Sunday, March 28, 2010

Latest Music Obsession: The XX

The XX is a great new U.K. band with really laid-back but (for me at least) still powerful music. I've had their debut on repeat after getting it on Friday, and was lucky enough to unexpectedly get free tickets from a friend to see them tonight. In a synagogue no less! The intimate atmosphere was just perfect, the male singer adorably soft-spoken, and the music even richer than the recording. The video above is for their single "Crystalised." My current favorite off the album, though, is "Shelter," which doesn't have a real video yet.

PS - I welcome new music recommendations anytime. Thanks to those who've already left me some :).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Tahini Glaze

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Tahini Glaze

Have you ever been incredibly intimidated by some task only to realize when you finally tried it that it wasn't so bad? That finding the nerve to cross into the unfamiliar was perhaps the hardest part. It's wonderful and a little bit scary, isn't it, how powerful our minds can be? Our mental state can do anything from pin us down in fear to propel us to success.

It's a bit odd, but what got me thinking about this was a camera setting. In the half year or so since purchasing my DSLR, I've relied entirely on the aperture priority exposure setting. Why? Cause it was safe and the results, satisfactory. At that time even the most "dumbed down" photography tutorials about f-stops, ISO, and shutter speed made my head spin. So I convinced myself that my camera was smarter than me and wisely (or so I thought) got out of its way.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Tahini Glaze

That worked alright for a while...but Ms. Canon and I often split on what "proper exposure" meant for any specific photo. Then last week it finally dawned on me that some of my favorite photos are technically "over" or "under" exposed but have the perfect lighting for the artist's vision. So scary jargon be damned, I flipped the setting to manual and started snapping away.

And you know what? Nothing exploded or melted (myself included). Really it just felt like a natural progression from how I'd been shooting (except less cursing and more fun playing with settings to find my perfect exposure). Don't get me wrong -- I have plenty of nits to pick with these photos. Yet with this step I finally feel a potential for growth. Perhaps this example of mine is silly, but next time you have a chance to reach beyond your comfort zone, why not go for it?

While we're on the topic of daring to try something new, you've just gotta give this sweet potato dish a go. It may look serene (to match the Japanese theme), but flashy colors would definitely be involved if photos reflected flavors 8). Combine the savory complexity of miso with the sweetness of mirin, tang of rice vinegar, and nutty richness of tahini, and you've got one addictive sauce. Just be forewarned that you may find yourself putting it on everything from sandwiches to salads.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Tahini Glaze [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Teaism via Washingtonian
Serves 8 as a side

XIAOLU'S NOTES: My sweet potatoes were more medium-small, so I only got about 4 small servings and had LOTS of sauce leftover (though I didn't mind a bit). Be sure to get larger sweet potatoes or twice as many for the right number of servings. If using larger ones, I'd recommend cutting into cubes. If you end up with more sauce than needed for the sweet potatoes, it stores well and tastes great on lots of things (be adventurous!) :).

Sweet potatoes:
4 large sweet potatoes, peeled 1 1/2 inch cubes
[I cut them in 3/4-inch thick round slices.]
Neutral-flavored oil, such as canola or vegetable oil, as needed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Toss sweet potato cubes with enough canola oil to coat the potatoes lightly but evenly. Add the potatoes to a small baking pan; you want to crowd the potatoes in the pan to help them steam. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, making sure the cubes or slices are cooked through. Let cool for at least 10 minutes.

Sesame-miso dressing:
1/3 cup yellow or white miso paste
1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
3/4 cup water, more if desired
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/4 cup mirin
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk until completely blended. Taste and adjust seasoning with sugar. Add more water if a thinner consistency is preferred. This dressing is best if it’s prepared and kept overnight to allow the flavors to mingle [but tastes great the day you make it as well].

To serve, portion the roasted sweet potatoes onto each plate, and drizzle with miso-tahini dressing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vanilla Bean (or Melted Ice Cream) Buttercream

Vanilla Bean Buttercream

Today's recipe for vanilla bean buttercream hardly needs an introduction. But it can't hurt to share this tempting description from Cupcake Project (where I found this brilliant frosting): "It tastes just like melted vanilla ice cream." Yea...don't even try to tell me you didn't drool a little as you read that ;p. And that description's spot on. Who'd have thought adding vanilla seeds rather than just extract (pure, of course) would provide such a boost in flavor?

Part of the beauty of this buttercream is in its simplicity, and you shouldn't mess with a good thing. My only change was out of necessity since I had no readymade paste. I instead used a homemade paste of seeds freshly scraped from a vanilla bean mixed with a few drops of extract. It worked like a charm, so please feel free to make the frosting with either. Just be mindful when you "quality check," or half of it may mysteriously disappear before making it onto the cake...

P.S. - Happy St. Patty's Day! I swear there's a hint of green in the photo below, so don't you dare pinch me hehe.

Vanilla Bean Buttercream

Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting [Printable Recipe]
Very slightly adapted from Cupcake Project

1 1/2 C powdered sugar (add more until it reaches your preferred consistency)
1/2 C unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (add more to taste)
[I used seeds from 1 whole vanilla bean plus 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract]
1 tablespoon milk

Mix together sugar and butter until they are blended and creamy. Add vanilla bean paste [or pulp plus pure extract], salt, and milk and continue to beat for another minute. If desired, add more vanilla bean paste to taste, or more powdered sugar to make it stiffer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Latest Music Obsession: MGMT "Kids" + Video

It's been a while since I last mentioned my love of music here, but it hasn't diminished one bit. My latest but probably lengthiest obsession has been with the song "Kids" by the band MGMT and its fan-made video. After watching this video 10+ times a day for weeks on end, I'm amazingly still not tired of it. Do be forewarned that there's plenty of intense eye contact, awkward aerobics, peeling face paint, and even a wicked dancing weatherman in here. It's all part of the beauty of it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Upcycled Chocolate Frosting cake

Upcycled Chocolate Frosting Cake

I hate wasting food. Especially sweets full of expensive ingredients like butter and (very) nice cocoa. So when the chocolate frosting I'd prepared for these cupcakes -- a buttercream I've made and adored a dozen times before -- looked gritty (?!) after refrigeration, this gal weren't happy.

All stops were pulled to smooth things out. The poor frosting was heated up and cooled down, more than once. Then my poor faithful mixer was pushed to its breaking point trying to whip it into shape. And I cajoled it with some gentle hand mixing too, not underestimating the power of some personal tender lovin' care.

But days of failed attempts later, I just wanted to pull out my hair and dump the whole thing. Happily, inspiration struck. I realized that this buttercream made simply out of butter, cocoa, powdered sugar, vanilla, and cream was practically a chocolate cake waiting to happen. Gently, I stirred in 2 eggs, 1/2 cup of flour, and pinches of salt and baking powder. Twenty to twenty-five minutes in the oven at 350 degrees F made the magic happen.

So now I offer you my Upcycled Chocolate Cake, and ask what creative ways have you come up with to prevent good food from going to waste?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Raspberry Lemonade Bars

Frozen Raspberries for Raspberry Lemonade Bars
The second I saw these Raspberry Lemonade Bars on Sophistimom, I knew I had to have 'em. Unfortunately, Dell has yet to add the oft-requested (at least by foodies, I imagine) monitor feature wherein I could simply reach in and grab a bite of whatever's on the screen. So put simply, I would have to make these for myself (sigh).

That first encounter was back in fall '09, but the vibrant colors and fun flavors of these bars would continue haunting me until I threw up my white flag and ran straight for the kitchen. Now I promise I won't make any puns about surrender being so (so) sweet. I'm not that cheesy, after all...

Raspberry Lemonade Bars
But in all seriousness, you really should try these for yourself. The vibrant pink color will garner plenty of attention. Then the sweet tart fruity flavors will surely take everyone who tries them back to childhood summers and maybe even running their own lemonade stand. Isn't it interesting that our favorite desserts often have a tie to the past? I'd love to hear if you have one that brings back particularly wonderful memories.

One last thing -- on a completely unrelated note -- I've been searching for a round white tray with raised edge like this, rectangular white tray with no edge like this, and vintage cooling rack like this. I'd be so grateful if someone could point me in the right direction. Thanks in advance!

Lemon for Raspberry Lemonade Bars
Raspberry Lemonade Bars [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Sophistimom
Makes one 8x8" pan or 16 2" squares

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I iz lazee, so I simply melted the butter and stirred in the dry ingredients. It still tasted great but lacked the pleasant sandiness that I associate with lemon bar bases. Feel free to go either way depending on how much washing you're willing to do afterward 8). A friend made these with lime instead of lemon and reported it was great!

9 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon)
[I reduced to 1/2 cup and melted it]
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
1 cup (100 g) unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
[I added a few pinches of lemon zest]

1 1/2 cups (287 g) sugar [I reduced to 1 1/4 cups]
3 large egg whites
1 large egg [I simply used 2 eggs and NO whites]
2/3 cup (150 mL) fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
2 tablespoons lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
2/3 cup (65 g) unbleached, all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup (150 g) frozen raspberries, defrosted
1 tablespoon powdered sugar [I used a few more]

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees Celsius). Line a 8×8″ square baking pan with a strip of parchment paper (8×14″) that covers the bottom and overlaps on either side. (This is so after it cools, you can pull out the entire pan of bars and cut them neatly. You can omit this step completely, though, in which case you need to butter the pan well.)

Cream butter, sugar, and salt with an electric mixer. Mix in flour until just incorporated. Flour hands and press dough into 8×8″ square baking pan, so that it comes up about a 1/2 inch around the sides.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until slightly golden brown. While it cools, prepare the filling.

Whisk sugar, eggs, lemon juice and zest, flour, and salt in a large bowl. Pour raspberries into a sieve and press through to extract all the pulp and juices. Whisk into lemon mixture and pour into crust. Bake for 30-35 minutes until filling is completely set. Let cool completely. (I help mine along in the freezer for about an hour.) Using the overlapping edges of parchment paper, gently lift the dessert from the pan. Cut into 16 squares. Dust generously with confectioner’s sugar.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chocolate + Dulce de Leche = Classic

Ingredients for Chocolate Cupcakes
A few days ago, I happened upon some old college photos on my hard drive. With a return to school on the horizon, it was sweet to revisit the high points of those rarely predictable days. One memory that made me smile right away had to do with my first roommate, Maureen.

Although she and I seemed pretty different at first, we hit it off quickly. And before long we were brewing up genius ideas like "ghetto surround sound." This involved carefully (you wouldn't believe the skill) timing our computers to playing a song at the same instant. Let me just tell ya, it worked like a charm =p. Throw in some light-switch raving, and we had ourselves an instant party at any time of day (or more often night)!

Not all the pictures elicited fond memories though. Even after just a few years, plenty of looks (which of course I thought cool or even sexy at the time) now had me cringing. One from a party early freshman year was a particular eyesore. Picture this: red mesh shirt over a black corset, flared black skirt, rubber flip-flops, and almost an inch of blue eyeshadow. What was I smoking? Happily, I've since learned that less is more...and that mesh is only appropriate on Halloween.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche
I applied a similar lesson in restraint to making these chocolate dulce de leche cupcakes for my friend Mimi's birthday party. A rich chocolate buttercream was just waiting to be piped, but at the last moment I saw with clarity that the dulce de leche topping, despite its humble appearance, was just what these cupcakes needed and not a thing more.

I'm sure you've all had similar experiences. Please do share them with moi. What have you cooked or baked that turned out just right when you chose to deviate from your original plan or recipe?

Chocolate Dulce de Leche Cupcakes
[Printable Recipe]
Cake adapted from Hershey's
Makes 12 to 14 cupcakes

1 cup minus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
6 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 tsp instant coffee powder dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water (or 1/2 cup black coffee)
1/2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar plus milk to equal 1/2 cup
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 - 1 1/2 cups dulce de leche (I make mine in the pressure cooker)
milk or cream, if needed to thin out dulce de leche

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease top of a standard muffin pan, then line with paper liners.

In large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the egg, milk, coffee (or reconstituted coffee mixture), oil, and vanilla extract. Beat by hand or with an electric mixer on medium speed until well combined.

Pour the batter, which will be thin, to fill the paper liners about 2/3 full. Tap the pan firmly against the counter 2 times to remove any air bubbles. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or just until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cupcakes cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove them to a wire rack and let them cool completely there before frosting.

While the cupcakes are cooling, prepare the dulce de leche topping by stirring to ensure smoothness and adding milk or cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed to thin the dulce de leche to the desired spreading consistency.

Once cupcakes are completely cool, spread the topping on with a spoon or knife, ending by smoothing the stop in a spiral pattern if you like the look.