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November 30, 2004

Boulder, there I was




I really was in Boulder for Thanksgiving holidays, but it is not that I just got back; it has been a week since we came back in Hawaii. I am also fully aware that it is not November anymore but already well into the second week of December, but I still post this as a November entry, as these are what I had at the end of November...

It was a(nother) eventful stay in Boulder. I had two Thanksgiving dinners, watched a Nutcracker ballet, took some walks, did some shopping, saw the heaviest snow I had ever seen in November, did a sleigh ride, and met a lot of families and friends, most of them for the first time since my last stay in Colorado in this past June, and few of them for the first time in my lifetime, all of them were very kind and warm-hearted, funny, and lovely people.

One of the most memorable things I had was going up in the mountains to look at the night view of Boulder just by the "star".

Every year at this time, the star has been shining over the city of Boulder up from on a hillside of Flagstaff Mountain (here is its story). And we went up to the star on the very day it was lit, the first day of the season, in the night following Thanksgiving Day.

It was also a full-moon that day, and up on the mountains it was almost supernaturally bright for a midnight, with the full moon light up in the sky and the bright light bulbs just above us.



The view from right in the middle of the star was nothing but a spectacular. I almost felt as if I could have been able to see infinite distance. It was so bright and the air was so clear (and cold, for sure).



Then it started snowing the following Saturday, and it still was on the next day when we were leaving Colorado for Hawaii. It was definitely the most snow I had ever seen in November.



And the next day we got home was his birthday. Although his families and relatives gave him two birthday dinners while we were in Colorado, on his real birthday there were just two of us, with him having his own stuff to take care of and me being overloaded with work. While I could not take too much time to fix something fancy for the birthday boy, I managed to make something he likes: pasta and chocolate cake.

For the pasta part I made a baked pasta casserole consisting of layers of rigatoni, thick tomato sauce, basil pesto, ricotta cheese with parmigiano cheese on top. It was a bit like lasagna, just with rigatoni. He seemed to like it a lot.

For the dessert, I made chocolate pots, using a recipe I found in inside of package of creme fraiche (also available online: here). It really is a recipe for chocolate tart, but I couldn't bother to bake a tart shell on that day, so I made the filling only.

It wasn't until I was preparing these tartless chocolate tarts when I noticed that these would be quite dark and bitter filling; and it is not really to his taste (he likes sweeter kinds a lot better). I was going to make something hi likes, and look what I have done! But it was too late, and I made and served them anyways, to find him being kind enough to give me compliments, but did not forget to request sweeter and creamier ones for the next time.


I still owe him a real birthday cake, I reckon.

November 21, 2004

early snow



I was meant to be all ready for today's 10th edition of Is My Blog Burning? event, a Cookie Swap hosted by Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess from a long time ago. I dwelled on what cookie to make for this fun event, came up with a lot of ideas and eventually picked one up, and composed a recipe well in advance.

I had several different ideas as to kinds of cookie suitable to this festive theme, such as classic ginger cookies or fancier-looking florentine cookies, but I settled on snowballs, my all-time favorite cookies, very easy to make which I thought is great for a cookie recipe swapping.

These nutty cookies may be called Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes depending on your culture or personal preference, or maybe almond crescents if they are so shaped (and made with almonds among other nuts). I like to call them snowballs though, because the cookies really look like snowballs and I think that is a nice name that you can associate with the festive season.

So much so I even suspected that I would not be the only one who loves them and bring this particular kind of cookie for the IMBB 10. So I decided to give it a twist, by throwing in something extra - like caramel. That's how I came up with the idea of praline snowball cookies, as the caramel-covered nuts sounded like the best bet to add a caramel flavor to this nutty cookie. Also, I chose to use hazelnuts rather than more commonly-used almonds this time around, just because I had a bag of ground hazelnuts at hand, which would save me time and effort to grind nuts myself. I was all set.

And suddenly I figured that I didn't have much time to carry out the planned project. The posting date is the 21st of November, on which day I knew I would not be home, so I managed to squeeze some time out of my last 9 hours before leaving home on the 17th.

I should have gotten on it earlier. Although I had my idea pretty well organized in my head, I had too much stuff to take care of before leaving, unable to focus myself on the cookie making very well. There was no trouble in making the dough as nothing could hardly be easier than making this, but I messed up in dough-shaping and baking; I made the balls way too small (I don't know how, but I might have mixed up inches and centimeters) and thus ended up baking the cookies too long for their size, to have rather too well-browned balls for snowballs. Also, I didn't crash the praline very well, leaving somewhat large chunks in the relatively small cookies.




Despite all this, the cookies tasted lovely. A bit too crunchy due to the overbaking, but the praline did a great job, adding another dimension to this already sweet and nutty cookie with its nice crunchy texture and caramel-y sweetness.

And I have to confess that I couldn't bother to roll the cookies in confectioners sugar and instead sifted the sugar over the cookies (twice, at least), which is why my snowballs aren't all the way covered with snow. A bit like snow in early winter, right at around this time of the year, maybe?



Hazelnut Praline Snowball Cookies

My version has a high content of nuts, probably higher than most other recipes of this kind, and uses a very little sugar in the dough as the praline contributes a lot to the sweetness of the finished cookies, along with the double sugar dusting.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (1 stick / 113g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 Tbs. confectioners sugar
Pinch of salt
1 cup (120g) pastry flour
3/4 cup ground hazelnuts
3-5 Tbs. praline (recipe follows)

1/2 - 1 cup confectioners sugar, for dusting

Directions:

In a large bowl beat the butter and confectioners sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the salt and ground hazelnuts, and mix. Sift in the flour and stir until mostly blended. Stir in the praline and mix until just blended. Cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes and preferably overnight.

Preheat an oven to 350F (180C). Shape the ball into 1-inch (2.5cm) balls and place 1 inch apart on cookie sheets. Place the sheets in the preheated oven, immediately lower the temperature to 325F (160C) and bake until the cookies are just golden on the bottom, 12-15 minutes. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks and while the cookies are warm, sift the confectioners sugar over them to cover the surface entirely. Let cool the cookies completely, and roll them in the confectioners sugar to give the second layer.

To make the praline: lightly toast 1/3 cup whole hazelnuts and coarsely chop them. Lightly oil a baking sheet and set aside. In a heavy saucepan over low heat, heat 5 Tbs. granulated sugar and 2 Tbs. water, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture is deep amber. Stir in the hazelnuts, remove from heat, and spread thinly on the prepared baking sheet. Leave it until cool and crisp, about 30 minutes.

Crack the praline into pieces. Using a food processor chop the praline chunks to obtain coarse meal (do not overwork or the praline will become a paste), or alternatively, put the praline chunks in a heavy-duty plastic bag and run a rolling pin over the bag to shatter the praline. Set aside.

Note:
Hazelnuts, both in the dough and praline, can be substituted with other nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pecans. In any case it might be a nice idea to match the kind of nuts used in the dough and praline.

Store-bought praline powder, if available, can be used in place of home-made one.

The dough can be prepared ahead of time and tightly covered and stored in the freezer for up to a few weeks. To use, thaw the dough in the fridge until it is soft enough to handle.

November 16, 2004

fruity wine, winy fruits


Monday, November 15

It has been almost a couple of months since the 8th IMBB, and other than Renee's boozy potatoes which I have already tried, and other than there was another such boozy goodie that grabbed my heart: Derrick 's Olive Oil and Sweet Wine Cake.

The pairing of olive oil with dessert wine was very intriguing to me, even though the concept of using olive oil and wine itself in cake wasn't totally new to me as I had used olive oil in cakes more than once, and had even been planning to make red wine and olive oil cake for quite some time. I don't normally care for dessert wine so much and would not buy a bottle for myself, but since I had another recipe for cake using dessert wine (but not olive oil), I decided to make an investment in a bottle of nice Muscat.

There was another reason that I bought a 500ml bottle of dessert wine, by the way. I had been drawn to one recipe called fruits secs et confitis au muscat, or dried and candied fruits in Muscat wine, in Trish Deseine's book Mes petits plats preferes (2002, Marabout). I have used several different liquors and spirits for soaking dried fruits to be used in fruit cake, but again, not a dessert wine yet. Sweet dried fruits soaked in sweet dessert wine sounded like a really sweet idea.

At first I didn't think much about possible uses of fruits in wine, but it eventually occurred to me that if I'd use the sweet wine for cake and fruits, I might well put them together, hence making fruit cake with Muscat.

So I got a bottle of wine -


- and a little bit of many different fruits and nuts.


For the fruits, I used candied bitter orange peels, green raisins, and dried apricots, figs (black and white), and peach. Black figs and peach were "semi-dried" which means the products had a higher content of reserved moisture that makes the fruits softer and juicier than regular dried fruits.


For the nuts, I had hazelnuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and pistachios.

I was going to make a small amount of this, but somehow I almost filled up a one-quart jar. Almost.


Fast forward one week and the fruits and nuts soaked up a lot of Muscat while their flavors steeped in the wine, making the whole jar looking somewhat dull but smelling sweet.



Then I made the cake. The recipe is from Regan Daley's In The Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion (2001, Artisan) which I had bought a copy after several days' thinking, reading readers' reviews available online. I am glad I did, so far I have only flipped through the recipe pages and the renowned flavor pairing chart, but I already have quite a few recipes that I know I am trying sometime soon.

Back to the olive oil and sweet wine cake, it was a bit like chiffon cake in a way that it uses a lot of eggs with whites whipped, oil instead of butter, a rather small amount of flour, and some added liquid (in this case, wine), although the amount of oil was hefty. I didn't quite notice the possibility until this point that this light, airy cake batter would not hold wine-soaked fruits and nuts very well. Well it was too late, I had already chopped up a handful of the fruits and nuts, so I went ahead.

I baked the cake in several small pans and they rose pretty high thanks to the lots of meringue folded in the batter, then shrunk. Even so, when I had a slice of them when they were barely cool, it was incredibly light and giving off unmistakable aroma of Muscat.


Following day, we had some slices with a glass of Muscat. Having sat overnight, the cakes had come to feel slightly moister and denser, yet still very light nevertheless. While not as fragrant as they had been the day before right after cooked, the cakes were now more full-flavored and had a richer taste, and it was amazing to see how the accompanying glass of wine enhanced the whole flavor of cake... it almost seemed unthinkable to have a slice of this cake without the wine, really. It was that good. And it was a nice deviation from regular fruit cake.

+++

By the way, I have baked the olive oil and red wine cake I had planned to make. I used the recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates: Festive Meals for Holidays and Special Occasions (Clarkson Potter, 2003), called Winemaker's Grape Cake. The concept was to bring together the tastes of harvests, namely, wine, olive oil, and grapes. Red wine and olive oil in the cake (not in pasta sauce) seemed to me a bit unusual to me, so did the use of fresh grapes in the cake.


The amount of red wine the recipe called for seemed rather too small (!) to me, so I used more wine - about three times as much - by boiling it down to the same volume as indicated in the recipe. It seemed to have worked fine, since the cake definitely took on the flavor as well as the color of red wine. Well, that was what I thought, but he claimed that it didn't taste like wine at all, it tasted more of citrus, which was true to a certain extent as I might have put zest and juice of lemon a bit too much. We agreed that it tasted good though, even though it wasn't an exclusively harvest-time cake, to be precise, as nowadays wine, olive oil, and grapes are available all year round, for the better or for the worse.

great job, oven


Saturday, November 13

I have never been shy about telling the world that I hate deep-frying. I bake doughnuts (muffins) in the oven and pan-fry agedashi-dofu rather than deep-frying. Now I have addressed yet another challenge in making substitutions for deep-frying: cooking kara-age or marinated chicken nuggets in the oven.

Kara-age must have been among the best-favorite food of mine back in the day, but like other deep-fried items I have grown to stay away from it over the years. I just don't do deep-frying myself, and my love of kara-age wasn't deep enough to put me on the work of deep-frying. Sad story.

There was one time when I tried to make kara-age in the microwave according to a recipe I had found in a cookbook. It didn't quite work (microwave-cooking could be tricky sometimes), unfortunately, and I haven't since bothered to try it out again.

And here is another such recipe, this time using an oven. I have tried things like oven-fry potato wedges, but not battered, breaded, or floured stuff. I had suspected that a direct contact of the bottom of battered items with the surface of the pan would make their bottom too soggy and gooey... but I gave it a go anyways.

First, I marinated chicken like I would do with regular kara-age chicken; the recipe I used (in Japanese) makes the marinade with squeeze of fresh ginger, soy sauce and sake. This would be a most simple marinade as some might add more stuff like garlic, chili, sesame oil, or egg yolks. I let the marinated chicken pieces in the fridge for a couple of hours and then dredged them in starch - Japanese would typically use potato starch, but I didn't have it or even corn starch, so I used tapioca starch.

Waiting for the oven to get ready, I heated some oil in a small pan on stovetop. While this might seem a bit of fuss, but it somehow made sense to me in light of a rule of thumb: when frying floured items, always heat the oil in the pan before putting them in. That is what I have learned from my mom, and although I don't exactly know how it is true, that is what I have followed over time.

Anyways, back to the chicken: now the oven temperature is super high (450F), and the chicken is floured and sitting on a pan, ready to go in the oven. I poured the heated oil over the chicken and put them in the oven, and cooked for something like 15-20 minutes, increasing the temperature a bit for the last five minutes. The chicken came out looking - greasy. The top parts looked okay, but the bottom seemed like a disaster. I must have used too much oil. I had known I did.

Well, placing the kara-age chicken on layers of paper towel on top of another set of layers of old newspaper to drain excess oil did help the chicken get less greasy, eventually. When I tried a piece right out of the oven it tasted exactly like kara-age chicken that I remembered - and although I believe most of fried food would taste best right out of the oil, my kara-age I thought were actually better once they have cooled and then reheated in the microwave, most likely because they had gotten rid of too much oil.
(I got some feedback regarding ways to keep the chicken less greasy - to place the chicken on a lack over the pan to let excessive oil drop, which I would like to try sometime - I have to buy a gridiron, though.)

Now not being TOO greasy, my kara-age tasted great and got two-thumbs up from him, who must have eaten a pound of chicken - okay, maybe not that much, but a LOT. So did I.

November 13, 2004

the most authentic Italian restaurant in town


Wednesday, November 11

Penne with smoked salmon and caviar in buttery cream sauce, lunch at a newly-opened, what they claim to be the most authentic Italian restaurant in town. I am not certain about how authentic a pasta with smoked salmon and caviar is in Italy, but it was delicious and, hey, the pasta was perfect al dente at least (overcooking pasta should be a crime).

November 12, 2004

the greener the better...


Tuesday, November 9

Life has been pretty hectic as of late and I haven't gotten much time to devote to cooking. This risotto must be only thing that I have really cooked for this whole week, which is a shame, but the risotto itself was delicious.

Several weeks back one of my fellow Japanese bloggers living in Italy posted about risotto with spinach and mozzarella cheese, and ever since I had been meaning to try it myself using argula. I sauted chopped onion and arborio rice in a pot, cooked it with white wine and water, and when it was just about to be done I grated pecorino romano cheese over the risotto and added finely chopped fresh (uncooked) argula. Mozzarella cheese went in at the very last moment in small dice, so as not to make too much mess with melted cheese.

At the first bite I thought I had used way too much argula; the risotto had a pretty pungent taste. Trying to do something with this, I threw in some roasted walnuts, wishing the sweetness and fat of the nuts would somehow mask the bitterness (this way I ended up having something very similar to the argula pesto I made a while ago, minus garlic and plus mozzarella). As it turned out when we had our own plate of risotto at table, the risotto wasn't so bad - it wasn't so pungent, really. I don't know how it happened, but it must have been that my first bite had an extra high content of chopped argula, or something like that. Whatever. It was good, and gone quick.

November 11, 2004

breakaway not-so-Japanese cooking: experiment underway


Sunday, November 7

After boozy potatoes and dried mushroom pesto, I still have a lot of recipes I want to try from Eric Gower's book The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen: Inspired New Tastes (Kodansha International, 2003). Since I couldn't quite choose one to try next, I decided to make two recipes at one time: one tofu dish and one pasta dish, both of them coincidentally with pesto, though a lot different kinds.

A combination of pistachio and mint in Baked Tofu with Pistachio and Mint sounded like a whole new idea to me - it just never occurred to me. As is the case with many other pesto recipes of Eric's, this one was quite straightforward to make - combine the ingredients (raw pistachio, mint, olive oil, etc.) in a blender and process until all milled, and spread the pesto over tofu in a baking dish and bake in an oven. I could have added a twist or two to the recipe, but I basically followed it instead, except for one major no-no [off the record: that I used firm tofu instead of silken tofu, which the author clearly and strongly advises readers to use - because firm one was the only tofu I could find at a store on the day I was shopping ].

While tofu was baking I made Asian Pesto Udon. It was a bit more complicated than the other pesto of the day, in terms of ingredients which included fresh ginger, vinegar, nuts, coconut milk, etc, although the process was about as simple as the other one: put them all in a blender and run. Here I substituted some of the ingredients called for, such as hazelnuts for almonds and white balsamic vinegar for brown rice vinegar.

My pistachio-mint pesto seemed to have been a bit too dry before going into the oven, and it came out even drier when it came out; I had either used too much pistachios (I did measured them, though) or the tofu wasn't waterly enough to give out necessary water while cooking. It was nevertheless delicious. I have never been a big fan of mint in cooking, but this one somehow wasn't overy minty and just blended right with pistachios. I would almost think that this pesto could go well with pasta, but I guess it would make quite another dish without tofu; tofu, plain-tasting as people may think, did play its own role and completed this dish.




For the udon noodle with "Asian" pesto, the recipe says this dish can be served either hot or cold, so I first tried it cold. It tasted very refreshing, in contrast to my initial thought that it might be quite heavy with a lot of added coconut milk, a nice surprise. Then I found it tasting quite different when served hot as I had another portion later; the taste of ginger became more prominent in this way, and I personally liked it better this way.

It is hard to explain exactly how these pestoes taste like, it is certainly not just patchwork made of bits and pieces of different ingredients, but more of one seamless layer of taste with all the goodies incorporated in unity - only if you know what I mean (which you probably won't, but you will see when you try it).

November 5, 2004

a real taste of autumn


Thursday, November 4

Over the past month or so, I have made a LOT of sweets using chestnuts, from caramel pound cake with chestnuts and figs and chestnuts pound cake to mont blanc and cake roll with chestnut mousse. I enjoyed them all, very much treasuring a taste of autumn, but let's face it - I have used jars of sweet chestnut puree and chestnuts in syrup from a store, on sale throughout the year. In other words, they really weren't a taste exclusively of autumn. Therefore, I had to do something about this - making something using raw chestnuts.

This time of the year we would be able to find raw chestnuts sold at every corner in town back in Tokyo, but over here they're rare. Last year I managed to find ones imported from Korea at only one of my local supermarkets, and that was where I headed for last week. And I found some - Korean ones again. I really don't have much to complain about.

To cook raw chestnuts, you can either roast, steam, or boil them - or throw them in a rice cooker like I did this time around. I checked one reference (in Japanese) to see how to cook raw chestnuts in a rice cooker, but what I did basically was that I made a cut on the bottom of each chestnut and put them with some added water in a ricecooker, and turned it on.


It was my first experiment to cook raw chestnuts in a rice cooker, but it seemed to have worked fine.



While I would really enjoy popping the "popped" chestnuts into my mouth, I had a mission today - to make kuri-kinton, a very classic Japanese sweet made of pureed chestnuts and sugar, with or without satsuma-imo sweet potatoes. It sounds like a very simple stuff, and it actually is; it is hard to explain but whether or not because of the different variety of chestnuts, it usually tastes fairly different from French or other European sweetened chestnut products.


So I worked on the hot chestnuts and peeled them one by one, having just a bowlful of them at hand. I tasted one of them, and was a bit disappointed - they tasted sort of bland. It would totally be okay to use them for turkey stuffing or something, but seemed to be too tasteless to use in a sweet dessert. But what could I have done at this point? I kept on.

Fortunately, I had a great helper at hand: wasanbon-to, or a super-fine Japanese artisanal sugar that has a drlicate brown sugar-y taste with very small crystals and a immediately-melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture and has been much appreciated in making wagashi, or traditional Japanese confectionery. It should miraculously improve the somewhat bland taste of the chestnuts, or so I hoped.


After much efforts to put the chestnuts through a sieve, I combined the pureed - or more like ground - chestnuts with wasanbon-to sugar with a bit of added heavy cream in a pan and cooked it for a little while until it reached a nice paste-y consistency. I knew they wouldn't usually add heavy cream when making kuri-kinton, but my chestnuts were too dry to make a one mass of dough.


Then I even put the paste through the sieve again, as my kuri-kinton paste just wasn't quite smooth to my taste, probably because my sieve isn't fine enough. I tried anyways.

It took me a while to get to this point, but I was almost done now - I finished it up by putting a heap spoonful of paste in a layer of a sheet of paper towel wrung out with water and a piece of plastic wrap, then wrapping the paste to make a shape of ball, and twistintg the wrapper to shirr the paste.


It was a bit of workout with all that cutting of hard shell of chestnuts and sieving (twice) of not-so-tender nuts, but it was all paid, I guess. It must have been wasanbon-to sugar, or maybe the added cream, that had turned the bland chestnuts into something so simple but dainty...

seeds too!


Tuesday, November 2

Last week at our local farmer's market, I found a bag of shisonomi or shiso seeds on stalks. It was the same place where I always get shiso leaves, but it was my first time I saw the seeds over here. I love shiso seeds as much as its leaves, so I didn't wait for even a second to get the last bag they had for the day.



I don't know so much about how to cook shiso seeds, to tell you the truth; to me they almost always come in the form of pickles, or more precisely just salted shiso seeds that my mom would make when we have a whole bunch of seeds on the shiso plants in our yard. It is always made by mom, so I wasn't quite sure how to make the salted shiso seeds - well, I could have easily looked for a recipe on the net, but instead I emailed mom and asked her how she would do it.

She told me a few slightly different preparation methods, but the bottom line is you first need to take the excess bitterness out of the seeds and then salt them. I gingerly plucked seeds from the stalks and radically salted them, left sit overnight, then rinse them well under running water and gently tossed in sea salt.


They are supposed to keep quite well in the fridge, and for a time being I will have a pleasure of having some freshly cooked rice with some salted shisonomi for breakfast. A year ago when I was deprived of shiso, I never even imagine that this would be possible.