Saturday, December 21, 2013



It's becoming something of a Christmas tradition that I make palmiers, French butterfly cookies, for The Gastronomer's family.  The recipe is from Ina Garten of the Food Network, and even though it is of the semi-homemade variety, with the primary ingredient being store-bought puff pastry, the cookies tend to be a hot commodity.  It's an extremely simple recipe, but the execution is a bit delicate--a ruler comes in handy for rolling the dough out to the proper size and folding it accurately, and the cooking times must be very precise because the palmiers brown rapidly.  I've developed a few tricks and tweaks to Garten's recipe to make them come out perfectly, including cutting the amount of sugar nearly in half, which is essential for pleasing my Vietnamese clientele who like desserts that are "not too sweet".  I also couldn't help noticing that some of Garten's measurements don't add up; for instance, clearly if you cut two 13-inch long logs into 3/8-inch slices, you'll end up with ~69 cookies, not 40-45.  1/2-inch slices are probably closer to what she intended--these are thinner than you might think.  One thing that is cool about this recipe (besides the revelation that if you bake puff pastry on its side, it magically grows into a butterfly) is that the sugar on each sides of the dough acts to both sweeten the cookies and keep the puff pastry from sticking to the counter and rolling pin.

Recipe adopted from Ina Garten.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Combine the sugar and kosher salt. Pour about 3/8 cup of the sugar/salt mixture onto a flat surface such as wooden board or clean countertop, and smooth it into an even rectangle slightly larger than a sheet of puff pastry. Unfold one sheet onto the sugar and pour 1/4 cup of the sugar mixture on top, spreading it evenly on the puff pastry.

With a rolling pin, roll the dough until it's 13 by 13-inches square and the sugar is pressed into the puff pastry on top and bottom. Fold the sides of the square towards the center so they 2/3 of the way towards the middle. Fold them again so the two folds meet exactly at the middle of the dough (I like to set a 12" ruler beside the dough for these steps to guide my folds--if you place the ruler so that the 6" mark lies at the center of the dough and the dough extends about 1/2" past each end of the ruler, then the first set of folds should go to about the 3 3/4" mark on one side and to about 8 1/4" on the other side). Then fold one half over the other half as though closing a book. You will have 6 layers.

Slice the dough into 1/2-inch slices and place the slices, cut side up, on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.  Bake the palmiers for 5 to 5.5 minutes, until the bottoms have just begun to brown.  Remove them from the oven and flip them over with a spatula.  At this stage, the puff pastry will have expanded laterally considerably, but the dough will still be malleable.  Reform the cookies back into tight butterfly shapes by gently pushing on the sides (I use a spatula in one hand and a butter knife in the other).  If you do this at the right time, they will retain their shape for the remainder of the cooking process (this step was pioneered by The Gastronomer).  Return the baking sheets to the oven and bake for 4 more minutes, until the tops are golden brown.  Cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet and then transfer to a baking rack.

While the first batch of cookies is baking, pour an additional 1/4 cup of sugar onto the working surface (you can re-use whatever sugar remains from the previous batch), and set the second sheet of puff pastry on top of it.  Spread the last 1/4 cup of sugar smoothly onto the top of this sheet, and repeat the rolling out, folding, and baking steps from above.  You can re-use the parchment paper for baking--knock off any pieces of burnt sugar first.

Yield: 48-52 cookies
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 35 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Heart-Shaped Chocolate Caramel Layer Cake

Heart-shaped chocolate caramel layer cake Three years after I first attempted a recipe using our heart-shaped cake ring, I decided it was time to bust it out again for The Gastronomer's anniversary present this year.  I wasn't sure what kind of cake to make, but I figured that pretty much any 8-9 inch layer cake recipe could probably be adapted for the heart-shaped pan.  Fortunately, a few days before showtime, the perfect recipe fell into my lap at the L.A. Times Book Fair.  The Gastronomer and I were unsurprisingly hanging out around the food stage, and we settled in to watch a cooking demo and Q&A by Alex Guarnaschelli.  I was vaguely familiar with her but hadn't really formed much of an opinion during my rare viewings of Iron Chef and Chopped.  Anyway, it turned out that she was HILARIOUS, and impressively able to come up with funny and relevant stories in response to all manner of unscripted audience questions, all while making meatballs and baking an extravagant cake.

The featured cake was this yellow layer cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and caramel topping, which apparently was her favorite childhood birthday cake. Given The Gastronomer's penchant for caramel, I immediately knew that this was the perfect recipe to make into a heart cake.  Fortunately, it was available online from ABC News.

The cake took a long time, partly because I only had one heart-shaped cake ring and thus had to make and bake the batter in two batches, and partly because I was overly cautious at every step (particularly in caramelizing the sugar--this was my first time, and I literally spent 30 minutes with the heat too low and nothing much happening before The Gastronomer came into the kitchen and helped me turn the uneven mixture of candy chunks I had created into an amber caramel sauce).  Nevertheless, it was worth it--the end result was impressive and delicious.  The crunchy candy-like caramel topping was an awesome addition to a traditional layer cake.  Strangely, even though it was basically pure sugar, I thought it balanced out the sweetness of the frosting somehow--usually cakes with this much icing are too much for me.

Recipe courtesy of Alex Guarnaschelli via

For Cake
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
For Frosting
  • 14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped (about 2¾ cups)
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) lightly salted butter, cut into thin slices
For Caramel Topping
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
  • Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (for garnish) 
Make Cake

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans (or heart-shaped pans!) with butter.  In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture becomes fluffy, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the eggs, one by one, taking care that each one is thoroughly integrated before adding the next. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice and then the flour mixture and mix until fully blended. Do not overmix.

Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until the centers are firm and the tip of a small knife emerges clean when it pierces the center of each cake, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, unmold the cakes, and allow to cool thoroughly on a rack.

Make Frosting and Frost Cake
In a medium bowl, combine the chocolate, sugar, and salt. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and vanilla to a simmer, about 5 minutes. Pour over the chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate has melted. Gently whisk in the butter slices. Set aside to cool.

When the frosting is cool, whip the frosting in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment to lighten it, 1 to 2 minutes. Split each cake in half horizontally so you have 4 equal layers. Put the first cake layer on a rack set over a baking sheet, cut side up. Frost the layer and the remaining ones, stacking them neatly and uniformly on top of each other. Frost the entire outside of the cake as well. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so it gets cold.

Make Caramel
In a large skillet, heat the sugar and corn syrup over medium-low heat until the sugar melts and turns a caramel color. Swirl the sugar gently in the pan as it cooks so it browns evenly. Take the skillet and pour the caramel over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides and onto the pan below. It is normal that the hot caramel will melt the frosting slightly. Try to pour it in as even and as thin a layer as you can over the cake.  If the caramel cools before pouring, warm it gently over low heat to loosen it again. Allow the caramel topping to cool and harden on top of the cake, at least 5 to 10 minutes before serving, or up to 1 hour. Sprinkle with a pinch of Maldon salt. When ready to slice, use the heel of a knife to crack the caramel top before cutting slices.  Alex Guarnaschelli recommends that the cake shouldn't be refrigerated and should be served at room temperature, but we found that it was also delightful re-heated in the microwave after being stored in the fridge.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 3-4 hours

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spicy Baked Pasta with Bacon

Spicy Baked Pasta with Bacon

Several years ago, The Gastronomer went through a baked pasta phase, during which she came up with a number of fantastic variations on the winning formula of a sturdy pasta baked with a white, cheesy sauce and vegetables.  I've recently renewed the tradition with the version presented below, which is currently far and away The Gastronomer's favorite thing to eat for lunch at work.  Between the prep work, sautéing, sauce-making, baking, and inevitable scrubbing when the béchamel burns on the bottom of the pan [not sure why this keeps happening to me--seems like the only way to avoid it is to not quite let the milk boil...], the recipe takes a decent amount of work, but it's worth it because it will feed your family for a week (at least, it will if your family only has two people like ours does, and one of the people only eats the dish once...).  It strikes a great balance between healthy and rich, with plenty of flavor and spice.

Recipe adapted from "Two Pepper Rigatoni and Cheese" by Cooking Light, accessed via
  • 16 ounces uncooked whole wheat pasta (rigatoni, penne, or similar)
  • 8 ounces bacon (6 strips), sliced into 1/2" pieces
  • 1 medium white or brown onion, chopped
  • 10-12 ounces fresh spinach
  • 8 ounces frozen peas
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups 1% milk
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded jalapeno jack cheese 
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3-4 Thai chilis (or 2 jalapeno peppers), minced
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375°.  Cook pasta in salted water until al dente, 1-2 minutes less than stated on package directions. Drain well; place in a large bowl.

Sauté bacon over medium-high heat until cooked through and slightly crisp.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to the bowl with the cooked pasta.  Discard most of the bacon grease, saving approximately 1 tablespoon in the skillet for sautéing the onion.  Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it is tender and tastes mild and sweet.  Turn down heat and add spinach in bunches to the pan, stirring until it has cooked down.  Stir in frozen peas.  Transfer contents of skillet to the bowl with the pasta.

Spoon flour into a saucepan. Gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil; cook 2 minutes or until thickened, stirring constantly [as mentioned above, I've found that the milk/flour mixture always burns on the bottom of the pan during this step, even if I stir constantly with a whisk.  This doesn't affect the quality of the sauce, but cleanup is a pain.  Turning off the heat just before the milk boils helps, but I'll keep searching for other remedies.  Maybe our electric stove just adds heat too fast, or maybe it would be better to add butter like in a standard béchamel ...].  Remove milk from heat and add cheeses, stirring until cheeses melt and mixture is smooth. Stir in chilis and salt. Add cheese mixture to pasta, tossing well to coat.  Spoon pasta mixture into a 13 x 9–inch baking dish.

Melt butter in a small bowl. Add Panko breadcrumbs and toss until blended. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over pasta mixture. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes or until breadcrumb topping is golden brown.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 40 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Substitutions: There are many possible modifications one could make to this recipe.  We've tried several different cheese combos  (parmesan, fontina, etc.) with great success and used a number of different vegetables as well.  Most vegetables should be sautéed until they are tender before baking.  Homemade breadcrumbs can be used instead of Panko by following the original Cooking Light recipe.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding

The Gastronomer emailed me this Mark Bittman recipe a full three years ago; when she requested a special dessert this weekend, I remembered it and decided it was pudding time! It's pretty cool: you start out with a block of soft tofu and some melted chocolate, add a few spices, blend it all up, and after chilling in the refrigerator for a bit, the result is a silky smooth pudding that I would have sworn was made with cream and eggs like this one.  I'm usually not that into chocolate, but I do love desserts with a spicy kick.  A few spoonfuls of pudding made for an extremely satisfying conclusion to my dinner tonight.

For another creative use of tofu, check out this pesto recipe.

Recipe by Mark Bittman, published in The New York Times.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 pound silken tofu
  • 8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted in a double broiler
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder / cayenne pepper, or more to taste
  • Chocolate shavings (optional)
In a small pot, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water; bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.  Put all ingredients except for chocolate shavings in a blender and purée until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down its sides if necessary. Divide among 4 to 6 ramekins and chill for at least 30 minutes. If you like, garnish with chocolate shavings before serving [I used white chocolate for visual contrast].

Yield: 4 to 8 servings, depending on how much chocolate you can handle in one sitting
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 40 minutes (including 30 minutes chilling time)
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour (including 30 minutes chilling time).  I spent a significant fraction of this time figuring out how to melt the chocolate.  The second time around it will be a good deal quicker.
Substitutions: I was a bit unsure of what Bittman meant by "chili powder".  The chili powder in our spice cabinet is the type used to make chili (the chunky bean and meat stew)--it contains garlic and several other ingredients in addition to hot peppers.  I thought this would probably be an odd flavor profile to add to a dessert, so I used cayenne pepper instead.  Half a teaspoon made the pudding plenty spicy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Thai Basil Pesto

Thai Basil Pesto

I'm stoked to report that The Gastronomer and I have added Thai basil to our potted herb garden this year, and the two small plants I purchased in March are thriving.  In fact, they've been growing so fast that even with a big pot of Ba Ngoai's pho in the house last week, our demand for the fragrant leaves hasn't been able to keep up.  I've grown tired of wasting perfectly good Thai basil when I trim off the parts that are flowering, so I decided it was time to make pesto.  This recipe is a delicious twist on a classic pesto, with fish sauce, sesame oil, peanuts, rice wine vinegar, and red pepper flakes giving it a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor profile.  It was surprisingly spicy for a Cooking Light recipe, I thought.  We enjoyed it with Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles (bun) and vegetables.

Recipe from Cooking Light via
  • 2 cups fresh Thai basil leaves
  • 3-4 tablespoons dry-roasted peanuts
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves
Place all of the ingredients in a food processor; process until smooth.  Toss with noodles and serve immediately, or transfer to a bowl, press plastic wrap onto the surface of the pesto, and store in the refrigerator up to one week.

Yield: 4-6 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time:
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 45 minutes (mostly trimming the basil, plucking the leaves from the stems, and washing them).
Substitutions: At the suggestion of a commenter on, I added extra peanuts (the original recipe only called for 2 tablespoons).  After making my way through half a bowl of noodles with the pesto, I decided that it was actually too spicy--I think I'll reduce the red pepper to 1/2-3/4 teaspoon next time.
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