Grrrreat Granola

granola

Somewhere along the line, oat cuisine got elevated from standard horsefeed into gourmet granola. Nowadays, you can get granola in designer flavors like apple cinnamon, mocha, sunflower seed this and dried cranberry that. I don’t understand why companies charge $5 for little sacks, especially when the main ingredient is what Romans considered a diseased version of wheat (according to Good Eats).

Homemade granola is dirt cheap and more delicious than commercial varieties. It puts a certain “grrrreat” cereal to shame. This Good Eats recipe makes seriously addictive granola. Other recipes were either too dry, flavorless, or didn’t get the ratio of the add-ins right. But Alton’s version is sweet, salty and crispy but not dry.

Notes/tips:

  • Unlike most baking recipes, this recipe is open to ingredient substitions. I halved the amount of nuts and also chopped them so I would get more in each bite. Instead of coconut, I used toasted okara, or soy bean pulp, that was leftover from my homemade soy milk. Okara is a nutritional powerhouse: it’s high in fiber, protein and isoflavones. The granola was a bit too sweet for me, so next time I’ll reduce the sweeteners by 1/4 cup. I didn’t stir in dried fruit, for fear of the moisture transferring over to the crispy oats. But I have a whole slew of choices from Sahadi’s :-) that I can add in on a case-by-case basis.
  • You may substitute other nuts and seeds for the standard almonds and cashews. You can also use your favorite dried fruit instead of raisins. Some flavoring ideas:
  • Holiday spice: use cranberries and add a pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg, all spice and/or cardamom to taste.
  • Nutella: use hazelnuts and add a couple tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, or to taste.
  • Chunky monkey: use banana chips, walnuts, and add in chocolate chips after the granola has cooled.
  • Tropical: use pineapple and/or banana chips and macadamias.
  • To get chunky granola, pack it in the pan very tightly, as if making one giant bar. After the first stir, the granola will break up into pieces.
  • For the best nut flavor, use whole raw nuts and toast them for about 10 min. shortly before consumption. Most nuts, including almonds and hazelnuts, go in a preheated 350 F oven. Walnuts and pecans go in at 325 F. Stir the nuts occassionally and pull them out when they turn light brown, as they’ll continue toasting with the rest of the granola. Raw macadamias are delicate and should brown up fine with the granola.
  • Since Alton’s sweetener of choice, maple syrup, is expensive, you can substitute honey, brown rice syrup, or concentrated fruit juice. You may have to tinker with the recipe, as the sweeteners all have varying moisture and sugar content. Imitation maple syrup is not recommended, as it does little for flavor.

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Sahadi’s Stash

Italy has its olive and hazelnut oil, France has chestnut spread, Greece has fresh filo dough, Morocco has couscous, and China has roasted soybeans, but Sahadi’s in Brooklyn has it all.

This weekend, I prepared for the trek by bringing along an empty backpack. According to Gothamist, Sahadi’s shelves of imported oils, coffee, tea, spices, dried fruits, nuts and cheeses guarantee that shoppers will buy more than they can carry.

I told myself that I was just stocking up on ingredients for Su Good Sweets, but who was I kidding? I brought home this stash instead.

Clockwise:
Cocoa – $3.50/lb
Hazelnuts – $5.25/lb
Whole wheat couscous – $1.40/lb
Dried natural mango slices – $3.50/lb
Zatar (A woodsy, lemony spice blend consisting of sumac, sesame seeds, oregano and thyme. It’s excellent when combined with thick yogurt, used as a dry rub, or mixed with olive oil and spread on pitas.) – $2.50/lb
Dried natural Turkish apricots – $2.50/lb
Dried cranberries – $3.50/lb
Dried pitted dates – $2.35/lb
Knowing that I saved a buttload of money – priceless

New Yorkers in the know go to Fairway, Zabar’s and Gourmet Garage, but why pay $150 for balsamic vinegar again? Sahadi’s is just the first stop in Brooklyn off the 4/5 train. It’s a small price to pay for a cheap gourmet smorgasboard.

Supposedly Sahadi’s has super fresh ingredients since they have so many customers. My stash, however, was a mixed bag. Some of the dates were soft and moist, but most were a bit dry and chewy. The mangoes, while not doused in sugar, were not as fragrant as Costco’s Philippine variety. The stringy texture was also reminiscent of ginger. Thankfully, the cranberries were sweet, tart and moist.

If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by Damascus Bakery just a few doors down. Try their baklava (The almond and pistachio are equally good, but I don’t recommend the blonde bird’s nest: it’s too sweet and doesn’t have that toasty flavor.), mamool (The world’s first sweet cookie, traditionally made with semolina flour. I wasn’t too big on the oily, sandy texture), or pitas (6 for 75 cents in the unmarked bags!). Or, just nibble on whatever free sample they have out. While you’re in the ‘hood, you can also make a day out of exploring the entire street.

Sahadi’s
187-189 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Hours: Mon-Fri 9-7, Sat 8:30 -7
718-624-4550

Damascus Bakery
195 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Hours: Open 7 days 7AM-7PM
718-625-7070

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IMBB 15: Chocolate Mousse Truffles

This month, Elise at Simply Recipes is hosting the online foodie event, Is My Blog Burning. The theme this time is “Has my blog jelled?” – meaning people across the world will cook with gelatin, pectin, or agar agar and blog about it. Check out her round-up of all the recipes and try something!In America, gelatin is synonymous with Jell-O. It’s fun to look at the jiggly dessert, but it’s nothing more than extra sweet fruit juice that’s been chemically altered to hold its shape. Time and again, I’m seduced by the clear, sparkling colors, but the taste never matches up. And the texture’s rubbery.

I resolve to elevate gelatin from its kitschy roots. Stop using it to make wobbly pineapple-marshmallow ambrosia! There are better applications out there, like chocolate truffles.

Chocolate goddess Alice Medrich has found a way to freeze mousse and make them into luxurious truffles. These have just 2.7 grams of fat each and less than half the calories of regular truffles!

Chocolate Truffles
From Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich
Makes about 45 truffles
Start working at least 1 day ahead

Chocolate truffle mousse center:
7/8 tsp. gelatin
1 egg, separated
1/4 cup unsweetened dutch process cocoa
1/4 cup plus 1/6 cup sugar
5/8 cup low-fat 1% milk
2 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/16 tsp. cream of tartar

Coating:
16 oz. bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup unsweetened dutch process cocoa

Make the mousse:

  1. Sprinkle the gelatin over 1/8 cup cold water in a small cup. Let stand, untouched, for at least 5 minutes, or until needed.
  2. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl near the stove and have a small whisk ready on the side. Combine the cocoa with 1/6 cup of sugar in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart saucepan. Stir in enough milk to form a paste, then add in the remaining milk. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, reaching the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent burning. Stir the chocolate mixture continuously once it begins to simmer. Simmer gently, still stirring, for about 1 1/2 minutes.
  3. Turn off the heat and whisk a small amount of the hot mixture into the egg yolks. Scrape the mixture back into the pot and whisk well to combine. It’s now safe to eat and will thicken without anymore cooking. Stir in the softened gelatin, chopped chocolate, and vanilla. Let stand for a minute or so, and whisk again until chocolate’s completely melted and the mixture’s perfectly smooth.
  4. Set the saucepan in a large bowl of ice water to cool and thicken. Stir and scrape the sides occasionally. If the mixture begins to cool too quickly, remove from ice bath, whisk and set aside. Should the mixture actually set, place the pan in a bowl of hot water and stir just until resoftened.
  5. Make the meringue: Simmer 1 inch of water in a large skillet. Combine cream of tartar and 1 tsp of water in a 4- to 6-cup heatproof bowl. Whisk in the egg whites and 1/4 cup of sugar. Place an instant-read thermometer near the stove in a mug of very hot water. Place the bowl in the skillet. Stir the mixture briskly and constantly with a heat-proof spatula, scraping the sides and bottom often to avoid scrambling the whites. After 1 minute, remove the bowl from the skillet. Quickly insert thermometer, tilting bowl to cover the stem by at least 2 inches. If it’s less than 160 F, rinse the thermometer in the skillet water and return it to the mug. Place bowl in the skillet again. Stir as before until temperature reaches 160 F when bowl is removed. Beat on high speed until cool and stiff.
  6. Fold about a quarter of the cooled chocolate mixture into the beaten egg whites. Scrape the egg white mixture back into the remaining chocolate mixture. Fold to combine.
    Note: if you don’t mind raw egg whites, you don’t need to cook the whites beforehand. Simply beat the whites and cream of tartar in a bowl (water is unnecessary). When the mixture forms soft peaks, slowly sprinkle in the sugar and beat until stiff. Because this cooked meringue is firmer and deflates less than ordinary meringue, there’s a reversal in the conventional procedure for folding it with another mixture. If using regular meringue, lighten the mousse by folding a bit of the meringue in the chocolate mixture.
  7. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and freeze until firm enough to scoop, 5 hours or longer.

Form truffle centers:

  1. Get ready a bowl of hot water, a melon baller or spoon, a pan lined with wax paper, and the firm mousse. Dip the melon baller into the water and wipe dry. Form a scant 1-inch ball. Place it on the pan. Dip, wipe, and scoop centers until the mixture’s gone. Freeze centers at least 12 hours, or overnight. Centers may be prepared to this point and frozen for up to 2 weeks.

Coat the truffles:

  1. Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water, stirring frequently to prevent overheating. Or microwave on Medium (50% power) for about 3 minutes, stopping to stir several times. Chocolate is ready when it is completely melted and smooth and between 115 and 120 F.
  2. Pour cocoa into a shallow dish. Have ready another shallow dish for the completed truffles. Remove a third to a half of the frozen centers from the freezer and place them in a shallow dish next to the container of melted chocolate.
  3. With your right hand (left if you are left-handed), fingers together and slightly cupped, scoop a large handful of melted chocolate into your left hand. Rub both hands together to coat them with a thick layer of chocolate. Try not to get the chocolate on your fingers. Quickly pick up a frozen center with your left hand and roll it gently between your hands with a circular motion and as little pressure as possible, just long enough to cover it with a coating of chocolate. Add chocolate to your hands as you need it Immediately place the coated center in the cocoa dish. If you see any uncoated spots, dip a finger into the chocolate and patch the truffle. Have someone else shake the dish, roll the truffle in cocoa, and transfer it to a clean dish. Repeat until all the centers are coated, adding chocolate to your hands between each one. (If you’re alone, just divide the cocoa between 2 dishes. Place 2 or 3 truffles in the cocoa before stopping to shake the dish. Continue to add truffles and shake until the first cocoa dish is crowded with truffles, then start on the second.) Truffles may be stored in a tightly covered container in the freezer for up to 6 weeks. Serve frozen.

Notes:

  • Work quickly to keep the melted chocolate from hardening on your hands as you handle the frozen centers. Just keep the center moving–never let it rest in one place in your hands–and get it out of your hands as fast as possible.
  • You will have both chocolate and cocoa left over because the dipping technique requires that you work with more than you need. Place the leftovers in small plastic bags (strain the cocoa first). Store in the freezer (since they might have little of the melted truffle mixture) until needed for another recipe. Or heat the leftovers with milk and sugar to taste for decadent hot chocolate.
  • This should go without saying, but do not use a Hershey’s bar, chocolate chips or Baker’s chocolate. Use something decent, like Lindt, or Ghirardelli. Or splurge on Valrhona. I used the Valrhona that my brother gave me for my birthday.

Variations:
Add raspberry jam, peanut butter, coffee, Nutella, chile powder, cinnamon, or chopped nuts to the mousse mixture. Coat the truffles with chopped nuts, coconut, or sesame seeds.

Other applications for the low-fat filling:

Chocolate mousse: Double the mousse recipe and refrigerate it for four hours. Serve in 6-8 goblets. For an extra sensual experience, chop the chocolate coarsely, into 1-cm pieces, so it doesn’t dissolve completely in the hot milk mixture. The remaining chocolate bits will melt as they hit your tongue.

The mousse strikes a perfect balance between foaminess and creaminess.

It’s so rich that I could only eat a tablespoon at a time. Then I remembered how good it was and helped myself to some more and felt sick afterwards. Why oh why did I subject myself to such torture?

Bittersweet chocolate marquis: Double the mousse recipe and freeze it in a 4 to 5-cup loaf pan. Serve in 1/2-inch slices with creme anglaise (custard sauce) or strained raspberry puree. It’s richer than super-premium ice cream.

Chocolate gelato: Double the mousse recipe and freeze it in a container. No ice cream maker is necessary. Soften it in the fridge 15 minutes before serving and scoop into bowls. Gelato is softer and more flavorful than ice cream. This will explode in your mouth!

Frozen chocolate truffle sandwich cookies: Layer a thin coating of frozen mousse between two macaroon cookies and serve straight from the freezer.

Layered cake: Use the mousse immediately as a filling in your favorite cake. Refrigerate and serve when set.

Charlotte: Line a large bowl or round cake pan with plastic wrap. Then line the bottom and sides with ladyfingers or sponge cake and fill it with the mousse (triple the recipe above). Cover the top with berries and another layer of ladyfingers. Refrigerate 4 hours or until firm and invert the charlotte onto a serving platter.

Buche de Noel: Make your favorite sponge cake in a jelly-roll pan. Line it with the frozen mousse (triple the recipe above) and roll it into a cylinder. Cover the cake with meringue and freeze until ready to serve. Bake the cake in a 425 F oven until golden brown, about 4-6 minutes. Serve immediately.

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The Beauty of a Bagel


Photo: Christopher Smith/New York Times

“A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.

“All else is not a bagel.” – Ed Levine, New York Times

Sometimes New Yorkers can seem like snobs, proclaiming that there is no other city in which to live. Surbanites resent that the “capital of the world” presents itself as the leader in museums, theater, fashion and media.But trust New Yorkers on this: they truly make great bagels.

I’m not trying to be a snob. I grew up loving Noah’s and Lender’s bagels. Almost everyday in eighth grade, I went to my local Socal store, Just Bagels, where I delighted in the chocolate chip and blueberry bagels. That was before I knew better.

A bagel, contrary to popular belief, is not a doughnut-shaped roll. There should be a marked difference in texture between the crust and the interior. The crust should crack, not crinkle, when you bite into it. The insides should be chewy, elastic and moist. Its crumbs should not resemble sawdust.

A plain New York bagel is so good that it does not need to be toasted, buttered or cream cheesed.

This weekend, my friend Thom hosted an after-church brunch. It was really an excuse for me to make bagels. I normally wouldn’t make them for myself, since I don’t have enough room in my overstuffed freezer to store the leftovers. I’m a huge fan of cooking and freezing, since it keeps food fresh and offers built-in portion control.

I used a recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. If you don’t live in New York, these are as close to an authentic bagel as you can get. Hot out of the oven, these are better plain than with any spread. It sounds like heresy, but Nutella detracts from the dough.

Basically you make a sponge out of high-protein flour, instant yeast and water. Let it sit for two hours, or until double. This extra step helps the dough develop more flavor.

Then you add some more flour, sweetener (preferably barley malt) and salt. After some heavy kneading, you shape the dough and let it retard in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, you briefly boil the dough and sprinkle on toppings while it’s still wet. I used oatmeal, black sesame, flax seed, chopped almonds and white sesame. Into a blistering hot oven it goes.

Notes/tips:
The bottoms developed a crunchy golden crust, thanks to the cornmeal-covered baking sheet. However, the tops did not brown, even though I cooked them for almost double the time. I suspect it’s because I put two sheets on the middle rack, thus preventing air circulation. Next time I’ll put the sheets on separate racks and alternate them halfway through baking. Don’t spoil your hard work by pulling out the bagels before they brown.

The texture of the interior was right on, and it tasted better than any grocery-store brand. However, the flavor wasn’t as complex as my favorite bagel, Murray’s Bagels. I suspect it’s because the sponge didn’t have enough time to develop its flavor. Since I had active dry instead of instant yeast, I made some changes to the recipe. Active dry yeast does not dissolve as readily, so I mixed it with hot water rather than room temperature water, as the recipe instructed. I also added all the yeast to the sponge, since the second step didn’t involve any liquid. As a result, my sponge doubled in only an hour. To slow down the rise, I’d dissolve the yeast in cooler water. I’d also divide the yeast and dissolve the second addition in 1/4 cup water (reserved from the sponge).

High-gluten (14% protein) or bread (13% protein) flour is necessary to give the bagel its texture and structure. You can make your own bread flour by adding 2 tsp vital wheat gluten to every cup of all-purpose flour.

Don’t be greedy with the toppings–every square inch doesn’t have to be covered. Any excess will fall off and be wasted, although sprinkling the extras over rice is tasty.

My dough was dimpled rather than smooth because it was difficult to knead by hand. The entire mass was as big as a basketball! And it only made 12 regular (or 24 mini) bagels. No wonder bagels have up to 400 calories, before the cream cheese! You’ll get better results if you use a stand mixer with a dough hook. But either way, the bagels are delicious.

Here’s how to spot an authentic bagel without even biting into it:

  • The exterior should be glossy – a sure sign that the bagel was boiled before being baked.
  • Little air bubbles peaking beneath the crust is a good sign. I suspect the dough blisters because of a hot oven (hence the term “blistering hot”).
  • When you tap the crust, it should sound like you’re hitting hard candy. If it sounds like a hollow football, you’ve hit a dud.
  • Avoid all bagels from New York street carts. They’re oversized, pillowy breads that “whoosh” when you bite into them.
  • Generally, authentic bagelries do not sell “gourmet” flavors. Asiago cheese and jalapeno toppings cover up a bagel’s shortcomings. I mean, would you ever eat a plain, untoasted and unadourned Thomas’ bagel? Ewwwwwwww.

    However, Bagel Oasis in Queens seems to be an exception.

If you visit New York, be sure to stop by my two favorite shops:

  • Murray’s Bagels-242 Eighth Avenue (between 22nd and 23rd Streets) or 500 Sixth Avenue (between 12th and 13th Streets)
  • Bagelry-429 Third Avenue (at 30th Street)

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Chocolate delivery

*BZZ*

Hmm, who was visiting me at this strange hour at night?

“Who is it?” I cautiously asked over the intercom.

“Delivery for Jessica Su,” said the voice on the other end.

Those words made me giddy with delight as I rushed downstairs to open the door.

“These are from your brother,” the man said. “I spoke to him this morning.”

There was something old-fashioned about this delivery, since the man “knew” the sender and the recipient. It reminded me of the pony express, or hand-delivered telegrams.

I ravenously opened the nondescript package and dug out two tubs of dark Valrhona chocolate, arguably the most exquisite chocolate ever! My brother, recognizing my taste for fine chocolate (pavlova or chocolate truffle cookies, anyone?), ordered it for my birthday. Supposedly, the Brooklyn-based supplier, L’Epicerie, has reasonably priced Valrhona (I don’t know much it costs—I don’t want to check how much my brother spent on me) and a friendly French customer service rep.

The chocolate is pre-measured into small pieces, so no chopping is required for melting. The grand cru guanaja has a wide variety of applications: ganache, coating, cakes, biscuits, mousses/creams and ice cream.

One three-gram (a puny 1/10 of an ounce) “feve” is more satisfying than 10 Hershey’s kisses. The clean chocolate taste is slightly bitter. (Bitter as in rich. Not bitter as in harsh.) These would make awesome truffles (from Alice Medrich’s Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts), gelato, or hot chocolate. Goodbye, City Bakery and your hot chocolate! I don’t need you anymore!

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Lazy Sunday Pavlova

Since today was Easter (see what Easter means to me), my friend Heather hosted a potluck lunch at her cozy Upper West Side apartment.

Lunch felt like an old-fashioned affair. There was no agenda to worry about and no reason to rush. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon shared by a group of friends.

Heather decorated the table with pastel napkins, plates and egg-shaped name tags. Instead of candy, the "eggs" held a different kind of suprise. When it came time to eat, we flipped over the name tags and read Bible verses from the back of them. It was like group theater meets a holiday celebration.

Then we said grace and slowly savored sweet potato vichyssoise (that’s soup for you non-culinary minded folk), salad with raspberry-glazed pecans, spiced potatoes, bread and my baked brown rice pilaf. For dessert, we paired date bars and my pavlova (recipe courtesy Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer) with tea.

The pavlova had a crisp, meringue crust. The inside was a mixture between squidgy (as Nigella says) marshmallow and creamy, airy mousse. The whole thing was studded with bittersweet chocolate chunks, which gave it little jolts of richness.

It was super easy to make and rustic yet sophisticated. Don’t worry when the edges crack; it adds to the pavlova’s character. Besides, there’s nothing that can’t be repaired (er, covered up) with dollops of whipped cream and elegantly arranged fruit.

Notes/tips:
You can top the pavlova with any kind of semi-firm fruit, such as raspberries, kiwi, or blueberries. I chose strawberries because one pound is only $1 in Chinatown! (My favorite place to get fresh produce is the intersection of Canal and Walker. There’s lots of food stands, which ensures competitive pricing. Also, the fish so fresh that it’s odorless.)

Do not spread the batter all the way to the edges of the nine-inch circle, because it expands as it bakes.

To lighten the dessert, you can replace the whipped cream topping with yogurt cheese. Simply drain vanilla yogurt (with no gelatin) with a cheesecloth, coffee filter or paper towel fitted over a strainer overnight in the fridge. One cup yogurt yields about 1/3 cup cheese.

Or, if you’re lactose intolerant like Heather, take one 12-ounce block of extra-firm silken tofu (recommended brand: Morinu) , combine with 2 tbsp sugar, and blitz it in a blender till smooth. Refrigerate overnight to firm it up. It’s not the same as whipped cream, but I don’t think anyone knew they were eating tofu today.

The pavlova is extremely sweet, so I recommend adding an extra tbsp of cocoa to make it 1/4 cup. I would also decrease the sugar from 1 1/2 cups to 1 1/4 cups or even 1 cup.

Since the pavlova only has two ounces of chocolate, use the best chocolate you can find to make the flavor stretch further.

It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold but easier to beat when they’re at room temperature.

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Is My Blog Burning: Fluffernutter Cupcakes

 

Cupcakes take the cake! At least that’s what Maki at I Was Just Really Hungry says for this month’s edition of Is My Blog Burning.

Cupcakes take me back to my childhood, when the best thing about celebrating classmates’ birthdays was the obligatory cupcakes. Ha, forget about wishing them a good birthday. Just give me the cupcake…a cake I don’t have to share with anyone else.

Remember the good old days, before schools banned cupcakes? At least Texas reversed its decision.

And perhaps no other food encompasses childhood like the Fluffernutter sandwich. Before artisan breads became stylish, before we had to worry about eating whole grains, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth peanut butter and marshmallow fluff on soft white bread was perfectly acceptable.

So I made a Fluffernutter sandwich in cupcake form. These are semi-healthy, since most of the fat comes from the peanuts. Most cupcake recipes call for a stick of butter each for the batter and frosting. This recipe has 1/8 of a stick of butter!

The first thing I noticed about these cupcakes was the intense peanut butter smell. Although they weren’t as moist as the cakes from Sugar Sweet Sunshine (which can be remedied by adding butter of course), they were a satisfying snack for a sweet ‘n’ salty craving.

Fluffernutter Cupcakes
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
Makes 15-18 cupcakes

For the peanut butter cupcakes:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg
1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line muffin pans with paper liners.

Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse for a few seconds to mix. Scrape the sides of the bowl and the blade and pulse until smooth. The entire mixing process should not take more than 5 seconds.

If you don’t have a food processor, whisk all the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Cream the butter, oil and peanut butter with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the sugar. When incorporated, add the egg and vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl frequently with a rubber spatula to keep the batter smooth. On low-speed, alternately add the dry mixture in three additions with the milk in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Stir in chocolate chips, if using. Hint: toss the chips with a bit of flour to keep them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.

Fill the muffin cups about two-thirds full. Hint: for mess-free, consistent portion control, use an ice cream scoop.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 25-30 minutes.

Remove from the pan and let cool completely on a rack before frosting. Hint: put more frosting than you think you need on a spatula/knife and place it in the middle of the cake. Without lifting the spatula, spread the frosting to the edges by rotating your wrist.

For the marshmallow (aka seven-minute) frosting:
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
Makes 2 cups

2 1/2 tbsp water
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg white
1/2 tbsp light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Have the egg whites at room temperature, 68-70 F. Whisk everything except the vanilla together in a large stainless-steel bowl. Whipe excess sugar off the side of the bowl, as it will be difficult to dissolve later.

Set the bowl in a wide, deep skillet filled with about 1 inch of simmering water. Make sure the water level is at least as high as the depth of the egg whites in the bowl.

Beat the whites on low speed until the mixture reaches 140F on an instant-read thermometer. Do not stop beating while the bowl is in the skillet, or the egg whites will be overcooked. If you cannot hold the thermometer stem in the egg whites while continuing to beat, remove the bowl from the skillet just to read the thermometer, then return the bowl to the skillet. Beat on high speed for exactly 5 minutes.

Remove the bowl from the skillet and add the vanilla.

Beat on high speed for 2-3 more minutes to cool. Use the day it is made.

Since I won a pack-rat/frugal food food award, here’s suggestions for leftover frosting:
Dollop hot cocoa with it
Make Fluffernutter sandwiches out of it
Melt it with 1-2 tbsp butter and stir in rice krispies/oatmeal (1-2 cups) to make bars
Spoon it on top of ice cream

Variations:

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes
Frost with chocolate frosting for a richer cupcake.

Chocolate Frosting:
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
6 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped (You can substitute dark chocolate for adult tastes. Or you can simply use 3 ounces dark chocolate to cut the fat and keep the flavor)

Combine sugar and cocoa small, heavy saucepan. Gradually add just enough milk to make a paste, and then stir in the rest.

Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and reaching into the corners of the pan, over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil Boil gently, sirring, for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add vanilla.

Let cool for 5 minutes. Stir in chocolate until melted and smooth. Cover the surgace of the frosting with a piece of wax or parchment paper and let cool until spreadable.

This keeps, refrigerated, for up to 1 week. Or freeze for up to 6 months.

Peanut Butter Jelly Cupakes
Swirl 1/3 cup melted jelly in the batter. Or, fill muffin cups 1/3 of the way up, spoon in 1 tsp jelly, and top with batter to fill the cups 2/3 full.

Nutella-Peanut Butter Cupakes
Frost cupcakes with Nutella. Melt the Nutella with a couple tablespoons milk, or it will be too thick and tear the cupcakes.

Honey Nut Cupcakes
Substitute sugar with 1/2 cup + 1 2/3 tbsp honey and reduce milk to 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp. Also add 1/8 tsp baking soda. Note that honey browns faster than sugar, so the cakes will probably cook faster. Thanks to Good Eats for the adaptation. I have no idea if it works.

Frost with:
Honey Cream Cheese Frosting
(Adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

8 ounces cream cheese
5 tbsp unsalted butter (optional)
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 to 2 cups honey (feel free to change based on your tastes)

Have the cream cheese cold and the butter at room temperature, 68-70 F.

In a medium bowl, beat cheese, butter and vanilla just until blended. Add the honey one-third at a time and beat just until smooth and the desired consistency. If the frosting is too stiff, beat for a few seconds longer. Do not overbeat.

This keeps, refrigerated, for about 1 week. Or freeze for up to 3 months. Soften and stir until smooth before using.

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Just like grandma’s

This post is an entry for the “Comfort Me” contest, hosted by Moira at Who Wants Seconds? Check out her site to read about other people’s favorite comfort foods!

For some reason, food made by grandmothers tastes better than anything else. Maybe it’s because grandmothers had years of experience in the kitchen. Or maybe, in my case, it’s because my grandmother raised me.

For the first four years of my life, my family lived in my grandmother’s home, so she cooked for all of us. My grandmother sold that house years ago, but I still remember her egg rolls, mini guavas in the backyard, and her carrot cake.

Since I’m a dessert person, the thing I miss most is the cake. It was dense, had blackened walnuts,was perfectly sweet, and was fragrantly (but not overly) spicy. It was the standard by which I compared all other carrot cakes. I’ve never had another carrot cake that matched hers.

What’s even more amazing is that she probably concocted the recipe herself. Up until recently, ovens were not common in Chinese homes. Most pastries were steamed, resulting in a fluffy, spongy texture. Rich desserts, like pound cakes and devil’s food cakes, are unheard of in China.

So my grandmother’s dense carrot cake is an anomaly. How or why she made it remains a mystery. Although carrot cakes hit the American mainstream in the 1960s, my grandmother could not have gotten the recipe from a book or on TV. She doesn’t know English. I think she made her first carrot cake by playing around with ingredients here and there. That’s impressive, considering that baking requires exact proportions of flour, liquid, levening, fat, acid, and sweetener.

The last (and probably final) time I had her carrot cake was about five years ago, on my birthday. She made the cake in a bundt pan, like she always did, without frosting. Since then, her health and memory have declined. She no longer cooks today.

Dare I ask her for the recipe? Will she remember it? Or should I let the cake remain a fond memory?

My tastes have changed in the last couple of years. If I were to have her cake again, I’d probably think it was too oily. But at that moment, five years ago, it was perfect. I’d like to remember it that way.

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Pack Rat Freezer Award

Woohoo, I won an award! No, it’s not a prestigious Bloggie or Food Blog Award. Instead, I’ve snagged the embarassing Pack Rat award, hosted by Tom at Confessions of a Foodie.

He said I won because my freezer has the previous tenant’s wedding cake. (Click the image for more detail.)

freezer

In my defense, my roommate’s cousin subletted her apartment to us. So we have be considerate of her things. You might recall a Seinfeld episode where Elaine gets busted for eating someone else’s wedding cake. Lesson learned: don’t touch the wedding cake, no matter what!

Here’s a stroll through the rest of my freezer. I’ve amassed so much stuff because:

  • I don’t eat a lot, so it takes a long time to finish food.
  • I buy in bulk to save money.
  • I bake a lot and preserve goods in the freezer.
  • I’m frugal. For example, I kept the gravy from my roast pork and saved office food that would have gone in the trash. I’ve also saved empty shrimp shells for one and a half years, telling myself I’ll make really good seafood broth someday.

Ready? Here’s the main cabin.
freezer

Close-up on the left side.
freezer

Freezer door.

If you think that’s a lot, there’s lots of stuff I couldn’t photograph because it was hidden in the back. I’ve also got blueberries, bananas, pureed acorn squash, lemon juice, lemon zest, chicken stock, ground pork and leftover wonton skins and probably stuff I forgot I even saved.

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Eat a $25 meal for $5!

While procrastinating working at Court TV (hey, it’s my job to track Colorado news!), I discovered how to eat a $25 meal and pay just $5! What a deal!

According to Denver’s ABC News, Restaurant.com sells lots of $25 gift certificates for $10. Before you check out, enter a coupon code from Naughtycodes.com or Edealinfo.com for an extra 50% off. So, you pay just $5 for a $25 gift certificate!

The fine print: Restaurant.com offers a limited selection, and some of the coupons expire at the end of the month.

If you’re feeling really entrepreneurial, you can resell the gift certificates on Ebay and earn some extra cash.

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