Friday, December 27, 2013

Pioneer Woman's Caramel Apple Sweet Rolls

We held our annual holiday brunch last Sunday.  This has been a tradition dating back to 2004, and it’s our household’s biggest celebration.  This year 14 people were able to make it, and we enjoyed a mix of sweet and savory foods along with gifts and company. 

Unfortunately, we forgot to take pictures of our spread—too busy cooking and welcoming!—so you’ll have to take our word for what was on our kitchen counter buffet.  Applewood-smoked salmon and condiments; Baked Brie en Croute; Broccoli Cheddar Cakes; Pan Roasted Mini Sweet Peppers; Spicy Mango Jalapeno and also Caramelized Onion Chicken Meatballs; Berries and Persimmons and Greek Yogurt and honey.  For our baked goods, we offered Will’s Poppyseed Tea Ring; Caramelized Apple Gateau; Gingerbread mini-muffins with Dark Chocolate; Thomas Keller Cinnamon Scones.  Whew!  We sent back food with the guests as they left, so we didn’t have too much left over. 

In fact, by Christmas Eve breakfast, we were finished with all the rest of the baked goods.  Luckily, we planned it that way so that we could try out a new recipe for our Christmas morning breakfast.  We saw a recipe for Pioneer Woman’s Caramel Apple Sweet Rolls. We figured that if they were good, then we’d offer them possibly for our next holiday brunch.  (Click here for the original recipe that we found first through the December 2013 issue of Costco Connection.)

Having now made and consumed the rolls, we have some mixed reactions.  They are tasty, to be sure, but tasty in a way that most recipes are tasty when they include—in the filling and icing for 3 round cake pans’ worth of rolls—2 sticks of butter, 1 cup of heavy cream, 2 cups packed brown sugar, and 2 cups powered sugar.  When we read the ingredients list, we wondered whether the Pioneer Woman is in competition with Paula Deen to see who could pack more fat and sugar into a recipe!

But it wasn’t really the fat and sugar that most concerned us.  We had two major problems:

1) The dough was too wet.

Will is no stranger to making sweet rolls, so he was in charge of that part.  He thought the ingredients for ½ batch of “basic dough” seemed a little too liquid-y, requiring 2 cups milk and ½ cup canola oil for 4 ½ cups flour.  (The picture above shows the risen dough under plastic wrap.)  He hoped that some magical transformation would make the dough workable despite his fears…

2) The Apple Caramel filling wouldn’t solidify.

Partly, the fault was ours since she called for Granny Smith apples and we used Galas, the apples we had on hand.  But that aside, the directions called for the apples to be sautéed for 3-4 minutes, and we did so for over 6 minutes (to make up for the extra juiciness we saw in the Galas).  The caramel sauce itself was fine and nicely thickened, but once we put the apples back in the sauce, the mixture became instantly runny.  Instead of the “another 1 to 2 minutes” on low heat we were supposed to use to thicken the sauce after the addition of the apples, I let it cook down for 10 more minutes on medium high heat in an attempt to cook off some of the moisture.  When I finally took the mixture off the heat to cool, the sauce appeared spreadable (pictured above).

Alas, the combination of the too-wet dough and the too-wet filling made for a soggy mess when Will rolled the mixture.  The “roll” was more like a flattening mound of oatmeal.  It took all Will’s expertise to be able to somehow cut slices which he quickly transferred to pans before they could dissolve, as you can see above.  (And, not to be too picky, but it’s not clear to us how 3 pans of “7 to 8 rolls” “makes about 30 rolls” instead of 21-24.)  The recipe also made too much “Caramel Icing” but that was easily taken care of by not using all of it. 

Fortunately, the rolls still rose and baked well, and they were tasty (albeit somewhat translucent in the dough saturated with butter from the caramel filling).  However, we will be more skeptical of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes from now on.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hot Chocolate, the Really Old Fashioned Way

We are fans of hot chocolate—especially when it’s snowing outside and it’s warm and cozy inside.  I’ve already written about the traditional hot chocolate made with real chocolate and real milk.  (Read that post here.)  But there’s an even more traditional way to make hot chocolate that doesn’t involve milk.  No, it doesn’t involve packets labeled Swiss Miss or Nestle either!

Possibly the richest hot chocolate we tasted was in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Thankfully it was a smaller portion than American hot chocolate and served in a demi-tasse cup.  Honestly, we cannot imagine drinking more of it since it was so thick and rick and, well, chocolate-y.  Our mistake was in ordering a chocolate cake along with it.  (Well, it was a shop that specialized in chocolate desserts!)  The combination was almost too much to handle, even for these two die-hard chocolate fiends.

We keep meaning to try out a place in Paris that is supposed to serve a similarly rich hot chocolate.  Guidebooks and fellow tourists all talked about Angelina’s, but somehow we haven’t made it there.  This summer when we were staying in Paris, we found ourselves half a block away from the fabulous chocolatier Jacques Genin, so we ended up going there for very exclusive and expensive (but oh so delicious) chocolates and surprisingly delectable fruit jellies (passion fruit and guava, I think, were amazing).

On one visit, we waited a long time to get a table to try out Jacques Genin’s hot chocolate and café crème as well.  They were good, but not as special as their chocolates were.  I think it’s because we don’t hand-make our own dark truffle with basil or milk chocolate with grapefruit.  We do, however, make darn good hot chocolates and coffees on our own.  In any case, given the slight (and overpriced) disappointment of the Jacques Genin hot chocolate pretty much next door to us in north Marais, we didn’t feel like standing in line to wait for a more expensive hot chocolate two metro rides away from us (near the Louvre).  

So we still haven’t made it over to Angelina's Tearoom, but I’m not sure we will try very hard either.  It looks great (here’s their page about the famed hot chocolate), but I think I can make it myself too.  I’ve gotten some hints from reading yelp reviews, and someone relayed the key information that Angelina’s makes their hot chocolate without milk.  At first I was astonished.  Without milk?  How can it be rich and creamy then?   I add not only milk but also either half and half or cream in my hot chocolate.  But then I tried making it with water instead—as suggested—and I could see that this method could work.  It’s definitely a different drink, and it is richer in the sense that the chocolate flavor is much more intense as it is not mellowed by the milk. 

If you want to try it, here is my recipe for 2 very very rich cups of hot chocolate:

1.  Slowly melt ½ cup chocolate callets (for easier melting) or chips in a small pan over medium heat.  Have on hand about cup of water.

Note: Try not to use overly sweet chips.  We use Belgian dark chocolate callets. 

Another Note: Yes, you can use a double-boiler so that you don't actually cook the chocolate directly over the stove-top.  I just choose to use no higher than medium heat to make sure it doesn't get a burnt taste.

2.  Once chocolate is almost all melted, slowly pour in about cup water and blend gently with a flat wire whisk to make a smooth and thick sauce.  Then add about half of the remaining water and again bring to a smooth sauce.  You’ll discover that the mixture initially gets thinner but will thicken again with another couple of minutes further cooking.  Then, if you wish, add the remaining water and repeat the above process.  The drink will get thicker (and get more pudding-like) the longer you have it on the heat, so do make sure that you are careful to remove from heat when you have reached the consistency you like.

Note: You should use no less than ½ cup water for ½ cup chips, but you can use up to 1 full cup water if you so desire.  By my experience, we like it best at about or ¾ cup water maximum for this drink.

3.  This is entirely optional, but I sprinkle in a tiny pinch of ground cayenne and a slightly larger pinch of ground cinnamon into the hot chocolate.  In a small pitcher, pour in about ½ cup whipping cream and microwave for about 30 seconds to warm.  Pour the hot chocolate into cups slightly larger than you think you'll need since you’ll want room to add cream.

Note: You may instead opt to whip some cream and serve on the side as Angelina’s does, but I find that I like having the warm cream to add in.  In either case, some sort of cream addition (warmed or whipped) is a must, in my view, to cut the richness of this drink.  I know, it’s odd to think about using cream to cut the richness of something…

Final Note: Will cannot decide which he likes better.  I think I like our traditional way with milk better as a drink, but this richer hot chocolate is something that becomes a dessert on its own.  You know, for those days when you want chocolate . . . but you want it hot.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Asian Salmon-and-Rice Porridge for Your Cold

Last year, Will and I both felt a bit under-the-weather after Thanksgiving.  That’s when I improvised a Chicken Spaetzle soup.  This year, Will’s post-Thanksgiving cold has outlasted last week’s Kimchi Chigae (previous post) as well as the Smoked Turkey Spaetzle soup (pictured below)—modified from last year’s recipe.  His almost-gone cold reasserted itself with a vengeance after last week’s business trip, and his voice was barely recognizable when I was talking to him during another trip this week.

So, on Wednesday, I was on a mission to find another soothing soup.  “Asian Salmon-and-Rice Soup” from Food & Wine Quick from Scratch Soups & Salads Cookbook was my choice since I had most of the ingredients.  I did stop by the store and get a small filet of salmon, but I had everything else ready and even was able to use leftover rice.  There were a few things I did slightly differently from the printed recipe, so I will walk us through my version.  (For 3 normal, for 2 over-sized servings that Will and I finished in one dinner.)


1.  Cut up about ¾ lb of skinless salmon into large chunks, put the salmon pieces in a bowl, and then drizzle 1 T soy sauce and 1 T sesame oil over the salmon.  Turn to coat all sides, and leave to marinate while you are cooking everything else.

2.  Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, and dissolve about 1 heaping tablespoon of Glacé de Poulet Gold Classic Roasted Chicken Stock (which is a handy concentrated chicken broth-in-a-tub from a company called More Than Gourmet).  Or, you can use 2 cups chicken broth and 2 cups water.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, add 2 cups cooked rice, ¼ cup chopped cilantro stems, 1 T minced ginger, and ½ t salt.  Bring back to a boil and then partly cover and let flavors meld together for about 10 minutes. 

4.  Add salmon and the soy-sesame juices from the bowl into the soup.  Let the mixture come back to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and let salmon poach for just 5 minutes.  At this point, you may wish to add more salt or soy sauce to taste and then garnish with 2 T chopped scallions and 2 T chopped cilantro leaves.

I used leftover steamed rice which yields more starch and thus produces a thicker soup.  If you want a clearer broth, you might want to boil—not steam—your rice separately and then throw away the starchy water that you cooked the rice in. 

I actually prefer the thicker soup because it reminds me of a comforting rice porridge—similar to chicken congee—that my mother used to make when someone in the family was recovering from an illness.  She would cook down rice with a prodigious amount of water such that it became very soft and the liquid very thick.  Then the porridge was flavored with a bit of soy sauce seasoned with sesame oil and scallions. 

The salmon in this soup made it a respectable meal I could serve at dinner, but I was perfectly content with the last soup ladle of the salmon-less thickened porridge that reminded me of that childhood comfort food.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kimchi Chigae: A Spicy Break from Thanksgiving

It’s funny how Thanksgiving makes you run toward ethnic foods.  After several successive meals of Thanksgiving leftovers (with more turkey in the freezer) and post-Thanksgiving improvisations (smoked turkey spaetzle soup) we were ready to leave behind this most American of meals for a while.  Especially with Will recovering from a nasty cold with clogged sinuses, something wickedly spicy and brothy and hearty—and, most of all, ethnic—appealed to us. 

We thought about getting some Thai Tom Yum soup—that will clear up a lot of congestion!—but we also didn’t want to leave home once we cocooned ourselves back in our condo.  That’s when I remembered that we had a jar of extra-fermented kimchi.  I offered Will either kimchi guk (more brothy) or kimchi chigae (more stew-y).  Since I had some good pork belly, I decided to go with the stew version of the Korean classic.

I’m not an expert cook of Korean foods, but the internet has made it very easy to find ways to make just about anything these days—even those foods which I didn’t realize had recipes.  My mother would never have put down in exact measurements how to prepare some traditional dishes like kimchi chigae, but the web yielded pages of sites with recipes in fraction of a second.  Of course they all varied slightly, and I used a slightly different version from the one I had used previously.  But, really, we are talking about Korean food which is not an exact science.

Combining features of other recipes—and memories of my mother’s cooking—here is what I ended up making, and how, in step-by-step photos:

You start with some chopped kimchi (surprise!) and its juices, add some sliced onion, and sprinkle a little sugar, red pepper flakes (it’s neither ground nor crushed—easily found in Asian grocery stores), and hot chili paste (another item from a store like H-Mart).  Then you pour enough water to dilute the mixture a bit and so that you can have some broth.  As you can see, it all looks fairly bright.

Will likes this part a lot.  You can add—if you are not a vegetarian, of course—some sliced pork belly.  We happened to have some lightly smoked pressed cooked bacon, and it was perfect.  It wasn’t so smoky that the overall flavor was impacted (nor is it really easy to alter the unsubtle flavor of stewed kimchi), and the bacon tasted great!  In any case, you bring the mixture to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium low for about 20-30 minutes until the kimchi is much softer and the color is more like a dull orange (below) as opposed to the bright color it was at the beginning.

At this point, you can slice some medium firm tofu (silky is too soft, and I usually reserve firm tofu for pan-frying) and let it warm up for another 5 minutes or so.   Some recipes don’t call for this, but I never miss a chance to add sesame oil, and it’s a nice addition to both the kimchi chigae and kimchi guk (the soup).

Will went through the dish in no time, inhaling the spiciness and the heat!  He said it was exactly what his body needed.  I have to agree with him.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Mostly Home Cooked Thanksgiving in Another Home

It’s a long story about how it happened, but Will and I packed up almost our entire kitchen and our dog Katie and went down state to cook Thanksgiving dinner in someone else’s home.  It was a well-stocked kitchen—and amazingly organized and clutter-free too!—so the experience was a fairly smooth one.  We couldn’t find only a few items, and it turned out that we could have left at home some spices and other ingredients. 

But, cooking Thanksgiving dinner in someone else’s kitchen 6 hours away from your favorite grocery stores is a bit chancy, so we decided to make the process more streamlined by purchasing some foods.  That way, we would minimize the stress of wondering whether their oven or the grill cooks at higher or a lower temperature than our own for the main meat course.  It also saved us having to gather together scraps of paper to follow obscure recipes since we were cooking mostly items we knew by experience. 

I’ll admit right off that I’ve never been a successful roaster of turkeys.  Partly I blame it on the fact that I actually do not like turkey that much.  I enjoy the occasional turkey breast sandwich and I adore roast chicken, but not so much a whole turkey.  Well, Greenberg’s smoked turkey (an Oprah favorite, no less!) changed my mind about turkeys.  We ordered an 8-10 lb turkey which arrived in plenty of time for Thanksgiving.  We froze it and brought it down.  It was fabulous—tasted exactly like you’d expect campfire to taste, and it smelled of the best smoked bacon.  Yum.  We’ll try that again when we want to serve a whole turkey for Thanksgiving.

The other item we decided to forego cooking ourselves was the soup course.  I found an organic soup brand called Imagine, and we brought down both a Butternut Squash and an Acorn Squash with Mango soups.  After a careful taste test, we decided to go with the Acorn Squash with Mango.  Emily (our hostess-cum-helper) called it more “festive.”  Feeling guilty that I did not actually make the soup, I garnished the soup with some toasted hazelnuts and chiffonaded sage to make it a little extra special.

Will’s buttermilk rolls, whipped sweet potatoes, mushroom risotto, pan-roasted mini sweet peppers with sea salt flakes, and a warm and creamy Brussels sprouts slaw were our sides.  The last two items were particular hits.   

The peppers were so simple and so deliciously tender and roasted—and people even asked about the sea salt flakes (Maldon).  The warm Brussels sprouts are julienned and then sautéed in a bit of butter along with a tiny bit of minced garlic and chopped onion.  Then the magic ingredients step in: cream and grated parmesan cheese.  This is one of my favorite ways of having Brussels sprouts!

Then we finished off with our favorite apple pie with some maple whipped cream.  The next day, we baked a pumpkin pie as well since my favorite recipe was easily accessed through this blog!