Sunday, March 30, 2008


Ah, the classic. I've never made this before, so I was pleased that it came out so nicely.

Tiramisu is that famous Italian dessert, which I think of as a very specific kind of trifle. It means "pick me up" in Italian. (Tirare meaning "to pull" and mi meaning... "me" and su meaning "up." Actually, knowing the word tirare can prove to be very useful in Italy. Knowing it means you won't be the dumb foreign tourist, trying to push open a door that is labeled tirare. If you're curious, the word for "push" is spingere.)

Firstly, the egg and cheese custard. The recipe I'm using calls for cooking the egg yolks, but I've seen raw yolk recipes, too. Not really a fan of the raw egg deal (plus, it makes transportation an iffy thing), so I happen to prefer the cooked one. You mix them with some sugar and milk, and cook them over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning and sticking, until it comes to a boil. (Watch the boil! This is the kind of liquid that splatters goop everywhere when it starts to boil.)

While the egg custard cools, prep the whipped cream. Not every tiramisu has whipped cream, but I think this adds a nice height and extra mouth feel to the layers. Just pour some cold heavy whipping cream into a bowl and have at it with your hand mixer.

Mmm. Nothing like fresh whipped cream. Accept no substitutes. Nothing that comes out of a spray can or a tub for me.

Once the egg custard is cool, stir in your mascarpone cheese. It's an Italian soft cheese, which is similar to cream cheese, but milder and creamier (it doesn't have that tangy cream cheese taste).

Now, ladyfingers are key. I'm all for 100% homemade, but honestly, I am not about to make my own ladyfingers. You are welcome to do it for your tiramisu. But, if you're like me, just buy a couple of packs from the bakery section of the grocery store. I say that they are key, because you must make sure they're fresh if you're buying them. Give them a poke inside their packaging. They should be pillowy and soft.

Don't be afraid to poke your baked goods!

The softness of the ladyfingers means they practically deteriorate if you straight-up dunk them in the coffee. (I would've preferred to use expresso or coffee liquor, but I didn't have any on hand. A very strong coffee can do in a pinch. I also add a little bit of cocoa powder and a bit of vanilla extract to give some extra oomph to the coffee.) Therefore, put down your layer of ladyfingers, and then drizzle coffee onto them until they are soaked through.

Build up your layers. Ladyfingers, coffee, mascarpone custard, whipped cream. Rinse and repeat. Cake decorators -- your skills come in handy here, because spreading on the layers is much like icing a cake. When you get to the top, dust with some cocoa powder.

Voila! I would've preferred to use a nicer glass pan, but the loaf pan was a good small size for my intents. And it stacks into a nice, tall tiramisu.

Buon appetito!

Friday, March 28, 2008

I love you, Alton Brown

I have a new favorite baking book! (I seem to have a new one every week, actually.) But honestly, everyone. If you don't know the first thing about baking (and are a bit of a geek like yours truly), get this book by Alton Brown.

For those who don't know, Alton Brown is sort of like the Bill Nye of the culinary world. (Catch his show, Good Eats, on Food Network if you can.) This book, a sequel to his cooking book, is specifically about the science of baking. It's about the hows and whys of baking. I looovee this book. *hugs it*

It has very detailed explanations of baking processes -- without being boring or confusing. And cute hand-drawn explanations and analogies abound. There are also recipes in here, but I really value the book for its baking background and science knowledge.

To illustrate how great this book is, look at this (take note of the line in bold):

And look at the accompanying illustration. Flour granules in raincoats! Awww!

I mean, really. How can you not love this book?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Butter Croissants

I'm back from Spain! (Didn't even notice I was gone, eh?)

I took an extra day off today, just to get my travel stuff cleaned up. And... to make croissants? I tried it on a whim, since I was just doing laundry and cleaning while watching a Top Chef marathon on Bravo. (Man, I love being on vacation.)

I got this recipe from Williams-Sonoma's baking book. It's a great basic baking book. Among many other techniques, it details how to make basic pastries.

So, to get the flaky layers typical of pastry, you "laminate" the dough by folding butter into it. You start off with your dough ball (for croissants, it's a basic flour-yeast-milk deal, with some sugar and salt). Then, you make a butter block.

Yep. This is literally a block of unsalted butter. Two sticks have been smushed down into a basic rectangle with a rolling pin and the heel of my hand, and then dusted with flour. It's important to keep the butter the correct temperature and consistency -- otherwise it will melt right into your dough, and ruin the laminating/layering effect. You need the butter to be malleable, and no more.

Now, roll the dough into a bigger rectangle, and fold the dough over the butter.

Then, you do your first "turn." Turning your dough for pastries is how you build the layers. Each turning technique is different for different pastries. For each croissant turn, you flatten out your dough into a long rectangle, then fold it vertically by thirds (like folding a letter). Then, store it in the fridge for 45 minutes to let the butter get back to a cold temperature. It's important to keep it cold!

Finally, after the 4 turns that are required for croissants, you let the dough sit for 4 hours, or overnight. Once chilled, you roll out the dough one final time, and cut it up into triangles. Roll each triangle out individually, until it's flat and even and double its original size. Then, roll up the triangle, starting from the wide end.

It's important to keep your hands cold! Run your hands under cold water (and dry them) in between croissants if you must. Be aware of your hand temperature. If your dough starts to feel slimy, the butter is melting! You don't want your butter layers melting after all that effort you put into turning the dough.

Brush the croissants with egg wash and bake on a buttered baking sheet.

I am SO PLEASED with the results of this attempt. My first try at an actual pastry, and the croissants are buttery, flaky, and soft. And I can only get better with practice, right? :)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

That time of year again

Spring is in the air, and that means... fresh produce! Yesssss.

Here are a few links to some good resources if you're on the lookout for fresh produce in the Maryland/DC area.

What's in season. I always aim to eat what's in season. The stuff that's in the right season tastes better, especially if you buy locally. And doesn't that make you feel more in tune with nature, knowing you're eating what you're supposed to be eating for this time of year? No? Well, just in case you're curious. Oh, this link is good, too.

CSAs in Maryland. A handy-dandy index -- although beware that some of the links are outdated. But a good place to get started. What's a CSA, you ask? Take a read here. I'd buy a share myself, but I believe the share that you get is too much for me to consume by myself. I just go with the farmer's market approach.

Speaking of.

Farmer's markets in Maryland. Right now, dates and times are applicable for the 2007 growing season, so I'd be on the lookout for any updates for 2008. Also, it might be worth checking out DC area produce and markets.

Four Clover sablées

Shortbread cookies with clover honey and green decorating sugar.

I had intended on making festive cupcakes for St. Patrick's Day, but, while perusing my new favorite book, a cookie idea occurred to me instead, and I wanted to try it out.

Sablée is French for "sandy" -- which gives you an idea about the cookie. It's a shortbread cookie -- very buttery and crumbly. There's actually not much in the dough except for flour, sugar, and butter. And even then, there's not a whole lot of sugar, either. I added a dollop of clover honey and some vanilla extract for added flavor.

For some holiday spirit, I took out a chunk of the dough and colored it with food coloring gel (kelly green). I pressed the white dough into a long rectangle. Then, I rolled the bit of dough into four long rods, about the same length of the rest of my dough rectangle.

Then, I stacked the four green rods (my intent here is to make a clover shape) and rolled them up inside the rest of the dough.

I patted it down and shaped the thing into an even cylinder. Then, I wrapped it in plastic and put it in the fridge overnight. (Shortbread cookies like these are best if you can let them chill for a while before baking.)

I stored the log in an old paper towel tube (which I cut open with scissors to make it easier to put the dough inside). This keeps the log from settling down and losing its round shape.

Then! Next day, I coated the roll of dough with egg wash and sprinkled it all over with green decorating sugar.

I cut the dough crosswise into slices with a sharp knife, about 1/4 inch thick. It's very important to cut the slices at the same thickness. I would use a ruler to score the log before beginning to cut. If the slices are not the same size, some cookies will get burnt while others are still not done.

Ta-da! Okay, so my clovers didn't come out as precisely as I would've liked. If I had more time, I would recommend popping the four rods in the fridge for a few hours before rolling up the dough log, so they maintain their round shape better.

Serve with a nice hot coffee. Even Irish coffee, if you like. ;) Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Banana Walnut bread

During this past week, I made this banana walnut bread, which is one of my staple baking recipes. I always make some banana bread when I have a few overripe bananas on hand. By now, I've got the recipe practically memorized. In fact, I made this so quickly that I forgot to take pictures until the thing was already in the oven.

Like so:

This one has chopped walnuts, but I like to toss in whatever I happen to have on hand. Shredded coconut, chopped pecans, chocolate chips -- this bread works well with any of them.

One key to baking loaves like these is to turn them in the oven every so often. I know that my oven doesn't bake evenly, so when there's about 20 minutes left on the timer (this loaf takes about an hour), I give it a 90 degree turn every 8 minutes or so. That way, it's evenly browned and cooked on every side.

Remember to test the bread with a toothpick for doneness! (Try a couple of spots on the loaf. If you happen to hit a chunk of banana, it might trick you into thinking the loaf is not done.)

I think of banana bread as the all-purpose baked good. You can cut down the sugar and make it a more breakfasty item -- it's excellent toasted, with some sweet cream butter. Or, dust some powdered sugar on top, and serve a thin slice warm with vanilla ice cream. A great dessert!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Homemade Pizza

Pizza is actually really easy to make at home. Assuming you've got flour, all you really need to buy are some packets of yeast and whatever toppings you desire.

Pizza dough is basically flour, water, salt, yeast, a little sugar (to activate the yeast), and a little bit of olive oil. You let it rise, knead it, and let it rise some more. It keeps in the fridge for a fair amount of time, too. I kept mine overnight with no problem. (But cover the dough with a wet cloth, or it'll dry out.)

Once you've got your dough risen, punch it down to release the air inside. Then, flour your board and knead the dough ball and roll it out. The reason you see folks tossing pizza dough in the air is because the yeast kind of makes the dough... springy. It bounces back a little bit if you just use a rolling pin, so I recommend using a rolling pin to flatten and then using your hands to stretch and shape as appropriate. (On the board. You don't have to toss it if you don't want to!)

How to get the dough onto the pan without messing up your nice circle? A good trick is to wrap the dough around the rolling pin, then using the pin to pick it up and transfer it to the pan.

You can make a pizza without a pizza stone, by the way. I heated my oven to 425 F, and I used a normal baking sheet (which can take the heat ok, but it might warp a little in the oven -- don't worry, once the pan cools, it'll be straight once again), which I greased with olive oil and sprinkled with cornmeal. (The cornmeal is a good trick to make the crust nice and crunchy on the bottom.) Also! Depending on the liquidity of the sauce, it helps to roll the edges up into a crust. And, if you like a thin crust pizza, use a fork and lightly poke some holes all over the pizza -- helps to keep the dough from puffing up.

Top it how you like. I used tomato sauce (canned tomato sauce, doctored with minced garlic, an Italian herb mix, dried basil, salt, and sugar), fresh sliced mozzarella, a few daubs of goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, and baby spinach. The uncooked pizza:

Make sure your oven is preheated and ready. Pizza bakes pretty fast! Once you see that the crust is risen and toasty, your pizza is basically done.

Say ah!

A week of bento (4-8)

I amassed some pictures of my bento boxes from the past couple of weeks, so I'm gonna dump the pictures here before I get too far behind.

1. Sliced strawberries; stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, and tofu gan; two onigiri with pickles inside; two Lorna Doone cookies.

2. Grape tomatoes, sliced cucumber, a cut-up soy burger, two onigiri with pickles inside; two Lorna Doone cookies.

3. Sliced strawberries, sliced kiwi, and green grapes; a few edamame pods, two bite-sized pieces of my peanut butter cup cheesecake; two baking cups filled with cheese macaroni.

4. White cheddar cheese cubes; Triscuts; a spinach and cheddar cheese quesadilla (cut into quarters and wrapped in foil); sliced strawberries and a few grapes; grape tomatoes.

5. Two yaki onigiri, one ketchup and one soy sauce; a few grape tomatoes; sliced pineapple, sliced kiwi, and some grapes; some Triscuts; and two Lorna Doone cookies.

Yay! I like it when my lunch is pretty.

Yaki Onigiri

More rice ball talk! We're talking about yaki onigiri today, which just means grilled rice balls. They have a bit more flavor, and are a little more interesting than normal onigiri.

Start off with a normal onigiri (you can see how to make them here). Don't add the seaweed, but heat up a nonstick skillet, lightly oiled. Let the onigiri grill on one side (you'll hear and smell the rice toasting), and then flip it. Brush the top side with some soy sauce, and then flip it again. Coat the second side with soy sauce, and do one final flip. So that's twice grilled -- once plain and once with soy sauce.

I like to make ketchup onigiri grilled. It's basically a ketchup rice ball. Now, you think that sounds gross, but it's really quite tasty.

So, to get the ketchup rice, you mix a little bit of ketchup into some rice, along with a bit of butter and salt. I also like to add a dash of hot sauce. :)

Then, when it's all mixed, make a rice ball. Like so:

And do the same grilling process, but! No soy sauce this time. Just straight grilling.

It's cute and pink! I also think they taste great.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


For bento boxes, I like to pack onigiri, which are rice balls. It's not a really complicated concept -- just an easy way to eat rice on the go.

The easiest way to shape onigiri is to start off with fresh, warm rice. I prefer this Korean sushi rice brand, which is sticky without being mushy. It has a nice... er, al dente feel to it? (Holy crap, I just looked al dente on Wikipedia, and it's actually used to decribe rice sometimes! I thought it was just a term for pasta.)

You don't have to use plain rice. I've used rice mixed with furikake, curry rice, fried rice... any variation you like is good.

To begin, wet your hands with salted water. Place about half a palmful of warm rice in your hand. You can add a filling at this point if you want. Something small and flavorful. I like bread and butter pickles (which are sweet, as opposed to the sour dill pickles). The traditional Japanese filling is umeboshi (pickled plum).

Top it off with more rice, and then squeeze and press together. Get it balled nice and tight, and it won't fall apart when you finally eat it. I favor a triangle shape, but you can make a ball or an oval or whatever you want. Wet your hands again as necessary -- be careful not to make it too wet, or the rice gets mushy.

I like to wrap plain onigiri with a piece of seaweed. If you hold it by the seaweed when you're eating, it's less likely to stick to your fingers. Like so:

Onigiri refrigerate poorly -- which is true of rice, as well. Since rice gets hard and crumbly when cold, you should avoid putting onigiri in the fridge. I tend to make a lot of rice ahead of time. Then, in the morning, I microwave some of it to get it soft again, then I make the onigiri to carry for lunch.

Pina Colada cupcakes

Pineapple cake with coconut buttercream, topped with toasted coconut.

For some strange reason, this cupcake fell together really easily. I had planned to make a pineapple cake for some time. And my mom just happened to buy a whole pineapple last week -- and I didn't even tell her about my pineapple cake! So I have a lot of fresh pineapple to eat at the moment. A sign from the baking gods, I suppose.

I took a normal yellow cake recipe, and replaced half a cup of the milk with half a cup of pineapple puree.

Sometimes, I am too lazy to get out my food processor, and set it up, and clean it up. So I just finely chopped some pineapple by hand until it was mushy. Pretty good for a hand job, eh? (I can hear the peanut gallery snickering. Hush!)

The icing was a straight vanilla buttercream, with a lot of sweetened coconut tossed in. I cut down on the confectioner's sugar by a cup, though, because I added about a cup and a half of sweetened coconut. If you have any coconut rum on hand, this would be a good place to toss in some (maybe 3/4 of a shot?). I didn't have any, so we're serving virgin pina coladas today.

While the cupcakes were baking, I also toasted some of the sweetened coconut in a nonstick skillet, until it was brown and crunchy.

And here's the final product, all assembled.

Me, personally, I always like to do coconut icing by hand. It looks better, to show the texture of the coconut. It's also kind of difficult to pipe coconut icing -- it gets stuck in the pastry tip!

Easy being green?

I bought these baking cups from My Organic Market in Rockville, the other day. (My new favorite store, by the way. I love it. I can get organic produce at reasonable prices. Much better than Whole Foods, which sometimes makes me itch with yuppie hives. Never mind that I am probably a yuppie, too...)

I like them! And apparently, they decompose easier and are better for the environment. I don't know if I like the brand name itself, though. "If You Care"? It's like it's threatening you. If you don't buy this product, you obviously don't care!

M.O.M. had some baking cups made from recycled paper, too, that I want to try next time.

While we're on the subject of being green. For the bakers out there who are rinsing frosting and oil and butter down their sinks -- please don't. The oil in our oceans and rivers don't just come from industrial spills. A lot of it comes from the drain offs of our own sinks. Before washing your oily dishes, try to scrape off as much of the frosting or butter or what-have-you into the trash. A small step that will help the environment and will actually save you some trouble (because trying to wash frosting out is hard!) I recommend a flexible spatula (rubber?), which is excellent for scraping sticky things out of bowls.

Blueberry Lemon Yogurt cake

Some days, you feel like eating a certain thing and you don't know exactly what it is.

Yesterday, I wanted a nice and rich dessert, but not... heavy. And lo, I found Ina Garten's recipe for lemon yogurt cake. She's sorta infamous for her butter-heavy desserts, but she lightened up her original lemon cake recipe by replacing all the butter with yogurt and vegetable oil (just 1/3 cup of vegetable oil in the entire thing, actually). I trust her recipes, so I decided to give this a go.

Plus! I had a couple of lemons in my fridge, ready to be used. Fortuitous, no?

This recipe called for the zest of two lemons. I don't own a zester, as I have developed an aversion to "unitaskers" (just ask Alton Brown). So I peeled the rind off with a vegetable peeler, then chopped it finely. Works just as well (if not, better, because the chopping releases more of the oil from the rind). And little more chopping work never hurt anybody. Being a baker gives you strong arms!

At the last minute, I folded some blueberries into the batter, to make it more interesting. Plus, I had some blueberries around that needed eating. What does that look like to you? Half a cup? (Told you I'm a bad baker.)

Here's some fun! While the cake is baking, you cook up two things to pour onto the cake. One is a lemon sugar syrup, and another is a glaze. The lemon sugar syrup (granulated sugar melted into an equal amount of lemon juice) is poured directly onto the warm cake, so it can soak it up.

Then, after the cake is cool, pour on the glaze (about a cup of confectioner's sugar, whisked into a few tablespoons of lemon juice). I know, I was skeptical about those proportions, too, but you'll be amazed how easily confectioner's sugar dissolves into a glaze, with just a small amount of liquid.

After the glaze dries and hardens:

Yummy! Cake!

This is EXACTLY what I wanted to eat. Nice and moist. Tart from the lemon, sweet from the syrup. You'll never miss the butter at all. (Thank you, Ina.)

Thursday, March 6, 2008


So some days, I get home from work, and I have no idea what I want to eat for dinner. I want something satisfying, but easy and fast to make. And, being Chinese, I am really tired of fried rice. (That's what you do when you're Chinese. It's the equivalent of a hash or an omelet in American cooking. Take whatever you've got available in the fridge, chop it up, and cook it up together.)

After trying bibimbap in a Korean restaurant (and enjoying it a lot), I knew I could recreate something pretty close at home, without too much extra effort. And no more fried rice! Yes!

My version is not exactly the same as the real thing, but it's close enough that my taste buds and my stomach can't tell the difference. And it's very easy and fast to make. In fact, you can cook the whole thing in one pan, if you have leftover rice sitting in your fridge (and I often do).

First! Reheat some leftover rice. You can also make fresh rice. Scoop out however much you want. Like so:

Next, heat some vegetable oil in a pan and toss in a couple of cloves of garlic. Then, take whatever looks appealing, and cook it up. Normally, I always have some spinach and carrots on hand. So I use those, along with whatever else I can find.

I was actually glad to use the spinach, because it was the last bits of wilting spinach in the bottom of the bag. Yay! And today, I had some leftover bean sprouts, and I cooked those up as well. (And these bean sprouts still have the beans on them. They're quite tasty! It adds a nice nutty crunch to a stir-fry -- almost like peanuts. They're much more interesting than normal bean sprouts.)

I cooked all of the vegetables, with a dash of soy sauce and some pepper.

(Do you see the beans on the bean sprouts?)

Then, put all of that directly on top of the warm rice. I took out the garlic cloves. (You could also mince the garlic and just leave it in after you cook the vegetables, if you're a garlic fan.)

Don't clean the pan. If the pan is looking kinda dry, pour in a little more vegetable oil. Then, crack an egg in there and let it cook until the egg white is... white. Slide the egg on top of the vegetables and rice.

Here, I've finished it off with a drop or two of sesame oil, a bit of green onion, and a dose of Sriracha hot sauce. (Oh God, I love that stuff.)

Here comes the fun part! Break the yolk and mix everything together!

Yummy! Just looking at that makes me hungry again.

You're thinking that looks like fried rice. The taste is very different, though. The soy sauce taste is negligible, and the egg yolk and hot sauce add a different dimension of flavor.

The best thing about this recipe is that... it's very adaptable. The concept is not difficult, and you can adjust the portion easily, depending on how hungry you are. You don't even have to cook your vegetables if you've already got some leftover. Sometimes, when I have leftover stir-fry or whatever, I just toss it all into a microwave, cook up an egg, and voila.