Sunday, March 31, 2013

Birds in nest cupcakes, technicolor chicks and a Happy Easter

Seriously the stuff out there puts me to shame. A year ago I saw my feeble shape and mold attempts step me up into a new arena of the Aww and Cute (!), where countless bunny bottoms and candy carrots were being pinned onto screens, even to be obsessively praised 365 later. Really? How? Your guess as good as mine.

With Sunday being tomorrow (by the time I finish typing it rolls into today) and my Easter update  crawling its way at being polished and fluffed, only now and furiously so, you'd wonder why it took so long? I mean I did have the pound cakes done and ready, carved into technicolor chicks a week prior, and a few after, these cupcakes topped with open mouthed chicks. Leave it to memory lapses and accountability issues. Hopefully you'll look beyond that after you see the not-one-but-two I have lined up for you today in our Easter/Spring reel.

A dense, yet pillowy pound cake, tinted bright became my canvas for cookie cutter forms. About a dozen chicks were produced from it, no scraps left behind, since those disappeared much before chick 12 made it out. Being that it was an I-dare-you-to-find-a-better-one sort of recipe, I must say one bit for the factors of color and cute. They did add tremendous value to the ones that emerged. Such is the potency level of those two C's.

Check him out- all geared up and rainbow pretty!
And then since I could not get a carrot cake I saw somewhere, anywhere out of my mind, I planned on shredding some carrots for the quintessential Easter cupcake. When I looked around I noticed I wasn't the only one to fancy grated vegetable in a classic themed dessert.

Convinced I was on seeing those 60 reviews, that Epicurious had the answer to moistest carrot cupcakes. Heeding to some priceless commenter reports, I reassessed and tweaked, a little here, a bit there. Nixing some of the oil in the recipe and replacing it with finely grated apple pumped the moistness to stupendous heights. The minicakes were soft with well textured crumb. Finally cream cheese frosting supplying you with the need-not-look-any-further quotient.

Mission accomplished, times two.

I got a little obsessed with cupcake design, which probably is why this conversation became so late. A few years ago when Martha Stewart deemed it hip to have birds nest on top cupcakes, I fervently pined to make the open beaked delights. But serious cakeartistry-and-ornamentation-phobia  kept me from all or any attempts of auditioning my skill. Until now. Audience get ready, cakechef-gone-wrong has just begun.

Happy Easter, my friends!

Carrot Cupcakes~
( Adapted from Epicurious carrot cupcake recipe, heeding to supporting advice from reviewer number one)
  • 1 ½ c all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp grated nutmeg
  • 2 c grated carrots
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 medium apple grated finely, about ¼c 
  • Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Line muffin cups with paper liners.
  • Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Add grated carrots to the dry mixture and combine.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer or with electric beater, whisk together eggs, oil, brown sugar, and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture until just combined.
  • Divide batter among muffin cups( app. 18) and bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cupcake comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pan and let cool completely on rack.
Chirp chirp...beaks of all shapes and sizes, many deformed, still hopelessly cute.

Cream Cheese Frosting~
(Adapted from my orange cheese frosting, on this page)
  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened 
  • ½ c butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 4-5 c confectioner's sugar 
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter, vanilla and zest on medium speed until light and fluffy.
  • Reduce to low speed and add confectioner's sugar, gradually, one cup at a time, beating well with each addition.
  • Increase speed to medium high and beat until smooth, adding more sugar if needed to get a slightly thick consistency to pipe onto cupcakes.
  • Pipe and color and frost. Or just do as Martha says.
Technicolor chicks~
  • 1 basic pound cake recipe. I liked what I saw here
  • Food colors in spring colors
  • Chick cookie cutter
  • Prepare the pound cake according to the recipe or use a boxed mix.
  • Divide the batter into different colors. I used four- pink, yellow, green and blue.
  • Spoon batter into the 9x5 loaf pan, layering colors evenly beside one another, next to each other  so you get the right mix when you cut into the loaf with the cookie cutter.
  • Bake for amount of time suggested ion recipe. This particular took 40 approximately minutes.
  • Allow to cool completely.
  • Once cooled, slice cake loaf horizontally into two layers of 1/2" depth. That way you have a larger canvas to work with.
  • Cut out with the baby chick cutter (or any spring shape you fancy/have on hand).You should be able to cut 10-12 with a medium sized cutter.

Want to check out previous Easter's saga? Here goes~ last year, this time.

The blood that saved you and me is not that of a defeated man. It flows instead from a triumphal King, a Risen and Resurrected Christ in whose glory comes our hope, freedom and strength. Oh happy day- Sunday is here!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Paneer Butter Masala /Paneer in a Spiced Tomato Cream Curry

We reach the second part and dramatic end to my challenge result. Can you guess what I did? No hints and please no cheating. But how could you not (?) stare into the gigantous picture up and running on top of the screen.

For this, we''ll reel in our conversation from last week, where cheese cubes-made-from-two-ingredients were the top subject. Today those chunksters have reached their purpose, an ending so superb to their spongy, tad neutral existence. Predicament where masala, spice and everything almost greater than nice take part and parcel in paneer's next segue.

Paneer butter masala is pretty and it's gourmet, assaulted with all kinds of spice in a tomato-ey cream base. Served on countless Indian menus, it is many times a chef favorited item. Considering the numerous trappings of RGC (real good curry), this is one that does not require the same level of difficulty. About ten components, along with those Indian preparation habituals are brought to boil, simmered and pulped to create a densely rich flavor base. With the conciseness of three steps, one pan and a blender, the bulk of your work is done and put away until it all emerges together, and most flawlessly so, for a sensational good curry conclusion. The roasted cheese cuts offer meaty, but light character that anchors into this splendid atmosphere. Cashews softened and ground with the rest give gravy a fantastic burden of substance.

This is a gorgeous hunk of a dish. The three dairy does right elements balance perfectly into the fire  and zing of paneer bm, a quality that will knock all and any lackluster straight out of your mouth.

That being said, this one production helped in feeding us four, twice, due to the fact that it is richer than most accompaniments to white rice or naan. Perhaps, a plus, in that it may prevent you from gluttonous overload, thus killing overtime on your next treadmill date.

  • 1 c paneer cubes (homemade or storebought frozen)
  • nonstick cooking spray
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 2 cardamom
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 small cinnamon stick or ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 star anise
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 1 onion cut into fourths
  • 1 inch ginger chopped roughly
  • 4 cloves garlic 
  • 2 serranos (seed if needed)
  • 4 medium tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 tsp cayenne or red chili powder
  • 1 tbsp coriander
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 2 tbsp chopped cashew nuts
  • 1/2 tsp dried and powdered fenugreek leaves
  • 1 ½ c water
  •  1 tsp salt or enough to flavor
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream  (for a lighter version replace with half and half)
  • 2-3 dollops of butter 
  • 2 sprigs chopped cilantro
  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray a lined baking sheet with cooking spray.
  • Sprinkle fresh paneer cubes with cayenne, salt and pepper. Lay out in a single layer onto baking sheet. Finish tops with a coating of the cooking spray.
  • Bake for 5-7 minutes, checking in between to see if tops are brown. Once browned, take out of oven. Set aside.
  • Lay a large deep set skillet over medium high and heat oil. Lightly stir in all ingredients from cardamom to tomatoes for about a minute. Put in cayenne, coriander, cumin and cook  for an additional minute. Add cashews
  • Fill the pan with  enough water to cover ingredients, not more than an inch above.
  • Bring to boil, then let simmer, about 10-12 minutes, until all ingredients are cooked and onions are soft/fork tender.
  • Take off heat. Allow to cool for a few minutes. At this point you could discard skins from tomatoes. ( I leave them in.)
  • Pour  all the ingredients from skillet into blender with salt. Liquefy to pulp.
  • Pour back puree into the same skillet and over medium heat, allow ingredients to simmer, add the baked paneer cubes and stir to blend, allowing simmer for an additional minute or so.
  • Turn off heat. Stir in cream. 
  • Dot with butter. 
  • Sprinkle with cilantro.

I've seen the light! Prior to this I've used storebought paneer in butter masala, and handsdown, homemade wins, yielding fresher, taste and chunky texture- best part- it's super easy to make. But if you decide on storebought, I'll just look the other way.

Methi or fenugreek leaves are found dried and in box, in specialty groceries. They can be powdered with a mortar, better yet, the electric coffee bean grinder can help you out (henceforth not to be used for bean grinding). 

For me upping the spice ante is a must, usually meaning a sprinkle or two more of spice powders. It's toned down here, though, with enough to keep your tastebuds humming and not breathing fire.

This is the same framework for my chicken butter masala, where chicken breasts are seasoned, roasted and used the same way. Enough said, here. It deserves its own spot. Soon.

Mere mention of the butter masala transports me to the first days of being married to JZ. During the interim period of looking for a flat, we spent more than a few weeks in a hotel. Butter naan and Manoshanti's paneer butter masala kept us well fed for many of the nights spent in its rooms. This was before I knew what a kitchen was, and way before budget was part of our vocabulary. Needless to say that house hunting experience was pleasurably prolonged ( how could we turn our backs on such a good thing?). Serving it up almost a dozen and a half years later constantly reminds me of our time there, and of course the ten pounds that stayed with me, since.
You are made new~

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" 
2 Corinthians 5:17

Monday, March 18, 2013

Daring Cooks' March 2013 Challenge - Let's Get Cheesy!

After experiencing an almost full year of Daring Kitchen and its mad rush tasks, I'm always surprised at the camaraderie and encouraging community that are byproducts of this virtual culinary smackdown. There's no real race, proof be told in my habitually late shows, only quality recipes and priceless knowledge shared to project onto more than hundreds of hyperbright screens. What better way to gain friendships and tons of motivation, all the while mastering some very excellent cuisine? 

And even when I welcome each and every with excitement, I happened to be doubled over in joy this particular because it is my very first "kitchen" buddy, Sawsan, who is the March DC hostess.

Sweet pleasure, indeed, to paste the few sentences in my blog checking line! Sawsan is a source of inspiration and guidance to me, and in this month's challenge she put us to the task of making cheese, supplying us with an arsenal of recipes and instructions, and an exhaustive glossary of terms to boot.

Scrolling through, my eyes caught hold of the most recognizable amongst that list, my brain  nodding to the native curd cheese. Coming from the same country was of no real consolation to either of us, since I had never chalked up the courage to curdle and mold the same, resorting always to premade storebought cuts, texture and taste similar to that of cardboard. Here it was, two-ingredient-easy-enough-for-a-five-year-old right in front of me. Sold and taken. I was making paneer.  

Paneer is nonaged cheese that is most common in Indian cooking. It comes together when adding an acidic element to hot milk, forcing the fat to float and separate from the hazy watery substance known as whey. Straining out all liquid and pressing the resulting milk curds reveal the first solids of crumbly white cheese, making you feel like woman of the hour, all in less than thirty minutes. Further weighting down brings about a sturdy block of curd cheese, that can at this point be cut into pieces and generally cubed for curry.

Without further ado, shall we then proceed to the making of?

Good. I knew you'd say yes.

Sawsan from Chef in disguise was our March 2013 Daring Cooks hostess! Sawsan challenges us to make our own homemade cheeses! She gave us a variety of choices to make,all of them easily accomplished and delicious!

(Courtesy the Daring Cooks' challenge recipe)
  • 8 c or ½ gallon milk (whole or 2%)
  • 2-3 tbsp lemon juice
  • Line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth.
  • In a large sauce pan over medium-high heat, bring the milk to a boil. Keep an eye on it because it can boil over very quickly.
  • When it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Stir until milk separates completely separates into curds and whey . If it doesn't seem to be separating completely, add another tablespoon of lemon juice.
  • Pour the mixture into the cheesecloth-lined colander. When it's cool enough to handle, gather the corners of the cheesecloth into a bundle and squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can.
  • To press it into a solid cheese, set the bundle in the middle of a plate with a good lip to catch the liquid that will be squeezed out. Put another plate on top and press until the bundle has flattened into a 1 inch disk. Leave the plate on and weight it down with something heavy.
Applause for my weight system, please, which consisted of soup cans, broth and a jar candle .

My notes~ I used about ¼ c of lemon juice combined with 2 tbsp warm water for the ½ gallon milk, making the separation a bit more fast and furious. 

With its crumbly insides, paneer makes for some marvelous sponges, soaking up surrounding flavors, most often and superbly so within a rich gravied frame. Stay tuned

Know your paneer? Variations for this cottage cheese are many and methods differ according to Indian region, even type of dish. Masala and most gravies demand firmer chunks, thus the preparation above works just perfect. Retaining a bit more moisture makes for fluffier, softer pieces, convincing in many syrup based Indian desserts. Certain areas knead pressed curds for a dough like consistency. Others leave it to ferment calling for stronger flavor. 

Paneer popularity has reached, with its starring in top convenience menus! Case in point, the McSpicy Paneer  which is served only at McDonald's India . Da-da- da-da-da- I'm loving it!

Thank you Sawsan, for hosting this entire course on cheese making, emboldening me to mold cheese from milk in a most amazing challenge. Maybe the right cue for journeying beyond boundaries, and trying my hand at the more complex and aged goodies.
"The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever." ~Isaiah 40:8 (NASB)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sambar- South Indian lentil and vegetable stew

Confession time. Even though I've discussed Indian and touched on a few good recipes from my homeland, I've always thought myself least accomplished on earth to talk curry, most particularly the traditional stuff that hails from the Southern topographical region that I come from, food patterns particular to Kerala. So bundled in method ordinance are these stylized dishes that nostalgia beats in on near mention of native curries, chutneys and the like. Such is the case of our topic today. 

decade and a half ago in a tiny kitchen, I tapped into the fabulous world of sambar making. The native curry was my work in progress, not to mention, a concurrent project of pride. Trying to make a better than best, owning up to well known and quite customary cooking mores, yet finding the convenience for an everyday busy kitchen was always the objective of my lazy reflective mind.

Generally, sambar is made on a day to day basis in most South Indian households. It is the perfect complement to a plate of rice or rice based goodies, almost always at breakfast, quite honorably at lunch/ dinner, and an occasional teatime rotation. It has steadily gained its way in the top popular accompaniment hall of fame. This earthy- colored- well- endowed dal chowder is clearly on its way to being India's rank one comfort curry, maybe even the world's (my superambition may ring true one day).

You see, there's a science and art factor in sambar making. When you have masters giving you step- by- steps and how- to blueprints  along with gorgeous rss feeds from sambar scholars, you have to find where to balance your curry, that to in a beautiful well fashioned way. Because horrendously ugly sambar is nonexistent.

So, now I'm free to share my not- so- but -still- so heirloom recipe and take on this tradition- fed super stew that I've been mixing up for most of the years I've been married to JZ ( a way to man's heart or so they say...?). Before that let me explain that sambar is a hot mess of spice, miracle ingredients, fair amount of vegetables that can/ will surely blow your mind. Authentically good sambar gets its distinct flavor in the funky powder called asafoetida. Funky here is good, because it is this plant sap oleoresin which adds tremendous taste value to the dish. This ingredient known also as giant fennel brings out flavors the untrained tongue may not be accustomed to. Wiki calls it devil's dung, maybe so if it's not projected with the right combination of ingredients. Without a doubt, it makes home in sambar, small spoonhalf mixed with others to exact proportions. Combined with the unique spice mix transports humdrum bowl of stewed veggies to superstellar stockpot of utter magnificence.

The ingredients for a sambar masala are not many, but may require a trip to a specialty Indian grocer.  Ideally, this should be the make ahead step before actual sambar prep. No worries if spice powdering does not intrigue you. Purchasing some tradition in a box (which I've been doing for years) will get you quality results, on those occasions where you're not swimming in pools of time. Remember, there's always the chopping and cooking, where your sambar will still qualify for the "from scratch" bracket.

This will be a venture that brings out the adventurous in you, carrying on an Indiana Jones sort of journey, a sambar crusader chronicling your own tradition in Indian cooking. "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

Sambar masala~

  • 1 tsp of oil 
  • 2 tbsp gram dal
  • 3 tbsp whole coriander seeds 
  • 1 tsp whole black pepper 
  • 12 whole dried red chillies 
  • ½ tsp fenugreek seeds 
  • ¼ tsp cumin seeds 
  • In a medium nonstick deep set skillet set over medium heat, pour in oil.
  • Add in all the ingredients from dal to cumin and stir to roast for a few minutes, careful not to brown. The mix itself will render a noticeable "smell of spice air"- turn it off at that point.
  • Get out your blender, grinder or coffee bean grinder ( not used for coffee beans) and bring contents to powder form.

  • 1 ½ c split yellow pigeon peas, otherwise known as toor dal
  • 2 serrano peppers, split in half
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 5 pearl onions (I used frozen)
  • 4-5 tbsp sambar masala
  • 2 tsp salt or enough to flavor
  • water 
  • 1-2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 moringa pods, otherwise known as drumsticks
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped roughly
  • 1 c water, enough to cook vegetables
  • ½ tsp asafoetida
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste (I use Tamicon)
  • 2 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 sprigs curry leaves
  • 2 whole red chilies
  • 2 sprigs cilantro, chopped (optional)

  • In a large pressure cooker, add peas, serranos, garlic, onions, sambar masala and salt. Cover with just enough water to immerse ingredients and allow dal to expand, about 2 cups. Heat on medium with pressure weight for the sound of two whistles. This will bring the ingredients to cooked and the pea lentils will be mashable yet retain texture. 
  • Take off heat. Allow to rest and steam to subside before opening.
  • In the meantime, in a microwave safe bowl, cook carrots and drumstick pods (don't add cucumber at this point)on fresh vegetable option with enough water and cook till soft.
  • Once pressure is released and cooker lid opened,
  • Add in cucumber and cooked vegetables to the dal mixture. (if there be much excess water, drain)
  • Mix in asafoetida.
  • Blend in tamarind paste. Stir all ingredients over heat for another 5 minutes.
  • Check for salt- if needed, add more. Take off heat.
  • In a small fry pan, heat oil over medium, temper mustard seeds till they pop, add curry leaves and chilies. Fry for a minute and add these into the sambar.
  • Sprinkle with cilantro.
  • Serve hot.
I have many times left out the use of gram dal in sambar masala or have swapped one type for earthier black gram dal. Either way, it's purely a personal taste, and might change with the times, switching in pulses that could work for the powder. With dals roasted and ground, your sambar will have a nuttier, stronger flavor/ aroma and thicker texture. Omitting it will give you a purer, simpler taste. Either way is delicious...I think.

Split pea (lentil cooking for the stew) cooking is easier and swifter in a pressure cooker. That said, if you don't have one, no worries. Just let the ingredients cook covered in a large stockpot and for a longer amount of time. Short on time? Sambar in a slow cooker does super well, with hard to cook ingredients laid in first, veggies towards the end.

There are dozens and more recipes out there for sambar masala and sambar itself. Experiment, see what works for you. Though I'm biased in thinking you will enjoy mine :))
The oil and tempering ingredients are an added flavor at the end and totally optional. You can omit that part and still have a wholesome, hearty sambar without compromise.
Feel free to swap in/out vegetables that you deem fit. I've used cauliflower, potatoes, squash, eggplant, bell peppers, spinach, even broccoli. Not mocking those sambar gurus who maybe cringing just a tad now. Make good use of the bounty you have on hand, it could be well worth your while to test those favorites and work them into blueprint. 
 Help on lentils and pulses, maybe this might help?


"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."' Proverbs 3:6 (ESV)

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Daring Bakers' February 2013 Challenge, Crackers and Flatbread

Sarah from All Our Fingers in the Pie was our February 2013 Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to use our creativity in making our own Crisp Flatbreads and Crackers!

After sitting on the ledge for some few, maybe two Daring tasks, all the while watching my friends complete some awesome challenges, I was of course, envious inspired to hitch myself back on a brand new challenge bandwagon.

Except- and there always is one, amirite(?) being gung-ho at the beginning of the month does not float me through to the end, wherewith fiascospellsmylife, pesky plan changing bumps fragment most of my semi-schedule driven days and here I sit, four full days after post date, tidying up this later than all Daring Baker update in hopes you read before Day 5. Though quite actually these were in my oven three days ago, that being another story, another day. "Better late than never"says feeble voice to me, thus my answer to the February challenge that makes its way to March.

So onto we go. With the choice of doing both or either crackers and flatbreads, I chose the latter, the flaky crisp flatbread sounded easier, much faster to get through. Inspiration bursting at the seams, dontchathink? Being a leavened flatbread, yeast was made to proof and with the simple basics of dough making, preparation was a smooth and rather effortless task- 18 minute wait for endproduct led to thrills, squeals and all (whoopwhoop!). How pathetic simple my life, you say?

Crisped magnificence is literally at the tip of your fingertips, where, voila! right before your eyes, flour turns into flatbread and disappears not much after. 

Herbed Flatbread
(recipe from DB challenge page)
  • 1 c warm water (about 110°F)
  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 3 c all-purpose  flour, plus more for rolling
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • coarse salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg whisked with 1 tbsp water, for egg wash
  • sea salt, for sprinkling
  • ¼ c fresh rosemary or thyme
  • Place the water in a medium sized bowl and sprinkle the yeast. Let stand until the yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour, oil, 2 tsp coarse salt, and the sugar. Stir until a dough forms.
  • Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Use as much flour as necessary so it is not a sticky dough. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and roll the dough around in the bowl so that it is also lightly oiled on the surface. Cover with saran wrap. Let stand in a warm place until it doubles in volume, about 1 hour.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C/gas mark 4. Divide dough into 16 equal portions and cover with plastic wrap. Roll out each piece to approximately 4"x10" on a lightly floured surface. Transfer to parchment lined baking sheet. Brush with the egg mixture and sprinkle with sea salt and herbs.
  • Bake, rotating sheet halfway through baking, until crisp and golden, 18-22 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Notes~ In place of rosemary/thyme, I used cilantro snips and garlic on some, sesame seeds and chili flakes on others. Though they were just as good plain with a sprinkle of salt.

A few minutes in the oven, with  heat turned off led to those very crisped edges perfect for hummus dipping and tearing apart by hands of all shapes and sizes.

Color me yellow. Couldn't fit  these into any of the other shots, so here goes, some pretties on their own canvas.
All this talk of flatbread is cue for a very good naan( Indian flatbread par excellence) recipe- any and all ideas welcome!  Perhaps those incessant raids of Trader Joe's freezers would finally come to an end.

Thank you Sarah, for breaking me out of my challenge intermission, and bringing me to task with an invigoratingly crisp, totally topnotch challenge.
Confidence through Christ, the only way to go!
 "So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. "Hebrews 10:35