Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Three Years







Three years of blogging, of sharing recipes, stories, snippets of my life with all of you.

Thank you for being here and for making this worthwhile.






There's no sweeter way to celebrate these three years than with cookies.

Two types of shortbread cookies; vanilla and chocolate.






Two different kinds of shortbread cookies, not only in terms of flavor but texture as well.

The vanilla one is buttery, crumbly and soft.

The chocolate one has a pronounced cocoa flavor, it's a little softer and slightly less sweet than the vanilla shortbread cookie, with a somewhat sandy texture.






No matter which one you choose, they're both incredibly delicious.

Especially when they're cut into letter shapes.











Vanilla Shortbread Cookies

This is the ultimate vanilla shortbread cookie and the addition of cornflour gives it a lighter and more tender texture. It is perfect eaten plain or used to make a cookie sandwich, filled with everything from dulce de leche to chocolate ganache and jam.






Yield: about 25 cookies

Ingredients
150 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
55 g icing sugar, sieved
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
220 g all purpose flour, sieved plus extra for dipping your cookie cutter
20 g cornflour (cornstarch), sieved

Special equipment: fine sieve, stand or hand-held mixer, plastic wrap, rolling pin, baking paper, 5.5 cm round cookie cutters (or cookie cutters of your choice), baking sheet(s)


Preparation
In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the butter and icing sugar and beat, using the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), on medium-high speed for about 8 minutes or until you have a very creamy and light mixture. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Add the flour and cornflour and beat on low speed. At first you may think that the mixture will not become a dough because it will look very sandy but don't worry, after a minute it will come together (like in the picture below) and gather in pieces around the paddle attachment (or around the beaters) of your mixer.


Remove the dough from the bowl and shape it into a ball and then into a disk. At this point you'll see the actual texture of the dough which should be smooth and firm. Wrap it with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for 45 minutes.

Line your baking sheet with baking paper.
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius / 350 Fahrenheit.

Place the chilled disk of dough between two sheets of baking paper and with the help of a rolling pin, roll it out to 0.5-0.7 cm-thickness.
In a small bowl, add some flour and use it to dip in your cookie cutter. In this way, the cookie cutter won't stick to the dough.
Remove the top baking paper from your rolled-out dough and using your cookie cutter, cut out round shapes and place them on your prepared baking sheet, spacing them 1.5 cm apart.

Note: It's best if you transfer the cut-out cookies from the baking paper to your baking sheet using a small offset spatula. This way you ensure the shape of the cookie remains intact. You need to work fast because the dough becomes warmer and softer as time passes.


Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your preheated oven and bake the cookies for 11-12 minutes or until light golden around the edges. They'll feel a little soft in the middle but that's okay. Be careful not to overbake them.
Note: if you choose a different cookie cutter, either smaller or bigger, or even of a different shape than the one indicated, the baking times will change. For example, I baked the small cookie letters for 6 minutes. Keep a close eye on your cookies while baking so you avoid any surprises.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to stand for 2 minutes. Then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

Allow them to cool completely before you transfer them to a cookie tin.
They'll keep for 1 week, at room temperature, in a tightly closed cookie tin.











Chocolate Shortbread Cookies

The addition of sea salt elevates the cocoa flavor. You can coat them with granulated sugar before baking, in order to make them a little sweeter and to add another texture to them.






Yield: about 20 cookies

Ingredients
115 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
40 g icing sugar, sieved
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
125 g all purpose flour, sieved plus extra for dipping your cookie cutter
25 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sieved
⅛ tsp sea salt

Special equipment: fine sieve, stand or hand-held mixer, plastic wrap, rolling pin, baking paper, 5.5 cm round cookie cutters (or cookie cutters of your choice), baking sheet(s)


Preparation
In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the butter and icing sugar and beat, using the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), on medium-high speed for about 8 minutes or until you have a creamy and light mixture. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Add the flour, cocoa powder and sea salt and beat on low speed until you have a rough, soft dough. It will be ever-so-slightly sticky.


Remove the dough from the bowl and shape it into a ball and then into a disk. Wrap it with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour to firm up.

Line your baking sheet with baking paper.
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius / 350 Fahrenheit.

Place the chilled disk of dough between two sheets of baking paper and with the help of a rolling pin, roll it out to 0.5-0.7 cm-thickness.
In a small bowl, add some flour and use it to dip in your cookie cutter. In this way, the cookie cutter won't stick to the dough.
Remove the top baking paper from your rolled-out dough and using your cookie cutter, cut out round shapes and place them on your prepared baking sheet, spacing them 1.5 cm apart.

Note: Because the dough has the tendency to be sticky, it's best if you transfer the cut-out cookies from the baking paper to your baking sheet using a small offset spatula. This way you ensure the shape of the cookie remains intact. You need to work fast because the dough becomes warmer and softer as time passes.


Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your preheated oven and bake the cookies for 9-10 minutes. They'll feel a little soft in the middle but that's okay. Be careful not to overbake them.
Note: if you choose a different cookie cutter, either smaller or bigger, or even of a different shape than the one indicated, the baking times will change. For example, I baked the small cookie letters for 6 minutes. Keep a close eye on your cookies while baking so you avoid any surprises.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to stand for 2 minutes. Then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

Allow them to cool completely before you transfer them to a cookie tin.
They'll keep for 1 week, at room temperature, in a tightly closed cookie tin.








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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The girl who shoots food

Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I take food photographs on my window sill.






I draw up the curtains and shoot right in front of the kitchen window so that I can have plenty of natural light. This is Holland after all where there's not a lot of sunlight, especially during late autumn and winter, so I need to get as close to the source as I can.






I've become a constant light chaser, always having to schedule the day and time of shooting depending on the weather report. Of course, the fact that I only have a five-year old point-and-shoot camera and not some fancy DSLR with all the trimmings, isn't making it easier on me. I love a challenge however, so I choose to view it as such and try to do the best with what I've got.






Having to take pictures in front of my large kitchen window also means that I get to meet my neighbors, who always seem to stare at me wondering what the heck I'm photographing all the time. Then of course they catch a glimpse of me licking my fingers or a spoon, moving around in the kitchen, back and forth, pan in one hand, camera in the other and they get the picture. Around the neighborhood, I'm known as the girl who shoots food. Sometimes I feel like asking them to join me, come eat with us, but I'm too shy to do that.






I'm not too shy to invite all of you to cook this dish and share it with your guests though. Penne with mascarpone and walnuts. A wonderfully simple dish yet oh so flavorful.






Penne is one of my favorite types of pasta and the mascarpone, well, that is a brilliant Italian invention which may conjure up images of tiramisù rather than pasta, but let me assure you, the pairing is fabulous. The penne, cooked al dente of course, along with the silky smooth and slightly sweet mascarpone sauce, a handful of crunchy walnuts and a sprinkling of salty parmesan, make up a glorious dish, perfect for a chilly winter's evening.











Penne with Mascarpone, Walnuts and Parmesan
Adapted, ever-so-slightly, from At Elizabeth David's Table

The sauce is rather filling so don't go overboard. Small portions served with a fresh green salad and a glass of white wine will make an ideal dinner for four.






Yield: 4 main-course servings

Ingredients
450-500 g dried small penne rigate
2 heaped Tbsp unsalted butter
250 g mascarpone cheese
3-4 Tbsp grated parmesan, plus more for serving
80 g (3/4 cup) walnuts, chopped roughly
Freshly ground white pepper
Salt

Special equipment: colander, cheese grater


Preparation
Bring a large pot of water to the boil over high heat and add a good sprinkling of salt, followed by the penne. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard), or cook to your liking, stirring every so often so the penne don't stick together.

Five to ten minutes before the penne are cooked, prepare the sauce.
In a large and deep skillet, add the butter and melt over medium-high heat. Then add the mascarpone and turn heat down to low. Stir the mascarpone until it melts and combines with the butter into a creamy sauce. Be careful not to boil the mascarpone, you just need to heat it well through.

Once the penne are cooked, drain them in a colander and immediately add them to the mascarpone sauce. Stir them around and add the parmesan and some freshly ground white pepper. Have a taste to check if the dish needs any salt. The parmesan is very salty so I'll doubt it'll need any. Stir well and serve immediately in individual plates or in a large serving bowl.

Add some chopped walnuts on top of each serving and make sure to keep the parmesan at the table for anyone who needs to add an extra grating on top.





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Monday, November 19, 2012

Running up that hill *

People can be hard on each other for no reason. No reason at all.
We all want to be loved, accepted and nurtured by our environment and the people we surround ourselves with, we all seek the same fundamental things in life and yet many times, we are out to get each other, to make each other feel bad or less of a person.






If we stopped and realized that we're all in this together, things would be so different.
Wouldn't the world be a better place if we were all kind to one another, smile to those around us, laugh at each other's jokes, help each other with what may seem trivial to us but know that to the other person is vital?






Going through difficult things in life makes you recognize what's important, what really matters. It makes you realize that the energy you give off, feeds those around you and what you give is ultimately what you get back.






Life is so precious, our loved ones and those we count on are precious. If we paused to think about that every once in a while, our lives would be better. Reaching out, trusting and being open to people is important. Even if it seems difficult sometimes.






As always, for me, food is one of the things that makes life better. Maybe I sound like a broken record when I say this, but sharing food with the ones I love and appreciate, is what counts.






A couple of weeks ago I won a copy of Aran Goyoaga's book 'Small Plates & Sweet Treats' on a giveaway on El's beautiful blog Fresh. Aran, the creator of canelle et vanille, wrote a wonderful book, filled with stunning recipes and photographs. When I got my hands on it, I was flipping through it like crazy, getting excited about every single one of her recipes, which are all gluten-free.






I'm not on a gluten-free diet, I actually can't imagine not eating gluten, but her recipes can easily be converted. The one I chose to cook first though, chestnut crêpes with creamy mushrooms, was a gluten-free one. I was taken by the type of flour she used; chestnut flour. I had never used it before but being a lover of chestnuts, I was sure I was going to love its flavor, and I did.






Chestnuts and mushrooms have an affinity for each other so it was not surprising that the marriage worked. The thin crêpes had a nutty, earthy and vaguely sweet flavor with a hint of nutmeg that intermingled with the woody, creamy wild mushrooms and the fresh thyme to create a combination of flavors that was simply brilliant.






* The writing of this post was accompanied by the music of Kate Bush and this song in particular.







Chestnut Crêpes with Creamy Wild Mushroom Filling
Barely adapted from Small Plates & Sweet Treats

These crêpes are deeply satisfying and filling and they'd make the perfect lunch served with a leafy salad.

They can also easily be turned into a sweet treat by omitting the parsley and pepper in the crêpe recipe. Pair them with hazelnut spread, hot chocolate sauce, drizzle them with honey and serve them with whipped cream; the possibilities are endless.

Chestnut flour has been used in Italy for centuries and is considered to be a staple in Italian cuisine. That counts for something, right? Don't be afraid to use it, but in case you can't find it where you live, you can substitute with all-purpose flour.






Yield: Ten 25cm crêpes

Ingredients

for the crêpes
100 g chestnut flour
250 ml fresh whole milk, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
¼ tsp salt
Pinch of grated nutmeg
30g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

60 g unsalted butter, melted, for greasing the pan

for the mushroom filling
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled
450-500 g assortment of wild mushrooms (I used shiitake, chestnut, oyster), cut in half or quartered if too big
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbsp crème fraîche
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves

Special equipment: immersion blender or stand blender, 25 cm non-stick sauté pan or crêpe pan, heatproof brush


Preparation

make the crêpes
Place all the ingredients for the crêpes in a large bowl or in a stand blender. Use an immersion blender to mix the ingredients well or mix in your stand blender. (In case you have neither kind of blender, whisk vigorously with a hand whisk).
Place the crêpe batter in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for 2 hours before using.

You can make the crêpe batter a day ahead if you wish.


Just before starting making the crêpes, take the batter out of the refrigerator and transfer it into a pourable container. It will be easier to add to the pan.
Heat the non-stick sauté or crêpe pan over medium-high heat and lightly brush the bottom and sides with melted butter. Whisk the batter and add 3-4 Tbsp right in the center of the pan, swirling it quickly around so that the batter coats evenly the bottom of the pan. You're aiming to make thin crêpes. You need to swirl the pan quickly because if you wait, the batter will solidify before you get the chance to spread it evenly around the bottom of the pan.
Cook the crêpe on one side for 30-40 seconds or until it takes on a golden color and the top is set and then, using a spatula, lift the sides of the crêpe a bit all around and, carefully yet quickly, flip it over. Cook on the other side for 10 seconds, transfer it to a large plate and continue cooking the rest of the batter, placing each one on top of the other.
You can either eat them now or place them in the fridge (after they have cooled), covered tightly with plastic wrap, and eat them the next day. They reheat really well.
You can also freeze them for 1 month.


Important notes about crêpes:
1. Crêpes can be intimidating, especially if you haven't cooked them before. You need to keep in mind that the first crêpe will always be a disaster and it'll end up in the bin. It's kind of like a test to see how much of the batter you need to add to the pan, how you're going to spread it around the pan, how you're going to flip the crêpe. I never throw the first crêpe away though, I just test to see if the batter needs more salt etc. So, don't be discouraged if even the first couple of your crêpes turn out to be not very appealing. On your third crêpe you'll be doing perfectly.
2. I use a long and narrow offset icing spatula to flip my crêpes. Other people use two spatulas, others use a fish spatula. Nothing is set in stone. See what works best for you.
3. Even if the crêpe tears a little, it's okay. It happens to me all the time and as long as it's not a large tear that will cause the filling of the crêpe to seep out, then it is definitely a keeper.
4. Crêpes, and these in particular, don't stick together so don't be scared to stack them.

prepare the mushroom filling
In a medium-sized sauté pan, add the olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the two garlic cloves and sauté for a couple of minutes in order to infuse the olive oil. Be careful not to burn the garlic because it will give a bitter taste to the oil. Remove and discard the garlic.
Add the mushrooms and the thyme sprigs to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes, until the mushrooms soften and slightly caramelize. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper and then add the crème fraîche. Stir well until you have a creamy sauce and immediately remove the pan from the heat.

assemble the crêpes
Take one crêpe and lay it open on a plate. Add 3 tablespoonfuls of mushrooms down the center of the crêpe, sprinkle with some chopped parsley and roll it up. Sprinkle some more parsley on top and continue doing the same with the rest of the crepes.

Serve the crêpes immediately.





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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chocolate cupcakes

As with brownies, I discovered the beauty of cupcakes when I moved to the Netherlands five years ago. In Greece, they had not become quite popular yet so when I spotted a couple of cupcake shops in The Hague, I became excited and immediately smitten by their flavor, looks and extreme cuteness.






I'm not one to fawn over cutesy food and desserts, but cupcakes are just impossible to resist. Who was I to snub them? I was immediately hooked. They swiftly became my sweet treat of choice and I couldn't get enough of them. But I wanted more, I wanted to learn how to make cupcakes myself. I bought a couple of books and a cupcake pan, I visited some websites and I gave them a try.






Granted, those first two-three batches of cupcakes left a lot to be desired. My piping skills were not good enough to create those beautiful swirls everyone else seemed to have mastered and I could not for the life of me artfully place dollops of icing onto the small cakes. Nevertheless, I pressed on.






After a while, my cupcakes were presentable and before long, they were beautiful. Then, all of a sudden, I outgrew them. I was over them. It was right about the time I started writing this blog, three years ago. Sure, I still enjoyed making them however not so much for myself but mostly as gifts to friends and colleagues. People go crazy over cupcakes.






From time to time, I too get a craving for them and I have a couple of recipes that have stuck with me and that I've been faithful to for some years now. Why? Because they work every single time, because they're a huge success with anyone who has ever tried them and because they are so damn delicious.






I've been wanting to tell you about this recipe for years. It was going to be one of my first posts in this blog but alas, I totally neglected it. Chocolate cupcakes with chocolate-crème fraîche frosting. Heaven. That's all I want to say. That's all these are. Delicious in every sense of the word. The cake is moist with an intense cocoa flavor, fluffy, light and airy. And the frosting, well the frosting is the reason I'm posting these at all.






One of the things I dislike about cupcakes is the buttercream. When it's greasy and heavy and so incredibly sweet you feel your teeth are going to fall off or when you take one bite and you can feel your glucose levels rise. Yes, cupcakes are supposed to be sweet, but buttercream, even though I have found a couple of recipes for it that I like, is for the most part something I prefer not to frost my cupcakes with.






Instead, I love crème fraîche frostings. They're lighter, no less calories mind you but certainly more refined in taste and texture. The crème fraîche cuts through the richness of the butter and the sweetness of the sugar, balancing the flavors with its slightly tangy accent and the dark chocolate gives the cupcakes a more 'adult' feel and not that sickly sweet result. The frosting is incredibly smooth, glossy, sumptuous and intensely chocolaty.

If you ever try making a cupcake, this should be it.











Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate-Crème Fraîche Frosting
Adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon

I know you'll be tempted to make the frosting in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer but don't. The frosting comes together better and more quickly in the food processor which gives it that amazing texture, gloss and shine that makes this frosting unique.

If you don't like the bitterness of 70% chocolate, choose one with 55-60% cocoa solids.

Update: In case you can't find glucose syrup, you can substitute with golden syrup or light corn syrup. In Greece, you can find glucose syrup in large supermarkets. Crème fraîche can be substituted with sour cream or Greek strained full-fat yoghurt. The result will be a little different though since crème fraîche is thicker, creamier and has a fuller flavor. I wouldn't advise you to substitute it unless you can't by any means find crème fraîche.






Yield: 12 cupcakes

Ingredients

for the cupcakes
25 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sieved
120 ml boiling water
60 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
100 g caster sugar
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla extract
100 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

for the frosting
85 g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
120 g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp glucose syrup
140 g icing sugar, sieved
140 g crème fraîche, at room temperature
2 tsp hot water
¼ tsp salt

White chocolate, shaved, or sugar flowers, for garnishing

Special equipment: fine sieve, hand whisk, stand or hand-held mixer, a 12-cup cupcake pan, paper liners, food processor, piping bag and nozzle of your preference (optional)


Preparation

for the cupcakes
In a small bowl, add the sieved cocoa powder and the boiling water. Whisk until well blended and smooth. Allow the mixture to cool.

Prepare your cupcake pan by lining it with the paper liners.
Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius / 375 Fahrenheit.

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the butter and sugar and beat, using the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), on medium-high speed until you have a creamy and light mixture. Add the egg and beat on medium-high speed until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and then sieve the flour, the baking powder and the salt directly into the bowl. Beat on medium speed until just incorporated. Be careful not to overbeat the mixture at this stage. Add the cocoa-water mixture and beat on low speed until smooth. It will only take a few seconds.


Empty the batter into the lined cupcake pan, filling each cup halfway through.
Bake the cupcakes on the middle rack of the preheated oven for 17-19 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack. Once the cupcakes have slightly cooled, remove them carefully from the pan and onto the wire rack.

The cupcakes need to be completely cool before you frost them, otherwise the frosting will melt.

You can cut the pointy tops of the cupcakes off if you want a flat cupcake but I rarely do that.

for the frosting
Melt butter and chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring often and making sure the chocolate doesn't burn. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the mixture is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan, whisk to blend and add the vanilla extract and the glucose syrup. Whisk to incorporate and then add the sieved icing sugar a little at a time, whisking to incorporate it. The mixture will look weird, thick and grainy but it's okay.

Empty the mixture into a food processor with the blade attachment and with the processor running, gradually add through the top of the lid the crème fraîche and the hot water. Process until the frosting is shiny and smooth. Add the salt and process for a couple of seconds.


You can frost the cupcakes now but it is best to do it after you have put the frosting in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to firm up. You can also keep it in the refrigerator for a day before piping it onto the cupcakes.

Empty the frosting in a bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap on top of the frosting (not the bowl), pressing gently to cover it tightly. This will prevent any moisture coming into it.
When you're ready to use it, take it out of the fridge and beat it in the food processor, or in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, to soften it a bit*. Do not overbeat it or it will split. Pipe it onto the cupcakes using a piping bag and the type of nozzle you prefer, or frost the cupcakes using a spatula.
The frosting will soften after a while but it should not be runny.
Decorate the cupcakes with shaved white chocolate or sugar flowers.

You can keep the cupcakes for a couple of days at room temperature, lightly covered, or if you make them during the summer, keep them in a paper box in the fridge for a couple of days.

*If you keep the frosting in the fridge for many hours, it will become hard, so before beating it in the food processor, allow it to come to room temperature.





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