Chocolate Chip Cookies

IMG_2615Though much has changed since I attended lower school – babies adept at navigating iPads, kids playing video games instead of board games, and an increasing concern with eating healthy – one thing remains the same. School cafeterias still serve terrible food.

I have choked down my share of cardboard-crusted pizza, tortilla soup made using yesterday’s leftover tacos, and slimy and grey cold cut sandwiches. However, there was one thing my school got right: the chocolate chip cookies.

From a young age, I learned to love cookies, if only because they were the only food option at school that didn’t activate my gag reflex. Every day, I would take one or two bites of my meal, then relish my two chocolate chip cookies. I switched schools after middle school into a totally different environment – an all-girls high school – but the food quality remained the same, if not worse, and the only thing worth eating was, you guessed it, the chocolate chip cookies.

People often embark on somewhat quixotic pursuits of the “best” vanilla cupcake or the “best” yellow cake or the “best” chocolate chip cookies. I’m of the opinion that it’s all rather subjective, and for me, the best chocolate chip cookies will always be those soft, under-baked cookies served at my lower school cafeteria. They did not have sea salt sprinkled on top or fancy chocolate disks, but they were moist (hopefully with butter and not shortening or lard or some weird chemicals), sweet…and they were the only game in town.

But some childhood memories are better left unsullied by attempts to recreate them. And so, I turned to the New York Times best chocolate chip cookie recipe to see if I couldn’t achieve something a little more sophisticated. With two types of flour, neither of which are all-purpose, chocolate disks instead of chocolate chips, and refrigeration time of 24-36 hours, these are quite the project.

Whether they represent something more “adult” or is simply an overly involved variation on something that should really be quite simple, I’ll leave for others to decide. They came out quite good, with a chewy, slightly cakey texture at the center, and a crunchier edge. They don’t quite measure up to the chocolate chip cookies enshrined in the memories of my youth, but then again, I suspect that no recipe, even the original recipe used by my school, ever will.

Continue reading

Two Years

IMG_2600_2

It must be serendipity: last year, I posted a tomato tart recipe to celebrate the one-year anniversary of my blog, and this year, without even planning to do so, I have another tomato tart recipe!

…Or maybe September is tomato season, and I’m deeply unoriginal.

Well, it’s a certainly at least a little comforting that despite the difficulties of the past year, there are parts of me that remain unchanged. I still love tomatoes, I still adore pastries and butter and learning to cook, and I am still writing about it all.

It’s been two years of discovering that my love for food extends beyond desserts and sweets, and that I may not be as useless in the kitchen as I first thought. Two years of learning family recipes from my dad, exploring new cuisines, gaining confidence with each success, and learning from failures.

Well this is a horribly cliché post, but honestly, I (and everyone else I know) never thought Kitchen Whimsies would make it past its first year. In ancient times, if a baby lived past two years old, parents could begin to believe that their child might actually make it to adulthood, or at least adolescence. I don’t know how to measure the lifespan of a blog – in dog years? In blog years? – but hey, what matters is that somehow, we’re still alive.

I think this year’s tomato tart turned out a little better than last year’s, and I certainly had fun trying out a totally new and totally easy way to make tart crust. Enjoy :)

Continue reading

Madeleine

IMG_2576When I was ten, my family chose Paris as our big summer vacation destination. After flying to Hong Kong every summer, you think we’d be used to grueling flights and jet lag, but we suffered terribly that first afternoon in Paris.

After arriving, we found ourselves at a small cafe overlooking a river, facing a menu written entirely in French. My dad recognized select words, but not enough to really understand what the dishes were. The waitstaff could not, or would not, speak English. So we just ordered blindly, and of course, some of the dishes were total misses.

I had never really been in a situation where nobody in my family could speak the language of the native population – though my sister and I understood zero words in Hong Kong, my parents had grown up there and navigated the streets and language flawlessly. In Paris, my mom and I tried to find a chocolate shop and even with a map, we soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. We gesticulated wildly at strangers and they gesticulated back, every person we asked pointing in a different direction. Three hours later, we finally stumbled into the shop.

Our half day of wandering and questionable food left us all crabby and drained. In our cramped, dark hotel room, we quickly fell asleep (then woke up at 4am, and spent the rest of the night fruitlessly tossing and turning).

The next morning, we came down to an airy lobby filled with light. Outside, the bustling sounds of chatter, cars, and mopeds could be heard, and in the center of the lobby was a large, circular table with a platter of madeleines. Our first half day in Paris faded like a nightmare as we sampled our first madeleines, then quickly reached for seconds.

Each morning started with that first madeleine, its light sweetness holding promises of the adventures to come. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower like good tourists, and wandered the halls of Musée d’Orsay for an entire day, not realizing how sore our feet were until after we had left. We came across a fair in a park close to our hotel, and rode what felt like the biggest Ferris wheel ever. We ate seafood and duck and pigeon, all cooked impeccably, and delicious French pastries that have since haunted my memory.

Since that trip to France over a decade ago, I’ve eaten copious quantities of croissants, brioche, and macarons, and yet, I never returned to the madeleine, perhaps because I had built it up to such an unattainable symbol of unbridled wonder that I had experienced as a child in Paris.

However, I recently flipped through a cookbook that nobody in my family remembers buying, and came across a madeleine recipe. I felt like fate must have intervened just a little, so I ran out and bought a madeleine pan that night. And these little cakes were sweet morsels of sunshine, a perfect start to our mornings in Paris and at home.

Continue reading

Rise of the Alien Fruits

IMG_2570As four-legged creatures, we’re inclined to get a little grossed out by things with “too many” legs, or seeds, or eyes. Centipedes and millipedes and spiders are the creepy crawly stuff of nightmares. Many people can’t stomach kiwis, with their fuzzy exterior and billion-seeded exterior. And watermelons, in a semi-abuse of science, have been genetically altered to be seedless.

However, the last few years have bucked that trend. Heirloom tomatoes, or ugly tomatoes, as they’re affectionately called, appeared in gourmet stores, then in large supermarkets. They’re still sold for unholy prices, but that has done little to dampen increasing demand. And other strange fruits and vegetables have begun to appear on the Whole Foods shelves. I literally don’t even know who buys them, but clearly there’s somehow a large enough market for them.

As people strive to be healthier, they’re embracing chia seeds, and flax seeds, and almonds and pistachios, and the general diet of our dear squirrel friends. Trader Joe’s now sells cartons of just pomegranate seeds, and Whole Foods carries horned fruits, which are basically all seeds (and some extraterrestrial green goo). And everyone and their mother suddenly loves figs.

Though my fight-or-flight instinct remains strong when I see a fly or a centipede or a giant spider, I’ve come to appreciate foods with “too many” seeds. Like this horned fruit I got for free the other day, which seriously looks like alien food, but kind of grows on you after a while. And figs, which I absolutely hated as a kid, but now use for “healthy” desserts and “healthy” salads (that are really more like desserts masquerading as salads by the time I’m done with them…).

Continue reading

Noodly

IMG_2560My family is split into two camps – the rice people, and the noodle people.

…in other words, everyone in my family adores noodles, except for me.

At Vietnamese restaurants, my sister, mother, and father would huddle over steaming bowls of pho while I ate lemongrass pork on broken rice. At Chinese restaurants, while everyone else had dandan mien or zhajiang mien, I opted for shaoya chashao fan. And while instant ramen was a staple food item in my household, I rarely deigned to touch it before high school.

The only cuisine where we met on common ground was Italian. (Though I am a huge risotto fanold habits die hard.)

As much as I have learned to love chow mien and lo mien and all the other miens, pasta holds a special place in my heart as one of the first western dishes I remember my parents making, and one of the first dishes that my dad “taught” me to make. (Basically, I stood there with a wooden spoon and stirred and felt important while my dad measured out and added all the ingredients.)

I’ve learned a lot in the way of cooking since those early years standing on a stool in front of the stove. And since I’ve known how to make rice for as long as I could remember, I figured it was time to tackle pasta.

So dear noodle camp, here’s my olive branch. Easy, freshly-made pasta that even the rice girl in me can wholeheartedly appreciate.

Continue reading

Gnocchi

img_2554

My relationship with food has always involved a mildly unhealthy dose of obsession.

For example, from first grade to fourth grade, I had to eat three spoonfuls of tuna fish salad every day for lunch. I absolutely hated tuna fish salad by the end of lower school, and yet I continued to force myself to do it out of perverse reverence for the routine. (Seriously, why are kids so weird?) I could not eat tuna fish salad – or egg salad and chicken salad for that matter – for another four years afterward without feeling ill, and even the smell of mayonnaise-based salads repulsed me. To this day, I still have an aversion to plain mayonnaise.

Thankfully, I grew out of that strange childhood habit and grew to love egg salad and chicken salad (and tolerate tuna salad) again.

The obsession with one dish has continued in less disgusting forms – whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, I must order their pad thai, for a new Indian restaurant, it’s malai kofta. And for a new Italian restaurant, my first dish that I must try is gnocchi.

I tell myself that it’s because I want to have a common point by which I can compare different restaurants against each other. But let’s be honest, I can’t really remember every pad thai or gnocchi that I’ve ever had. And really, what self-respecting Thai restaurant doesn’t make a decent pad thai?

The day may come when I can’t stand to look at another plate of gnocchi or malai kofta (I can already sense that the end is near for pad thai), but for now, I content myself with knowing at least I’m not obsessed with pickles or Wonderbread or something carcinogenic.

This gnocchi recipe is an oldie but a goodie. I posted about it before, but what can I say, I’m still a sucker for good gnocchi.

Continue reading

Same Words, New Story

IMG_2517

Recently, I dusted off and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had first tackled it in 2003, when I was a snarky sixth grader who prided myself on being precocious when really, I was just pretentious. At that time, I was a notorious speed reader, competing against other similarly smart-aleck kids to devour as many Redwall books as possible within a month, or finish Lord of the Rings within three days. I loved to read… but maybe not for the totally right reasons.

As you can guess, I completely forgot what Strange and Norrell was even about a few months after I had “read” it.

What I do remember is that when I first attempted it, I allowed myself to be caught up in the action without ever wondering why Clarke had written the book. And since most other books I read in early middle school were populated by heroes and had predictably happy endings, I naively assumed that Clarke’s book, because it was a fantasy novel, must end in a similar fashion.

The second time around, the feeling of the ending was different from what I remembered. I distinctly recall I had believed that the book had an unfinished but hopeful quality and would be followed by a sequel. But this time, I had tears in my eyes.

There are the big moments in your life, when you fully realize that you are taking a step that can never be retracted. Then there are the quieter moments of realization, when it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, you have irrevocably changed. I looked back and saw that though I will perhaps always be too trusting, I have also become more prone to question voices of authority.

I don’t think my interpretation of Strange and Norrell the first time was wrong – at the time, I needed the fantastical, magical escape from mundane middle school life, so that was the aspect of the book that resonated with me the most. But this time around, I was stunned at all the imagery associated with ‘choice’: multiple scenes involving an infinite number of shadowy pathways, forest roads with enchantments of temptation, and the appearance of new fairy roads as magic returned to Britain, offering new possibilities in careers and lifestyle that had not existed before.

It’s 2014 and I am still just a little (or a lot) pretentious and I still do love to read. My tastes in books have changed – they all seem to involve the words “globalism” or “imperialism” or some other -ism – but I hope that in the next 10 years, as I reread half-forgotten old favorites, I will still maintain a mind open enough to glean some new insight each time.

Continue reading

Dreams Come True

IMG_2457

Jiro dreams of sushi. But I dream of something else.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love sushi and really all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, and it might be cuisine that I cook the most. (Or Italian – the number of risotto recipes I’ve racked up is a little alarming.)

But my true passion is baked goods. I once read that gluten has an opiate effect on people, that when you stop eating gluten, you can experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Well let me tell you, I went gluten free for six months and after two months, I simultaneously wanted to cry, hurt something, and stuff my face with bread. When I returned to gluten, I almost cried with happiness. It still gives me a headache (though I think this is more of a food coma effect from overeating every time I’m around sweets), but the tradeoff is (mostly) worth it.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of biscuits. I never really loved biscuits until I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. (I already wrote about my experience before so I’ll spare you a longwinded repeat.) Immediately afterwards, I tried and failed to recreate them. Since then, I’ve been tormented by my failure, and I resolved to try again. Buoyed by my recent success with re-trying Shakshuka, as well as inundated with boredom on a Friday night (I have friends, I promise), I gave it my best shot.

Guys, I don’t know if I totally nailed it, but if I didn’t, I came pretty darn close. These biscuits are fluffy, with moist layers you could peel apart, and a shiny glazed and slightly crunchy exterior. Now I can finally lay my biscuit nightmare to rest, and move on to dreaming of other sweet things.

Continue reading

Shakshuka Revisited

IMG_2435

Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

Continue reading

Captivated by Caraway

IMG_2459

Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

Continue reading