Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Perfect Christmas Gift: Maine Winter Feast

As I walked down the stairs at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas morning to make my way into work, I came across the most awesome gifts waiting for me at the door: a full size Dyson animal vacuum cleaner and a printout for a Central Market cooking class!

The vacuum cleaner was an awesome joint gift from Micah and his mom! This was the second year I got a vacuum cleaner for Christmas, I think Micah is trying to tell me something. The first one he got me was the Dyson DC59 (cordless). This little guy is great for our wood and tile floors - it sucks up the dog fur like a dream! The one I got this year was the Dyson upright. It's a dream! I can't even imagine going back to a "regular" vacuum cleaner.


Anyhow, while I loved the vacuum cleaner, I was REALLY excited about the Central Market cooking class. Micah chose a class called "Maine Feast" which focuses on, you guessed it, Maine dishes. Since Micah doesn't eat red meat, this was the perfect menu because it had a lot of seafood, more specifically, LOBSTAH! 


The class was a perfect Saturday night date. The class is setup like a classroom. It's not a hands on class -- they don't have you helping with any of the cooking.



The instructor is up there going through the techniques with several other people prepping the rest of the food. 

To our surprise, the class comes with two glasses of wine. 



To start, we had corn chowder. A very simple dish that is made really rich with tons of butter. I've come to the conclusion that my homemade dishes are not nearly as delicious because I don't use enough butter! 

The chowder was served with these biscuits that use Bakewell cream, which is basically Maine's version of cream of tartar. The biscuits flake differently and have more a tinny quality.




After the soup, we dug into the lobster roll! They didn't skimp on the fresh lobster either! We were surprised by the full-sized serving because at a restaurant, it would easily cost $15-$20 for a lobster roll (the entire class was $50/person!). Oddly enough, someone in front of us ate the bread but left all the lobster meat! WTF? Why are you even in this class?



After lobster, we had baked haddock with roasted veggies. Pretty simple dish that uses one of my favorite items, panko bread crumbs. For some reason, I don't buy firm white fish very often but I really enjoy haddock and cod. I guess I always veer towards salmon, tuna and gulf fish.



For the finale, we had blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. The perfect way to end a lovely dinner! 

The Central Market cooking classes vary by menu and pricing, but we thought our Maine class was well-priced for what you got. I would definitely sign-up for another class!




Thursday, January 15, 2015

NOLA for My Mom's Birthday!

While this post is a few weeks behind schedule, I figure it's never too late to talk about my mom (or me in Vietnamese)! The weekend after Christmas we celebrated my mom's birthday by going to New Orleans for the weekend! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

Me, Micah and my mom haven't been to NOLA since before Katrina -- that's too long of a time! 

My two cousins also joined us on this trip and it was fun to share the city with them since they've never been. I much prefer to visit NOLA during the winter time rather than the sticky stench that is summer.

In front of the Christmas tree across from Jackson Square
I made the biggest mistake on this trip: I forgot to bring my camera! I fail at life. Thankfully everyone else in my crew took some photos for me!


On our first night, we celebrated my mom's birthday with dinner at Jacques Imo's. My boss told me about this place and the 1000+ reviews on Yelp indicated this place would be a fun place for dinner. I made a reservation a few weeks in advance and the only time they had open on a Friday was at 5 p.m.! We showed up at 5 p.m. and it was already packed!


While our food was good, nothing was AMAZING, except for the cornbread. That cornbread must have a stick of butter in each bite! The watermelon mojito was also a treat -- I think I'm stealing this drink for my next summer party! For my mom's birthday, they brought out a fabulous bread pudding that had great texture and wasn't overly sweet (which some tend to be).

On the second night, we ate at Deanie's Seafood in Bucktown. I've actually been to this restaurant before and really enjoyed it. Their BBQ shrimp is so decadent and flavorful. My mom loved the sauce so much that she poured it over a bowl of white rice! So Asian.


We also had breakfast at the Ruby Slipper in Mid-City (food was good but the service was mediocre and slow)



Of course we had cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Monde!

Cigar shop and a big ol' daiquiri
Walking around the mid-city area
Flight at NOLA Brewing. My face is not indicative of their beer offerings... it's just my face.
We were able to check out NOLA Brewing, which is in an industrial area southwest of the French Quarter. The NOLA beers we had at restaurants weren't very good but the selection at their actual taproom was great! We ordered 8 samples and settled in with some Jenga and Scrabble. Micah's fave brew was their Brettanomyces IPA. If you want a little dessert while you're there, they even have root beer floats!

We were also able to check out WINO, which was really close to our hotel. It's one of those self-serving wine bars (which we loved when we visited Paris). They have several dozen wines available and the prices are fairly reasonable. Unfortunately, we didn't love any of the wines they had on their roster.

Our favorite cocktails were had at Bar Tonique. Micah dragged us all the way over to this side of the FQ and I was going to be really annoyed if they didn't have good cocktails, but to my surprise, they had great cocktails at a very reasonable price! Everything we had was good: pimm's cup, moscow mule and several cocktails they made up on the fly! You can't beat that!


On our last day, Micah and I visited the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. It's $10 per person for the tour and tasting. They start you off with a lovely rum tea cocktail while you wait for the tour to start. While I'm not a huge fan of rum, I thought it would be fun to check out what the place had to offer.


Their spiced rum is very popular and it is indeed spicy!


They also have this new product, Gingergoo which is a rum cocktail mixed with ginger. It's already premixed so just add ice! If you like ginger beer, you would love this product!

Walking along Magazine Street
After being away from NOLA for so long, it was a great weekend trip to celebrate my mom's birthday and to revisit the city that has so much to offer! 

Where We Stayed:

I booked the Le Meridien Hotel -- which used to be the W Hotel. They just went through a renovation and now the rooms are super modern and stylish. I got a deal during Cyber Week at $100/night! The hotel is right across the street from the Harrah's Casino. I knew my mom would find her way to the casino, so I figured I'd make that slightly easier for her (not sure that was the smartest idea).




Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Favorite Baked Item to Give as Gifts: Cinnamon Rolls

When it comes to baking, my motto is "bake and share." I love making goodies to give away. I mean, I can't eat a whole cake... really I can, but I really shouldn't. 

One of my favorite things to bake and give as a gift is cinnamon rolls. I mean, if I give you a container of cinnamon rolls, I must really like you (or I'm trying to win you over). 

While cinnamon rolls aren't hard to make, they do take some time so make sure you have several hours to spare. 

Here's how I make my cinnamon rolls!

First is the dough. I like to use this base. I also use this dough recipe for regular rolls as well and they are fabulous (but when I make the dinner rolls, I sub out honey for the sugar! That's another post!).


To start, put the warm water, warm milk, egg, butter, sugar and salt into your mixer with the dough hook.


Then add 2 1/2 tsp. of instant yeast. I don't use the packages anymore, I just buy a whole block of instant yeast and keep it in jars in the fridge/freezer. Mix everything together.


Once everything is mixed, start adding the all purpose flour. I start with two cups, once that's incorporated, I add the third cup. Then I add 1/4 c. at a time. The recipe says 3 3/4 c. which is pretty accurate. Depending on how humid it is, that'll determine how much flour you end up using.


Once the dough starts to pull away from the bowl, that's when you're almost done with the kneading process. Feel the dough and make sure it's not too sticky. If it's too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour at a time to get a drier dough. You want the dough to be tacky but not to where it sticks to your fingers.


The dough should come out of the mixer smooth like this. I love using this silicone baking mat for pies and doughs! Great piece to add to your kitchen gadgets.


I do need it by hand for a minute to make sure it's fully incorporated and smooth.


For the dough into a smooth ball and drop it into a large bowl sprayed with some vegetable spray. Cover with a kitchen towel, store it in a warm place and let it rise until it doubles in size (approx. one hour). When the temperature is cold, I usually like to put my oven on "keep warm" setting and then the oven off and put the dough in there to proof. 


This is the dough after the rise. Puffy and a beaut. 

While you're waiting for the dough to rise, you make the delicious cream cheese frosting and cinnamon filling for the rolls.


You'll need some cream cheese. I use the low fat cream cheese to off-set all the butter and sugar. Hey, cut the calories where you can! This is 8 oz. block but you'll only need 4 oz.


Put the 4 oz. softened cream cheese and 1/4 c. softened unsalted butter in the mixing bowl with the paddle attachment.


Mix on high until incorporated.


Then add 1 1/4 c. powdered sugar. Make sure you start the mixer on low or you'll have sugar EVERYWHERE.


Then add 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract, plus a pinch of salt. I've been making my own extract so I use this stuff. Even if you don't make your own extract, don't use that imitation nonsense. 


To cut the sweetness of the frosting, I like to use 1 to 2 tablespoon of buttermilk. This will also loosen the frosting. Add more or less of the buttermilk to get the consistency you like.


Beat on high until everything is incorporated and smooth.


Then I scoop all the frosting into a container and put in the fridge until I'm ready to use it. It holds in the fridge for weeks, so you can make the frosting ahead of time if need be. (Do you like how I reuse HEB sour cream containers?)


The sugar mix is 3/4 C. brown sugar and 1/4 C. white sugar, pinch of salt and 2 tbsp. of Vietnamese cinnamon. Mix everything together.


If you haven't used Vietnamese cinnamon, you are missing out. It's like a cinnamon candy! The picture above has a shot of a large bark of cinnamon. When I have family coming from Vietnam, I always ask them to pick me up some cinnamon. The stores charge really high prices for this stuff. I just get the bark and grind my own.


The smell is seriously intoxicating. Get yourself some! I can be your dealer. ;)


Once the dough has proofed, get it onto a floured surface.


Roll the dough out to a rectangle approximately 20x14.


Then lather the dough with 2 tbsp. of softened butter. You can use more butter if you want. I'm not going to judge you.


Then sprinkle the cinnamon sugar mixture all over the buttered dough. Keep the top and bottom edges free of sugar so it's easier to roll and seal.


Slowly pull the edge closest to you and roll it tightly. I usually work from the middle out.


Keep the roll tight as you continue to roll up the dough.


When you're at the end, you'll see that the seam needs to be shut.


Just pinch the seam together to close everything up.


This roll ended up being 18 inches long. Cut the dough in half and then into thirds. 


Then cut the thirds in half. I ended up with 12 rolls.


Butter your pans. When I give these as gifts, I use this paper baking pans. I double up the pans because the ones I have have little holes in them so it can potentially leak (I'm going to have to get a different brand next time).


In this pan, I was able to fit seven rolls.


Once the rolls are in the pan, put a towel on them and put them in a warm spot to rise a second time. It should approximately one hour until they're puffy and ready to bake.

Pre-heat your oven to 400°. 


Bake for 20-25 minutes. I usually check the rolls at 15 minutes and then go from there. Bake until they're golden brown.


Take the rolls out of the oven and then put a lovely layer of cream cheese frosting on top. I don't go too heavy on the frosting, but that's a personal preference. 

Allow the rolls to cool, wrap up the container in a large gift bag and share the love!

Recipe:

Dough (based on this recipe)
  • 1/2 C. warm water
  • 1/2 C. warm milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 C. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 C. white sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3 3/4 C. all purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
Place water, milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt and yeast into a bowl and mix. Once everything is mixed, start adding the all purpose flour. Start with two cups, once that's incorporated, add the third cup. Then add 1/4 c. at a time. The recipe says 3 3/4 c. which is pretty accurate. Depending on how humid it is, that'll determine how much flour you end up using.

Mix on medium until dough comes together. If the dough sticks to your fingers, add a tablespoon of flour at a time until you get a dough that is smooth and doesn't stick to your fingers.

Once the dough is done, take it out of the bowl and knead it by hand for a minute. 

Then place the dough in a large bowl that has a light spray of vegetable oil. Cover will a towel and let rise for one hour.

Sugar Mixture
  • 3/4 C. brown sugar
  • 1/2 C. white sugar
  • 2 tbsp. vietnamese cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
Mix everything together in a bowl and set aside until ready.

Cream Cheese Frosting
  • 4 oz. softened cream cheese
  • 1/4 C. unsalted softened butter
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 C. powdered sugar
  • 1-2 tbsp. buttermilk
  • pinch of salt
Mix cream cheese and butter together on medium until smooth. Add powered sugar, mix on low until incorporated. Then add vanilla and salt. Then add the buttermilk until you get the consistency you like.

Making the Rolls
  • 2 tbsp. extra of unsalted softened butter
Once the dough has risen, flatten it out and roll until approximately 20x14 rectangle. Using your fingers, spread the softened butter all over the dough.

Then sprinkle the sugar mixture all over the dough, except for the 1/4 inch at the bottom and top of the dough. 

Slowly roll the dough up and pinch to close the seams at the end of the roll.

Cut the dough into 12 rolls and place into a buttered pan. All 12 rolls should fit in a 9x11 pan. 

Put a towel over the rolls and let it rise for another hour. 

Once the rolls have doubled, bake in a 400° for 20-25 minutes. When the rolls are golden brown, take them out of the oven, cover with frosting and enjoy!