Sunday, October 31, 2010

dining in DC

Noosh and I spent the weekend in DC with Matt, Chelsea, and Chelsea's wonderful parents and brother, Maxwell. The initial reason for the trip was the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep the Fear Alive. I was so excited about it. And since we live relatively close, why not?

Long story short, the line for the metro was out the wazoo, so Noosh, Matt, Chealsea, Max, and I ended up skipping the Rally and instead exploring Tyson's and eating. A lot.

Except, not eating in the city. Eating at Chelsea's. Because her parents, aside from being two of the sweetest people on the planet, are two of the most phenomenal cooks I've ever met. Friday night we had some herb-grilled chicken, squash with lentils and walnuts, and shredded Brussels sprouts. For dessert, Mrs. Sparta made two scrumptious coconut cakes [to make up for my birthday!] with chocolate-espresso sauce. One was low-carb, while the other was the normal, full-fat. Surprisingly, I preferred the low-carb one. She replaced the flour with a combination of almond flour, coconut flour, and soy protein powder, which made for a much denser cake. Since I should also be veering towards low-carb myself, she showed me some of her recipes and gave me some great tips which I'll definitely use in tortes and brownies. I pretty much idolize her ability to make low-carb desserts actually taste as delicious as the originals.

Saturday night, Mr. Sparta was gracious enough to let me creep over his shoulder [and occasionally stir!] as he cooked dinner. We [though mostly he] made lobster and clam chowder, roasted eggplants stuffed with an onion, tomato, and mint mixture, and grilled flank steak marinated in olive oil and garlic. Absolutely delicious. In the hour and a half or so that I was popping in and out of the kitchen, Mr. Sparta gave me some fantastic tips [don't let mushrooms absorb water before cooking, save lobster shells to make your own stock, let meat come to room temperature before grilling for a more uniform steak, the secret to good chowder is thyme, etc. etc.] that hopefully will come in handy if I ever attempt anything as delicious as the food I watched him prepare.

And, of course, the dinnertime conversations and company were some of the best one could hope for. I can't say I was too disappointed about having missed out on the Rally [besides, Noosh and I watched Stewart's speech online earlier today and pretended we were actually there] because it gave me an opportunity to hang out with some of my favorites and enjoy food with people who fully appreciate it as much [if not more] than I do. I can't remember the last time I was doubled over with laughter during dinner, talking about everything from Jerk Animals to Monty Python to Disney chicks to Jackass 3D. Plus, I got the best thing EVER from Barnes and Noble, courtesy of Matt's brilliant detective skills.

I do think a Harry Potter-themed dinner is in order as to celebrate the release of Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Soon. I mean, I could really go for some Chiddingly Hotpot and Pumpkin Pasties.

Overall, this weekend was rated a solid A.

Which is the exact opposite of the grade I'm going to be getting on tomorrow's Logic Midterm.

Ugh. Can't I just replay this weekend over again instead?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

pumpkin spice macarons

Yes, I've jumped on the bandwagon. Macarons. They seem to be the new baking "thing."

I like this fad much better than the whole cupcake dealio from a while back. Macarons [not to be confused with macaroons] are a French, meringue-based sweet of some sort of filling sandwiched in between two airy, crunchy "cookies," made out of almond flour, egg whites, and sugar.

Got together with my good buddy, Tommy, to make these. He and Angie came by the apartment last night because Noosh and I hadn't seem them in a while. Tommy and I had been planning a bake-date for a while now, and finally settled on macarons.

Plus, being the pro bakers that we are, we have to maintain our street cred and keep up with trends. Word.

The recipe we used actually comes from make and bake, and is incidentally the Daring Baker's challenge recipe for this month [which I myself am not a part of yet, but hope to be soon!].

Pumpkin Spice Macarons

For the macarons, you'll need:
  • 2 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 2 cups almond flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1 tsp vanilla

For the pumpkin filling, you'll need:
  • 4 oz pumpkin [canned or fresh]
  • 4 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 4 tbsps confectioner's sugar
  • pinch of nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine confectioner's sugar and almond flour in a bowl until well-blended. In a clean, dry bowl attached to a stand mixer, whisk egg whites on medium until they form soft peaks. Slowly add granulated sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Add 1/3 of almond mixture to egg whites and gently fold. Add in vanilla. Fold in remainder of almond mixture in two batches, being careful not to deflate the egg whites.

Gently pour batter into a piping bag fitted with a plain, half-inch tip. If there isn't one on hand, a ziplock bag with a small portion of the corner cut off will suffice. Pipe small disks, about 1-inch in diameter, on the baking sheet. Bake for 12-13 minutes, until top is slightly golden. Wait for them to cool slightly, 3-4 minutes, before removing disks and letting them cool on a wire cooling rack.

To prepare frosting, beat pumpkin, cream cheese, confectioner's sugar, and nutmeg in the bowl of an elecric mixer with the paddle attachment on medium-high until smooth and creamy. Once macarons have cooled, spread a layer of pumpkin on the flat side of one disc and use another disc of a similar size to sandwich the filling. Repeat until all macarons have been used up.

These actually tasted much better than I expected they would. I'm really iffy about meringue, because I feel like all I'm doing is eating fluffed up sugar. Which is not far from the truth, but also because purchasing supermarket meringue can just be one of the worst on-the-spot decisions you could make in a grocery store. But I think it's the pumpkin filling that is the star here; super creamy, not too sweet, and my first taste of pumpkin this Fall. Delicious.

Also delightful to serve because everyone loves how cute they are.

I'd say it was a total success. Excellent job, Tommy. We are definitely well on our way to pro status.

[I mean, I can always dream.]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

gulab jamun

Today was Matt's 20th birthday. Of course, I had to do something. Normally I bake some type of dessert bar for my friends on their birthday, but Matt isn't just any old friend. Aside from being one of my bests, Matt is pretty much an honorary desi. And one of his most favorite desserts in the world happens to be one that I've grown up with: gulab jamun.

Now, I don't really know how to describe gulab jamun well, but it's basically balls of dough (charmingly called "waffle balls"), deep fried, and soaked in sugar. Honestly, you can't go wrong.

Though, I like to pride myself on having one of the best gulab jamun recipes out there. And believe me, I've had a lot of gulab jamun in my time.

Before I type the recipe up for you guys, let me be clear. As traditional and old as this dessert is (it was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Arabs during the Moghul Empire), my ingredients are rather...unconventional, for lack of a better word. Gulab jamun is normally made from milk solids (usually khoya) mixed with flour. Mine? Well, here's the recipe. Mom and I have been trying to perfect it for years, and I think we've finally gotten it right.

Gulab Jamun

You'll need:
  • 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons pancake mix (I use Bisquick or Hungry Jack)
  • 1 cup dry milk powder
  • 1/3 cup canned table cream
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom (or 2 pods, cracked)
  • drop of kewra or rosewater, if available

Prepare 2 saucepans, one large, one small, each over medium heat. In the large saucepan, combine sugar, water, and cardamom  (and kewra or rosewater, if using) to make a simple sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, then lower temperature and let simmer gently. In the smaller saucepan, fill it about halfway with canola oil. Keep heat on medium.

Meanwhile, prepare the dough. Thoroughly mix pancake mix and milk powder with a fork until well blended. Pour cream slowly, while stirring dough, until dough starts to combine. Use your hands and knead mixture until it comes together as one uniform lump of dough. Break off small pieces of dough and roll into balls, as smooth as possible (they should be about 1-inch in diameter). You should get 15-18 balls.

Gently lower 4 or 5 balls into the oil, and let fry until  they turn a deep brown. Make sure they don't burn; if they start browning too quickly, they are not cooking thoroughly enough and you need to lower the temperature of the oil. Once browned, use a slotted spoon to transfer the balls into the simple syrup. Let soak syrup for at least 10 minutes, if not for half an hour to an hour.

Gulab jamun keep well at room temperature or fridge in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

So delicious. I do like them a lot with the pancake mix; I think it's because they turn out lighter than they would if I were to use flour.

Plus, pancakes are delicious.

And these things are called "waffle balls" anyway, and that's basically the same thing, right? Right.

After Matt's had cooled down, I sprinkled them with a bit of shredded coconut and ground almonds, just for some texture (and feigned professionalism). Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up some decent containers from Kroger when I went grocery shopping yesterday, which was the entire reason I went to Kroger in the first place, so I had to resort to Tupperware to "gift-wrap" them.

Still, I'd say a treat from the homeland beats cupcakes any day.

(yes, I still hate cupcakes.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

the [delicious] big apple

It's nice to be home. Not that I didn't enjoy NYC, which is where I was this weekend, but after a 7-hour train ride doing nothing but sitting on my butt, readjusting my pillow so it would stop falling on the person sitting behind me, and trying over and over to go to sleep, it's nice to be able to move freely.

But that's not what this post is about. In fact, this post is going to be one long rant from me about a weekend in the city with one of my oldest and closest friends, Nimra, and the ridiculous shenanigans we got into.

And the food. Oh, yes, the food. So much food. Such good food.

I arrived at midnight on Friday night after one of the most disastrous train rides I've ever experienced [long story short, I was a few hours late], but Nimra showed me around Barnard and Columbia [though I've been to the city countless times with family, I've never really seen anything besides downtown and midtown NYC], and we ate some Pad Thai next to Athena on the Columbia steps.

Despite how gorgeous the area was, how nice it was to be catching up with an old friend I hadn't seen in about two years, and how exhilarating it was being in one of the liveliest cities in the world, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of jealousy of Nimra's ability to go to some random Thai restaurant off of some random street whenever she pleases and buy some phenomenal Pad Thai. Probably for much cheaper than the two options I have here in Cville. So. Unfair.

The rest of the weekend passed far too quickly for my liking. Walked 60 or 70 blocks and took a tour of the Upper East and West Sides, Midtown, Downtown, Noho, Soho, Chelsea, and Union Square, strolled through Central Park, danced in a conga line outside of the Julliard School, chatted with a magician about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter at FAO Schwarz, were lectured by a guard about the proper way of being proposed to at Tiffany's, and went from rags to riches at La Boheme at the Lincoln Center. All in all, a damn successful trip, especially for only 36 hours.

the generosity of some New Yorkers sometimes blows my mind. especially when it results in free, front-row seat tickets to the Opera.
And, oh yeah, the food. Let's get to that, shall we?

Saturday morning we had brunch at quite possibly the cutest restaurant I've ever been to in my life, Alice's Tea Cup. Predictably, the entire restaurant is Alice in Wonderland themed. Walls painted bright colors, glass-top tables with Alice in Wonderland memorabilia underneath, dainty, mismatched tea cups, a gift shop full of tea sets and Mad Hatter hats. It was darling.

scones and Roobios vanilla coconut tea.
I ordered scones, one pumpkin and one strawberry-lemon, with a pot of Rooibos coconut vanilla tea [Roobios is an African red tea that is naturally decaffeinated and slightly sweet]. They were delicious. The tea especially. Now, I'm not a tea connoisseur, but the variety of tea they had here blew my mind. I wanted to try  them all, but unfortunately could not. The coconut vanilla that I did have, though, was phenomenal. Nimra ordered loco coco hot chocolate, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper, and French toast bread  pudding. I think the bread pudding was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. It was cubed French toast soaked in brandy apricot tea and baked in a mug. Warm, comforting, perfectly sweetened, and divine. Alice's Tea Cup is releasing a cookbook in about two weeks, and I am strongly considering purchasing it solely for this bread pudding recipe. If you're ever in NYC, you must check this place out.

Not to mention I want to purchase a vintage tea set badly now.

After brunch, we walked around for hours and hours and checked out the city. Before dinner, I had requested that we hit up Max Brenner's Chocolate By the Bald Man, a favorite restaurant of mine in Union Square. It's a small chain; I think there are only a handful of locations in the U.S. But it is the chocolate lover's Eden. Seriously. They have a chocolate menu. I've had some pretty amazing desserts here in the past [my cousins introduced me to it a few years ago], but unfortunately, there wasn't enough time on this trip to have a meal there. Instead, I picked up some hot cocoa mix; they didn't have my favorite dark chocolate this weekend, but they had a new flavor out: gingerbread spice hot chocolate. I can't wait till it cools down here in Cville enough for me to justify making intensely thick and rich hot chocolate. [Though, knowing me, I won't be able to wait that long.]

 We stopped for dinner before the Opera at a little Italian joint called Bianca. I had suggested this one, as I had heard of it before, but I was still skeptical; ever since coming back from Italy, I could name all the decent Italian restaurants I've come across on one hand. Everything just falls flat in comparison to the real deal. But this one was a winner.

Bordetto di pesce [fish and shellfish stew with a light tomato and olive oil broth, served with crusty bread] for me and ravioli di ricotta con burro e salvia [ravioli with ricotta, butter, and sage] for Nimra. Both were absolutely delicious. Silky smooth, surprisingly light, and really authentic. It would have been the perfect meal had the squid not had its damn tentacles still attached. I can't eat things with tentacles. Or eyeballs. [I'm a terrible foodie, I know, but I don't care]. But I digress. For dessert we split a tortino di cioccolata, this really rich, dense dessert that pretty much tasted like a bittersweet Hershey bar in cake form. Amazingly good. If I could, I would recreate all three dishes.

Sunday brunch in NYC was quite an experience; everywhere was packed [more so than usual]. My oldest friend, Maliha, joined us for brunch which was lovely, since I hadn't seen her in 4 years. So, it was the three of us out, and I wasn't expecting us to have to wait too long, since we were a relatively small group. Mistaken. It was probably an hour long wait total, from walk-in to actually getting our food. But worth the wait. We were at an adorable place called Cafe Lalo [the same one featured in "You've Got Mail"].

If I ever have my own bakery, I would want it to look just like Cafe Lalo. It's so bohemian inside, with vintage art on the walls, interesting lights on the ceiling, small tables packed close together, bustling with chitchat, and a three-tiered glass case full of some of the most scrumptious pies, tarts, cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, and brownies that I've ever seen.

not my photo, but I wanted to give you a glimpse of the sugar invasion.
It was a perfect brunch spot; there were so many menu items it was hard to choose. The Belgian waffles caught my eye, but knowing that I was going to be getting dessert, I decided on something savory.

Steamed eggs with goat cheese, tomatoes, oregano, and basil, served with roasted potatoes and Tuscan salad. Maliha got steamed eggs as well, and Nimra ordered a Gouda and spinach sandwich on toasted multigrain.
And, of course, since I have the biggest sweet tooth in the world and a never-ending black hole for a stomach, we had to order dessert. Blueberry cheesecake and pear apple tart. Both were divine. Especially the cheesecake. [Not that I'm biased at all].

Ugh. I pretty much died and went to heaven this weekend. Eating and eating and eating. Didn't feel too bad about it either, since we walked so much that my legs are sore. But I'm severely in delicious food withdrawal now. Before catching the Amtrak home, I bought some KFC wraps to eat for dinner [so I wouldn't have to  resort to eating an overpriced blueberry muffin], which paled in comparison to previous Thai, Italian, and brunch foods [to be honest, I had one bite before I chucked the thing in the trash].

I'm only disappointed in the lack of time I had to spend there. Chelsea had suggested a few restaurants that I should go to around the city, and there are a few I've heard of that I would have liked to try, but 36 hours is just not enough for New York. I doubt an entire lifetime is either, if you're a foodie, but definitely more than 36 hours needed.

*sigh* I'm already planning my next trip back.

In other news, I have so many cans of pumpkin in my apartment that I need to put them to good use soon. PLUS, apple picking this weekend, so there will be bags of fresh apples to use in pies and cakes.

Ugh, I love fall. And the horrific consequences it will have on my waistline.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

super sweet sixteen-layer cake

Today is Yusra's sweet sixteen, and I'm home for the weekend for Fall Break. So, because I love my baby sister, and because I love baking, I decided to give myself a bit of a challenge and shoot for a 16-layer cake.

I mean, no big deal.

She actually had a little sleepover yesterday with some of her friends, and mom had made her a cake for that. She used my 1-2-3-4 cake recipe and a simple buttercream frosting, but it was an absolutely beautiful cake. I was reminded once again of how my baking skills pale in comparison to hers.

um, is that Hello Kitty? yes, that is in fact, Hello Kitty.

She didn't have a Hello Kitty mold [do they even make those?] so she craftily made a large circular cake and cut it proportionate to Hello Kitty's face and added ears and a bow to the top. It was so cute, and consequently extremely painful to cut into.

Anyway, on to my cake. I've actually made a 14-layer cake in the past, which turned out to be quite successful. But I was a little worried about the 16-layer, because I had to tweak the ratios of the cake batter so I'd have enough. I'll type up the recipe that I used, but note that this recipe makes a 16-layer cake. Do not make it if you want a regular layer cake, or you will have so much batter on your hands you won't know what to do with yourself.

Sixteen Layer Cake with Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsps baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 sticks butter, softened
  • 3 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 tsps vanilla

For the fudgy chocolate cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 16-oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 6 tbsps whole milk
  • 6 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsps vanilla

Note: the frosting is twice what is necessary for a normal, 2-layer 9-inch cake. If you want to use it in a regular-sized cake, halve the frosting recipe.
Note: Instead of using a spring form cake pan, I used 8 tin foil cake pans, each of which I used twice, of about 8.5 inches in diameter. This makes it much easier to get even layers, and completely cuts out the hassle of having to cut the layers yourself. I got the idea from, and it is pure genius.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl beat the cream cheese, butter, and milk together until smooth, using the paddle attachment. Add the sugar, cocoa, and salt and continue to beat until blended. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add vanilla, and beat until combined. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before using.  

Note: frosting can be made in advance, as it will keep well in the fridge for up to 3 days.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut 16 pieces of parchment paper the circumference of the tinfoil pans, press on the bottom of  each pan, and grease the pans. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Reduce mixer speed to medium-low, and alternate between adding flour and milk, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla and mix until just combined. Don't over-mix.

Pour about 3/4 cup of batter in each pan. Bake for about 13 minutes. My oven fits 4 pans on each of its two shelves, so after the first batch was done, I removed the cakes, relined the pans, and baked the second half of the batter using the same 8 tinfoil pans.

left: 5 layers, 11 to go; right: 16 layers
Once the layers are cooled, begin assembling the cake. Spread a little bit of frosting on top of each layer, using enough to barely cover the layer. Needless to say, you don't want to over-frost the layers, or you will run out of frosting. Frost the top and sides evenly. Decorate as desired, and refrigerate  until ready to serve.

The hardest part about this cake, to be honest, is the assembly process. Mainly because you have to make sure your cake doesn't turn into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It should hold up relatively well, though, if it's balanced properly. 

After I finished frosting the cake, I wanted to do a shell border around the top and bottom. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough frosting to do so, so I combined about a cup of leftover buttercream frosting from yesterday to the chocolate cream cheese, thus resulting in the lighter shade pictured above. Had I wanted to, I could have melted some chocolate or added some cocoa powder to darken it to the same shade as the cake, but I kind of liked the contrast. So I left it.

A few months ago, I had attended cake decorating classes. Honestly, the classes were kind of useless, but it gave me an excuse to make sugar roses. Which keep disturbingly well for, basically, forever. Mom had saved mine from this past summer [they keep at room temperature in the pantry for months, as long as they're in an air-tight container], and told me to use them on the cake. So I took about half a cup of buttercream frosting, dyed it green, piped some leaves, and stuck some roses on the top of the cake.

Not quite as pretty as the ones I used on my mom's birthday cake a while back, but nice enough.

It took every ounce of patience for me not to go ahead and cut the cake myself so I could see if the layers turned out alright. But no, I had to wait five freaking hours until dinner. *sigh* Oh, the suspense.

But, worth the wait. Everyone gathered around, waiting in anticipation for the first cut. I was pretty much bouncing on the balls of my feet. I had mom cut it for me, because I trust her much more with slicing an 8-inch tall cake than I do myself.

Perfect. I was ecstatic. Everyone loved it! Such a success. Most importantly, Yusra's eyes lit up and she broke into a grin when she saw the layers. And that really is the best thing about baking; seeing others' reactions to something you've made them. It's why I bake. And love every second of it.

In other news, I've had cake almost daily for the past 3 weeks. This is the problem with having Eid, my birthday, and my sister's birthday so close together. I actually think I will die if I eat any more.

So, it may be time to put away the baking pans for a while, lest I want to gain the sophomore 15 before winter break even starts. Damn. Ugh. Why are all things delicious so bad for you?!