Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Date Cake Delicious

I love old recipes for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is that they reflect the tastes and available ingredients of the times and are a window into how people lived before our current state of abundance. Another is a reflection of what they grew up with and were acculturated to enjoy.

I've been watching a series of YouTube videos about 18th century cooking and the Fred-Rogers-like host has mentioned how tastes used to be far simpler than they are now. Our palates are trained for strong flavors and we find food which isn't refined to suit them bland. However, in the past, people were satisfied with far less complexity than we are. I wanted to see how this bread stood up to my modern palate, especially since it is curiously low in fat, and because I had a ton of dates lying around that could use a good home folded into bread.

The strangest part of this recipe was that you melted or mixed fat into the hot water that the dates were hydrated in. This seemed an odd choice as coating the dates seemed less important than the flour, though I guess the flour was bound to get some of it as well. As a result of the low fat nature, this bread was drier than I would have liked and less "cake-like" than promised. Mine looked like this (yes, it makes two loaves):

The flavor of this was excellent, however. I loved the nutmeg and cloves (though, actually, I used allspice as that's what I had on hand). I skipped the pecans because my husband doesn't like nuts mixed into his quick breads and I hoped he might like this (he didn't).

I really liked the flavor of this, but the texture just didn't thrill me. I think next time that I will use more fat. My plan is to double the fat and make half the recipe for only one loaf next time and see how that works out. If you like dates, this recipe definitely has potential and the flavors are sufficiently complex even for a palate that wasn't cultivated in the 1920's.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Cherry and Apricot Clafoutis

I learned about the existence of claufoutis as a dish about a year ago when I stumbled across a recipe on Serious Eats. It was hailed by their writers as being extremely elegant, easy, and impressive to guests. The recipe also talks about experimenting copiously with egg, milk, sugar, and flour ratios to get the perfect ratios for the right texture. I made that clafoutis no fewer than 4 times and found it satisfactory as a sweet breakfast dish or a less decadent tea time treat, but it never blew my socks off.

When I found the Times recipe, I felt that their version looked, at least superficially, more in line with my tastes as it includes almond flour, yogurt (which can add a velvety texture as well as flavor depth) instead of milk, and an overall less eggy and more cake-like potential. Both recipes are simple, but the Times one is definitely more complex in a way that should take it further away from being French toast or scrambled eggs.

The first time I tried this, I made it with cherries and apricots and put too much fruit in it as you can see by the ratios in the picture of a slice that I took:

It was good, mind you, but I wanted more base and less fruit in the ratios. I should also note that I used canned dark sweet cherries that I had lying around because I had no fresh ones on hand. I rinsed them very well to get the sugary juice off of them and I only used half the sugar to macerate the fruit because the cherries were already sweeter than fresh. I didn't like how it seemed like all of the fruit had a party at the bottom and ignored the base. You can see from my picture that the edges got a bit dark. I used a dark glass quiche pan to make this and it could be that was the issue, but it also could be that my oven runs a bit hot.

Fast forward to today when I made this for the second time, but I omitted the cherries and just made it with fresh apricots. Serious Eats tells me that this is called a flaugnarde if cherries are not being used, but clafoutis is more fun to say and easier to remember so I'm going to rebel against any change in naming the dish. The second one also came out dark around the edges because I'd forgotten what happened the first time by the time I made my second attempt. I hope to remember next time to reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees because it not only got too dark at the very edge, but it also baked 7 minutes faster than the given time of 40 minutes. I think it'd be better low and slow.

Since this time I had a better chance to taste the non-fruit portion (the basic filling), I can speak better to its texture and flavor. It comes across as a slightly stretchy pancake with a fairly good and developed flavor. I can't say that the apricot-only version was "better" per se, but I did like the greater access to the base's texture and flavor. It was more tart with only the apricot in it than the original mix with cherries. However, some of that tartness can be mitigated by dusting with powdered sugar (which I didn't do with the first piece) and a bit of whipped cream.

This strikes me as an excellent recipe for making an oven-baked pancake-like experience with fruit. I think that, with the right fruit (such as bananas), it might even be pretty amazing with maple syrup instead of the whipped cream and powdered sugar. At the very least, it warrants more experimentation.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Crisp Potato Cake (Galette de Pomme de Terre)

As part of my Paris "Try the World" box, I received a jar of persillade as well as some large grain salt. This was not a term in cooking that I was familiar with, but I looked at the ingredients on the jar and set it aside figuring I'd use it in a meat or fish dish in the future. It includes parsley, onion, garlic, and salt and they are all dried little bits. Little did I know that I would have a chance to use this item with a potato dish far sooner than expected.

Aside from the persillade, this is actually a dish with fairly conventional ingredients. It's also simple, but creates a version of a potato dish that isn't common due to the effort that goes into slicing potatoes super thing, slow cooking the "cake," and carefully flipping it over. The persillade merely adds some flavor depth at the end which definitely raises the bar on this. The real star is the textural complexity of the crispy potatoes on the outside and tender ones on the inside. The devil is in the details in getting this right.

The instructions for this potato cake - which sounds so much more impressive when you call it by its French name of Galette de Pomme de Terre - makes it clear that overly starchy or wet potatoes will create issues for the dish so I decided to do what I could to avoid either of these interfering with a good result. I sliced the potatoes to 1.5 mm on a mandolin and then rinsed them three times then let them soak in cold water in the refrigerator for over five hours. This hydrated the potatoes and allowed a lot of the external starch to wash off. When I was ready to make the dish, I laid out a kitchen towel and laid the potatoes out on it in a single layer then put another towel on top and allowed them to dry between them for about a half hour. 

Other than that extra care, I made a persillade by putting a tablespoon of oil into a small glass dish and a half teaspoon of my dry persillade mix in it and heating it in the microwave. I let that sit around a bit as well to allow the flavors to mix a bit and soften up the herbs. This was what I planned to drizzle on the finished galette.

Mine looked like this:

My photo isn't great-looking because it was taken at night with a flash, but this was a really tasty dish. The textural elements were an absolute delight. My husband likened it to a potato chip on the outside. The complexity the olive oil and herb drizzle gave it was just enough to liven it up a bit. 

I not only will make this again, but will make it two days in a row because it was such a hit. It's also really not that hard to do. You just have to be patient and a little careful. It was far easier to flip over than I expected and cooked faster than I anticipated. I did use a non-stick pan, however, because I don't have a cast iron pan at this time and I don't trust my stainless steel not to create a problem. I don't think it suffered any for the choice and it certainly did not stick despite the fact that I forgot to intermittently shake it to stop it from sticking.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Try the World: Tom Yum Soup (Thailand Box)

When I lived in Tokyo, I bought curry mixes which were little more than a cardboard sleeve filled with plastic packets of spices on a few occasions. I wanted to produce something that was more authentic than Japanese curry, which is more like a spicy beef stew than a true curry. Unfortunately, my results with these mixes were lifeless and thin.

I've since gotten a lot better at making curry thanks to the copious amounts of advice on the internet for doing a better job with Indian cuisine. I am still, however, wary of mixes that are little more than plastic packets of spices. I associate them with the same failures I had in the past, but I also wonder if they are "enough" to produce a dish of complexity and depth. So, it was with no small level of skepticism that I looked at the dry spices and had my doubts.

The instructions say to use mushroom, onion, "lemonade." I interpreted that as "lemon juice" as I believe it's a poor translation. For the meat/seafood portion, I opted to use tilapia fish because I had tons of it in the freezer. I cooked the onion a bit longer than it said (1 minute) because I don't like the sharper flavors of raw onion in soup, but otherwise followed the instructions faithfully.

The soup smelled great and I was very careful not to overcook the fish since that could make it rubbery. The lemongrass was the strongest aroma, followed by the pandan. I did not question the portions of the spices that I used because the end of the recipe said one could add Thai chili paste for more heat. I don't have this item, but I figured I could shape in some red chili flakes if it was bland.

It turned out that this was far from an issue. I'm quite tolerant of heat in my dishes, but this was nuclear hot from the plethora of dried chilies. It would stun me if anyone felt this needed more chili. I had to add in coconut milk and mix the soup with rice to make it tolerate. It was stunningly hot.

Though this was really tasty, I wished I'd been warned about how hot it would be. I think that half the number of chilies would have worked better for my tastes. For people who are even less intolerant, I'd think no more than three would do. The other issue with this was that the spices remained too hard to consume when the soup was done. I had to laboriously pluck them all out each time I ate it.

This was very good and I'm glad that it was included in the box. I wish I had known more about it before I had prepared it so I could have made more adjustments to suit my tastes. I can say that the fish went well with this and I think this is a fantastic way to have seafood in your diet. If you don't care for it, the soup is so flavorful that you can't really taste the fish. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Try the World: Chaidim (lemongrass/pandum), Coconut Crispy Rolls, Coconut Flower Syrup (Thailand Box)

Sometimes the assortment in a "Try the World" box doesn't lend itself well to combining multiple elements at once. In such cases, I often feel that the little guide book tries extra hard to pull more than one ingredient together to form a cohesive whole. In this case, they didn't have to try hard at all.

I should begin by saying that I didn't know what pandum was before I got this box. I chose the tea because I knew it'd be the least familiar. After I smelled it, it was much more familiar as I recognized pandum as one of the most aromatic elements of tom yum soup.

When I tried the tea (Chaidim lemongrass/pandum tea), it was very hard to separate the smell and taste of it from the broth from that soup. It didn't taste like "tea" to me until I sweetened it with the Chiwadi coconut flower syrup. I used one carefully measured teaspoon of the super thick syrup and it transformed the tea into something complex and lightly sweetened. I was a little worried about the syrup because one of the ingredients is coconut vinegar (5%). I didn't know one could make vinegar out of coconut, but I guess you learn new things all of the time if you're trying new food.

The tea still smelled like tom yum broth, but it tasted like flowers and honey spiced with something unidentifiable and exotic. It's a bit like having turmeric in sweets for the first time. It seems a little weird at first, but gets better as you get used to it.

The Virgin Coco Coconut Crispy Rolls were much more approachable. They are like a thick, but very light and crispy sugar cone with three hits of flavor. First, you get orange, then a strong burst of coconut, then the sweetness comes along to bind it all together. They are delicate, but have very present flavor. All in all, a very tasty addition provided that you like coconut (and I do).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Strawberry Shortcake

When I was growing up, "strawberry shortcake" had a very particular meaning. It was little shallow cups of somewhat dry sponge cake bought six to a pack at the supermarket. Into these ads specimens, we'd scoop a pile of mashed strawberries copiously mixed with sugar until they could have been jam. Once the requisite fruit was added, more sugar was spooned on top followed by enough milk to decimate the molecular cohesion of the shelf-stable baked good.

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that "shortcake" didn't refer to the height of the cake, but rather to butter mixed with flour and very little liquid. I had no idea that one could make ones own cake to accompany the berries, nor that other people didn't douse their cakes with milk and create a pile of milky, sugary, strawberry-laced mush as a way of enjoying that dessert.

Perhaps because of my experience growing up, I rarely eat strawberry shortcake as a dessert and I've only attempted to make the cake itself once before. That attempt was so-so, most likely because my baking skills at the time didn't include a thorough knowledge of the evils of overworking your flour or using cold butter. A trip to a local discount store and two large containers of relatively sour berries had me looking once more toward trying my hand at a proper shortcake.

I did a search on the New York Times and found a recipe for which I had everything on hand. Many of them included sour cream, whole cream, or whipping cream and I did not have these items around. Fortunately, Mark Bittman's recipe for shortcake had an ingredients list that I could fulfill and a stunningly easy method of preparation.

I was actually a bit dubious of the recipe because he tells you to blitz the butter into the flour completely with a food processor. I'm not averse to my life being made easy in this way, but a relatively small amount of fat thoroughly mixed into flour made me wonder what it might do to the texture. When I make scones, I always make sure not to mix the butter in completely to keep things tender. Nonetheless, I followed the recipe as stated except for a few things.

The primary change I made was to cut the recipe in half and make only 6 cakes (1 cup flour, 2 tbsp. butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, pinch salt, and 7 tbsp. milk). This was in part because my husband and I are the only consumers and I didn't need a ton of them and in part because I don't have a food processor and have to rely on a tiny bowl "processor" that came as an accessory to my immersion blender. I blitzed the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt with the miniscule amount of butter until it looked like boxed pancake mix.

I then dumped that dry ingredients and fat mixture  into a bowl and made little wells and slowly added the milk, pushing the flour mixture into the milk to gently mix. I wanted to be absolutely certain not to overwork it given how little fat there was. I did not knead it or stir it. I just moistened it and even allowed some of it to stay dry. I put a lid on the bowl and tossed it in the refrigerator for an hour or so to let the flour absorb the milk. This was the other major departure from the instructions, but given how little I'd mixed it, I thought it needed the time.

When I took it out, it was fairly cohesive on its own, with a bit of dry bits at the bottom. I did find that it was sticky, but too thick to use a tablespoon to drop it on the cookie sheet. I cut it into six roughly equal pieces with a butter knife, gently shaped the dough, and put it on parchment paper and baked at 450 degrees for about 8 minutes. It did start to brown and I was worried that it might not cook inside while browning outside, but it turned out okay. I do think my oven may run a bit hot and I might want to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees down to 425 next time. I also didn't add as much sugar to the strawberries when I macerated them (only two tablespoons).

I really had low expectations of this, but it was fantastic. The interior was tender, the exterior was crispy with a good amount of give. It was lightly sweet - much sweeter than I expected given that each cake had only two teaspoons of sugar in it and provided a great base for the lightly sweetened berries.

These are definitely reminiscent of scones. In fact, out of the oven, they look like scones, but they do have a textural difference and a firmer structure in general. They're less delicate than American scones and less layered than English ones. I do believe that they could be eaten for breakfast with other types of fruit or even just like a scone with jam and butter. The odd thing is that they are probably less unhealthy than the average scone given how relatively low they are in fat and sugar (only about 160 calories per cake). I think blueberries would be great on these, add would really ripe peaches. I will definitely be making these again. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Try the World Thailand: Unboxing

The Thailand Box was my first box on my paid subscription. Depending on how you look at it, it was $33 (6 boxes per year) or $27 (7 boxes per year including the bonus Paris box). Because I considered this the first one on my dime, I expected a bit more fully formed options from it and, fortunately, I got them. When I say, "fully formed," I mean something from which I could make full dishes (main or side) rather than seasoning, condiments, drinks, or snacks.

The box includes:

Top row: Thai Spicy Rice Crackers, Red Curry Paste, Coconut Flour Syrup, Jasberry rice
Center "row": Tom Yum soup mix, dried coconut
Bottom row: Chaidum tea, Coconut Crispy Rolls

As always, the guide tells you a bit about these things. There are some interesting cultural tidbits including the fact that the coconut rolls are often considered a wish for wealth when when given as a gift to someone. I guess this isn't a gift since I bought it myself, and, no, I didn't get richer since getting this box so someone should give me a box of them.

The coconut was my roll of the dice option among several types of dried fruit. Apparently, one could end up with Jackfruit, mango or coconut. Personallly, I'd have preferred the Jackfruit as it would have been more outside of my experience, but I'm okay with what I got.

The back, as always, tells you how to use your box including a tea time and a Thai meal. The main meal they describe is red curry beef. Since I don't eat beef, I'll have to improvise, but I am looking forward to trying it. I will say that I have never cooked my own Thai dishes before. I've only been to Thai restaurants twice - once in Tokyo and once in my current rural home. Yes, there is a Thai restaurant in a town of 8,000 people! Oddly, both of these places that I've experienced are on the posher side with relatively refined options, small portions, less than modest prices, and elegant plating. My lack of experience with Thai food has more to do with my husband's issues with very hot food than a lack of interest, so this should be an adventure.

In terms of my rating of this box and its contents:

Desirability of contents: 5
Mix of items: 5
Uniqueness: 4
Value: 3
Guide content: 4

Monday, March 21, 2016

Garlic Soup

When I try a recipe from the Times, I'm always careful to look at the comments first to see what people suggest or say. Often, this can avert all-out disaster or improve the outcome. In this case, there was an element of this recipe which I wasn't happy about and one of the comments made me even more concerned for how it would affect the outcome so I made an alteration which was likely for the worse.

In this recipe for garlic soup, the thickening agent is crust-less bread. I'm rather familiar with this style of thickening soups or stews because my sister used to be in the SCA and a lot of medieval recipes call for bread crumbs as their way of thickening. The problem I had with this was two-fold. One of the commenters said that her soup was a "gluey mess" and I also felt it was adding calories without either an interesting taste or nutrition. When another commenter mentioned using white beans instead, I felt that would be a better bet. It turns out that I was wrong. While my soup wasn't bad at all, it did suffer from some issues that could definitely have been avoided and may have been had I been faithful to the original recipe.

The main problem with my soup was that the sweet smoked paprika flavor was too strong and it was far too thin. Also, it was too oily, especially when it cooled as my soup totally separated such that cold oil congealed on the top and the pureed white beans settled onto the bottom. I'm guessing the bread would have prevented this from occurring, but I also think that the recipe simply has far more oil (1/4 cup) in it than is really necessary.

On the bright side, this soup tasted like authentic Spanish chorizo smells. If you want to drink some of that type of sausage, this is your soup. The flavors are generally good, and I think it helped in my case that I was using some really great homemade chicken stock that I had leftover from making pollo en pipian verde, but I need to tweak it and make changes to turn it into something that meets my tastes.

Though I regard this generally as a failure, I'm very happy that I tried it as I think it will form the backbone of a different soup with a flavor profile I never would have come up with had I not tried this. In the future, I hope to make a soup with a lot more diversity, less oil, and similar flavors. My general plan is to do something which includes these ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil (1/2 the original)
6 cloves of garlic (same as original)
1 small onion (diced and sauteed after the garlic is removed - not in original at all)
2 teaspoons smoked paprika (a little under 1/2 the original)
4 cups chicken stock (same as original)
2 cups cooked white beans (not in original)

I haven't decided yet if I'll toss in other vegetables, but I think that it needs more thickening agents or taste modifiers. It's possible that I'll throw in a potato as well. When I try this again, I'll post an update of the modified recipe.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Muhammara (Red Pepper and Walnut Spread)

Reading recipes from other cultures shows me just how fat-aversive Americans have become. When I looked at this recipe for muhammara (red pepper and walnut spread), I was strongly drawn to the basic flavor profile, but greatly put off by the inclusion of five tablespoons of olive oil.

I like olive oil and am okay with some fat in my food, but this seemed like it was turning into a fat-based spread that contained walnuts, spices, and peppers rather than a walnut-pepper spread. Realizing full well that I was gutting the authenticity, I made one modification to the given recipe and used only one tablespoon of olive oil. The amount was based mainly on how strongly I wanted the olive oil flavor to come through. I did plan to do the drizzle of pomegranate molasses and olive oil at the end to put those flavors back into greater prominence.

In terms of the ingredients, getting the pomegranate molasses was the hard part. I live in a small, rural area right now and exotic ingredients are literally hours away. Given how important the commenters said this component was, I didn't want to substitute it. Fortunately, I got extremely lucky and was offered a free jar of this particular type of molasses to review. Fate was encouraging me to try this recipe.

I toasted the walnuts in the toaster oven and roasted my own fresh red bell pepper on the stove top. I used the red pepper flakes that I had on hand as I wasn't going to go out and buy fancy brands for such a tiny portion. For the bread crumbs, I used panko because it was what I had. Because I didn't use four of the five tablespoons of oil, the smaller amount of breadcrumbs were sufficient to firm up the mix.

My spread looked like this:

I wished I had had some sort of fresh bread on hand, but I didn't so I ate it with flatbread crackers. I figured a bland carb base is a bland carb base, though I'm sure that lovely, warm, soft, fragrant bread would have made this an overall more amazing experience. As it was, this was really tasty. It was impressively complex with all of the individual elements finding a little time to linger alone on my tongue. I used a chopstick to speckle it with pomegranate molasses and olive oil and I think that the molasses really mattered in enhancing the flavor. It has a vinegary hit to it that off-sets the cloying sweetness of the molasses as well as a citrus-like tang.

I can say for certain that this did not suffer in the least from the limited amount of olive oil. The texture was nice and the thickness very good. It spread well and stayed together. It really does not need so much oil and is nicely flavorful as is. I also skipped the second half of the hot pepper flakes and only used the 1/2 teaspoon in the spread. I love hot food, but I don't like heat to overwhelm all of the other flavors and I think more would have done so. I think the crackers actually went well with this as they gave a textural contrast between the soft spread and the crispy flatbread.

This is exotic, but approachable and is exactly the kind of new recipe I like to try. The only problem with it is that it's a good deal of effort for relatively small amounts of food. It's the sort of thing that fits well with special occasions and I'd definitely consider doubling it and taking it to a potluck or a party. For my own purposes though, it's a very special lunch treat that I'm likely to try again, but not often due to the complexity of preparation. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Try the World: La Mere Poulard and The des Lords (Paris box)

Many years ago, one of my husband's English students went to France and brought him back an enormous bag of butter cookies from a bakery there. They were like nothing we'd ever experienced in Japan or America and my best guess was that was because they were made with enormous amounts of butter and relatively less sugar.

My husband and I have never eaten anything like them since, and I wish I could say that the La Mere Poulard cookies in the little red box that came with my "Try the World: Paris" box came close to those cookies, but they did not. They are buttery and rich with an amazing texture, but they are shelf-stable cookies so they can't have that fresh-baked flavor or reflect a recipe that is likely fine-tuned over years of baking experience. For shelf stable (boxed) cookies, however, they are quite impressive.

The tea I chose to go with the cookies was the plain old earl grey that is named The des Lords for some reason. As earl grey goes, this is a pretty present, but somehow subtle expression of bergamot. It was quite tasty and lacked any strong bitter notes despite my somewhat long steep time.

I took a picture of the tea bag in the cup because I wanted to note that it is a very high quality linen bag rather than mesh- or paper-based. These are supposed to be better, but mainly I think they are valued for not dispersing any toxins into the tea and for being reusable for those who are "do-it-yourself" types. I can't speak to the value of the bag, but it is a good cup of tea for something that comes from a bag.

For uniqueness, this was not an especially unusual experience, but it certainly was pleasant. I probably would not buy the tea again unless I was offered it at a bargain price (a huge one), but I'd probably pick up the cookies for a reasonable price if I found them available at an import store.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Salmon Burgers

After last week's disappointing fish recipe, I may have been tempting fate with another. However, I bought three pounds of tilapia fish and Costco has not been carrying the frozen fishburgers that I like so much. These two forces, along with the fact that I am making myself learn to like fish more, encouraged me to try this recipe Mark Bittman's salmon burgers.

Those with good reading comprehension will note that the recipe is for salmon burgers and I have tilapia fish. My feeling is that, if I could afford salmon, I wouldn't need to make it into a burger. I figured that the main difference would be that the tilapia wouldn't have the same flavor profile as the salmon and fish should be fish.

Though many people in the comments talked about adding an egg to the mix, I wanted to give it a chance as it was. I didn't know if the burger would hold together well without an egg, but I figured that worst that could happen would be that I'd end up with scrambled fish and have to eat a fish sloppy Joe. That would be messy, but it probably wouldn't be bad.

Other than using tilapia, I cut the recipe in half because I don't have a regular food processor. I have to use a tiny attachment that goes with my immersion blender. I also doubled the capers (left the amount the same while cutting the rest of the recipe in half) and put in about half a teaspoon of garlic salt. I did this because of the less flavorful nature of tilapia relative to salmon, but also because I love capers.

It turns out that, when you process tilapia into a paste, it gets incredibly sticky. I was glad to have a burger press to form these and lining it with plastic wrap stopped the sticking in the non-stick press. I was stunned at just how "gluey" it was. I had a terrible time getting it off of the little food processor that I used and had to scrub the seams with a brush several times to get fish goo out of them. I should mention that my fish was still partially frozen when I chopped and processed it. I wanted it to be this way so that it wouldn't turn to must. The filets are very thin and fragile and this did stop it from being pulverized. I would repeat this same semi-frozen processing if I do this again.

This made three burgers which was one burger more than it was "supposed" to. The patties were very large and it was more than enough fish. I served it on homemade bread with a very small amount of  mayonnaise and on a bed of red onion, avocado, and tomato. Cooking it in butter yielded a beautiful browned exterior. I was careful not to cook it too long, however, because the burger was thin and I didn't want it to be rubbery or dried out.

The interior was nice and tender and it was flavorful in multiple ways without being overbearingly any one flavor. The fish was present, as were the capers, the scallions, and the garlic. I didn't salt the burger after I cooked it because I salted the mixture very well and it was perfect. I was incredibly impressed with how this turned out in all respects and expect to make it again and again. In fact, this one is likely to get added to my recipe box as I think it can be made with any type of fish and is better than commercially prepared burgers.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Recipe Box: Cotton Cheesecake

The list of links to the side entitled "Recipe Box" contains recipes that I've made multiple times already. They are recipes that I feel I've "vetted" very well and are worth repeating. I encourage anyone who cooks and finds the general type of recipe appealing to try them. Occasionally, I'll write about these recipes and my modifications or experiences with them.

I'm going to start with the recipe that I call "Cotton Cheesecake" (listed as condensed milk cheesecake on the original site) because it is one of my favorites at this point. Since I tried this recipe, I've made it about once a week. It is, hands down, one of the best "healthy" desserts I've ever had. If that sounds too good to be true, look carefully at the amount of sugar in it compared to the other ingredients. It's incredibly low sugar even with the small amount of (about the size of a large ice cube) condensed milk added to it. It has so many eggs relative to the other ingredients that you could argue that it's a breakfast food. Still don't believe that it's  healthy? Look at these stats:

It's a piece of cake with 5.7 grams of protein and only 165 calories! Okay, I don't care if you're convinced that it's good for you as desserts go. I can say that it has an incredible texture and flavor and pleased even my fussy husband who prefers super sweet desserts.

This cheesecake recipe has floated around in multiple incarnations for years. I call it "cotton cheesecake" because that's the more common name. Sometimes, it is known as "Japanese cheesecake." This differentiates it from dense, creamy, super rich New-York-style cheesecake. The main thing this has in common with more conventional cheesecake is that they both use cream cheese and are both cooked in a water bath. Similarities end there.

When I made this, I made some minor modifications to the lemon version and then I created a chocolate version as well. I also simplified the instructions to avoid double boilers and simplify prep to whatever extent I could. Keep in mind that the name of the game in making this successfully is smooth. Everything needs to be mixed until good and smooth or the texture will not be correct. Also, you will need a water bath so have a dish that is large enough to accommodate your cake pan on hand and be prepared to boil water in a kettle for the bath.

Here are my versions of this recipe:

Ingredients (lemon cheesecake):

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature
50 g condensed milk (about 3 1/2 tablespoons)
50 g plain flour (about 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon or 7 tablespoons)
112 g (4 oz./half package)  reduced fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
35 ml canola oil (about 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon)
2 tsp Back Bay lemon flavoring (can use lemon extract or juice, but this is stronger)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional, but adds flavor depth)
45 g castor sugar (about 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon or 5 tablespoons)
1/8 tsp cream of tartar (optional, but stabilizes the egg whites)
6 packets Splenda sweetener (optional, for sweeter cake)

Ingredients (chocolate cheesecake):

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature
50 g condensed milk (about 3 tablespoons)
50 g plain flour (about 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon or 7 tablespoons)
112 g (4 oz./half package) reduced fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
1/4 cup good quality cocoa powder (I used Scharffen Berger)
35 ml canola oil (about 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional, but adds flavor depth)
45 g castor sugar (about 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon or 5 tablespoons)
1/8 tsp cream of tartar (optional, but stabilizes the egg whites)
10 packets Splenda sweetener (optional, for sweeter cake)

  1. Line a round cake pan, spring form pan, or souffle dish with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray or oil. The diameter needs to be around 6"-9". Height will be affected by width as might baking time.
  2. Sift flour into a very large bowl. Put oil into a small dish and heat in the microwave for about 15 seconds (until hot, but not boiling). Whisk the oil into the flour. It may be super thick or be little separated blobs. This is okay.
  3. Put condensed milk and cream cheese into a microwave safe bowl and heat for about 15 seconds or until it is warm and soft enough to whisk together into a smooth paste. If making chocolate cheesecake, whisk the cocoa powder into the cream cheese/milk mixture until smooth.
  4. Whisk the cream cheese mixture into the flour mixture until very smooth.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg yolks and extracts and lemon flavoring (for lemon cheesecake). If using Splenda or heat-stable sweetener, mix it in with the yolks. Whisk until smooth.
  6. Whisk the egg yolks into the flour/cheese mixture until completely smooth and fully mixed.
  7. Put a kettle of water on to boil with enough water to fill your water bath.
  8. Place egg whites in a stand mixer and beat at medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar if using. Increase speed and beat until soft peaks form. Start adding in sugar a tablespoon at a time and beat until stiff peaks form. (This is the meringue.)
  9. Start to preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. 
  10. Fold the meringue into the lemon (or chocolate) base mixture. Add the meringue in by quarters making sure it is thoroughly mixed at each point. Do not add it all at once or you will lose volume. Patience is a virtue.
  11. Gently pour the combined mixture into the prepared pan. Place the pan into the vessel for your water bath. Pour the boiling water into the bath. The bath should reach to about 2/3 of the way up your cake pan. Be very careful transferring the water bath pan into the oven as to avoid splashes. Alternately, you can place the pans into the oven first and pour boiling water into the water bath after the cake is in the oven to avoid transferring it when full, but this will cause the oven temperature to drop while you add the water. 
  12. Bake for 30 minutes at 300 degrees F. then reduce the temperature and bake an additional 60 minutes at 265 degrees F. Cake is done when a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean and it is fully set in the center. If you use a wider cake pan (9"), you can likely reduce the second cooking time to 45 minutes. 
  13. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Use the folds from the parchment to pull it out and place the (still-wrapped) cake on a cooling rack. Peel the paper away when it is fully cooled then cut.


  • You need good quality cocoa powder for the chocolate version because it has to pack a flavor punch with a small amount. 
  • You can skip the Splenda in both cases, but I do believe the chocolate version needs more sweetness to counterbalance the bitterness of the cocoa. I didn't avoid using more sugar for added sweetness because of calories, but because it doesn't cause any changes to the texture of the meringue while still adding sweetness. You can just increase the amount of sugar in the meringue if you don't want to use a small volume sweetener, but I can't say how that will impact the texture.
  • Castor sugar is between granulated and powdered sugar in terms of how fine it is. It is common in England, but not the U.S. You can make it easily by putting granulated sugar into a food processor or Magic Bullet and blitzing it for a short time. Usually, about 5 seconds will do, but just pulse it and stop when it starts to approach powdered sugar consistency. Overdoing it won't hurt anything. The main reason not to use regular powdered sugar is that it contains cornstarch.
  • Using room temperature eggs will reduce the chances that the cake will "crack" on top as well as create better volume while making the meringue. 
  • You can use full fat cream cheese. I don't think it makes any difference at all in the recipe, but the first time I made this the reduced fat version was what I had on hand and it worked so well that I saw no reason to change it. 
  • I used coconut milk sweetened condensed milk because that is what I had on hand, but you can use any type of sweetened condensed milk. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Try the World: Clementine Jam and The du Harmony (Paris Box)

"Experience 1" in the guide pamphlet in my Paris "Try the World" box encourages me to have a French Gouter or "afternoon snack" while  listening to a playlist of French music which is available on their web site. I accessed the playlist and found that it send me to Spotify where I had to sign in via Facebook or sign up. Once that process was complete, it spun forever while I finished my snack without a background of French tunes.

Though the pamphlet encourages cookies and a baguette, I didn't feel like a cookie and had no baguettes. I did, however, have rather small homemade scones that I felt would give me a chance to both try some tea and the clementine jam. With only three packets of tea to choose from, it didn't take long to decide on the green tea with citrus aspects. "The du Hammam" is described as "evoking green date pulp, orange blossoms, rose, and berries." I figured that it should go well with an orange-flavored jam.

My repast looked like this:

The tea definitely has citrus notes with some of the low level bitterness of green tea. It grew more bitter as it cooled and I think it tastes better while it's still very fresh and hot. I drank it straight because the flavors of green tea are so subtle that they are easily overwhelmed by any additions.

The clementine jam is surprisingly clear in its flavor. It definitely takes on the distinct flavor of clementines and is very sweet. I used about a teaspoon of jam on each half of my scones and it was very much sufficient to add to their flavor profile. I expect that small amounts will more than do each time I have this jam. That's for the best because the jar is tiny - only 110 grams.

By the time I'd gotten close to completing this post, I'd gotten the French music playing and the first track is pretty terrible. It's a discordant and odd selection called "Bonnie and Clyde" featuring Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsburg. The other tracks were definitely better, but I guess I can't fault them for offering a cross section of types.

With the green tea and technical problems, this felt very little like a French tea time snack and more like a weird moment in a Japanese cafe, but that was okay. I was pleased with the tea and jam and that's as much as one could ask. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Fish Poached in Buttermilk

Since I learned the benefits of poaching fish in milk, I've been researching other recipes which cook it in this fashion. I learned that a lot of them include a second step after cooking the fish in which the poaching liquid is reduced and used as a sauce. Given the magical properties of buttermilk to tenderize meat, I decided to try a recipe that poached the fish in buttermilk.

The recipe was not without it's issues as far as I was concerned. First of all, half of it was prepping vegetables to serve the fish with. I didn't really need guidance on side dishes so I skipped the first part and focused on the fish preparation. I also am not a big fan of dill so I used parsley instead. This is how my dish turned out looking:

It actually looks fine, despite being super pale overall. I used tilapia fish because that was what I had on hand. I'm very careful with the timing on cooking it because I know it can over-cook in a heartbeat. The texture of the fish was very tender and it flaked well.

The problem was with the sauce. I did reduce it a bit despite the recipe not asking me to do so. I wanted something a bit thicker than just plain milk, though I knew adding butter in would add some texture to it at a later stage. Despite my reducing the sauce a bit and adding in butter, it was still very thin. I added in lemon juice and gave it a taste. It seemed tangy and almost cheesy (maybe from the buttermilk) just out of the blender. I made the fish and sauce on the early side of the day because I had other things to do. I put both in the refrigerator for later consumption figuring that the flavors might come together more as time went by.

Unfortunately, what seemed flavorful at that point tasted like little more than mildly flavored slightly condensed milk several hours later. The sauce was just so bland and uninteresting that I threw the rest out. I was very disappointed. The other pieces of fish that I poached were not embellished with the milk sauce. Despite being poached in milk, they carried none of the flavor of it so I folded them into Asian rice dishes with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chilis.

This recipe was not only a bust for me, but it put me off any sort of recipe that uses the poaching liquid as a sauce. This just did not do it for me and, while I will absolutely continue to poach fish in milk (or buttermilk), I think I'm done sampling this type of recipe. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Try The World Paris Box: Unboxing

The Paris box was the bonus in my subscription to "Try the World." I'm guessing that labeling at "Paris" instead of France allows for greater subdivision of the food options from a country which has a great deal to offer.

The box includes:

Top Row: mixed herbs, Dijon Mustard, sea salt
Middle Row: Clementine jam, salted butter caramels, tea
Bottom Row: Butter cookies

The culture guide explains a bit about each item though the pictured items are a little different than mine. The herbs bottle is a different design and my mustard is Dijon and the one in the guide pictures whole grain mustard. I'm happier to get the mustard that I got because I think getting Dijon mustard from France seems like a better chance at a unique and authentic experience. I can compare what I get in America to this mustard.

The back of the guide offers information on "how to use your box." This includes a playlist of music from the country of origin that you can access via the Try the World site and some style recommendations for making tea and having the cookies and a baguette while listening to French music. I like this touch in the guides, even though I probably don't need to be told to smell the aromas and attend to the flavors of the food I eat.

The recipe included on the back for the second "experience" they offer is for steak tartare with mustard, herbs, and finishing salt. Since I don't eat beef, I'm not going to try that particular recipe, but it does look like it uses the ingredients in the box quite effectively. I'll have to find my own way to cook with them.

I don't want to focus overly much on the "value" (price of the items), but I am paying about $33 a box and it's hard not to assess it in that way to some extent. The guide itself represents an "intangible" asset that has value as someone is paid to compile it, write it, edit it, lay it out, and print it. Nonetheless, I'm going to rate each box on a scale of 1-5 in terms of various points based on my subjective sense:

Desirability of contents: 4
Mix of items: 4
Uniqueness: 3
Value: 3
Guide content: 2

In future posts, I'll talk about each item as I consume/use it. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Try the World (an introduction)

Contents of the "Try the World" holiday box (2015)

Though the name of this blog is centered around my trying recipes featured on the New York Times (and I will continue to try and do a new recipe from that place once a week), the core concept is about trying new things. The Times is just a guide on a journey, but it is not the only one.

I wrestled briefly with limiting my posting here to only recipes from the Times, but, it's my blog and I'll do what I want to in regards to culinary and gustatory adventures. I don't want to start another blog to talk about other things avenues, especially when they revolve around the same core concept; I am exploring new things. To that end, I'm going to talk about "Try the World" and my experiences with it.

"Try the World" is a subscription service that offers people the chance to receive a "goody box" of food items from various countries every other month. I first learned of them through targeted Facebook advertising and the concept appealed to me because it is always a surprise package and the food items are ones I'm unlikely to find locally, particularly since I currently live in a rural area. One of my friends gave me a gift subscription that offered me three boxes (Spain, Japan, and a holiday box representing many countries). From then, I was hooked.

Before I get too far, let me say that this is in no way a sponsored thing. I'm not promoting anything here, though my enthusiasm for the experience of using "Try the World" may make people think otherwise. I paid the regular subscription fee for the boxes I'll be discussing on this blog; that is $198 for six boxes.

From a cooking stand-point, the Try the World boxes are different from the services that give you a variety of snacks since they tend to offer cooking ingredients and recipes as well as snacks and drinks. The picture at the top of this post of the holiday box was an exception in that it largely featured snacks, though it did include olive oil, fruit sauce, and pistachio cream (things that need to be used with other types of food).

Given that the boxes are not cheap (though also not super expensive), I want to really take the time to appreciate the contents. To that end, I'm going to talk about the contents of each box as I receive it as a way of fully exploring and inhabiting the experience of receiving them. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Puree of Chickpea Soup

The internet is full of lies. I know this comes as no surprise, but there is no greater concentration of lies than in recipes. Bloggers offer gorgeous galleries of food porn and gush about the deliciousness of their recipes when the results are often quite terrible. They lie to your eyes as well as your ears.

This is something I have known for a long time, but I still am occasionally suckered in by a certain picture. Such was the case with this recipe for puree of chickpea soup. While looking over the ingredients, I couldn't help but think, "this looks like nothing more than hummus in soup form." I don't mean that anything with chickpeas is going to be like hummus. This actually duplicates a lot of the ingredients in hummus (garlic, olive oil, cumin, coriander, lemon juice, salt) and doesn't add much that hummus excludes. Red onions are pretty much the only deviation. Of course, there is also the method of preparation, but I was still drawn in by the gorgeous picture of a snowy white puree with golden droplets of olive oil and bits of fresh mint.

I don't know where the author got her chickpeas or how she got them to be so incredibly pale, but I'm guessing more than a little Photoshop trickery played a part. After all, you've got red onion, brown cumin, and coriander, and off-white chickpeas. How does any of that add up to a creamy pile of whiteness? At any rate, my soup looked like what it largely was, a bowl of slightly runny hummus:

I followed the recipe faithfully for this including going out of my way to purchase a red onion for the dish.  I even went so far as to pass the soup through a fine mesh sieve to get a super smooth texture and it is very velvety if you do that. I'd say it's worth it for the finer texture, but I'm sure it's very good chunky as well. The only thing I did not do is garnish it with olive oil and mint. I don't mind adding in the oil, but this is a delicately flavored soup and I found that stirring in the olive oil at the end of making the soup had already made it taste too strongly of olive oil. I didn't want this to be overwhelmed by more olive oil flavor and I frankly don't care for mint so I had it without the accouterments. I will note that you have to salt this very heavily to bring out the flavors.

In terms of how this tasted, it was very good if you like hummus, and I do. My only disappointment with this was that it wasn't unique enough nor did it provide the visual appeal of the pictured recipe. I may make this again, but, if I do, I'll likely make it in a pressure cooker as the dry chickpeas took forever to soften and even then they weren't super soft. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Tuscan Bean Soup

I read a site devoted to foodies called "Chowhound" because it has one of the more active forums and communities among various food-related web sites. Unfortunately, as is the wont of foodies everywhere, they can be rather snobbish when it comes to food. I once bore witness to some of the more common variety of this in a discussion about garlic. One person turned his nose up at the very notion of using powdered garlic in recipes. Another, quite appropriately, said that he couldn't imagine using raw garlic in his egg or tuna salad.

The irony of a lot of food snobbery is that the attitudes were the opposite in the distant culinary past. The reason we have dried spices rather than use fresh ones was that they wouldn't travel well. People in England who were fortunate enough to have access to dried, ground cinnamon saw it as something worth more than an equivalent weight in silver. They had something rare and precious that would last. 

The only reason we can be snobs about fresh vs. dried spices is that we have the luxury of allowing spices to go to waste. When I buy a bunch of fresh cilantro for 99 cents at the market, I know I'm never going to use all of it before it goes bad, and I make some pretty cilantro-heavy recipes that use more than most. I have to freeze the remainder or toss it when the remains go off.

When I found this recipe for Tuscan bean soup, I had to choose between doing some specialty shopping for fresh parsley, pancetta, and dry beans, or use what I had on hand - dried parsley, regular thick-cut bacon, and canned beans. I opted for the latter, but I did my best to retain as much of the original recipe as possible. 

Usually, I don't list the recipes ingredients here because I don't want to rob the Times of their page views. In this case, I changed enough that I'm going to list out what I used, but I didn't change quantities or essential ingredients; I changed quantities (I cut the recipe in half) and form:

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 (15.8 oz.) can Great Northern White beans
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, pureed
  • salt and pepper, to taste
Since I was using canned beans, I had to cook the onions separately. My method was as follows:

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook bacon slices until crisp and brown. Remove from the pan, leaving bacon fat and drippings behind (this was my substitute for the olive oil in the Times recipe). 

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the diced onions and cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute until the strong smell diminishes (about five more minutes). Stir in the parsley and bay leaf; add black pepper and salt to taste. Cook until the onions are no longer releasing moisture through vapor and are thoroughly (about five more minutes). The mix should be very fragrant now.

Add the can of beans, liquid included, and then fill the can with water, add to soup pot, and stir everything together. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the pureed tomatoes and simmer for another 15 minutes. 

Remove half of the soup and puree in a blender. Add the puree back into the soup and stir. Taste and add more salt if desired. Crumble the reserved bacon and either stir back into the soup (adds flavor) or serve as a garnish on top (retains texture). 

I actually used more garlic than I'm listing here, but I realized it was too much and have adjusted the recipe here. It isn't overbearing, but I had to really cook it down to diminish the amount of strong garlic flavor. I think that can be avoided by using less garlic.

I have another recipe for Tuscan white bean soup and this one caught my eye because it is so different. Mine uses thyme and lemon juice. This uses parsley and tomato. When I smelled the finished soup, the aroma reminded me of minestrone. The texture was a creamy,  yet still chunky, delight. There is no picture of this soup on the Times recipe page, but this is what mine looked like:

The flavor is more "beany" than some if you don't drain the beans. I prefer it undrained, but I guess drained beans would provide a less robust white bean experience. I liked that the flavors were somewhat delicate while still being very present. Usually, I use some sort of meat stock flavoring (like bouillon) in my soups to give it a strong, savory backbone. This was relying much more heavily on the vegetables and spices so the sense was less intense, but in no way flavorless or boring. The tomatoes also shone through a bit which lent a nice warmth to the soup.

This is an excellent soup to have as a complete meal and I'm sure I'll make it again some time.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Pan-Baked Lemon-Almond Tart

I have an interest in any recipe that includes lemon and the fact that this also includes eggs and almonds sweetens the deal. In the video for this recipe, Mark Bittman describes it more as an almond frittata than a "tart." It did make me wonder why it's called a tart. My best guess is that this does bear some similarities to tart filling as it combines cream and eggs and could turn out like a custard, but a better bet is that it'll get more page views as a "tart" than a "frittata."

Given the unusual nature of the recipe, I read through the comments carefully before making it. A lot of the people who tried it weren't particularly happy with the outcome. Some people complained that it tasted like scrambled eggs. Some said that it completely fell apart. Others said that it'd didn't set in the middle at all. No small number experienced it sticking to the pan. These were all concerns that didn't dissuade me so much as make me decide to alter the preparation a bit. I decided to take on each of these issues and alter the method to (hopefully) avoid the undesired outcome.

My initial inclination was to use a stainless steel pan, but the sticking issue made me reconsider and I went with an oven-safe non-stick pan instead. The comments about it being like scrambled eggs made me wonder if the ingredients weren't incorporated well enough in those cases or the ground almonds were too coarse. I got around this by using a blender to blend everything except the sliced almonds. I tossed everything in and then poured the mixture into a bowl then stirred in the sliced almonds at the end.

In terms of dealing with the failure to set, my best guess was that it was because of the high fat content of the cream making it too custard-like in the center so I used half and half instead of cream. Well, that's not precisely true. I used half and half because it is what I had on hand and I figured it could also, perhaps stop the problem with it not setting. Finally, though I kept all of the rest of the ingredients the same, I also added a teaspoon of vanilla as I've found it tends to round out strong lemon flavors in sweet dishes.

My dish set just fine and it smelled fantastic. This is what it looked like after the baking. I did not bother to put it under the broiler as it was brown enough for me already:

I decided another thing that I'd do to decrease the chances that it would fall apart was to allow it to cool a fair bit before removing it. When I put a plate on the top and un-molded it, all but a few little bits came out. It was happy that it came out so clean, but the pale bottom wasn't so appealing looking so I took another plate and flipped it over again. That was probably not a good idea as a few cracks formed in it as the top was wider than the bottom and it was too delicate to support the structure. I noted that even the picture on the Times recipe page shows a slice with a crack in it (though it is largely covered and obscured by angle and powdered sugar). I'm guessing this isn't easily going to stay together as a solid mass.

In terms of the experience of eating it, it's definitely interesting and generally in a good way. The interior of mine was a bit like cottage cheese married to custard. It has a thick, rough, pudding type of consistency. The taste was super lemony. In fact, the almonds largely contributed texture since the lemon flavor overwhelmed nearly everything else. If I were to make this again, I'd cut down on the lemon flavoring, double the vanilla essence, and maybe add some almond extract to boost the almond flavor more. It could also, I think benefit from a touch of salt.

It's not a bad dish at all, and I'm pleased that I overcame the textural problems that commenters experienced, but I do believe the flavors need to be tweaked. I think this could be an excellent breakfast dish with a few adjustments.

Update: This was better the next day. The texture and flavors seemed to have "settled" in a way that is more cohesive. The lemon is still quite potent, but not as overwhelming. I'm storing the remaining slices in the refrigerator and found the second slice was better than the first. I did microwave the second slice for 10 seconds to remove the hard, cold feeling from it and bring it closer to room temperature, but I don't think is as good served warm.

Next time I make this, I will leave out the sliced almonds as I think they actually detract from the texture and are adding little to the flavor. Instead, I'll add a teaspoon of both almond and vanilla extract to round out the flavor profile and leave a cleaner textural experience. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Gajar Halwa (Glazed Carrot Fudge)

I'm lead to believe that Indian sweets are an acquired taste for the average American. For me, I found that I liked most of the ones that I have sampled pretty much the moment the first bite passed my lips, but others (including my husband) don't care much for them. I'm not sure if it is the fact that they tend to contain unusual spices or if they are either too sweet or not sweet enough, or if it's the use of milk in a variety of forms that is off-putting, but I've rarely found an American who knows what galub jamun is, let alone likes it. I mention that sweet because it is my personal favorite among Indian treats, though I also really like sohan papdi.

I chose this recipe not only because it was a fairly exotic option, but one that I have not had the occasion to try before at an Indian restaurant. I was also interested in it because it uses a lot of carrot and I bought one of those industrial-sized bags of organic carrots at Costco some time back and they're starting to get a bit shaggy as they age and start to sprout.

The Times recipe for Gajar Halwa subtitles it as "carrot fudge" so I expected that it would come out as something solid that you can eat with your fingers. I should have known better based on the ingredients. This is something which is fairly mushy when finished and has very little structure, even after being fully cooled. I was able to sort of take a wedge out of the pan, but it fell apart a bit one edge and eating it without a fork was out of the question:

I followed the recipe exactly as given (including using a little food coloring), but it lacked certain details which may have impacted my results. For one thing, it says, "grated carrot," but it doesn't say how finely grated it should be. Because this is a dessert and I didn't think enormous shards of carrot seemed appropriate, I finely grated mine using the smaller side of a box grater. I also peeled my carrots first because of their age and I wanted the sometimes bitter outer layer removed. I weighed the amount of carrot so I used almost exactly one lb.

This is actually an extremely labor-intensive dish despite being made in the microwave. From start to finish, it took a little over 90 minutes due to the effort of grating and peeling the carrots as well as monitoring the microwave and stirring the mixture at careful intervals. I am pleased to say that it progressed well and as expected through the stages as described in the recipe. It does seem that the half and half is reduced to unsweetened condensed milk quite easily throughout the process.

In retrospect, I think coarser grating may have added more structure to the result. It's hard to know for sure because the Times has no picture on the recipe's page, but after I completed mine, I checked and saw various presentations. Often, this seemed to be served in a bowl or in a free-form fashion, but occasionally it was also served as little slices.

The "mold" was also not especially specific other than saying we should use a buttered bowl. Since I didn't have any bowls of the right size, I used a round cake pan which I liberally painted with cooking spray rather than opting to use butter. This may have been a mistake since I could not un-mold it no matter what I did. I patted the edges in and tried to loosen it from the bottom, but it stuck pretty well and I gave up and cut out a slice with a plastic knife. My best guess is that suction with the wet carrot mixture held it fast to the slick bottom. I also wasn't sure from the instructions if I was supposed to press it into the mold and then un-mold it while it was still hot or wait for it to cool. I let mine cool for about an hour before trying (and failing) to get it out.

In terms of taste, this is actually pretty awesome. The various flavors come together especially well and the cardamom is a beautiful component. If I were to make this again, besides coarsely grating the carrots, I'd reduce the number of raisins as they sometimes dominate. I think it could also do with about double the amount of pistachios (from two tablespoons to a quarter cup).

I'd say this is a unique dessert option that would be a great addition to an Indian meal provided that your guests like the component parts. It's not especially sweet and uses very little sugar as it gets sweetness from the carrots and raisins, too. I hope to make this again, but I have to say that, while this tasted wonderful, I was disappointed in the texture.

Update: After letting this sit for an entire day, I found it was a bit more cohesive than it was initially, but is not exactly great as a finger food even though it is less crumbly than it was in the first 8 hours. After two days, it actually held together quite well (and after three, even more). I also think that, should I make this again, I might want to use chopped cashews instead of almonds as I think their flavor might be a better complement. I kept it in the refrigerator throughout the time that I ate it (which took about a week).

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Silver Palate's Chocolate Cake

The introduction to this cake recipe talks about its "incredible simplicity." As someone who rarely makes cakes, I think any recipe that requires me to whip egg whites until they have stiff peaks, fold in egg whites, melt chocolate with boiling water, and cook icing on the stove top doesn't qualify as incredibly simple. It's not that any of these tasks are so difficult, but I've made simpler cakes from scratch on the rare occasions that I've made them.

However, I'm not in this for the simplicity. In fact, I'm in it for what is different from what I've tried before as I hope the techniques used will produce a result which will surprise. After all, there's no point in doing what I've always done as it'll just give me what I've always had.

I've been craving a really lavish cake lately, and by "lavish", I mean something with good frosting. It is extremely rare for me to make such a cake and I tend to rely on supermarket bakeries when I get a craving. The reason is, in part, because they are more reliable when it comes to decent frosting than me. Mine always turns out tasting like powdered sugar and has a grainy texture. My frosting is also often too heavy. Part of the appeal of this recipe for "The Silver Palate's Chocolate Cake" is that the icing is made from chocolate chips and is cooked. That, to me, signaled an increased chance of something which didn't taste like my usual sub-par frosting attempts.

I followed the recipe precisely as stated except for two small changes. I don't have a tube pan, so I made two round layers. In accord with this change, I reduced the baking time to 30 minutes so as not to dry them out. The timing was perfect and the cakes rose well. They have substance without being too dense. They lack the overly hole-y look and texture of a cake mix cake, which I was happy about.

Because I had two smaller cakes, I stacked them in layers and spread a thin amount of the icing on top of the first layer before adding the second one. My cake looked like this:

Don't judge my stacking. I hurt my finger and manipulating anything is tricky. I kept getting icing on my latex-glove-protected, bandaged finger while trying to do this as it had to stick out all of the time. I think that the amount of icing is about right when the cake is made as a double layer one. However, it would have been more decadent with more filling. My husband felt that the proportions were exactly right for the amount of cake so that's quite a solid endorsement. The man likes a good cake to icing ratio.

One thing I can say about this cake is that the quality of both the baking chocolate and the semisweet morsels you use really matter. I used Trader Joe's baking chocolate because it was what I had, but I was impressed with its flavor when I tasted the batter. It's also easy to use if you don't have a kitchen scale as it is a box with four individually wrapped one-ounce portions. I used Nestle's semisweet morsels (the type used in Tollhouse cookies) for the icing. I think both worked well, but I wouldn't scale any lower on the chocolate scale than the Nestle's morsels and think that Ghirardelli's or some other high quality brand would be a good idea. If you use cheap chocolate, my guess is the flavor will suffer, but the texture will be fine.

This is a great chocolate cake that is worthy of the accolades it gets in comments on the recipe page, though I'm not sure what all the fuss is about using salted butter. Someone claimed that that would "ruin" the cake, but there is no salt in the actual recipe and I used salted butter and it didn't taste overly salty at all. My best guess is, again, that the type of chocolate may be a part of this, but salted butter should work fine.

When I ate this cake, my taste buds weren't sure what to make of it. I believe this is my first experience making a homemade chocolate cake. I've made only yellow cakes from scratch and there is a certain quality to this which is cleaner and fresher that is very hard to describe in words. It won't taste like you're accustomed to, but it will taste good.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Nova Scotia Fish Cakes

During much of my life, fish has been off the menu. It's only in the last year that I've taken to regularly eating fish. It might be menopause, or it could be that, once people stopped telling me I should do it, I decided to give it a chance. I'm not a stubborn person, but I prefer to try things based on curiosity rather than being pushed. It doesn't help that those who recommended fish only pushed it for health reasons and really didn't describe the experience in any other terms. If you can't tell me that it has some sort of textural delight or flavor potential, then I'll stick to other, cheaper, healthy dishes.

It also did not help that I was in Japan and most of the fish I was told to eat was raw. I really dislike the texture of raw fish and I was raised to think uncooked flesh of any sort would result in dire healthy results. And, of course, my mother's home cooking of fish was not especially impressive. It usually meant a carp or trout wrapped in foil and cooked with lemon, salt, and pepper until it had had all of the textural delights steamed out of it.

I've tried to overcome the disadvantages of my youth in this regard. Pollock has been helpful in this regard as its the least "fishy" fish. It's also cheap. I've been trying it in various preparations and have generally been pleased. I had not folded it into a recipe which wasn't simply a way to make a whole piece of fish so the Nova Scotia Fish Cakes recipe caught my eye.

This was my first experience cooking fish in milk. I did as instructed, but I didn't know why this was of value until I did a little research. It's supposed to remove the "fishy" smell and taste and restore fish to a fresher flavor and impart a better texture. I do believe this worked and was effective. The fish did taste good without being overly "fishy" (which is an unpleasant taste  and odor that comes from the aging of the fish).

Since the recipe called for any white fish, my stash of frozen pollock which was a little over 14 oz. fit the bill well. I soaked it in milk as instructed, though some of the fish was partially frozen and it froze the milk so I wonder if that may have undermined the soaking effects. I also cooked it in milk, but for a very short time (about 4 minutes) because my fillets were very thin. This worked well as the fish didn't seem rubbery or overdone when I flaked it.

For the potato, I weighed it out to be sure to get the proportions correct and I used a ricer to mash it. This allowed for a much more even mashing than using a fork and I was pleased with how uniform it was when I made the cakes. I am dubious, however, about boiling the potato as part of the cooking and wondered if steaming my not have been a better idea. When I prepared the cakes for frying, they were delicate and it was hard to keep them from falling apart in the egg mixture. I had to roll them back into shape to some extent when I applied the bread crumbs. One cake broke in half, but cooked fine anyway. My best guess is that making smaller "appetizer" size cakes would have made this less likely, but I was prepping these for an entree. Mine looked like this:

The original potato patty was actually round. The shape change occurred because of the softness of the patty and the need to roll it around in the bread crumbs (I used panko) to keep it together and firm it up after the egg coating.

In terms of how this was, it was actually pretty great. The outside is crispy and not too oily. The inside is tender and soft and there's just enough flavor variation to keep things interesting without overwhelming the potato and fish flavors (which can be faint). I would make these again in a heartbeat if I had the fish on hand. I modified the recipe little, but the one thing I did do was add a 1/8 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning. I'm not sure that it made any difference given how tiny the amount was, but I might throw in 1/4 teaspoon next time to see if it has an impact. These were very flavorful on their own because of the scallions, salt, and pepper, but I don't think adding more complexity would do any harm.

The only problem is that this makes a lot and I am the only person in the house eating them. My batch made five cakes and I cooked them over two days. I allowed the leftovers to cool and froze them immediately. My hope is that fast freezing (while the coating was still crisp) and then cooking them still frozen and in a toaster oven will keep the delightful crispy exterior's charms intact.

Update: Freezing them (in plastic wrap) shortly after they'd full cooled and then re-heating in them in the toaster oven straight from the freezer worked very well. It retained the crispy exterior and tender interior. This is a winner for long-term use and a way to avoid process breaded products and make your own. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Almond-Lemon Macaroons (Almendrados)

The men in my life (all two of them - my husband and a good friend) are great fans of all things lemon when their gaze turns to sweets. My tastes are more varied, but I'm all onboard with lemon as well and almonds are just the icing on the cake. This simple recipe for a cookie with only four ingredients was pretty irresistible, though the need to set the dough aside for at least twelve hours was at odds for the desire for immediate gratification.

Before I put this together, there was one thing that I knew I'd change and that was the amount of lemon flavor. It was beyond imagination that the scrawny zest of one lemon was going to impart enough flavor so I added in a teaspoon of natural lemon extract as well as a half teaspoon of vanilla extract. The vanilla is probably some sort of sacrilege for a Spanish cookie recipe, but I often feel it adds depth to lemon-based sweets and notice its absence when I omit it from other recipes.

The only other alteration other than one and a half teaspoons of extra moisture in the form of those extracts that I made was to use almond flour instead of making the almond meal myself. The conversion that I made and have confirmed with web sources is that one cup of almonds yields 2/3 cup of almond meal/flour. I prefer recipes that work by weight rather than volume because of the imprecision brought to the mix, but this recipe only gave volume measurements. This may have been why my cookies ended up looking like little pancakes instead of the nice, rounded mounds in the picture on the recipe page:

I allowed my dough to rest for 22 hours and, when I formed balls, they came together very well, but I imagine the only reason that these flattened out was that I didn't use enough almond flour relative to what would have happened with a cup of almonds that I ground up fresh. It's also possible that I pushed down too hard when I stuck an almond in the top and flattened the little dough balls too much (or a combination of both). I'm certain I cooked them for the proper length of time though give that the recipe says they should be baked very little and just to the point of having some color (which you can see by the cookie that I flipped over was the case). I baked them for 9 minutes.

Regardless of how they look, they tasted amazing. There is a perfect combination of flavors and the texture is a mixture of a crispy exterior and a tender, chewy interior. It is hard not to gobble down a large number of these little cookies (mine made 27) at one sitting. I will definitely make these again, though I'm certain to increase the almond flour volume to 1 1/2 cups next time and I probably will just skip the almond on the top completely and just bake the little dough balls as is. The almond on the top adds one bit of crunch and salt in my case as I used salted Spanish Marcona almonds, but I don't think it does that much for the experience overall. Next time I try these, I'll do an update with a new picture to see if the changes make a difference in taste, texture, and appearance.