Friday, February 11, 2011

My Funny Valentine

I really shouldn't be writing this post. My apartment looks like a giant explosion of toiletries, winter clothes, summer clothes and plastic bags. That's right, I'm packing for vacation! This time around, Blammo and I are hitting up New York, Chile, Argentina, Savannah and The Bay Area for about 2 weeks. Yeah. It's going to be nuts. And awesome. And delicious.

We will arrive in Santiago on Valentine's Day, so I decided to bake some vday sweets well in advance. One of the season cake classes at ABC is a White Chocolate Strawberry heart shaped cake. It was adorable but not really my kid of cake. Buttercream frosting seems to be exclusively American and cakes in Japan are almost always topped with whipped cream or ganache. Nothing wrong with that but just not my style. It's pretty though, right?

For my lovely coworkers, who I am getting to know more and more these days I made a batch of Pink Frosting Cookies. When baking for my expat office, I try my best to bring a little piece of home to them and one bite of these cookies will bring you back to elementary school. My birthday is in October near Halloween, so whenever it was my turn to bring in a treat to share for my class, I always got white sugar cookies with bright orange frosting from Safeway. Well, regardless of what color the frosting is the taste will bring you back to those store bought Lofthouse style cookies.

The batch I made tasted spot on and I was so pleased to hear all the Americans say "oh my gosh, these totally remind me of ". Because I always use a 50/50 mix of bread and cake flour, the texture of my cookies turned out more cakey than I would have liked. They were basically cupcake tops. Not a bad thing at all. I don't mind the softness but maybe next time I'll try an 80/20 bread to cake flour mix to see if it makes a difference. 

Ok, I'm running out of things to say about Valentine's Day. I've watched all the new TV shows on my Apple TV and washed every single dish in the house which means, I have to either go to sleep or finish packing.

See you in 2 weeks with lots of pictures and stories from far and away!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chao Ga :: Vietnamese Rice Porridge with Chicken

It's officially Tết, or the Lunar New Year, so again, Happy New Year! I had a lot of ambitious dreams of making some traditional Tết treats, like Banh Chung and Thit Kho but decided to go with something much simpler. We're talking 2-ingredients simple. Rice and water. That's all you need. Of course, you can fancy it up with toppings and flavorings, but at the core, it's just boiled rice and water. It's simple, healthy and perfect cold or sick food. In our house, when we were feeling under the weather, we got a steaming hot bowl of gingery, peppery Chao Ga instead of Chicken Noodle Soup. 

I've made this a few times in Japan and I think I've finally worked out all the toppings and flavorings to my liking. So here it is: 

Chao Ga :: Vietnamese Rice Porridge with Chicken

1 cup of rice, jasmine or japanese short grain
8 cups of water 
2 inch piece of peeled ginger thickly sliced 
1 bunch of scallions chopped in 1 inch pieces, whites only 
8 whole black peppercorns 

1. Put everything in a large pot. Bring to a boil then simmer on low for 1 hour. Stir occasionally and scrape rice from the bottom of the pan. 

1 chicken breast 
1 inch knob of ginger, sliced 

1. Poach the chicken breast in water with the ginger until done. Set chicken aside to cool. 
2. When the chicken has cooled, use two forks to shred into bite sized pieces. 

Customize your own bowl with different toppings. I put the chicken on top of a small bowl of soup and splash some fish sauce on the chicken. Then flavor the soup with Maggi Sauce. It also gets a healthy sprinkling of chopped green onions. One of my favorite toppings when I was little was something I called "carpet" which is a really salty dried pork that is then shredded (thịt chà bông). It looks like a giant jar of dog hair but it is delicious, especially in chao. 

In Japan, rice porridge soup is called okayu and is eaten with sesame seeds, mushrooms or umeboshi, pickled plums. In Hong Kong, congee is a popular breakfast meal filled with meat, fresh green veggies and greasy donuts. I'm sure other Asian countries have their take on chao and I'm sure that it's a sentimental dish for everyone since it can be topped and mixed with just about anything. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brioche :: Eggy, Buttery, Sugary Good

I haven't done a lot of home baking in 2011. Maybe it's because I was burnt out from the Great Christmas Cookiefest of 2010 or pre-occupied with the half marathon healthiness. But now that things have calmed down, I've been turning to my trusty cookbooks for some at-home fun. I was feeling ambitious last weekend, so I gave Joanne Chang's Flour Bakery Basic Brioche recipe a try. The basic recipe can then be used to make different treats like gooey cinnamon rolls (the ones that beat Bobby Flay's throwdown) and various other morning sweets. I chose the Brioche aux Chocolat and Sugar + Spice Buns.

Fun fun fun! Ever since I started my bread courses at ABC Cooking Studio, I haven't really utilized the dough hook on my Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. If I bake bread at home, it's a good opportunity to try out the tips and tricks I've learned in class and we always knead by hand. But that's messy. And this recipe  is especially messy, calling for 6 eggs and 2 1/2 sticks of butter. Plus, Joanne Chang gives really detailed instructions on making the dough in a mixer, down to the sounds (slap slap slap) and feel (cold playdough) of the dough. Seriously, it's really hard to mess up her recipes. From her book and some magazine interviews, I get the sense that she truly understands what it's like to be a baking hobbyist. She recognizes the motivations, struggles and insecurities we all face when baking at home, alone. Which is my way of saying, get the book.

Of the two, I preferred the Brioche aux Chocolat. The melted chocolate and warm pastry cream center go perfectly together. Again, the pastry cream recipe in the book is so detailed, it is pretty hard to botch. Timing and temperature are key but if you read the instructions a few times beforehand and are well equipped with your ingredients in place, you can't fail.

The basic brioche dough recipe in the book is BIG. Like I said, 6 eggs and 2 1/2 sticks of butter. But that is so that you have a dough large enough to knead properly in a standing mixer, so you can freeze the dough for up to a week and try out the various morning treats over the course of a few days. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Scallion Pancakes :: Homemade Delivery

A list of things I miss from home deserves an entire blog of its own. And while I can't make my own Wheat Thins, Cheez-Its or Corgis at home, there are a few things I can recreate pretty nicely here. Scallion Pancakes are one of them since it is such a simple recipe. Before I moved to New York, I didn't quite "get" the whole Chinese takeout phenomenon. But once I was introduced to Mama Buddha (now closed, wah wah) that all changed. Delicious egg noodle soup delivered to your door for less than $10?! Done. Scallion Pancakes were always a must order item for me - salty, crispy, chewy and the perfect vehicle for soy sauce. I imagine if I lived in NY right now, I'd be ordering a lot of Chinese take-out to avoid slipping on black ice and into a snowbank, as I'm prone to do.

2 cups of flour (bread or all-purpose)
1 cup of warm water
1/2 cup chopped green onions/scallions
1 TB sesame oil

1. Slowly mix the warm water with flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. 

2. Once the water has been completely absorbed, knead the dough on a clean surface until the surface of the dough is smooth.

3. Flatten the dough into a large rectangle and brush the surface with sesame oil. Sprinkle with chopped scallions. 

4. Roll the dough into a log (like a taquito) then roll the log into a ball (like a cinnamon bun). 

5. Flatten the dough out into your hands. The point of this is to knead the scallions into the dough and distribute evenly. There are several ways to do it and I'm using the method I learned at ABC Cooking Studio.

6. Flatten the dough again, this time into a large circle, about the size of your skillet.

7. Heat some vegetable oil on medium high, then add the pancake. After about 4 minutes, the bottom of the pancake will be browned. Flip the pancake over and brown the other side. 

Remove and blot with paper towels. Then cut into wedges. You could eat these with just plain soy sauce, but I like to make a soy-vinegar-ginger-sriracha sauce.