Saturday, November 28, 2009

Apple Cherry Pie

2009.11.25 Apple Cherry Pie
Homemade apple pie. There aren't many desserts more All-American than this one, don't you think? This means of course that, me being me, I had to find a twist to this classic. Luckily, I think I hit the jackpot right off with this recipe for apple pie with dried cherries.

Ever since I made those black forest cupcakes last month, I've harbored a growing fascination for cherries. As luck would have it, Sam at Oh! Nuts (a great online seller of bulk nuts, dried fruits, and more) offered me some free product samples. Before I knew it, a pound of dried sour cherries (plus some nuts I'll tell you about later) rested in my hot little hands. Man, were these good! Juicy and flavorful straight from the resealable package, they plumped up beautifully when baked with juicy apples in pie.


2009.11.25 Apple Cherry Pie
This recipe is so wonderful though that I'm sure any dried cherries or even cranberries would taste great. My personal touch was to add just a splash of cherry brandy to highlight the naturally intoxicating flavor of cherries. It's a little off the beaten path, I realize, but please give this pie a try. Slightly warmed and topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, this was, as my boyfriend put it, "everything I could want in a pie."

P.S. - If any of you has tips for making pie crust by hand/pastry blender, please share them in the comments! Probably due to the shortening, this crust turned out flaky despite my mistakes. But I'd really like to improve my technique.


2009.11.25 Apple Cherry Pie [Collage 2]
Apple and Tart Cherry Pie [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Bon App├ętit
Serves 8 to 10

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I recommend using a combination of tart and sweet apples for pie. According to Cooks Illustrated, good tart apples are Granny Smiths, Empires, and Cortlands; good sweet apples are Golden Delicious, Jonagolds, and Braeburns.

2/3 to 3/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
Scant 1/8 tsp ground cloves
3 to 3 1/4 lb. apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and sliced crosswise
3/4 cup dried tart cherries
1/4 cup cherry preserves
2 tsp Kirschwasser (cherry brandy)
2 Easy Pastry Dough disks (Recipe below)
1 egg, beaten to blend (for glaze)

Position rack in lowest third of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Stir first 5 ingredients in large bowl. Mix in apples, dried cherries, preserves, and Kirsch.

Roll out 1 dough disk on a lightly floured surface to a 13-inch round. Transfer dough to 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish (I used Pyrex) by folding in half and then in half again, then centering and unfolding it over the pie dish. Make sure the dough closely lines the pie dish. Lift the dough at the edges to adjust it if necessary, but do NOT stretch it or it will shrink back when you bake it. Brush the inside and top edge of the crust with egg glaze. Spoon the filling into the crust.

Roll out the second dough disk on a floured surface to a 13-inch round. Cut out small hole from the center or whatever decorative shape(s) you like (I used heart-shaped aspic cutters). Tranfer this dough the same way as the bottom crust and center it over the filling. Seal the top crust to bottom crust at edge. Trim double crust overhang to about 3/4 inch. Fold under and crimp edge. Brush crust (except edge) with glaze. You can cut additional decorative shapes from re-rolled pie dough trimmings and attach them now if you'd like. Make sure to then brush these with glaze as well.

Place pie on a baking sheet and bake until the apples are tender, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Check the pie at 50 minutes to 1 hour. If it looks to be browning too quickly, cover the top with foil and continue baking. Once out of the oven, cool the pie completely on a rack. This pie can be made 1 day ahead and stored covered at room temperature.
2009.11.25 Apple Cherry Pie [Collage]
Easy Pastry Dough
Makes 2 crusts

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I stubbornly insisted on making this the old-fashioned way "by hand" using a pastry blender and ran into a few issues of my own making. I'm sure if you follow these directions, it will in fact be an easy dough to make =).

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup frozen vegetable shortening, cut into large pieces
1 large egg
3 tablespoons (about) ice water

Blend first 4 ingredients in a food processor for 10 seconds. Add shortening; process just until very coarse meal forms. Beat egg with 2 tablespoons water; add to processor. Blend until large moist clumps form, adding more water if too dry. Gather dough into ball; divide in half. Flatten each piece into disk. Wrap in plastic; chill at least 1 hour. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled. Let dough soften slightly before rolling out.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Brie Frosting

UPDATE: Iron Cupcake voting is now open HERE through Friday, December 4 at noon. Please go check out all the wonderful apple cupcake creations and vote for your 3 favorites!

2009.11.22 Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Brie Frosting (Iron Cupcake)

Most days during the fall, I love nothing better than to bite into the sweet, crisp flavor of a fresh apple. We've all heard the old adage: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." As it turns out, apples are quite full of heart-healthy antioxidants, fiber, and flavonoids (WHFoods). In Norse mythology there was even a magic apple said to bestow eternal youth. Now I wouldn't bet on that last bit. But I can at least pat myself on the back whenever I enjoy my daily snack. With such a love of the fruit and new found appreciation for its benefits, I was excited (though not really surprised) to hear that the November Iron Cupcake challenge ingredient was apple.

Pairing apples with sweet, warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves just feels right for fall. Like diving into a big pile of leaves feels right...or putting on your favorite mittens. I used an apple-carrot cake as my point of departure. The carrots in the original were quickly replaced by more grated apples to maintain the purest apple flavor and out-of-this-world moistness. Throw in a few grinds of fresh black pepper and my base was complete.

2009.11.22 Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Brie Frosting (Iron Cupcake) [Collage]

Now came the subtle twist: brie and cream cheese frosting. Odd-sounding at first, this pairing really isn't surprising when you consider all the fruit and cheese appetizers we enjoy. I actually added about half the brie specified in the recipe below. Its flavor was barely distinguishable but added that "something special" that made people take notice. In fact this creation produced one of the nicest compliments I've ever received for my baking: a friend told me the day after eating one that she couldn't get it out of her mind.

I loves me some brie though, so I'll up the amount next time. Has anyone else tried frostings made with unconventional cheeses (not cream cheese or mascarpone)? I'd love to hear about them. =)

Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Brie Frosting (Iron Cupcake)

Voting for Iron Cupcake will begin at this site no later than Friday, November 27th at 8 p.m. and will be open through Thursday, December 3 at 12 noon. And please show some love to our generous IronCupcake:Earth prize providers by visiting their sites!

The Demy™ by Key Ingredient
Hello, Cupcake by Karen Tack & Alan Richardson
Bella Cupcake Couture
Cupcake Stackers by Gourmac
The Cake Mix Doctor Returns! by Anne Byrne

Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Brie Frosting
[Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Sunset Magazine
Makes 12 to 15 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I found that I could grate the apples with the skin on using my box grater. The McIntosh apples I used became quite juicy and mushy when I grated them, so I drained off some of the excess juice before using. This amount of brie resulted in a fairly mild-flavored frosting that still tasted much like regular cream cheese frosting. If you want a stronger brie flavor, you should be able to increase the ratio of brie to cream cheese up to 1:1 with good results.

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons apple juice concentrate, defrosted (optional, increase oil to 1/2 cup if not using)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 generous cup packed coarsely grated tart apples (about 2 medium-large)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
Brie and Cream Cheese Frosting (Recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard muffin tin with 12 paper liners and set aside. Sift flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, spices, pepper, and salt together into a large bowl. Whisk to ensure they are combined.

In a separate bowl, combine the oil, apple juice concentrate, vanilla, and eggs. Add the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until almost combined. Stir the apples and walnuts into the batter.

Divide batter among cupcake liners and bake until a toothpick or thin knife inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out mostly clean, about 16 to 20 minutes. Let cakes cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Transfer them to wire racks and let cool completely before frosting. Frost cupcakes as desired.

Brie and Cream Cheese Frosting
6 ounces (1 cup) cream cheese (low-fat is fine), cool room temperature
4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) brie, softened and with rind removed
1/4 cup (2 ounces or 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups sifted powdered (confectioner's) sugar

In a large bowl beat the brie, cream cheese, and butter until softened and smooth (but do not overbeat). On low speed beat in the vanilla and powdered sugar. Start with 1 1/2 cups of sugar and add more to achieve desired sweetness and stiffness. Finally, beat on high speed for a few moments until smooth.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Month of Vegan Cookies: Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies (Continuing Giveaway)

2009.11.18 Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Do you, like me, often need a swift kick in the behind to jump start the morning? Now come on, be honest… Well if you do tend to be more zombie than human at the start of the day, the double jolt of caffeine in these cookies should fix you right up. In contrast to my last coffee-flavored creation, these babies -- which contain a whopping 2 tablespoons of instant espresso powder -- make absolutely no effort at subtlety.

***A quick note for anyone tempted to substitute: the espresso powder called for is worth tracking down. The smoothness and intensity of flavor in these cookies is easily distinguishable from anything I’ve baked using instant coffee granules. For the same reason, though, I’d recommend the caffeine-sensitive among you to halve the espresso powder in this recipe.***

2009.11.18 Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Stimulating discussions about stimulants aside (I see you cringing =p), these espresso chocolate oatmeal cookies are quite the treat. Crispy edges hug a center that’s slightly soft but still chewy from the oats. Two forms of chocolate and (as I might’ve mentioned) all that espresso powder give each bite a wonderfully rich, roasted flavor and aroma. And their bittersweet edge is reined in by both white and brown sugars.

FLAVOR: 4.5/5
TEXTURE: 4/5
EASE OF PREPARATION: 4.5/5
OVERALL: 4.5/5

2009.11.18 Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Lastly, may I remind you that all this deliciousness is achieved without eggs or dairy? This is the second cookie I’ve tried from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar and my favorite yet! I’ve been loving the simple ingredients and prep (no mixer required) called for by the recipes so far and can’t wait to test 2 more for my Vegan Month of Cookies series. Just a friendly reminder that if you'd like to win one of 3 copies of this book, simply leave a comment (including your e-mail) on this or any other post in this series. I'll pick the winners at random and let you know in my review post.

2009.11.18 Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies [Collage 2]


Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies
[Printable Recipe]
Reproduced with permission from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar with my comments/changes in brackets
Makes 2 dozen cookies

XIAOLU’S NOTES: I only had old-fashioned oats, not quick-cooking, so I went at 'em with my pastry blender and all was well! Also, my batter distribution wasn't "generous" enough in the first batch so the second batch was extra large (and thus extra delicious).

1/2 cup nondairy milk [I used soymilk]
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablepoons instant espresso powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups quick-cooking oats
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together non-dairy milk, oil, flax seeds, brown sugar, sugar, and vanilla until smooth. Sift in flour, cinnamon, espresso powder, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Add quick-cooking oats and chocolate chips and stir until all ingredients are moistened.

2009.11.18 Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Drop generous tablespoons of dough about 2 inches apart onto baking sheets [Please note this batter is very runny and I spread them out even more so they'd bake up flatter.]. Bake for 14 minutes [I needed to bake 2-3 minutes longer], until cookies are slightly puffed and the edges appear dry.

Let the cookies cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes [I let them sit for 10 minutes to ensure the bottoms were set.], then transfer them to wire racks to cool completely. Store in a loosely covered container.

MORSELS: Look for instant Italian espresso powder at gourmet markets in the coffee aisle or even in the baking aisles at fancy supermarkets. Instant espresso powder has a rich, concentrated flavor that’s magical in baked goods. If you can’t find it, it’s okay to substitute instant coffee granules; the flavor will just not be as intense.

PREVIOUSLY: Sweet Potato Blondies
NEXT UP IN THIS SERIES: Pignoli Almond Cookies

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Invasion of the Cute Cupcake Paraphernalia

Phew! Now that I've made the latest Cupcake Hero entry deadline, I can finally get some other unfinished business outta the way. You may recall that I won Cupcake Hero waaaay back in September for my Caramelized Banana Creme Brulee Cupcakes. Well you'll think me silly (the host sure seemed to =p) but I didn't even know what the prizes were at that point.

Does CB have the most adorable signature or what?

Cupcake Hero Prizes [Collage]

Now picture my delight when a BUNCH of wonderful prizes arrived at my doorstep a few weeks ago. I loved it all and started using everything right away. My favorites so far are the amazingly realistic cupcake magnets and rockin' leather cupcake keychain. To current and potential (you can join us anytime!) Cupcake Hero-ers, isn't it amazing that one of us wins all this every month?! Please also check out our host CB's in-depth descriptions and up-close photos of all the prizes here!

Front: Kitchen towels from StitchesAPlenty
2nd Row (left to right): cupcake-flavored lip balm from KupcakeNaturals,
magnets from ThreeRabbits, and earrings from TinyTokenDesigns
3rd Row (left to right): Card from CB, Stationary from Liz Sage, LLC,
phone/iPod case from GadgetGear, Akinosie chocolate and cocoa powder,
and keychain from Leather Prince
Cupcake Hero Prizes

I also won these adorable oven mitts from
Sygnet Creations.
(but other items pictured below are my own)
2009.10.20 Redless Velvet Cupcakes

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coconut Coffee Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

Coconut Coffee Cupcake with Peanut Butter Buttercream (Cupcake Hero::November)

Just when I thought cupcakes would be scarce around here for a while, the deadline (eek - today!) for November's peanut butter themed Cupcake Hero challenge crept up on me all ninja-like. Talk about squeaking by last-minute. I suppose I’ve always worked better under pressure anyway. So let's get started already!

First things first, you should know that we have a theme song this month: the net-(in)famous and ridiculously silly "It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time!" If you haven't seen the video yet, I (respectfully) demand that you go watch it now.

Coconut Coffee Cupcake with Peanut Butter Buttercream (Cupcake Hero::November)

A PB & J pairing was the first idea to spring to mind when CB announced peanut butter as the theme. Yet as much as I love that childhood classic, the time was ripe for a more sophisticated way to satisfy our PB (and cupcake) cravings. Of course the few days I gave myself to find an idea dragged into weeks. But lo and beyond, while mulling things over during lunch break, I only had to look down for inspiration to smack me in the face. Why not coffee?

Thus this coconut coffee cupcake with peanut butter swiss meringue buttercream frosting (SMBC) was born. I threw some coconut milk into the cake batter to add richness and complexity of taste that enhances without overpowering, like any good supporting actress. The real star here, though, is the peanut butter buttercream. It's silky smooth, not too sweet, and perfect for piping those beautiful swirls (which we all know get the most oohs and aahs).

This frosting was, in a word, amazing, and I can't wrap up this post without thanking Judy of Judy in Her Natural Habitat: The Kitchen for invaluable guidance about making SMBC. If you haven't already, please swing by her blog to see all the impressive creations. Some of my favorite posts of hers are the photo tutorial for making swiss meringue buttercream, her many flavors of SMBC, and especially her homemade cupcake wrappers which look cooler than any I've ever seen for sale. Thanks so much, Judy! And I hope these photos reveal me to be a dedicated student.

Coconut Coffee Cupcake with Peanut Butter Buttercream (Cupcake Hero::November)

Coconut Coffee Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting
[Printable Recipe]
Makes 11 to 12 cupcakes

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons instant coffee powder
Peanut Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream (Recipe below)
Peanut brittle, to garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard muffin tin with 12 paper liners. Heat the coconut and dairy milks gently on the stove or in the microwave, then add the instant coffee powder, making sure that it's completely dissolved. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a different larger bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and yolk and mix until combined into the batter. Then add the vanilla and mix again. Finally alternately beat in dry ingredients and milk mixture. Fill cupcake liners until they are about 2/3 full (I like to use my large cookie scoop for this). Bake for 16 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool completely. Frost the cupcakes as desired and top each with a small piece of peanut brittle, if desired.

2009.11.14 Coconut Coffee Cupcake with Peanut Butter Buttercream (Cupcake Hero::November) [Collage]

Peanut Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Crispy Waffle via Judy in Her Natural Habitat: The Kitchen
Makes enough to generously frost 12 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I used a natural, dark-roasted peanut butter, so I didn't need much for either color or flavor. But if you use a milder, lighter PB, feel free to add a couple tablespoons more. This technique of combining the meringue with butter was very successful, but I'm curious if dividing the meringue is really necessary. Next time I make SMBC, I'll try the simpler method of adding butter by the tablespoon to the entire meringue to see if the difference is worth the extra steps.

2 egg whites
6 to 8 tablespoons granulated sugar (according to how sweet you like things)
1 teaspoon molasses
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons peanut butter

Combine the sugar, egg whites, molasses, and cream of tartar in the stainless steel bowl of an electric mixer.

Bring a large pan of water to simmer, making sure that the water is at the same height as the egg whites in your stainless bowl. Set the bowl in the pan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (I just whisked by hand and cooked it until the sugar was completely dissolved and the top became foamy). Be careful not to curdle the egg whites, remove from heat if this starts happening.

Remove the bowl to your stand mixer and beat on high speed for at least 3 minutes, until the mixture holds glossy, marshmallow-esque peaks and the bowl is completely cool (Very important - the frosting's consistency will be off otherwise). Remove the meringue to another bowl.

Switch to the paddle attachment and beat half the butter and one-third of the meringue until well combined. Continue to add the remaining two-thirds of the meringue a dollop at a time. The mixture may look scarily curdled at this point; adding the remaining butter a tablespoon at a time and beating well after each addition will smooth things out. With the mixer on low, add the vanilla and peanut butter, and continue beating 1 minute to incorporate the additions and reduce air bubbles.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Blackberry Kuchen

2009.11.12 Blackberry Kuchen

Oh blackberry kuchen, could I have fallen any harder for you? It had seemed a lost cause to drag myself out of bed this dreary Friday morning. That is, until I remembered you sitting so prettily in the fridge. Just waiting for my curious fork. For my eyes to widen as taste buds registered your delightfully tangy sweetness, your unexpected creaminess. I'm still rather embarrassed at how a squeal of delight escaped right then.

2009.11.12 Blackberry Kuchen

And while we're having our little chat, let me just say sorry for ever doubting your potential. With a measly 4 tablespoons of butter and low-fat yogurt, your ingredient list didn't quite scream "fabulous!" Oh but you were, and it's ironic now that you've made me giddier than most cakes with 2-3 times the fat. You were a hit with my coworkers too and sadly disappeared faster than I could say "seconds." But no matter. I expect to bring you back within the week to meet my mom. Yes, you're that good. But do try not to let it go to your head. Yours truly, Xiaolu.

Blackberry Kuchen [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens: New Baking Book via How To Eat A Cupcake
Makes 1 9-inch cake (up to 12 servings)

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I think any berries or cherries or even peaches would work well in place of the blackberries. Though the directions say not to grease the pan, I lined the base in parchment and might lightly grease the sides next time to ensure a clean release.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 large egg whites (save the yolks for the filling)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups fresh or frozen blackberries or raspberries (I used frozen blackberries)

Filling
2 large egg yolks (saved from egg whites used for base)
1 large egg
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups plain low-fat yogurt [use Greek yogurt for a firmer custard]
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest (from about 1/2 a lemon)
a pinch of salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If using frozen berries, thaw at room temperature 15 minutes; drain.

For the filling, place egg and yolks in a large mixing bowl then mix well. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons flour and stir again until smooth. Add 1/2 cup sugar, yogurt, lemon zest, salt, and vanilla and almond extracts. Mix until evenly incorporated; set aside.

2009.11.12 Blackberry Kuchen [Collage]

In a medium mixing bowl, sift together 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, salt, and baking powder. Add butter, egg whites, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Gently stir everything together by hand until mixed well. (Mixture will be like soft cookie dough.) Spread onto the bottom of an ungreased 9-inch springform pan; sprinkle berries on top. Pour the filling prepared earlier over the berries.

Bake the kuchen for about 55 minutes or until center appears set (slightly wobbly) when shaken gently. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes; undo the clasp on the side of the pan and remove the ring. Cover the kuchen and chill it in refrigerator for 4 to 24 hours.

To serve, remove the pan bottom. Transfer to a platter.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Month of Vegan Cookies: Sweet Potato Blondies (Plus Cookbook Giveaway)

2009.11.08 Sweet Potato Blondies

You may not realize it yet, but a revolution is afoot. I've got 2 words for you: vegan cookies. Here's the deal. Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, the same vegan mavens who gave us my favorite cupcake book, have just unleashed the cookie equivalent. I suspect they know that everything's cuter in pairs (smart ladies!). Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar holds a gorgeous collection of egg and dairy-free recipes for everything from old favorites (like chocolate chip cookies, fudgy brownies, and NYC black & whites) to what're bound to become new classics (like Mexican hot chocolate snickerdoodles and Irish creme kisses). Even adaptations of some store-bought cookies, including Lazy Samoas and Nutter Betters, make an appearance.


By now, you can probably see why I've been salivating since this book arrived last week. In the meantime, I've come up with a plan of action and hope you'll follow along with me!

THE PLAN: I'll bake 4 cookies from Vegan Cookies in celebration of its release, post a review shortly thereafter, and also give away some free copies of it. If you'd like to win one of 3 copies of this book, simply leave a comment including a way to contact you on any post in this series, including this one. I'll pick the winners randomly and announce them together with my review.


Just in the last week it seems, the leaves in my neighborhood have all turned brilliant hues. Inspired by the season, I chose these Spiced Sweet Potato Blondies as my first. Isa and Terry recommend trying the recipe without chocolate "for really gorgeous sweet potato flavor" and they were right. These bars struck a beautiful balance between the autumnal spices and earthy sweet potato. Probably due to my pan choice (my fault, not the recipe's), the blondies were a bit more gooey than I like. All-in-all still an excellent, unique, and indulgent fall treat. They'll definitely be made again with adjustments for texture.

FLAVOR: 4.5/5
TEXTURE: 3/5
EASE OF PREPARATION: 4.5/5
OVERALL: 4/5


2009.11.08 Sweet Potato Blondies

Spiced Sweet Potato Blondies [Printable Recipe]
Reproduced with permission (Isa rocks!) from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar
with my comments/changes in brackets
Makes 1 8 x 8-inch pan or 12 to 16 blondies, depending on how you cut them

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I used Pyrex glass because that's all I had and so should probably have baked these slightly longer. Also, I stuck with aluminum foil (Pun intended? Yea I'm a dork.) to stay faithful to the recipe, but next time I think I'll really stay with my MO and use parchment since the bars clung to the foil a little.

3/4 cup cooked, well-mashed, orange-colored sweet potato (less than 1 lb raw)
1/2 cup canola oil
2/3 cup sugar [I think you could even reduce this slightly with no detriment to taste]
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup nondairy milk [I used soymilk]
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cups unbleached [all-purpose] flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup toasted chopped pecans or walnuts [I used pecans]
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Line an 8 x 8-inch square metal brownie pan with enough aluminum foil so that it folds over the sides of the pan by about an inch. Spray the bottom of the covered pan with a little nonstick cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix together the sweet potato, oil, sugar, brown sugar, nondairy milk, and vanilla until smooth. A few tiny chunks of sweet potato are okay.

Sift in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Mix just enough to moisten, then fold in the nuts and chocolate chips, if using. Do not overmix.

Pour mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula [metal works too]. Bake for 28 to 32 minutes, checking the bars at 28 minutes by poking a toothpick into the center of the cake. Bars are done if a toothpick comes out mostly clean; a few moist crumbles here and there are okay. Take care not to overbake. Allow the blondies to cool at least 30 minutes for the texture and flavor to fully develop, then slice into 12 bars. Store in a covered container.

MORSELS: A regular old fork is probably the best sweet potato mashing device ever made. Just mash away until it's as creamy as you can get it.

NEXT UP IN THIS SERIES: Espresso Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pasta with Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce


The sweet, smoky flavor of roasted red peppers is, in my opinion, a lovely addition to almost any savory dish, be it soup, salad, sandwich, or pasta (as in today’s recipe). These are such a beloved ingredient that I try to roast and freeze several pounds of peppers when they’re in season. A beyond worthy investment, since they liven up my meals throughout the winter months.

Sadly the frenzied pace of work knocked that plan right off my plate this summer. But to my delight, these pretty reds were on sale at the Asian grocer just last week. Wouldn’t you know, I snatched some right up for roasting! If you have a gas stove, you have the option of blackening bell peppers directly over a burner flame. Just be prepared for any hot juices that may break free! The smell is tantalizing but the mess is not, so I stick with the oven broiler method I’ve set out in detail after the jump.

Roasted red peppers shine in anything from lasagna rolls to hummus; the possibilities truly abound. But if what you seek is a creamy yet light, spicy and flavor-packed pasta dish that can be easily doubled for company, I humbly offer my recipe.


Pasta with Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce [Printable Recipe]
Serves 2 to 3

8 ounces spaghetti or other pasta, cooked according to package directions
2 to 3 roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
(Directions for roasting your own peppers below)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 dried red chili, broken in half (optional)
1/2 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons fresh parsley and/or basil, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons heavy cream or half and half
1 ounce parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the dried chili and let it infuse the oil for about 30 seconds. Then add the onions and garlic to the pan. Saute for a minute, stirring frequently to ensure that the garlic does not burn. Add in the roasted red peppers and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the herbs and cream and remove from heat. Let cool for several minutes and then puree the sauce right in the pan with an immersion blender.


Alternately, you can transfer the mixture to a regular blender and puree it that way. Finally, stir the grated parmesan into the sauce, add salt and pepper to taste, and combine the sauce with the pasta.

2009.11.08 Pasta with Red Pepper Cream Sauce (Collage)
Roasting Your Own Bell Peppers (Broiler Method)
Red bell peppers
Large baking sheet, lined with parchment paper or foil for easy clean-up
Vegetable oil (not olive oil)

Preheat your oven's broiler. Lightly coat each pepper with a thin layer of oil.

Arrange the peppers on a baking sheet and place it about 2 inches below the broiler heat source. Broil the peppers until most of the exposed surfaces have blackened (about 8 to 10 minutes). Remove the sheet from the oven and gently flip each pepper over with tongs or even 2 forks. Return to the broiler for another 6 to 10 minutes until the other side has blackened.

Take the peppers out and turn off the oven. Then move them (again, with tongs or forks) into a paper bag. Close the bag and let them steam for 10 to 20 minutes (to loosen their skins) until cooled. Alternately, if you don't have a paper bag, you can throw 'em all in a bowl over the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let them steam that way.

Once the peppers are cool, remove the stems and peel off the charred skin. Do NOT rinse them, as you'll be washing precious flavor down the drain. Next, slice open each pepper and use the back side of a knife to scrape out the seeds and membranes.

These roasted red lovelies are now ready for use in a myriad of dishes... Try my pasta or pick your own adventure and please share the delicious details with me after.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Luffa...Not Just For Scrubbing Your Back


The awesome diversity of ingredients used in day-to-day cooking around the world has always fascinated me. For example, there’re at least a dozen varieties of leafy green vegetables common to Chinese cooking that aren’t found in American cuisine. And I know from my best friend who’s Gujarati that the same applies to Indian food but with a totally different set of yummy greens.

And then we approach the world of Asian squash. To start , you’ve got bitter melon, fuzzy melon, winter melon, and loofah squash. Wait…what? Isn’t loofah what I use to exfoliate? I can guess that’s what you’re thinking and actually yes, it really is! But the same plant picked at an earlier stage is also commonly eaten across Asia and Africa.


Of course its texture as food is nothing like its dried form (thankfully!). Quite the opposite, loofah (or luffa) flesh becomes silky with a delicate, slightly sweet flavor when cooked. Also known as ridge gourd, Chinese okra, and Si Gua (in Mandarin), this squash soaks up other flavors beautifully. Chinese cooks frequently make it into a simple stir-fry with seafood and/or pork. I didn't have the former on hand and don’t eat the latter, so you'll find my vegetable stir-fry recipe after the jump. But if you have a need for meat, you can grab some great tips and a recipe for luffa with pork here.

Luffa Squash Stir-fry with Wood Ear Mushrooms and Carrots [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Serves 2 to 3

XIAOLU'S NOTES: The wood ear mushrooms should be available at most Asian groceries near the more well-known dried shiitake mushrooms (which you could substitute here if you can't find the wood ear variety). These need to be reconstituted for at least 30 minutes in warm water, rubbed to remove any dirt, torn into smaller pieces if very large, and then drained before use. As for peeling the luffa squash, you can either use a normal peeler or (as shown below) you can divide it into 3 to 4-inch sections and slice off the peel vertically.


2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2" ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried wood ear (or sliced shiitake) mushrooms, reconstituted and drained
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 ounces cellophane noodles, soaked in warm water and drained
1 medium to large luffa squash (1 1/2 to 2 feet long), peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons fish sauce or oyster sauce
2/3 cup water or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and shimmers. Add the ginger and garlic and fry for up to a minute until fragrant, stirring constantly to avoid burning the garlic.

Add the carrots and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the luffa and mushrooms and mix well. Add the cellophane noodles followed by 2/3 cup water or vegetable stock. Add the fish sauce, salt, and pepper to taste and mix well.

Cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. The dish is done when the cellophane noodles are completely transparent, the carrots are soft, and the liquid has reduced to about 1/4 cup, which will take about 2 to 3 minutes. The dish should be rather soupy but reduce the liquid further or add more water according to your personal preference. Once you're satisfied, serve the stir-fry hot with steamed rice or rice porridge.

FUN FOOD FACT: The black wood ear mushrooms I use here are commonly used in Chinese cooking, partly because they’re believed to have medicinal properties. According to this site, there may actually be something to this belief since scientists have recently found a chemical in these fungi that tends to inhibit blood clotting.

Luffa on Foodista

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Blonde Ginger Cookies


Man, I've really missed baking cookies! It's plain to see I've been besotted with cupcakes for the last few months like a schoolgirl over the moon with her first crush. But now that the infatuation has subsided a bit (but not to worry, Miss C and I have an extensive affair ahead of us yet!), I'm ready to make more time for my other baked companions (e.g., cookies, brownies, larger cakes).

A cookie was really the only choice to jump back into the larger baking sea. You see, I've been baking cookies mostly on my own since middle school. My mom is a wonderful cook of home-style Chinese food, but she has not a baking bone in her body. A family friend actually started it all by giving a beautiful Better Homes & Gardens cookbook to little 6th-grade me. With this bible in hand, I made my first batch of deeee-lish-us (classic peanut butter criss-cross) cookies and began a lifelong appreciation of fresh home-baked goodies.

Tonight I sought the comfortingly familiar motions of cookie-making but also a truly new taste and texture pairing. Allen of Eating Out Loud showed the way with his "Blond Ambition" cookies. These are essentially an adaptation of the traditional molasses cookie that swaps in sweetened condensed milk for molasses, at once lightening color and flavor. My slight adaptation had the taste of a spicier and milkier snickerdoodle with an interesting textural contrast of airy innards against chewy edges. But like Allen, I'd prefer these to be flatter so I'd swap out the baking powder for 1/2 tsp baking soda next time.

Blonde Ginger Cookies [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Eating Out Loud
Makes approximately 2 dozen cookies

2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder (I'd try 1/2 tsp baking soda next time)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar (plus 1/3 cup to roll cookies)
1 teaspoon unsulphured molasses
1 large egg plus 1 large yolk, room temperature
1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Set aside.

Using a hand or stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Mix in egg, yolk, vanilla, molasses, and condensed milk until combined. Stir in the dry ingredients, mixing until fully combined. The dough will be soft. I put it in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm up but that step is really optional.

Use a spoon, cookie/ice cream scoop, or your fingers to drop about 2 tablespoons of dough into the reserved 1/3 cup of sugar. Toss the dough with your fingers to coat it in sugar. Once it is coated, you can handle it better. Roll between your two palms to form a ball, then place onto a greased or silicone mat/parchment paper lined baking sheet. Leave 2-3 inches between the balls.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. This leaves them slightly under baked so they stay chewy. Once they flatten and the centers puff up, remove them from the oven. Let cool on baking sheet for 3 minutes before moving to a cooling rack. The cookies will flatten as they cool, but should remain soft and slightly chewy.