Monday, March 30, 2015

Olaf/Frozen Birthday Party & Blue Cornbread


We recently celebrated my nephew's third birthday party with an Olaf/Frozen themed party. We had such a blast coming up with a menu that was not only delicious, but also played on the theme. Here's what we came up with:

Olaf/Frozen Birthday Menu

Iceberg Salad
Wandering Oaken's Hot Sauna Chicken Dip (Buffalo chicken dip)
Turkey Las-Anna
Olaf's Chill-i
Ice Blocks (blue cornbread)
Elsa's Frozen Fries
Snowballs (munchkins)

We created cute place cards showcasing each of the dishes' names.

The menu was very popular! We had a nice variety of comfort foods that complimented each other.

Olaf birthday cake! Chocolate cake layers with fresh blueberry ice cream filling :)

Today I'm going to share a very basic recipe for the blue cornbread. You can easily substitute yellow cornmeal and make a standard yellow cornbread, but feel free to seek out the blue stuff to make this peculiar-looking treat.

Regardless of the color, this cornbread is nice and moist with a very delicate sweetness. I wanted to make sure it would work well in a savory application, so the sugar is minimal, but just enough to yield a moist--not dry--cornbread.

Ice blocks!

Blue Cornbread
Makes one 9-by-13-inch pan

1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal (substitute yellow cornmeal for yellow cornbread)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with parchment paper, allowing some overhang of the paper to allow for ease of removal of the baked cornbread. Lightly grease the paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, melted butter, and buttermilk. Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture until just combined. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake the cornbread for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in to the center comes out clean.

Cool the cornbread in the pan for about 15 minutes, then carefully remove it using the overhanging parchment paper. Allow the cornbread to completely cool on a rack (leave the parchment paper on the bottom). When cool, use the parchment paper to move the cornbread onto a cutting board and use a bread knife to cut it into squares. This cornbread will keep for several days in an airtight container.

Happy birthday, David!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Brown Sugar Banana-Date Bread


This is perhaps the best banana bread I've ever made or had. I know that's a pretty bold statement. Most banana breads are essentially the same. It's really hard to set each one apart from the other, but this particular variation is not only incredibly moist, but it boasts sweet bites of delicious dates as well as a crispy, sugary crust on top.

The use of brown sugar in the batter for this banana bread yields an almost caramel sweetness which is a wonderful compliment to bananas. It just has more flavor!

And then the dates really take this bread over the edge. They have such a distinct flavor, which shockingly is only heightened by its inclusion in this banana bread. They put chopped nuts and chocolate chips to shame.

A sprinkling of dark brown sugar over the top before baking creates a caramelized crust that offsets not only the moist texture of the banana bread, but also provides an extra layer of sweetness to an otherwise mild, but flavorful breakfast treat.

Banana bread is probably the most common quick bread in many people's repertoires, and that's mainly because people always seem to have leftover too-ripe bananas that need to fulfill a purpose. I know that's usually my reason for whipping up banana bread.

The next time you have brown bananas on your kitchen counter, consider making this spin on banana bread. It tops my list, and I'm sure it will top yours!

Brown Sugar Banana-Date Bread
Makes one 9-inch loaf
(Adapted from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 1/2 cups well-mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 bananas)
1/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, for sprinkling

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with vegetable oil spray and if using a metal loaf pan line the bottom with parchment--no need to line with parchment if using stoneware.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, light brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and dates; set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix the mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with a fork. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the banana mixture into the flour mixture until just combined.

Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, spreading it evenly. Sprinkle the dark brown sugar on top of the loaf. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes (or potentially longer--around 65 minutes if using stoneware), until the loaf is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool the bread in the loaf pan for 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Wrapped in parchment or in an airtight container, the bread will keep at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Food of Taiwan: Beef Noodle Soup


My fascination with Asian culture and cooking extends across an entire continent. I love expanding my palate to discover new dishes and flavors, from India to China and beyond. I recently had the opportunity to review a brand new cookbook, due for release tomorrow.

Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan examines the history, people, climate, agriculture, and cuisine of what Portuguese explorers termed "the Beautiful Island." In addition to a well-researched introduction, the variety of recipes in the book range from street food to homely favorites.

Some standout dishes include Peppery Pork Buns, Braised Eggplant with Garlic and Basil, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Pan-Fried Rice Noodles with Pork and Vegetables, Pork Meat Sauce over Rice, and of course my college favorite Tapioca Pearl Tea! There's lots more, but these are a few topping my "to do" list.

Although a lot of flavors in these Taiwanese recipes derive from Chinese influence, there are certain dishes and ingredients that are positively Taiwanese favorites: stinky tofu, anyone? Although I have a lengthy list of dishes to try, I felt it most appropriate to begin this gastronomic adventure with what is perhaps the unofficial official national dish of Taiwan: Niu Rou Mian, or Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup.

Many Asian cultures have their own well-known versions of noodle soup, from Vietnamese Pho to Japanese Ramen. Each have commonalities, and yet are incredibly unique to those cultures. This Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup features basic Asian wheat noodles (I used dried), stewing beef, ginger, garlic, a touch of tomato, rice wine, soy sauce, five-spice powder, and a couple Sichuan favorites: Sichuan chili bean paste, and Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan chili bean paste is one of my favorite discoveries during my Asian cooking adventures. It's spicy, yet flavorful--so much more than just basic heat. Sichuan peppercorns have a very distinct effect on the palate. It's best described as "numbing."

You will be able to tell immediately if you end up with a Sichuan peppercorn in your mouth while enjoying this soup. It's an acquired taste. I love the flavor it imparts, but I'm not a fan of it in high doses. I prefer its flavor delicately steeped into the broth.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Food of Taiwan. It's the first English-language book on the subject, and I think Cathy did a wonderful job sharing her heritage and its wonderful culinary delights. If you're interested in Asian cooking, namely Taiwanese, and would like to learn more about the people and places that make Taiwan such a special island, then definitely check out this book!

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (Niu Rou Mian)
Makes 6 to 8 Servings (I halved the recipe quite easily)
(Adapted from The Food of Taiwan)

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
2 pounds beef stew meat, preferably boneless shank, cut into 2-inch cubes
6 thick slices peeled fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, smashed
2 whole scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 to 3 small fresh red chilies (I omitted this)
1 large plum tomato, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon chili bean sauce
1 cup rice wine
1/2 cup light soy sauce (I use low-sodium)
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
2 1/2 quarts water
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 star anise (I omitted this)

2 pounds Asian wheat noodles, any width (I used less--12 ounces instead of 1 pound for a half recipe--and it was still too much)
1 whole scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced
8 small heads gently blanched baby boy choy, or substitute with spinach, sweet potato leaves, or other leafy green vegetable (optional) (I used Swiss chard)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once hot, add as much of the beef as will fit on the bottom of the pan without too much overlap (you will need to work in batches). Cook, flipping with tongs, until both sides are gently browned, 5 to 6 minutes total. Repeat with the remaining beef, adding more oil as needed. Transfer the meat to a dish and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of the oil, if needed, to the same saute pot until just hot. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, chilies, and tomato. Cook, stirring occasionally, until very fragrant and the vegetables are softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the sugar and cook until dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. Return the beef and stir in the chili bean sauce.

Stir in the rice wine and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pot to release any browned bits. Let boil for a minute, then add the light and dark soy sauces, the water, peppercorns, five-spice powder, and star anise. Bring just to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer. Skim the scum that rises to the top of the pot. Cover and cook at a low simmer for at least 2 hours, preferably 3 hours.

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Divide among individual serving bowls. Ladle the soup into each bowl with chunks of the beef, to with scallions and the blanched green vegetables, if using, and serve.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Yogurt Waffles with Honey Cream


Although I tend to lean toward savory breakfasts more often than not, there is always a special place in my heart for a little sweet treat to start the day. I recently acquired a waffle maker. It was a bit of a challenge determining what kind of waffle maker to get, but after some research I decided to purchase a Belgian-style waffle maker.

The main difference between traditional waffles and Belgian (at least in terms of the waffle maker) is that the Belgian-style has deeper pockets and thus yields slightly drier/crisper waffles, while the traditional-style has smaller pockets and are a bit flatter. The shape of the waffle (round vs square doesn't seem to make a different in terms of the actual waffle makers (I've seen both Belgian and traditional in both shapes) but for authentic Belgian waffles, the true shape should be rectangular.

Photo courtesy

I selected a Hamilton Beach Belgian-style waffle maker, which yields two rectangular 3 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch waffles. That sounds small, but trust me, they can be quite filling! Although the batter differs for various types of waffles, they can generally be made in either style and shape waffle maker. I wanted to get this particular size and shape because not only could I make any traditional waffles I desire, but I could make authentic Belgian waffles, since this is the appropriate size, shape, and grid style with the deeper pockets.

In addition to getting a waffle maker, I decided to invest in a book to offer some unique recipes I could use with my new gadget. I selected Waffles by Tara Duggan. Her book includes a lot of sweet and savory waffle recipes with gourmet flair. There are a lot of recipes within the book that intrigue me, but there is an oversight in the book that I need to address.

Duggan states that Belgian waffle batter is different from traditional waffle batter because the egg whites are whipped separately, but actually the difference in waffles styles should be the leavening--Belgians traditionally use yeast instead of baking powder. The Belgian recipes in this book use baking powder. They are not actually authentic Belgian-style waffles.

With that said, I'm sure whipping the egg whites would still yield extra fluffy waffles reminiscent of what many restaurant in America call "Belgian" waffles. I doubt that most brunch spots offering Belgian waffles in America leaven their waffles with yeast as the Belgians do, so this is probably reminiscent of what many Americans associate with Belgian-style waffles. Personally, I've eaten authentic Belgian waffles and they are kind of the greatest thing on Earth. I plan to make authentic Belgian waffles soon using yeast, and I will definitely share those escapades with you all!

In the meantime, today I'm sharing a light and tangy waffle recipe from Duggan's book featuring two of my favorite things: yogurt and honey. I must say, I'm impressed by both my reasonably-priced waffle maker and this Waffle cookbook (minus that Belgian-waffle issue). The recipe says it makes 4 to 8 waffles (depending on your waffle maker), but since my rectangular waffles are perhaps a bit on the smaller side, I yielded exactly 10 waffles.

These yogurt waffles are incredibly fluffy on the inside, yet crisp on the outside. The yogurt really instills a nice refreshing tangy flavor to the batter, and the yogurt and honey cream is a wonderful alternative to sweet maple syrup.

I used the blueberry honey (right) for a delicious and fragrant finish.

An extra drizzle of honey is all the added sweetness you need. Although the recipe calls for wildflower honey (which I have), I decided to use blueberry honey instead, since blueberries makes me think of summer and blueberry waffles/pancakes, and thus begins melting all the snow in the recesses of my mind.

Yogurt Waffles with Honey Cream
Makes 4 to 8 waffles (or 10 with my waffle maker)
(Adapted from Waffles)

Honey Cream:
1 cup (8 oz/250 g) plain yogurt
1/4 cup (3 oz/90 g) wildflower honey (I used blueberry honey)

Yogurt Waffles:
2 large eggs
1 cup (8 oz/250 g) plain yogurt
1/2 cup (4 fl oz/125 ml) whole milk, plus more as needed (I used low-fat)
1/2 cup (4 oz/125 g) unsalted butter, melted, or 1/2 cup (4 oz/125 g) canola oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz/235 g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Warm honey for serving

To make the honey cream, in a medium bowl, whisk together the 1 cup yogurt and the honey.

Preheat a waffle maker.

In another medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1 cup yogurt, milk, butter, honey, and vanilla.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then pour in the egg mixture. Whisk until mostly smooth, with just a few lumps. If the batter is too thick, stir in another 1 to 2 tablespoons milk.

Ladle the batter into the waffle maker, using 1/2 to 3/4 cup (4-6 fl oz/125-180 ml) batter per batch, or follow waffle maker instructions (mine suggests ladling about 1/3 cup batter in the center of each square). Spread the batter so that it almost reaches the edges of the waffle maker. Cook until the waffles are crisp and browned, 3 to 4 minutes.

Using a silicone plastic or wooden spatula, remove the waffles from the waffle maker and serve right away, or place on a baking sheet in a single layer in a 200 degree F (95 degree C) oven for up to 20 minutes before serving. Top with the honey cream and a light drizzle of honey.

Cook's Note: The measurements in this recipe are directly from the book, however the ounce and gram conversions are generally not very accurate, especially for the larger values. It seems as though whoever did the conversions just tried to round to the closest number, but in some cases it's vastly different. For example 235 grams of flour is closer to 8.3 ounces, not 7.5 (that's almost a whole ounce off!), but 90 grams of honey is 3.2 ounces, so that's at least much closer to 3. I'm not sure which measurements were the author's original, however, I use the gram measurements and find those to yield good results.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Pork Vindaloo


Vindaloo is an Indian curry dish deriving from the Goa region of India, with a Portuguese influence. It is notoriously spicy with an acidic/sour element developed from the use of vinegar.

It often includes cubed potatoes, but that is not necessarily authentic. It's typically made with pork, but can also utilize lamb, beef, or even chicken. Use the same basic technique with whichever protein you prefer.

Vindaloo is one of my sister's favorite curry dishes. She has ordered it so many times in Indian restaurants over the years that she has acquired the nickname Vinda-Lucy! I figured there was nothing more apt to make for her recent birthday dinner than a homemade Indian feast featuring Pork Vindaloo, Chana Dal, Gajar Matar, Naan, and Basmati Rice.

I didn't want the vindaloo to be overwhelmingly spicy since certain members of my family can only tolerate limited spice. I used two small dried Indian red chilies, and found this to be a very comfortable level of spice.

When tasted on its own, there is definite heat in the curry, but when served over rice, it's a lot easier to handle (although it's by no means mild). My entire family was satisfied by the amount of spice, but if you want to breathe fire, by all means add more chilies. I won't stop you!

The vindaloo paste contains a mixture of ground dried spices (including the chilies, cinnamon, fenugreek, cumin, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and cardamom), sauteed onion puree, vinegar, salt, and brown sugar.

A ginger-garlic paste adds even more flavor to this incredibly flavorful and intense curry. Although the ingredient list may seem daunting, if you have a well-stocked pantry, it may only require purchasing a few specialty items (such as the fenugreek, for example--I got mine at Whole Foods).

Even if you are hesitant about the notorious spiciness of a vindaloo curry, you can make it tamer by cutting down on the chilies and still retain it's wonderful layers of flavor and spice that make a vindaloo such a popular and appealing curry both inside and outside of India.

Pork Vindaloo (Goan-style Hot and Sour Pork)
Serves 4 to 6
(Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking)

2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 to 3 dried hot red chilies
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cardamon seeds (I used about 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom instead)
1 (3-inch) stick of cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons black mustard seeds (I used brown mustard seeds)
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar (I used distilled white vinegar) 
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
Vegetable oil, as needed
6 to 7 ounces onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 to 6 tablespoons plus 1 cup water
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder meat, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 small whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

Grind cumin seeds, red chilies, peppercorns, cardamon seeds, cinnamon, black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds in a coffee or spice grinder. Put the ground spices in a small bowl. Add the vinegar, salt and brown sugar. Set aside.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wide pot over medium heat. Add the onions and fry, stirring frequently, until the onions turn brown and crisp, but be careful not to burn. Remove onions and place into an electric blender or food processor. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and puree the onions. Add this puree to the ground spice mixture in the bowl. (This is the Vindaloo paste. It may be made ahead of time and frozen.)

Rinse blender or processor and add the ginger, garlic and 2 to 3 tablespoons water and blend until you have a smooth paste.

Add another tablespoon or two of oil to the pot that you cooked the onions in, and heat over medium-high heat. Cook the pork cubes a few at a time, browning lightly on all sides. Remove each batch with a slotted spoon and keep in a bowl. Repeat until all the pork has been browned, removing the last of the seared pork and setting it aside with the rest.

Now add the ginger-garlic paste into the same pot. Reduce to medium heat. Stir the paste for a few seconds. Add the coriander and turmeric. Stir for another few seconds. Add the pork cubes and any juice that has accumulated in the bowl, the vindaloo paste, and 1 cup water.

Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently for 1 hour or until pork is tender. Stir occasionally through this cooking period, and set the lid ajar toward the end of the cooking time if you need to thicken the sauce and allow it to reduce.

Serve the vindaloo with plenty of basmati rice and/or naan.


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