Monday, June 03, 2019

The great chocolate cake bake-off

At some point last fall, I made Trish de Seine’s famous chocolate cake and found it quite lackluster. This got me thinking about how often I make a chocolate cake hoping for something really good, better than my go-to recipe, only to be disappointed. So I decided to test a bunch of recipes that had billed themselves as “the best” and see which one I would keep, once and for all. I don’t want to waste time (and calorie allotments) on mediocre cakes, after all. I wanted the best chocolate layer cake (NOT a bundt cake or a loaf cake or chocolate-avocado or gluten-free or whatever, just the best layer cake). So I looked at all the recipes I had bookmarked, online and in cookbooks and magazines, and tried to find points in common (example: two recipes called for yogurt, so I compared those two among themselves, in the first bracket if you will, before comparing the best of those to the rest). For each cake, I served it to my family once, froze a clearly labeled piece for later comparison, and the rest of the cake was either doled out over a few days OR was sent to work with the Engineer, who came back with an empty carrier each time. And here’s what happened. (If you just want the result, scroll to the bottom of the post.)

I made them all with the same ingredients (same white whole wheat flour in every one, same chocolate, same cocoa, same instant coffee, same vegan margarine, same coconut milk instead of cream, etc.). I didn’t use baking strips or heating cores in any of them, because I forgot for the first one and really wanted to compare everything as fairly as possible.

I had meant to make the winning cake one more time and take good pictures (as the photos I took otherwise were more for documenting and my personal reference), but you know what? Even though this project stretched out over several months, I just don’t have it in me to bake another chocolate cake right now. So these few low-quality photos will have to do.

Also, I intended to make the famous Beatty’s Chocolate Cake by Ina Garten, but realized it was almost identical to Ricardo’s best chocolate cake, so those two are equivalent in my mind (I simply tried Ina Garten’s frosting on another cake that didn’t come with a frosting recipe to evaluate that part).

The contenders:
- Happy Wife, Happy Life chocolate cake from Small Victories, by Julia Turshen
- ”Ze” gâteau au chocolat from Famille futée 2
- Gâteau au chocolat infaillible de Patrice Demers (published in my baby book La Bête)
- Ricardo’s Best-Best Chocolate Cake
- Black Magic Cake with Ina Garten frosting
- Chocolate cake with bittersweet sour cream frosting from Not Without Salt
- Chocolate midnight cake from Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, with the fudge frosting from the Vitamix cookbook that came with my blender
- My previous go-to chocolate cake from Minimalist Baker

The notes:

Small Victories cake: there was only enough frosting for the top, and ideally it should not be refrigerated. I found the crumb quite good, but overall I already knew it wasn’t the best. The Engineer did not care for the raspberry jam between the layers or for the frosting, but the Little Prince loved the frosting.

Famille futée cake: I made a half-recipe, because 2 layers were plenty for my purposes. I was curious about their recommended “healthy” frosting made with tofu, though it’s still got as much sugar as regular frosting (I guess it’s just low in fat? which doesn’t automatically make it healthy?), but that was a total failure – it was hard to work with, runny, and the cornstarch gives it an unpleasant mouthfeel. That being said, the cake itself was excellent, and better than the Small Victories cake that also called for yogurt! This one had mineral water as well.

Patrice Demers’s cake: The Engineer called it a “very satisfying cake”, but I knew it was not The One. The crumb is not the best, and it contains chopped chocolate that I think I find a bit off-putting in a layer cake.

Ricardo’s cake: This was definitely better than Patrice Demers’s for me – we had a contender! I didn’t have two 8’ springform pans, so I used 8”-round pans lined with paper, greased, and dusted with cocoa. It was essentially the same as Ina Garten’s cake (which I didn’t bother baking), and had less cocoa than the Black Magic Cake. The ganache was just okay, though.

Black Magic Cake: This recipe really should have specified to line the pans with paper in addition to greasing them! The cake was flat, flimsy, and fell apart. Ricardo’s cake beats it hands down.
Ina Garten’s frosting: I used it to top the Black Magic Cake. I found that the yield was too small, the frosting hardens immediately, it had a bit too much coffee in it, and it was weird. Somehow, though, it ended up being the Little Prince’s favorite cake/frosting combo up to that point.

Not Without Salt cake: I used 1 cup of white sugar and 1 cup of brown sugar. I would have loved to be told the weight of the batter I should have put into each of the 3 pans… As it was, upon unmolding, 1 layer fell apart, so it was a 2-layer cake instead of a 3-layer cake. I would use 2 pans, myself. I liked it better than the previous cake, but the Engineer and the Little Prince both liked it less. (As for the Fox, he wasn’t giving me any quotes to use, but he seemed to be happy with all the cakes in the running.)

Salt Fat Acid Heat cake: We have a contender! This cake has a great crumb – which can withstand some handling – and is delicious. (I had made it once before, for Valentine’s Day, and loved it. It’s worked well in both 8”-square and 8”-round pans.) The instructions say to line the pans with paper, grease them, AND dust them with cocoa. Honestly, that’s probably overkill and you could pick two of those three instructions, but I figured “better safe than sorry”.
Vitamix fudge frosting: I was curious about this because I’d never made a frosting in a blender and because it called for evaporated milk, which Carnation now makes lactose-free. In the end, though, it was just okay.

Minimalist Baker cake: I baked it a bit longer than called for because this time, I made it in 8”-round pans instead of 9”-round. This cake seemed to come out ahead of the pack! It definitely has the best frosting of the bunch, and the crumb is wonderfully moist. The Little Prince revised his favorite to this one upon tasting it. And I felt a bit like Dorothy when she found out that she’d had the power to go home all along – when I posted that recipe almost 4 years ago, I had called it “the definitive chocolate cake”, and I should have just listened to Past-Me.

After testing the frozen samples: My favorite is still the Minimalist Baker cake, but I think I will make the Salt Fat Acid Heat cake again too. Ricardo’s cake would be a close third. For the Engineer, Patrice Demers’s cake is the best of the bunch, so I guess I’ll make the recipe available to him for when he wants to make it. The Little Prince likes the Minimalist Baker cake best, but the Black Magic with Ina Garten frosting is a close second. The Fox likes chocolate.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Hard-Boiled Eggs

This post meanders quite a bit – if you just want to know how to make hard-boiled eggs ASAP, scroll all the way down and read the instructions in bold.

I’ve been trying to nail down an Easter menu so that I don’t have to scramble each year, but it’s not going so well. I tried vegan Cadbury eggs bowls, which were essentially white chocolate mousse served in chocolate bowls and topped with a round of canned peach. The recipe only gave loose directions for making the chocolate bowls, using balloons to shape them, and mine turned out all wrong. Next time (I do think there will be a next time, because I really like the concept), I’ll use tempered chocolate, and at the very least 2 ounces per small bowl (even though that means there will be leftover chocolate). Bakerella has a post about this that I’ll look at. And the white chocolate mousse was fine, but not great.

Two years ago I had made a sweet carrot soufflé (which I had first made in college), but I was the only one who liked it. And the Engineer didn’t like the raspberry morning buns from Small Victories. This year I decided to make deviled eggs, which he loves – I wanted to make the bacon and chive deviled eggs from Cook’s Illustrated, so I used their recommended method for making easy-peel, hard-cooked eggs (because my method of baking them in the oven sometimes leaves brown marks, which don’t matter for a chopped egg salad for instance, but would show on deviled eggs). I followed the instructions, which called for a steamer basket, a timer, and an ice bath, but even so, it was a complete disaster. The shells took off large amounts of the whites with them, and the yolks were undercooked. I ended up serving the eggs halved, topped with crumbled bacon and chopped chives.

Since then, I’ve tried Smitten Kitchen’s directions and was much happier with those in my quinoa kale salad with carrot-coriander dressing.

I took it a step further and added baking soda to the water, which made a big difference in how easy they were to peel. (That link also recommends using a white kitchen towel in the pot to prevent eggshells from cracking, especially if you are making many eggs at a time. I recommend these flour sack towels that I’ve been using as napkins and even as cheesecloth.) So from now on, to make hard-boiled eggs, I’m adding a dash of baking soda to the water and boiling them at least 10 minutes (10 for eggs as pictured below, but I’d do 11 or 12 minutes for deviled eggs next time) and soaking them in an ice bath to stop cooking.

Batch of links - Fat

There has been a lot of talk in the past several years about the fact that fat probably isn’t as bad for us as we think. And yet we’ve heard it for so long that I think it’s going to take a long time to rectify our diets. It’s not just that changing our habits or our point of view is hard (though it is); some are making the case that the reason the American Heart Association is sticking to its low-fat recommendations is money. Interestingly enough, lobby money is also why saturated fats were blamed for heart disease instead of sugar in the first place.

In the face of evidence, though, some things are beginning to change. (See this article titled We got cholesterol all wrong.) The section on dietary cholesterol of the current Dietary Guidelines published by the U.S. government is on page 51 of the .pdf document at the link. Essentially, there is no longer a restriction to 300 mg of cholesterol daily, but since trans fats and saturated fats should be mostly avoided, and since food sources high in those types of fat also contain cholesterol, the latter is de facto reduced in the recommended diet anyway.

This comes after many studies and research articles showing that the link between saturated fats and heart disease is questionable. I believe the article with the highest profile was The Truth About Fat, published in TIME on June 12th, 2014 (and there’s a quiz here to test your knowledge). The gist of it is that not only is fat not that harmful, but carbohydrates are probably the bigger culprits (at least in Western diets). The latter article is great, but if you have access to it, the former is particularly informative and explains that faulty and incomplete data could be blamed for the erroneous conclusion that all Americans over the age of 2 should limit their fat intake.

That being said, eating a diet very rich in fat for only five days can alter your metabolism. Obviously, there is such a thing as too much fat, but it really looks like it’s not the big culprit we used to think.

Also, a clinical trial found no difference in weight loss over 12 months with a low-fat diet versus a low-carb diet.

Food for thought.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Greenest Salad

I didn’t know what to title this post. It’s not easy being green? Fifty shades of green? I settled on The Greenest Salad, and let me tell you, this dish is perfect for spring. I increased the amounts of edamame (to roughly ¾ cup) and avocado (to half an avocado per serving) to make for a more filling lunch, and omitted the pistachios simply because I forgot them. I loved the creamy avocado-yogurt dressing, though I used anchovy paste instead of a fillet, and I dressed each serving only before eating it. This was absolutely delicious! It’s perfect for spring, too.

¼ cup plain whole-milk lactose-free Greek yogurt
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 anchovy fillet (I used about ½ tsp. anchovy paste)
2 to 5 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted, divided (see note above)
½ cup chopped fresh chives, divided (I’m sure I had less)
4 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint, divided
2 romaine hearts, chopped
½ English cucumber, chopped
1 cup sugar snap peas, halved
½ cup frozen shelled edamame, thawed (I used more like ¾ cup)
⅓ cup shelled roasted salted pistachios, chopped (optional)

Process yogurt, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon water, salt, pepper, anchovy, 1 avocado, ¼ cup chives, and 2 tablespoons mint in a blender until smooth. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until just pourable.

Chop remaining avocado and place in a large bowl (it was just the Fox and me eating this for lunch, so I chopped half an avocado to top each of our bowls). Add romaine, cucumber, snap peas, and edamame. Toss with half the dressing (see note above). Top with pistachios and remaining ¼ cup chives and 2 tablespoons mint. Serve remaining dressing on the side.

Batch of links

- It’s been a while, but I would still love to see Mark Bittman’s proposed nutrition label adopted by everyone, as it is very comprehensive and gives products scores on different scales (nutrition, welfare, and “foodness” or how processed the food is).

- For those of you keeping herbs fresh by placing them in water in your fridge: have you tried the bulb vases from Trader Joe’s? The fluted bottom and size seem to be perfect for the task!

- I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but there is such a thing as banana flour, and I’m really curious to try it.

- Had you heard that bananas ripen more slowly when they’re separated from the bunch? Turns out it’s not true.

- Why bananas (as we know them) might go extinct. (Hint: monoculture, again.)

- Apparently, you can use parsnips instead of bananas in baked goods, and replace bananas with chia seeds to thicken smoothies.

- You can also make a banana glaze for baked goods.

- If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between black, green, and white cardamom pods, here is the answer.

- And finally, something not food-related (at least, not for grownups!). I’ve heard of the app Doctor on Demand, though I haven’t used it. It appears that it’s treated as in-network with my health insurance, so maybe it would be worth looking into. Anyway, what I wanted to relay is that you can get support from certified lactation consultants on it, which can be so helpful to new moms, especially because breastfeeding problems always seem urgent! I wish I’d had this when the Little Prince was born.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Batch of links - Eating healthy

Here’s another mix of old and new links, on the theme of trying to eat healthy.

- Some studies showed that when compared to regular produce, organic produce has more antioxidants compounds linked to better health and that the difference is statistically significant. I’m really not sure how much stock to put into that, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?

- Here are 10 pictures of the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, because sometimes, it’s easier to understand it when you see it.

- As far as sodium is concerned, moderation is best, because it turns out that eating too little salt actually increase one’s risk of mortality more than eating too much of it. This is true of so many foods that used to be demonized – fat is the first example that comes to mind!

- It turns out that there’s very little evidence that consumption of dairy is doing any good to adults. I have now given up my formerly quasi-daily chocolate milk, which has cut some sugar out of my diet as well… This is hard for most North Americans to accept, because we’ve been trained to think that only dairy can get us enough calcium, but there are also many vegetable sources of calcium, most of which seem to be more easily absorbed by the body!

- I enjoyed this article about the legal ramification of the wording on food packages, particularly the word “natural” (which does not legally mean anything and is therefore not synonymous with “healthy”, despite what many consumers would like to think).

- Coca-Cola sales have declined over health concerns, and the brand keeps making healthy changes to remain competitive (which seems to be working). Like buying an Australian beverage brand and Vitaminwater, though in both cases, health aspects were exaggerated. Coca-Cola isn’t going away anytime soon, though, thanks to its ingrained feel-good messaging. Heck, because of nostalgia (and Stranger Things), even New Coke is making a comeback. Here’s the recipe for the original flavor, though it doesn’t specify how to carbonate it.

- Emulsifiers may not be safe: a study done on mice shows that “these ingredients may also be contributing to the rising incidence of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease by interfering with microbes in the gastrointestinal tract.”

- Not that I would always recommend drawing quick conclusions. Six-year-olds may have the lowest death rate, but I wouldn’t conclude theirs is the safest diet! (Of course, I would dispute that subject’s particular interpretation of a six-year-old’s diet in the first place…)

- The FDA had mandated that calorie counts of each food item had to be written on menus in restaurant chains with at least 20 locations and on vending machines, effective by 2016. I don’t go out much, but I’ve started seeing the calorie counts and paying more attention to them. On the one hand, no one is pretending most restaurants are healthy, but on the other hand, we usually didn’t know just how many calories those meals contained… Perhaps diners will gravitate toward meals lower in calories, and restaurants will adapt by making their original best-selling dishes healthier? Or maybe most diners don’t care? This will be interesting to watch. (I’ve read that diners now reduce their calorie intake by 40 calories on average, but that seems pretty trivial.) I also wonder what will happen with popcorn at the movies! In parallel, the FDA also commissioned a lost-pleasure analysis as consumers will avoid some junk food. This lost pleasure is due in part to “healthier foods [being] worse off on other dimensions such as taste, price, and convenience” and it is estimated to cost between 2 and 5 billion dollars over 20 years.

- An interesting article titled The growth of Wal-Mart may have made America’s obesity epidemic worse. It contains the following gem: “These estimates imply that the proliferation of Wal-Mart Supercenters explains 10.5 percent of the rise in obesity since the late 1980s.” Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration recent efforts by the chain to make nutritious food more affordable and available in so-called food deserts.

- It can also be helpful to learn about supermarket psychology. Bon Appétit wrote a great in-depth article on the subject (Part 1 and Part 2). Some spoilers: it turns out that many modern grocery stores are designed in such a way that you have to move through them counterclockwise, because that means you’d pick stuff up with your right hand as you move along, and since most people are right-handed, that strategy is more lucrative for store owners. But apparently, the perimeter rule isn’t always valid anymore… And you know how stores offer you bite-sized samples of various products? It’s not actually just to get you to buy the product, it’s to make you hungry so you’ll buy more food, period. Go in there with a game plan!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Batch of links - Bilingualism

While decluttering my computer, I found some documents that I had started for themed “batches of links” and never got around to finishing. Some are still relevant even if they are not recent, but I’ve added one brand new link below about a new study and one article published right before Christmas. So here’s a belated batch of links about bilingualism!

- Being bilingual changes the structure of your brain, which is why I sometimes find myself reaching for a word in my native language and coming up with it only in my second language. Also, my brain sometimes thinks in chiac. Turns out, it’s normal.

- People who are bilingual can learn a new language more quickly than those who are monolingual.

- The brain remembers the birth language in some way, even when the individual forgets it. Here’s another article on the same topic.

- Another way of looking at it: the first language you learn changes how you hear all other languages after, even if you no longer speak the original language.

- Interesting article on how babies learn two languages at the same time, which leads to the conclusion that bilingual babies have more flexible brains.

- Bilingual babies benefit from learning faster.

- Bilingual children are better at problem-solving, probably because they are used to thinking about the same thing in different ways. The sample size is small, but since my children are bilingual, I’m not going to question this.

- Good New York Times article on bilingualism, which such gems as the fact that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and bilinguals are better at multitasking.

- For a better brain, learn another language.

- Although, to be fair, the bilingual advantage is often overstated.

- The language you speak changes your view of the world, and this view can change depending on the language in which you operate. For example, English doesn’t have gendered nouns whereas French does. When the Engineer reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar to our kids, the caterpillar is male, but when I read it, she’s female. A random fly or spider that finds its way into our house is male in English and female in French. Really, there’s a 50-50 chance anytime either one of us speaks about said fly or spider, but it’s interesting to see genders spontaneously applied differently by different members of the household!

- As a matter of fact, writers who switch languages compare the process to being born again. With my limited experience, I’d tend to agree, because there are certain things that I can only express in one language.

- However, a new study actually found no evidence of any advantage in the brain’s executive functions. A very informative article is here. In short, studies are often hard to replicate and easy to criticize.

- Les enfants bilingues ont l’oreille musicale.

- Les bébés vivant dans des milieux bilingues sont plus attentifs.

- Les bienfaits du cerveau bilingue se confirment.

- J’ai aimé aussi ce petit billet, De la diglossie dans les chaumières montréalaises, qui parle du fait que bien que le Québec impose le français dans la place publique, les ménages tendent à conserver la langue et la culture allophones à domicile, ce qui n’est pas le cas en Ontario par exemple, où l’anglais prend toute la place.

- Which leads me to How a family recipe taught me what is at stake when Franco-Ontarians lose their roots.

[Update, May 22, 2019: Here’s another link! Support for bilingualism for children waning in Canada.]

Friday, May 17, 2019

Carrés magiques au citron

C’est un fait, j’aime les gâteaux magiques. Comme celui à la noix de coco ou celui au chocolat. Là, j’en ai essayé un au citron, publié dans le magazine 3 fois par jour de mai 2018 (mais je ne le trouve pas sur leur site). C’était absolument excellent! On a tous adoré, vraiment. Le truc, en fait le plus important, c’est que tous les ingrédients soient à la température de la pièce. On pourrait aussi parfumer avec du zeste d’orange ou de citron Meyer…

Je change quand même une instruction – en effet, il est plus facile de séparer un œuf quand il est froid, alors je vous recommande de séparer les œufs tout d’abord et de les laisser venir à la température de la pièce ensuite.

4 œufs, séparés, à la température ambiante
¾ tasse de sucre
½ tasse de beurre ou de margarine sans lactose, fondu(e) et à température ambiante
le zeste de 3 citrons
¾ tasse de farine tout-usage
2 tasses de lait sans lactose, à température ambiante
sucre en poudre (facultatif)

Préchauffer le four à 325 °F et placer la grille au centre. Graisser et tapisser un moule carré de 9 po (j’en ai pris in de 8 po) de papier parchemin, puis réserver.

Dans un bol, fouetter les jaunes d’œufs avec le sucre 3 ou 4 minutes afin que le tout soit léger et mousseux.

Ajouter le beurre fondu et le zeste de citron, puis fouetter pendant 1 minute supplémentaire.

Incorporer la farine, puis ajouter graduellement le lait jusqu’à l’obtention d’une texture lisse et homogène. Réserver. (À cette étape, la pâte sera liquide.)

Dans un autre bol, fouetter les blancs d’œufs jusqu’à l’obtention de pics fermes.

Ajouter les œufs en neige au mélange précédent sans trop remuer, afin que le tout ne soit pas homogène.

Verser dans le moule et cuire au four de 45 à 50 minutes, ou jusqu’à ce que le dessus soit bien doré et que le centre soit presque pris.

Laisser tiédir à température ambiante, puis placer au réfrigérateur pour refroidir complètement.

Saupoudrer de sucre en poudre pour servir, si désiré.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The best hummus

It had been a while since I’d made hummus at home. I’m a big fan of my mother’s recipe, which I’ll have to make again soon, but this one is different. I had some dried chickpeas left over from a recipe the Engineer had made and I wanted to use them up. It’s not one of those recipes for which you have to peel the chickpeas, because ain’t nobody got time for that (though I’d consider adding ice cold aquafaba instead of olive oil to see what happens). As it is, though, this is the BEST hummus I’ve ever made, and it was plenty smooth and creamy without having to peel the chickpeas! When I made it, I gChatted with the Engineer, and it went a little something like this…
LFG – Hey, you know how Jerusalem Grill has the best hummus ever?
Eng – Umm… Yeah?
LFG – Well, they’ve got some competition. IN OUR KITCHEN!

So yeah, this was amazing. The Engineer said it was ridiculous how good it was, and I should just throw away any other hummus recipe I have because they will never hold a candle to this one. It was presented in Bon Appétit on two occasions and was created by Michael Solomonov, chef at Philadelphia’s Dizengoff (which, BTW, *delivers* hummus). It’s certainly not hard to make, but it is a bit long, even though some of it is remembering to soak the chickpeas the day before. For presentation tips, see here for the hummus swoosh technique.

1 cup dried chickpeas
2 tsp. baking soda, divided
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
⅓ cup (or more) fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more
⅔ cup tahini
¼ tsp. (or more) ground cumin
olive oil (for serving)

Place chickpeas and 1 tsp. baking soda in a medium bowl and add cold water to cover by 2". Cover and let sit at room temperature until chickpeas have doubled in size, 8–12 hours. Drain and rinse.

Combine soaked chickpeas and remaining 1 tsp. baking soda in a large saucepan and add cold water to cover by at least 2". Bring to a boil, skimming surface as needed. Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer until chickpeas are tender and completely falling apart, 45–60 minutes. Drain; set aside.

Meanwhile, process garlic, lemon juice, and 1 tsp. salt in a food processor until coarsely puréed; let sit 10 minutes to allow garlic to mellow.

Strain garlic mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl, pressing on solids to release as much liquid as possible. Return liquid to food processor; discard solids. Add tahini and pulse to combine. With motor running, add ¼ cup ice water by the tablespoonful and process (it may seize up at first) until mixture is very smooth, pale, and thick. Add chickpeas and cumin and process, occasionally scraping down sides, until mixture is extremely smooth, about 4 minutes. Thin with more water if you prefer a looser consistency; taste and season with salt, more lemon juice, and more cumin as desired.

Spoon hummus into a shallow bowl, making a well in the center, and drizzle liberally with oil. Top as desired.

Spring outings

Here’s a quick recap of our outings so far this year. I should really create a new tag for those… Anyway, we may or may not have an “official” outing in May, but we’ll almost certainly hit a few spots like the River Walk and the Doseum when my mother-in-law visits, so those might have to do.

In January, we went to the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Even though it was a beautiful day, it was low season, so there were very few people – this suited us, as we don’t like crowds. There’s still plenty to see, though! For one thing, the citrus is in season, and there’s plenty indoors as well.

Unbeknownst to us, Geometric Harmony, an exhibit by Otto opened that day, so there were modern sculptures on the grounds. It was also our first time visiting the new Family Adventure Garden, which opened last year. There’s a space called No Name Creek which is actually a splash zone in the summer, but dry in the winter – as far as I’m concerned, I’m glad we were there when it’s dry, because I really don’t want to have to schlep swimsuits and towels when I go to the botanical garden with my kids! There are lots of play houses and child-size picnic tables and structures for the kids to have fun, so we really enjoyed our time there.

We also visited parts of the garden that we had seen before, but it was the first time for the kids. We stuck to the glasshouses of the Lucile Halsell Conservatory and the Orangerie, then made our way back via the WaterSaver Garden and the Rose Garden (the Kumamoto En Japanese Garden was closed that day). We had seen the lake before and decided to skip it this time, especially considering that the Little Prince was getting tired of walking and we were all getting hungry. We had lunch at Rosella at the Garden (which I think is the former Carriage House restaurant); they had great brunch options, and we really enjoyed the meal. It was a nice way to cap off the visit!

We then had a few outings consisting of taking family photos in a field of bluebonnets (and driving around to find said field, only to settle for one within walking distance), and going out to a picnic at the playground, so we’re rolling that up into one and counting it as February.

In March, we went to the Science Mill in Johnson City. We went on a Sunday, so it wasn’t too busy. This old mill has been turned into a children’s museum, with exhibits in the STEM fields. I think that our favorite exhibits ended up being outside: the colossal robotic hand and the incredible ball machine are must-sees, though the Little Prince was probably more into the fossil dig at the end, even refusing to leave because he was having too much fun in his adventure!

The April outing was Landa Park in New Braunfels. I had been thinking that it had been a while since we rode a little train here (even though we did ride one in Vancouver), but I wanted to go someplace new, so Landa Park it was. The park is 51 acres of big oak trees, grass, and water (Landa Lake and Comal Springs). There are playgrounds for the kiddos, and you can fish, swim or rent a paddle boat if you are so inclined! The Engineer and the Little Prince played a round of mini-golf; there are also volleyball courts, BBQ grills and walking paths. We enjoyed our visit!

Friday, May 10, 2019

A quick lunch idea

It’s the end of the school year (the last day of school here is in very late May, but the end of June isn’t far off for everyone else in North America). If your kid is like mine, there are things that he liked for lunch at the beginning of the year that he doesn’t like anymore, and you’re trying to find something else but have no inspiration. So here’s an idea shared by a nutritionist in April’s Parents magazine: healthier corn dogs. Simply buy some Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, but only fill the cups 2/3 of the way with batter. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, then push a 2-inch piece of nitrate-free hot dog sausage in the center of each muffin (also cut the sausages lengthwise for a small child, obviously). Continue baking for 5 to 7 more minutes, until muffins are set. Things of note: the package of Jiffy mix didn’t have any ingredients that I object to, and the muffins were really good; however, the package only makes about 6 muffins, so consider buying two packages; and the muffins have a major tendency to crumble. The Little Prince absolutely loved them, though! I used Applegate Organics uncured turkey hot dog sausages. You could make you own cornbread, but I didn’t have a good recipe (the last one I tried was “meh”).

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Baked Potato Egg Boats

I was at a loss for what to make for dinner, and the Engineer suggested baked potatoes. It was a good idea, because it seemed like it had been a long time since I had bought baking potatoes (I made these baked garlic parmesan potato wedges in December and can’t clearly remember buying them since). So after looking through my recipes, I decided to make baked potato egg boats, even though it was presented as a brunch recipe.

I had to bake the potatoes for a much longer time than called for, but the result was so worth it! I also used more cheese than called for, and the amounts below are mine. This was delicious and so satisfying! I served it with leftover rainbow salad.

Keep in mind that you can bake the potatoes in advance and finish the prep closer to meal time. Also, you don’t actually use the flesh of the potatoes in this recipe, so you can snack on it as you’re waiting for the egg boats to bake or you can reserve it for another use.

6 small russet potatoes, scrubbed well and pricked with a fork all over
6 strips cooked bacon, chopped (divided)
2 cups shredded lactose-free cheddar (divided)
8 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup lactose-free milk
2 thinly sliced green onions
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 ˚F.

Place potatoes directly on oven rack in center of the oven (I used a baking sheet) and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until potatoes are tender through the center (it took longer in my case).

Remove from oven and allow potatoes to cool for about 15 minutes.

Slice each potato in half lengthwise and hollow each half out, scooping the potato flesh into a mixing bowl for another use at another time.

Sprinkle a small amount of bacon and cheddar into each hollowed potato skin and transfer skins to a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Whisk milk, remaining bacon, half of the remaining cheese and green onion into the egg mixture and season with salt and pepper.

Pour egg mixture into each potato cavity (¾ full) and top with remaining cheese.

Lower oven temperature to 375 ˚F and bake potatoes until the egg mixture has set, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove from oven, cool a bit, and serve.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Batch of links

- First, not a link, but a quick announcement: I’m taking down the Amazon store linked to this blog. Amazon has changed a bunch of things, making running the store a very frustrating experience (and very user-unfriendly as compared to when I first opened), so it’s not worth my time. It’s been down for a while anyway, this is just more official. This means that there will be broken links in previous posts, but as far as I can remember, products were mentioned by name in addition to being linked, so you can still find them on your own.

- I listened to Spilled Milk Podcast’s episode about MSG, all the while marveling at the nocebo effect, and it led me to this episode of This American Life for more detail. And from there down the rabbit hole to learn more about the Stork Derby (I’d heard about it, but not in this much detail).

- I had been reminiscing about a series I used to watch over and over as a kid (it had been taped off TV, I think). It was animated and taught science concepts, but some were considered pretty advanced – I haven’t met many other 5-year-olds who understood that things get hotter as their molecules move faster, you know? Anyway, it took a lot of Googling, but I finally tracked it down: Eureka! This is a link to the English version on YouTube; I couldn’t find the French version that I used to watch (the series was made in Ontario and it exists in both languages, or at least it did). It holds up really well, and we’re currently watching it with the Little Prince.

- A photographer documents what she finds in her preschooler’s pockets and those treasures are really sweet.

- For your inner child (or your actual child): Disney songs in their native languages.

- There’s a dating app that pairs people based on the contents of their fridge, and if I were single I’d be all over that.

- Don’t get fooled when you buy San Marzano tomatoes.

- And another link to a Spilled Milk episode, this one about meal planning. I left a long comment on their page, but the gist of it is that I plan meals for the week to come, and even though that takes work, for me it’s an anxiety-reducing tool because I can’t stand not to know what I’ll be serving the next day. It also helps to have meal templates, especially if you have small children. Other families might decide that Wednesday is always chicken day, for example, but they’ll vary what type of chicken they make. My long-term plan would be to narrow down my recipes to my family’s favorites, use an online service to make them into a book, and come up with a few monthly menu templates taking into account what’s in season. What’s your take on meal planning?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Patates douces garnies de salade de pois chiches

Le midi, j’aime bien manger végétarien, à moins d’avoir des restants. Comme une fois récemment, j’avais des restes de riz du restaurant chinois, alors j’ai décidé de faire du riz frit en suivant ces règles (recette ici, autre source pour ceux sans wok ici); c’était délicieux! Je vous recommande aussi cette frittata aux pois chiches et aux herbes, servie avec aïoli, qui était vraiment meilleure que ce à quoi on s’attendait! Enfin, pour les adultes; les enfants n’ont pas vraiment aimé. (Je l’ai fait pour souper, celle-là, mais ça aurait été excellent pour dîner aussi.) Ou encore la salade de légumineuses de Ricardo, que malheureusement le Renard n’a pas aimée, même s’il aime les ingrédients séparément.

La recette que je vais partager ici, par contre, était vraiment, vraiment délicieuse, et photogénique en plus! Je l’ai trouvée dans Coup de Pouce; elle a été créée par la chef Stéphanie Audet. J’ai préféré manger les patates douces pelées, mais c’est vrai que c’est un peu plus joli avec la peau, alors c’est comme vous voulez. Le Renard et moi, on a adoré – on mangerait ça à journée longue!

Pour la crème de tahini
½ tasse de tahini
2 c. à soupe de jus de citron
½ c. à thé de sel
1 c. à thé d’huile d’olive
½ tasse d’eau (j’ai pris de l’eau chaude)

Mélanger le tout, soit dans un bol à l’aide d’un fouet, soit dans un petit pot avec un couvercle.

Pour les patates douces et les pois chiches
2 patates douces moyennes
2 c. à soupe d’huile d’olive
1 ½ tasse de pois chiches cuits (j’en ai pris une boîte de conserve de 15 oz.)
1 c. à soupe de jus de lime
2 c. à soupe d’oignons verts hachés
2 c. à soupe de menthe fraîche hachée
¼ tasse de coriandre fraîche hachée
1 ½ c à thé de sel de mer (j’ai pris ¾ c. à thé de sel cachère)
les arilles de 1 grenade

Couper les patates douces en deux sur la longueur. Badigeonner le côté coupé des demi-patates de la moitié de l’huile d’olive. Les saler, puis les déposer sur une plaque de cuisson, le côté coupé vers le bas. Cuire au four préchauffé́ à 350 °F de 20 à 25 minutes ou jusqu’à ce que la chair soit tendre. (Dans mon cas, c’était plutôt 45 minutes à 400 °F. Vous pouvez les peler ou pas, au choix.)

Entre-temps, dans un grand bol, mélanger les pois chiches, le reste de l’huile, le jus de lime, les oignons verts, la menthe, la coriandre et le sel de mer.

Au moment de servir, répartir les patates douces dans les assiettes, le côté́ coupé vers le haut. Garnir de la salade de pois chiches et des arilles de grenade. Arroser de la crème de tahini.

Pâtes crémeuses au tofu

J’avais fait quelques plats d’hiver dont je pensais parler, comme une quiche avec une croûte de courge spaghetti (qui, en fin de compte, n’a pas été un grand succès, mais vous pouvez consulter ce topo sur la courge spaghetti pour avoir d’autres idées). J’ai aussi fait du bœuf braisé aux tomates et à l’ail : ultra-simple comme recette, délicieux en plus (j’ai servi ça avec de la polenta à la courge musquée, garniture de ricotta), mais je n’en ai pas de photo potable! Pas plus que du mélange ricotta-basilic que j’ai fait par la suite. Ce gratin de gnocchis fondant est aussi excellent, du moment qu’on le laisse cuire assez pour que les gnocchis soient moelleux.

Toujours est-il que ça avait beau être bon, il y avait toujours au moins une personne (habituellement un enfant) qui n’aimait pas le repas. J’étais donc très contente de trouver ces pâtes! La sauce est faite à base de tofu soyeux et de poivrons rouges rôtis. On peut acheter des poivrons rôtis en pot, mais j’ai fait rôtir les miens parce que je ne voulais pas de restes d’ingrédients (d’autant plus que j’en profitais pour finir mon pot de pesto rouge!). Je pense que le plus important ici, c’est d’utiliser de tofu soyeux, qui est plus difficile à trouver que celui vendu dans la section réfrigérée de l’épicerie – j’achète le mien en ligne. Quant aux noix, elles sont facultatives, mais j’ai trouvé le plat meilleur avec des pignons rôtis! En tout cas, ces pâtes sont excellentes, et on n’a même pas besoin de dire aux enfants qu’il y a des poivrons dedans. Tout le monde a aimé!

1 lb de pâtes longues
1 c. à thé d’huile d’olive
1 oignon, haché finement
2 gousses d’ail, hachées finement
1 paquet de tofu soyeux (300 g)
2 poivrons rouges rôtis en pot, égouttés et hachés
1/3 tasse de pesto aux tomates séchées
sel et poivre, au goût
¼ tasse de basilic frais, haché
1/3 tasse de noix de Grenoble grillées, hachées (ou des pignons grillés, ou rien du tout)
copeaux de parmesan et jeunes feuilles de roquette, pour servir (facultatif)

Dans une grande casserole d’eau bouillante salée, cuire les pâtes en suivant les instructions sur l’emballage. Égoutter en réservant ½ tasse d’eau de cuisson. Remettre les pâtes dans la casserole.

Entre-temps, faire chauffer l’huile à feu moyen-vif. Ajouter l’oignon et l’ail, et cuire pendant 5 minutes ou jusqu’à ce que l’oignon soit doré. Mettre l’oignon et l’ail dans le récipient d’un mélangeur. Ajouter le tofu, les poivrons et le pesto. Réduire en purée lisse. Verser sur les pâtes dans la casserole (ajouter un peu d’eau de cuisson, au besoin). Saler et poivrer. Réchauffer à feu doux.

Au moment de servir, garnir chaque portion du basilic et des noix, puis des copeaux de parmesan et de la roquette, si désiré.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Momofuku Milk Bar's Birthday Cake

I’m going to be upfront about it: this cake is involved. Like, A. Project. But if you don’t mind a project for a special occasion, say, your youngest’s second birthday, well then, you’re in for a real treat! The upside is that it can be broken down into steps and made ahead of time and kept in the freezer until the morning of the day you need it, at which point you transfer it into the fridge until the party. I made a lactose-free version of it and it was AH-ma-zing. Like seriously, possibly the best birthday cake you can conjure up. That being said, the road there wasn’t exactly smooth.

To refresh your memory, Christina Tosi is the chef at Momofuku Milk Bar (she’s the one who invented cereal milk ice cream and crack pie, too). I really got into this cake when I saw her on Chef’s Table, Season 4, Episode 1. (Admitedly, some found it lacking. While we’re at it, here’s an interview focused on how she stays so thin even though she’s a famous pastry chef.) The recipe for her birthday layer cake is in her cookbook, but I referred to the version published in Bon Appétit. Which, as it turns out, is erroneous: when I baked the cake in the specified 9”x13” jelly roll pan, which I had bought specifically for the occasion, it overflowed and I had a disaster on my hands. There’s nothing in the comments about this, but a bit of googling revealed I wasn’t the only one. I think that the problem stems from the fact that Christina Tosi calls for a quarter sheet pan (assuming this is the original recipe in her book), and then Bon Appétit went on to quantify those measurements as 9”x13”. The problem is that a quarter sheet pan IS NOT A STANDARD MEASUREMENT! So let me save you some trouble here: what you want is a rimmed baking sheet (such as a jelly roll pan) measuring 10”x15”. Smaller and your cake batter will overflow; bigger and your cake will be too thin and burn. For the record, there’s a pretty big difference in volume between a 9”x13” pan and a 10”x15” pan, so I’m surprised Bon Appétit let that slide! In any event, I had to make the cake a second time, and it turns out that the 9”x13” pan wasn’t a complete waste because that was the only size that would fit in my lower-drawer freezer for the last step! Plus, the Fox loves playing with it now.

My version (below) is lactose-free! It all works with Earth Balance sticks, even the frosting. It’s also nut-free as long as your ingredients aren’t cross-contaminated (I’m thinking of the sprinkles and clear vanilla extract in particular).

Before you even attempt this, make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment: in addition to the 10”x15” pan, you’ll want a roll of 3”-wide acetate and some clear vanilla extract (I bought Wilton, but Christina Tosi recommends McCormick). The distinctive imitation taste of the clear vanilla extract really makes this cake. You also need either a 6” cake ring or a 6” springform mold (I have the latter). The resulting cake is small, obviously, but it was enough for 4 adults and 2 kids. Also, as per the recommendations on Liv for Cake (which had solved the pan size issue), I made 1.5 times the recommended amount of frosting – you’ll have a bit leftover, but that way at least you won’t run out, and that’s what I wrote below. Since this recipe is so involved, it’s a good idea to start at least several days ahead of time, so that you can course-correct if needed.

All that being said, this was an amazing cake. The crumb is a vanilla funfetti that tastes like the best version you remember from childhood (even for me who hadn’t had those types of cakes on my birthday!), the crumbs are almost like a funfetti granola, and dang it if that frosting isn’t the best one I’ve ever had! I’m making that frosting again for sure; it was stark white, had the perfect consistency, and wasn’t too sweet (although the finished, assembled cake certainly was). I think we all really loved it. The Little Prince has even asked me to make it again for his birthday – oy! I’d actually love to adapt it to make a regular 2-layer, 8- or 9-inch round cake. Do let me know if any of you have tried!

For the cake
2 cups cake flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. kosher salt
¼ cup + 2 Tbsp. rainbow sprinkles, divided
1 ½ tsp. vinegar + enough lactose-free milk to make ½ cup (instead of ½ cup buttermilk)
1/3 cup grapeseed oil
2 tsp. clear imitation vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
4 Tbsp. (½ stick) lactose-free butter or margarine, at room temperature
3 Tbsp. light brown sugar
3 large eggs

For the crumbs
¾ cup cake flour (or all-purpose flour)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. light brown sugar
2 Tbsp. rainbow sprinkles
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ cup grapeseed oil
1 Tbsp. clear imitation vanilla extract

For the frosting and assembly
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) lactose-free butter or vegan margarine, at room temperature
6 Tbsp. vegetable shortening
3 oz. lactose-free cream cheese, at room temperature
3 Tbsp. light corn syrup
1 ½ Tbsp. + 1 tsp. clear imitation vanilla extract, divided
7.5 oz. powdered sugar
¾ tsp. kosher salt
3/8 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ cup lactose-free milk

For the cake
Preheat oven to 350 °F. Line a 10”x15” rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (I left some overhang on the long sides and strongly recommend it) and coat with nonstick spray; set aside.

Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, and ¼ cup sprinkles in a large bowl.

Combine buttermilk, oil, and vanilla in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat granulated sugar, shortening, butter, and light brown sugar in another large bowl until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend between additions and occasionally scraping down sides and bottom of bowl. Continue to beat mixture, occasionally scraping down sides and bottom of bowl, until almost doubled in volume and very light, airy, and pale yellow, about 4 minutes.

With mixer on low, add buttermilk mixture until incorporated. Add dry ingredients, beating until just combined, about 1 minute.

Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle with remaining 2 Tbsp. sprinkles. Bake until cake is light golden brown, the center springs back when gently pressed, and a tester inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 30–35 minutes.

Remove cake from oven and cool on a wire rack or, in a pinch, in the fridge or freezer. The cake can be stored in the fridge, wrapped in plastic, for up to 5 days. (In the photos below, I’m showing you the prebaked cake in the 9”x13” pan because it has the 2 Tbsp. of sprinkles on it; I forgot that step when I used the proper 10”x15” pan.)

For the crumbs
Preheat oven to 300 °F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.

Combine flour, granulated sugar, light brown sugar, sprinkles, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add oil and vanilla, and using your hands (or a wooden spoon), mix until no dry spots remain and large clumps form when mixture is pressed together. As though you were making a crumble topping, break mixture up into clusters (some small, some large) and spread onto prepared baking sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, until crumble is light golden brown and crunchy, 10–12 minutes (it will firm up as it cools). Let cool completely. The crumbs can be kept in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 5 days.

For the frosting
Combine butter, shortening, and cream cheese in large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high until mixture is smooth and fluffy, 2–3 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl and slowly stream in corn syrup and 1 Tbsp. vanilla. Beat until mixture is silky smooth and glossy white, about 3 minutes.

Scrape down sides of bowl and, with mixer on low, add powdered sugar, salt, baking powder, and lemon juice until just combined. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until you have a brilliant stark white, beautifully smooth frosting, about 4 minutes (it should look just like it came out of a plastic tub at the grocery store!).

Frosting can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.

For the assembly
Place a piece of parchment paper on a counter. Invert cake onto it, then peel off the parchment paper (the one which was in the pan and is still stuck to the cake). Use cake ring to punch out two 6" rounds from cake (or, using a springform pan as a guide, cut out 2 rounds using a paring knife). These are your top 2 cake layers. Use the remaining cake scraps to cut out two semicircles, which will form the bottom layer of the cake.

Cut 2 strips of acetate – each should be 3 inches wide and 20 inches long.

Line a (small) sheet pan with a clean piece of parchment. Clean cake ring and place it in center of the pan. Use 1 acetate strip to line inside of cake ring. Place cake scraps inside ring and use the back of your hand to press scraps together into a flat, even layer (you never see this layer, so it’s okay that it’s messy, but since it’s the base of the cake, it needs to be flat).

Combine milk and remaining 1 tsp. vanilla in a small bowl. Dunk a pastry brush in milk mixture and use half of it to generously moisten the base layer.

Use the back of a spoon to spread about 3 Tbsp. frosting evenly over cake (I used a bit more). Sprinkle ⅔ cup birthday crumbs evenly over frosting (I recommend saving the larger, more aesthetically pleasing pieces for the top of the cake). Use the back of your hand to press them in place. Use the back of a spoon to spread another 3 Tbsp. frosting as evenly as possible over crumbs (honestly, I found it hard to do this without being a bit messy and using up a bit more frosting than 3 Tbsp. just to try to get a cleaner finish).

With your index finger, gently tuck second acetate strip between cake ring and the top ¼" of the first acetate strip, so that you have a clear ring of acetate 5–6" tall—high enough to support the height of the finished cake. Top with a cake round (if 1 of your 2 cake rounds is less pretty than the other, use it for the middle layer and save the most perfect one for the top). Brush layer with remaining milk mixture. Repeat frosting-crumb layering process.

Nestle remaining cake round into frosting. Cover top of cake with remaining frosting. Use an offset spatula to form decorative swirls (this hard to do with the acetate and it’s what I don’t like about the aesthetics of my finished cake), or do as they do at Milk Bar and shape it into a perfectly flat top. Top with remaining birthday crumbs.

Transfer cake to freezer and freeze at least 3 hours to set cake and filling.

At least 3 hours before serving the cake, pull sheet pan out of freezer and, using your fingers and thumbs, pop cake out of cake ring. Gently peel off acetate and transfer cake to a platter or cake stand. Defrost in fridge at least 3 hours. (Properly wrapped in plastic, the cake will keep up to 2 weeks in the freezer, or up to 5 days in the fridge.)