Monday, August 18, 2014

My favorite muffin recipe: Blueberry-Oatmeal-[Flaxseed] Muffins

I have a new favorite muffin recipe, oh yes I do, and although there is plenty I could and should be doing in the way of studying for the written qualifying exam, working on data analysis, or going to bed early, I think the realization that a particular recipe is a Favorite Recipe calls for a resurrection of my food blog.

Here is the recipe: Blueberry, Oatmeal, and Flaxseed Muffins, courtesy of Food52 (one of my Favorite Websites).  I put the "Flaxseed" in brackets in the post title because, as I'll explain later, it's quite optional.

Here's why I love this recipe so much that I've made it three times in the past two or three weeks, and will undoubtedly make again:
  1. It's very easy to put together. I use powdered buttermilk, which has become a convenient pantry staple.  My mixing bowls aren't very big so I usually halve the recipe and just make a dozen muffins at a time.  One mixing bowl, one Pyrex measuring cup for all the wet ingredients, one muffin pan, done.
  2. It's butter-free.  Hello, "healthy" baked good!  I've been using olive oil, though I bet coconut oil would also work well.
  3. It's very adaptable to different add-ins.  I've tried it with orange-flavored dried cranberries, or fresh blueberries + chopped pecans, or cranberries + chocolate chips + pecans, all in wildly imprecise amounts.  All were tasty.  I'm already thinking of trying chopped peaches, dried apricots, crystallized ginger, or some combination of those.
  4. It's very forgiving.  So far I have not had ground flaxseed in my kitchen, so I just left it out.  Once I made up the difference with extra flour, twice I didn't, and every time the muffins turned out dandy.  Earlier today I actually bought some ground flaxseed, so maybe I'll actually include it next time.
  5. These muffins are compatible with all hours of the day.  Since the muffins aren't very sweet (even with the specified amount of sugar), and have some hearty grains, they work well for breakfast. I like them warmed briefly in the microwave, spread with some fig jam, and eaten along with a cup of Irish breakfast or English breakfast tea.  I also like them as a midmorning snack, an afternoon snack, or as dessert.  My coworkers have seemed to like them as well.
  6. These muffins freeze well, enabling me to keep a stock of baked goods on hand for an undefined amount of time, just 45 seconds of microwaving away from comforting deliciousness.
  7. These muffins are relatively resistant to being jostled against one another in a Ziploc bag, en route to lab.
More topics about which I could blog in the near-ish future, but will not promise to do so: my continued quest for excellent hash browns in LA, the week in which I made both a flourless chocolate cake and chocolate-glazed chocolate cupcakes, or the fickleness of food allergies.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Bienenstich (Bee sting cake)

Several months ago, I came across this SmittenKitchen recipe for a "Bee Sting Cake," i.e. a Bienenstich: a yeasted cake with vanilla pastry cream filling and honey almond caramel topping.  I immediately thought, "I have to make this!!!" and started thinking about a suitable occasion for the endeavor, since a cake this attractive and attractive-sounding obviously deserves both sufficient time to make it properly and an enthusiastic audience for the consumption (especially as this cake doesn't have a long shelf life).  Baking/science buddy Daniel and I agreed that my birthday would be appropriate, and so the Bienenstich recipe stayed bookmarked until a couple weeks ago.

This SmittenKitchen recipe, just as I expect, was extremely reliable.  In the late afternoon of the appointed baking day, I started by making a doubled batch of the vanilla pastry cream, with the goal of achieving a 1:1:1 ratio of cake:filling:cake.  I had ordered vanilla beans on Amazon, and the scraped-out bean was so wonderfully fragrant as the pastry cream cooked.  Once it was chilling in the fridge, Daniel had arrived with the necessary packet of instant yeast, and Dan and Julia had arrived with an enthusiasm for wine and chocolate, we moved on to cake mixing.  The honey caramel topping came together easily on the stovetop during the first cake batter rise.  We didn't notice too much of a volume expansion after the two rising steps, but as you can see from the final product, there was plenty of height increase in the oven, with gorgeous browning.

The next morning we constructed the cake, slicing the single layer horizontally and then dolloping the thick pastry cream in between (after being refrigerated overnight, the custard was quite firm, but softened into a reasonably spreadable consistency after some vigorous stirring).  The cake was enjoyed with approval during lab meeting, and Julia later gave it her German stamp of approval.

This was certainly one of my favorite cakes that I've ever baked, and I'll definitely make this again!  I think the best bites combine a little cake, some pastry cream, and some of the heavenly topping.  That said, I will also admit that the cake part was a little bit dry this time - Daniel suggested that next time it should be baked on the top rack instead of the bottom rack, and probably for a little less time - but fortunately with the rich pastry cream filling, everyone still thought it was delicious.


In other news, which I expect anyone who is reading this to have already heard, Andrew and I got engaged recently.  We're happily looking ahead to a lifetime of shared meals and adventures!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Santa Monica: Spazio Caffe

A couple Sundays ago, Ivana and I met for breakfast at Spazio Caffe in Santa Monica. This Italian cafe is so new it doesn't have its own website yet, and between the newness and the location on charmingly sleepy Montana Ave, there were plenty of seats available on at 10:00am.  The menu advertises, in addition to the standard espresso options, quite a variety of fancy coffee drinks, all served in elegant glasses or pretty mugs with little chocolate cookies perched on top.  There are also over a dozen flavors of hot chocolate available!

I ordered a cappuccino con panna (with whipped cream), and Ivana had the almond (I think?) hot chocolate:

For breakfast, we both chose plates of scrambled eggs with chives, smoked salmon, fruit, and croissant.  When I asked about the fruit options and explained my allergy to cantaloupe and honeydew, the staff had no problem giving me only strawberries and blueberries.  This breakfast was [relatively] balanced, with a pleasing array of individually solid components.  The scrambled eggs lived up to their menu description of "creamy," and the croissant was of the light and flaky persuasion.

Being a fan of that stretch of Montana Avenue for its quietness and array of cute little shops and restaurants, as well as delicious espresso drinks, hot chocolate, and classic pastries, I'm definitely looking forward to returning.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Musings on kitchen equipment

Recently, my labmate Daniel and I have been having regular discussions about kitchen implements, prompted by both our baking adventures and also the travails of his apartment move (his ex-roommate retained custody of the 9x13 baking dish and the stand mixer, but at least he still has his stockpot-that-doubles-as-tamale-steamer.  Major drama, obviously!).  I've read SmittenKitchen's "Build your own smitten kitchen" and also like the various SeriousEats equipment recommendations for their practicality.  I also have a lot of fun browsing the Food52 collections, but obviously most of those pretty items are out of my budget (and, let's face it, would annoyingly clutter my small kitchen even if I did have an unlimited budget.  Does anyone really need a "Maine Salt and Beehive Cellar"?).

With kitchen optimization being an ongoing process, and both budget and space being at a premium in my current studio lifestyle, I thought I'd share my current framework for equipment.

  • I have a $12 chef's knife from Target that doesn't really hold its edge well - I've had it since 2011 - but I still use it because it's stainless and, for most vegetable-chopping tasks, does well enough.  My bread knife is similarly mediocre, but I rarely use it these days because I get my bread sliced in the store and then freeze it.  For slicing cake layers, I have a thin cake knife from Crate & Barrel.
  • My favorite knife is a Kinmen steel (made of steel from old artillery shells) chef's knife that I bought at the Maestro Wu shop on Kinmen island during a family trip.  It's gloriously sharp, extremely well-balanced, and I should probably be using it all the time, except the extra step of drying it and oiling it after each use somehow deters me. But if I am chopping lots of vegetables, especially slippery things like tomatoes, this knife definitely my go-to, and I would recommend this brand if you're traveling in Taiwan and want a unique knife that is actually quite reasonably priced.  
  • I also recently bought a Victorinox paring knife for less than $10 on Amazon, and now have a great fruit-cutting implement.
  • My current "big" pot and "little" pot (basically a small stockpot and a saucepan) were previously owned by Mae, my wonderful landlady and friend who passed away several years ago. They're nothing fancy but work really well.  I also have a heavy saucepan/sauté pan that has a really thick nonstick layer, so it's great for cooking bigger batches of vegetables, meats, etc; I got it for less than $20 at Ross.  For breakfast eggs I use a little no-name frying pan from Target, but otherwise I avoid it because I don't trust the nonstick coating very much.
  • In December I got my 10 inch cast-iron pan (the Lodge pre-seasoned option) thanks to Andrew, and it makes me quite happy to be able to make awesome cornbread; I'm looking forward to branching out with it.
  • Baking pans fall into two categories in my current setup: those I don't care as much about and those I care a lot about.  In the former category are my half-sheet pans, one of which I bought secondhand and two others of which were very inexpensive purchases I don't really remember.  All three are pretty beat-up at this point, and maybe cookies would be more optimal on a more "legitimate" cookie sheet, but this distinction doesn't bother me.  In the category of pans I care about are my cake and tart pans: 9x13, 9-inch round, 9-inch tart pan, and cupcake pan.  They're mostly aluminum, reasonably priced on Amazon, and I try to take good care of them.
Other kitchen equipment I fancy:
  • I have two Pyrex mixing bowls that my mom gave me when I first moved into an apartment.  They're awesome.  Those, plus a smaller but deeper metal mixing bowl and some stainless-steel prep bowls, have been my kitchen prep workhorses for the past 3+ years.
  • Does glassware count as equipment?  Maybe not, but I'm still going to mention my wineglasses, which I bought from Crate & Barrel in 2011 using a gift card that my former lab gave me before my move to LA.  I like this material reminder of my Stanford science family.
  • Mason jars (8 oz or 12 oz).  So convenient for storing small amounts of leftover ingredients, cereals, etc, or to be able to transport a single serving of milk or juice in a watertight container.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Saturday supper: Tuxedo chili and lemon polenta cookies

My cook-fest this past Saturday centered around chili - the first chili I've ever made, in fact - accompanied by cornbread (with caramelized onions in the bottom of the pan).  The chili is the "Tuxedo Chili" from Food52, which I chose because it seemed relatively simple.  Instead of ground chicken I used lean ground turkey, and as usual, given that my biggest pot is quite small for a soup pot or stockpot, I haphazardly adjusted the ratios.  Finally, since I don't have a blender, one can of the Great Northern beans was mashed into water with a combination of hand and spoon.

This chili must be quite forgiving, though, since the result was still very tasty.  A friend came over for dinner and gave it her approval.  Even with my smallish pot, I still got 6-7 servings out of the recipe!

For dessert, lemon polenta cookies.  I went ahead and added salt to the dry ingredients before remembering that I had used salted butter.  Even with the extra salt, though, the cookies were pretty great, probably thanks to lemon juice's acidity and the extra lemon zest I threw in.  These cookies are are a little bit crumbly, fragrant and rich from the butter and lemon, and pleasantly gritty with the cornmeal.

A bonus: they become even more flavorful, with improved texture, after a day or two.  I'll definitely be making these again; next time, I might even double the recipe and freeze half the dough.  Huzzah!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Marshall, CA: Hog Island Oyster Company

This past Sunday, Andrew and I picked up two friends and drove north from Palo Alto toward Point Reyes.  We stopped briefly in Point Reyes Station to buy cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, where the Mt. Tam cheese is irresistible; the Red Hawk is their other top seller but is more pungent than I like.  I can get Cowgirl Creamery cheeses at Whole Foods in LA, but it's so much more expensive here!

Cheese procured, we continued on Highway 1 along Tomales Bay until reaching Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, CA.  I had reserved a picnic table, which comes with a grill and some condiments (lemons, hot sauce, etc), and both bulk and pre-shucked or barbecued oysters are available for sale.  Our group bought one bag of 50 Hog Island Sweetwaters and a dozen Kumamotos, and received a quick lesson in how to shuck oysters; gloves and shucking knives are provided.

In case you're wondering how one should properly shuck an oyster, here is what I learned:
1) Hold the oyster in your gloved, non-dominant hand, with the flatter shell facing up.
2) Place the point of the shucking knife at the spot where the top and bottom shells join.  Push and twist back and forth a little bit, which may cause a little piece of shell to chip off.
3) Continue to push and twist, forcing the knife point into the joint area.  Once the tip of the knife has slipped between the two shells, move the knife back and forth laterally to gradually pry the two shells open.  Keep the oyster level if possible so you don't lose the oyster liquor (the salty liquid inside).
4) Once the shells are nearly separate, use the knife edge to free the flesh from both shells.

In addition to the oysters, we had a picnic of the aforementioned cheese, pita, sausages, oranges from Stanford history corner trees, salad (endive, cabbage, and cucumber), chocolate orange cardamom cake, and drinks.  A delicious feast!  Of course we started by shucking and eating the oysters fresh, but we also put some of them on the grill, where they cooked in their own liquor.  The weather was clear and warm, and with the picnic area being right next to a little inlet, we had idyllic surroundings to pair with our unbelievably fresh seafood.  Personally, I didn't taste too much of a difference between the Sweetwaters and the Kumamotos, apart from the latter being a little more delicate in flavor.

Oyster picnicking and shucking was a very unique and fun gastronomical experience!  If I were to return, though, I might try one of the non-reserved tables, still bring my own picnic, and order some of the barbecued oysters with chipotle bourbon butter; I actually did lose some interest (gasp!) in raw oysters after six or eight.  Anyhow, after our lavish lunch, we went for a 3.6 mile hike at Point Reyes (the Muddy Hollow trail from off Limatour Road to pretty Limatour Beach).  Tomales Bay is about as far as we would want to go for a day trip from Palo Alto, but on this Sunday it worked out wonderfully.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Marine's flight home

(This post was written on Friday January 16.)

I am writing from Southwest flight 577, from LAX to SJC on Friday at 3:03 pm. This flight is one of the most unique in my experience, having just taxied through a "water cannon salute" in honor of the deceased Marine who is being flown in this plane to his final resting place. His family is accompanying him, seated in the first two rows after watching the loading process on the tarmac.

I've never witnessed such an event before, but it lends a particular note of respect and contemplation to what would otherwise be a rather mundane SoCal-NorCal transit. I heard very little talking as we gained altitude, and assume that I am not alone in feeling struck by this surprising event. Maybe it's telling that it was, in fact, a surprise to me. It's all too easy to forget, from the safety and comfort of my living and working environments, that there are so many Americans who put their lives at risk in unfamiliar, inhospitable environments every day, and have done so for many generations, that in this country I may walk the 12 minutes through Westwood Village and into lab with the peace of mind that freedom (and, frankly, privilege) afford.

So I take this as a reminder to be grateful for this Marine's sacrifice, and for the sacrifices of his fellow servicemen/women and their families. Thank you.

(Upon arriving at SJC, we taxied through another water cannon salute, creating a rainbow, and the Marine was met with a receiving ceremony on the tarmac. The plane and half the terminal were silent as everyone quietly disembarked and then stood, watching, next to the windows.)