A Plate of Cookies

Cardamom oatmeal cookies

I love having a plate piled high with freshly baked cookies and everyone is free to grab any number at will to snack on throughout the day and night. Notwithstanding the sugar and butter content, I do think homemade cookies make a wholesome snack.

The cookies pictured above are from Amateur Gourmet’s blog – Cardamom Oatmeal Cookies with my choice of add-ins: chopped walnuts, dried cranberries and semi-sweet chocolate chips.

When it comes to feeding my cookie addiction, my freezer is my ally. When baking cookies, I like to make the full batch of cookie dough and shape them into balls with my cookie scoop before transferring them to the freezer to freeze on a baking sheet. Once frozen, I’ll tuck them into a freezer bag where these frozen balls of cookie dough will stay until I need them. And they do keep well for months.

Currently, I have five different types of unbaked cookie dough in my freezer as  I was in a cookie-making frenzy last week:

I want to have a stash of cookie dough for my husband as the kiddos and I will be going back to Singapore for a long visit. As he will be left to fend for himself at dinner time in my absence, I thought it would be nice to have his dessert taken care of for him.

Now, my husband might be able to do a little bit of cooking (his specialty is a whole roasted sea bass) but he is definitely a non-baker. Luckily for him, he does know how to preheat the oven to 350F and evenly space out the frozen balls of cookie dough on a baking sheet to bake for about 15 minutes. It’s a pretty simple yet highly rewarding type of baking where the bulk of the work has been done by another person, ie. me.

Like I said, the freezer is our ally.

Mocha Banana Bread

Trying to find space on my kitchen counter to photograph my food is tough. The area that gets the most sunlight is always strewn with things: my daughter’s drawings, grocery lists, cookbooks, library books, keys, the laptop and ipad. I don’t mind it much though; after all, the kitchen is the place that gets the most traffic in my home. It is where we hang out most of the time and where my kids first head to when they want to find me.

The above is a slice of banana bread waiting to be wrapped up and taken to work by my husband for his snack. Not just your regular banana bread, this banana bread is spiked with an ample dose of cocoa and coffee. I had a slice this morning for breakfast and it was one of the best things I have woken up to in a long time. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee and eating a slice of banana bread for breakfast, this is like combining the tastes of both in each bite. This is a shortcut I’ll gladly take as I usually have my breakfast standing up over the counter as I prepare my daughter’s school lunch and catch up on my emails.

I was inspired to make this by Nigella Lawson’s Italian Breakfast Banana Bread from Nigellissima. I did make Nigella’s recipe and although I found the texture a little too damp (rest assured that I did not underbake the bread), the flavour was awesome. Undeterred, I used my favourite banana bread recipe as the starting point and stirred into the batter my own concoction of two tablespoons of cocoa powder and one tablespoon of instant coffee that I dissolved in two tablespoons of hot water (from the tap). It was a great success!

The cocoa in the resultant baked bread was barely noticeable but I find it enhanced the flavour of coffee. Perhaps only in my mind. Regardless, I know for a fact that my banana bread tasted much better after an overnight’s rest. My husband and son loved it but my daughter not so much.

I feel that whenever I give a review of who eats what in my family, there is rarely a consensus and on the rare occasion when there is one, the recipe almost always involves chocolate. My kids are five and two years old – I hope this is normal. Please tell me it is.

Birthday Cake; A Labour of Love

The perfect birthday cake for my five year old girl

My son’s birthday falls in April and my daughter’s birthday in May; that means we have two birthday cakes to feast on in back to back months. Sweet.

I never fail to bake a birthday cake for my kids and my husband on their birthdays. Although I do get them presents, I like to think of my homemade effort as the real birthday present. I start planning months in advance sourcing for a recipe that would make the perfect cake for the birthday person, taking into account deciding factors like the ever changing tastes of my kids, the seasonality of the ingredients and now that my daughter is old enough to request it, the colour of the frosting. In short, I invest a lot of time in the birthday cake making process. I consider it a labour of love.

Where birthday cakes are concerned, chocolate is a non-negotiable ingredient for my family. And they always have to be a double layered, frosted affair. That makes my job easier yet it does get kind of boring after a while and I look to fancy things up by making little changes. For my son’s birthday back in April, I replaced the usual chocolate cake layers with banana cake. He loves banana bread and chocolate; putting them two together was a no-brainer and the end result was really delicious.

For my daughter’s birthday yesterday, I had many consultation sessions with her before her final mandate to me was for a cake with “chocolate cake layers and pink frosting”. And I got to work.

So here goes:

For the chocolate cake layers, I used the simple and delicious recipe from Ina Garten – her Beatty’s Chocolate Cake. So easy to make and stays moist for days, it is my go to recipe for a basic chocolate cake.

For the chocolate ganache filling between the cake layers, I melted 3 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips and whisked in half a stick of room temperature butter until everything is glossy and smooth, adding a few tablespoonfuls of milk to get the ganache to the spreading consistency I was looking for.

For the pink frosting, I wanted one that is tinted pink with strawberries and not food colouring. After intensive googling, I settled on this recipe that I found on Allrecipes. It turned out great, it was full of strawberry flavour and most importantly, it was pink!

Oh and of course, I couldn’t leave out the obligatory rainbow sprinkles.

And now, my little girl is five!

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Nigella's gluten and dairy free chocolate cake

Chocolate cake is the most popular treat in my family and my kids go crazy when I serve it for dessert. I have made just about every variety of chocolate cake there is, from the glorious layered type where two chocolate sponge cakes are sandwiched together with chocolate frosting to the flourless kind containing only butter, dark chocolate, sugar and eggs. I have also tried a version by Nigel Slater that contains beets. I have a few trusted recipes that I make over and over again but when I encounter unique ones, I am always game to give them a try.

Being almost fanatical about chocolate cakes, I was naturally excited when I came across this chocolate olive oil cake by Nigella Lawson in her new cookbook, Nigellissima. Olive oil in any dessert intrigues me; it’s such a versatile cooking fat and I prefer its robust flavour over butter any day. It also happens to be one of my favourite smells in the kitchen, lemon and vanilla being the other two.

I had high hopes for this cake, I truly did. It is a chocolate cake. It is moistened with olive oil and ground almonds. But it fell slightly short of what I was expecting. Looks wise, my cake came out of the oven pretty much deflated into a thin inch-tall disc but I won’t proceed to judge a cake by its height. Taste wise, although it was meltingly tender (in Nigella’s words) and was deeply chocolaty at that, I felt something was missing. An extra shot of vanilla or a boost from espresso, perhaps? In all, I would say that it was a good gluten and dairy free chocolate cake but it was not chocolate cake as I prefer it.

My cake was finished within four days and I felt it improved in taste as it sat so if you are planning to make this cake, I recommend making it a day in advance before serving. And I would like to add that despite my reservations both my kids loved this cake, they inhaled their petite slices and asked for seconds, to which I obliged. Well, the slices were really petite to begin with.

Birthday Feast For A Two Year Old

Banana cake with sour cream chocolate frosting

My son, Russell, turned two on April 3rd, 2013 and long before that date I already had his birthday menu all planned out. I knew I wanted him to have a home cooked birthday dinner because at his age, he doesn’t have a favourite restaurant (perhaps we don’t take him out often enough?) and to be honest, going out for dinner with two young kids in tow when it’s so cold outside is just such a dampener.

I’m usually not all that efficient of a mom but as my son absolutely loves meatballs, it’s quite a no brainer for me when it comes to devising his birthday menu. The only two possible foods vying for top spot on his list of Favourite Mommy Approved Things To Eat are plain yogurt and salmon. Since I don’t cook red meat often (and since my son eats plain yogurt everyday and roast salmon once a week), I decided that it has got to be meatballs for his special birthday treat.

My go to recipe for meatballs is the one by Nigella Lawson, found in her book, Feast. I’m not sure what it is about that recipe but it produces a tender and flavourful meatball every time. I like to pan fry my meatballs instead of cooking them in a tomato sauce so they can develop a delicious brown crusty exterior. And a huge plus about this cooking method is that eating meatballs becomes an almost mess-free endeavor for Russell. No red sauce smooshed all over his arms, hair, cheeks, high chair, floor and clothes. No clean up nightmare for mommy and daddy. All is good.

I rounded out the meal with sides of baguette (bread – another favourite of Russell’s), sautéed green beans and a spiced tomato sauce (inspired by one that is found in the Ottolenghi Cookbook) as a dip for the meatballs. For my vegetarian daughter, I made Puy lentils as her main and dressed them with the spiced tomato sauce. Mmmmm, I have to add that everyone was pretty pleased with their meal.

And for the main event – the Birthday Cake – I made a banana cake (Dorie Greenspan’s super duper awesome Classic Banana Bundt Cake recipe from Baking: From My Home To Yours) that I baked into two 9-inch layers and sandwiched them together with a chocolate sour cream frosting (I used my favourite recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake). Chocolate frosting on banana cake? It can only be pure nirvana. The half portion you see in the picture is what’s left on the second day after servicing the greed of two adults and two toddlers.

And The Shiksa Bakes Another Challah

Challah shaped into a round braid

Last week’s challah (my first attempt at baking it at home) turned out so gorgeous and delicious that I just couldn’t help baking another one this Friday. But this time round, I switched up the recipe and braiding style. I followed the recipe from Melissa Clark, which uses honey and orange juice as sweeteners instead of the commonly used white sugar. And instead of a six-braid straight challah, my daughter and I tried our hand at a four-braid round challah. I highly recommend this video by CookKosher.com that I found after a little googling for a concise tutorial on shaping round challahs. As a testament of how that video made braiding a round challah look super easy, my not quite five-year old daughter saw it twice and was then able to do it herself.

The honey lends a nice touch to the challah (I used manuka, a strong flavoured honey) and you can’t taste any orange at all. And my challah wasn’t raw or anything close to it but I think it could have had benefited from a further ten minutes in the oven – my husband thought the texture was a little off. To my defence, it did sound hollow when I tapped its bottom. But I want to try this recipe again and improve on the baking time because I like the hint of honey in my challah.

My daughter’s enthusiasm in challah-baking for our Friday dinners is still on a high; other than the kneading of the dough (which I did the night before when she was in bed), she was wholly involved in the entire process this afternoon. She shaped the dough into ropes with my assistance, braided the ropes herself (didn’t want any help from me – “I want to do it!!”), pinched the ends together and tucked them under, carefully painted the shaped round of dough with a beaten egg and gave it a sprinkling of sesame seeds before I slid it into the oven to bake.

I always encourage my kids to be involved in the preparation of the food that they eat. And not because I believe in the theory that children will, or will be more likely to, eat what they helped cooked; my kids have proven it wrong time and again. But I like the company they provide when I’m cooking, the extra little hands helping me and most importantly, I don’t feel so much like a line cook serving up plated food to hungry people seated at the table.

My First Homemade Challah

Homemade challah

In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden had just a simple one-liner in the recipe headnote for challah: “It is made with eggs and comes out so beautiful that you do not resent the labour“. Indeed, I cannot agree more. That was how I felt when I took this beautiful baby out of the oven.

Challah, for those who are not in the know, is a loaf of bread whose dough is made with eggs, sugar and oil (along with the usual suspects in bread-making that are flour, yeast, water and salt) and usually shaped into a beautiful braid that is baked to a most burnished brown. Challah is typically served at Shabbat dinners (on Friday nights) and on the high holidays, but you can enjoy it anytime you wish. It toasts really well, makes excellent sandwiches and is the best bread to use for french toast. I like to keep a sliced loaf in my freezer for making a quick lunch of french toast for my kids on days where there are no leftovers in the fridge.

I have always bought our Friday night challahs from Jewish bakeries and why not? They are absolutely delicious and worth every penny. But I was inspired to bake my own loaf and I followed the recipe from The Kitchn to great success. The only difference I made to the recipe was to make the dough on Thursday night and stashed it in the fridge for an overnight rise. On Friday morning before dashing out of the house to take my daughter to her arts class, I took the dough out of the fridge and left it on the kitchen counter. By the time we came home for lunch, the dough had come to room temperature and was perfect for shaping.

While my son took his after lunch nap, my daughter and I had a great time shaping the dough into ropes. The recipe was pretty clear on the braiding instructions but it would be uncharacteristic of me if I didn’t botch up while making a braid from six ropes of dough. The “labour” Claudia Roden was referring to must have been the complicated braiding. I can handle braiding three strands but six strands is totally beyond me on the first attempt. Luckily, the baked challah came out looking so glorious that all braiding fumbles were forgiven.

I wish I was able to take pictures of my daughter in the shaping process but it was impossible to wield a camera with my doughy hands. She had so much fun that I am thinking of making this a weekly activity; my husband thinks I’m just being ambitious.

The picture shows what was left of the huge loaf after dinner. Clearly, we eat a lot of bread around here. Yes, this recipe makes a grand-sized challah that will feed a crowd but if well-wrapped, the leftovers make for great breakfast toast the next morning.