Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lychee Cocktail for the Lunar New Year

I first had a lychee martini at the lobby bar of the Four Seasons in Shanghai almost five years ago.  It's remained one of my favorite drinks ever since.  I'm not really a fruity cocktail drinker, but there is something about vodka mixed with the lightly floral and slightly spicy taste of the lychee that I really enjoy.

When I came back from China, the first place I looked for ingredients to recreate this cocktail was my local supermarket which had Soho lychee liqueur on sale.  I grabbed a bottle and have been making lychee cocktails since.

My current version of this cocktail involves chilling a cocktail or large martini glass and putting the following in a cocktail shaker over ice (for one large drink):

2 oz. unflavored vodka
2 oz. lychee liqueur
1-2 Tbs. of syrup from canned lychees

Put a canned lychee in chilled glass.  Shake well and strain cocktail into glass.

I've also made this with a vodka-lychee liqueur ratio of 3 parts to 1.  Some brands of canned lychees are packed in syrup that is cloyingly sweet, so taste before using and use the lesser amount if that's the case.
And of course, wishing everyone Xin Nian Kuai Le (which I understand is Mandarin for expressing New Year's wishes)  or Gung Hay Fat Choy (which is the Americanized version of the Cantonese expression).

You can see other posts on the Lunar New Year here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Learn to Swirl - Cupcake Decorating Tips from a Pro

A "Cupcake" Monster
According to Leah Miller, team member and a production decorator at the Oakland (CA) Whole Foods, the number one trick to creating cupcakes that are as good to look at as they are to eat is to make sure your cupcake is room temperature before you begin covering it in frosting.

"It's best to make them ahead," she said. "Or even the day before. If your cupcake is not totally cool, the frosting will melt or drip off."

Even if a bright blue (from natural food coloring) pastry rendition of Sesame Street's favorite Cookie Monster is not in your cupcake decorating future, Miller had some suggestions at a recent hands-on cupcake decorating class at the store that could be adapted for any style of cupcake. 

Here's some of her tips:
  • Use metal tips inserted in disposable plastic pastry bags for piping the icing on top of the cupcakes
  • Choose tips with larger holes, either round or star.  Star tips create ridges perfect for catching sprinkles.  Round tips give a softer, piled on look to the frosting.
  • Make sure the frosting is "loose" by stirring it before putting it in the pastry bag.  She uses Italian butter cream frosting, which is very silky and smooth but says store bought is fine, too - just place in a bowl and whisk it well before using.
  • Use natural food colors and be sure they are mixed in well.  She does warn that too much red coloring will end up tasting like beets, so go with pink rather than red this Valentine's Day.
To decorate a cupcake, pick your metal tip, insert in a pastry bag (or use a gallon-size heavy duty plastic storage bag with a corner cut off for the metal tip). Push in a bit of the plastic bag inside the tip and give the bag a twist.  Spoon in the frosting, pushing down to avoid air bubbles.  When you are ready to decorate, untwist the bag and pull up so the inside of the tip is no longer covered by plastic. (Doing this does two things - it helps prevent air bubbles in the frosting and makes sure frosting doesn't drip out of the tip while you are loading the pastry bag.) Twist top of bag and holding one hand at top and the other towards the tip, press down from top so frosting flows out smoothly.

Decorating tips are available at some supermarkets and at craft stores.  Miller uses the metal tips made by Wilton.  (The tips she used for piping the swirls of frosting seem closest to open star size 8b and round size 1A.)

Miller recommends starting at the middle of the cupcake and working out to the side, swirling frosting in circles upon it self to cover and create an attractive decorative effect.  Once  you have your swirl, Miller recommends decorating with colored sugars, candy bits, sprinkles or other toppings.  Or you can use a smaller tip to make decorative shell or star shapes along the edges or on top.

For the Cookie Monster cupcake, the Oakland Whole Foods best seller, she adds a half cookie as a mouth, covers her piped swirl with small stars for fur and adds white chocolate eyes.

While Cookie Monster was a big hit with the two little girls at Miller's demonstration, us adults appreciated her tips for a "flower" cupcake.  Use a large round tip and pipe petals a little out from the middle to the sides.  Fill in center with small stars or a colorful jam or curd.  At the store, Miller says a "sunflower" cupcake with yellow petals and brown center is very popular.

Before attempting any swirls, stars or other designs on your cupcakes you might want to do what Miller had us do before we graduated to piping onto the cupcakes.  Trace a few circles onto parchment paper and practice squeezing the icing out of the bag into the swirls or other shapes.  To avoid frosting "tails" stop squeezing before lifting up the tip.  Once you are done practicing, use a spatula or knife to scoop up the frosting from the parchment paper and reuse.

All this reads as much more fussy than it is in real life.  Even the three-year-old in the class was decorating cupcakes with aplomb after a few practice circles.  We got to eat the mistakes as well as bring home our more successful creations.  Plus the event was a benefit for the Whole Planet Foundation.  

Pretty in Pink (Well, More of a Lavender) for Valentine's Day with Pomegranate Curd, Pudding

Pomegranate Coconut Pudding
It's Valentine's Day this Thursday and while for many of us thoughts to turn to love, for some of us our brains get busy thinking up appropriately themed foods.

There is something kind of sexy and appealing about pomegranates, with their hands-on messiness and red juice.  And using the pomegranate's ingredients as the basis for this lush fruit curd and winning coconut milk based pudding make wonderful treats for a special day with your special one from breakfast through dessert.

To cut down on the mess and prep time, try using the widely available fresh juice and seed products in the grocery refrigerated sections.

Pomegranate Coconut Pudding is vegan and its deep pinkish lavender color looks lovely garnished with pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachios and a bit of coconut.  Be sure to use pure coconut milk.   Pomegranate Curd is decadent and versatile.  Use it as a cake filling, slather it on scones or English muffins or serve it by itself with gingersnaps or other cookies.  Mix the curd with an equal amount of whipped cream for an easy mousse (garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds) or make a parfait by layering whipped cream, crumbled cookies and curd in tall glasses.    

Pomegranate Coconut Pudding
Serves 4
1 14-16 oz. can coconut milk (do not use light)
4-6 oz. pomegranate juice
4 Tbs. cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. almond extract
Chopped pistachios, grated coconut and or pomegranate seeds (optional)
Remove lid from can of coconut milk.  Stir until well blended.  Pour into a large measuring cup.  Add pomegranate juice until total liquid is equal to 2 1/2 cups (20 oz.) Mix well.

Heat all but 1/4 cup of the liquid over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.  Heat to just warm and adjust heat to keep warm.  Mix the remaining 1/4 cup liquid in a medium saucepan with the cornstarch and sugar.  Heat over medium-low heat until warm, stirring frequently until the solids have dissolved.  Slowly pour the pomegranate and coconut milk mixture into the pot with the cornstarch and sugar, stirring continuously.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly for 15 minutes.  The pudding should be glossy, smooth, thick and with no raw cornstarch taste. Take off the heat and let cool a few minutes.  Stir in the lemon juice and almond extract.  Pour into individual serving cups.  Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until well chilled.  Garnish with chopped pistachios, grated coconut and or pomegranate seeds if desired.

Pomegranate Curd
Makes 2 cups
1/4 lb. butter (1 stick), cut into small pieces
1 cup sugar
6 Tbs.  pomegranate juice
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
4 eggs, beaten
1-2 drops natural red food coloring (optional)
In the top of a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl placed above a pot of simmering water, add butter, sugar, pomegranate and lemon juices and cardamom.  (Keep water at a simmer, do not let the water boil or touch the bottom of the double boiler or bowl.)  Stir occasionally. Once butter has melted and sugar is dissolved, mix well.  Add 1 Tbs. to the eggs, stirring constantly.  Repeat three times.  Slowly pour the eggs into the double boiler, stirring the juice and butter mixture constantly as you combine the two.  Keep stirring constantly.  Once the eggs are fully incorporated, add the optional food coloring.  Keep stirring until the curd is thickened, about 20 minutes.   Take off the stove and let cool.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. (The curd continues to thicken as it chills.)

Note:  If bits of cooked, “scrambled” eggs develop when adding the eggs to the hot ingredients, finish cooking and use the back of a spoon to push the finished curd through a strainer to remove them before chilling.

A version of this post first appeared in the j. weekly

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Not Just San Francisco Treats for the Super Bowl

Bowl of my Not-Juse-For-Tourists Cioppino for a Super Bowl feast
Today's the day for Super Bowl XLVII  and if you are still undecided about what to serve here are a few ideas on what to cook up for the big day.

For some tasty (and different dip ideas, check out my column at the j weekly for three different dip ideas -  a spicy pumpkin (or butternut squash) one,  a colorful hummus with the kick of horseradish, and a tangy and different tahini spread.   See those recipes here.

Having lived in both San Francisco and Baltimore, I can tell you Super Bowl food doesn't really vary that much, but both cities have regional specialties with crab being big in both locations.

Other regional treats are based on local ethnic specialties.

One of San Francisco's famed dishes combines both into cioppino, a seafood stew. 
You can see a recipe and discussion about that on Blog Appetit here.

Writing this post made me realize how little I've written about my time eating my way around Baltimore.  I will need to correct that!  Anyway, here's a wonderful oven-fried chicken recipe that always brings Baltimore back to mine and would work well for a Super Bowl party.  Try adapting it for chicken wings, drumsticks or tenders for more party friendly food.

One last thought -- the party is in New Orleans - why not make a King Cake.  The King Cake is a favorite of Mardi Gras and contains a small "prize" of a bean, nut or tiny plastic baby. (Be sure to warn eaters to watch out for it so they don't hand you a super dentist bill.)  They are decorated with purple, gold and green colored sugar or icing.  Now king cakes can be a lengthy process, so I suggest just subbing out a bundt cake (I won't tell if you use a mix) and add  a bean or plastic baby (or maybe even a plastic football???) and decorating it either Madri Gras or team colors.  To see the King Cake I made with links to the recipes I used, click here.

What I'm I making.

My husband and I are going to two separate parties. (Long story.)

Anyway - for his I'm making slow cooked pomegranate molasses pulled turkey with Asian slaw sliders.  For mine, which is more of a sit down meal, I'm bringing a green salad and butternut squash-greens baked vegan mac and cheese.  If the recipes come out, you can be sure they will eventually make there way to the blog.

Who am I rooting for having lived in both places?  The Niners.  When I lived in Baltimore it was the Colts, baby.  The city was bereft when they pulled out.  I'm glad for Baltimore area folks they have such a great team in the Ravens, but when it comes to the Super Bowl, it's nevermore.