Monday, April 27, 2009

We're so cheesey

It's Daring Bakers time again! And for those of you who stalk bloggers' Daring Bakers posts like I used to before I joined - posting day will from here on out always be the 27th of the month! You can plan your life around us now...

For April the Daring Bakers made Cheesecake!

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

This cheesecake isn't from a book or website but really just from Jenny's friend, Abbey, who has tweaked her "infamous" cheesecake recipe so much that she calls it perfection! The thing that was so great about this challenge is that beyond the cheesecake filling recipe - we were free to get completely creative! We could flavor the cheesecake however we wanted, make the crust out of whatever we wanted and top it and decorate it however we wanted! While the freedom was actually a bit challenging (I polled friends for their favorite cheesecake flavor 'cuz I was at a loss) it's also been extremely fun to see all the amazing flavor combos that my Daring Baker friends have come up with!

I started brainstorming and trying to get creative but since I'm not really the biggest cheesecake fan - I was having trouble. I finally decided to keep it simple and do a fruit flavored version since I was going to be making it for Easter; and while Dulce de Leche and Chocolate Caramel Turtle (other ideas I'd had) sounded fantastic - they also seemed a bit more Fall/Winter flavors. Strawberry sounded too sweet, cherry too generic so I landed on raspberry. And with bags of Meyer lemons from my cousin's tree (she lives half a mile from me - how can one resist?!) the flavoring practically developed itself!
Looks like cherries huh?

You should be able to find the recipe we were given on Jenny's blog. It was a recipe for a basic cheesecake flavored with a hint of lemon juice on a graham cracker crust and baked in a water bath. I made these variations:
  • Instead of graham crackers I used Walkers shortbread cookies
  • Added a couple tablespoons more lemon juice to the cheese mixture and some Grand Marnier too
  • Made a raspberry puree with raspberries, sugar, orange juice, cinnamon and vanilla and then swirled it with the cheese mixture (right)
  • Topped my cheesecake with a sweet vanilla sour cream layer
  • Covered the cheesecake with fresh raspberries and glazed it with raspberry jam (seeds strained), vanilla and lemon zest
The flavor was fantastic! It was lemony - but just barely. It was raspberry-y but not over powering-ly so. It was sweet and smooth and.......WET. Yes. Wet. Remember the water bath we were suggested to use? Let's just say - mine sprung a leak!

So why use a water bath in the first place? And how does a water bath leak if you thoroughly wrap your springform pan in heavy duty foil and plastic wrap, as I did? A water bath is used often with custards or puddings or anything you want to bake gently and come out smooth. I do it all the time with crème brûlée, baked custard and bread pudding. You place the item you're baking into a large roasting (or other) pan and fill the outside pan with water until it's about halfway up the side of the smaller item you're baking. Then bake as usual!

I wasn't kidding: 2 layers of plastic wrap
and 1 layer of heavy duty foil

That dang water-bath still managed to leak!

It works beautifully! EXCEPT when you're using a springform pan. A springform has a removable outer ring, so it is not exactly water-tight at the bottom. It's rare batter would run out, but water can certainly seep in! And that's exactly what it did with mine - through 2 layers of plastic wrap and 1 layer of heavy duty foil!! Yet I don't actually think my wrap/foil was punctured. BZ Girl helped me to figure out - my cheesecake probably didn't take on water from it leaking through all the layers of protection, but more likely from condensation due to sitting in that water bath for 1+ hours after baking (as called for in the recipe) to finish cooking and cool.

Argh - it was so frustrating! I've had soggy cheesecakes before but once I started covering the bottom of my pan with multiple layers of plastic wrap AND the foil - it solved it. However I've never let a cheesecake sit in the water bath after it was done baking before. I'll never do that again!
Who would want to skip the option of tossing
in a [few] tablespoon[s] of liquor!?

Before swirling -------- After swirling

A few other suggestions were made to avoid the "soggy cheesecake" problem and I will definitely be trying these in the future:
1) remove the springform from the water-bath immediately after it's done baking and let it remain in the oven to cool
2) bake the cheesecake in an inexpensive, disposable foil pan from the grocery store - then CUT the cake out of it when it's done!
3) bake in a regular ole 9" cake pan (with high enough sides) and then freeze it after baking - it's been reported to actually make the texture better - when frozen, remove by up-righting

No cracks - we have success, people!

I covered my cheesecake with a vanilla sour cream frosting
then raspberry jam with vanilla and lemon zest

Getting past that "wet" factor, the cheesecake was a wonderful texture - smooth and creamy and no cracks on top. I particularly like the shortbread crust I opted for instead of graham crackers, but would suggest you cut the butter in Abbey's recipe in half. 1 stick of butter was too much for 2 cups of crackers/cookies - it wouldn't all absorb and ran out the bottom of the springform when I removed the foil. My go-to cheesecake recipe is 1/2 a stick to 2 cups cookies and works perfectly.

Waiting for more raspberry glaze and a sprinkling of lemon zest

Worth mentioning since I recently had a friend ask me - if your cheesecakes sink in the middle after they cool, you're probably over-beating... when one over-beats a batter it whips the eggs up more than the final product can support. Sort of like a soufflé. Unless a recipe says otherwise, it's usually best to only stir a mixture until all ingredients are combined and STOP. As fun as it is to stir and beat... just say no!

I think I'm becoming obsessed with lemon zest - I can't squeeze a
lemon without first zesting it. Then I freeze it
if I don't immediately need the zest!

Many thanks to Jenny for picking a great recipe that allowed us all tons of creativity and flexibility! I'm not a big cheesecake lover, but I'm tempted to make this again with the few tweaks I've mentioned to see if it comes out even better. But you know, I couldn't help but notice; wet, or not - I certainly didn't have to throw any away...

You'll just have to make your own!

Oh yes... and stayed tuned... the Daring Cooks are coming soon to a blog near you! Very soon... very soon...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dessert rice

**UPDATE: I absolutely couldn't stand my original pictures for this post (accidentally had vivid set for my colors on my camera from an earlier shoot) so I re-shot. Have I mentioned I'm really anal retentive?**

Rice for dessert? Not the first thing that comes to mind. But come mango season this is one of my very FAVORITE desserts. Mangoes with coconut sticky rice. This one doesn't happen to be Chinese, but is in fact Thai.

It was only in the last 10-15 years that I first tried this dessert. I guess that makes sense since it was only in those years that I got into Thai food! (That whole idea of "you are what you eat" really rang true with us since we were brought up on Chinese and American food and that's about IT!) These days I can't leave a Thai restaurant without purchasing an order of this yumminess - even though I can easily make it at home!

Any type of coconut milk will do

If you aren't familiar with coconut milk you should be. It's a wonderful buttery, slightly sweet milk with a faint coconut flavor that I swear you'd enjoy even if you don't like flaked coconut (yuck). Coconut milk is usually the primary liquid in curries, both Indian and Thai.

My very favorite type of mango

I'm pretty particular with my mangoes. My favorite are what I've always heard to be called Filipino mangoes, as opposed to red mangoes. The brand in particular I always see locally are the Champagne mangoes (which are this same "Filipino mango" I'm talking about). They're sweeter and softer than the red mangoes. I don't see a lot of them at mainstream grocery stores like Safeway but do occasionally/seasonally see them at Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods... And always at Asian grocery stores.

You have NO idea how good this is... well, okay
maybe you do
; I guess I don't know. Ha!

I've tried many different recipes for "mango sticky rice" over the years and I think I've finally found the easiest and best method! And here I'm happy to share it with you!

First things first, I'd like to at least reassure you that the coconut milk syrup recipe's quantities are all taken from this (quite reputable) cookbook I bought when I was in Thailand a few years ago:
My Thai coworker has the same book so I figured this
find in Thailand was a good investment!

Surprisingly you can purchase it used on Amazon if you so desire. There are FANTASTIC recipes in there and they're all in Thai and English side by side. That makes it even better if you happen to be in a Thai market looking for a specific ingredient... match up the characters or ask the owner!

Thai recipe on one side/English recipe on the other

The rest of my "recipe" however is based on many trials of cooking the rice and finding the fastest and easiest way is actually IN THE MICROWAVE! I know... there are folks out there appalled that I just said I'm going to cook rice in the microwave. And sure, it's probably not the BEST quality but it is pretty dang good when I'm in a hurry to fill my belly with some mango sticky rice!

Mangoes with Sticky Rice:
1 cup of sticky rice; I use Koda Farms Sho-Chiku-Bai rice

Wash rice and soak it covered in water for 10 minutes or up to a couple hours, in a microwave safe bowl. Drain the rice and refill with 1 cup of hot water.

Cover the top loosely (I use a plate). Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Take it out and give it a stir and microwave again for 3 minutes. Always stir the rice between "zappings".

I suppose your microwave time may vary depending on your wattage. Mine is a 1000 watt, 5 year-new Whirlpool. If your rice doesn't seem almost done or done at this point, just keep zapping it for additional 30 seconds to 1 minute until it is.

1 cup coconut milk
1 t salt
1/2 cup sugar

Meanwhile, mix the 3 above ingredients together and make sure it's all dissolved before moving on.

Pour 1/2-2/3 of the coconut milk syrup into the cooked rice and stir it up. It will be very liquidy (pic to the right) but that's perfectly fine. Zap it again for 2-3 minutes. Or try for 2 then do a final 1. By this point the rice should be cooked through. If it's not, keep zapping it for 1 minute at a time until it's cooked and the liquid is absorbed - keeping it loosely covered at all times.

Let the rice sit for 5-10 minutes. I like to put mine in the fridge or freezer to attempt to cool it down some before serving. I peel my mangoes (with a paring knife, not a peeler!) first then cut basically how this guy does. Put a scoop of rice next to or underneath your mango slices. If you'd like (I never have the patience, but it looks nice) you could cook down some of the leftover syrup until it thickens and pour it over the rice also. Then sprinkle with some toasted sesame seeds or fried mung beans... Mango Sticky Rice!!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

What's going on

Around these parts, yesterday was the hottest day of 2009, thus far. My outdoor thermometer topped out at 92° while five days prior it did so around 65°. While most people rejoice in this, I dread it. We won't go into my vampire-ways and love of weather in the 60's range just now though. This post is merely to wish you a great week, warm weather (if you like that kinda thing) and flowers without hayfever...

I planted those mums yesterday and in the midst of cursing through sweat and sniffles I found that their happy little faces made me smile. I'm not a big gardener - one of those traits I didn't get from my mom. My parents' yard is about a third of an acre and even now, they work all the landscaping with their own 2 (4) hands. I'd like to pretend my thumb is green, but it is far from. So those chrysanthemums are a little bit on their own!

While she's leaving hamster-size balls of fur all over my house; and THIS is scheduled to arrive any day now...Lucca is also happy spring has sprung. A couple of her favorite things to do center around my patio - lying there in the late morning sun, and late afternoon shade. (Though she also did that occasionally around 11pm in January so perhaps she just loves the patio.)

She's getting to be a big girl, huh? We're planning a First birthday party for her in May. What? You really think I wouldn't throw a birthday party for my dog? Come now... Honestly though, it's a great excuse to get some friends together to eat hot dogs and cupcakes with dog shapes piped in frosting. I'm looking forward to it. But I can't believe our little baby puppy who weighed 7 pounds the night we brought her home, is pushing low-60's and turning one. Where does time go?

Another birthday that's come around again was that of my good friend, Liz. Remember my macarons and knitted purses obsession and our fantastic trip to Napa? Really... WHERE DOES THE TIME GO? We celebrated Liz's birthday this past weekend again; and again I took to making gifts by hand... I made her a 4" personal sized Concorde (don't worry, there was one to share with the group as well) and - an apron! Now, Liz doesn't cook or bake or even spend much time in the kitchen. But she'd like to. So I thought perhaps she'd be more inclined with a cute apron made by moi - for moral support!
A sweet moment with Steve & My's dog, Emmy

Not a complicated thing to make up, but make it up I did. I thought it turned out rather cute. And really, the hardest part was finding fabrics and trim that complemented each other - sewing and cutting was all straight lines.

Don't forget to sneak a nap whenever time permits

Happy Spring and Happy Week!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Velvet Rouge

It's just ALL OVER the place lately... cupcakes, cakes, cheesecakes, cookies all flavored with this very old fashioned, yet apparently making a comeback flavor. Red Velvet. It sounds so decadent. It looks so fancy. But fundamentally it's just a regular yellow buttermilk cake with red coloring. Yes, that's right I said YELLOW cake. It's not meant to taste like chocolate even though there is cocoa in there. But with 2 tablespoons of cocoa per a cake that serves 12 or more, that's not much cocoa. But let's back up. What is red velvet cake and where did it come from? Most people think of it as a Southern cake and most people think it should be frosted with a heavy cream cheese frosting.

Um, not so much...

Not that I have traveled the country far and wide to research this, but all I've read seems to support the red velvet cake originating in the north. Sometime in the early 1900's and somewhere around New York City; perhaps even the Waldof-Astoria Hotel. That is the particular recipe you see photographed here. This is my family's recipe which is quite old and almost identical to this one. It's touted as the Waldorf's recipe and is a recipe I see all over the web with only slight variations.
Many people also think a red velvet cake is to be topped with cream cheese frosting resembling that on carrot cakes. But that it also not correct. At least not traditionally. That traditional frosting is a butter roux frosting; also known as cooked flour frosting. There's no cream cheese present, but there is flour and milk (and butter, and sugar and vanilla). The frosting only has 1 cup of sugar which keeps it light and not too sweet and frankly, is what I think got me such rave reviews!

There are a lot of theories on why the red velvet cake is, well, red. Some talk of how cocoa of "yesteryear" (lower levels of alkaline) reacted with the sour milk (buttermilk) and created a reddish hue. Others talk about WWII housewives using beets to sweeten their cakes due to sugar rationing (tho sugar beets are white...) Hrmm. Whatever the case may be - today's red velvet cake is red due mostly in part to: Red Food Coloring. And we [literally] eat it up for it's beauty and fancifulness!

This recipe asks you to make a paste with the cocoa and food coloring

This isn't the first red velvet recipe I tried - it's the second. I first did Saveur's after reading about it on this red velvet cake comparison (I notice the "Waldorf" recipe wasn't reviewed, perhaps it really would have come out on top!) And I didn't like it; nor did my tester, Connie. I can't even explain why. The frosting was too heavy and sweet and the cake wasn't as flavorful or light. In fact, I threw a couple cupcakes away!!

Now that is some RED batter

But this recipe, the Waldorf one... FANTASTIC. I've made it a few times now, all for good sized groups (a friend's dinner party and cupcakes for a bake sale at work) and have heard great reviews. Worth noting: my "pack" tends to be primarily Asian and we Asians don't enjoy overly heavy, sweet desserts (um, except for THIS Asian - tho I'm only half so that must be why). I had a coworker tell me my red velvet cupcakes were better than Spinkles' (!!!!!!!!) but she too, is Asian.

Even though it's totally artificial - it's just so flippin' beautiful!

If it counts - I also heard some non-Asian coworkers talking in the hallways: "did you try those red velvet cupcakes? They were incredible!!" That really fluffed my feathers! So I'm gonna check this off as a success. Whether I'm baking in Hong Kong or San Francisco or New York.

Only did 2 layers; 4 would have been fun --- The finished crumb coat, ready to frost

After a bit more thought I realized this cake would work just great as a Green Velvet Cake (St. Patrick's Day?) or Purple Velvet Cake (Mardis Gras?) or even Blue Velvet Cake (Kid's Birthday?) I'd probably leave the cocoa out of most of those however...

I sprinkled on toasted pecans and some little white
LOVED the crunch of both on top!

Look at that crumb!

Like I mentioned earlier, my family's recipe here called for a butter roux frosting which asks you to cook flour and milk together until it is a VERY thick roux, then whip it with butter, sugar and vanilla until it resembles whipped cream. The frosting is light and slightly sweet and doesn't weigh the cake down at all. This was a first for me and while I enjoyed it - I do still LOVE me some cream cheese frosting. In the future, I might try replacing the roux with some cream cheese and keep everything else the same. In theory it sounds great - that same tangy cream cheese flavor without being too heavy or sweet.

You wanted to see the cupcakes too, right? :P

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Devilishly colorful

I've always LOVED deviled eggs. LOVED them. I could pop 10 in a row and they go down SO smooth. Since my parents are vacationing in Washington DC right now, we're going to my cousin Lorie's house to celebrate Easter today with her immediate family and a handful of other aunties, uncles and cousins. Not a large crowd, but a fun one.

Deviled eggs are ALWAYS a hit in my family

Happy Easter to all!!

I suppose I get my love of deviled eggs from my family. When we were growing up, we lucky kids were fortunate enough to celebrate almost every one of our birthdays with a big party, tons of food, an abundance of family and of course presents. I think there was a plate of deviled eggs (which would be quickly replenished from a stash in the kitchen) at every party and would usually be the first empty appetizer platter.

Just about 1/4 teaspoon of gel coloring per large glass of water

For Easter I decided to make colored eggs and then devil them. I love the look of Chinese tea eggs (not to mention eating them). Chinese tea eggs are hard boiled, shells cracked and then simmered in a savory tea/anise/soy sauce broth for hours until they're flavorful and really quite beautiful. The dark colors in the broth create that cracked shell pattern on the whites of the eggs.

Aren't they absolutely beautiful?

I tried doing this with dyes to make Easter eggs last year but I didn't leave the eggs to dye long enough so they were very pale-y colored. So this year I tried again! And left them for hours! Well... it worked!

I let them sit like that (in the fridge) overnight

Deviled eggs are really easy to make:
  • Hard boil 6-8 eggs (I bring a pot of water to a boil, gently place the eggs in, boil for 5 minutes and then let sit with the lid on for 30 minutes - then chill in ice water or fridge)
  • Cut the eggs in half and put the yolks in a bowl
  • Mash the yolks up
  • Add 1-2 T yellow mustard to them
  • Add enough mayonnaise to hold it all together
  • Season with garlic powder, salt and pepper
  • Pipe (or spoon) into the white halves
  • I sprinkled a bit of chives or paprika over them for color afterward

How many can you down in a sitting?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Living on the edge

I couldn't help myself - I had to share this little story with all of you...

What comes to mind when I say the words "Baking Accident"? You think blistering burns, fires, flames and smoke shooting out of the oven while the fire alarm freaks out... you think sizzling hot boiling sugar spilling onto some toes or a hand... you think maybe the Cuisinart caught some part of a person while pulsing with the dough blade... you think maybe the dog wandered in while one was moving quickly across the kitchen and a fall ensued... you even think maybe there was cutting and bleeding while slicing up some baked goods??

Hmm what happened here?
(my pile of freshly folded aprons and towels!)

Those horrors are what come to my mind too. The above isn't exactly the "Baking Accident" crime scene you'd envision, right? So fortunately, no one was really harmed as a result of this here, accident. But it was still pretty funny.

I was mixing up Mom's molasses wheat bread yesterday and slowly sprinkling a cup of flour into the mixer as the dough hook was running on low. Somehow the cup caught on the hook and it was thrown ACROSS the room, sprinkling flour all along it's path. BUT - not before it first hit me in the forehead along its flight.

Now we know what I'll look like in 30 years?
At least it's sort of a cool look...

Lucca helpfully "vacuumed" the floor while I wiped the counters... what a team.