Holiday Icebox Cookies

IMG_7901

I finally realized that the best way to control my cookie intake during the holidays is by making icebox cookies. They’re genius – simply make the dough, freeze it, and bake only the amount you want, instead of making the entire batch and rushing to eat the cookies before they go stale (or whatever excuses I can come up with).

Okay, mine are not technically “icebox cookies” since the doughs were frozen in a shape of a ball instead of a log, and I rolled it out instead of slicing from the log, but you get the gist.  They keep for weeks in a refrigerator and months in a freezer and your favorite cookies are right at your fingertip, whenever you’re crazing a few pieces of delicious dessert.

I made doughs for my favorite cookies over the weekend and baked a few today for an afternoon tea with a friend.  It took only a few minutes to cut out the dough and bake them.  I love a hassle-free prep.

I can’t believe that Christmas is less than a week away! This year’s Christmas seems to creep up much quicker than usual, thanks to Thanksgiving falling on the 28th.

Macaron Days

IMG_7819

My husband and I have an arbitrary rule, that we are allowed one holiday-inspired drink at Starbucks a year. The reason for having it only once every 365 days is two-fold: One, it’s too sugary to drink regularly; and two, it makes the cup extra special, knowing that it only comes around once a year. We know that Christmas is around the corner when we take a sip of the Salted Caramel Latte (him) and Peppermint Hot Chocolate (me).

This year’s cup was extra special because we got to pair it with Laduree’s macarons! Our friends recently got married in the groom’s hometown, and since we couldn’t attend the wedding, they brought back a little delicious souvenir from NYC. A several days have passed since the couple’s return to the Southland and these little macarons were a little on the stale side, but they were still heavenly and brought me back to Champs-Elysees in Paris where the famous French tea house, and (as some story has it) the originator of macaron, stands proudly.

IMG_7878

Speaking of maracons, my husband surprised me with more macarons last night —  this time from Renaud’s Patisserie in Santa Barbara (I raved about this place before, here). He asked his co-worker who was coming down from Santa  Barbara to pick up two assorted boxes for us.  I have the best husband in the world (I hope you’re reading this, Kevin!).

I love the holiday season!

IMG_7880

Mini Strawberry Tarts

IMG_6076

There are so many different ways to reach the same destination when it comes to baking. Everyone and their mothers have their own version of how to make the basics – like pie dough, pate choux, and pastry cream. Navigating through baking books and online recipes can be overwhelming at times with countless variations to choose from, so I usually narrow down to these three experts to guide me through the process: Dorie Greenspan, David Lebowitz, and Martha Stewart.

This is not to say that I don’t seek other patisseries’ tutelage — I do. I have overflowing shelves full of baking books from other authors to prove it.  But when I’m in a need of an absolute fool-proof recipes for French-inspired desserts (and am not particularly in the mood to experiment), I go straight to Greenspan, Lebowitz, and Stewart, as I consider them to be the definitive authorities on the subject. Although they are all American, two formers live in Paris (I thinks Greenspan travels back and forth to Paris and New York) and their authenticities are certainly not lost in translation. And of course, Martha. Martha, Martha, Martha. Love her or hate her (and I happen to love her, clearly), there’s no denying that her recipes come out perfect, every. single. time.

When I was searching for the recipe for pastry cream for the strawberry tart, I compared all three. Greenspan and Lebowitz’s recipes were very similar, but Stewart’s used a few less eggs … and since I was down to just four eggs in the refrigerator (as opposed to six), I decided to go with the Domestic Queen’s version.

And the result? Fantastic, of course, sandwiched between the buttery pate sucree and fresh strawberries.

Pastry Cream
Makes about 2 ½ cups
Adapted from marthastewart.com

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

In a medium saucepan, combine milk, 1/4 cup sugar, vanilla bean and seeds, and salt. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a simmer.

In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, cornstarch, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour about 1/2 cup of the hot-milk mixture into the egg-yolk mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, until it has been incorporated. Pour mixture back into saucepan, and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens and registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard vanilla bean.

Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter, and beat on medium speed until the butter melts and the mixture cools, about 5 minutes.

Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days. Just before using, beat on low speed until smooth (you can also whisk by hand).

IMG_6070

I used the same pate sucree (sweet dough) recipe as the Tarte Aux Pommes I made the other day (click here for the recipe). See, I told you I use other pastry chef’s recipes too!  lol

IMG_6072

I used the small brioche pans I purchased from William Sonoma to make these individual shells.

IMG_6075

I tried a few different ways to place the strawberries and this seems to work the best.  I put the whole strawberry, sans stem, in the middle, and arranged the sliced berries around it.

IMG_6084

I used the apricot jam and water mixture for the glaze.  Definitely take the time to do this final step, as it makes the tarts look more professional (and it tastes great).

Happy baking!

Tarte aux Pommes

IMG_6042

Tarte aux Pommes is this Francophile’s version of the all-American apple pie to celebrate the nation’s birthday. biggrin

IMG_6035

I got the recipe from a blog, Mission: Food, who got the original recipe from Michael Paul’s Sweet Paris – a book I immediately ordered after tasting the wonderful dessert. This French apple tart is out of this world. It rivals any tart you get at pastry shops.

IMG_6047

I followed the recipe to a T – from making the Pâte Sucrée (sweet dough) to Frangipane (almond filling) — and although it took me half a day to bake this pie from conception to completion (in a 100 degree kitchen), the result is worth all the hard work.  This might be the most professional-looking dessert I’ve made in a long, long time.

IMG_6068

I hope everyone had a wonderful Fourth of July celebration with good food and company!

Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream

IMG_5474

Are you looking for an ice cream with a little twist for summer? Try this grown-up version of the traditional chocolate ice cream, with a fire-ry heat from Cayenne pepper! It uses 2% fat milk and no cream, so it’s a slight healthier version of the popular treat. And you don’t need an ice cream maker to make it.

Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
(Makes 1 quart)

3 cups milk (I used 2% and it still came out creamy)
3 egg yolks
140 g (5 oz) dark chocolate (I used 70% cacao)
½ cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch of salt

① Heat milk in a saucepan, over low heat. Mix in cocoa powder, chocolate and sugar and stir with a whisk until they dissolve completely. Be careful not to boil the milk.

② In a small bowl (I used a measuring cup), separate the eggs. You’ll only use yolks here. Mix the yolks. Temper by pouring a ladle-full of hot milk into the egg yolks. Once mixed, pour the eggs and milk mixture slowly back into the saucepan and stir. Add vanilla extract and salt. Stir until the mixture thickens (you know you have the right consistency when the mixture thinly coats the spatula).

➂ Remove the saucepan from the heat and transfer the mixture into a separate bowl. Set aside for about an hour, covered with plastic wrap, until the mixture cools to room temperature.

④ Once the mixture has cooled, pour it into a one-quart container and put it in a freezer. Take the container out of the freezer every hour, three times, and stir the ice cream. Enjoy!

IMG_5468

I think the bitter chocolates work best for this ice cream. The not-so-sweet lusciousness can stand up to the powerful heat of cayenne pepper. I used the Trader Joe’s chocolates bars that I received as a gift from my friend Mary Lee.

Just to note — because no heavy cream was used, this version doesn’t have the creaminess that you might be accustomed too in ice cream. But it has a really refreshing icy texture that’s simply wonderful. I love cayenne pepper but definitely reduce the amount if you’re not a huge fan of the tingling heat.

Happy June, everyone!

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

IMG_4702

Early summer is upon us, which means fresh, succulent strawberries will begin to make appearances at local farmers markets and roadside vendors soon … and that’s a wonderful thing!

I still haven’t decided if I’ll drive down to Oxnard for the annual Strawberry Festival in May, but I’ll definitely be indulging in fraise as much as I can in the coming months. And I’ll also be making lots of desserts with the juicy berries, including this refreshing frozen yogurt.

IMG_4704

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt
Recipe inspired by David Levovitz’s recipe but modified slightly
(Makes about 2 quarts)

2 lbs fresh or frozen strawberries
32 oz plain yogurt
1 cup maple syrup
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon vodka (optional)

① Cut strawberries into small pieces, removing the stems.  Mix in the maple syrup, vodka, and lemon juice, and let it sit for about 2 hours to let the flavors soak in.

② Puree the mixture in a blender. Don’t liquidity completely, if you like some strawberry bits.

froyo

③ Combine the strawberry puree with yogurt and mix well with a spatula.  You can put the mixture in an ice cream maker at this point, but you can skip this if you don’t own it, or don’t want to bother (like me this time).

④ If you’re not using the ice cream maker, pour the mixture into a plastic container and freeze for about 6 hours. Take the container out of the freezer several times to mix occasionally.

froyo2

You might want to take out the container from the freezer and leave it out for about 10-15 minutes before serving, to soften the frozen yogurt a little so it’ll scoop better.

I love this dessert. It’s tastes like a mixture of frozen yogurt and fruit sorbet, and a great alternative to a high-calorie ice cream.

Empowering, One Dorayaki At a Time

IMG_4313

I remember when my family and I first came to the states back in the 80s, it was virtually impossible to find delicate, French-inspired confections what rivaled those available in Japan. Dense sugary cakes topped with thick buttercream (with artificial colorings) and overly sweet and brick-like brownies filled the supermarket bakery counters, and those airy sponge cakes that we were so accustomed to were nowhere to be found.

That’s when my mother learned to bake at home. I think she baked almost every day one year. I looked forward to coming home from school every day, knowing that lemon-infused madeleines (she baked them in cupcake tins because she didn’t own a shell-shaped pan) and heavenly chocolate vodka cakes (yes, vodka!) would be waiting for me upon my return.

The dessert landscape has certainly changed in recent years. It’s now possible to bring home wonderful, high-quality cakes, cookies, macarons and any other confections imaginable, from even as close as your local neighborhood grocer. But there’s something still very empowering about baking things you crave at home, in your own kitchen, whenever you want, however much you want.

My recent empowering moment – making dorayaki, one of my favorite Japanese confections, at home! When the craving strikes, but a trip to a nearest Asian supermarket is out of reach (with a little bebe sleeping in the crib), we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do to satisfy the urges!

Dorayaki
(Makes 12 pancakes; 6 dorayaki)
Recipe taken from Cooking With Dog; I doubled the recipe to make more

Ingredients:

4 eggs
160 g granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon baking soda
100 ml water
260 g cake flour
5 tablespoons water (to adjust the thickness of the batter at the end)
18 oz (1 large can) Azuki (sweet red bean paste)

Instruction:

IMG_4280

① Beat eggs, sugar and honey with a whisk. Beat the mixture for about 15 minutes. I used a stand mixture with a whisk attachment.

② In a separate bowl or a cup, dissolve the baking soda with water. Add it to the egg mixture, and mix.

IMG_4283

③ Sift cake flour and add it to the egg mixture; mix but be careful not to over mix.

IMG_4286

This is the consistency of the batter.

IMG_4287

④ Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and set aside for about 30 minutes.

IMG_4289

⑤ Adjust the thickness of the batter by adding water, one teaspoon at a time, to achieve the perfect consistency.  This is the consistency that you’re looking for.  You want the batter to flow down the whisk effortlessly without being too runny.

IMG_4297

⑥ Heat a griddle or a non-stick pan.  Drop the batter onto the griddle or pan; it should naturally form a circle when you drop the batter gently.

I noticed that the surface will come out perfectly brown (without any inconsistent spots) if you don’t oil the pan.  Make sure to use the non-stick kind so the pancake slides right off the surface.

IMG_4298

⑦ Flip the pancake when the bubbles form on top.  Cook the other side for about 20 seconds.

anko

⑧ Get the pre-made anko (sweetened azuki beans) ready.  You can get this at most supermarkets (in Asian grocery aisle) or at Asian stores.  You can always make your own but I found the canned version to be too delicious to pass up.  I can eat the entire can by myself in one sitting!

IMG_4306

⑨ Scoop about 2 tablespoons of anko and layer it onto one side (the “wrong” side) of the pancake.

IMG_4310

⑩ Take the second pancake to sandwich the anko.  You’re all done!

dorayaki

These dorayakis are amazing. The cakes (called “castella” in Japan) are perfectly bouncy (different from a regular breakfast pancake) and the combination between the sweet cake and azuki is simply divine. I might like the homemade version better than the store-bought ones!  If you store them in the refrigerator, it’s best to bring them to room temperature before you eat them by leaving them out for about 15-30 minutes (they are much softer at room temperature).

I’m glad I found a YouTube cooking show called, “Cooking with Dog,” that shows viewers how to make Japanese food and desserts.  Each show is narrated by an English speaking dog, Francis, with thick Japanese accent. It’s hilarious and informative – do check it out!