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.

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Two Years

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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 :)

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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.

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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…).

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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.

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Gnocchi

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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.

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Same Words, New Story

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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.

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The Battle of the Buttermilk Biscuits

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Biscuit #1: Island Creek Oyster Bar

About a month ago, I took my parents to the highly (over)rated Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. I’ve never met anyone who loves fish as much as my mom, so the supposed best seafood restaurant in Boston was the obvious choice for dinner. But you know something’s wrong when your favorite parts of the meal involve beef and biscuits…and no seafood.

But oh my god, those biscuits. We ordered one as a side dish and it was large enough for three people to enjoy as much as they wanted (as in, my parents each had maybe two bites and I ate the rest). The layers were delicate and pull-apart buttery, and the entire biscuit had been glazed in a delicious honey-rosemary mixture. After ordering our regrettably dry and chewy strawberry shortcake doughnut dessert (sounds good in theory, but in practice involved us trying to use our spoons as knives and sending doughnut chunks flying across the table), I wished that we had just ordered another biscuit instead.

Of course I had to see if the recipe was online. Immediately. Breaking fancy restaurant/basic human decency etiquette, I whipped out my phone and found the recipe. Saveur had posted a recipe, but looking at the ratio of ingredients, I felt that the ratio of liquid to flour was off, as in, I had no idea how 1 3/4 cup of buttermilk was supposed to hydrate an entire 5 cups of flour and make a cohesive dough. So instead of sleeping like a normal person would at 2am, I decided to do a comparison – Island Creek Oyster Bar’s biscuits (according to Saveur) v.s. Smitten Kitchen’s favorite buttermilk biscuits.

Smitten Kitchen biscuits

Biscuit #2: Smitten Kitchen

The verdict? Well, as predicted, more buttermilk was needed for the ICOB biscuits. I used about 2 cups of buttermilk and still, the dough was dry and did not hold together well. I also found the biscuits to be surprisingly salty. But they ended up looking pretty cool, and with the sweet honey glaze (which ended up getting soaked into the biscuits and not really glazing them), they still edible, but nowhere near amazing (UPDATE: I tinkered a little with the ingredient ratio and now they’re amazing). For the Smitten Kitchen recipe, I used the ICOB method of grating frozen butter, but otherwise followed the recipe to a T. The biscuits did not brown for some reason, but the layers looked beautiful and the biscuit itself was delicately sweet, fluffy, and light. They went perfectly with a dollop of jam.

However, neither recipe came close to the near-religious experience of eating the Island Creek Oyster Bar’s real biscuits. I have a feeling that Jeremy Sewall (the chef at ICOB) probably weighs out his ingredients rather than use cup measurements, and something got lost in translation in the Saveur recipe. Next time I need a fun 4am activity, I’ll experiment again :)

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Backlog Pt. 1

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Well, it certainly has been a while. But fret not, not much has changed – my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

So first off, I suppose it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. Why did I stop posting, and why am I now returning?

For me, this past school year can generally be divided into a “before” and “after.” A before when I was still pretty okay, and an after when everything seemed to be imploding in an almost-comical tweenage “end of the world” kind of way.

In the beginning, I would start to write posts, then realize they were freaking depressing, and while great food is metaphorically made with “blood, sweat, and tears,” no one really wants to read a sob story when all they were looking for was a cookie recipe. So I’d delete and start again and the post would take another down and dispirited route. I tried to write about movies I’d seen, places I’d gone, about my friends and my family. I discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to write about superficial joys – and not-so-surprisingly difficult to write about people when you’re ignoring their calls (sorry family members!). Every post I tried to write sounded artificially saccharine and after a while, I stopped trying.

Eventually, I reached the elusive “rock bottom.” At that point, I’d been living off almonds and dried cranberries and packages of dried seaweed and not much else. I felt as if I had lost everything that had been my identifiers – my innocence (which is the nice way of saying gullibility), my deep connection to classical music, my love for food, my confidence in my intellectual capabilities, my tendency to be easily excitable and inspired.

While this was all happening, I’d sometimes wish that I could just “wake up,” that I could sleep off the weariness and the insecurities and the nothingness. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought waking up was easy – the number of times I’ve slept through really important alarms (e.g. that one time I was five hours late for my flight) is, well, alarming. I finally recognized that I could not just wait to wake up one day and feel fine.

I am returning now to this blog, and to the life that I put on hold during these lost months, as part of my reclamation of my ‘self.’ I refuse to ever again fall victim to the names I have been called and the rumors that have been spread behind my back.

I’ve chosen to post this recipes because first of all, it is one of my favorites – an airy, ricotta-based lemon cheesecake that is delicately sweet with a tangy kick. It’s also my dad’s favorite dessert that I make, and if there’s one thing I’ve (re)learned from all of this, it is that my family unconditionally loves me, which I somehow forgot along the way. Finally, spring took it’s sweet time arriving in New England, but I can finally pack away the sweaters and proudly display my lingering “insulation” from the winter in tank tops and shorts, and what better way to celebrate than eat lots of (kind of healthy) cheesecake?

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Peach Treats

IMG_1438Have you ever woken up and discovered two cats in your living room?

Well, that’s how my Thursday began. I’ve never really been an animal person, not because I don’t love animals, but because I’ve had…bad experiences. It started out with Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, my adorable little bunny. Apparently if you keep offering a bunny food, it will continue to eat, even after it has become completely satiated. Alas, six-year-old me thought I would help out by feeding the bunny…and I fed it to death. After that, we tried again with a hamster, but alas, he escaped his cage and burrowed into the floor in our basement, never to be seen again. After these two incidents, my family realized animals kind of hate us, and now, we just have fish in a pond outside. We throw them some food and they swim around and look pretty. It’s the perfect noncommittal pet-owner relationship for my family.

Our monstrously huge koi.

Our monstrously huge koi, battling for dinner.

So clearly, I do love animals, but these two cats, perhaps sensing that my love tends to kill, have done a fairly good job of avoiding my advances. I’m doing my best to redeem myself, but just today, I found myself falling back on old habits, a.k.a. trying to win them over with food. (Let’s be real, I apply that strategy to all animals that I encounter, humans included.) The kitten, still innocent and trusting, accepted the food happily. However, Blow, the momma cat, saw that accepting the food would only lead to trouble, and staunchly ignored my outstretched hand. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I’m determined to get pet ownership right this time around for Flopsy-Mopsy-Cottontail, may he rest in peace. For now, I content myself with stroking the cats as they run away from me.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

Mo, the newest addition to our household.

And on that note, here’s a fantastic and easy recipe for toffee-dimpled peach cake. If you’re looking to buy love with sweets, this is the recipe you’ve been looking for. The sweet peaches, the slightly spiced cake base, the crunch of the toffee – it’s just the perfect combination of flavors and textures. I made it not even 24 hours ago and it has already been completely consumed, with rave reviews. Just…try not to overfeed anyone.That cause of death would just be embarrassingly tragic for all involved.

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