April 17, 2014

Samoa Cookie Matzo Crunch

Not a lot of people know this, but I was raised with two religions: my dad’s side of the family is Jewish and my mom’s side of the family is Catholic. Growing up, this meant that my brother and sister got lavish Bar/Bat Mizvahs, while I went through the motions of First Holy Communion and confirmation. We celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah (there were some years in which, out of pure laziness, we would half heartedly celebrate a combination of the two with both a Christmas tree and a menorah at the same time — a form of Chrismukkah, before The OC popularize the word), Passover and Easter. My mom and I would start the week with Passover seder at my aunt and uncle’s house with my dad’s family to help light candles and drink wine, before ending the week at church to wave palms and find easter eggs. However, as I grew older and formed my own identity, the traditions and rituals from both sides fell away.

When I was living in San Francisco, an acquaintance of mine was delighted to find out about my Jewish side (I suppose my decidedly Asian features don’t really scream “Jewish”) and invited me to her annual Passover celebration. I initially declined, saying that it had been years since I’d even stepped foot in a synagogue (or church, for that matter), or even celebrated any kind of religious holiday from either religion. She waved me off — “We don’t really do Passover like our parents. Think of it as an old-school seder with new-school flavors.”

Her description intrigued me. Passover seder at my aunt and uncle’s tended to be a solemn, traditional affair. There would be several readings from the Haggadah in HEBREW (because both my dad and uncle are crazy and can actually speak Hebrew), four glasses of prune juice that somehow made my mouth dry, and an argument with my sister about who would get to ask the question about why this night is different from all other nights. Dessert would be hidden away for us children to find, and when we did, it wasn’t dessert at all — it was a plain matzo cracker.

Showing up at her apartment, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was pleased to see most of our non-Jewish mutual friends there, and even more pleased that we were all dressed casually in jeans and flipflops. Indie music played in the background as we took our places around the floor, sitting crosslegged Indian style. Our hosts handed out coffee mugs of red wine, and we had spirited discussions about the symbolism behind the food on the Seder plate, a paper plate holding sprigs of parsley, celery and a chicken bone. We took turns passing around a mug of salt water, dipping the sprigs of parsley into the water (twice) and wrinkling our noses at the herb’s bitterness. The evening was decidedly nontraditional, but pleasant and true to the spirit of a Passover seder.

When dessert was announced, however, I almost cringed — I wasn’t looking forward to an adult version of the game where we had to find the broken matzo cracker, expecting a scenario in which a dozen tipsy twenty-somethings tore through our hosts’ cramped apartment in an attempt to find the afikoman. Instead, our hosts brought out a tray of matzo cracker shards, drizzled in dark chocolate. Matzo chocolate crunch, my friend explained, raising her eyebrows at my astonishment. I took a bite. It was delicious.

That night was the first night I’d ever had matzo chocolate crunch. It seems silly to say this now, but for me, the matzo chocolate crunch was revolutionary. I mentioned earlier that I had let the traditions my parents raised me with fall through the cracks. One of the reasons was because, as I grew older, my family’s old fashioned seder dinners just seemed so quaint, traditional, and increasingly irrelevant in my fast-paced, modern life. But attending that dinner and eating that updated dessert of matzo chocolate crunch, it occurred to me that it was possible to keep those old traditions that my family raised me with, but make them new and relevant again.

So with that, I’m making my own version of the matzo chocolate crunch. My version, however, is an ode to Samoas, my favorite Girl Scout cookie:

Toasted coconut, salted chocolate, and crunchy caramel layer several matzo crackers to create a crunchy, spectacular treat that combines both old and new flavors. It’s not the traditional seder dessert from my childhood (that is, a plain matzo cracker), but it’s one that’s perfect for me now. Be sure to use kosher salt, vanilla extract, and dessicated coconut if using for Passover. Chag sameach!

April 15, 2014

Easter Egg Cake

Have you guys heard of the blog Pinterest Fail? Where people post homemade versions of projects and recipes they found on Pinterest, but gone awry? Like these pink pinwheel sugar cookies or this piñata cake. Well, this cake is my own version of a Pinterest fail. It's supposed to look like a robin's egg, but really, it looks more like a Mad Hatter hat attacked by Easter. And that's me being generous... because if I'm perfectly honest, it looks more like a weird, neon blue stump. When I initially made the buttercream frosting, I was pleased by the color and how close I came to recreating the beautiful blue of a speckled robin's egg. The next morning, however, I was mortified to see the cake and thought it looked like a toxic neon parody of a birthday cake:

The inspiration for this cake came, of course, from Pinterest. This beautiful Speckled Egg Cake has been popping up on my feed every now and then, giving me delusions of grandeur that I could somehow recreate it myself. But oh, how mine pales to the original! As if the Pinterest Fail blog didn't serve as warning enough — I should've known that their perfect and adorable version would be unattainable for a home baker like myself, especially since The Cake Blog specializes in wedding cake decoration and lots of fondant work (something I thoroughly tend to avoid because I think fondant tastes like plastic). Although the original recipe claims to use vanilla buttercream instead of fondant, I don't buy it.

In any case, today's cake taught me that I'm not much a fan of overdecorated cakes that are supposed to look like other things; instead, I prefer ones that are natural and rustic like this yellow birthday cake or this tres leches cake. Despite my qualms with how this Easter Egg Cake looks, I'm sharing the recipe with you guys anyway. Not only because of the upcoming Easter holidays, but because it tasted absolutely delicious and, as a result, came in first place at my company's talent show. Three layers of delicate lemon cake, with tangy, homemade lemon curd in the middle and cream cheese frosting to sweeten the package.

April 12, 2014

Restaurant Review: Teote Areperia


Almost every day that I bike to work, I pass a colorful blue and red building. Out of sheer laziness, it took me a few months to look up what the building actually was — it turned out to be the home of Teote Areperia, a former Venezuelan food cart turned brick-and-mortar offering colorful agua fresca (or, freshly squeezed juice) drinks:

And of course, arepas.

What are arepas? Arepas are Venezuelan corn cakes that are griddled and baked. I like to think of them as a cross between English muffins and corn cakes. In South America, they function as toast, eaten daily with savory toppings like avocado and cheese, or sweet toppings like butter and jam. In Teote’s case, they like to serve their arepas with lots of butter and bowls of meat:

At $6 a bowl, you get two arepas and can choose between accompaniments of slow roasted pork belly, brisket, pork shoulder, chorizo, and more. The portions aren’t exactly the largest in the world (read: they’re almost insultingly tiny), so in my hangry eyes, I opted for two. I started with the Pernil — pork shoulder braised with morita chile and beer marinade, topped with cabbage salad, verde sauce, queso fresco and cilantro:

Although it was pretty tasty, it didn’t quite compare to the second arepa dish that I ordered, El Diablo. El Diablo consists of pork belly and poblano chiles glazed in a red chili maple sauce, topped with pickled onions, verde sauce, queso fresco and cilantro:

I was expecting El Diablo to be spicy because of the poblano and red chilis that were included its descriptions, but I was pleasantly surprised. The meat as a whole was surprisingly sweet, but not sickeningly so. The dish’s accompanying verde sauce, queso fresco and herbs do a good job of keeping an umami flavor to the dish as a whole. This is seriously one of my favorite dishes in the restaurant (maybe even currently in Portland), and what’s most likely going to keep me coming back to Teote.

The restaurant is divided into a downstairs section where you place your order, and an upstairs bar. The upstairs bar was colorful, but more surprisingly, incredibly well lit with natural light flooding in from several skylights and huge windows from a deck-turned-garden room:

It was the kind of place that you wanted to stay and have a couple of drinks in. They have a full bar, but my personal favorite are their agua frescas — fruit juice mixed with water, sugar and ice. In this case, we both had a pineapple and lime agua fresca:

But for a couple extra bucks more, Erlend spiked his with a shot of dark rum. The resulting drink was delicious and refreshing.

That being said, despite my overall positive experience, there are some cons to Teote. The portions can be pretty small, so it's best to go when you're feeling a bit peckish, but not entirely hungry. I've been twice now. The first time was after a heavy Crossfit workout and spent the rest of the meal fuming about how little food I'd gotten for my money. The second was when I just wanted a small snack and ordered two bowls of arepas, but only ended up finishing one. Be warned. Service can also be slow, especially when you line up to order your food.

All in all, however, the good still outweighs the bad. Especially if you get the El Diablo.

Learn More:

April 9, 2014

Lime Meringue Tartlets

I’m a creature of routine, but this spring, I had the urge to switch things up. To wit, I spontaneously decided that I was going to start running again. It’s been a good five years since I could legitimately call myself a runner. My senior year of college, I ran 3 miles almost every day, running longer distances of 5 to 10 miles on weekends. Back then, I loved running. I found it cathartic and meditative. I listened to the same playlist on almost every run (including some gems like Bloc Party’s “This Modern Love” and Metro Station’s “Shake It") so much that I actually developed a Pavlovian response to these songs — if I heard them elsewhere at a party or on the radio, my legs would start to feel twitchy and antsy, as if begging to go on a run. Weird, right?

My love for running disappeared when I moved to San Francisco. San Francisco’s a bit of a nightmare to run in. Instead of Portland’s lush, green neighborhoods, I was faced with crowded sidewalks with stop signs and lights at literally every corner. It was impossible to get to that running nirvana where my mind would just clear and I would forget about that ache in my foot or the troubles of the day. It just became kind of a slog. I eventually traded in running for rock climbing, which I then traded for Crossfit. Yes, yes, Crossfit, the somewhat controversial fitness regimen that seems to get everybody’s panties in a twist. It seems like most people are either die hard fans who eat clean (or Paleo, for you uninitiated) and swap war stories about the time they RXed Fran, or are criticizing it for being an incredibly stupid and dangerous workout. I'm a rare bird that happens to fall somewhere between the two camps. That is, I like weight lifting and eating refined sugar... yep. Deal with it.

But I've been Crossfitting for two and a half years, and I think I'm starting to get bored. Crossfit simply isn’t giving me the returns that it used to. Not just physically, but mentally as well. I used to look forward to these brutal workout sessions, excited to sweat and grunt and throw barbells around like the shirtless dudes in my classes. But now it’s just become so ingrained in my routine that I’m not even excited if I master a new move. Not a good sign, right? So, long story short, here I am regressing to my habits from five years ago. I’ve even got that same playlist with those hits from 2008 and 2009, hoping that the Pavlovian conditioning from back then will still kick in. Because maybe, to get out of this funk, I gotta try something new… by going back to the old? Or something like that.

In any case, enough of my nonsense. I can just hear you guys thinking "Why is this girl blathering on about her exercise routine? This is a friggin' food blog, not a fitness blog." Indeed it is, so let’s talk about these beautiful lime meringue tarts:

A few years ago, I posted a recipe for this lemon blackberry tart, which I still believe is one of the best recipes on this blog. For a long time, I couldn’t find anything that could quite match the creaminess of that lemon curd… until I had a lime meringue tart at Miette, a beloved bakery in San Francisco.

One of Miette’s specialties is a graham cracker crust tart filled with this lime cream and a soft meringue frosting. Despite my love for their lime curd, I was disappointed to find that the meringue that topped the cream was soft. I had expected more of a contrast between between the lime cream and the meringue! So I decided to whip up a version that gave me just that:

I used my favorite tart crust (a brown butter tart crust that will maintain its crisp under almost any filling) and some homemade meringues that are crunchy on the outside and chewy within. For fun, I ended up torching some of the meringues to give it a subtle, smoky flavor reminiscent of s’mores. The resulting texture — creamy lime, sandwiched between the crunchy crust and meringues — was just what I was looking for.

April 5, 2014

Tres Leches Cake with Coconut Chantilly Frosting

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get about my blog is how I come up with the things I make. I use a variety of different sources for my recipes, but I’d say it comes down to three sources: blogs, cookbooks and, perhaps most surprisingly, Wikipedia.

As a blogger, I love checking out other food blogs as a source of inspiration. I love cookbooks, but often times, the author of the cookbook seems so inaccessible to me. Bloggers, on the other hand, are people like me — twenty-somethings with a passion for cooking, writing and photography. My favorite bloggers include: Adventures in Cooking, Dolly and Oatmeal, Flourishing Foodie, Local Milk Blog, London Bakes, My Name is Yeh, The Pancake Princess, The Tart Tart, The Vanilla Bean Blog, Two Red Bowls and more. I’m sure there’s tons of people that I’m missing, but the bloggers that I mentioned above feel like my friends — they inspire and encourage me, and make me laugh and smile. I can often relate to their stories and understand the production and hard work behind each post. It’s also reassuring to me that the recipes up on the site and the pictures that I’m seeing are made by actual, real people. It gives me confidence in my own cooking. Like… if Molly can make these kickass princess cakes (something I thought you could only buy in Ikea), why can’t I?

There is a downside to food blogs, however. Unlike in most heavyweight cookbooks, where each recipe has been tested and tried by professional bakers in different environments, bloggers don’t have that same advantage. Often times, blogs are run by untrained home cooks, meaning that blog recipes can sometimes be inconsistent, or, at worst, awful. I’ve tried many recipes, even from the biggest and most popular bloggers, that simply don’t turn out. But I don’t blame them — I’m guilty of having these mistakes in my blog myself! Sometimes I’ll post something that I’m not extremely happy with because I feel the pressure to post, or because the pictures turned out well, or because I only tried it once and it was fine, but not great... I’m sure others have done the same. Please don’t judge us!

In any case, this is when I turn to cookbooks. It’s reassuring that cookbook recipes are meticulously tested and I can follow it blindly without worrying. I know this isn’t always the case (trust me, I’ve made some cookbook recipes that turned out to be a complete and utter disaster), but cookbooks definitely tend to be more consistent than blogs. I also find the extra information in cookbooks to be extremely valuable. Specifically, I love it when the author takes the time to talk about the roles of specific equipment and ingredients, or when there are specific chapters dedicated to classic techniques and food science. Reading these chapters teaches me to become a better cook and a baker, and I don’t think I would be here today without them. After all, this blog started out with me baking through The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, one of my favorite cookbooks — it taught me a lot of different things that I never would have figured out if I’d kept bouncing from cookbook to cookbook, blog to blog, and recipe to recipe. Cookbooks are generally great at teaching you how to have results that are consistent and delicious every time.

And finally, last but certainly not the least, Wikipedia is one of my main go-to resources for recipe inspiration. It’s surprising, I know, but this is probably the source that I rely on the most. Wikipedia has a wealth of information on a dish’s history and evolution, cultural styles and different variations, as well as other things that you can’t really get from cookbooks. Often times, if I get an idea stuck in my head, I’ll turn to Wikipedia to read about it first — especially if I’m unfamiliar with the dish, or if I’ve never had it before.

Like this tres leches cake:

Despite living in places where Mexican food was everywhere and delicious (like Houston and San Francisco’s Mission District), I’d never actually had tres leches cake until recently. But it’s one of Erlend’s favorite desserts, and something he’d been begging me to make for a while. In order to honor his request, I started my research by checking out Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia didn’t give me the lengthiest article on the subject, it gave me the basics: a light, airy cake soaked in a mixture of cream, evaporated and condensed milk.

I started hitting up my collection of cookbooks to see if they could offer a base recipe I could expand upon. A couple of my cookbooks offered a version that was baked in a 9 x 13-inch pan, but I was dreaming of an elaborate layer cake with frosting. So I turned to Google and my armada of bloggers for help. Before long, I came across these beautiful tres leches cakes by mbakes and Local Milk Blog that really helped inform the recipe I’ve posted today. In fact, you can see that my own version is inspired by their flower adorned cakes:

I also recently had the opportunity to dine with some friends at Ox, a much beloved "Argentinean inspired" restaurant here in Portland. I was delighted to find that they had a tres leches cake on the dessert menu. Despite being stuffed, I ordered it for “research”. I was surprised to find that the cake was much denser and less sweet than I had imagined.

Similar to Ox’s version, this tres leches cake has a denser texture versus a light and airy texture. It also has a stronger emphasis on vanilla than the other cakes I’ve mentioned, since this cake contains both fresh vanilla beans in the cake batter and cake soak. And finally, the coconut whipped cream topping is borrowed from Beth’s beautiful version. And so you can see, using these resources, I managed to create my own version of tres leches cake — I hope you like it!

April 2, 2014

Brown Butter Crepes with Bananas, Nutella and Speculoos

Several of my friends have secret family pancake recipes, along with fond memories of making and eating animal shaped pancakes with their parents. But growing up, my family was never very big on breakfast. My dad and mom fueled themselves on coffee and tea, and my sister was constantly on some kind of diet. I always zipped out the door without grabbing anything to eat. If I was good, I'd have a bottle of SunnyD (gross, right?) and a banana. But that was it. Back then, it had been years since I'd eaten pancakes, and the closest thing I'd come to waffles were some of those Eggo ones that you popped in the toaster and tasted like cardboard.

It was only in college that I started to really need breakfast. After a heavy night of drinking, a plate of greasy eggs and bacon from the school cafeteria seemed like a godsend. And then, of course, in the mid-aughts, came the brunch revolution. Overnight, it seemed like a ton of cute mom-and-pop type restaurants had popped out of the woodwork, attracting long lines for breakfast food served at midday. My friend Leah, always up on the latest trends, would drag me out of bed at 10AM (early for a college kid) for brunch at the latest hip spot. I was unimpressed; this usually meant standing outside in the cold and rain as we waited for the same kind of eggs and bacon that we had in the school cafeteria. In an attempt to make these brunch trips worthwhile, I started ordering sweet brunch dishes that you couldn't get from the school cafeteria — stuff like freshly made waffles, pancakes, and French toast. Pretty soon, I was the one dragging Leah around in search of the best breakfast sweets around town.

My favorite sweet breakfast dish, however, have always been thin and crispy French crepes. I adored the way you could fold them up into triangles and the crazy amount of fillings available — lemon and sugar, Nutella and banana, strawberries and cream — almost any combination you could imagine! These crepes, for instance, go all out and are filled with bananas, Nutella, and Speculoos cookie spread:

I'm sure at this point, there's no need to introduce anybody to Nutella, the European chocolate-hazelnut spread that has taken the US by the storm. But have you guys heard of Speculoos cookie butter? Speculoos cookies are a kind of thin, flat European shortbread cookie, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper. As a kid living in the Netherlands, these cookies would usually appear some time around Christmas (specifically for Sinterklaas).

Speculoos cookie butter takes these cookies and turns them into a spread akin to peanut butter and Nutella. Some people have likened it to peanut butter, but they're wrong — because sure, it's like peanut butter, if peanut butter were on some kind of crack to make it even more delicious, glamorous, and sexy. Speculoos cookie butter tastes like a combination of caramel and gingerbread. It's got the texture of peanut butter, but with crunchy cookie crumbles that give it a little something extra. Big shout out to my friend Tracy for twisting my arm and making me try a jar of Speculoos!

March 30, 2014

Road Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

Last week, Erlend and I went on a road trip around Washington state's Olympic Peninsula region for his spring break. About a three hour drive away from Portland, the Olympic Peninsula is home to some beautiful rocky coastlines, temperate rain forests, and abundant wildlife. Here are some highlights:

Vance Creek Bridge:

I spent a lot of time on Tumblr, and kept running into these beautiful pictures of a railroad bridge high in the sky surrounded by evergreen trees. Turns out it was Vance Creek Bridge, an abandoned rail bridge and the second highest bridge in the United States at 347 feet tall. There are no railings to prevent you from falling off the edge and the gaps between the wooden slats are large enough for your feet to slip through. It's absolutely terrifying but the views of the surrounding Skokomish Valley and river below are absolutely worth it.

Lake Quinault:

Lake Quinault is located at the southern end of Olympic National Park. Since the Olympic Peninsula is pretty remote, Lake Quinault is one of the few towns that offers food and lodging. We rented out a cabin with a view of the lake within walking distance of town and trailheads for hikes around the Quinault Rain Forest.

Ruby Beach and Beaches 1, 2, 3, 4:

Olympic National Park has a coastal section that runs along the 101 highway; for a 60 mile stretch, there are five beaches (creatively named Beaches 1, 2, 3, 4, and Ruby Beach) open for public access that you can stop and check out. Collectively, the beaches have unbroken stretches of wilderness ranging from 10 to 20 miles. Some of the beaches (Beaches 1-3) are primarily sand, while the latter beaches are covered with heavy rocks and boulders. Almost all of the beaches have an abundant covering of driftwood