Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Carrot Ginger Dressing

So we go from cupcakes to carrots! I've been wanting to try this recipe for some time now and I finally got around to it. Have you ever had those orange colored salad dressings at Japanese restaurants and wondered, what is in that tasty concoction? Thanks to Smitten Kitchen and Gwyneth Paltrow, now I have the recipe!

Carrot Ginger Dressing
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small shallot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons sweet white miso
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seed oil
1/4 cup grapeseed or another neutral oil
2 tablespoons water

Grate one large carrot or two medium sized carrots (to help your blender along).

Whiz the carrots, shallot and ginger in a blender or food processor until finely chopped.

Scrape down the sides, then add the miso, vinegar and sesame oil. While the machine is running, slowly drizzle in grapeseed oil and water.

Gwyneth dressed her salad with Bibb lettuce, red onions and avocado. I've been eating this dressing with tofu, arugula, raw corn, tomatoes, sugar snap peas and bell peppers. It's refreshingly delicious and I love that I know what exactly went into this dressing. I've been going through a bottle of this a week. Yikes! It's like crack guys, it's really tasty.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

More Cupcakes - Chicago, IL

A coworker snagged a Salted Caramel Cupcake from More Cupcakes for me a few days ago. I adore salted caramel, so you could imagine my excitement when I heard about this cupcake flavor.

It looked really pretty with a flat, smooth buttercream frosting and a tiny mound of black fleur de sel on top. I couldn't wait to dig in.

Here's what it looked like inside. It's a vanilla cake, filled with salted caramel in the center and buttercream frosting on top.

I love the flavor in concept, but I didn't like it in this cupcake. The cake itself was a bit dry and crumbly and it didn't help that the salted caramel filling was a bit grainy. The filling was also really sweet, so the whipped buttercream frosting tasted a bit too bland. I felt like I was eating a spoonful of whipped butter, which is not a good thing unless you are eating this with corn bread. Even then, no one wants to eat frosting that tastes like butter, even though we all know that's what it's made out of. =) I know salted caramel is a play on savory and sweet, but this tasted pretty sweet and bland to me.

I was expecting more from More Cupcakes, but I thought my Ron Bennington from Molly's was way better. More Cupcakes has really eclectic flavors like blt, cheddar apple Guinness, blue cheese walnut praline and goat cheese basil, all of which may be worth checking out if I'm ever in that neighborhood.

More Cupcakes
1 E Delaware Pl
(between State St & Wabash Ave)
Chicago, IL 60611

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Molly's Cupcakes - Chicago, IL (Lincoln Park)

A few weeks ago, I had lunch plans at Sultan's Market in Lincoln Park to eat falafel sandwiches. I was an hour early so I was going to walk around the neighborhood and explore. It started raining so I decided to take cover and get some tea. Lucky for me there was Molly's Cupcakes nearby.

Here's a card that describes how Molly's Cupcakes came to be. Cute story. I like how Johnny calls himself the Chief Egg Cracker.

They have an array of cupcakes where you can pick the type of cake (chocolate, vanilla, carrot and red velvet) and then pick the type of frosting (vanilla, chocolate, cream cheese, brown butter and french buttercream). You can also add toppings such as m&m's, reese's pieces, brownies, etc. Their specialty cupcakes however are their center filled cupcakes. The ones that caught my eye were Peanut Butter Nutella with peanut butter cake, nutella filling and buttercream nutella frosting and their Strawberry Shortcake with vanilla cake, whole fresh strawberries cooked in brown sugar filling and vanilla buttercream. I couldn't narrow it down, so I had to ask for advice. I asked which cupcake was their most popular and they told me the Ron Bennington. Let me introduce you to Ron.

He's made of chocolate cake, peanut butter filling, chocolate ganache and crushed butterscotch topping. Holy moly, this cake was good. The cake was super moist and that peanut butter filling was lusciously smooth. This cupcake was definitely worth the $3.50 or however much it was.

I think I need to do cupcakes before lunch more often. Sultan's was quite yummy btw, I just forgot to take pictures.

Monday, June 21, 2010

America's Test Kitchen's Best Blueberry Muffins

Remember how I was lamenting the lack of fruit in Chicago, I've discovered Stanley's Fruit & Vegetables Market and have been in fruit heaven. I recently also discovered Jiminy Chips, they have a potato chip maker in the store near the back that cranks out fresh potato chips. They are so addicting! Stanley's is now my go to store for fruit, veggies and fresh sweet potato chips.

I bought a huge container of blueberries recently and have been tossing them into my cereal or yogurt or just snacking on them, but it's been hard to make a dent. Not wanting fresh blueberries to go to waste, I decided to use them to bake some muffins. I haven't made blueberry muffins in ages, so I went straight to the source ... America's Test Kitchen for their best blueberry muffins recipe.

They also have a low fat recipe that looked great, so I will try that next, but I was intrigued by their use of blueberry jam in the muffins. I am one of those people who thinks blueberry muffins can never have enough blueberries in them and will peel off the bready parts to pick at the berries. So for someone like me, who loves the blueberry flavor, it's perfect. I also just learned that while you might be tempted to put more blueberries into your batter, using jam is a better method because adding too many berries to this will only make it sink to the bottom of your muffins. I know you are thinking that making the jam is an added step, but I think you will be well rewarded for your efforts.

Best Blueberry Muffins
America's Test Kitchen
makes 12 muffins

Lemon-Sugar Topping:
1/6 cup sugar (original recipe called for 1/3 cup, I didn't think you need that much sugar topping on these muffins - they are pretty sweet as is)
1 1/2 teaspoon finely grated zest from 1 lemon

2 cup fresh blueberries (about 10 ounces)
1 1/8 cup sugar (8 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon
2 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
4 tablespoon (1/2 stick) unsalted butter -- melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk (you can substitute 3/4 cup plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt thinned with 1/4 cup milk)
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat.

Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to 1/4 cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

For the lemon/sugar topping: Stir together sugar and lemon zest in small bowl until combined; set aside. I had more than half of the lemon/sugar topping leftover; hence why I recommend only making half a batch of what was originally called for.

Coarse sugar would be even better in this since regular sugar seems to dissolve into the muffin when baking, but overall the added texture was a nice contrast.

Whisk remaining 1 1/8 cups sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in large bowl. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until combined.

Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining 1 cup of blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

Use an ice cream scoop or large spoon to fill half of the muffin cups. Spoon a teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter, pushing it below the surface.

Using a chopstick or skewer, gently swirl the berry filling into batter using a figure-eight motion. Fill the remaining cup with batter so that it completely fills the muffin cup.

Sprinkle lemon sugar evenly over muffins.

Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.

These muffins were great and I loved the blueberry jam in it, except I made a fatal flaw. I didn't have buttermilk on hand so I used yogurt instead. The problem was that I reached for the non-fat yogurt at the market and didn't realize it till I got home. If you don't know already, non-fat yogurt has absolutely no taste and apparently in baking, using whole or low-fat dairy products will make a huge difference in flavor. I will definitely try making these again with buttermilk or with whole or low-fat yogurt next time. I hope you can get your hands on some blueberries (or even a bag of frozen ones) and whip up these muffins for yourself. =)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

XOCO - Chicago, IL (revisited)

Soup Cook and I were looking for a place to grab dinner after work and we literally stumbled upon XOCO while wandering around River North. I always forget that this place is so close. Lucky for us, we were early for dinner so there wasn't the usual line out the door.

I haven't been back since January and I was so excited to try some different things on their menu. To start, I got some of their guacamole & chips. My roommate recently got me guacamole and chips from Big Star and I have to say, Big Star's was slightly better, but no complaints with Rick Bayless's guac.

Do I get a torta or a caldo? Decisions, decisions ... I opted for their Carnitas Caldos, which is a soup with slow-cooked pork carnitas, potato-masa dumplings, chayote, roasted serrano chile, spinach, arugula and avocado. Yum, yum, yum. I always think a soup is not going to be filling enough, but this is like eating a huge bowl of pho minus all the noodles. The chunks of tender pork and veggies make this very filling. The potato-masa dumplings added an element of starchiness to the dish as well.

Now for my favorite part, their desserts. I wanted to order dessert after we were done because I had my heart set on trying their soft serve ice cream, but by the time we were done with dinner, the line was out the door again. So we waited and waited hoping that it would die down and realized, that there was no way around it, we'd have to stand in line again. Thank goodness the hostess recognized me and told me I could just go up to the register because the line is usually due to people waiting for seats to free up. So if you want to order to go or order dessert, you can just go up to the counter. Good to know for next time!

So here's a pic of the homemade Mexican vanilla soft serve with maple-pecan-bacon-streusel & salted caramel sauce. Yes, you read that right, bacon-streusel. I've been seeing a lot of bacon in desserts lately and XOCO was no exception. I liken this to a grown up version of McDonald's caramel sundaes. The soft serve had amazing flavor, the pecans and bacon added great texture and crunch and let's face it, salted caramel can do no wrong.

Soup Cook's never been here so we had to get the churros and hot chocolate. These churros never seem to fail me. I am so regretting not taking the leftover churros to go.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Branch 27 - Chicago, IL

The girls and I went to dinner a few weeks ago to Branch 27, which is in West Town. It's been getting a lot of press recently since they brought on a new chef. The building used to be an old library, which they regutted into a restaurant. They have these great big windows that fold open to the side, letting you feel like you're eating alfresco but without the sun beating down on you. My kind of place! A little boy decided to sit on the ledge, facing inwards. Funny kid, little does he know that the view outward is far better.

We started off with some drinks. I got a glass of Sangria, which when it arrived, looked like water with cherries in it. I've never seen Sangria this clear looking before. I was expecting white wine but it tasted oddly like a cocktail. I thought the waiter mixed up my order, but he said that their version has St. Germaine in it. Weird. It was not quite what I was expecting. Maybe that's what I get for ordering sangria at a non-Spanish restaurant.

Susan got the Gin Blossom, which had Hendrick's Gin, St. Germaine, Grapefruit, Lime & Prosecco in it. It was quite amusing to see Susan drink her cocktail so she wouldn't accidentally swallow those cute flowers floating in her drink.

We started with some appetizers. We got an order of Spicy Pork Meatballs with Coconut Curry, Basil and Peas. It came in a cute little cast iron pan and it definitely had a Thai influence to it. It was pretty good.

I was looking forward to their Grilled Octopus and Braised Pork Belly Salad, I know, Pork Belly Salad sounds like an oxymoron, but the waiter told us that it's only on their menu every other week or so depending on the quality of the octopus that week. So we were out of luck because they didn't have it on their menu. They did have a butter lettuce salad and a grilled radicchio salad. We chose the later, which had shaved brussels sprouts, Pecorino Romano and Marcona Almonds. Aleen loved a Brussels Sprouts salad she had in New York recently and we were hoping this would rise to the occasion but Branch 27's version was a bit bland for my taste. It lacked a vibrant punch and acidity that would have made this a lot more tasty.

Aleen got the Branch Burger with Hook's 2 Year Cheddar, Spicy Aioli, Ramp Relish and Fries. I had a bite and it was pretty tasty. I loved the relish.

Susan had the Bucatini pasta, which looks like a thick spaghetti with a hole through it. (BTW, I highly recommend the Pasta Yia Yia at Lula Cafe, which uses bucatini pasta with browned butter, crumbled feta, browned garlic and Moroccan cinnamon - I know it sounds weird, but it works, trust me). Branch 27's version with Mushroom-Black Truffle Cream, Smoked Spring Onions and Dumbarton Blue is definitely more hearty.

Because I couldn't get my pork belly fill, I got the Chile-Cured Pork Loin, Truffled Great Northern Beans and Swiss Chard. I wish the pork loin wasn't as well done, because it wasn't a bit on the dry side, but I guess that's what the sauce was for. The beans and swiss chard were excellent.

We were too stuffed by the end, so we passed on dessert. I wouldn't mind coming back to try their octopus and pork belly salad (it just sounds so intriguing) or for their brunch, but there's so many other places to try first in the westside. Hopefully Branch 27 will make the cut in the second round.

Branch 27
1371 W Chicago Ave
(between Ada St & Noble St)
Chicago, IL 60622

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Joan's on Third Vanilla Cupcakes

I've been fielding excuses to make these cupcakes. I've been secretly hoping for a birthday to crop up or a pot luck that I forgot about, but they have been evading me. So finally when my friends and I decided to go see She & Him at Millenium Park, I knew I had the perfect opportunity. I baked these on Saturday, knowing that they would have to hold up till Monday. I was worried that they would get dry, and yes, I know, I could have frozen them, but it was only a few days so I thought by the time they get frozen, I'd have to defrost them again. They were definitely more moist on Saturday, but they still tasted great. There's nothing worse than ending up with two dozen dry cupcakes. What a waste. But I was pleasantly surprised at how moist these were. The flavors are very subdued and simple, but it hit the spot for me. I think I found my go-to cupcake recipe folks. Thank you LA Times.

Vanilla cupcakes
adapted from Joan's on Third

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 1/8 teaspoons baking powder
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin cups with paper liners. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour with the baking powder and salt. In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir together the milk and vanilla extract. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream the butter. Gradually add in the sugar, beating until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, until fully incorporated.

Beat in the flour and milk mixtures, alternating one-third of each at a time, until each mixture is fully incorporated and the batter is smooth.

Fill each muffin cup three-fourths full of batter.

Bake the cupcakes until puffed, set and lightly golden, and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 18 to 20 minutes.

Cool the cupcakes before frosting.

Vanilla (or Chocolate) Frosting

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
5 cups (1 1/4 pounds) powdered sugar, sifted and divided
1/4 cup milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the butter with one-half of the powdered sugar until combined. Beat in the milk and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl, and beating until smooth.

With the mixer set to low speed, gently beat in the remaining sugar until combined. Increase the speed and continue to beat until the frosting is light and fluffy. This makes about 2 1/2 cups frosting. I took out half of the vanilla frosting and reserved it. To the remaining frosting, I added 3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder and beat it until smooth. I frosted half of my cupcakes with vanilla frosting and the other half with chocolate.

Frost each cupcake with a generous 2 tablespoons frosting. There you have it, perfectly moist and flavorful cupcakes. These were a hit with Soomeenshee & Them. =)