Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Butternut Squash Risotto

Risotto is one of my favourite comfort foods. It's something about the slow, gentle cooking over a stove. The smooth, creamy texture and satisfying starchiness (I love rice!), as well as all the endless variations, make it difficult to resist.

I haven't cooked much (and have really been eating rather poorly) for the past two weeks. The other day, I stayed up until 5 a.m. grading exams. Serves me right for writing a 13 page final! But today, with my Statistics paper out of the way, and just one more exam to go, I decided to indulge my craving to try this recipe from Cook's Illustrated. It really wasn't difficult, especially since I skipped the step where I heat the chicken broth with the seeds and string of the squash.

It turned out a little darker than I'd expected. Somehow, the organic chicken broth I bought was rather dark in colour. It may not be photogenic, but oh, it tasted so good! The flavour of the squash was enhanced with a pinch of nutmeg, some sage, and a sprinkling of parmesan. Now, if only I had a bit of tiramisu for dessert.....

Monday, December 10, 2007

A stab at bread

About three weeks ago, I made my first stab at bread outside of pizza dough. It was also the first real bread I made that wasn't an inedible brick. And all the better that it was cinnamon swirl bread. It was so good, I made the recipe twice more.

The original recipe called for 8 cups of flour - something impossible to do in the average Hong Kong kitchen. Cutting it down to a manageable 2 or 3 cups required some tricky math and futzing around with the measurements: I need a little more water to proof the yeast, so a little less milk to balance it out? And I can't do 66.6% of an egg. Throw the whole egg in, and use a little more flour? I'm not really sure if I did the right thing, as the science of baking is a complete mystery to me. I also have little idea whether my substitution of ordinary plain flour for bread flour (the latter being expensive in Hong Kong), and vegetable oil for butter (trying to avoid saturated fats) made any real difference. The recipe also called for scalded milk. I don't know why this would be different from unboiled milk. Oh well, just do what it says.

But it did rise, it wasn't rock hard, and it tasted pretty good. The loaf just looks rather flat in the photo because my baking tin was too large. I knew a guy in college who routinely made bread without the benefit of a recipe. He just threw things together until they kneaded up roughly at the right consistency. It worked.

The first attempt was a bit thin on the filling. It said to just sprinkle a lot of cinnamon sugar and a few drops of water on the rolled-out dough and roll it up. I guess I didn't use enough.

The next time, I over-compensated by adding raisins, little chunks of apple, and apple sauce (which I have to make myself - you can't buy it here except in ridiculously tiny baby food jars), but there must have been too much moisture because the bread came out a bit doughy.

The third time, I eliminated the apple and apple products, used a lot more cinnamon sugar, and kept the raisins. And the imaginary Goldilocks looking over my shoulder, that picky picky girl, smiled in satisfaction.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tis the Season!

Yes, I do know how to make more than food, although lately I've been worried that I've gotten rusty at doing other things. Our Final Buffet was this weekend, and although we're not totally done with pastry school yet, we won't be cooking nearly as much from now on. (I'm not putting the pictures up here, since there are too many, but here is the link to the album.) Even better, we don't have any more long homework assignments, woohoo!!! The first order of the day was to get ready for Christmas, and with that, I headed off to Target to buy the shortest length of tree lights that I could find - 12 feet for around $2.00. As for the tree, our apartment is tiny, so we had to find an accordingly tiny specimen. For all the apartment dwellers out there, you'll understand how hard it is to find a real tree that's under 4 feet tall. In past years we've made do with a tabletop balsam tree from LLBean that costs $80, but this year we got lucky. You'll never guess where I found this little guy......Whole Foods, for only $25! Whole Foods calls it a "tabletop" tree, too, but they must have a huge table in mind. Doesn't it look perfect our little corner here? Even better, this tree reminds me of the scrawny, lovable little shrub in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Aside from getting the tree set up, I managed to get started on some stocking stuffers for the holidays, too.
This duo is going to work hard at looking cute on someone's refrigerator this holiday. Here they are going for a practice run on our fridge.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Day, Another Attempt

I've pretty much eaten my way through the last of the CSA produce. I do, however, still have onions and potatoes. I've been saving these lovely fingering potatoes for various things, one of which was another attempt to reproduce those Indian-style potatoes that I ate at a friend's house a couple of years ago. This time I followed a recipe from Lord Krishna's Cuisine. Having learnt from my experience with her palak paneer recipe, I added some garlic and increased the amount of spices a bit.
This time it seemed a little closer to the flavour I remember. I have one more recipe I'm going to try. It's from a south Indian cookbook (my friend is south Indian). Maybe some combination of these recipes will reproduce it. This was tonight's dinner, by the way. Spicy potatoes, chicken with whole spices in a yogurt sauce, and some saag paneer I had made for the biology graduate student Turk'y (not real turkey) party.

New Shower Curtain

At last, I found time to finish the shower curtain, which has been sitting around half-complete for months now (that's why there are all those wrinkles). W and I picked out the brown brocade to go with our 1950's style, pink formica sink counter. The previous tenants had gone for a pink and green colour scheme (I still need to replace those green blinds!), but we decided on brown and pink. It reminds me of chocolate sundaes and other chocolaty delights.

See the date on that photo? It was September when I was sewing it up and pinking the raw edges. For many weeks I was trying to find the right shade of metal grommet, buying and returning several times. After an aborted attempt to actually put in the grommets (not enough layers of fabric, or fabric too thin), I let it sit a couple more weeks before I finally went with simple buttonholes.

I had to stick some pink satin at the top, because they were don't to the last few yards of the bolt of fabric, and I didn't have enough for the curtain. I think it turned out rather well, though, don't you?

Seeing What the Fuss is About

I was browsing magazines at the bookstore when it happened for the first time. I picked up a copy of that little publication put out by the Martha Stewart franchise, Everyday Food, and I was curious. Now, I've heard that MS's regular recipes can be very involved, and the idea is cooking for entertaining. Since I don't really have the time, or space, to entertain in great numbers, her recipes have never really interested me. But the recipes in Everyday Food did, indeed, look more like something I would attempt for less exalted occasions.

Of course, she has her own home furnishing, kitchenware and bakeware lines at Macy's and Kmart, she has numerous books and periodicals to her name, and she has become rather notorious. But I just wanted to see what the hype is all about. Do her recipes work, do they taste good, and are they worth the time? Of course, I know it's her Everyday Food team that actually works on the recipes for that little magazine, but I've managed to collect three issues now: one for October, one for Thanksgiving/November, and one special holiday issue with a lot of baked goods.

I had leftover pumpkin puree from making the pumpkin pie, so I decided to try the Penne with Creamy Pumpkin Sauce. It was just me, so I quartered the portions. I also had to substitute fresh rosemary for thyme, because my rosemary just hasn't been growing since I brought it indoors. And I may have substituted light cream for heavy cream. So maybe that accounts for the less than amazing results. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't wonderful. I guess I'll have to find another use for unused pumpkin puree!


It's been about a month since I decided to start experimenting with whole grains. Chinese people eat a lot of white rice, which really isn't that good for you. I borrowed Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way, by Lorna Sass, from the library, and I'm going to try out different whole grains to see what they taste like and whether they're easy to prepare. If all goes well, when I go visit my parents over New Year's, I will introduce them to whole grains.

I took W on her first trip to the local co-op, and I stocked up on some quinoa, amaranth, wheat berries and steel cut oats. It's always fun going to the co-op. Quinoa [keen-wa] looked relatively easy to prepare, so I chose a recipe for which I had most of the ingredients, which happened to be the chile-scented pork chops with roasted red pepper dressing.

I overcooked the quinoa, I think, and I didn't have a strainer with sufficiently fine mesh (which may have been part of the overcooking problem), so I had some runaways. You have to be sure to rinse the quinoa thoroughly before you cook it (I forgot, and dumped it into my pot of boiling water, so I had to drain it and start again) because it has natural saponins in its bran layer, which taste bitter. After it's cooked, quinoa has a faintly vegetal aroma (it reminds me a bit of some Chinese herbs), but I didn't find it unpleasant.

I got a whole lot of quinoa, though, so I'm going to continue experimenting. There's even a recipe for a ginger quinoa cake in the book!

Taking Care of (Leek) Business

What does one do with bags of leeks? I like them, otherwise I wouldn't have taken so many at the CSA, but I wanted to try something different from what I had been doing so far, which was potato leek soup (though I did make some of that, too) or lemon-dill fish fillets with leek greens.
I bought some gruyere cheese and a frozen pie crust, and whipped up this leek pie in short order. But it tasted really good; it must be all the cheese! And, since I was feeling a little guilty about said cheese, I paired it up with a healthy basil (from my little windowsill basil plant) and cherry tomato salad.
And, because it was so good, I made shepherd's pie again.
It went into the fridge, so I could eat it throughout the week. I gave some of the leek pie and shepherd's pie to a coworker at the Japanese restaurant. He's a rather notorious for being, if not a picky eater, than something of a gourmet. Perhaps he was being polite, but it was all compliments from him! Ah, the magic of cheese and butter!
And, as I've said before, I see nothing wrong with eating the green portion of the leek. In fact, I believe the French (great leek eaters) do so regularly.
This time, I just stir-fried them into some fried rice, instead of onions or scallions. They weren't tough or fibrous at all.

I'm all out of leeks from the CSA now. I guess it's back to buying vegetables from the supermarket for me.

Sock Saviour Revealed

Was there ever a more undeserving sock pal than I? I was so disappointed when my Sockapalooza sock pal went AWOL, but Aunti MiMi become my sock saviour and has e-mailed me and kept me apprised of her progress. Then what do I do? It's been a couple of days since I received the incredible package my sock saviour sent me, exams (Remote Sensing - it's quite a challenge trying to identify man made structures and natural phenomena from satellite images), problem sets (remote sensing and statistics) grading, grading and more grading (I never though I'd be pulling all-nighters to get grading completed!) have sapped me of a lot of energy. I wanted to take some nice pictures and write a decent post to do these socks justice because they are simply gorgeous!

My sock saviour, Aunti MiMi, who lives in Minnesota, knit these socks from Fleece Artist Merino. It's hard to believe that there isn't even a smidgen of silk in the yarn, it's so silky and soft. It even has a beautiful sheen to it. And I couldn't have chosen a better colourway myself! It's a subtly variegated red, and red socks are so snazzy!

But MiMi didn't stop there! She sent me something else guaranteed to take my breath away! The cutest little bowl (I'm thinking condiments, tiny dishes of Japanese-style appetizers, and stitch markers) made by a potter/knitter in Minnesota, Jennie E. Lanners. Now that I've seen - and touched - her work, I'm not sure how I will control myself. Did you see the ball of pink yarn unraveling at the bottom of the bowl?

A lovely card, with a picture of some seriously sexy yarn, two delicious-smelling almond oatmeal soaps, and some hand-dyed yarn from Minnesota. It has all the colours that I've been especially fond of recently: powder pink, baby pink, pistachio, apple cream, sea foam green. It's too much! So much more than I had been expecting, and I love it all. You're the most wonderful sock saviour, and your socks were more than worth waiting for. Thank you, Michelle!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sewing Inspiration

First Kea sews some spectacular, spontaneous quilted cushion covers. Then, I come across a wonderful sewing blog, Sew, Mama, Sew!, that is currently doing a 30-day series on little sewing gifts, with links to fabulous tutorials and other crafty sewing blogs. I'm sure Moocow will be interested in the lunch bags, and there is an excellent tutorial for a quilted fabric wallet that I would really like to try my hand at.

So, if you like sewing, crafts, cute things, or just superb craftsmanship, head on over!

Cake decorating week

We had Colette Peters, a well-known cake decorator, come spend two days with us and show us a few of her tricks. We got to decorate one cake each, using styrofoam as a base in place of real cake. Here's my cake.
I think it looks like it could be from a Dr. Seuss on Easter book. Everything, even down to the candle, is made of icing fondant. And before you go, "Ewww, fondant!" we used a high-quality fondant that actually tasted very good. I used to hate the very mention of fondant. When I came across it on wedding cakes, I would invariably peel off the stuff before taking a timid bite of the cake, which usually tasted equally gross. Turns out that all those cakes had been made with poor quality fondant. It guess it shouldn't have been a surprise then that the cake itself never tasted too good either. In any case, there is delicious fondant out there, so keep an open mind next time you see it on your plate!

This was my favorite cake from the class, again from the person who made the avocado chicken egg. Her pineapple-themed cake was topped with a ring of fondant that was torched to create what looked like a slice of roasted pineapple. Even Colette was impressed; she'd never seen or heard of fondant being torched. So if you guys see torched fondant somewhere in the future, remember you saw it here first!
Colette also taught us how to make various flowers using gum paste. Here's a peony I made out of gum paste. The aluminum foil is there to hold up the petals so the flower dries in the right shape.
Some dogwood flowers....
And a little gum paste bouquet...

Scrap cushion covers

These maddeningly cheerful couch cushion covers are patchwork in the old sense, in that they're actually made of recycled scraps. The lining and backing are old Boyfriend t-shirts, the floral patterned squares are leftovers from one of my mom's sewing projects, and the plaid - well, you probably don't want to know.

I know it's just squares and rectangles, it's still the most complicated thing I've done in terms of quilting so far. I've always found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of sewing is the geometry, one of the few things I actually liked about high school maths. I think curved lines would be too fiddly for me, but next time I might tackle triangles. It'll be an excuse for me to re-learn my trigonometry.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Donut Muffins Revisited

(Hopefully I get this right this time...)

You gals are on such a roll with all your amazing home-cooked (or school-cooked?) dishes! I'm going to backtrack a bit back to one of Moocow's posts from this summer when she shared her donut muffin experience. Soon after she sent me the recipe (which I have since found online, so I think it's okay to link: muffin recipe and interesting accompanying article), I bought a muffin baking pan. Months pass without it being used. Then a couple of weeks ago at the farmer's market, a bakery stall was selling something similar, which reminded me of the recipe. Cinnamon, fall, baking... those just kind of go together, don't you think? It was time to make the muffins.

Filling the muffin cups with batter

Baked and ready to be dipped



Now, this was the largest recipe I've ever followed. I mean, six cups of flour?! I've never had to deal with more than three. And all that butter, whoa. But instead of halving everything, I prepared the muffin batter to the fullest and chilled half for later. The muffin was very dense, but cakey and crumbly and could still hold up to a fork cutting through it. I brought some over to a pumpking carving party the next day and was instantly asked for the recipe. This is one for my recipe library.

Monday, October 29, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

I don't think I ever ate brussels sprouts as a child, or ever saw what it looked like before it had been harvested and cut, but they actually grown on a long, tough stalk, which I thought rather fun when I got them from the CSA. I'd never eaten, or prepared, them before, but I did watch Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) on the Food Network make some a couple of years ago, and it seemed simple enough. Toss the brussels sprouts (I cut them off of the stalk and washed them first) with salt, pepper and olive oil, and roast them in the oven.
They were delicious! Kind of like popcorn, but tasting like a cross between broccoli and green beans, and much healthier, too. They were a little crunchy on the outside, but tender, green and fragrant in the middle. You hear all these horror stories about brussels sprouts, and how much people hate them, but I don't find anything objectionable about them at all. This was my first time eating brussels sprouts, but it won't be the last.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Butternut Squash Soup

I had two butternut squash from the CSA that have been sitting around, waiting for me to deal with them. I've had plans for those two squash, including butternut squash soup, butternut squash risotto, and roasted butternut squash. I tackled the soup recipe today, which involved sauteing some shallots in butter.
An unusual aspect of this recipe (from Cook's Illustrated), involves sauteing the seeds and stringy fibres from the squash as well. Then, water is added to this mixture.
The butternut squash is then steamed (that's a steamer basket hiding underneath all that squash) with the liquid that contains the butter, shallots, seeds and fibres. Once the squash is tender, the steamer basket is removed from the pot and the squash is allowed to cool down, after which the flesh is scooped out. The steaming liquid is strained to remove the seeds and string.

Then the strained liquid and steamed squash are pureed together (this was the easiest step for me, because I have my wonderful immersion blender) and cream, brown sugar and salt are added.
And here I have a huge pot of butternut squash soup - it's a good thing that W adores butternut squash. This soup is tremendously comforting, especially since the apartment is rather chilly. I really like how it turned out. I used light cream, instead of the heavy cream called for in the recipe. Perhaps it wasn't as creamy as it might have been, but I actually like the lighter flavour and thinner consistency. Next time, I might try throwing in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, which would get strained out with the seeds.

Pumpkin Pie

After some unusually warm weather this late in October, it seems that it has finally started to cool down in earnest. The fall air has made me crave things made with apples and hard winter squash, such as apple crumble, pumpkin pie and butternut squash soup.

Spread out over two days, I made a pumpkin pie following the recipe in The Essential Baker, the book whose recipe I used for my carrot cake. Why did it take two days? Well, first I made the pastry dough for the crust, which had to chill for a couple of hours. Because I had things to do, I let it chill until the next day.

Rolling out the dough into a decent, properly-sized circle shape of even thickness was more difficult that I had anticipated, and I blame that on my rolling pin. It's the type of rolling pin that many household are no doubt familiar with: the centre barrel rolls, while you hold onto the stationary handles. Well, you just can't apply the right amount of even pressure. It was very frustrating, and I had to return the half rolled-out crust to the refrigerator several times because it was taking so long and the dough was warming up.

Finally, I had the crust rolled out and eased in to line the deep-dish pie plate. As the unbaked pie crust was cooling in the freezer (to prevent shrinkage when baking), I mixed together the ingredients for the pumpkin filling.
The filling went into the unbaked crust, and the pie went into the oven.And, around an hour later, a pumpkin pie - its filling still billowing up with heat - came out of the oven.
When the pie had cooled down all the way, however, the filling had shrunken and come away from the crust, all around the perimeter! This in no way affected the taste of the pie, which was very good. And it wasn't super heavy, overly sweet, or overloaded with spices, unlike many other pumpkin pies I have eaten. In fact, the filling was surprisingly light, and almost airy. This is a pie that you could have two slices of.
The only problems were 1) the crust was over-browned/slightly burnt, and 2) the filling shrank. It isn't so bad on this piece you see here. But on some of the other pieces, the entire side of the crust falls away from the pie filling and flops down rather pathetically.

I called Moocow to try to figure out what had gone wrong. She said, since the pumpkin pie filling is custard-like, it needed to bake slowly in a not-too-hot oven. That being the case, the crust should probably have been baked blind before being filled with the filling and baked slowly. When I had been following the recipe, I did think it rather strange that the crust wasn't to be baked first, but I decided to trust the recipe. Next time, I think I will try it following Moocow's advice. I'll probably shield the crust with aluminium foil, as well, so it doesn't burn. And, as soon as I can, I'm going to buy a simple, French rolling pin.

Plated Dessert Challenge

We had our own "Iron Chef" challenge at school this week - we call it a "Market Basket," and were charged to create two plated desserts using specified amounts of sugar, butter, milk, cream, eggs, and tropical fruits (banana, mango, pineapple, and kiwi). We didn't have to use all the ingredients, but couldn't exceed those parameters. We also did not have to do two completely different desserts; we could make one dessert and plate it two ways. My entry was a pineapple shortcake.
The first one kind of looks like a classic French dessert using strawberries, called a Fraisier, but obviously this one has brown-sugar glazed pineapples instead. The cake was filled with vanilla bavarian, topped with a slice of dried pineapple, and sauced with a Madeira caramel. It looked nice, but I lost points for the flavors being too bland. My fault - after my dry run for the dessert earlier in the week, I realised it needed a little of the punchy lime syrup I also made, but as I had used a delicate yellow cake instead of the traditional biscuit, I was afraid the syrup would make it fall apart.

The second plate was a "deconstructed" shortcake, and the original plan was the bake it in a bundt pan, but I couldn't find one the right size. The brioche a tete mold I ended up using makes the cake kinda look like an alien spacecraft with a sail. This one got higher marks for taste because of the acidity and juiciness of the kiwi slices. Maybe next time I'll put kiwis in the middle of the first cake, too....hrm...

The other desserts below are a selection of the plates my classmates did.
This is a raspberry and whipped cream crepe gateau, or a crepe cake.

Here is a banana panna cotta that won raves from everyone.

And this handsome concoction is a rarely seen frozen "souffle." It's actually just frozen parfait, but it's molded in a ramekin to make it look like a souffle, and the core is filled with caramel sauce. There is a slice of banana in the middle to indicate its flavor. It's a really good-looking and delicious dessert. For some reason though, restaurants rarely have this on their menus so if you happen to see one in future, make sure to order it!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Shaker Corn Pudding

A couple of weeks ago, I got four ears of sweet corn in my CSA share. Now that I have braces, I can't have corn on the cob. Instead, I decided to try a little something that I had always been curious about: corn pudding.

There are lots of corn pudding recipes out there, some of them with lots of cream, or cheese, or both. I didn't, however, want to overwhelm the fresh sweetness of this organically grown corn, so I turned to a very simple Shaker-style Creamy Corn Pudding recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

I am a great admirer of the healthful, simple, delicious goodness of Shaker cooking. This recipe is typical of that cuisine, and called for lots of fresh corn, grated off the cob, milk, eggs and fresh chives. What came out was an extremely light and appetizing affair, with the flavour of the corn enhanced by the addition of just enough milk and eggs.

One of these days, I'm going to try my hand at another Shaker corn dish, which is made from Shaker dried corn. I just have to figure out how to get my hands on some.