Saturday, October 29, 2011

fish custard [and a wibbly-wobbly halloween]

Friday morning began with a much-needed lie-in until 10am, and still I didn't feel like getting up. Buried under comforters on a bed of pillows on an overcast, autumn morning... all I really wanted was a steaming mug of tea and a cookbook to read.

But, you know, on the day of a wibbly-wobbly Halloween get-together, you force yourself out of bed, do a bit of cleaning and laundering, turn some Madeleine Peyroux on the stereo, and simmer up some salted caramel.

Chelsea and Liz have had a few dinner parties already this semester, so Noosh and I decided it was our turn to host...something.

[Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.]

But really, Halloween weekend called for one thing and one thing only: a Doctor-Who themed party.

Not that, you know, all of my friends are fans. In fact, the vast majority haven't watched. So really, it was more of an excuse for me to wear a bow-tie and cook up some fish custard.

"Fish Fingers" and Custard
Adapted from The Comfort of Cooking and Bakingdom
Yields 4-6 servings custard, about 2 dozen fish fingers

For the salted caramel custard, you'll need:
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 6 tbsp cornstarch 
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 tsp salt
For the fish fingers, you'll need:
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup [1 stick] butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp confectioner's sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 5 graham cracker sheets
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp sugar

To prepare the custard:
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk 1/2 cup of the milk, the cornstarch, and vanilla until blended. In a large saucepan, heat water and sugar on medium-high heat until boiling. Don't stir, but swirl the pan around to mix. Once boiling, lower the heat so that the syrup is at  a simmer. Simmer until the caramel turns an amber color, add in salt, and swirl until incorporated, 8-10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour in the remaining 3 1/2 cups milk, whisking constantly, until combined. The sugar may clump up spectacularly, but that is okay. Return the pan to the flame and heat on medium-high heat until just boiling, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Whisk the mixture until the caramel dissolves and the mixture thickens a bit, about 10 minutes. Add in the cornstarch mixture and whisk on medium flame until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Pour the custard into a large glass dish or other heat proof dish. Allow the custard to cool, at least 30 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours, until the custard has thickened fully and set.

To prepare the fish fingers: 
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on low speed, then increase to medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add in egg and vanilla and mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary. Lower the speed and gradually add in flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Cover the top of the bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a food processor, pulse the graham crackers, butter, and sugar until the mixture is crumbly and sticks together. Once cookie dough is chilled, roll into "fish fingers," about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. The smaller the better, as they will expand quite a bit while baking. Roll the "fish finger" in the graham cracker mixture to "coat" and place on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, allowing about an inch space between cookies on the sheet. Bake for 14-16 minutes until golden brown. Allow cookies to cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Serve "fish fingers" with custard. They taste splendid when eaten together, or either can be enjoyed separately. Allons-y!

Noosh and I first stumbled upon this recipe a few months ago, and immediately I fell in love. The graham cracker "coating" is absolutely brilliant, and give the cookies the appearance of honest-to-God fish fingers. Words cannot describe how enamored I am with these things. They taste fantastic as well, which is only a plus, really.

So after about 9 hours of cooking custard, baking fish fingers and jammie dodgers, listening to everything from Louis Armstrong to Don Omar with Noosh preparing the TARDIS door, our apartment was full of the sounds of laughter, chatter, music, The Green Lantern, Hello Kitty, and Freida Kalho, a rather disturbing-looking cockroach, unnamed doctors and Sabeen's-apartment-occupiers, hilarious and somewhat horrifying Bollywood dancing, and happy mouths munching on good food. A success in all senses of the word, over all.

And by the time we were done cleaning up by around 1:30, I promptly passed out and slept for about 9 hours straight.

And I've spent the vast majority of the hour and a half I've been up uploading photographs and listening to Cabin Pressure on Youtube [quite the brilliant radio show, sent to me by a sweet friend who knows of my utter obsession with Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant theatrical timing and jaguar-hiding-in-a-cello voice], not really wanting to get out of my comfortable bed.

Having discarded the suit-jacket, the bow-tie, and the formal button-down, though, I must say it's nice not to have a career that requires me to dress up like a flamboyant British gentleman on a daily basis. Fun as it was, I'll leave it to the professionals.

I much prefer watching them from the comfort of my living room sofa.

Preferably with a bowl of fish custard in hand.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

caramel apple pie

I’m quite sure that pretty soon, my iPod will only have the ability to play the same 20-odd songs, as I’ve been listening to nothing but Cole Porter, Margaret Whiting, and Radical Face on loop for the past few weeks. Not that I would complain if this were to become reality soon, since the three are perfect to listen to while strolling outside under falling leaves and welcomed sunshine.

Yesterday was spent primarily with MattMatt, as the two of us rarely get to see each other one-on-one, and it was hugely pleasant. Pumpkin pancakes and peach cake for brunch at Tommy’s, as well seeing an old friend from high school who came down for the weekend. A spontaneous drive out to the downtown mall soon followed, which made for a lovely afternoon sipping coffees, browsing dusty bookshelves in used bookshops, and searching for the perfect menswear blazer at Urban Outfitters. Though I came home empty-handed in the department of androgynous outerwear, a purse heavy with new (used) books and some quality conversation in the living room with David Tennant staring us down with a raised eyebrow was more than enough.

Now my only wish is that I had enough time to just sit on piles of pillows and blankets and read the day away. And also that my apartment had a fireplace crackling with warm flames, filling the living room with the smells of earthy cocoa and roasted walnuts.

Perhaps my next investment will be a bigger bookshelf.

I love strolling downtown at this time of year; early fall, before the leaves have had the chance to wither away and it’s still just warm enough to eat lunch outside wearing a wool scarf and sweater.

Nevertheless, today was a day to spend inside, curled up on the couch in an oversized sweatshirt catching up on work and oodles and oodles of Merlin.

And, of course, at the end of a perfect weekend, it’s only appropriate to put a basket of mountain-fresh apples to good use. 

Caramel Apple Pie
Adapted from If You Give a Girl a Cookie and Tartine

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 3 cups plus 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 sticks butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup cold water
For the filling, you'll need:
  • 5 cups of baking apples [about 6 medium or 5 large; Golden Delicious, Jonagold, or Winesaps work splendidly, or any combination thereof], cored and sliced
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • a few shakes of nutmeg

To prepare the filling:
In a large saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar over medium-low flame. Add in sliced apples, increase heat to medium-high, and cook the apples in the sauce until softened, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle flour and spices over the apples, and turn them over to coat until the flour dissolves. Let cool while preparing the pie crust.

To prepare the crust:
In a food processor, pulse the flour, butter, and salt the consistency is that of peas. Slowly pour in the water until the dough comes together [you may not need to use all of the water]. Divide the dough in half, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble the pie:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch pie pan. Roll each ball of dough out wide enough to cover the base of pan. Place one on the base. Using a fork, poke holes into the bottom and sides of the crust. Gently scoop the apples and caramel sauce into the pan and spread evenly. Lay the second sheet of dough on top of the apples, pinching the top and bottom crusts to seal. Make a slit or two on the top crust.

Bake pie for about 25 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25-30 minutes. Allow pie to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve with sweetened cream or vanilla ice cream.

I’d like to make a confession: I’m really not that keen on apple pie. At all, really. I know, I know, as if it’s bad enough I’ve forgone all non-BBC television, I’ve now basically rejected all of the basic tenets of our great country.

But this one is pretty good. I mean, it’s no cherry Bakewell tart, but Noosh and Tommy loved it, and the flaky crust is to die for. The apples really benefit from bathing in brown sugar and butter, as obviously expected, and cooking them beforehand prevents the crust from becoming soggy. The end result is a beautifully golden, crunchy, autumn-y pie.

Would have been divine with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but good company and quality television will make do just as well.

Then I'll pretend it is my bed
I'll jump in very quick
And pile their leaves up over me
For covers soft and thick

Friday, October 21, 2011

lemon, blackberry, and ginger cake [and a happy 21st]

Wednesday evening was spent attempting to familiarize myself with absolutist and utilitarian philosophy, emailing professors about tentative spring courses [oh yes, I'm a dork, and unbelievably excited about class offerings], rubbing my eyes and consequently smudging all the eyeliner around to give me the appearance of a lopsided raccoon, and putting away clean dishes without having realized the smudgy state of my fingers and consequently getting black stains all over the bowls and having to rewash them.

[As a side note, I've discovered that all of my current obsessions are manifested in some of the cookbooks that I own. King Arthur Flour Cookbook (purchased 2009), The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook (purchased approximately January 2011), Dining with Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook (purchased approximately 1 week ago [not a problem]). The amount that I was ecstatic when I made the realization was unprecedented and startling.]

And yet, it was a rather perfect evening, as soon after rewashing dishes, the house was filled with the smells of ginger and lemon zest, and the sounds of unbelievably irritating whistles at a conference meeting during an episode of Arrested Development.

As a note of self-preservation, all shots taken for this particular dessert were done in the absolute worst lighting imaginable. It seems that cloudy mornings and artificial, dinner-table lighting made for oddly colored images. Blast lamplight and clouded sun rays.

It was nice, though, to be baking a cake. I haven't done so in ages, as I haven't had the need, but yesterday happened to be the 21st birthday of one of my dearest, closest, sweetest friends: Matt (and, incidentally, Rhea's as well!). I knew I would be baking something, but I wanted it to be something spectacular. Something new. Something exotic.

And so I asked him what he'd want.

And all he said was "lemon curd."

And that was all I needed.

[Admittedly, he also said "blackberries, preferably," but I'll keep that little tidbit to myself as not to diminish the above drama.]

I have quite some experience with lemon curd, as it's a foolproof way of making a fantastic cake, but for the most part it's always accompanied either a basic vanilla or angel food cake. Seeing as how it's fall and it's Matt, I wanted to try something unexpected.

So, clearly, the fates were calling on me to bake a lemon-ginger cake, layered with blackberry preserves and lemon curd, covered with a lemon-cream cheese frosting.

And you know what, the fates did good this week.

Lemon, Blackberry, and Ginger Cake
Adapted from epicurious and my own tastes.

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
For the lemon cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • blackberry or other fruit preserves, to layer
  • lemon curd, to layer

To prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease three 9-inch cake pans. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat sugar and butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, followed by lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add flour mixture into the wet ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk, in three batches, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly among the three pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until set. Turn cakes out onto cooling racks and cool to room temperature before assembling.

To prepare the frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth, 3-4 minutes. Add in lemon juice, zest, and vanilla. Lower speed and gradually add in powdered sugar. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Refrigerate frosting until using.

[Note: frosting can be prepared  a day in advance.]

To assemble the cake:
Place on of the cake layers on a serving plate. Spread a thin layer of the cream cheese frosting over the top as a crumb coating. Spread about 3 tbsp of fruit preserves over the crumb coating, about 1/2 inch from the edges of the cake. Spread about 4 tbsp of lemon curd over the preserves, about 1/2 inch from the edges of the cake. Repeat with the second and third layers. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the cream cheese frosting. Refrigerate cake until serving, but allow cake to sit for 15-20 minutes before cutting.

Delicious is the only word that comes to mind. I also have a limited vocabulary. But really. The ginger is very understated, but enough to make you realize that there's something more to the cake than what you'd get from a simple vanilla. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

And then, you can never go wrong with lemon curd.

Like, ever.

So, happy 21st birthday, MattMatt and Rhea! I do hope it was all to your liking :)

In other news, today I find myself settled quite cozily in a little corner of Panera, laptop on the table, empty cappuccino mug to my right, and a stack of Greek mythology and philosophy texts on my lap. All of this is hugely unsurprising, as this is seems to be my default state of existence, but I'm somewhat unnerved at how much colder it is inside this place than it is outside. Unnerved and also slightly uncomfortable. Particularly since it's pretty chilly outside as it is.

But I finally managed to find an empty socket for my laptop cord, so there's no way in hell that I am leaving.

Besides, I like the padded booths.

Even if it means having my scarf wrapped twice around my neck and my sleeves pulled down to my fingertips.

Maybe it's time for a second [third] cup of coffee...

I love autumn.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

classic [but better] pumpkin pie

Aside from the odd bout of 80-degree weather this weekend, fall is in full swing. Obviously, in such fashion, long weekends spent at home mean Downton Abbey marathons with your mother, modeling men's suit-jackets in front of your male relatives, reading quality detective fiction novels, putting off all semblances of academic work, and ordering mountains upon mountains of chai lattes and pumpkin-spiced coffees.

At least, that's primarily how I spent my long weekend.

Fall break always seems to line up perfectly with Yusra's birthday, and this year was no different. My baby sister turned 17 yesterday, and for the occasion had me bake her a birthday pie. Yes, pie. Of the pumpkin variety, too, to be precise. Last year, I baked a rather delicious pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and Yusra told me then and there that for her 17th birthday, she wanted another one. Of course, I promised, thinking at the time that she'd forget about it and I'd end up baking a carrot cake or something of the sort [leaving my 16-layer-cake days behind me for now].

And yet, eleven months later, she hadn't forgotten, and on Saturday I found myself waking up to a countertop covered in allspice, cinnamon, and ginger powders, fresh nutmeg, a box of flour, cold sticks of butter, and a stand-mixer waiting to be put to use.

This year's pumpkin pie is a variation on last year's epic success, combined with a tantalizing recipe for pumpkin-streusel pie found at Go Lightly Gourmet. The end result is a tall, creamy, subtly-spiced pumpkin filling in a flaky crust, topped with a pecan and brown sugar streusel topping.

Yusra was pretty satisfied.

Pumpkin Pie with Streusel
Adapted from Go Lightly Gourmet, old pumpkin pie recipes, and Tartine.

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 stick cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 tbsp cold water, more or less depending
For the filling, you'll need:
  • 1 15-oz can of pumpkin 
  • 1 8-oz package of cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 heaping tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
 For the streusel topping, you'll need:
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 stick cold butter, cut into cubes

To prepare the pie crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a 9-inch pie plate. Using a food processor, pulse flour, ginger, sugar, salt, and butter until the mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Slowly add in enough cold water for the mixture to come together and form a dough. Press the pie dough on the bottom and sides of the pie plate, crimping the edges. Stick the plate in the freezer for 15-20 minutes, until dough is sufficiently cold. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork and bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Let the pie cool while you prepare the filling, but keep the oven on.

To prepare the filling:
Cream the pumpkin and cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Pour in the remaining filling ingredients and beat until thoroughly blended. Pour the filling on top of the pie crust and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the edges of the pie are set but the center is still jiggly. Prepare the streusel while the pie is in the oven.

To prepare the streusel:
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, and spices until blended. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, cut the butter into the flour mixture until incorporated and crumbly. Add in the chopped pecans and mix until blended. Your hands can be used for all of this.

Once the pie has baked for 50 minutes, remove it from the oven and sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top. Place pie back into the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until set. Let pie cool to room temperature before slicing. Serve with sweetened cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

I always very much love baking pies, though I'm not quite as keen on pumpkin pies as Yusra is. Of course, I enjoy them for their seasonal perfection and spiciness, but I'm not in love with them or anything. Nevertheless, I found myself reaching for a second slice even before I was done with the one on my plate when it came to this one. The cream cheese in the filling gives it a beautiful texture, and the streusel on top is a perfect addition. Strange that it doesn't make an appearance on many pumpkin pies...

As for me, I'm back at the apartment for my lat day of break. Four days at home was lovely after a week of midterms and paper-writing, but alas, back into the fray. So, naturally, I've spent my day reading more fiction novels, cooking stew, and thinking about working on a looming philosophy paper.

I mean, it's the thought that counts, right? Right. I'm going to go with it. Academic productivity at its finest.

In other news, I hear that MattMatt has baked me a belated pumpkin and cream cheese birthday cake. I have to say, though pumpkin pie isn't high on my list of saliva-inducing desserts, Matt's cake certainly is. I anticipate a rather delicious evening.

Who ever said twentieth birthdays couldn't stretch on for two weeks? ...and involve four separate cakes?

I confidently stand by the sentiment that birthday calories do not count.

...I mean, I have to maintain the integrity of my voracity.

Monday, October 3, 2011

salted dulce de leche brownies

It's that time of year again. The time of year when I wake up not wanting to get out of bed; to stay bundled up in layers of blankets against the chill of the morning. When kitchens smell like pie crust and nutmeg. When I can wrap myself up in a thick pashmina and tuck my jeans into sturdy boots. When I want nothing more than to curl up on the sofa in an oversized sweatshirt with a mug of tea. Pea coats and wool hats. Apple-picking and pumpkin patches. Cinnamon latte mornings and lentil stew evenings.

It's also the start of birthday season. My own was last week, and just four days later my dear friend Beth turned 20 as well. She has a rather large sweet tooth and appreciation for delicious things, so we get along swimmingly. Though we don't have a chance to chat very often [we live far apart and have hugely different schedules, despite attending the same school], a lunch-date of iced coffee and Thai curry is always enough to catch-up.

And, of course, I knew I'd be baking her something for the occasion.

I also haven't baked anything in quite a while [all the Middle-Eastern desserts lean more toward the stove-top cooking end of the spectrum], so I wanted to make sure it would be quite good. I settled on two of the greatest things in the world: dulce de leche and brownies. Salted, of course.

[Autumn just sings salted caramel, don't you think?]

I think I can confidently say that I own more cookbooks than any college student in history. Possibly also most housewives. Also, nothing makes me happier than Pashminas. Also, yes, that is a Sherlock mug.

Salted Dulce-de-Leche Brownies
Adapted from Apt. 2B Baking Co. 

For the brownies, you'll need:
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 11 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp vanilla
For the filling, you'll need
  • 1 14-oz can dulce de leche
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel, to top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease a 9x13-inch pan.

Put the chocolate and butter in the bowl of a double boiler set over simmering water and stir occasionally until chocolate and butter are melted. Pour the melted chocolate into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add in the eggs and whisk on medium speed until incorporated. Add in both sugars and vanilla. Gradually add in flour and salt and mix until just combined.

In a separate bowl, mix dulce de leche and 1 tsp salt until thoroughly combined.

Pour about 2/3 of the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula. Gently spread the salted dulce de leche on top of the batter. Pour the remaining batter on top of the dulce de leche and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until set. Sprinkle fleur de sel on top of the baked brownies. Let brownies cool completely before cutting.

These are fan-flipping-tastic. I love the cake-y texture, which is odd since I typically prefer the fudgier variety. The salted dulce de leche offsets the sweetness of the brownies perfectly. A good, chocolate-y, fall dessert, and a nice source of comfort after the anti-climactic resolution that was the series 6 finale of Doctor Who.

Though I think pumpkin will need to make an appearance in my kitchen quite soon.

Yes. Definitely pumpkin. Pumpkin and ginger. I think that's a rather comforting combination. It'll be a nice addition to a week spent watching Merlin on Netflix studying for midterms.