Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gobble Gobble

As a food lover, I am fighting a constant battle between two ideals: 1) life is short and is meant to be enjoyed so eat whatever I want and 2) life will be longer and more enjoyable if I stay healthy and fit. I've come to the conclusion that all things in moderation is key, although that thought isn't exactly at the forefront of my brain when I'm staring down the barrel of an eggroll. However, I grew up eating a variety of balanced food so my tastes run to things that are generally on the healthy side. But that doesn't mean I don't like to see how the other half lives.....

Which brings me to Paula Deen - the Queen of Southern Cooking. I watch her show from time to time and always marvel at the amount of butter, mayonnaise and sugar in most of her dishes. Her sweet nature and southern drawl make for an all around entertaining show. Just don't watch it while you're hungry. Although most of her recipes seem appetizing (in a comfort food type of way), I have to admit I don't get the appeal of a shrimp "salad" which is made from chicken flavored Rice A Roni drenched in mayonnaise tossed with some shrimp. Yikes.

Paula Deen's Thanksgiving spread, however, takes the cake as being one of the most heart-attack inducing meals this side of the Mississippi (or the LA Reservoir). I know that Turkey Day is a day when most people set aside any diets (or willpower) and go for the gusto by putting as much food on a plate as possible. But man oh man. Check out the stick-to-your-ribs-and-arteries smorgasbord of Thanksgiving eats on this lady's table. Not a green thing in site!!

Let's start with a few "bite sized" appetizers while we all get our tummies ready for turkey. How about some mini cheeseburgers wrapped in puff pastry? They don't look so mini to me- each are about the size of Paula's hand. If you'd rather go for pork in your hors d' ovuers, there are some bacon wrapped breadsticks rolled in Parmesan cheese. The main course is your choice of a deep fried turkey or a turducken (chicken rolled in duck rolled in turkey with stuffing in between each layer). Don't get me wrong- it all looks good, but I think we've reached the 2000 calorie mark (per person) and we haven't even gotten to the side dishes! Speaking of which, how about some sweet potato balls? These consist of mashed sweet potatoes (mashed with brown sugar and a stick of butter) pressed around a giant marshmallow to form a ball, then rolled in a mixture of brown sugar, white sugar and sweetened coconut (er, because the two kinds of sugar don't already make it sweet enough?) The rounds are then baked in the oven so the marshmallow oozes out when you bite into these hefty balls. I had to agree with Paula when she exclaimed "Now can you believe that this is a vegetable?!" No, actually, I cannot. It looks exactly like a snowball. The Hostess kind.

While these little babies were baking in the oven, it was time to make the stuffing. No, not the stuffing that is rolled into the aforementioned turducken. It's time for the oyster stuffing, made with corn bread, white bread, saltines, butter and oysters. Are you getting full yet? Ms. Deen must have heard my "where's the veg?!" cry right through my TV screen and said "Nah, I am gunna take out my fresh corn and take off the kernels." My eyes brightened- could it be? A freshly grown veggie making it's debut at her Thanksgiving table? She then said "Nah let's take that cor-on and put it all in the bacon fat which we've already rendered." I didn't realize until later that the recipe was called "Mama's Fried Creamed Corn." After the corn is fried, it's finished off with (what else?) a stick of butter and crumbled up bacon. Move over traditional creamed corn- there's an even fattier version in town.

It's time for the dessert! It's a lovely apple butter pumpkin pie, topped off with whipped cream and crushed pralines. For those who think that apple butter contains actual butter, take heart. It's simply apples that have been cooked down and pureed into a butter-like paste. Phew! Saved a few calories on that one! The pie did look delicious but I can't imagine having the room for even a drop of water after all of that food.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's fabulous that Ms. Deen has built a virtual empire from humble beginnings with good, old-fashioned home cookin'. I realize that she is known for her country cooking and it usually involves something buttery and gooey. But I have to admit, the level of, hmmm, what's the word? Dairyness? Heaviness? Butterness? Baconness? of her Thanksgiving meal was particularly surprising. Even my sister called me and asked, "Are you watching this?" We were both in awe of dish after dish of such heavy food. I think I felt a combination of envy, disgust, longing, salavation (no, not salvation, salavation) and concern (for health!) watching the show. I guess I'll always be a girl who needs to see a little green on her plate.

But it was fun to see how the other half eats!

I can't include any photos of the show, so in the Thanksgiving theme, I thought I'd include some photos from my own Thanksgiving (my first doing all of the cooking) from last year.


Is it done yet? It's done!

Choux pastry waiting to be filled with pumpkin mousse and drizzled with maple icing and toasted pecans

Monday, November 28, 2005

Cookies cookies cookies.....


I think I am still in a fog from turkey weekend, so I will post my entries for IMBB/Sugar High Friday cookie swap and save you all from my lame commentary about cookies! I made Chewy Pecan Diamonds, Jam Thumbprint Cookies and Chocolate Crackle Cookies. The jam thumbprint ones were my favorite. My coworkers, however, unanimously agreed that the Chewy Pecan Diamonds were the best. I guess it's just a matter of taste- I love shortbread and the thumbprints are basically that + fruit. I adapted a recipe from Epicurious- the original recipe says to make the indentation, then bake, then fill with jam. I like the chewy consistency that jam gets when baked, so I put the jam into the raw cookie and then baked. I also rolled the dough balls in egg whites and then crushed almonds for a little extra crunch. The combo of the tart jam, crunchy nuts and buttery cookie is truly magical. The pecan bars were simply too sweet and gooey for my taste, but they'll probably be a hit with the crowd. Not that my coworkers are very picky- if you bake it, they will come. I also had some puff pastry in the freezer so I made some mini palmiers just for fun. Enjoy!

Chewy Pecan Diamonds

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 1/4 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
4 cups coarsely chopped pecans (about 14 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 13x9x2-inch baking pan with foil, leaving 1-inch overhang on all sides. Butter foil. Blend flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch and salt in processor. Add butter and process until mixture begins to clump together. Press dough evenly onto bottom of foil-lined pan. Bake crust until set and light golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand while preparing topping. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.

Topping: Stir brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils; boil 1 minute. Add pecans and cream; boil until mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Pour hot topping over warm crust.
Bake nut-topped crust until caramel is darker and bubbles thickly, about 20 minutes. Transfer pan to rack. Cool completely in pan (topping will harden). Lift foil out of pan onto cutting board. Using heavy sharp knife, cut crust with nut topping into 1 1/2x1-inch diamonds. (Can be made 1 week ahead. Store between sheets of waxed paper in airtight container at room temperature.)

Makes about 32.
From: Bon Appétit December 1999

Chewy Pecan Diamonds, Chocolate Crackle Cookie, Jam Thumbprint Cookie


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
6 tablespoons (about) jam or jelly (I used cherry preserves from Trader Joe's)

1 egg white
crushed almonds

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. Using electric mixer, beat 1 cup butter and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Beat in egg yolks, lemon peel, lemon juice and salt. Add flour in 2 additions and beat just until moist clumps form. Gather dough together in bowl to bind dough. Form dough into 1-inch balls. Dip each ball into the egg white and then roll in crushed almonds. Place balls on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. Using finger, make deep indentation in center of each ball. Spoon a teaspoon of jam into the indentations.

Bake cookies until firm to touch and golden on bottom, about 22 minutes. Remove from oven. Transfer cookies to racks and cool completely. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Store between sheets of waxed paper in airtight container at room temperature. Cookies will soften slightly.)

Makes about 36.
Adapted from: Bon AppétitFlavors of the World August 1999

Chocolate Crackle Cookies

Makes about 5 dozen

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 up Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups packed light-brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk
1 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for rolling

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Melt chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, or the top of a double boiler, over a pan of simmering water. Set aside to cool. Into a small bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and light-brown sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Add melted chocolate. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk. Mix on low speed until just combined. Divide dough into quarters, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

3. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. On a surface dusted with confectioners' sugar, use your hands to roll each portion of dough into a log 16 inches in length and about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap logs in plastic wrap, and transfer to a baking sheet. Chill for 30 minutes. Cut each log into 1-inch pieces, and toss pieces in confectioners’ sugar, a few at a time. Using your hands, roll the pieces into balls. If any of the cocoa-colored dough is visible, roll dough in confectioners’ sugar again to coat completely. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies have flattened and sugar splits, 12 to 15 minutes.

4. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

From: Martha Stewart Online

Monday, November 21, 2005

There's more to life than sugar....

Grilled steak w/ red wine reduction, mashed cauliflower and steamed asparagus

I'm really a salt-tooth.....

You may think that I have a big 'ol sweet tooth judging by the first few entries in my blog. However, I am much more of a salt addict than anything else. If given the choice between chocolate cake or french fries, I'd almost always go for the latter. Anything that is salty & crunchy is my biggest weakness. Sun Chips are the greatest snack food ever invented. Wheat Thins comes a close second. I know those items aren't exactly gourmet, but I truly believe that whoever invented Sun Chips (particularly the French Onion flavor) is a genius.

The reason I bake so much is that it gives me an outlet for my creativity. Sometimes an idea will just come to me- it isn't because I necessarily feel like eating that item, it just......happens. Once I practically had an epiphany when all of a sudden I kept imagining this dessert made of macha spongecake layered with anko (sweet bean) whipped cream all covered in a white chocolate ganache and dusted with macha powder. I ran home and tried it- and miraculously, it just all came together....until the end. I had made the sheets of green spongecake, cut them into perfect rounds with a biscuit cutter, folded the thick anko paste in small batches into the whipped cream and started to assemble. I had a bag of white chocolate chips and used that to make the ganache, but the quality wasn't high enough and the ganache was way too thin. You could see the green and purple layers underneath. It looked more like something out of a Dr. Seuss book than the elegant dessert I had hoped for. Although I am inspired to make savory creations, the ghosts of pastry just speak to me in my dreams. OK, that was cheesy but you get the idea.

Anyway, I did spend a nice chunk of my Saturday baking cookies for the upcoming IMBB Sugar High Friday cookie swap event, but I don't want to post those just yet. Instead, I thought I would post a few savory dishes I have made in the recent past. Enjoy!

Paprika roasted chicken w/ vegetables

Linguini w/ seafood in a spicy tomato sauce

Thursday, November 17, 2005

You put your mayonnaise in my chocolate...

I recently completed a "Pro I" course at a local culinary school. The experience was a good one, but I have to say I was disappointed that it wasn't more challenging and a bit shocked that a few people in my class had never even boiled water. I don't know about you, but to me, any course called "Cooking: Professional I" implies that you may want to know what a spatula looks like before enrolling. My dreams of a strict, French chef hovering over me and yelling that my julienne were not fine enough were quickly shattered. Although I learned a few new things, it wasn't the experience I had been hoping for. I did , however, learn one secret that I wouldn't have expected and it's been very valuable to me ever since.

One day when we were all working on various poultry dishes, our teacher (who is a pastry chef by trade) started making us a chocolate cake for dessert. As I went to work on cutting up my chicken, I watched as she put all of the dry ingredients (cocoa, flour, salt, baking powder) in one bowl, and then reached for a giant vat of mayonnaise. She must be making some sort of sandwich spread for the chicken, I thought. But then I watched in horror as she took an entire cup of the white stuff and mixed it into the cake ingredients! I don't even think I was aware that I burst out with "WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!!!" My teacher turned to me and said dryly, "Anne, what wet ingredients are in a cake batter?" So I stuttered, "Um....oil and eggs." She went onto say "Anne, what is mayonnaise made out of?" So I whispered, "Er.....oil and eggs." Still, I was skeptical. I mean, I like my mayo (especially if it's Kewpie brand) but this was a bit much.

After we all ingested enough poultry (chicken, duck, cornish hens, turkey, pheasant) to last us a lifetime, she presented the beautifully frosted chocolate cake. I sniffed, poked, prodded and finally took a bite. It was rich, beautifully moist and ever so chocolately with the softest crumb. Who'da thunk it? All this time I'd been going out of my way to Whole Foods to pick up chickens-got-daily-spa-treatments-organic eggs thinking it'd make a better cake, and my teacher whips out a can of.......Best Foods. You thought I was gonna say Whoop Ass, didn't ya? She may as well have, because her mayo cake certainly kicked mine.

Since then, I've seen several cake recipes that include mayonnaise. It turns out that the idea is not so new and your grandmother probably knew this trick. I'm not saying that mayo should replace some good eggs and oil in all cakes, but if you're looking to make a simple but ultra moist chocolate cake, it works very well.

I recently made one for a friend's baby shower, and it was a huge hit- of course no one knew there was a cup of mayonnaise in it either.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Macaron overload

Note to self: just because your first attempt at macaron making turned out okay, it does not mean that you will have similar luck the next time. Or the next. Just because the chocolate ones you made last week looked and tasted pretty good, it doesn't mean you can start throwing in other ingredients and concocting other flavors and expect the same result.

Today I feel utterly defeated. This past weekend, I mixed, whipped, folded and piped myself into exhaustion only to end up with boatloads of overly crunchy and misshapen macarons. I know practice makes perfect and you learn from your mistakes, yadda yadda yadda. It's just too bad I had to go overboard and purchase every ingredient under the sun, only to have them go to waste. Ok ok, the macarons weren't inedible, but they were nothing close to the little Nuggets of Perfection I had dreamt about. Oh well.

I thought I'd console myself by baking a couple of loaves of bread. I started my fermentation process the night before by mixing my yeast, water, honey and salt and putting the containers in the fridge. The next day I made my dough and went about my business as I waited for the first rise. I made sure not to peak so my little blobs could get some privacy. An hour later, I checked on them and they hadn't risen an inch. Everything smelled ok, but they looked exactly the same as before. I told myself that the yeast was just taking a nap and needed more time (er, yeah....that makes sense....) and checked back an hour later to find that the little suckers STILL hadn't grown. By this time I had my head stuck so far down in the sand that I actually went ahead, formed the dough into boules and stuck them in the oven to bake. Who cares if everything I've learned about baking told me that I'd end up with a couple of doorstops?! No air in the dough? Maybe a miracle would happen and I'd end up with edible bread! After spending five hours failing miserably at macarons the day before, my ego went into overdrive. I was NOT going to have another failure!

After an hour in the oven, I pulled out my little boulders and wondered why I even tried. I knew they would be dense, chewy and inedible. I've read The Bread Baker's Apprentice enough times to know that you need AIR in the little pups to make them delicious. I guess I was just in denial and hoped the baking gods would look down on me favorably.

And then a realization struck me. Even though I had done all the things I know I'm supposed to do- knead the dough considerably, place a towel over the bowls to keep out any draft, put the bowls in a nice warm place....I had a hunch that it was something else. I ran to the fridge, pulled out my handy little glass jar of yeast, and checked the expiration date. March 2003!!!! Yes, I am admitting this on the world wide web that I keep rancid food in my beloved refrigerator!!! Well, not exactly food but still- the poor little jar had been ignored since the US invasion of Iraq. New Year's resolution: start taking weekly inventory of refrigerator and pantry.

I didn't take photos of my failed loaves, but here are some shots of the macaron- wannabes for your viewing pleasure! The flavors are:

Pistachio w/ pistachio buttercream (a mix of butter, confectioner's sugar and pistachio 'butter' I got in Italy)

Macha w/ chestnut buttercream (pureed chestnuts w/ butter and confectioner's sugar). Notice the little nipples on there- a sign that the batter was too thick.
White sesame w/ black sesame buttercream (butter, black sesame paste and confectioner's sugar). More nipples!

Yuzu w/ lemon buttercream

Friday, November 11, 2005

Macarons and me....

Before I write about the topic at hand, let me tell you that I just managed to erase my entire first real blog entry! I finally got the photos in the places I wanted, was fairly satisfied with the editorial and eager to see the finished product, when all of a sudden, I made a wrong move and it all disappeared. *Sigh.*

On the topic of macarons, I have a big confession to make. I spent three days in Paris last summer and didn't eat any. Not one. I was prepared to lose my macaron virginity to Pierre Hermé but the Paris heat & humidity sent us running for the cool waters of Nice, so I never got my chance. I stood firm by my promise that there would be no first time unless it was with Pierre. So, after a week of eating the thin crust pizzas and pan bagnats of the French Riviera, I left, macaronless and heartbroken.

Did I say stand firm? Well, I figured that the chances of finding myself in Paris once again anytime soon are slim at best, and a girl has urges that need to be fulfilled! So I broke my promise to the Prince of Macarons and found myself staring at six tiny and colorful confections at Jin Patisserie- a well renowned bakery/cafe in Venice (California, not Italy). I had read about their macarons in various food publications and was eager to try them. I chose black sesame, caramel, mocha, pistachio, macha and vanilla. To all who think me a glutton- each one was about the size of a quarter, and at $1.99 a pop, not exactly a bargain. I had high hopes and carefully untied the pink ribbon from the box. I started with the caramel. Great flavor, but most of the cookie part crumbled all over me since it was crunchy and filled with large pockets of air. The pistachio one did the exact same thing, and so on, and so on. By this time I had a massive sugar headache since each one was cloyingly sweet. Krispy Kreme sweet. Bubble Yum sweet. You get the idea. I could practically hear Pierre laughing at my ignorance in thinking that anyone but he could sweep me off my feet.

The one good thing that came out of the experience was an inspiration to try and make my own. I have no delusions that I could make a macaron as well as even the most novice French baker, but I thought it might be fun to try. At the suggestion of the brilliant Cynthia (of FoodMigration fame), I read David Lebowitz's account of his first attempt at macaron baking and carefully followed instructions. I made the chocolate/chocolate combo, and I must say- they weren't half bad. My first batch came out a bit overdone but the cookies in the second batch were slightly crispy on the outside, chewy/melty on the inside. Yes, I just said melty. I think my years of living in Tokyo as warped my slang a bit.

I think I will continue my macaron baking and am eager to try out different flavor combinations. And one day, some day, I will have my long awaited encounter with Pierre.

I'm finally making my foray into the food blogger's universe! Please be patient if there are technical difficulties in the first month or so!

My plan is to simply use this blog to share my cooking and eating experiences and join the vast and supremely talented food blogger world.

Hope you enjoy!