Friday, November 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge--Cannoli

The Daring bakers are an online group of people who love to bake and put their skills to the test every month with something new and exciting. The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes y Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book. What a nostalgic way to start my Daring Baker's Challenge experience.

Its impossible to be in Boston and not try one of the many delicious desserts from Mike's Pastry, an unpretentious Italian bakery with very little sitting or moving space. I'd look forward to making the trek there every winter and being rewarded with a steaming cup of capuccino and either a cannoli or a gigantic cream filled pastry called the lobster tail. It soon became my favorite place to take anybody who was either new or visiting Beantown, always sure to impress. I'd never imagined making a cannoli at home, it was just one of those things I thought was better left to the professionals, you know, like twinkies, milano cookies or bagels. I was a bit worried when it was chosen. How do I juggle it with the hectic holiday cooking I thought, but didnt want to chicken out of my very first month. So I gave it a shot today and boy am I glad I did.

The shells came out beautiful, blistered (a sign of goodness), light and crispy enough to eat sans filling. But a cannoli isnt a cannoli without some creaminess so I came up with two-- a rose scented cashew pastry cream and an almond scented pear cream. The rose one was my favorite, smooth with the gentle crunch from the cashews. I enjoyed the more pronounced crunch of the pear one which I dipped in dark chocolate but it didnt really measure up to the delicate rose.
I'm sorry this was the best picture my poor camera would take after being rendered display-less with the little man's violent shaking yesterday. But don't let the picture deter you from the yummy results of this fun challenge! [update: the camera fixed itself so theres a close up of the blisteriness for your viewing pleasure.]
For the shells:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp unsweetened baking cocoa powder sifted
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar (what I had on hand, substituted it for white wine vinegar)
1/2 cup red wine (Marsala preferred but I used Cabernet Sauvignon)
2 large egg whites
2 quarts vegetable oil (for deep frying)
1. Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl.
2. Mix in oil, vinegar, 1 egg white and enough wine to make a soft dough.
3. Place dough on a floured surface and knead for a couple of minutes till a smooth, uniformly colored dough forms.
4. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and let rest in fridge from 2 hours till overnight.
5. Divide the dough into eight equal parts.
6. I used my pasta maker to roll out the dough, but you can roll it out by hand till very thin.
7. Use a round cookie cutter to cut out shapes in the dough.
8. Heat oil in a medium saucepan to 375F.
9. Roll cut out around cannoli form (metal cylindrical tubes), seal ends with egg white and drop into hot oil. Remove when light golden brown (they turn darker as they sit around).
10. Remove cooked and cooled cannoli from the form. Reserve till ready to fill.
11. Dont fill the shells until ready to serve or they get soggy.

For Filling
1 cup pastry cream (divided) from Joy of Baking
1/2 tsp rose essence
1 handful roasted and chopped cashew nuts
1/2 tsp almond extract1 quarter of a Bartlett pear chopped
4 squares good quality (Lindt) dark chocolate melted in microwave
1. Follow the recipe for simple pastry cream.
2. Divide cream into equal parts.
3. To one part, add rose essence and fill cannolis with a piping bag (or plastic sandwich bags with one corner cut off). Dip cannolis into chopped cashews.
4. To the remaining pastry cream add almond extract and chopped pear chunks. Pipe into cannoli and dip into melted dark chocolate.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Amazing Pumpkin bread

The butternut squash casserole (absolutely delicious, should post it for you soon) was packed and sent off with the 2 men of the house, the turkey is in the oven and since thats all I'm responsible for this year, I'm left killing 4 1/2 hours turkey-sitting. Keeping me company is the moistest, melt-in-the mouth pumpkin bread. I'd made 3 loaves yesterday and its a good thing because we're already short of 2! It tastes even better today and is said to freeze beautifully as well. Here's the recipe, modified from A Chow life. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!

You will need

4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups canned pumpkin
3 cups sugar
3 1/3 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Grease three 8.5 x 4.25x 2.75 in loaf tins with baking spray.
3. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Whisk oil, water, pumpkin purée, and sugar with a fork to combine thoroughly.
4. Sift flour, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and baking soda into a small mixing bowl.
5. Stir flour mixture into the wet ingredients until just combined.
6. Fold in dried fruit or nuts, if using.
7. Divide batter into prepared loaf tins.
8. Bake for 40-45 mins or till a knife inserted through the middle comes out clean.
9. Cool for about 10 minutes on a wire rack before devouring.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quickest Brioche recipe

Every introduction to Brioche has to reference Marie Antoinette's French revolution story when she plainly told her attendants that the peasants who couldn't afford bread should eat brioche. Buttery, rich and delicious its more luscious than bread but not quite the level of a cake. It lies somewhere in the middle. Traditionally, you would have to hand-knead endlessly and let the dough sit overnight in the refrigerator but Cook Illustrated says that you can skip this step because of the eggs, butter and general overall richness of the bread. The recipe is so simple and delicious that I've already made it twice this week-- once plain and then with Golden delicious apples and raisins. You can slather it with your preserve of choice, or dunk it into a cup o' joe or use it as a base for comforting bread pudding. I've heard that stale slices are phenomenal slathered with almond custard and toasted to golden goodness. But I'm trying to watch the calories in preparation for the eating fest coming Thursday but when I do try it, you'll be the first to know!

Heres the recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated:


1 envelope active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
2 1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter cut into 6 pieces
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 Golden delicious apple chopped
1 fistful raisins

1. In a small bowl mix yeast into milk and add 1 cup of flour. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. Spray baking spray over an 8.5 X 4.5 x 2.5 inch loaf tin.

2. Put butter, sugar and salt in workbowl of foodprocessor and pulse at 1 sec intervals till mixture is smooth. Scrape bowl frequently.

3. Add eggs one at a time till mixture is incorporated. It may look curdled but thats ok, keep going.

4. Add remaining flour and yeast mixture. Pulse at 1 sec intervals till a smooth (but sticky) dough forms. Next knead for 15 seconds continously.

5. Transfer dough to a well floured surface and knead till dough is not sticky anymore (just a few seconds really).

6. Shape into a rectangle, sprinkle some apples and raisins and fold longer sides in by 1 inch. Sprinkle somemore apples and raisins and then fold one short side towards the middle and fold the other short side over the seam of the first short fold (like an envelope). Cut the dough into 3 equal parts and drop into the loaf tin. Let it rise in a warm spot for about an hour or till the dough rises about an inch over the tin.

7. Bake in a 350F oven for about 35 minutes or till the bread is a nice golden brown.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Roasted Turkey tips

With T-day not too far away, here are some Turkey tips I'd learned the hard way, constantly haunted by the first and only time my parents roasted one in Kuwait. After 12 hours in the oven, the poor fowl came out with a charcoal crisp exterior and an icy solid cavity. Promptly tossed, it makes for those recurring kinds of thanksgiving nightmares.

1. If you're using a frozen turkey, buy it at least 10 days before. Anything more than 20lbs should thaw in the refrigerator for about 1 week to 10 days. I like to get the bigger ones because that means more leftovers but usually we dont end up with much.

2. Do yourself a favor and buy a turkey with the pop up thermometer. There's usually a picture of the push-pin like thermometer on the wrapper. And while you're in the section buy a large turkey brining bag.

3. Make sure you thaw the turkey completely 24 hours before you plan to cook. I prefer the slow refrigerator method of thawing but there are many other faster ways described online-- ways I havent tried and cant vouch for.

4. Brine and roast method: I'm not a pro by any standards but this method got me the most approval with the least effort.

5. Brine recipe : For a 20 lb bird:
2 cups of kosher salt
1 cup of sugar (2:1, salt:sugar ratio)
3.5 gallons of water
1 head of garlic, cut into half crosswise (lay garlic head on its side and saw into the entire thing with a sharp knife)
4 bay leaves
4 stalks of thyme
4 rosemary stalks
1 handful of peppercorns
1 handful of allspice
1 handful of juniper berries (optional)

Throw all ingredients into a gigantic stockpot and bring to a boil till sugar and salt dissolve. Cool brine completely. Place turkey (with giblets removed) into the brining bag (look at point 2.). Get someones help to hold the bag while you pour in the brine slowwwwwly. Close the bag, nice and tight and throw it into the fridge for at least 12 hours.

6. Roasting something bigger than your head:

Now you are free to rub anything you want on the bird-- its yours to eat and do with it as you please. But butter, salt and pepper was all I needed to get the right balance of crispy skin and juicy meat. The problem with getting too fancy and using fresh ginger, garlic or herbs is that they get burnt (especially if the bird is huge and its going to be in for 5-6 hours) and you end up fighting with the smoke detector more than cooking. So my suggestion is use logic-- if the ingredient by itself turns into charcoal in 5 hours in the oven it probably will do the same thing on a turkey. Keeping it simple seems to be the best way to go for the turkey. Save your creativity for the gravy!

Also, its absolutely crucial to get a proper roasting pan with a rack. I didnt see the use of a rack at first but its really important so the back of the turkey doesnt get soggy and nasty. My pan is really cool, once the rack with turkey is off, I can just transfer the pan with turkey drippings onto the stove to make gravy. Not possible with disposable alumnium roasting pans!


2 sticks of butter softened
Handful of Salt and ground pepper
Cooking time guide (Approx 15 mins/lb)

Get out your roasting pan and rack. Preheat oven to temperature suggested in the cooking guide above. Remove turkey from the brine bag and rinse the bird thoroughly (dont forget the cavity). Spread butter, salt and pepper generously all over the turkey, under skin and cavity too. Place turkey on the rack in the pan. Use aluminium foil to tent the entire pan, making sure there are no openings. Cook the bird covered for 75% of the suggested time, for eg, if the cooking guide suggests to cook your bird for 4 hours-- cook it covered for 3 hrs and uncovered for the last hour or till the thermometer in the bird pops. Once the turkey is done remove the rack, place it on a tray, cover it up with foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute. In the meantime make gravy.

So thats it, my tips to a perfect roasted turkey! Do let me know how it turns out!


At which point exactly are diets supposed to hit adulthood? Please do fill me in, theres simply no excuse for my meals lately, especially yesterday. You really want to know, huh? Ok, ready? 2 boston kreme donuts with coffee for breakfast, 3 chocolate milano cookies + a chunk of brownie for lunch and, thankfully by some random intervention of sanity, lentils and rice for dinner. Yes I know, I'm ashamed of myself too. Its not a matter of weight loss, thankfully I'm over that (for now at least). But seriously!! That may have been acceptable for a hormone-pumped-adolescent but definitely not for someone staring 30 so close in the face.

In grad school around finals I'd locked myself up for days studying with a dozen donuts but that was almost 7 years ago!! I love veggies, meat and all things good for normal adults and its definitely no surprise that I love to cook but the problem is... I hate doing dishes! Thats my (quite literally) dirty secret. I know its not very adult-ish to complain about mundane chores that simply must be done like brushing, bathing and cleaning and yet this is my sentiment... inspite of owning a dishwasher. Theres no point of that stupid machine, except maybe an autoclave functionality. If we want to avoid dried up pieces of food (raw meat especially, yuck!) I have to wash everything manually anyway! It really is a tough situation, something I'd hoped would be fixed by getting married. No help there either, I usually have to rewash everything after the husband-dish-washing cycle is over.

Dishwashing is a process, first I go around collecting baby bottles and coffee mugs that always remain where ever the husband last was, which is to say-- everywhere around (and under) the house, then I unload the dishwasher with clean washed hands, squeeze antibacterial dishwashing liquid (because I'm not sure if dishwasher liquid is antibacterial) over the dishes in the sink, scrub off any dried up bits and then load the dishwasher. And since most nights I'm usually running around the house making sure my son doesnt kill himself flying off the couch, coffee table or staircase, that by the time its his bedtime I usually conk out too. So the dishes pile up till I'm ready, which typically isnt until a couple of days after the sink is filled beyond capacity or we're completely out of feeding bottles.

In an ideal world I would snap my fingers and everything would be done-- work and assignments won't cross the 5pm mark, the house always immaculately ready for the spot mother-in-law inspection, the sink empty, the clean bottle shelf always stocked, the toys so well organized that tripping and breaking bones is nary a concern and I'd spend hours playing with a son who keeps his feet planted on the ground. Sigh, reality sure bites.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Perfect Brownie

I've told you this before but please indulge my senility...chocolate bars, are not my thing. That little candy section by the checkout counter in the grocery store does nothing to me. Doesnt tempt me, doesnt call out to me-- does nothing. BUT soft chewy chocolate chip cookies, moist tender chocolate cake, gooey chocolate hazelnut spread on bread, a hot brownie fudge sundae or heck a plain ol' brownie ummm...magical unity of carbohydrate and chocolate... just the thought makes me want to reach out for the chunk of chocolate heaven thats sitting on the counter (a craving just fulfilled with a big honking slab).
Brownies are my monthly indulgence. I need a slice every 30 days or so and Baltimore sadly has not delivered, yet. I usually avoid baking my own because anything more than an individual serving is not a good thing to have around me-- it will be gone. But everything I've had in this city has been either like fudge or a chewy flourless chocolate cake and once even like a rocksolid, stale, fat chocolate cookie. To me, a perfect brownie should have a crinkly top, a softly yielding and slightly sticky center that finishes off with crumbs from the slightly crispy tops, the perfect marriage of cake and fudge. Theres nothing quite like it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a glass of milk or just by itself. I finally gave up searching and made my own batch yesterday with a Cooks Illustrated recipe. If you're as jaded with store bought brownies as I am, you should definitely give it a try, they are afterall (according to CI, look closely at the picture) designed to please everybody! Now if they would only do that with chocolate chip cookies.

Classic Brownie Recipe
(Adated from Cooks Illustrated)
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate chopped fine
1 1/2 stick butter cut into pieces (12 tbsp)
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract (can be replaced by mint extract for mint brownies)
1 tbsp instant coffee powder (my little twist on anything chocolatey)
1 cup roasted and chopped pecans, walnuts or chocolate chips (optional)
Preheat oven to 325F. Foil a 13X9 inch cake pan leaving 2 inch long overhangs to pull out brownie when ready. Grease or spray pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk to combine flour, salt, coffee powder and baking powder in a bowl. In a large microwave proof bowl (make sure you use a large one) place butter and chocolate and melt for 45 seconds and then 35 seconds on high till completely smooth. Gradually whisk in sugar and then the eggs, adding them one at a time. Next add the vanilla. Add flour mixture in three additions till completely incorporated. If you're using nuts or chocolate chips fold them in now. Transfer batter to prepared pan and bake for 35 mins or till a toothpick (or skewer) comes out mostly clean. Remove brownie from the pan using the overhang. If you really care about the presentation let it cool before cutting into even slices, otherwise just dig in!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Chechi's one pot Chilli chicken

"This is your room", the watchman said as I rolled my gigantic suitcase to a stop. The room was locked and outside on the ledge of a wall facing the courtyard, two girls sat talking. They spoke and dressed differently from anyone else I'd seen in Madras till then, in fact, they spoke and dressed just like me! All pangs of loneliness and homesickness temporarily fluttered away, quickly replaced by a sense of belonging as I instantly felt the connection with my new roommates-- all part of the brilliant, insightful plan of the hostel management. They figured that by placing all the NRI (non resident Indian) girls together, there would be stronger bonds, fewer arguments and fewer complaints of theft of "foreign" necessities like soap, shampoo or what have you. Thanks to that logic, at one point in time there were 10 of us in a 10X20 ft room, sharing one single bathroom! As it turned out all of us NRI's were from some part of the Middle-east, a majority were from the UAE, one was from Qatar and I was from Kuwait. We were each allotted one sturdy wooden twin bed with the ultimate luxury of a spring mattress but there was simply no room for 10 of those, 2 study tables and an engineering drawing stand. So in a flash of
resourcefulness bordering genius, we reasoned that since the sides of the beds were low we could line 4 beds next to each other against the longest stretch of wall and that (curbing any tendency to sprawl) would allow all 10 of us to sleep and still acommodate all the other necessary furniture.

I still remember the very first morning. We'd been up late the night before talking, getting each other up to speed about our parents, our siblings, friends, pets, schools, countries, everything that really mattered to teenagers. We collectively decided what we would wear for our College orientation the next day. The college had a dress code, only salwar kameezs for girls and since none of us in the room ever wore it (regularly), we were curiously excited about new attire defining the transition from high school uniform to collegebound independence. So imagine our shock when the next morning we found the first day of a lifetime of well dressed professional accomplishment thwarted by no running water. WELCOME TO INDIA!! There was only one tap in the entire hostel that was choking out a feeble stream and it was in the front yard. We grabbed our buckets in a mad dash to the yard, joining all the other hostel residents. Waiting our turn we made friends with other first years, too intimidated yet to talk to the "seniors". Slowly we got to know everybody-- the senior who spoke too long on the phone, the rude one who pushed for 2 bowls of ice cream, the loud one who cursed too much or the one who never wore a slip. We were ofcourse the ones who could be relied on for enough foreign candy to feed a sugar rush anytime of day. We were also the strange ones who were inconsolably homesick. Every night at least one of us would secretly slip out the room, go through a secret entrance to the rooftop and there hidden in the shadows under the most beautiful unadulterated starry sky we wept our lonely tears away.

One christmas break being the only one in the room without a place to go, I stayed back in the hostel. We were allowed one trip a month into the city. The college bus would pick us up at 9am from the hostel and again at 5pm from a couple of stops in the city. This being our only contact with the outside world, we'd buy everything our heart craved the past month, check our email, call our families, watch a movie and eat ice cream sundaes at Shakes 'n Creams. Back from such a trip that Christmas with junk food supplies replenished, I'd skipped lunch and locked myself up in the room for a meal in bed and a nap. Just as I'd cozied myself up in thick, rugged hostel blankets there were loud bangs on the door-- someone was using the handle of the metal bolt to knock URGENTLY. I bounded out of bed thinking I was being informed of an overseas phonecall and prepared to run downstairs to get it. But instead when the door flung open I was face-to-face with a stern senior who barked, "Did you eat yet?? Theres payasam today. Here!", handing me a shallow stainless steel bowl filled with sweet starchy goo. Rashmi, who we called Chechi (meaning big sister in her native tongue, Malayalam), lived one room away and was the cousin of one my roommates. In her 80's style white sports shorts and long, wavy hair tamed either into a half pony or half french braid, she was quite the icon of the hostel hallways. She was known to accost unsuspecting first years and to tackle my roommates for reasons unknown, yelling "Ahdi! Ahdi!". Really much larger in spirit than her pretty, petite, 5 foot something exterior would let on. Too scared, I'd never really spoken to her before and was really surprised to have her deliver dessert to my doorstep. But Chechi had heard that I was alone and took it upon herself to feed me. We got real close after that and when for whatever reason she needed to find a new room we made place on our 4 bed merged creation for her. Although only 4 years older than us, Chechi was the mother that all of us missed and longed for. Her intangible duties were many-- she made sure that the room was clean, everyone was fed, everyone danced and laughed, everyone got along and when we didnt, she solved our problems. And I'm telling you she could even predict the future, she knew the kind of men we would (or should) end up with-- analyzing, understanding and accepting our individuality only as a mother could. There never was a doubt that Chechi would make an amazing mother which fast forwarding a decade she is to two beautiful children who she promises (like us then) fingerprints-on-bums for any mischief!!

When Chechi recently sent me the recipe for her one pot chilli chicken recipe, our favorite Indo-Chinese hostel meal, with step by step pictures I simply HAD to share it with you. I made some slight modifications-- making the chicken crispier and the final outcome more dry but its still a one pot recipe just without the hour long marination-- I can never think ahead long enough but am sure she'll forgive the changes :) In a world where nothing ever stays the same its comforting to have people who are just as if frozen in time. Thanks for the recipe and the pictures, Chechi, love you loads!!


(Warning!: This dish is super spicy so feel free to adjust spice levels to your liking. Deseeded Jalapenos can be substituted for Thai chillies)

1. In a large bowl mix 2 lbs chicken (chopped into bite size pieces, for convenience used boneless skinless breast pieces when I tried it) with 2 heaping tbsps of ginger-garlic paste, 6 chopped Thai green chillies, 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tbsp soysauce, 2 tbsp pepper powder, 3 tbsp corn starch and 1 lightly beaten egg. Chicken should feel sticky with chilli pieces stuck to them, if not add more corn starch.

2. In a large flat bottomed frying pan add enough oil to completely coat the bottom. Arrange chicken pieces in one layer as much as possible. Cook pieces on high heat till golden brown on side, then flip over to brown the other side. The corn starch and egg give the chicken a crispy coating. Reduce flame to medium and add 2 medium onions chopped and 1 green pepper cut into strips (I used 2 cups of frozen mixed color pepper strips). Stir till onions and peppers soften up.

3. Add 2 tbsp chilli sauce (Sri racha).

4. Dissolve 1 tbsp corn starch into 1 cup of water or chicken broth (for more gravy increase broth quantity) and pour into the pan. Mix vigorously till the liquid thickens (about 3 minutes). Check seasoning. If you want it saltier, add more soy sauce.

5. Take pan off the heat and garnish with chopped spring onions and cilantro (optional).

This is Chechi's final dish which, she says she would have liked a bit more dry:
This is my almost finished dish, its very dry but again you can completely control that with the broth: