Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Latest Music Obsession: The National

This is slightly different from my other music-related posts in that I'm sharing an old favorite that I've recently rediscovered. The National is hand's down one of the best bands out there today. They evoke so much emotion with both their music and lyrics and are fantastic live. The video above is a live performance of "About Today," a song off their 2004 Cherry Tree EP. I know it's pretty lengthy at just under 9 minutes, but I promise you it's worth it. If you fall head over heels for them as I did years ago, here are a few of my other favorites: Guest Room and Bloodbuzz Ohio. By the way, this is my 100th post. Yay =D.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Girl Meets Torch (Bruléed Oatmeal)


The motto of my absolute favorite food magazine is "special made simple" (I'm sure many of you immediately knew which one I meant XD). It's a wonderful approach to cooking, and I always look forward to new ways of applying it. But I also find the reverse mentality, "simple made special," equally if not more appealing. The perfect example of this can be found in my new favorite breakfast: Bruléed Oatmeal.

I happened upon this brilliantly easy method on the blog, à la mode*, while hunting for creative uses for my kitchen torch. Oddly enough, I'd bought one not to make classic creme brulée but to fulfill a cupcake vision. The idea to brulée breakfast has certainly breathed new life into my neglected tool. With just a few sprinklings of sugar and blasts of heat, I can regularly transform run-of-the-mill breakfasts into treats worth getting up for. Please do make sure you have enough gas in your torch. That way you'll get more drool-inducing results like this instead of the light browning in my photo.

For those of you who also own a kitchen torch, what uses have you found for it other than creme brulée?

Bruleed Oatmeal Breakfast!

Strawberry Banana Oatmeal Brûlée [Printable Recipe]
From à la mode*
Serves 1

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I actually doubled the recipe for the bowl of oatmeal in the photo, but the fruit doesn't keep well so I suggest you make only as much as you'll eat right away. Almost any fruit can be substituted here. Just don't expect the fruit to taste cooked, since the torch is really just there to caramelize the sugar into crunchy goodness! Please be careful not to overheat the edges of the bowl or bowl may crack, and be careful handling the bowl afterwards; it will be hot! Rick from à la mode* says that a torch works the best for this, but that about 20-30 seconds under the broiler should also work. If you try this, check first that your bowl is oven-safe.

1 portion of oatmeal, cooked and lightly sweetened
3-4 fresh strawberries, sliced
1/2 banana, sliced
1 Tbsp sugar

Add cooked oatmeal to a heat-proof bowl. Over top, arrange sliced banana and strawberries cut side up, to expose flat surfaces. Sprinkle evenly with sugar. Light torch and heat sugar till golden brown, making sure to pass torch slowly back and forth over fruit.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Open (Your Mouth To) Sesame (Matcha Cupcakes)

Black Sesame Matcha Cupcakes
Some days it feels like my head's not screwed on all the way. I seem to muck up all sorts of tasks, even the ones that usually bring comfort through their familiarity. Like baking up a batch of cupcakes. This time they were to be black sesame matcha (green tea) flavored for September's caffeine-themed Cupcake Hero challenge. The first wave of trouble hit when I attempted an ambitious photo of the ingredients. As you'll see below, it turned out to require balancing skills beyond what I possess -- oops!

Well I cleaned up the mess and forged onward. So determined was I, in fact, that I ignored the fact that my batter looked thin enough for crepes... Only after pulling a gooey mess (yep, another one) out of the oven did it dawn on me that I'd forgotten to decrease the liquid when I halved the original recipe. As I dumped my rawcakes into the garbage, I couldn't help but wonder if my mind had gone on vacation without the rest of me. Have you guys had days like this, too?

It took 2 days for the shame to wear off, but I did try again and apparently second time's the charm. The cakes rose high and fluffy and were filled with the distinct nuttiness of sesame. The matcha cream cheese frosting was also a success. Tangy and just sweet enough to offset the bitter edge of green tea but firm enough to pipe, thanks to a new method using cold cream cheese. What a relief it'll be not to choose anymore between flavorful but goopy or thicker but tooth-ache inducing frosting!

Some of you may not be familiar with black sesame, so I'll leave you with a lil' background info. Personally, I don't feel it's very different from white sesame as whole seeds. Both are used primarily for their look and crunchiness. But when ground, black sesame has a richer and slightly more bitter flavor that I find delicious. I was introduced to it early on in Chinese treats like sweet rice dumplings (tang yuan) with a sesame filling and a pudding-like soup (zi ma hu) many Chinese believe to prevent gray hair (I doubt that works, but the seed is high in calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus.). Now that I've also found these cupcakes and other creative uses for it (e.g., in panna cotta or macarons with nutella), black sesame will definitely be appearing frequently in my kitchen.

Black Sesame Matcha Cupcakes
Black Sesame Matcha Cupcakes [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Delicious Coma
Makes 12 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I actually used 36 g of a pre-ground black sesame powder but still followed the same toasting and grinding process. Both whole and ground seeds are available at well-stocked Asian grocers. If you're able to find and use the powder, be sure to keep a close eye on it in the pan. The frosting recipe below made a little more than needed to frost the cupcakes you see in the photos. Scale the recipe up or down, if you usually prefer more or less frosting. This method makes for a firmer cream cheese frosting than is common and should be pipeable.

6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup black sesame seeds PLUS extra for garnish
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 cups (155 g) all purpose flour
1/2 cup PLUS 3 Tbsp milk

Matcha Cream Cheese Frosting (Recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a standard muffin pan with 12 baking liners.

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan on the stove over medium heat, stirring them constantly, until they are fragrant (about 2 minutes). Crush toasted seeds with a mortar and pestle OR spice grinder until they are the texture of damp sand and set aside. Separately, sift the dry ingredients into a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the ground sesame seeds, egg, and vanilla and beat until combined. Gradually beat in half the dry ingredients. Add the milk and mix well. Lastly, add the remaining dry ingredients and mix until batter is well-combined and smooth.

Fill cupcake liners until they are about 2/3 full (I like to use my large cookie scoop for this). Lift the pan 1-inch above the kitchen counter and carefully slam it down to expel any large air bubbles in the batter. Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove cupcakes from pan as soon as safely possible. Cool completely before frosting as desired. Sprinkle the top of each cupcake with extra sesame seeds.

Matcha Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature
1 to 2 cups (4 to 8 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted (more if needed)
10 ounces cream cheese, cold and cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 to 4 tsp matcha (green tea) powder, or to taste

Sift powdered sugar and matcha together into a small bowl. In a larger mixing bowl, cream the butter, powdered sugar mixture, and vanilla until thoroughly blended. Add the cream cheese, a chunk at a time, beating after each addition (just enough to work it in).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Generously Ginger (Fresh Ginger Cake with Roasted Pears)

Ginger Root

Ginger is pretty amazing the way I see it. Since childhood, I've enjoyed it as one of the essential flavorings in Chinese cooking. More recently in college came the discovery that its candied form makes killer scones. But most impressive are its many medicinal uses. According to Gourmet Sleuth, it's a great natural remedy for "nausea, motion sickness, morning sickness and general stomach upset due to its carminative effect that helps break up and expel intestinal gas." Tea brewed from ginger has even been used to decrease nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy since it's unlikely to react with other medicine.

So I hope you love (or have just been persuaded to love) ginger as much as me. Cause this here is some Serious Ginger Cake. We're not talking about a measly spoon of ground ginger powder absentmindedly tossed into the batter. In fact, we don't even mess with that stuff. This recipe calls instead for no small amount of the freshest ginger root you can procure. Finely minced, it bestows the gift of its warm spiciness on every moist morsel of this cake.


The cake recipe used here comes straight from the fabulous blogger and cookbook author, David Leibovitz, who's generous to share what he says is his most-requested recipe. But Melissa of The Traveler's Lunchbox deserves a share of credit, too, for her spot-on pairing of juicy sweet roasted pears and tangy sour cream. It's worth the effort to make these as they elevate an already delicious cake to a multi-faceted dessert experience. I look forward to cozying up to a slice of this fragrant cake plus something hot to sip on in the cooler days ahead. Won't you please come join me?

Dave's Ginger Cake with Pears

David's Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramel-Roasted Pears [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from David Leibovitz via The Traveler's Lunchbox
Serves 8

XIAOLU'S NOTES: After completely failing with a box grater, I finely chopped my ginger by hand. When looking closely, I was able to see (but not taste) small ginger fibers in the baked cake. If you mind the sight even of fibers, I recommend using the freshest ginger you can find and chopping it in the food processor.

4 ounces (120g) fresh ginger, peeled
1 cup (250ml) mild molasses
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 cup (250ml) vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups (350g) flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 cup (250ml) water
2 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, cubed or slivered (optional)
Roasted Pears (Recipe below)
Lightly-sweetened whipped cream mixed with equal parts plain yogurt, to serve

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/175 degrees C. Line a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan (or a 9 x 3-inch cake pan) with a circle of parchment paper.

Slice and chop the ginger very finely with a knife (or process in a food processor until very finely chopped). In a large bowl mix together with the molasses, sugar, oil and ginger. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.

Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then stir the hot water into the molasses mixture. Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Top with crystallized ginger, if using.

Bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top of the cake browns too quickly before the cake is done, drape a piece of foil over it and continue baking. Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper.

If you're making the pears, increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees F/190 degrees C.

Roasted Pears
6-8 medium ripe yet firm pears, peeled, halved and cored (a melon baller works well)
1/2 cup (100g) sugar, brown or white
1/2 cup (160ml) water
3 Tbsp (50g) butter OR trans-fat-free margarine
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise OR 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
generous pinch sea salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F/190 degrees C. Nestle the pear halves in a baking dish just big enough to fit them in a single layer. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to distribute. Pour this mixture over the pears and roast in the oven, basting them with the liquid every 10 minutes or so, for about 25-30 minutes, or until the liquid is bubbling very thickly and the pears are tender when pierced with a knife. (Don't forget to remove the vanilla bean, rinse it lightly and add it to your extract jar or vanilla sugar jar, if you make these) Let cool slightly before serving.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

You Know You're A Foodie When...

Zebra Eggplants

Would you laugh at me if I told you that most of the "events" that end up making my day (or even my week) are food-related? It may be discovering the most amazing rhubarb vanilla bean jam at Borough Market when visiting my best friend in London. Or the addictive chewiness of NYC's speculoos spread leige waffles of Throwdown with Bobby Flay fame. While crossing state and even country lines with friends does tend to encourage food "eventfulness," it's by no means required.

Zebra Eggplant

The first bite of a straight-from-the-oven pizzookie with the perfect cookie-to-ice-cream ratio, for example, was a revelation right in my own kitchen. Even the humble neighborhood grocery can hold unexpected treasures, like these zebra eggplants. When I spied these the other week, I couldn't help but gasp out of admiration for Mother Nature's artistry. Best of all these beauties were mine for the same price as common eggplant. I anticipated (correctly) with some sadness that the stunning pattern would fade upon cooking. Still, if these eggplants could be made into a tasty enough dish, we'd at least be transforming one form of beauty into another, right?

Eggplant Tomato Smoked Mozzarella Tart

Humbly, I say to you that this flavorful and relatively healthy tart does justice to its ingredients. Eggplant gracefully shares the spotlight with plum tomatoes as well as smoked mozzarella and feta cheeses. And that's just the filling. A generous dose of freshly ground black pepper in the crust gives a little kick to every bite. Just enough to pull you back for another taste...and another. I did find the original recipe produced a slightly tough crust. A result, I suspect, of lowering the fat content excessively (to only 1 Tbsp?) in an attempt to healthify the tart. The recipe below includes my adjustments to the crust, but feel free to stick with the original recipe if you need to minimize your fat intake for health reasons. Even with my nitpick, I enjoyed it so much that I had it for 3 meals in a row!

Now I'm looking at you, my readers. Please tell me, what are the vegetables that get you excited? And what delightful dishes do you make from them?

Eggplant Tomato Smoked Mozzarella Tart [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Cooking Light
Serves 3 to 4

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I loved the flavor of this crust, but had textural issues. Though I've modified the recipe to fix those problems, you're welcome to use your favorite savory tart crust recipe instead. Just add 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper to the dry ingredients. For the filling, make sure to slice your eggplant no thinner than 1/4" thick. I sliced a bit too thinly, which resulted in them being slightly dry when baked. The original recipe also called for salting the eggplant. To save time, I've skipped that step but as a result it's important to use fresh eggplant so that it doesn't impart a bitter taste.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 Tbsp toasted wheat germ
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp salt
2 to 3 Tbsp water
4 Tbsp olive oil
Cooking spray

1 lb eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/4" thick slices
1/2 tsp salt, divided
1/2 tsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 tsp chopped fresh oregano [I used 1/2 tsp dried]
1 T chopped fresh mint
2 plum tomatoes (about 6 ounces), thinly sliced
1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded smoked mozzarella cheese, divided
1/3 cup (about 2 ounces) crumbled feta cheese (optional)
2 Tbsp grated fresh parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

To prepare crust, lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 4 ingredients (flour through 1/4 teaspoon salt) in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk; make a well in center of mixture. Add 2 tablespoons of water and all the oil, stirring to form a soft dough. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed to make the dough come together. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly 4 times. Gently press dough into a 4-inch circle on plastic wrap; cover and chill 15 minutes.

Slightly overlap 2 sheets of plastic wrap on a slightly damp surface. Unwrap dough, and place chilled dough on plastic wrap. Cover with 2 additional sheets of overlapping plastic wrap. Roll dough, still covered, into an 11-inch circle. Remove top sheets of plastic wrap. Fit dough, plastic-wrap side up, into a 10-inch round removable-bottom tart pan coated with cooking spray. Remove remaining plastic wrap. Press dough against bottom and sides of pan. Pierce bottom and sides of dough with a fork; bake at 400° for 10 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

To prepare filling, arrange eggplant in a single layer on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Brush slices with 1/2 teaspoon oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes. Stack eggplant slices on a plate; cover with plastic wrap. Let eggplant stand 7 minutes to steam.

Using more towels, pat tomato slices dry. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium heat. Add garlic; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt, basil, oregano, mint, and tomatoes.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons smoked mozzarella and all the feta on bottom of baked crust. Layer eggplant and tomato mixture in crust, and top with 6 tablespoons smoked mozzarella and parmesan. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes or until cheese melts. Cut into 8 wedges.