Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Daring Bakers Challenge: Croissants

Blog-checking lines: The Daring Bakers go retro this month! Thanks to one of our very talented non-blogging members, Sarah, the Daring Bakers were challenged to make Croissants using a recipe from the Queen of French Cooking, none other than Julia Child!

Recipe Source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two. Julia Child and Simone Beck.

*        *        *

I didn’t always have a weakness for croissants. The affair started January 18, 2011, around 1 PM at a high-end grocery store, where I had sat down to consume The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells and a crisp, buttery, and tender Danish. A Danish, you say, why that’s not a croissant; I thought this story was about croissants? Well, this story is about a girl and a cream cheese Danish. We’ll get to the croissant later.


Although it I had school that fateful day, I felt entitled to an afternoon off, for reasons which shall remain unnamed. I had just gotten through a mentally, physically, and emotionally straining event which I had been working towards for years and was nervous about the results. As cliché as it sounds, a chapter of my young life had closed and I wanted it to stay buried, at least for a little while longer. I was giddy from closure and stressed from worrying about the possibility of whiplash. I’m not the kind of person who eats ice cream and watches sad movies after a breakup; instead, I take myself out and gorge on crepes and French pastries.


So I went to the store and bought a croissant and a cream cheese Danish. As I looked for a seat, I debated which pastry I should eat first. I decided on the cream cheese Danish, for the croissant was much too plain-looking. I sat down in the cafe area, the huge glass windows opening up the street. Outside, people hustled and bustled about and a soft snow fell, blanketing the city in whiteness. Propped open in front of me was The Invisible Man and in my other hand laid a half-eaten Danish. The cash registers and automatic opening doors faded away as I become lost in the beautiful scenery of the old English countryside.

Hours later, I broke away from the book and realized that it was time to go. I was already full from the Danish so I decided to take the croissant to go. I reasoned that a friend of mine who I was going to see could definitely use the calories. She had just experienced a rather awkward and difficult event herself and could probably do with some comfort food.



When I saw my friend, I gave her a warm hug and some words of encouragement. I offered her the croissant and she accepted it gratefully and soon everyone was picking for a piece. It was really good, she said, and a couple other friends agreed. Instantly, I was jealous. I’d been sitting with the croissant for the last couple hours, but I had been preoccupied with the Danish, which honestly, didn’t taste as good as I thought it would. Now that I knew that the croissant tasted good, I wanted to try it. I grabbed a morsel and put it into my mouth. Oh, what luscious buttery and flaky pastry it was! I savoured every flavour and before it had even slid down my throat, I knew that I had chosen wrong. I loved croissants, not Danishes.


Since that momentous meeting, I’ve been searching for delicious croissants far and wide, near and far. I’ve found a couple places that sell flaky, rich, and tender croissants, so I’ve never had the need to make them.

When croissants were announced as this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge, I knew I had joined at the right time. I had been toying with the idea of making croissants for the whole summer, but with all summer co-op and volunteering, I had not had a spare weekend to try my hand at croissants. School began and the challenge continued on, but I cut my finger, and had to sit out of baking/cooking/using my left hand to do anything for a couple weeks. Still, I didn’t want to miss my first DB Challenge so I trudged ahead and made the croissants right before the deadline.


The closest I have ever come to making croissants was making puff pastry a couple years ago. The experience had been so traumatic and the results so disappointing that I’ve never tried to make it again. I know lamination doughs take time and patience to perfect, but as a hectic junior, I don’t have weekends to spare. I will admit that part of the reason why my croissants probably didn’t turn out as well as they could have was because I rushed the process and attempted to roll out the dough in succession with minimal resting and chilling periods. By the second turn, I was calling mercy, succumbing to the wrath of the beautiful croissant. I vowed never to question why a delicious croissant was upward of two dollars and ploughed through the rest of the recipe.

The croissants turned out way to be really salty, but besides that they tasted okay. Texture-wise, they were more bread-like than like the delicate French pastry I had fallen in love with, but my brothers obviously didn’t mind because the croissants were gone within hours. At least for now, I leave the art of croissants to the little cafes that do it best.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chocolate Coffee Icebox Cake

Whipped cream is a saving grace. It can be used to make rich, creamy sauces, or replace a failed ganache, or to revive stale cake. In this month’s Have the Cake challenge, icebox cakes took center stage, with whipped cream as the star of the show. As much as I like cookies, whipped cream is definitely the best part of this Chocolate Coffee Icebox Cake.


Coffee and chocolate are such a natural combination that I had to add some coffee flavour in the chocolate cookies as well as the cream. The dark notes of coffee bring out the rich hues in chocolate, complimenting them oh so subtly. I used decaf instant coffee powder in this recipe, although in retrospect, I probably could have replaced some of the milk with coffee or espresso.


The cookies themselves are almost too delicious to be made into a cake. As soon as they came out of the oven, I was salivating. I picked one up while still hot and ate it. Someone has to do quality control, right? Well, it seems that the rest of my family agreed, because one by one, they trickled into the kitchen, following the alluring scent of chocolate and coffee. With my back turned, they grabbed the cookies and I tried to shoo them away. My icebox cake would have been two inches taller if not for the sneaky hands of my younger brother who has a penchant for cookies.


I didn’t bake my chocolate cookies to be quite as crisp as advised because I like that soft and chewy texture. So I figured that the cake would be suitable to eat a couple hours after I had assembled it. The cookie layers were sufficiently softened and the cake was deliciously moist and rich. The next day, I cut myself another slice and to my slight surprise, the cake had transformed completely into a rich, dense, almost fudgy brownie with thin layers of cream in between. The coffee cream was more subdued and the two components blended seamlessly. Obviously, this is one of those cakes that just get better and better with time.

Click below for the recipe.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Crepes Filled With Basil Lemon Berries

My mom is one of the most awesome people I know. She is so selfless and kind and even as her child, I can see that she goes out of her way to help me sometimes. I know that she’s sacrificed a lot to raise me and my brothers and the fact that she has three decent kids proves that she’s a great mom, if I do say so myself.


I see a lot of myself in my mom. I’ve gotten to the age where I can see which traits I inherited from her and which I developed on my own. My penchant for baking and cooking definitely came from my mom, who used to cook and bake with me when I was younger. My work ethic and love of learning came from elsewhere, but Mom was the one who nurtured my love of books and gently encouraged me to excel to the best of my ability. She never put pressure on me to make certain grades or learn certain things and I think it is because of her considerate attitude that I want to do well academically. Mom is a large part of the reason why I am the way I am.


It was my mom’s birthday last week and although she refused any celebrations, I insisted on making something for her. Traditionally, my brothers and I collaborate when making breakfast for our mom, but this time, my brothers seemed as enthused about Mom’s birthday as she did. So I took matters into my own hands. I couldn't handle cutting the strawberries because I had cut my hand and since my brothers didn’t help me (I think we all know who the good child is), I had to ask Mom to do it. The next morning I woke up early to make Crepes for her before I went to school.


Happy Birthday, Mom!

Click below for the recipe.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Zucchini Pancakes

I’m not a big fan of pancakes—drenched in maple syrup, topped with a dollop of cream and a sprinkling of fresh berries—for breakfast. Theoretically, I do like pancakes, but for dessert, not breakfast. Though I eat dessert for breakfast on occasion, I do try to eat healthy, energizing foods for breakfast most of the time.


This morning, I made some savoury Zucchini Pancakes to use up the grated zucchini sitting in my fridge, leftover from the last time I made pasta. Inspired by my mom’s delicious zucchini pancakes, I decided create my own version.


I started with pale green grated zucchini, speckled with the dark green skin, which had been marinated with salt and set in a strainer overnight. Then I added eggs, some cornstarch to thicken the mixture, and a combination of herbs and spices. I mixed until everything was amalgamated and frothy. Carefully, I ladled out the egg batter into the hot skillet listened for the satisfying sizzle.


I fried each pancake for a few minutes on each side, my nose taking in the scent of golden brown. Then I sandwiched a slice of white provolone in between two pancakes and waited impatiently for the cheese to melt. My stomach rumbling, I could wait no longer. I dug in, the cheese stretching and melt-ey as I pull my fork away. And then I smiled. These are the kind of pancakes I eat for breakfast.


Click below for the recipe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Don't Ever Try To Pit An Avocado With A Steak Knife...


There are three kinds of people in this world: the ones who can stomach blood, bones, and other bodily innards (these are the people who obviously go on to become doctors, brain surgeons, and paramedics); the ones who faint at the sight, smell, or mention of blood; and the ones who pretend they are okay with the sight and smell of blood but in reality freak out when they get a paper cut. Oh, and then there are vampires.

I definitely fall into the third category, although I don’t freak out too much when I see blood. Over the years, I’ve nicked myself with a knife enough times that a small slit or cut is no big deal. I figure that getting minor burns and cuts comes with having baking as a hobby.

I’ve never cut myself this badly before.

I was using a steak knife (stupid, I know) to take the pit of an avocado out. In my haste, the knife slipped and cut through the pale green flesh of the avocado and through the skin on my ring finger. Pain eroded from the site of the cut and thick, red droplets of blood immediately gushed out into the sink. I freaked out, holding my bleeding hand over the sink, my mind blank. I had never drawn this much blood before and I had no clue what to do.

My mom came to my aid, holding paper towels paper towels over the cut. I tried not to lose my cool as I saw the blood seeping through the paper towels, but I was in shock anyways. I don’t faint at the sight of blood, but needless to say, I was quite concerned that I was bleeding this much. I looked away. By the time my mom taped the gauze to my finger, I was feeling a lot more collected. It’s just another cut, I told myself. I proceeded with my day and went to the mall with my friend Huilin.  

An hour and a half later, my mom called. “We better go the hospital to get stitches,” she told me. “I’ve been thinking and the cut looked pretty deep and it’s longer than a centimetre. It’s going to scar terribly.”As much as I feared needles and hospitals, I couldn't argue with her. I had been looking away when she had bandaged the cut and didn’t even know how long or deep the cut was.

My mom dropped me off at the ER and with as much maturity as I could muster, I talked to the nurse about the details of my injury and let her take the bandage off to assess the cut. To my fascination and disgust, the cut was still wet with blood and swollen as well. It was pretty gruesome, but I already felt disconnected with it since the most of the pain had ceased. I told myself getting stitches was no big deal and that I would be mature about it.

I believed it, too, up until the doctor pulled out the needle filled with anaesthetic and told to lay my hand down on the hospital bed. I jerked away. Just as the thought of blood leaving my body through a massive cut makes me panic, so does the idea of a needle breaking skin.

I took a deep breath and told myself to suck it up. “Okay,” I said. “Go.” I tried to watch the doctor insert the needle into my finger. I tried to make myself watch the doctor stitch up the cut with that obnoxiously blue plastic thread. I tried not to scream inside, from pain and fear. I tried, but I couldn't. My irrational fear was getting the better of me. I shut my eyes tightly and focussed on the croissants that I was going to buy afterwards. After all, there’s nothing like food therapy to cure an irrational fear. 

“It’s over,” the doctor announced, putting a band-aid on the cut. I breathed loudly and thanked him; the worst was over. Shaking, I got up to leave. On my way out, I marvelled again at the fact that healthcare in Canada was free. I was pretty amazed at the thought that I could walk into any hospital in Canada, get a cut stitched up, and walk out, without opening my wallet for a different reason than to get my health card. I shoved a crumpled bill into the donation box and walked out of the hospital, feeling a lot lighter than I had when I’d walked in. Maybe I’ll never become a doctor, but hopefully I’ll get over needles and blood and stitches one day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mini Chocolate Strawberry Tarts

 
We teenagers are a hungry breed. For those who have jobs, financing entertainment and food expenses—a $90 monthly phone bill, a new $60 video game every other week—isn’t quite as difficult, but for the unemployed, we have to somehow stretch our allowance to cover movies, food, TTC fare, and clothes.


Whenever I hang out with my friends, food is almost always involved. We go out for lunch or dinner or drinks quite often, but my favourite kind of meal is home-cooked. Enter Zico, who was kind enough to invite me and some other friends over for dinner at his condo a couple weeks ago to celebrate his birthday. Because he volunteered to cook the whole meal himself, I felt obliged at the very least to make dessert.


I decided to make Mini Chocolate Strawberry Tarts, inspired by my recent acquisition of mini tart shells. Using my favourite pie crust recipe, I cut rounds out and moulded them in the tart shells. Then I baked the mini tarts, let them cool, filled them with a dollop of luscious chocolate ganache, and topped them with freshly quartered strawberries. In retrospect, making the mini tarts required more time and effort than making a regular sized tart, but I loved how playful and elegant the mini desserts looked.


The mini tarts were devoured before dinner and all the extra strawberries polished off as well. Bodies collapsed on the couch and talk of everything and anything was commenced. A movie was watched and laughter was created.

Sometimes a homemade meal shared between friends trumps any other meal money could buy.  

Click below for the recipe. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

When I’m worried or distressed, my voice goes up. I will admit that I probably have a low voice for a girl, but when I’m feeling anxious, I become a soprano, quiet and meek. I can’t help it; I guess it’s a defence mechanism.

I’m a little worried about my cousin. During dinner today, we talked about books and I recommended some of my favourites to him. After we finished eating, he showed me the books that he was currently reading. The title of the first book: “When I Was Five I Tried To Kill Myself.” Um, okay. I don’t know my cousin well enough to know whether this book is a joke or not, but I think that the title speaks for itself. What kind of dark and depressing book would be titled “When I Was Five I Tried To Kill Myself?”


Needless to say, my voice went up by about two octaves. “‘When I Was Five I Tried To Kill Myself.’ Huh. Um, Alex, why are you reading this...?” I asked apprehensively. Although Alex is definitely taller than me, he is younger than me by several months and I felt the need to mother him on this one.

He answered as he always did to my questions: with a smile and a chuckle. “Well, you know,” I continued in falsetto, “it’s just that the title is slightly disturbing. You know? Maybe you shouldn’t read books like that. I’ll lend you some good books.” He chuckled some more and replied that the book wasn’t bad or anything. Okay, I thought, nodding my head, I’ll believe you since I don’t know what else to do. I grabbed my glass of water and left.


Okay, so obviously, I have no clue how to “mother” people, but at least I tried. The one “motherly” thing I’m good at is baking. See these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies? I made those for my other cousins to eat. One of my cousins loves Starbucks-style chocolate chip cookies and although these aren’t exactly what she wants, they are close. These cookies are healthier because they contain oatmeal and relatively less sugar.

Whether my voice is at high C or at normal pitch, baking a batch of oh-so-chewy-and-chocolate-y chocolate chip cookies will always calm me down.


Click below for the recipe.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Saturday...

-noun
time which is spent doing the laziest of things, such as reading, thinking, watching, dreaming etc. It is the time we spend doing things we enjoy in order to let go and recharge our internal battery. Energy for day to day tasks can be replenished through sleep, but the most essential kind of internal energy—motivation, passion, spirit—can only be recharged through an extensive duration of reflective downtime


I haven’t had enough of that this summer.


Between summer co-op and my other volunteer job, I feel harried and tired. I haven’t had enough time to catch up with friends and catch up with myself. There are never-ending To-Do lists running circuits in my head and no matter how much I do manage to accomplish, I still feel like I’m not done.


On Saturday, I pushed all the To-Do lists out of my head and listened to my heart for a change. I forgot about the laundry, the back-to-school shopping, and the fatiguing family trip to the CNE. Instead, I went to my best friend Jenny’s house and spent my afternoon there while my family trudged around the grounds of the CNE. At Jenny’s house, we read for a while. Then we baked.


We began to make a key lime pie. While the dough was chilling, we discovered a carton of according-to-the-best-before-date-it-expired-just-yesterday heavy cream. I wanted chocolate; Jenny just wanted to use up the cream before it turned. in the end, we decided to make a chocolate cake and then fill and frost it with ganache.


When people say two heads are always better than one, they are wrong. Somehow, Jenny and I got it into our heads that we should make a tiered cake, wedding style. I would have never attempted such a thing had my head been the only one. But, alas, we proceeded ahead and made a double batch of cake batter, enough for one 6-inch cake, 8-inch cake, and 10-inch cake.

“What are you going to do with the wedding cake?” I asked. “No one’s actually getting married.”  

“I’ll eat it. Or I’ll give it away to friends,” Jenny replied confidently. “I still owe Jonathan a cake.”

Never mind that Jonathan wasn’t even in the country at that moment. I guess confidence really is contagious.


Then logic and reason set in. We realized that three cups of almost-expired cream probably would not make enough ganache to frost and fill three cakes. Okay, so at that moment, our two heads were better than one. We decided to scrap the wedding cake idea and just whip up some mocha cream and serve the cake as is. Ta-da, wedding-cake style.


Then my parents called and asked me if I wanted them to pick me up so we could go eat dinner at the Restaurant which shall remain unnamed. My eyes widened and my eyebrows rose in distress. We’ve eaten at that Restaurant so many times that my brothers and I refuse to go back (we can’t agree on anything else, but we’ll stand united against that Restaurant). So I offered to go meet them downtown.


I took the bus, I rode the subway, and then since the street car did not appear to coming anytime soon, I walked to the restaurant. It was the best hour and a half of my life—kidding. I kept wondering whether I’d get mugged and cursed that I was carrying a DSLR in my Michael Kors purse.


Finally I made it to the restaurant and sat down. It was the first time I had ever met my parents at a restaurant; usually we’re travelling in the same car. It was the first time I had ever traveled across town and walked by myself in the dwindling twilight through a relatively unfamiliar place to meet my family at a restaurant. I felt grown-up.

The food at the restaurant wasn’t amazing, but it was still a step up from the Restaurant which shall remain unnamed. My dad ordered oysters, which I had never tried before. As I struggle to spoon the slimy thing out of its shell, I contemplated what it would taste like. One bite and I realized that it tasted was as slimy as it looked. I'm not an oyster person... 


Maybe I didn’t have as much downtime as I wanted this summer, but my Saturday wasn’t half-bad.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blueberry Muffins

In my opinion, breakfast is definitely the most important meal of the day. When I wake up, I’m starved, sleepy, and slow. A hot breakfast really hits the spot and jump starts my day. But I’m not talking about pancakes and sausages, but a real meal, with lots of fruits and veggies and protein and nutrition. Empty calories (like those from pancakes), unhealthy fats (bacon, anyone?), excessive sodium (from sausages, hashbrowns, scrambled eggs...), and unwarranted amounts of sugar (cinnamon rolls are NOT breakfast material) often leave me feeling bloated and even more sleepy. When I say breakfast, I mean milk, cereal, fruits, yogurt, whole wheat toast (hold the butter), and a simple salad (yes, I eat salad for breakfast).


The lines blur when it comes to my Blueberry Muffins. They seem to fit in between breakfast and dessert, though I would argue that they lean towards the breakfast side. The barely sweet muffins are bursting with fresh blueberries and contain the goodness of whole wheat flour. Oil substitutes butter and honey for sugar. The low-fat yogurt used in the batter ensures a moist product. I’d almost like to say that these blueberry muffins are an amalgamation of individual breakfast foods and therefore, acceptable as a breakfast food itself.


Besides being relatively healthy and so simple to make, the thing I love the most about these muffins is that they taste good. The orange zest mingles with the ground cinnamon, melding into a complex yet familiar flavour which camouflages the slightly bitter whole wheat taste without overshadowing the belle of the muffin, the blueberries.


Upon hearing that I was going to bake blueberry muffins, my mom asked me to bake a double batch so that we could give the muffins away to our relatives. I had originally intended on baking the muffins as a breakfast food for myself, but the muffins quickly turned into a dessert item to my relatives who like healthier and less sugary baked goods. No matter, this isn’t the first time I’ve eaten what some might consider “dessert” for breakfast.

Click below for the recipe.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Simple Salad with Cherry Tomatoes

After two full weeks of volunteering at a summer camp, the only three things I have to show for it are a name badge, a letter stating my hours, and a clay garden bee. Yes, a decorative clay garden bee, the kind that is attached to a stick which is then thrust into the earth. It’s the one reminder of what I did with those two precious weeks of summer before my junior year.


Today I ventured out to the backyard to look for an appropriate place for my garden bee. After scoping out the garden, I decided to place my bee in the tomato patch. I’m a born-and-bred-in-the-city kind of girl who never developed an interest for gardening, so the cucumbers and tomatoes that are grown in the backyard are tended to by my parents. In theory, I should help cultivate the tomatoes, since I eat them like some people eat jelly beans (like a chipmunk, according to my mom).


One of the ways I enjoy tomatoes is in a simple salad, comprised of nothing but romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes, dressed with a drizzle of white balsamic fig-infused vinegar and a splash of olive oil. It’s a straightforward and uncomplicated way to enjoy the freshness of homegrown cherry tomatoes.


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