  That was a marriage made in heaven.  It had all the lovely, soft floral notes from the sorbet and all the oomph of the salt in the gelato, and they complimented each other very well.

For our next round, we ordered a salty plum gelato (left) and a wildflower honey gelato (right).  The salty plum gelato sadly didn't taste very much of salty plum (which in Vietnamese we call xi muoi), and was very very similar to the sea salt gelato from before, except with vague floral notes from the plum.  However, we discovered, once again, that if we let the gelato melt, the flavor changed.  This time, the creamy liquid retained the sea salt taste while the remaining frozen lump tasted much more strongly of xi muoi or preserved plum.  A 7.5 out of 10.
The wildflower honey gelato was so good, I was astounded.  This was a 10 out of 10.  It captured the essence of the honey perfectly, without being too sweet.  This kitchen has mastered the art of balance.  I can't say any more about this because you really have to try it for yourself.  It was delicious.

We had originally planned to stop after the third round of dessert, but then I was very tempted by the sound of the heirloom apple sorbet (right) on the menu, and our waiter told us that it would be a shame if we didn't try the black sesame gelato (left).  So we gave in and ordered them, bringing out total dessert count to 7.
The heirloom apple sorbet was delicious.  It was absolutely spot-on with the flavor of spring apples and it embodied all the sweet, slightly tart, pink, and floral notes that heirloom apples have.  This may be an odd thing to say, but when I told my sister, she agreed with me completely: this sorbet tasted the way candles smell.  It was unreal in how fragrant it was, but it wasn't at all artificial.  Even thinking about it now, I am somewhat boggled by how they managed to capture the essence of the apple so perfectly.  I would order this again.  10 out of 10; I cannot imagine how it could be improved.
I was actually not interested in the black sesame gelato at first.  I'm not crazy about the flavor of sesame, and I don't particularly like sesame paste or anything like that, but to my surprise, I really enjoyed this gelato.  It was cream, smooth, and sweet in a very balanced way.  Because my mind couldn't accept the idea that I would like a sesame ice cream, I couldn't help but think that it vaguely tasted like peanut butter.  But very, very vaguely.  It was very well executed and definitely something to try if you're a little bit adventurous and like "different" flavors for your gelato.  A 9 out of 10 (and I know, I am biased).

After decimating their dessert menu and shocking and amusing our waiter with the number of desserts we ordered, my sister and I left very satisfied.
What was most amazing was that each delicious gelato/sorbet only cost $3.75.  It was unreal.  Two scoops of delicious frozen dessert topped with a piece of candied ginger, served in a nice glass, for less than four dollars?  And this is a place in DC.  It was amazing.  I would come back for this.  Really.  I could come back to Kushi just for the gelato.  I would also recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a fun and affordable place to go with friends or family.

465 K Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20001
Tel. 202-682-3123
Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10
   **note: They also do take out!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Candied Pomelo Peels

I'm not really a candy maker, but I suppose everyone needs to go outside their comfort zone at some point, and so I briefly ventured into the land of boiled sugar, and I can tell you now that it's not as scary as some people make it seem.

Let's start from the beginning though:  My sister recently went on a trip to California, where we have a lot of family on my mom's side.  When she went to visit a few of our great-aunts and uncles, they gave her some pomelos from their backyard garden to take home.

These pictures aren't edited; my hands just tend to be this odd pink-purple color in the winter because of the cold.

Pomelo, for those of you who don't know, is a large citrus fruit common in Southeast Asian that is comparable to a grapefruit, except that the pomelo is much less sour.  The peel of the pomelo is very thick and it has much of the wonderful fragrance and oils of the fruit, much like the orange peel (in terms of the orange).  I've eaten and seen recipes for orangettes, and I've heard vaguely of people candying pomelo peels, but it never occurred to me as something I might do.

This time, however, after my mom peeled the fruit, we looked at the gorgeous peel left behind and my mom commented upon how wasteful it felt to just throw it away.  I mentioned the recipes for candying the peel and, on a whim, we decided to try it ourselves.

The peel was cut up into matchsticks and then blanched to remove some of the bitterness in the pith.  Then we boiled it in a sugar water mixture for over an hour.  It was essentially a two day process, since we left the candied peels over night to dry before I coated them in sugar and chocolate the next day.

I definitely like the chocolate-coated peels more than the sugar coated ones, but my mom likes both, and she thinks these would be great in a cake (most likely flavored with rum), chopped up and mixed in the batter.  I will have to report back to you on that.  In the mean time, here's a treat to nibble on.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fresh from the Farm

I recently learned about a family-run farm close to my house that raises goats, lambs, pigs, and chickens for meat.  Called Fox Hollow Farms, they are all about natural farming, and so their animals are pasture raised and aren't given any antibiotics or hormones.  I really liked the idea of this because supporting local farming and eating hormone-free meat are two very important things to me, and I told my mom that I wanted us to go visit the farm.

Since my sister and I moved out, my parents have eaten mostly vegetarian for health reasons and because of the fact that we, as a family, have issues with the hormone and antibiotic-laced meat that is sold at supermarkets.  Both my dad and I are carnivores at heart, however, so I've been wanting to find a source of high quality, local meat, rather than having to rely on Pennsylvania or Virginia farms or eat semi-vegetarian.  My mom was very interested in the idea of grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, and so this morning we decided to stop by the farm to visit.

It was a further drive than expected and we actually had to call to confirm their location, but it was absolutely worth it.  The store is connected to the family house, and visitors are invited to come to the back to see the animals.  We could see the goats grazing, and few of the chickens came over to say hello.  My mom swears that one of the sheep made a connection with her and would have smiled if it had the facial muscles to do so.

After a brief chat with one of the owners, we went back in.  We loved the set-up and how the animals were clearly happy and healthy and had plenty of space to grow.  We decided to buy a carton of goat milk, a dozen fresh eggs (taken in just this morning!), a broiler chicken, some frozen cubed goat meat, and a rack of spare ribs (pork).  It wasn't cheap, but we were both excited about our purchases when we left.  We actually ended up sitting in the car and sharing the goat milk immediately because we were hungry and wanted to try it.  It was delicious.  Creamy, flavorful, and vaguely sweet.  I've had goat milk before, but it was a very processed supermarket brand and I wasn't very fond of it.  This milk I thoroughly enjoyed.  A tall cold glass of this could cheer me up on even the worst of days.  That's what good food does for a person.

When we got home, we decided to soft boil a few of the eggs for lunch and have them with some green beans and black truffle salt.  I didn't want to do anything too dramatic with them since they were so fresh; I just wanted their natural flavor to shine.  And oh, they were delicious.  Plus, the eggs were gorgeous.  Look at that light speckling of white on the outside!  Nature is beautiful.

Best of all was that fact that I actually spent the entire day in the kitchen with my mom.  It's rare that I have time to come home and just immerse myself in food (not literally, of course; I never do that), but today was one of those days.  I mixed and baked and tasted and improvised and made various sweet items while my mom cooked goat curry, baked the ribs, marinated the chicken, and made some savory sticky rice.  My dad played French music in the background and worked close-by.  Then, after a wonderful dinner and cleaning up, we watched Food Inc. on my computer.  It was a perfect day.

I will be posting the recipes for what I've made in the upcoming days and weeks, but I just thought I'd throw you a bone now: there is a candy recipe, a cupcake recipe, and a frosting recipe waiting for you.  Future plans do include a cheesecake and some chocolate goodies.

It is good to be home.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monkey Bread

When I bake or cook with my friends, I have a tendency to keep things simple.  Even though it is, most of the time, me just cooking with my friends around me watching, I don't like making things unnecessarily complicated, should someone want to help out.  Hence, our desserts together are often from cake mix, which I spice up a little bit with espresso powder, cocoa powder, cinnamon, or rum (among other things).  This time, I decided to go with an incredibly easy childhood classic: monkey bread.

For those of you that never had monkey bread growing up, it's like cinnamon buns, but easier.  In other words, this stuff is sweet, addictive, unhealthy, and will make your house (or apartment) smell like heaven.  It is everything you shouldn't eat, combined together, and baked to form a gooey, buttery, fluffy mess.

I learned this recipe from my cousin, who got it from her school, which was the only school in our county that still taught Home Ec. when we were growing up.  We used to make it during sleepovers.  Eating it the other night brought back great memories of my middle school days.

Warm monkey bread, a glass of cold milk, and a couple great friends: happiness can be so simple.