On lemons and sweet spring treats

It’s so interesting to see how the palate evolves as we age, and how things that may  appeal to us as adults really did not hold much allure when we were younger.  I was reminded of this last weekend when I was trying to decide what to bake to bring to a friend’s son’s birthday party.  Her son is allergic to eggs, so I wanted to bring something egg-less and spring-y that he might still be able to try.  Fortunately, she is also a wonderful mother/cook/baker, so she has already figured out ways to bake him yummy treats sans eggs, including his super-cute Cars-themed birthday cupcakes.

I settled on lemon shortbread (he likes citrus!) and more conventional sugar cookies to provide both options for those with and without allergies.  I’m not sure how the kiddos responded to the lemon shortbread, since I eventually realized that   the humble-looking shortbread is not as appealing a cookie to them as something w/ melty chocolate or drizzled with luscious icing.  =(

For those adults looking for a bright, lemon-y treat, however, these lemon shortbread cookies are just the thing!

IMG_3408Meyer Lemon Shortbread (recipe adapted from here)

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup (150g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (55g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • ¼ cup (60ml) Meyer lemon juice
  • finely grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¾ cups + 1 tablespoon (255g) all purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch, sifted
  • 2/3 cup (94g) additional confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Instructions:

  1. Place the butter and icing sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 8 minutes or until pale and creamy.
  2. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla and beat until combined.
  3. Add the flour and corn starch and beat just until a smooth dough forms.
  4. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half.
  5. Place each half onto a large piece of parchment paper and form into a 20cm (8in) long log. Wrap well in the paper and refrigerate for 1 ½ hours or until firm.
  6. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Unwrap one of the dough logs (keep the other in the fridge) and slice it into 1cm-thick rounds.
  8. Place onto the prepared baking sheets 5cm (2in) apart and bake for 15-18 minutes or until light golden.
  9. Remove from the oven and cool in the sheets for 5 minutes.
  10. Gently toss the warm shortbreads in the extra icing sugar and allow to cool completely on wire racks.

And for those who haven’t quite let go of their inner child (::raises hand::), here is a recipe for super easy sugar cookies that look wonderful (and taste great!) when cut into playful spring shapes and decorated for Easter:

IMG_3445
Sugar Cookies
 
(recipe modified from Alton Brown’s recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • Powdered sugar, for rolling out dough

Instructions:

  1. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar until light in color.
  3. Add vanilla and almond extracts and egg.  Beat to combine.
  4. Gradually add flour, beating just until the mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl.  If it seems too stiff, wet hands, turn out the dough and finish kneading by hand.
  5. Divide the dough into portions, wrap in waxed paper or parchment, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  7. Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with powdered sugar.
  8. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick.  Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking.
  9. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on parchment paper or silicone baking mat, and bake for 6-8 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time.
  10. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack.
  11. Serve as is or ice as desired. Store in airtight container for up to 1 week.

A berry cozy morning…

I can be a creature of habit, and as J will readily confirm, rather particular when it comes to certain foods and tastes.  He hypothesizes that we get along so well because he shares a lot in common with my sister L’s tastes, so I’m used to the overlap in the venn diagram of our preferences, even if  the “circle” of foods he enjoys is much larger than mine.   I disagree – I will eat practically any vegetable or fruit!

When it comes to oatmeal, we definitely have our own preferences and tastes.  I prefer plain oatmeal that I flavor with whatever I feel like at the time – seasonal fruit, spices, nuts…I like the chewiness of rolled or steel cut oats and I don’t like it when the oatmeal is a touch on the watery side.  He is much less demanding and is happy to go with the packaged stuff, and tries to mollify me by making it less watery and using half plain quick oats so that I’m not horrified by the cloying sweetness.

That said, this baked oatmeal is versatile, delicious, healthy…and a perfect compromise!  It takes more time than instant oatmeal, but is still super easy to throw together.

IMG_3397

Baked Oatmeal with Mixed Berries and Almonds (recipe adapted from here)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups/7 oz/200 g rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup/2 oz/60 g sliced almonds, toasted
  • 1/3 cup/2 oz/60 g natural cane sugar or maple syrup, plus more for serving
  • 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
  • 2 cups/475 ml milk (I used unsweetened almond milk)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 ripe bananas, cut into 1/2-inch/1 cm pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups/6.5 oz/185 g mixed berries

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C with a rack in the top third of the oven. Generously butter the inside of an 8-inch/20cm square baking dish.
  2. In a bowl, mix together the oats, half the almonds, the sugar, if using, the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. In another bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, if using, the milk, egg, the butter, and the vanilla.
  4. Arrange the bananas in a single layer in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle two-thirds of the berries over the top. Cover the fruit with the oat mixture. Slowly drizzle the milk mixture over the oats. Gently give the baking dish a couple thwacks on the countertop to make sure the milk moves through the oats. Scatter the remaining berries and remaining almonds across the top.
  5. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the oat mixture has set. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Sprinkle with a bit more sugar or drizzle with maple syrup if you want it a bit sweeter.

Chasing away the Monday blues…

with Blueberry Meyer Lemon scones didn’t really work today, but at least the day started (and ended, because yes, it was one of those days) on a sweet, citrus-y and flowery note. I could go on and on about Meyer lemons, but I won’t – suffice it to say that when I spotted them all the way in NYC, it reminded me of how far I was from home and how much I missed California produce.  Now that I’m back, I have access to J’s mother’s tree, which is truly the tree that keeps on giving…Meyer lemons in abundance!  And the largest, most beautiful ones I’ve seen as well!  IMG_3391

Blueberry Meyer Lemon Scones (recipe adapted from here)

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup plus 3/4 tablespoon sugar
  • 6 tbl (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3/4 cups blueberries
  • 1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon buttermilk
  • 1-2 tbl Meyer lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated Meyer lemon peel

Ingredients:

  1. Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 425°F.
  2. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt and 1/4 cup sugar in large bowl. Using fingertips, rub in chilled butter until pieces are size of small peas.
  4. Mix 1/2 cup buttermilk, Meyer lemon juice, and finely grated Meyer lemon peel in glass measuring cup.
  5. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and stir until dough begins to form (some of flour will not be incorporated).
  6. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and gather together. Fold in blueberries and knead dough briefly, about 5 turns.
  7. Form each dough into ball and flatten into 1-inch-thick disk. Cut each disk into 6 wedges or cut with biscuit cutter into desired shape.
  8. Transfer scones to prepared baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart.
  9. Brush tops with remaining 1/2 tablespoon buttermilk and sprinkle with remaining 3/4 tablespoon sugar.
  10. Bake until scones are golden brown on top and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes.

Goodbye winter, hellooooo spring!

And what a beautiful spring it already is in sunny California!  My friends back East have been treated to another dusting of snow, but here on the West Coast the weather has been warm and the streets have been lined with flowering trees.  It is one of my favorite times of the year.

I had some lovely pears left in my refrigerator, which I accidentally let ripen too much in the midst of a hectic work schedule.  Since I like my fruit crisp and at its peak (not soft), I decided to turn the pears into this lovely Italian pear cake – it was my way of saying adieu to winter and its warm, spice-filled dishes.  This cake is surprisingly light and fluffy thanks to the corn starch, and lightly sweetened.  I added a little cinnamon for a little extra warmth.

IMG_3374 IMG_3379Italian Pear Cake (original recipe here)

Ingredients:

  • 3 ‘very’ ripe small pears (or 2 large ones) – peeled & cut into chunks
  • 1 & 1/4 cup all purpose flour, sifted
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup corn flour (corn starch)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp butter (slightly melted)
  • 3 eggs
  • confectioner’s sugar (to sprinkle/ decorate on cake)

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Cream the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Sift the flour, corn starch, cinnamon (if using), salt, and baking powder together.
  4. Add the flour mix and stir well, add the butter till the batter is smooth.
  5. Lightly grease and then line a 9-inch (23 cm) springform cake pan with parchment paper, and pour in the batter.
  6. Peel the the pears, cut in chunks and drop them on the cake, gently pushing down each piece of pear. It doesn’t matter if the pear sticks out of the cake it will all blend in.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean – do not overtake! Leave to cool before serving.
  8. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar.
  9. (Optional) Serve with whipped cream.

It’s matcha time!

A double rainbow to greet the day :)
A double rainbow to greet the day 🙂

I have always loved tea.  Growing up, one of my favorite memories was having tea with my sisters and dad when he came home bearing gifts of sweets from his clients, usually around Autumn Moon festival (mooncakes!), Lunar New Year, or Christmas.  It was a little tradition we had, to gather around a pot of tea with him and share the sweets.  To this day, I can not have sweets without a freshly brewed pot of tea.  It is my warm, comforting beverage of choice, and I could sip on it all day long.

Matcha is the only form of tea in which the entire leaf is consumed.  The tea leaves are carefully tended in shade just prior to the harvest, so that the leaves are more delicate and flavorful.  They are then hand picked and carefully steamed, dried, and then stone-ground into the finest powder.   The Japanese tea ritual revolves around the making and tasting of matcha, ceremoniously highlighting its nuanced flavors and delicacy.

In addition to its sweet, vegetal flavor, matcha is loaded with antioxidants and vitamins.  Various studies have tried to link its high catechin polyphenol content to decreased risk of certain types of cancer, lower cholesterol, improved metabolism, and improved cardiovascular health.

I indulged and used matcha to make these lovely, light Matcha Tea Cake cookies for a friend’s baby shower.  With a cup of tea, they make the perfect light treat for a quiet afternoon.  J has decided to dub these “Shrek cookies” because of their color, even though I think they are a pretty shade of green.  :-/

IMG_3319

Matcha Tea Cake cookies (makes 2 dozen), recipe from Food and Wine

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (or cinnamon)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup canola oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon matcha tea powder
  • 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Instructions:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom. In another bowl, whisk the granulated sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla and almond extracts. In a small bowl, stir 2 tablespoons of the matcha powder with 2 tablespoons of water, then stir into the wet ingredients. Stir the wet ingredients into the flour mixture just until combined.
  2. Using a 1-ounce ice cream scoop or 2 tablespoons, scoop 1-inch balls of dough at least 
2 inches apart onto 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.IMG_3312
  3. Preheat the oven to 350°. Bake the cookies for about 
10 minutes, until set at the edges and very lightly browned on the bottoms. Let the cookies cool for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
  4. Arrange the cookies on 1 baking sheet. In a sieve, combine the confectioners’ sugar with the remaining 1 teaspoon of matcha. Dust over the cookies and serve.IMG_3315
MAKE AHEAD The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Dust with the matcha sugar before serving.

Little orbs of good fortune

Lunar new year celebrations are full of traditions that have their origins in wishes for happiness, prosperity, and health in the coming year.  My mother even tells the story that my grandfather knew my father was ‘the one’ for her when he came by to send her family New Year’s greetings and the hoa mai tree bloomed on that very day.

Growing up, my parents liked to decorate the house with freshly cut flowers to symbolize spring.  They also always had a pretty pile of oranges and/or pomelos on display, a nod to their association with prosperity.  “Cau vua du xai,” which  translates to “wishes for prosperity that meets and exceeds your needs,” is often used as a play on words to determine the fruits displayed: cau (mang cauor soursop), vua (dua, or coconut), du (du du, or papaya), and xai (xoai, or mango).  Families will often have those specific fruits or other fruits depending on their geographic origins.

Needless to say, I have loved all the citrus that is currently in season, and now aptly available for the holiday: blood oranges, cara cara oranges, meyer lemons, and…kumquats!  They are different from other citrus because the sweetness lies in the peel, while the pulp and juice are actually quite tart.  Eaten whole, these delightful little orbs are an eye-popping burst of sweet-tart flavor.  People often gift kumquat trees during the new year, with the thought that the more abundant the kumquats, the more luck and prosperity will come to your family.

Fortune aside, I have been having fun experimenting with them in my kitchen.  It’s been a busy weekend of traveling to see friends, but just before I left, I made a spiced kumquat compote and spiced kumquat and almond tea cakes.  Enjoy!

IMG_3261

Spiced Kumquat Compote (makes about 1 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup thinly sliced kumquats, seeds removed (about 8 oz)
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 1/2 tsp grated ginger

Instructions:

  1. Thinly slice kumquats transversely into rings and remove seeds.
  2. Put water and honey in heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the honey.
  3. Add kumquats, cinnamon stick, ginger, and star anise to the water and honey.  IMG_3256
  4. Simmer uncovered (think gentle bubbling) for about 30-35 minutes, until the mixture thickens.
  5. Remove from heat, discard cinnamon and anise, and store in sterilized jam/marmalade jar.

Enjoy the warmly spiced, citrusy compote on bread, muffins, with cheese and crackers, or in the following tea cakes!

IMG_3305

Spiced Kumquat and Almond Tea Cakes (makes ~12, inspired by Tartelette)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cup (150 grams) powdered sugar, unsifted
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup (100 grams) ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup spiced kumquat compote (recipe above)

Instructions:

  1. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.
  2. Butter 12-sized muffin pan or baking tins (your preference).
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. Cream together butter and powdered sugar using an electric mixer.
  5. Add vanilla and then the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  6. Add flour and ground almonds, mixing another 30 seconds.
  7. Fold in the spiced kumquat compote.
  8. Divide the batter into prepared tins, top with either fresh or poached kumquat slices and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown (baking time may vary depending on cake tin size).

On rain and kneading

IMG_3148

This past weekend was spent close to hearth and home, escaping the wind, rain, and fog outside.  January has been relatively dry (too dry), and rain was desperately needed on this coast.  I’ve enjoyed the sunshine, but was so glad to welcome the rain that I went running outside, quieting my own inner thoughts by watching the stormy seas.

Once back inside, I decided to try baking a wheat baguette for the first time.  From scratch.  I have never tried making my own bread, and in NYC I was spoiled by being near Maison Kayser,  where I discovered the Baguette Monge and realized what Colette meant by saying this in my favorite Pixar movie, Ratatouille:

“How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the look, but the sound of the crust. Listen [bread crackles].  Oh, the symphony of crackle.  Only good bread sound this way.”  
screen-shot-2013-08-01-at-9-11-15-amI am not a huge bread-eater, but I can definitely appreciate a good crusty baguette, and there are certain dishes that beg for a freshly baked slice of bread to sop up the good flavors – cioppino, Vietnamese bo kho, mussels in saffron broth, shakshouka…

And so, here we go!  My first attempt at a wheat baguette, based on Dan Leader’s 4-hr Baguette (perfect project for a rainy day):

Dan Leader’s 4 Hour Baguette (Wheat version

For full step-by-step pictures go here.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups tap water, heated to 115° F
  • tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup white whole wheat flour*
  • tsp kosher salt (3 tsp if using Diamond Crystal kosher salt, i.e. 3/8 oz)
  • Canola oil, for greasing bowl
  • 1/2 cup ice cubes

Instructions:

  1. Whisk together water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl; let sit until yeast is foamy, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add both flours, and stir with a spatula until dough forms and all flour is absorbed; let dough sit to allow flour to hydrate, about 20 minutes.
  3. Add salt, then transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutesIMG_3166
  4. Transfer dough ball to a lightly greased bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and place bowl in a cold oven or microwave. Let dough rest until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
  5. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and shape into an 8-inch x 6-inch rectangle. Fold the 8-inch sides toward the middle, then fold the shorter sides toward the center, like a T-shirt.
  6. Return dough, seam side down, to the bowl. Cover with plastic again, and return to oven. Let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  7. Remove bowl with dough from oven, and place a cast–iron skillet or pan with oven-safe handle on the bottom rack of oven; position another rack above skillet, and place a baking stone or upside down or rimless sheet pan on it.
  8. Heat oven to 475° F.
  9. While oven is heating, transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and cut into three equal pieces; shape each piece into a 14-inch rope.
  10. Flour a sheet of parchment paper on a rimless baking sheet; place ropes, evenly spaced, on paper. Lift paper between ropes to form pleats; place two tightly rolled kitchen towels under long edges of paper, creating supports for the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let sit until it doubles in size, about 50 minutes.IMG_3168
  11. Uncover; remove towels, and flatten paper to space out loaves. Using a sharp razor, knife, bread lame, or scissors, slash the top of each baguette at a 30–degree angle in four spots; each slash should be about 4 inches long.
  12. Pull out the oven rack with the stone or baking sheet on it and, using the corner of the parchment paper as a guide, slide the loaves, still on the parchment paper, onto the baking stone or pan. Place ice cubes in skillet (this produces steam that lets the loaves rise fully before a crust forms).
  13. Bake the baguettes until darkly browned and crisp, 20 to 30 minutes; cool before serving.  Enjoy the symphony of the crackly crust!IMG_3172 IMG_3174

Not anywhere nearly as good as Maison Kayser, but such huge satisfaction from knowing I kneaded and baked that bread myself!

*I initially tried 50% whole wheat flour, which yielded a denser, heartier loaf.  I liked both.