Saturday, December 27, 2008

Baking for the Holiday

These are the brownie bites just came out of oven, cooling off on the window sill. They eventually traveled all the way to Europe and Japan.

Our family Christmas tradition didn't include the exchanging of gifts to each other. It was just us kids getting small presents. One year, I swear, my sister and I were convinced it was from Santa! Our parents were very good at sneaking the presents without being spotted by us. There wasn't much space in our apartment, so we made the hand painted Christmas tree on the cardboard for a festive decoration. And we always requested the same menu: roast chicken, corn chowder (don't ask...we just loved it!) and mashed potato (one year we made it into a tower, complete with parsley trees, just as in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). Even after we moved to the stateside, this didn't change much. We did, however, decorated the real tree.

So coming from that humble tradition, I wanted to bake something. I chose the brownie bites and chocolate chip-pecan cookies because they are perhaps the most sturdy. I even baked the cookies in half size to ensure minimum breakage. Put them together with candy canes and Ghirardelli "Peppermint Bark" squares (my favorite mint&chocolate confection) in a tin, and voila!

I'd say, the shipping cost was the Christmas gift itself... But seeing the picture of my niece grinning made my heart really warm.

Until next year I am giving my trusty oven the well-deserved time off. But I'm already thinking of the next occasion (hmmm, Valentines Day?) and ever improving my repertoire.

Wishing all of you the safe and prosperous 2009.

Ku Cake

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chocolate Lover's Dream

A friend of mine asked me to bake under one condition: "I Need Chocolate! Chocolate everything!" So I made this sampler to fulfill that desire. What's inside the snug box is my signature chocolate chip-pecan cookies mingling with Kahlua brownies and a small chocolate cake with ganache. It was later reported that everything was devoured in matter of minutes.

I wished I had baked this one just for me...

Ku Cake

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ginger and Spice

Thanksgiving Day = Pumpkin Pie. What's, then, Christmas = to? I think that'd be the Gingerbread. See, this flavor, rich dark molasses spiked with ginger and other spices, was not what I grew up tasting. Then I became very fond of Lebkuchen that are quite ubiquitous during Christmas time in Germany. I was instantly hooked to the sweet moist cake with serious peppery punch.

So I was on the lookout for a good recipe for the gingerbread. And I think I just found one. As usual, the samples were offered to unsuspecting friends and co-workers as to be my guinea pig; which they are happy to oblige (thank you!) I always bake the first one according to the recipe, just to see how it'd turned out. I was a little concerned the recipe called for too much spices (cinnamon, clove, ginger and black pepper!) but the majority commented: "More ginger!" So I'm modifying the original recipe and now making it into my own. The wonderful aroma of spices remained in my kitchen all day long. Ooo, I can't wait to bake this cake again!

Ku Cake

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hurry, hurry!

Even before the official arrival of autumn, the weather has turned decisively cooler in New York. I am feeling sorry for the cherry tomatoes in my yard; it's too cold for them to change into the beautiful red, yellow and every hues in between. Come on, tomatoes! You can do it; I'm rooting for ya!

Ku Cake

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Getting to Know You...

In the beginning: when I started shopping at the Greenmarket, I encountered more than few strange fruits and vegetables. The rhubarb is one of such vegetables. Sure I've heard the phrase Rhubarb Pie, but didn't know what a rhubarb looks like - I was probably picturing something similar to a stone fruit - until I saw these ruby red stalks in the market.

Each year I tend to pick one produce that I want to get to know. That means buying a lot and eating it in different ways. The rhubarb was my 'Produce of the Year' in 2001. I made the Rhubarb Pie. I made the Rhubarb Jam. And I found a recipe of Rhubarb Cake that entertained my colleagues in more than few occasion. I cooked it as a sauce for pork or chicken, thinking, if cranberry sauce is a staple in the turkey dinner, then the rhubarb sauce can go with the meat, too. I dropped the jam on chèvre. I drizzled rhubarb dressing on arugula.

Rhubarb can be tricky. Its flavor - very sour - is not for everyone's taste. Also its tartness is different from a citrus; I taste it earthier. Well, this year I made the Rhubarb & Strawberry Jam. This tastes great smeared on my vanilla cupcake. Mmm.

Ku Cake

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Emerald Green Gems

Looking back, this little gem was the sign of the warm weather to come when I was young. Growing up in Japanese suburbia umpty years ago, neither green asparagus nor ramps were the familiar faces. I'm sure we've eaten other locally grown vegetables, such as spring onions, snow peas or young spinach. But somehow, what I remember is the green peas on our dinner table signaled the definite transition - from barren winter colors to the burst of beautiful emerald green.

We used to beg our mother for the "mame gohan", simple rice dish cooked with green peas. I can still feel the soft rice mingling with slightly mushy peas, and taste the sweetness and just a hint of salt.

So I had to make this dish, only I am using short grain brown rice (I don't stock white rice any more). Apply the rice : water ratio (1 : 1.5), added two pinches of salt, and the peas, all in the pan. (Oh, did I tell I don't have a rice cooker?) Cover and cook in high heat until boiling, and reduce to barely simmering for 30 minutes. Don't touch that lid!

These peas are great for freezing. Last year I froze about 5 cups of them, and they were precious to add some color in my winter meals.

Ku Cake

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sweet and Tangy

So I experimented on the small tarts. I wanted to be prepared for all the wonderful berries and fruit that will fill the Greenmarket throughout the summer. Well, first I baked with the pie dough recipe I was using for the larger size pie. Each individual tart is carefully blind baked, and then baked again with the fruit filling. The apple tarts came out nicely. But the fruit tarts were little too soggy; they crumbled when I tried to unmold. Oh that's not good... Although they tasted perfectly delicious 'crumbled', I had to find another recipe that holds better.

Then I remembered the baking class I took at the ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) years ago. Their pie dough recipe calls for an egg, and therefore more stable. This should withstand the juicy fruit filling. And the result? It was...success!

I really like this little treat. Now I'm already dreaming of strawberries, blueberries, sour cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, oh, my! Bring it on!

Ku Cake

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hurray for the Greens!

The first sign of spring is the arrival of ramps. And asparagus closely following. This year in the Union Square Greenmarket, they are both out at the same time! It's the "double your pleasure" literally.

You cannot go wrong with these beautiful vegetables. I have been, so far, pan sautèing them together in olive oil with just salt and pepper, until almost crispy. In the same pan I also cook chicken or fish, so that all the flavors mingle. After plating them, I deglaze the pan quickly with balsamic vinegar, sprinkle fresh thyme and sauce over them. A quick, simple, easy and oh so delicious meal I am enjoying almost every evening.

When I find the bigger bulb of the ramp, I make pickles. There's no such a thing as 'too much ramps' in my life.

Ku Cake

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I Got Made.

I am trembling with excitement! I made the first sale to a store in my neighborhood.

One day a flyer showed up in my mailbox, so I decided to check it out. It was on Sunday afternoon. The store is more like a homey grocery store, selling gourmet sandwiches, bread, array of cold drinks, chips, snacks & other necessary munchy items.

I saw croissants, few variety of muffins in the glass showcase and cookies on the counter. Not a huge selection. So I gathered my courage and introduced myself: "Hi, I'm a baker, would you like me to bake something for you?" The guy tending the shop said "Sure! I'll talk to the owner." And added they're in the middle of putting more tables & chairs in the back. I gave my e-mail address and went home...elated. Next day I talked to the owner. I promised a few samples by the end of the week.

Now, what to bake? Big question. I called my dear friends for some ideas - apple pie? But a whole cake or pie is not suitable. I thought the 'portability' was the key, because the shop is not really set up for plates & silverware. How about cookies? Well, the guy also told me that the owner's girlfriend bakes the cookies - so that's out of question. Then I looked back what was everyone's favorite during the holiday season. Finally I picked four items: Chocolate Cake, Apple-Cranberry Cake, Brownies and mini Pecan tarts.

I started the weekly delivery 4 weeks ago. It's not money; it's great for my spirit.

Oh, and my friend Max promptly drew me this 'Baker' seal of approval. (Look very closely; you can read his signature on the bottom.)

Ku Cake

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The First Day of Spring

Tomorrow is the first day of spring. The wind is cold, and I cannot put away the winter jacket quite yet. But the sign of spring is everywhere! Thanks to the Daylight Saving Time, the sun shines definitely longer, for one. The buds of the mini-narcissus in my yard are getting bigger, its shade turning from green to white. They will be blooming soon. Closely followed by hyacinth and tulip. The Greenmarket is adding bright colors every time I pass by as more nursery keepers showing off their early blossoms.

The apple pie was the hands down favorite during the winter. But for the spring, I am baking Apple-Cranberry Coffee Cake. Apple is available almost year-round in the Greenmarket, so this cake stays in my repertoire any season of the year. However, this very moist, slightly tangy from dried cranberries cake just feels right for the arrival of spring.

Until rhubarb's in season, that is.

Happy Spring!

Ku Cake

Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Trusty Tote Bags

Long before using a cloth bag for shopping became trendy and even fashionable ("I'm Not A Plastic Bag" bag, anyone?), my heavy-duty tote bags accompanied me everywhere.

It's partially because I dislike plastic bags. But mainly, it fortified when I started the thrice-weekly pilgrimage to the Greenmarket. You'd need a big tote bag, backpack, or a roller to schlep 5 lbs. of shelling peas, 3 lbs. of zucchinis, 3 lbs. of peaches and 6 ears of corn in one trip! Thank goodness my bosses were so tolerant. I used to haul all sorts of food, some even strange, to the office. Surely my co-workers were amused (or frightened) when they saw a whole fish chilling inside the fridge. Well, I was just giddily happy to fill my bags with good food. I particularly loved transporting a bunch of garlic with scapes intact: their long leaves trailing behind me, as if a samurai warrior proudly carries his clan flag on his back.

I've been taking advantage of the Whole Foods stores; they offer a small discount for bringing your own bag. Recently I read that they will phase out plastic bags by April this year. I think this is definitely a move to the right direction. If we are serious about reducing the plastic bags piling up at home, make it harder to get one. Or even go further: charge a small amount for a plastic bag at the counter. That'll make everyone think twice about asking for it.

Ku Cake

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Oatmeal & Seaweeds

I admit it may sound weird. But this is the way I eat my oatmeal.

I think it's well-established that the oatmeal is good for you; it helps to lower the cholesterol, provides fiber and much-needed carbohydrate to keep you through the morning. The best part is it's warm! So for a long time the oatmeal was on my "I want to have this for breakfast" food list. There was one obstacle, however. I couldn't stand the taste of it.

Mind you, the oatmeal itself is quite bland. That's why it's commonly cooked with variety of flavorings such as brown sugar, apple-cinnamon, maple syrup, etc. Well, I enjoy cold cereal that's slightly sweetened with bananas or other fruits. And I love muffins - what an excuse for having a 'cupcake' for breakfast - that's sweet and warm. But there lingered something about the warm temperature and sweetness combined with that particular texture of cooked oatmeal. I can't put my finger on it: something deeply hidden inside me, on emotional level, finds it almost repulsive. I tried to overcome that feeling, but just couldn't. Therefore the oatmeal remained untouchable.

Until one day: Eureka! It hit me. The cooked oatmeal is a porridge made with oats. I love porridge made with rice (called 'ojiya'). So... why can't I cook the oatmeal, not with sugar, honey or syrup, but instead with savory alternative such as soy sauce?

Because of the short cooking time, my choice is Quaker Oats Quick 1-minute oatmeal. I remember my grandma used to say: "Eat your seaweeds and your hair will remain full, strong and dark". So I sprinkle some dried wakame, hijiki, or konbu when cooking. I add vegetables such as green peas or corn, something small and cooks fast. Adding grated ginger also boosts the flavor. And when I feel the need of protein, I crack an egg on top (make sure to break the yolk before placing in the microwave). Cooking time varies depending on the additives, but it usually goes like this: 2 minutes on High, stir, 1 minute High, stir again, and 40 seconds to get to the desired texture. I am a happy oatmeal eater ever since.

Sometimes you have to Think Outside the Box.

Ku Cake

Friday, January 11, 2008

Diet? What Diet?

As the new year turns, it seems everyone is (supposed to be) thinking about "Diet". The TV spots are rampant now: "Just take this pill and the fat will melt away" or "all you have to do is to eat what's delivered to your doorstep", etc. etc... I am not denying any effectiveness of them. I personally resorted to the Slim-Fast in the past when I needed to reduce the weight quickly. The point, though, is to use any method you find suitable and then, when successful, modify your habit to maintain.

I'm talking about the long-run here. Do you really want to continue taking the magic pill? Or only eat what comes to you for the rest of your life? Not me. I want to know what I am putting in my body. I buy an 'ingredient', and avoid the precooked food as much as I can. I also want to eat what tastes good to my palate. Since I arrived here in the US, I often find the flavoring of the food too- everything: Too sweet, too salty, too bland. But if I cook, I can definitely take care of that department and every meal becomes a satisfaction. Even when it did not taste as I imagined; in fact I love those surprises.

My diet is to eat in moderation. Sure I indulge time to time; I'm not an ascetic after all. But when I feel the need to balance/cleanse my system, I cook up a batch of vegetable soup. This tomato-flavored soup keeps in the fridge for days, and makes an excellent base for variety of quick meal. A friend of mine sent me the recipe, entitled "Fat-Burning Soup", a long ago. Those days we were experimenting with occasional "fried green tomatoes" recipe - boy, were we fearless.

The ingredients: 6 large green onions, 1 bunch scallions, 2 green peppers, 1 28-oz can tomatoes (whole or crushed), 1 bunch celery, 1/2 head of cabbage, 1 can V-8 juice, 1 package Lipton or Knorr Onion Soup Mix. Chop all vegetables, combine all the ingredients in a large stockpot. Add enough water to cover. Cook until the vegetables are tender.

This is perfect to eat at night, when you came home hungry but don't want to fill up your belly with regular meal. I guess some people eat cereal. I eat this soup. The onions boost the immune system. The tomatoes supply lycopene. The cabbage is supposedly good for restoring the digestion system. I would feel better and lighter in a few days: I swear by it.

There are so much more to talk stemming from this subject. So stay tuned.

Ku Cake

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Christmas Extravaganza

Happy New Year. A little late greeting.

Our Christmas celebration starts on the Eve. For an appetizer, we start with the Yellow Pea Soup, which is thick and delicious, from hours of gentle simmering. The main dish is the Roast Carp. Because we live in the Polish neighborhood, the live carp is readily available for purchasing on the day before. We don't have to trek into the Chinatown. Convenient. The side dish is a Salad of Really Finely Chopped Cabbage & Carrots, and heck, it's the holidays, Mashed Potato (with lots of butter and cream, of course). For dessert, an Apple Pie.

We invited the friend's family for the Christmas Day dinner. After considerable pondering, the main dish is decided on the Roast Duck. Normally the chicken is the choice for two of us, however, a chicken may be a little too ordinary for the occasion. On the other hand, goose or turkey is too big; besides I don't really have enough practice. So, we bought a whole duck plus several legs, hoping it'll be enough for four adults & a child. I thought I put the bird in the oven early enough, but apparently not. It took much longer than I anticipated: Panic! To alleviate the pain of waiting, we whipped out a few appetizers, using what we had in the pantry. Eventually The Bird was beautiful. Roast Potato, Roast Beets & Arugula and Sautéed Broccoli took care of the much needed vegetable department.

What to do with the leftovers? We declared the following day "The Leftover Reform Dinner", invited another friend and finished off. The delicious duck is by now neatly disassembled: all meat is torn apart and resting in the freezer. The carcase produced flavorful broth, enough to fill three big containers. Some went to the freezer. The rest is kept in the refrigerator for our New Year's Eve meal.

We are feeling the need to correct the diet. My New Year Resolution is "Make What We Eat". I long for the spring; I miss the locally grown vegetables.

Ku Cake

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Toshikoshi Soba - The End Of Year Meal

This is the "Toshikoshi-Soba", the definitive New Year's Eve meal in our household. It's a tradition in Japan to slurp soba noodles for one's health & longevity in coming year. When we are not away from home, this is what we eat: I insist.

I always loved, and still love, soba the most among the noodles: for its nutty flavor and clean finish. My grandma lived in the area famous for its soba production. When we visited her during the summer pause, she always greeted us with plenty of freshly hand made soba noodles. The serving was very simple: cold soba, dipping sauce and mountain of thinly cut nori. We ate bowl after bowl, and I thought I could just eat this for the rest of my life. Unfortunately I no longer have an easy access to those wonderful fresh soba, and resort to using the dried packaged ones. But whenever I cook up a bowl (in hot broth, instead) the memories come back just the same.

Now the New Year arrived. I wish for another bountiful season.

Ku Cake