Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fireworks Pudding Cookies

Fireworks Pudding Cookies - made dough June 27, 2015 from Crazy for Crust
Got any summer barbecue plans for 4th of July next weekend? Picnics, fireworks, cold drinks, burgers, hot dogs, s'mores? Sadly, I don't. My grand plans for Independence Day weekend include working, working and....working. It's our busy time, wrapping up the finances for the quarter so no picnics and fireworks for me (cue violins....).
Make the dough balls then press the M&Ms on the outside of each ball
But that's not enough to stop me from making these 4th of July-themed cookies, appropriately called Fireworks Pudding Cookies, from Crazy for Crust, a blog that's always a great source for delicious recipes. These cookies help celebrate America's birthday with red, white and blue sprinkles as well as red, white and blue M&Ms so they're perfectly patriotic. Even more upside, they're also delicious. Crisp edges and chewy middles as well as a nice brown sugar undertone like any good chocolate chip cookie. Only in this case, instead of chocolate chips, you add M&Ms. The dough is easy to work with and the M&Ms adhere well on the outside. Whenever I bake cookies with M&Ms or chocolate chips, I like to reserve a few to press on the outside of the cookie dough balls so they're prominently featured and not lost inside the cookie. It's all about the pretty.

These can be adapted to other holidays depending on the color of your sprinkles and M&Ms that you use. But in this case, red, white and blue rule for July. These cookies are easy to make as well and, because they're made with M&Ms instead of chocolate chips, you don't have to worry about the chocolate melting in hot summer weather.

Finding red, white and blue sprinkles was the most difficult as Target didn't have them and Michaels appears to have run out already. I finally had to settle for buying blue and white sprinkles plus red sugar crystals. The red, white and blue M&Ms were easier to find in the regular candy aisle at Target. They were on sale and I didn't use them all for these cookies so look for more patriotic-themed treats going up on the blog in a few days.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 box (3.4 ounces) instant vanilla pudding mix
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup red and blue sprinkles
3/4 cup 4th of July M&Ms, reserve a handful for garnish
  1. Cream butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. 
  2. Mix in egg and vanilla until smooth. Add pudding mix, baking soda, and salt. Mix until combined.
  3. Mix in flour, then stir in sprinkles and M&Ms. 
  4. Scoop cookie dough into golf-size balls. Press M&Ms randomly on outside dome of dough balls. Cover and chill or freeze for at least an hour or overnight. 
  5. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat baking mats. Place chilled cookie dough balls 2” apart on cookie sheet. Bake 9-11 minutes or until the edges just start to turn brown. Cool 5 minutes on cookie sheet before transferring to a rack to cool completely. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Restaurant Review: Left Bank

Left Bank - dinner on June 4, 2015
My almost-monthly dinner club had this month’s dinner at Left Bank. I don’t go to Left Bank very often as my tastes are probably a bit too simple to fully appreciate what they have for the prices they charge. My non-dessert palate is just not that refined. Case in point, last time I went, I had steak frites. Which is basically steak and French fries. Yup, that’s me. The fancier dishes are lost on me.

Nowadays though, since I end up getting tri tip steak on my salads at work more often than not, when I go out to eat, I’m trying to stay away from more meat. So I went with lobster pasta. I had all the best intentions of only eating a half portion since I’m pseudo-dieting. I was good and didn’t have a single piece of bread from the ubiquitous bread basket (do you know how hard it was to resist? Cue world’s tiniest violin.) But the pasta was so delicious that when I was at the halfway mark and my diet consciousness was telling me to call for a doggie bag and take the rest home to eat another day, I laughed in scorn at it and kept eating. Ha.
Lobster Pasta
I wasn’t supposed to get dessert either but let’s not kid ourselves. I did. Actually, the five of us split 2 orders of profiteroles. Each order came with 3 profiteroles so we each had one and the 6th was for splitting amongst ourselves. I did not partake of the 6th one as you might expect. Not out of any self control or mindful dietary constraint, mind you. More like it was because the profiterole wasn’t very good. The ice cream was delicious but the choux pastry of the profiterole shell was dry and not flaky or light at all. It also didn’t taste as fresh as it could have been. I’m not a big fan of profiteroles in the first place but I’ve had some good ones and unfortunately, this wasn’t it. Saving grace: the ice cream. Side benefit: I wasn’t tempted to break my diet further by having a second profiterole.
Boeuf Bourguignon
Shout out for the great service we received at Left Bank as well. Our wait person was very nice and our food came out fairly quickly. Or else we were talking so much that we didn’t notice the wait. Either way, good times.
Unadorned profiteroles
Profiteroles with chocolate sauce

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies - made dough June 6, 2015 from Big, Soft, Chewy Cookies by Jill Van Cleave
I don’t often borrow cookbooks from the library since, let’s face it, I have enough of my own baking books to stock my own library but every once in awhile, when I’m itching to try out a new cookbook, the library is a no-risk option. I even more rarely check out electronic cookbooks since I like the paper format with pictures and everything. But this book was available and since I was being good about not buying anything that wasn’t nailed down when it comes to books and cookies, it seemed like a good idea to check it out. Literally.
Now y’all know I need another chocolate chip cookie recipe like a 3rd, 4th and 5th eye but of course, that’s the recipe I naturally gravitated towards. For one thing, I was having lunch with my friend Chocolate Chip Cookie Todd so he’s like my natural taste tester for chocolate chip cookies. For another, they’re just so easy to make!
Normally I like to use milk chocolate chips for all my chocolate chip cookies but I had a Costco-sized (72 ounces) package of semisweet chocolate chips so I went with that with the tacit understanding that since it’s not milk chocolate chips, I won’t really be tempted to eat more than the taste test cookie. See, that’s how I discuss portion control with myself.
This was a pretty standard cookie. Good when 10 minutes out of the oven and still warm but I don’t know that it was a standout for me. It isn’t as “pretty” as some of my more favored recipes for chocolate chip cookies are or as tasty. It was just….typical. And we know my baking snobbery doesn’t allow for typical very often. I’m glad I tried it but since it was just okay, I’m going to my other go-to recipes.
Of course, take my assessment with a grain of salt, knowing how picky I am. I brought a few of these to our church potluck this past weekend and the people who tried it raved about it. I even got a “this is the best cookie I’ve ever had” compliment. Huh.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and both sugars until smooth. 
  2. Add egg, milk and vanilla extract until just combined. 
  3. In a separate bowl, combine both flours with the baking powder and salt. Add to the creamed mixture. Stir in chocolate chips. 
  4. Portion into golf-ball-size dough balls, cover and chill or freeze until firm. 
  5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Place cookie dough balls evenly on baking sheet. 
  6. Bake until cookies are lightly browned and middles no longer look raw, about 12-15 minutes. Do not overbake. Let cool for 2-3 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Restaurant Review: Tadamasa (Ramen)

Tadamasa - lunch on May 31, 2015
My cousin Ellen told us about Tadamasa, a Japanese ramen place she and her fiancé had gone to that she recommended. For me and my parents, it gave us a new place to try and answered another “where do you want to go for lunch?” question after Sunday church service.
Tadamasa is in a mini strip mall that looks a bit rundown and, from the outside, you have no idea what the inside looks like since the front glass windows are pretty much covered in blinds. Inside, it’s rather small. I counted two 6-toppers, two 4-toppers and two 2-toppers. The tables could be configured in 2, 4 and 6 though, depending on the patrons’ needs but that seemed to be the optimal configuration in the space they had. The back half of the restaurant was comprised of a kitchen area and a “bar” area where people could also sit and eat in case there weren’t any tables. I don't know that I would recommend coming here with a large party. 6 would be the max and I'd recommend coming early.
Shrimp Miso Ramen
They opened at 10:30 am and we got there shortly after 11 so we were fortunate enough to snag the last 4-topper. The tables and most of the seats at the bar were all full before we were halfway through our meal. The menu offered several types of ramen as well as a few non-ramen dishes, mainly donburi and the quintessential chicken teriyaki dish. Which is what I, the non-adventurous eater, would normally get at a Japanese restaurant (yes, I’m that person). This time around, I took a walk on the wild side and got the Oyaka Donburi instead which is basically chicken, soft scrambled egg and onions atop a bowl of rice.
Gyudon Donburi
I love donburi dishes when it’s mostly just rice and protein. And I love rice in Japanese restaurants because 9 times out of 10, they have the best rice. Tadamasa was no exception as their rice was amazing. The only drawback to my dish was the plethora of onions. I mean, there were a lot of onions, too much for me to successfully pick out which is my usual strategy. I don’t mind the taste of onions but can’t stand the texture, cooked or raw. I ended up pushing aside half the dish because it was literally all onions. The half I did eat was delicious though.
Miso Soup that came with the Donburi dishes
Prices are pretty reasonable, especially for a Japanese restaurant as they normally tend to run higher than your average Asian eatery. But the dishes here were mainly in the $10-$14 range. That’s partially explained by the fairly modest portion sizes that came out. I wouldn’t call them super small but instead are akin to what a normal portion size of a homecooked meal would be rather than restaurant-size portions. When I travel in Europe, one thing I always appreciate it is they don’t serve you a ton of food and the portion sizes are reasonable. Same thing at Tadamasa. Large enough portion that eating the whole thing leaves you feeling satisfied rather than “full” but not so small that you’re still hungry at the end of the meal. Service was also fairly quick and although there seemed to be only 1 server working the small room, we were able to get anything we needed in a timely manner. Next time I want to try the ramen. Or their chicken teriyaki.
Oyako Donburi

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Top Favorite: Essence of Chocolate Squares

Essence of Chocolate Squares - made multiple times from Baking by Flavor by Lisa Yockelson
I’ve posted about this brownie before and called it the brownie version of Texas Fudge Cake because you make the frosting while the brownie is baking, pour it warm over the hot brownie and let it set, similar to the cake. It’s more rich than its cake brethren though but worth every single freaking calorie. I like to make this when I just need a shot of chocolate and mainlining it isn’t possible. This comes close.

The key to this is (of course) underbaking it or at least baking it until it’s just barely done. Meaning the toothpick test near the center comes out with a few moist crumbs but not raw batter and the corners come out clean. If the middle comes out clean too, yank it out of the oven NOW. 
This also freezes really well but with the warm summer temps upon us, I don’t recommend it for care packages through the mail unless you want a melted frosting mess to greet your recipient upon arrival. Save this for a winter care package instead.
1 ¼ cups unsifted bleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons unsweetened, alkalized cocoa
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to tepid
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons intensified vanilla extract

Dense chocolate frosting for topping the fudge chocolate layer
3 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons unsifted confectioners’ sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ pound (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
2 ounces (2 squares) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to tepid.
¼ cup milk
2 tablespoon (light) table cream
1 teaspoon intensified vanilla extract

9 x 9 x 2” baking pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Line a 9 x 9" baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. 
  2. Sift the all-purpose flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. 
  3. Whisk the melted butter and melted unsweetened chocolate in a medium-size mixing bowl until thoroughly combined. 
  4. Whisk the eggs in a large mixing bowl to blend well, about 1 minute, then add the granulated sugar and whisk slowly for 1 minute, or until just combined. Whisk in the tepid melted chocolate-butter mixture. Blend in the vanilla extract. 
  5. Sift over the dry ingredients and mix until all particles of flour are absorbed into the batter, using a whisk, wooden spoon or flat wooden paddle. 
  6. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan. Smooth over the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake layer for 35 to 37 minutes or until just set. Cool the cake layer in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes while you make the frosting. 
  7. Frosting: Place the confectioners’ sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk the melted butter and melted unsweetened chocolate in a small mixing bowl until thoroughly combined. 
  8. Add the milk, light cream, and vanilla extract. Using an electric hand mixer, beat the frosting on moderately low speed until creamy and completely combined. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl two to three times to keep the frosting even-textured. Do not beat the frosting on high speed or it will become airy and fluffy instead of creamy and dense. 
  9. Immediately and carefully, place large dollops of the frosting evenly over the surface of the hot bar cookie base and spread it, using a flexible offset spatula. Spread it smoothly and lightly, to keep the bar cookie layer intact. 
  10. Let the sweet cool in the pan on a rack for 3 to 4 hours, or until cooled and completely set.  Cut the cake into four quarters, then cut each quarter into four squares, using a small, sharp knife.  Remove the chocolate squares from the baking pan, using a small, metal offset spatula.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Toffee Chip Snickerdoodles

Toffee Chip Snickerdoodles - made dough May 25, 2015 from The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookbook by Elinor Klivans
I have mixed emotions about this recipe. On the one hand, I like chocolate chips and toffee bits as much as the next cookie-crazed person. On the other hand, it seems wrong to violate the sanctity of the purist snickerdoodle by adding “stuff” to it. Snickerdoodles are supposed to be vanilla butter cookies rolled in cinnamon sugar. That’s what makes them a snickerdoodle. Adding toffee chips and chocolate chips – well, doesn’t that just make it a toffee chocolate chip cookie?
But I’ll try (almost) any recipe once to prove myself right or wrong or indifferent so I went with it. The dough was a bit soft when I finished mixing it so I did what I always did – scooped into dough balls and froze them. That was supposed to help them bake up thicker.
Unfortunately that little trick didn’t work as well as it normally does and these spread thinner than I cared for, even on the convection setting of my oven which tells me either my butter was too soft (unlikely since I beat it straight from the refrigerator) or there wasn’t enough dry ingredients called for in the recipe to give it enough structure. As for the taste, as I expected, despite the traditional rolling in cinnamon sugar, this was more like a toffee chocolate chip vanilla cookie than a true snickerdoodle. It still tasted good but if you’re seeing a more traditional snickerdoodle recipe, I suggest trying my favorite one instead: Soft & ThickSnickerdoodles.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup (4 ounces) chocolate toffee bits, such as Heath or finely crushed chocolate-covered toffee

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  1. Sift the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar until smoothly blended, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, vanilla and almond extracts and mix until blended, about 1 minute.
  3. On low speed, add the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and toffee bits until evenly distributed. The dough will be soft.
  4. Scoop into golf-ball-size dough balls and chill or freeze, covered, for several hours or overnight. 
  5. When ready to bake: preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup of the sugar and the cinnamon. Roll each cookie dough ball in the cinnamon sugar mixture (thaw for 5-10 minutes before rolling).
  7. Place the cookies evenly spaced on the cookie sheet, 2-3 inches apart. Bake until the edges are golden but the centers are still pale, 12-14 minutes. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Restaurant Review: Dragon BBQ Express

Dragon BBQ Express - lunch on May 24, 2015
Every Sunday after church, my parents and I go out to lunch. We typically tend to stick to the same places yet every Sunday after the service, we always wonder where we should go for lunch. For my frugal, first-generation immigrant parents, the price points have to be in a “reasonable” range meaning they have to feel like a) it should be cheap, b) they have to feel like they received the right value for what they paid and c) don’t forget it should be cheap. I’m not talking fast food cheap but somewhere in the $10-$14 an entrée range is okay.
After exhausting all the typical chain restaurants nearby, some of which appear to be raising their prices and hence falling out of favor in our usual Sunday lunch circuit, I turned to yelp for suggestions. BBQ Dragon Express had a 3.5-star rating, it was nearby and it was akin to fast Chinese food so it seemed like a safe bet.

It’s in a mini strip mall and one of those places I would probably easily overlook if it hadn’t been favorably rated on yelp. It’s pretty small with more than half the space taken up by the counters of food and the hanging pork shoulder (looked like lechon), roast duck and chicken. There are several tables for dine in but for the most part, it looked like it was mostly a takeout business. Think of it like a Panda Express but if Panda is Westernized Chinese food, this was slightly more authentic Chinese food. Sort of.
Like Panda, there were trays of various dishes in warming trays. You pointed to what you wanted and the server dished up generous – and I mean generous – portions into a takeout box. A combo was rice, fried rice or noodles plus 2 side dishes. I pointed to “safe” Americanized Chinese food choices: steamed rice, lemon chicken and sesame chicken, the latter both breaded and in their accompanying sauces. Okay, probably not that authentic in terms of China Chinese food but suited to my bland taste buds.
The rice was good as was the sesame chicken but I wasn’t impressed with the lemon chicken. The chicken pieces were good-sized but the texture was a bit odd, not quite the firmness of chicken but too firm to be fish. It was weird. Fortunately the sesame chicken didn’t have a texture issue and was quite tasty.
Sesame Chicken (top left) and Lemon Chicken (top right)
The place was also really cheap. Our 3 combo orders came to $19.55 including tax so it was just slightly more than $6.50 per person. Given the generous portions that were literally enough for 3 meals (2 if you’re really hungry), that was a bargain. Not sure I’d make this a regular stop on our Sunday lunch circuit (I think my parents would have preferred Panda Express) but it was good to try out at least once and support another local small business. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cinnamon Crumb Banana Bread

Cinnamon Crumb Banana Bread - made May 30, 2015 from Little Bits of Baking, Crafting and Life
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t try out a lot of different recipes for banana bread. I have this one from my college undergrad days and my family and friends like it so much and ask for it all the time that they give the side eye to anything that isn’t my go-to recipe. Even when I give them the entire plethora of recipes from my blog that I could make, when I ask them what they want me to bake, I get the same answer “banana bread”. But after making double batches of it last month for my cousin’s visit, my sister’s visit, and my parents, let’s be honest – I’m sick of making it. This is why I can never work in a bakery. I don’t have the patience to make the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. Heck, I can’t even make the same banana bread once a month.
Topping before baking
So to use up some overripe bananas from the last time I made my go-to recipe, I tried out this new recipe for banana bread. Not only was it a recipe I’d never tried before but it also had an added component of a crumb topping. I adore crumb toppings; they’re sanctioned sugar additions to make a baked good even better.
Topping after baking
I’m used to crumb toppings having brown sugar for the streusel part but this had confectioners’ sugar instead so I was a little unsure how that was going to turn out. But my reservations were unfounded as it actually turned out well. Really well. The crumb topping crisped up nicely and made a perfect contrast to the quick bread itself. In fact, I liked the topping so much, I think I’ll have to use it again next time I make a quick bread. The banana bread itself had a nice soft crumb but was still dense enough to qualify as a quick bread. It isn’t as light and “cakey” as my go-to recipe but still had a good crumb and I enjoyed it. This is best served the day it’s made or no later than the day after as the moistness from the bananas, while good for the bread part, had a tendency to also moisten and soften the crumb topping so you lose the crispness after awhile.

I tested this version of banana bread out on my parents. They acknowledged that it was “good” but, in classic parental fashion, my mom followed up with “next time, make your other recipe”. Sigh. No toppling Goliath from that perch.
1 egg
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 overripe bananas, mashed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Crumb Topping
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. In a large bowl of a mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the sugar, egg and vanilla until combined. 
  3. Add the butter and beat until smooth and the butter is fully incorporated. Beat in the buttermilk and bananas.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Slowly stir the dry ingredients into the wet until all the flour is incorporated. Pour into prepared pan.
  5. Make the crumb topping by combining the powdered sugar, flour, cinnamon salt and melted butter. Using your hands, crumble the mixture over the batter in the pan. Bake for 45 - 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.