Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tcho Chocolate

Tcho Chocolate - visited factory store on March 3, 2014
I’ve had these pictures for well over a year but never got around to blogging them until now. My niece and I had spent a day in San Francisco and part of our 10+ miles of walking around the city included stumbling upon the warehouse building at the pier that housed Tcho Chocolate’s factory store. I’d heard of Tcho Chocolate before this but even if I hadn’t, let’s face it, I would have wanted to go in anyway.
There were industrial-looking wire shelves that held an assortment of various Tcho Chocolate products available for purchase, a little table where you could try out some samples (bonus!) and a larger, roped off part of the warehouse structure that looked like it was where they made at least some of the chocolate. I wasn’t sure though as at the time, that section was closed off and we weren’t there at the time when they offered tours. Actually, I think we caught them at the tail end of their San Francisco location as, according to their website, their new production facility and factory store moved to Berkeley last year, shortly after we were at this San Francisco location.

I first sampled Tcho when I ordered from Treatsie. They billed themselves as “New American Chocolate”. I just wanted to buy their product and support them because they were local in the Bay Area. Plus, and more importantly, they focus on Fair Trade and even “beyond Fair Trade”. If you check out their FAQs on their website, it tells you more about that. But having once spent a week in the jungles of Belize learning about cacao production and meeting a local cacao farmer, it’s sensitized me a lot more about buying Fair Trade chocolate.

As much as I like chocolate, it might sound funny for me to say I don’t eat as much of it in pure chocolate bar form as you might think. Probably because I bake a lot and know so much more can be done with chocolate than unwrapping and consuming a chocolate bar. I’ve tried their cocoa powder, their chocolate “wafers” that I’ve melted and used for baking in cookies, cakes and brownies and yes, their chocolate candy bar form. I thought they were all good. I’m not sure I can pick it out in a blind taste test amongst a bunch of like-caliber chocolate but Tcho holds its own in terms of taste and quality. They’re still not as widely available as other brands of chocolate but they’re available online and, if I look hard enough, I can also find them locally, mostly at Whole Foods.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Soft Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cookies

Soft Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cookies - made dough May 16, 2015 from Crazy for Crust
The only reason I made these cookies is so I could use those mini peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. It isn’t like I love peanut butter cups either because I could take or leave them. Usually I leave them. But these mini ones are cute and I pick up a package once in awhile because I know I want to make some kind of cute cookie with them. That’s pretty much all it takes for me to try out a new cookie recipe.

These are literally chocolate cookies with peanut butter cups in them. Not to be confused with a chocolate peanut butter cookie or a peanut butter cookie with chocolate in it. Nope, it’s a chocolate cookie that contains peanut butter cups. Which means if you’re indifferent to peanut butter but don’t mind it, this is fine because it’s also a good chocolate cookie. Soft, chewy, chocolaty. I gave my nieces a goodie bag of them and one said she inhaled two. While already full from dinner. Let’s hear it for millennials and metabolism.

If you like cookies that bake up thicker, as always, portion the cookie dough into dough balls and freeze them for at least several hours before baking. I also like to hold back some of the mini peanut butter cups when I make the dough and when I portion into dough balls, I press the mini peanut butter cups on the outside so they’re more prominent rather than hiding within the dough. If you don’t have access to mini peanut butter cups, you can use regular-sized peanut butter cups and just cut into chunks. If you want a pure chocolate cookie with nothing to interfere with chocolaty goodness, you can leave off the peanut butter cups, mini or otherwise, and just use chocolate chips. They won’t look as cute though but chocolate is chocolate after all.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 box (3.4 - 3.9 ounces) instance chocolate pudding mix (not sugar-free)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cold brewed coffee or water
1 1/2 cups mini peanut butter cups plus more for garnish
  1. Cream butter and both sugars in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix in vanilla and egg. Add cocoa powder and dry pudding mix; mix until smooth,
  2. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Add dry ingredients and coffee or water to the creamed butter mixture and mix until just combined.
  3. Add mini peanut butter cups to cookie dough and fold in. Scoop dough into golf-ball=size dough balls, pressing mini peanut butter cups on the outside, cover and chill or freeze for several hours or overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Bake 11-12 minutes or until middles no longer look wet and edges are done. Cool cookies on cookie sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Restaurant Review: Newark Buffet

Newark Buffet - lunch on April 29, 2014 (that's not a typo, I'm just really overdue on posting this)
I’m clearing out all the old blog posts that I’ve had in “draft” status for months now, including this one for Newark Buffet. It's been so long I almost forgot I hadn't written it up before. I don’t go here that often because I’m rarely in that area during the week and their weekend buffet prices are higher so my parents and I don’t go there for our post-church Sunday lunches.

The last time I was there when I took these pictures is when I had a day off and my mom and I were flying back from visiting my sister. We landed near the middle of the day and met my dad for lunch. It’s very similar to World Gourmet in that it has a lot of selections, it’s “good enough” food for a buffet but I wouldn’t consider it haute cuisine. 

My buffet experiences are mostly around finding a few dishes I like and consuming normal portions of those. I’m not one to pile a lot of different foods on my plate since my palate is not that adventurous nor can I consume a lot of food in one sitting. I’m more of a snack-throughout-the-day kind of person than a 3 big-meals-a-day sort. So it’s safe to say my ROI on a buffet is on the low end of the investment spectrum.

Still, my parents like to go to them for simplicity and the variety of dishes offered and I can usually consume enough to make the $9.99 price tag for lunch sufficiently worth it. I think this is average, on par with World Gourmet. If you’re looking for French Laundry, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a reasonably-priced place to bring a large group and you don’t want to worry about picky eaters starving (anyone can find something to eat at a buffet), then this is a decent choice. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cheese Sausage Strata

Cheese Sausage Strata - made May 16, 2015 from Taste of Home
We had our monthly potluck lunch at church a couple of weekends ago and I tried another savory dish instead of a dessert. I know, shocking, right? But I was still trying to make sure we had enough “real food” as opposed to a dessert table at the potluck. I was tempted to do pasta again since it’s so easy, especially since my level of cooking means you buy a jar of sauce, some fresh pasta plus a few other random ingredients and throw them together. (Italian grandmothers just rolled in their graves.)
But I made myself do something only just slightly more involved with this strata. Truthfully, it’s really a savory bread pudding but strata sounds more complicated so that’s what I’m going with. Like a typical bread pudding, you cut the bread into cubes, soak it in a egg-milk mixture and bake until done. For the savory element, there’s not only no sugar in this but you also brown some ground beef or pork and add some cheese. I took some liberties with the original recipe and did a combination of lean ground beef and ground pork sausage. The cheese was the Quattro fromaggio I had leftover from the Cheesy Tortellini Bake from last time.
To illustrate how infrequently I cook, when I was scouring the depths of my freezer before I started this recipe, I kept unearthing half-full bags of frozen shredded cheeses I’d used for other cooking attempts. Cheddar Cheese. Parmesan Cheese. Mozzarella Cheese. Sadly, the most “recent” one had an expiration date of July 2014. Oops. I had to chuck them all to avoid food poisoning for the church folks. How would that have gone over?? Fortunately, the Quattro fromaggio was recent and well before its expiration date. I used it all up too so I wouldn’t find it in my freezer a year from now.
I thought this turned out pretty well. I timed the bake so that it would be done right before I left for church, covered it in foil and wrapped it in a thick beach towel to keep it warm, and stowed it in my trunk while I sat in church. After the hour-long service, I was pleasantly surprised that it was still warm enough to make handling the baking dish with my bare fingers a little dicey. Savory bread pudding is best served somewhat warm and this survived the length of time from oven to table remarkably well.

From a taste perspective, it might be a bit bland for most people’s taste buds but for mine, it was fine. If you want it a little more spicy, I’d suggest using a hot sausage or adding more spice to the ground beef. I left off the dry mustard in the original recipe since I don’t like mustard and I thought it tasted good without it. It seemed like a hit with the church folks too as by the time I left, there was only 1 piece left.
1 1/2 pounds bulk pork sausage
9 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups milk
9 slices bread, cubed (I used a 1-pound loaf of challah)
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese (I used quattro fromagio)
1/2 pound sliced bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mustard, optional
  1. In a large skillet, cook sausage over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Add the eggs, milk, bread, cheese, bacon and mustard. Transfer to a greased shallow 3-quart baking dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight,
  2. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Bake at 350 degrees F for 60-65 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. If it appears to be getting too brown but still isn't done, cover loosely with foil then remove foil for the last 5 minutes of baking. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Buttermilk Biscoff Pancakes

Buttermilk Biscoff Pancakes - made May 17, 2015, adapted from The Biscoff Cookie & Spread Cookbook by Katrina Bahl
Continuing the cookie butter recipes. For a change of pace, let’s turn to breakfast food. I had high hopes for these pancakes because you know it goes without saying that it was another excuse to spread cookie butter onto something warm and let it melt before consuming. I do draw the line with my cookie butter obsession that I don’t eat it straight out of the jar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t look for something for the cookie butter to sit on while I consume it.
Unfortunately, these pancakes didn’t turn out the way I had expected. The first sign of trouble was how thick the batter was after I had mixed it. It had the density of a brownie batter. Not even the more fluid cake batter or the more liquid hallmark of a good pancake batter. Brownie batter. I knew it would come out too thick but I fried a pancake “as is” with how the recipe was listed even though I knew I should add more buttermilk to get a less dense pancake.
Turns out I was right. The pancake not only wasn’t thick because I couldn’t spread it thinly enough in the hot frying pan but it also cracked dry in the cooking. A thin layer of cookie butter hid those sins but because the batter was so dense and the pancake was so thick, I had to cook it awhile and it was a bit dry. Who the heck makes dry pancakes? Me.
2nd attempt
For the next try, I added more buttermilk to the remaining batter so I would guess I had doubled the buttermilk from the original recipe. The batter was still thick but not so dense. This one turned out more pancake-like but it was still pretty thick and came out more like a flat cake than a fluffy pancake. But the texture was still good. It just made for a generous portion and I couldn’t finish it all. The taste was good (c’mon, it’s cookie butter) though so this recipe is worth salvaging. I’d start with the buttermilk I’ve listed which is double the original recipe, then keep adding more until the batter is the consistency you want. Depending on how much you add, you might want to increase the baking soda by a ¼ to a ½ teaspoon as well to neutralize the acidity of the buttermilk and give the pancake a lighter texture.
I didn’t make the cookie butter syrup since I was good with just spreading a knife-ful of cookie butter over the pancake and letting it melt into gooey goodness. Either way, I think it’s a good complement to the pancake.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup creamy Biscoff spread
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
  1. Whisk together dry ingrediens.
  2. Beat buttermilk, Biscoff spread, oil, vanilla extract and eggs until just combined.
  3. Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
  4. Heat frying pan or griddle over medium heat and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Pour 1/2 cup of batter (more or less depending on the size of pancakes you want) into circle and let cook until edges are brown and bubbles form in the middle, 2-3 minutes,on one side before flipping over. If pancake is getting too brown, lower heat.
  5. Spread with cookie butter and serve warm.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Restaurant Review: Macaroni Grill

Macaroni Grill - lunch on May 11, 2015

For Mother’s Day lunch, I took my parents out to Macaroni Grill. We’ve been there before but don’t go that often since it’s farther afield than they normally like to go for lunch after church. Going out to eat on Mother’s Day is almost always an inevitably crowded affair since everyone takes their mom out for her day. We hadn’t made a reservation so I hurried over there after church to secure a table. Fortunately, it was only just past 11 so the restaurant was still fairly empty although every table would be occupied by the time we left.
What sucked us into Macaroni Grill the first time we’d ever gone there was the amazing bread they served when you first sit down. It was not too crunchy on the outside but nicely dense and mealy on the inside. It was served warm with a slathering of melted butter or oil lightly brushed on top, just enough to get your fingers greasy and your taste buds salivating. This time around, either their bread has changed or my taste buds decided to get picky but I didn’t think the bread was as good as before. Couldn’t tell you why though but a sure sign was I only had a small piece and didn’t hanker for more. Huh.
The menu, in conforming with local law, also listed the calorie count next to each entrĂ©e. Always a nice appetite killer. I appreciate the information so I can make an informed choice but seriously, a major downer that you can no longer kid yourself that the dishes you most want are more than half a day’s calories on a plate. I’m used to expecting high calorie counts at all restaurant meals but even I was thrown by Macaroni Grill’s numbers. Amongst the entrees, there were maybe 2 meals under a thousand calories. One proudly had an “LC” designation for Low Calorie and proud it should be for being a lone standout. The other one I could find that wasn’t LC-designated but still a rarity under a thousand calories was Lobster Ravioli for 860 calories. Everything else was in the range of 1200-2000+. Eeep.
Paste di Mare
I went with the Lobster Ravioli as the almost lesser of all calorie evils. Plus I like lobster ravioli. My mom got the Pasta di Mare (scallops, mussels, shrimp, fettuccine in a white wine sauce with pomodoro and garlic) and my dad got the sole. The high calorie counts on all of the entrees was partially explained by the generous portions that came out. No portion control served here. Fortunately my parents aren’t big eaters and, with their consumption, each plate was at least 2-3 meals for them. No cooking that night for my mom on her day.
Lobster Ravioli
Dessert was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce poured over it, hold the whipped cream. It was a good, if somewhat unimaginative, dessert and as we spooned it up, my mom makes the same claim she always makes when we order dessert, “you can make this.” Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Warm Chocolate Cake
With chocolate sauce

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Biscoff Mug Cake #2

Biscoff Mug Cake #2 - made May 9, 2015 from Something Swanky
I was so emboldened by my success on the last mug cakeI’d made, erasing my complete and utter failure on the first mug cake I’d made (that I never bothered to blog about since it was a serious disaster and I couldn’t even eat it or bring myself to take pictures of it) that I decided to try my luck again. My one-track taste buds were still on a cookie butter spree so I tried another Biscoff mug cake. This one was simpler and had fewer ingredients than the other one but was equally easy to make.

I don’t know that I was super impressed with this one or if it’s just the novelty of mug cakes wearing off but, similar to the other one, while this one turned out, it also had more of a spongy texture than a baked cake which has a softer crumb. It was still good and it’s hard to not like a warm cake with cookie butter melting over it but I have to admit, I think I only made this because I wanted the cookie butter to have something to sit on. Still a good option if you want a quick, easy, one-serving dessert for those impulse sweet tooth moments.
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 heaping tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons cookie butter, Biscoff spread or Speculoos
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Spray the inside of a mug with nonstick cooking spray. 
  2. Mix all the ingredients together in the mug, using a fork.
  3. Microwave for 30-45 seconds or until done.
  4. Spread with a dollop of cookie butter on top and eat while warm.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kitty Kat Krunch Brownies

Kitty Kat Krunch Brownies - made May 10, 2015 from Extreme Brownies by Connie Weis
I’m now splitting my cookbook recipe obsession between my newest book Biscoff Cookie & Spread Cookbook and the recently new Extreme Brownies. For this post, we’re back to brownies. When I first bought Extreme Brownies, this was one of the (many) recipes I immediately wanted to try. It had all the elements I found interesting: candy incorporated into the brownie itself then crunchy stuff on top to provide further contrast to the chewy fudginess of the brownie and the creamy smoothness of the frosting.
First, let me tell you I have not bought Cocoa Krispies in….forever. When I was a kid, I used to beg my mom to buy those sugary cereals. They were totally bad for you (still are) but hey, I was a kid. It was my job to beg for the bad stuff. My mom only occasionally gave in to my begging so I do have memories of enjoying a bowl of Cocoa Krispies, the best part being the milk left in the bowl “turned into chocolate milk” by dint of the cocoa combining with the milk. I disliked milk even as a kid but chocolate milk was tolerable. Plus I liked the crunch of the cereal, so much more satisfying than cornflakes because, you know, it was sweeter and it was chocolate.
Second, once I did buy the Cocoa Krispies for this recipe and tasted it again, I decided my taste buds have matured a lot since then. Because I no longer had the palate that thought Cocoa Krispies were the bomb. Sorry, Cocoa Krispies lovers, but I’ve tasted real chocolate and this isn’t it. But, I was committed to trying out this recipe and I’d already bought the box so….
I usually don’t have the time or inclination to make brownies that are this involved. Meaning not just the brownie but you also make the ganache glaze and a topping. And I’m leery of anything that involves me making caramel from scratch because I’m paranoid about burning it and the few times I’ve made my own caramel, it’s been too sweet for my taste. But surprisingly, this was fairly easy to make. Don’t be put off by having to make the different elements of this recipe as each one by itself isn’t that hard. You just need a little time and even that isn’t a big deal.
Make the Cocoa Krispies crunch topping first so it has time to cool. I almost burned the caramel because my saucepan is dark colored and you know how hard it is to judge how brown a caramel is getting when you’re looking at a clear liquid bubbling in a dark pan? Yeah, it’s hard. And the caramel keeps on browning even after you turn the heat off. Fortunately, I caught it just 30 seconds before it would’ve been burnt. Whew. The topping turned out as crunchy as it was supposed to be, always a nice surprise.
The brownie and ganache topping couldn’t have been easier. I bought a bag of mini Kit Kats and dispersed them all in the brownie since I didn’t want spare Kit Kats leaping into my mouth later on if they remained in my pantry. Better to use them all in the brownies and give the brownies away. After my taste test piece, that is.
This was another fudgy brownie winner. I’m not big on ganache frosting but it did add a nice richness to the brownie and the crunchy topping was a great contrast. I’m not entirely sure the Kit Kats added a whole lot to the brownie other than their name but that’s probably because for my taste test, I ate half a piece near the edge with little Kit Kat in it so I might not have gotten the full Kitty Kat Krunch experience. But this is definitely worth filing away for Halloween time if you end up with spare Kit Kats.
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup (6 ounces) 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
4 large eggs
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 packed cup (8 ounces) light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 (8-ounce) bag mini Kit Kats

Candied Chocolate Rice Cereal Topping
1 1/2 cups chocolate puffed rice cereal, such as Cocoa Krispies
1/2 cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
1/2 cup and 1 tablespoon (5 ounces) heavy whipping cream
1 1/4 cups (7.5 ounces) 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
10 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13" baking pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Melt butter and chocolates in the top half of a double boiler over hot water. Whisk together until melted and smooth.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugars and salt until just combined. Whisk in the chocolate mixture and mix until combined. Whisk in the vanilla.
  4. Stir together the flour and baking powder then mix into the batter, stirring until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Push the mini Kit Kats into the batter; do not place any within 1/2" of the pan sides. Use the offset spatula to cover the candy with the batter. 
  5. Bake for 28 minutes until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.
  6. To make the candied chocolate rice cereal topping: lightly grease a quarter sheet pan with vegetable shortening then line with parchment paper. Measure out the cereal; set aside.
  7. Place the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt in a small, heavy saucepan; stir with a small silicone spatula just to combine. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat to moderate and boil undisturbed until a medium amber-colored caramel forms, about 5 minutes.
  8. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cereal. Spoon the caramelized cereal onto the prepared pan and spread it out with a small offset spatula. Let cool at room temperature.
  9. To make the frosting: place the heavy cream and chocolate chips in the top half of a double boiler set over hot water. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from over the hot water and refrigerate until the mixture has cooled to the consistency of pudding, about 15 minutes. While the frosting mixture is chilling, cut up the candied chocolate rice cereal topping into 1/4" pieces, using a sharp chef's knife.
  10. Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces. Beat the butter pieces into the chilled cream mixture. Beat in the salt. Strain or sift the cocoa powder directly onto the mixture and beat in. Add the vanilla and beat in, starting on low and increasing to high speed, until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 1 minute. 
  11. Dollop the frosting over the brownie slab. Using a small offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly. Garnish the frosting with some of the chopped candied chocolate rice cereal topping, then use the back of a metal spatula to lightly tap on the topping pieces to slightly embed them into the frosting. Refrigerate pan for 7 to 8 hours or overnight. Cut into squares and serve.