July 23, 2014

Blueberry Brownies

I am week four into my kitchen remodel. What does that mean? That I've been without a kitchen for nearly a month now. How am I surviving? Lotttsss of takeout (me and my waitress at my local Thai restaurant are like best buds now) and eating out. Paper plates and plastic forks for salads, sandwiches and tons of stuff from the grill. Without a stove or cooktop at our disposal, Erlend and I have been grilling like crazy! At first it sounded really epic, paleo and primal — cooking our meat and vegetables over an open-flame, just like our ancestors — ROAR! But now, if I'm perfectly honest with you guys, the next time I see a vegetable or some meat whose outer edges have been charred by the grill (as modeled by my friend Noah), I might just hurl it against the wall... because believe me, that charcoal aftertaste loses its appeal fast when you eat it every night.

To prepare for the remodel, I spent the entire month of June frantically baking up a storm to have some blog posts to last me through the kitchen-less weeks. I was like some kind of tornado, baking every night and hastily snapping pictures before moving on to the next recipe. Unfortunately, my carelessness shows — flipping through my camera, I'm disappointed by the quality of my work. In the pictures, you can actually see that I literally just plopped down the dish, took a picture, and moved on with my life. So now I'm torn: is it okay to publish a great recipe with bad photos, or just omit it from the queue completely?

Some of the recipes I decided to file away and just reshoot for later. No point publishing a delicious recipe for key lime pie if it looks like unappetizing green-tinted slop, right? But others, like these blueberry brownie bars, seemed cruel to withhold — especially since blueberries are currently at their prime:

I'm a big fan of throwing fruit into baked bar recipes (ehem, these blondies and these cheesecake bars). Brownies are one of my favorite baked goods, and I couldn't resist throwing in a handful of fresh blueberries to one of my standby brownie recipes and seeing what would happen. It took a couple of times to get the brownies right — at first the extra moisture from the blueberries wouldn't let the brownies set, but after a few tweaks like dredging the fruit in flour (see baker's notes) and increasing my original brownie recipe's baking time and temperature, they came out perfectly. The blueberries are a wonderful addition to the fudgy brownies, giving the brownies' dense, fudgy chocolate flavor a fruity edge while maintaining the classic papery and crinkly brownie top.

Some baker's notes:
  • The first time I threw fruit into a recipe's batter, the fruit sank to the bottom and made the bottom of my baked good incredibly soggy. No bueno. I've since learned the secret — toss the fruit in a tablespoon or two of flour, just enough to give them a light coating. The flour coat absorbs some of the liquid released by the fruit as it bakes and keeps the fruit in place until the crumb has set. A good rule of thumb is to use more flour for riper, juicier fruits and less for less juicy fruits. Be careful not to abuse this rule too much, or you'll end up with dense baked goods whose proportions are all off due to extra flour.

July 15, 2014

Blackberry Cabernet Sorbet

Hi friends! Today I'm guest posting over on my friend Eva's wonderful blog, Adventures in Cooking. I've been a long time fan of her work now and I'm absolutely delighted that she asked me to contribute a post. I'm sharing this wonderful recipe for blackberry and cabernet sauvignon red wine sorbet.

July 9, 2014

Whole Grain Strawberry Oat Scones (Refined-Sugar Free)

Ahh, the photo above CRACKS me up. It was taken just after I had put down my camera in frustration, willing to make these strawberry oat scones more photogenic. I stepped out of the room to take a break, frustrated by the day's ever-changing light, and when I came back, there it was — a single ray of light from the window was shining upon these strawberry oat scones, as if God himself was giving these pastries his blessing. "Never mind your terrible pictures," the lord commanded. "Eat the damn things, for they are delicious."

Or at least, that's what I imagined was the message. Because for the last few years, I was convinced that I didn't actually like scones very much. The scones I'd had were either as dry and hard as a rock, or just too sweet for breakfast. That is, I'm talking about that morning I went to the San Francisco DMV thinking that a scone with my coffee would suffice for breakfast — fast forward to a mere half an hour later, when I was suffering some sort of hangry panic attack from a scone sugar crash, in addition to the knowledge that I still had another 3 hours' worth of waiting in front of me.

Since then, I've been on a mission to find scones that would be moist and hearty enough to last me until lunch time. I hadn't succeeded yet — most of my scones either came out too dry or sweet and insubstantial — until this strawberry oat scone recipe from Honey & Oats caught my eye:

Filled with whole wheat flour and oats, while abstaining from refined sugars (the sugar comes from the fresh strawberries and maple syrup), I found that these scones were perfect. They lacked the cloying sweetness I tended to avoid in the morning, and one scone produced no pre-lunchtime hunger panic attacks (even after a 5-mile bicycle ride to work!). In addition, the scones came together in 20 minutes — this is definitely a recipe I'll be keeping in rotation for the rest of the summer, especially as other fruits come into season. The strawberries work wonderfully with the maple syrup and oats, but I'm already daydreaming of blackberry and blueberry variations.

July 2, 2014

Strawberry Crème Brûlée

The summer after I graduated college, I had zero savings and was thrust suddenly into the scary post-undergrad world of unemployment and lots of idle time. I spent much of those initial first few months scouring Craigslist hopelessly for a job and finding ways to make my meager checking account last as long as it could.

One way I decided to pinch pennies was in meals. It happened to be strawberry season, and entire mounds of strawberries were going for less than $10 dollars a flat. My friend had recently showed me what I considered at the time to be the best way of consuming strawberries: that is, to first dip the strawberry in a dollop of sour cream before sprinkling with a generous amount of brown sugar. I found myself going through pints of strawberries this way, eventually replacing meals with these strawberry sour cream treats. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time, I was pleased with how much money these strawberry meals were saving me.

After around two weeks of this behavior, I woke up with a stinging sensation on my lips. Maybe it’s sunburn, I thought to myself, ignoring the fact that it might have something to do with the fact that, a few weeks ago, I’d finally kissed that British exchange student that I’d spent my entire last semester crushing on. I continued my strawberry meals and hopeless Craigslist searches without a second thought, finishing a record three pints of strawberries in one day and the same score of absolutely zero job prospects. The next day, I woke up with blisters on my lips that I couldn’t ignore.

After freaking out in front of the mirror for about an hour, I finally biked to the free clinic. There, I self-consciously explained to the nurse that I thought I had the big H; that is,

“HERPES!” I yelled, pointing at my pink and swollen lips.

My nurse peered at me through her glasses. “That’s not herpes,” she said, her furrowed brow relaxing. “I think you’re having an allergic reaction to something. Did you try new lipstick, maybe? Or something you haven’t eaten before? For instance, I’m allergic to strawberries. Whenever I eat one, they blow up my lips and look exactly like that.”

“But I can’t be allergic to strawberries,” I exclaimed, my voice turning almost hysterical. “That’s all I’ve been eating for the last 2 weeks!” I quickly explained to her that I'd saved around $100 a week since I'd started eating nothing but strawberries for all my meals.

She gave me a look of disbelief, one that quickly turned into mild disapproval. “Strawberries contain a type of protein that is also a common allergen; if you’re constantly exposing yourself to this pathogen, your immune system will start to become allergic and develop antibodies to fight it.”

“So you’re saying… I gave myself this allergy? Because... I was eating too many strawberries?”

“Yep,” she said, showing me the door. “On the plus side, at least it’s not herpes.”

Immediately after that visit to the clinic, I stopped my insane strawberry diet and avoided the damn things for a good four years or so. It was only last year that I started reintroducing them into my diet, and, despite my constant use of them in my recipes, I’ve been much more cautious about the amount I consume. I’m pleased to report that the allergy seemed to have been short lived — the blisters haven’t reappeared yet, though I certainly haven’t been eating as much as I was back in the day.

Even so, I still haven’t the heart to try my old favorite treat of dipping them in sour cream and brown sugar. I know that the combination probably won’t have any negative consequences, but I guess I’m worried that doing so will bring me back the feelings of loss and nervousness that I had that summer, pining about boys who moved away and jobs I was completely unqualified for. Basically, the feelings that ultimately drove me to, you know, start screaming hysterically about herpes and strawberries at the free clinic.

Still, strawberries and cream remains one of my favorite flavor combinations. And in the years since that summer, I like to think I’ve become more sophisticated and have upgraded from dipping strawberries in plastic buckets of sour cream and sugar. So with that, I present this strawberry crème brûlée recipe:

Strawberries and crème brûlée are the perfect combination. The crème brûlée is the classic French vanilla baked dessert, but with strawberries sprinkled last minute to sit on top of the custard. As the custard bakes and sets, the strawberries release their juices into the cream, gently infusing the entire dessert. The best part, however, is from the brûlée. I’ve sprinkled each ramekin with only the slightest amount of sugar, and used a chef’s torch to create that burnt sugar brûlée. Since the strawberries sit on top of the custard, however, they also get brûléed and allow the fruit to crystalize and emit a kind of burnt strawberry sugar as well. It’s honestly such a heavenly experience, and one of my favorite recipes I’ve posted on the blog to date.

Some baker's notes:
  • Vanilla bean pods can be expensive, so feel free to substitute the vanilla bean used in the recipe with 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste. To properly split open a vanilla bean pod, use the tip of a sharp knife to slice the pod lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream. Don't discard the pods though! They're still very flavorful, and you can cook the pods with the cream for an even strong vanilla flavor infusion.

  • It's important that you cook the custard ramekins in the water bath (as instructed in the recipe). This will allow the custards to cook evenly throughout.

  • Do NOT overcook the custard. Overcooking will result in a weirdly crumbly and grainy custard texture. If you know your oven runs hot, constantly check your ramekins to see how done they are. Custards, unlike cake, are unaffected by the number of times you open your oven door. You can find the perfect custard texture by taking a heatproof utensil and giving each ramekin a gentle tap on its side. If the sides are firm but the center jiggles, you're good to go. If the center is firm, you've overcooked your custard and I'm crying for you.

  • If you don't have a chef's torch, you can still make crème brûlée! Cover the tops of each baked custard with the appropriate amount of sugar and set them under high heat in your broiler. The only warning I have with this method is to watch them carefully, as the sugar has a tendency to brûlée way faster than you expect and could over burn the top and reheat the already cooled custard.

June 25, 2014

Rhubarb and White Chocolate Blondies

Recently, I celebrated my 27th birthday. I wrote about how 27 was the age that marked me as comfortably in my late 20s, and how I was okay with that because it meant that it was an age where it was okay for me to be a grown-up.

But it's funny, that whole being a grown-up thing. What does that actually mean? Because it still beats me. I logged onto Facebook recently and saw that one of my acquaintances had posted: "I just bought a house and was accepted into an MBA program. Does that make me a grown-up yet?" Below her post were supportive comments from others confirming that yes, both those things did and she was officially a grown-up.

That made me frown. I mean, I myself had bought a house recently. But within the past year, that house had literally kicked my butt. Sure, although it sounded like a very adult and grown-up thing to do, I'd found myself regressing to behaviors I'd had in high school and college, things like hiding in my room and crying when I had to deal with my ridiculous roommates. Not to mention the fact that the house is still filled with furniture I'd been using since I was a college freshman.

And okay, there are some things where I'll legitimately admit I'm responsible and grown-up. Like yeah, I pay my bills on time every month and don't go out and do shots the night before an 8AM meeting the following morning. But what about my aversion to marriage and babies? I read about blogs from girls my age getting excited about being pregnant and, although it's awesome and I'm happy for them, if I were in that same situation it would definitely not be one of mirth and instead be one of sheer, utter panic.

But maybe that's what adulthood is? Maybe it's not about certain steps or milestones you achieve, but more about knowing your limitations. Maybe being a grown-up isn't all encompassing, and you can be grown-up in many ways but not in others. Maybe it's just some magic combination of different factors that I haven't quite figured out yet.

Oh well. At least there are these rhubarb and white chocolate blondies. That's definitely a magic combination that I have figured out:

When I was in college, I used to love the white chocolate blondies that my school cafeteria served. A few months ago, I went back for an alumni event and bought myself a bar for old times' sake. I was surprised to find that I found the bar too rich and artificially sweet. I made a mental note to myself to try and recreate a less intense version more suited to my current tastes in the near-future — maybe I could try and temper its sweetness with a tart fruit or so?

So when rhubarb came into season, I figured its sour flavor would be a perfect match for the white chocolate blondies. I grabbed a pound of rhubarb and threw them onto my favorite blondie recipe, complete with a generous heap of white chocolate chips:

Like I said before — it's an absolutely magical combination, managing to perfectly combine the decadent white chocolate blondie flavor that I favored in my youth with the more sophisticated, tart rhubarb fruit that I prefer now. The rhubarb pairs perfectly with the blondies, tempering its rich brown butter and white chocolate flavor with a refreshing tartness. Be sure to bake up these bars before rhubarb season is over! This recipe's a keeper.

Some baker's notes:
  • If you've read the recipe and you're wondering why the recipe calls for you to "pre-bake" the rhubarb beforehand, it's because the first time I made these blondies, the bars didn't quite set. The rhubarb topping leaked out juice and threw off the recipe's dry to liquid ingredient ratio. To fix the problem, I ended up baking the rhubarb topping for just a few minutes, enough to allow the rhubarb to leak juice but still maintain its flavor and texture when topped and baked with the rest of the bars.

  • It's very hard to tell when these blondies are done. Follow the recipe's cooking time closely, an check on the blondies halfway through the recipe's suggested cooking time. If the rhubarb and white chocolate looks like it’s browning too fast, create an aluminum foil tent over the pan. Check the blondies again at the first suggested cooking time to make sure they are not overcooking, or you’ll get tough, chewy blondies and I’ll cry. It’s okay for the center of the blondies to look a little bit wet as long as the edges are set and golden brown. The blondies will continue cooking in the pan after you've pulled them out of the oven and continue to set as they cool.

June 16, 2014

Yellow Saffron Butter Cake with Chocolate Cardamom Fudge Frosting

It's my party, I can do what I want.

It's my party, I can say what I want.

It's my party, I can love who I want, I can kiss who I want, I can sing what I want.

I've never been a big birthday person. The last official party I threw for myself was in eighth grade, in which my friends and I went to a water park AND a movie, and that strikes me as overly ambitious now (SIDE NOTE: thanks Mom! I'm sure that a bunch screaming eight graders at a water park was probably not very fun at all). I guess there was also the obligatory drunken kegger that my friends threw me for my 21st birthday, but I'm not really counting that because in college, birthday celebrations are more about the free beer than the actual person itself.

Then there were the terrible birthdays of the last few years. My 25th birthday, I tweeted about the hassle of booking hotel rooms for a friend's wedding, and that, like most things related to weddings, just got wayyy overblown and dramatic. Oh well. At least I'd made myself this near-perfect knockoff of a Momofuku Milk Bar confetti cake. In contrast, my 26th birthday was so quiet and forgettable that I don't even remember what I did... OH WAIT — that might have been the year I got food poisoning from one of my favorite restaurants in town, a place I'm sorry to say that I'm still a little wary of (despite still adamantly defending that they make the best pizza in town).

This year though, I've decided to start celebrating like I mean it. Because I'll finally admit that birthdays are a big friggin' deal! To be alive on earth for another year is kind of a miracle, especially for somebody who eats as poorly as I do and frequently partakes in apparently life-threatening activities like biking to work and Crossfit. I'm serious! Erlend spent the last year studying anatomy and physiology for the last year and been filling my head with random facts about what it takes to keep a human body healthy and in good shape. I'll spare you the details, but long story short, it's this: a LOT.

I'm also excited about this birthday because, according to Buzzfeed, 27 is apparently the final year in which it's okay for me to regress back to my early 20s antics and have one last big hurrah before I head into my comfortable, stretchy-pants-wearing late 20s. And by that I mean, the kind of late 20s lifestyle they're referring to in the web series "I Miss Drugs", where weekends are spent looking for Rumors on vinyl at flea markets and gawking over Simple Human trash cans at Target. But can I tell you a secret?

My life has been like that for some time now, and I've been loving it.

So maybe this year isn't gonna be me partaking in the crazy hurrahs that Buzzfeed is promising, but instead, a very blatant celebration of the official arrival of a lifestyle where I don't have to make excuses for not wanting to take shots and stay out late on weeknights. Because at 27, I'm legitimately in my late 20s and it's finally okay to be kind of a grownup. At this age, I'm comfortable and confident enough to be okay with how lame I can be, and that makes me incredibly:

So I'll be damned if that doesn't deserve a celebration, especially one with an amazing and epic cake like this yellow saffron butter cake with chocolate cardamom fudge frosting. I used to think I was a red velvet girl, but honestly, ever since I made this beautiful yellow butter cake with chocolate ganache frosting for Erlend's birthday last year, I've been a firm believer that chocolate-covered yellow cakes should be a standard at any birthday celebration.

But don't get me wrong — this yellow birthday cake is far from standard. The cake gets its beautiful yellow color from butter that's been infused with a generous portion of saffron, one of my favorite spices and one that I would use every day if it weren't so freaking expensive:

Besides the saffron, the cake recipe itself is an absolute delight. Despite being a butter cake, it has a light and fluffy crumb that works wonderfully with the fudge frosting.

The fudge frosting is a neat little recipe that I've been holding near and dear to my heart for some time now. It's completely effortless and involves combining melted chocolate, butter, and confectioner's sugar in a food processor and blending until this creamy frosting appears. It's delicious and so, so, so easy to work with, allowing you to frost an almost perfectly smooth cake without too much effort. Oh, and of course, for fun, I threw in a pinch of cardamom to bring out the butter cake's saffron flavor. This cake is absolutely delicious and a recipe that I'm going to be keeping for birthdays to come.

Some baker's notes:
  • Okay, so this cake uses a pretty generous amount of saffron, which is crazy expensive and overpriced. The only reason I shelled out for it was because it was my birthday (and I did what I wanted!). But there is an alternative! On his last trip to the international supermarket, Erlend found a $2.99 package of Mexican saffron, made from dried safflower threads. The taste isn't quite the same, but it will give your cake the same rich yellow color similar to my cake. Dried safflower threads are available in specialty herb stores, Asian supermarkets and (sometimes) the international/hispanic section of any local supermarket. If using safflower instead of saffron, be sure to increase the recipe amount to 1 full tablespoon's worth because safflower isn't as strongly flavored or as vividly colored as saffron.

  • My mom once told me that it actually takes hours for saffron to fully release its flavor when cooking or baking. If you don't want to use as much saffron as I did, you can reduce the recipe quantity to a 1/4 teaspoon's worth and simply infuse the butter with saffron flavors for longer, preferably overnight. 

  • Still not convinced by the merits of saffron or safflowers? No worries! You can substitute out the saffron/safflower threads with 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract to turn it into a classic vanilla buttermilk cake with chocolate cardamom fudge frosting. Still great flavor, though the cake probably won't be as yellow.

  • Unfortunately, you will need a food processor for the fudge frosting recipe. If you try and using a Kitchenaid mixer or a handheld electric mixer, it simply won't work or come together properly. Sorry!

June 11, 2014

Rhubarb Curd with Pie Crust Crumble and Vanilla Meringues

Can I tell you guys a secret?

One that you promise to never, ever judge me for, no matter what?

Okay, I trust you.

Are you ready?

Here it is:

I... don't think I like pie very much.


I know, I know, as a dessert blogger, I really should LOVE pie. But I just don't... for several reasons. The first of which, it's just no fun to make pie like it is to make something like this elaborate chocolate chip cake or this white chocolate malt cake. I mean, I guess you could argue that lattice pies are fun to make, but part of it is, I'm just not the world's best pie maker. I adamantly believe in all-butter crusts and because I have super warm hands, my pie dough ends up sticking to surfaces and I end up throwing it out in disgust. The pies that do come out never look as good as the pies I see on Pinterest, and instead come out lumpy or misshapen.

And sure, I do love the taste of pie, but maybe there's a trick I'm missing because most of my pies turn soggy after a day or two. What I really love is when it's just fresh out the oven, and there's a wonderful contrast between the flaky, crispy crust and the warm fruit filling... but again, it seems like there's only a 45 minute window in which I can actually get that texture.

So when I made the rhubarb curd above, I'd initially planned to turn it into some kind of pie or tart, similar to this meyer lemon chess pie or these lime meringue tartlets. But one of the most appealing things about curd is that it preserves the fruit it's made from. But if I poured the rhubarb curd into the tart shell, I'd have to eat it as soon as possible in order to prevent getting the soggy crust that I hate. And an entire rhubarb curd pie in one day is a little intense. So... what if I just skipped that step entirely?

So behold, this new dessert, a kind of deconstructed rhubarb pie — that is, a bowl of rhubarb curd, pie crust crumble and vanilla meringues:

Last month, when I made these strawberry Eton mess bowls, I realized that desserts didn't necessarily have to be elaborate or fancy to be delicious. Despite the fact that Eton messes are literally just bowls of crushed meringues, whipped cream and fruit, it was still an incredibly tasty and awesome dessert because of the ingredients' differing textures.

Similarly, these rhubarb curd bowls have that same sort of magic. That is, there's a wonderful contrast between the tart, creamy rhubarb curd, the buttery pie crumbs, and the crisp, foamy vanilla meringues. The neat thing is that you can make all three components of the recipe in advance and build the bowls as you crave them. It's a great way to preserve the last of the season rhubarb, and as well as pull together a beautiful dessert in less than a moment's notice.

Some baker's notes:
  • Depending on the color of your rhubarb, your curd might turn out a different color, anywhere from a pale yellow to a pinky rose. Select deep purplish/reddish rhubarb to get the orange-red color that you see in my photos.

  • The recipe for pie crust crumble is adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar's cookbook, which offers numerous recipes for different kinds of "crumbs". These crumbs give all the flavor and texture of pie crust, minus the fuss of a traditional pie crust. But if you can't be bothered to make crumbs from scratch (because let's face it, that is kind of ridiculous), you can take your favorite shortbread cookie and run it through the food processor to make shortbread crumbles instead.

  • I made the mini meringues using the meringue recipe from my 12 Days of Christmas Desserts ebook. I know it's a little out of season, but it's completely free for people to download. Check it out!

  • Not convinced by my dessert bowls? Use rhubarb curd elsewhere by spreading it on toast, pancakes, waffles, donuts and more!