31 December 2011

Let's celebrate!

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This past year has been absolutely incredible.  It's been a year of new adventures and new friendships, a year of learning and growth.  I've been listening to my heart more and more through this whole food blogging thing, trying to synthesize my love of food with my passion for building deeper understanding and appreciation between world cultures.  I'm so thankful for having you join me here at Apricosa, following my heartfelt joy in the Italian and German flavors of my heritage and cheering me on (or simply tolerating, heh) my growing excitement for Korean and Chinese food.  I love sharing these things, and I feel so grateful for you, your kind words and encouragement.  

The end of the year is always a time of reflection for me, and it is also a time full of celebration.  Celebration of what has been and of what is to come.  Then there is Advent, Christmas, and New Year's on our family calendar, as well as a good number of birthdays!  When it comes to making the birthday cakes, that project generally falls to me, and it is a lot of fun to brainstorm with the birthday "child," get inspiration from their preferences, and make those cake wishes a reality.

For my brother's birthday, he asked if he could have some sort of cake with fruit.  Being that his birthday falls at the end of December, we don't have too many fresh fruits around here other than apples and citrus.  Neither of us were really clicking with those options, but then I remembered that some friends of the family had gifted us over the summer with pounds and pounds of exquisite peaches and plums from their farm, and we'd frozen them down to enjoy over the winter.  I kept thinking about our beloved German-style sahnetortes, and when I came across a recipe for peach melba cake, my cake plan began to form.

Here, soft and moist vanilla buttermilk cake is layered with peaches and whipped cream and topped with a raspberry sauce.  This turned out light and fruity and totally fulfilled my brother's birthday cake dreams.  Yay!  And as a side note, can I just say how good it is to eat a cake that does not have buttercream frosting all over it?  Everyone at the table agreed that this cake really does beat those sugary frosted things hollow.  The fluffy peach-scented cream, the peaches and raspberries in beautiful contrast, and the nice soft cake made each bite a delight.

So it's time to celebrate!  We've got the cake and candles.  Light your sparklers and put on your party clothes.  You know it's time!  I wish you all a joyful and prosperous 2012.  Happy New Year!

Peach Melba Whipped Cream Cake 
Inspired by Epicurious 
Serves 8

6 Tbs. softened butter (plus more for greasing the pan)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 small eggs, room temperature
¾ tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbs. fresh peach juice*
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup low-fat buttermilk 

2 cups peaches (thawed or canned), sliced*
Whipped Cream Torte Filling (see recipe below) 
1 cup frozen raspberries, plus 8 whole raspberries for garnish
1 tsp. sugar

Butter an 8-inch round spring form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.  Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Beat in the vanilla and peach juice.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; add flour to the creamed mixture in two additions, alternating with buttermilk.  Mix just until each addition has been incorporated, avoiding over-mixing.

Divide batter into the prepared pan.  Bake in a preheated oven at 350°F until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes.  Cool the cake in its pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto the rack, peel off wax paper, and cool completely. 

To assemble the cake, first trim the domed top off the cake using a long, thin bread knife.  Split cake horizontally, then place one half on a serving platter.  Arrange peach slices all over, then spread half of the whipped cream filling over.  Place the second cake half on top and press gently to bind.  Spread the remaining whipped cream over the top and decorate with whole raspberries.  Heat the 1 cup frozen raspberries and sugar until hot and bubbling, then transfer to a serving bowl.  Chill cake for 30 minutes, then slice and serve with raspberry sauce. 

Whipped Cream Torte Filling
1 ½ tsp. gelatin
¼ cup peach juice*
1 egg yolk
1 Tbs. superfine sugar
2 Tbs. peach juice
1 Tbs. Cointreau 
1 ½ cups  heavy whipping cream, very cold

Stir together the gelatin and ¼ cup peach juice in a microwave-safe bowl and let sit until the gelatin is softened.  Whisk in the 1 tablespoon superfine sugar and 2 tablespoons peach juice.  Heat in microwave until bubbling, whisking to ensure gelatin and sugar have dissolved.  Let cool, then whisk in the egg yolk (to cook the yolk, keeping it smooth and fluid without scrambling it).  Mix in Cointreau and let gelatin mixture cool, but do not let gelatin harden.

In a cold bowl, beat heavy whipping cream until stiff peaks form, and stream in the gelatin mixture and incorporate thoroughly.  If cream appears too fluid for spreading on the cake, chill in the refrigerator or freezer, stirring occasionally, until it sets up. 

*Note: I really liked how soft the peaches were after having been frozen down; they paired perfectly with the softness of the whipped cream.  And they released a lot of juice that I used all throughout the recipe.  If you don't have fresh peaches that have been frozen down, I recommend using canned peaches that are in their own juices (no extra sugar added).

24 December 2011

Cranberry Agrodolce and Merry Christmas!

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I just finished making a batch of this absolutely delicious cranberry agrodolce for our Christmas turkey tomorrow.  It is sweet, tangy, and savory all in one.  It is so so good.  It's going to be perfect with our turkey, and it would be fantastic over a nice thick pork chop or alongside some good game meat.

This literally was a last-minute idea, and thankfully all the ingredients I needed were hanging out in the pantry.  So if you're looking for that extra-something on your table for tomorrow, this might be it!

Agrodolce, literally meaning "sour-sweet," is an Italian sauce that can be as simple as a vinegar-sugar glaze.  In my version, I balance the tart flavors of fresh cranberries and balsamic vinegar with the complex sweetness of dried berries, golden raisins, brown sugar, and red wine.  And with a savory base of sauteed onions and garlic, this agrodolce makes for a beautiful match with poultry and meats.

I'm so excited to eat it tomorrow...actually everybody in the house is, after I gave them little spoonfuls to taste-test today.  We're getting ready around here to celebrate in style, and I want to wish you all a very happy Christmas!  May you be surrounded with good company, be regaled with good food, and be filled with the even greater hope and joy that is ours this season!

Cranberry Agrodolce
Makes about 3 ½ cups

1 Tbs. olive oil
1 cup diced onion
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup medley of dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries, and golden raisins
6 Tbs. (packed) brown sugar
½ cup cranberry juice
½ cup red wine
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. coarsely-ground black pepper
1 bay leaf

Saute onions with olive oil in a 2-quart sauce pan over medium-high heat, stirring regularly to prevent browning.  When onions are nearly done, add minced garlic and continue cooking until garlic and onions are soft and translucent.

Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring regularly, until cranberries have burst and sauce thickens.  Serve warm or cooled.

17 December 2011

Five Spice-Scented Pizzelle

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Christmas is just around the corner, and tasty goodies have suddenly sprung up everywhere around here!  First I baked up these pizzelle, then a shipment of Stollen and Lebkuchen arrived from Germany, and now my mom has been baking batches of biscotti.  Good thing we have family coming into town to help us eat our way through it all!

It’s this time of year that really gets me digging back into my heritage—thinking back on who I am and where I’ve come from and celebrating German family traditions that have taken on an Italian American twist.  And it’s amazing how something as simple as cookies can so powerfully evoke memories and reinforce tradition.

It was over 20 years ago that I first had pizzelle, a Christmas gift from a dear family friend (and fellow German expat!) who used to live here in Santa Barbara near us.  As little girls, my sister and I loved going over to spend a day with Dorle, or “Chickadee,” as we called her, getting to go through her boxes of dress-up clothes, playing in her garden, having tea parties in her RV, and spending hours looking through her books, records, and curios.  It wasn’t just that we could do so many fun and interesting things at her house that was the attraction; it was that we knew there we could also share in our common German heritage together.  It was comforting and restful to be with her.  With time, she became our surrogate German grandmother in California.  Happy memories hang thickly when I think back on our times with her.

I know we owned a pizzelle maker even before moving to Santa Barbara, but we never actually made our own until we tasted Dorle’s cookies and inherited a recipe from her.  Knowing that Germans have long had huge enthusiasm for Italy—well, the food, wine, and vacation homes there, to be exact—I suppose it was not such a huge surprise that a German woman would be making these traditionally Italian Christmas cookies.  And for my German-Italian home, pizzelle fit right in.

Made on an iron as waffles are made, pizzelle turn out thin, crisp, and buttery.  If you catch them while they’re still soft, you can roll them into tubes and fill them like cannoli, or shape them into cups, as I did here.  The pizzelle cups are fantastic for a nice scoop of ice cream, like butter pecan or vanilla.

This year I was excited to have some five-spice powder on hand, and so I added a little to my pizzelle batter for a more nuanced aroma.  Traditionally used in Chinese cooking, five-spice powder is a lovely blend of fennel, anise, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves—perfect for Christmas baking and these pizzelle!

Whether you choose to roll and fill with cream, fold and top with ice cream, or simply nibble on one while savoring a cup of hot coffee or tea, pizzelle make for a delicious treat.  I hope you have a chance to make some for yourself this Christmas.  Buon natale!

Five-Spice Scented Pizelle
Makes about 4 ½ dozen cookies

6 eggs
1½ cups sugar
1 cup butter, melted and cooled
2 Tbs. vanilla extract
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. five-spice powder

Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat eggs until well mixed.  Add the sugar, and then beat on high speed until foamy.  Add the melted butter and vanilla extract and whisk to incorporate.  In a separate bowl stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and five-spice powder until well-mixed.  Add flour mixture to eggs and mix together.

Turn on the pizelle iron and lightly brush with oil.  When iron is hot, put 1 Tbs. batter on each circle and bake according to manufacturer’s directions.  When done, turn out and cool completely on a wire rack before storing in an air-tight container.

Note: To shape ice cream cups, tuck pizelle into small ramekins immediately upon removal from iron.  The pizelle harden extremely quickly.

10 December 2011

Bibimbap (비빔밥)

Anything with an egg on top has got to be good, right?  Yeah, pretty much.  Still trying (and meeting with very little success so far) to convert my parents into Korean food enthusiasts, I decided to prepare for them this bibimbap, which has got to be one of the more accessible Korean dishes for the Western palate.

Bibimbap is just downright delicious, and it's hard for me to see how anyone couldn't love it.  It's a big bowl of steamed rice covered with an arrangement of blanched and sesame-seasoned vegetables, bits of beef bulgogi, and topped with a nice fried egg.  Finish it off with a big dollop of the spicy-sweet-sour chili sauce cho-gochujang, mix it all up in your bowl, and go at it with a spoon.  Yum.

Such a simple dish, easily transforming leftover banchan into a square meal, I could eat it all the time.  Thankfully my parents didn't flip out when they tasted this.  I count that as a major success.  To top it off, my mom even said it was tasty.  Well, I think we've taken a good step in the right direction!

Bibimbap (비빔밥)

Steamed rice
An assortment of banchan and fresh vegetables*
Fried egg

For each serving, scoop a cup of steamed rice into a large bowl.  Arrange an assortment of your favorite banchan on top of the rice and place a little bulgogi at the center.  Top with a fried egg and serve with plenty of cho-gochujang.  Mix well before eating.

* Here I used, clockwise from top: blanched julienned carrots, siguemchi namul (시금치 나물), kongnamul (콩나물), musaengchae (무생채), shredded lettuce, shredded green cabbage, gosari (고사리).  Some of these I had purchased pre-made, making things a lot easier!  For a more thorough guide to bibimbap preparation, I recommend this post.

05 December 2011

Congee with Preserved Duck Egg

I've recently been enjoying some lovely preserved duck eggs.  They are stunners.  Peel them and you reveal gem-like eggs, with firm, amber egg whites and grey-blue creamy yolks.  I love how sunlight, shining through the crystal-clear, golden-brown yolks turns the eggs into glowing treasures--totally breathtaking and inspiring.  For as much as I already love eggs in general, the striking beauty of these "1000 year old eggs" makes me see eggs in a whole new light.  Think about how fun it would be to use these marvelously-colored eggs to reinvent classic egg dishes, infusing them with an element of surprise!

These eggs make for good comfort food--good and nourishing food--with unexpected newness.

Preserved eggs are a favorite in Chinese cuisine, made by curing duck, quail, or chicken eggs in a salty, highly basic (i.e. high pH) mixture.  Traditionally, this mixture was made from clay, wood ash, quicklime, and salt, but today it is more common to preserve eggs in a salty brine made with calcium hydroxide and sodium carbonate.

Pí​dàn (皮蛋), translated as "thousand-year old eggs" or "preserved eggs," but also referred to as "century eggs" or "millenium eggs" in English, come ready to eat as-is and are used in Chinese cooking in a variety of ways, all of which I've not explored.  But one very delicious way to enjoy them is as a part of a rice porridge congee (粥, zhōu) made with lean pork (瘦肉, shòu​ròu).  This congee is eaten as a breakfast dish and is often served at dim sum restaurants.

I remember going to brunch in Cupertino Village with some college friends one Sunday years ago and my roommate being decidedly firm about us ordering congee.  It wasn't just her excitement as a Taiwanese American over eating something homey and familiar that convinced us to get it; no, when Christine tells you to order something, you do it, because experience has proven she knows what she's talking about when it comes to food.  And let me tell you, that first time I tried congee, I was once again glad I'd listened.  It was delicious.

One of the most comforting of foods, congee is as cozy as a nice warm blanket wrapping all around you--like a nice big hug.  It has such a velvety, creamy texture that gets you licking the spoon and ahem, even the bowl.  It's just so tasty you don't want to miss one drop of it.  And this recipe here--lean pork and rice congee--becomes even more delicious when you swirl in the creamy yolks of the preserved egg slices garnishing each serving.

This recipe is so easy, and it is such a great way to use up leftover rice.  If you don't have leftover cooked rice on hand, though, start with one cup dry, uncooked white rice.  Wash uncooked grains in several changes of water until water is clear, drain, and cover with 1 1/4 cups water.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and steam until tender.  Continue by adding the minced pork and broth and following the rest of the recipe as written.

Lean Pork Congee with 1,000-Year-Old Egg
(皮蛋瘦肉粥, pí​dàn shòu​ròu zhōu)
Makes 4-6 servings

3 cups cooked white short-grained rice
112g (1/4 lb.) lean pork, minced
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or stock
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
3 1,000-year-old preserved eggs, cut into eighths*

Place cooked rice, pork, and broth into a medium pot.  Cover pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until rice is very soft and congee has thickened, about 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly to avoid burning the bottom.  Season with salt and sesame oil to taste.  Ladle congee into individual bowls and garnish with chopped green onion and slices of preserved egg.

*Note: if 1000-year-old eggs are not available in your markets, substitute eggs that are cooked just barely to the hard-cooked stage.  As of December 2011, these eggs were available at the Oriental Market here in town.