Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios

Have you had the pleasure of watching The Great British Baking Show (a.k.a., Bake-Off)? If you like baked goods and you like seeing a more positive side of humanity, I absolutely recommend it. Unlike U.S. American food competition shows, the contestants and judges are actually genuinely nice to each other, and they genuinely seem to care more about having fun with their creative outlet than with winning.

Well, several months ago I watched all the seasons of Bake-Off that Netflix would allow, and though I was thoroughly wowed by every episode, I found myself most inspired by the enriched breads, as these bakers kept creating succulent doughs studded with fruit and spices and shaped into intricate braids and knots that shimmered with sticky sweet glazes. This past weekend I finally went for it!

Based on the numerous pulla recipes I read during the last 48 hours, pulla is a traditional Finnish bread. It's a yeasty cousin to brioche and challah; flavored with cardamom; generally shaped into a braid, a wreath, or buns; and traditionally served with coffee. Some recipes included fruit or nuts, while others were more basic. So I wound up making a more plain, traditional loaf and a more jazzed up loaf.

Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios
Yield: 2 loaves/braids*
Source: I referenced many recipes but mostly followed the ingredients from Around the World in 80 Bakes and the process from All Recipes

6 Tbsp. butter, melted, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups milk (at least 2%; I used part 2%, part half-and-half)
4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast (or 2 packets, 7 g each)
2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. sugar (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp.)
3/4 to 1 tsp. ground cardamom**
700 g all-purpose flour (for me this ended up being about 4-2/3 cups)

Zest of 2 oranges
16 dried apricots, finely diced
40 g pistachios, finely chopped

1 egg

Melt the butter and allow it to cool to room temperature. Warm the milk to 110 degrees.*** Go ahead and measure out your flour into a smallish bowl. You'll add it in increments, so it's easy to measure once and then eyeball it throughout the different steps in the recipe.

To a large bowl add the milk, yeast, salt, sugar, cardamom, and about 1 cup of flour--enough to make a runny batter. Beat the batter until it's really nice and smooth. (For me, this was a couple of minutes on medium speed with my little handheld five-speed mixer.)

Add some more flour (1-2 cups) and continue beating until it's again smooth and elastic. If you're using a hand mixer like mine, aim for more like 1 to 1-1/2 cups flour. I added close to 2 cups, and it made the dough too thick--it just kept climbing up the beaters!--so I had to switch to beating by hand.

Now add the melted butter. Beat the dough some more, until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough looks smooth and glossy. Add the rest of the flour and keep on mixing until it's fully incorporated. If you have a good quality stand mixer, rejoice! If you don't, you'll get a good arm workout!

Now, lightly flour a clean countertop, and turn the dough out onto it. Invert your mixing bowl over the dough, and let the dough (and your arms) rest for 15 minutes. When those 15 minutes are up, knead the dough for a good 10-15 minutes, until it's nice and smooth.****

Remember your mixing bowl? Spritz it with a bit of cooking spray, put your ball of dough inside, turn the dough so all of it gets lightly coated with oil, and cover the bowl with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, undrafty place until it's doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough. If jazzing up your bread, add your orange zest, apricots, and pistachios now. Knead them into the dough. Let it rest for another 5-10 minutes (on the counter is fine, covered with that damp kitchen towel you used earlier).

Divide your dough into 6 portions, as equal as you can get them. Roll each portion into a long rope, about an inch in diameter.

Gather up 3 ropes, and pinch them together on one end. Gently braid the 3 ropes together, and when you get to the end, pinch those ends together as well. Tuck both ends (top and bottom) under the braid, so you have a nice, tidy-looking loaf braid. Repeat this process with the other 3 ropes to make your second loaf braid.

Place braids on a greased baking sheet. Spray the tops with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400. Beat an egg really well, until it's super smooth. Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf braids and very gently brush some beaten egg over the loaves. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through the baking time, until the loaves are browned, glistening, and look like they should be in a bakery display case!

*Initially I planned to make just one braid, but one recipe I read made an excellent point: if you're going to go to the trouble of making a homemade yeast bread--including all the kneading and rise time, you might as well make two or more loaves and have plenty to share. Your friends and coworkers will thank you.

**I saw widely varying cardamom measurements and settled on 3/4 tsp. When I nibbled some dough (I'm weird like that) the cardamom flavor was pretty subtle. So I added another 1/8 tsp. or so to the loaf I made with apricots, and kneaded it in along with the apricots, pistachios, and orange zest. That was still a nice amount of cardamom without feeling overwhelming.

***Some recipes I read said to scald the milk by bringing it to a near boil on the stove and then letting it cool to 110 degrees. I simply warmed mine in the microwave until it felt warm but not uncomfortably hot.

****I was expecting mine to reach a super smooth, satiny texture like I get with cinnamon roll dough ... but my pulla dough never got to that stage, even after 15 minutes. It was smooth, but the dough felt denser and heavier than I'm used to. I don't know if it's supposed to be that way, or if it got thrown off by some combination of my technique, the temperature and humidity of my kitchen, the flour measurement in the recipe I followed, or the general mood of the bread gods that day.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Vietnamese Shrimp Noodle Bowl (Bun Tom Xao)

The first time I remember having Vietnamese food, it was at a pho restaurant in Los Angeles. My family got pho on my brother's recommendation, but I ended up ordering some other dish. Though I don't recall the name of the dish, I remember that it smelled gross but tasted pretty good. The gross-but-good culprit? Fish sauce. It truly does smell terrible. But when you mix it with something sweet, something acidic, and something spicy, it somehow transforms into this tasty thing that leaves you wanting more.

This dish comes from the Global Kitchen cookbook. And I'm happy to report that I could find all the ingredients locally. I've found fish sauce, rice vermicelli, and serrano peppers at both HEB and the north Walmart. If you don't see rice vinegar with other vinegars, look in the international and/or Asian section of your grocery store.

Bun Tom Xao (Vietnamese Shrimp Noodle Bowl)
Slightly adapted from Cooking Light, as seen in Global Kitchen cookbook
Yield: 4 servings

1/2 cup warm water
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1-2 serrano chiles, thinly sliced

3 cups sliced cucumber (about 1 large cucumber)
4 cups green leaf lettuce, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh basil or Thai basil leaves

5 oz. rice vermicelli noodles
1/2 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped (toasted if desired)
1/3 cup sliced green onions (1/4" slices) (about 2 green onions)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. dark brown sugar (I used light brown)
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp black pepper (or white pepper if you have it)
1 lb. shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed (thawed if frozen)
Canola oil

In a two-cup measuring cup or small bowl, combine warm water and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and serranos. It's going to smell seriously funky, so cover it with plastic wrap to keep that funk at bay, and set aside while you prepare the rest of the meal.

Peel cucumber if it's bitter. Cut into quarters lengthwise, then slice thinly. Toss with the lettuce, cilantro, mint, and basil.

Cook the rice vermicelli according to package directions. Rinse very well in cold water, and set aside to drain well. These noodles are super starchy, so if they're sitting for very long, give them another good rinse if they start to get sticky.

While the noodles are cooking, toast your peanuts, if desired, and allow them to cool before chopping. Slice your green onions and chop your garlic.

Combine cornstarch, brown sugar, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Add the shrimp and toss to coat well. If you have a wok, now is its time to shine. Otherwise, a large skillet will do quite nicely. Heat your wok/skillet over high heat, and add a swirl of canola oil. Add the shrimp to the pan, and cook until they start to develop a nice sear. When they're almost done, add the green onion and garlic, and stir-fry for about 30 seconds to 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

To serve, put a generous portion of the lettuce mixture in the bottom of each bowl. Top with noodles, shrimp, and chopped peanuts, and about 1/4 cup of the fish sauce-lime mixture.


  • I've also made this with boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into small, thin slices about the size of medium shrimp. And I actually liked it better with the chicken. If you use chicken, prepare and cook it the same way; you'll just need to cook it a bit longer than the shrimp.
  • When I made this for just myself, I used only 1 serrano chile. When I made it with a friend I put 1 serrano in the sauce and sliced the other for an optional addition at table.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Apricot Rose Tartines

One of the food delights I'm enjoying this year is a monthly gathering with a few foodie friends. Each month we pick a theme (like chocolate or pasta), and create a menu based on that theme. This month's theme was a spring-inspired high tea, with a menu infused with edible flowers and herbs. My contributions were these apricot rose tartines and some cucumber radish tartines.

I looked at a bunch of recipes, and drew inspiration especially from recipes in Wild Spice and Honey and Co., but ended up cobbling together something pretty distinct from anything I found online or in my slowly growing cookbook library. If I were a really legit food blogger, I'd make these tartines again to refine the ingredient quantities, instructions, and photography before blogging about them. But who has time for that? (And who can eat that much mascarpone without becoming ill or large?) So I've done my best to capture what I did, but these tartines were far from an exact science.

Apricot Rose Tartines
Yield: about 40 tartines
HercheyK original

2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup water
6 whole black peppercorns
1/2 of a cinnamon stick
Approximately 40 dried apricots
1 tsp. orange blossom water
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, softened
1/2 cup fresh rose petals, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp. dried lavender buds
Fresh lemon zest, from about 1/2 of a lemon
Fresh orange zest, from about 1/3 of a medium-small orange
1 (8.3-oz.) baguette, sliced into rounds
A couple handfuls shelled pistachios
Fresh mint

To a medium saucepan add sugar, water, peppercorns (keep them whole), and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat so it's somewhere between a rapid simmer and a slow boil. Let the mixture cook for 5-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat.

While the sugar mixture is cooking, cut up your apricots into fat matchsticks--about 4 sticks per apricot. When your apricots are cut and your sugar mixture is finished cooking, fish out the cinnamon stick and peppercorns. Add the orange blossom water and the cut apricots to the pot. Stir it so the apricots get nicely coated with the syrup. Breathe in the glorious fragrance. Put a lid on the pot and pop it into the fridge (on a potholder) to chill and steep.

To make the spread, combine the mascarponerose petalslavenderlemon zest, and orange zest in a bowl. Stir to combine well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble the tartines.

Slice the baguette into rounds. I ended up with I think 43 slices not counting the ends, but it'll vary based on the exact length of your baguette and how thick your slices are.

Heat a dry skillet over medium-low heat and toast the pistachios for a few minutes, until they just start to toast. Be sure to shake or stir them frequently to keep them from burning. Remove them to a plate to cool. Chop them fairly finely.

Now's a great time to wash your fresh mint and set it out to air-dry. Right before assembling the tartines, chiffonade the fresh mint. Chiffonade is basically just a fancy way to say, slice it into really thin threads.

When the apricot mixture has chilled sufficiently, assemble your tartines. Spread each with a schmear of the mascarpone mixture. Arrange a few apricot pieces on top--about the equivalent of one apricot per tartine. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Finally, top with a few ribbons of fresh mint.

Note: If you don't have orange blossom water, squeeze in some fresh orange juice or add some orange zest to the sugar-apricot mixture. It won't give you the same floral quality you'll get from orange blossom water, but it should still be quite yummy. However, I very much recommend getting some orange blossom water! It tastes truly magical, and you can get it on Amazon if you can't find it locally. For more orange blossom water uses, see my Orange Blossom Iced Tea post and the Tunisian Orange Almond Cake recipe linked in my Flavor Trip to Tunisia post.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hungarian Tomato-Pepper Stew (Lesco)

Have you ever had stew for breakfast? As of a few weeks ago, I have!

When my brother came to visit last month, I basically forced him to join in my international cuisine challenge. We settled on breakfast and decided to go with a European country we're less familiar with. 20 minutes of Googling recipes later, and we settled on Hungarian breakfast stew, served over creamy polenta (which is, apparently, a common breakfast element in Romania), with a fried duck egg on top (because I'd just bought duck eggs from some friends, and we were excited to try them).

I'm seriously slacking in the photography department lately, mostly because I've been sharing meals with friends instead of eating alone. Which is an excellent thing for me, but it means I don't have a lovely photo to share with you. Sorrynotsorry.

Hungarian Tomato-Pepper Stew (Lesco)
From The Spruce
Yield: 4 servings (see notes)

1-2 slices bacon
1 Tbsp. oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 pound of peppers, sliced into 1/4" strips - use Hungarian wax peppers if you can find them, or banana, Italian, or green bell peppers, or some combination thereof
4 medium or 3 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1-1/2 tsp. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sweet Hungarian paprika

In a large skillet, cook bacon according to package directions. Remove bacon to a plate to cool, but leave all that tasty grease in the skillet.

Add in the oil and onion, and cook for about 5 minutes on low heat. Add pepper(s) and continue cooking for 15 more minutes. Add tomatoes, sugar, salt, and paprika to the skillet, and let it cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it looks and feels like a chunky tomato sauce.

Meanwhile, crumble the bacon after it has cooled; stir it into the dish when it's close to being done.

  • This made 4 moderate to generous servings if served with polenta and a fried egg. If you're not making accompaniments, then this recipe may only give you 2-3 servings.
  • I went to the store fully expecting to be stuck with green bell peppers, but they actually had Hungarian wax peppers! The sign said they're medium-hot, so I decided to get one green bell pepper to bring down the heat level, and used wax peppers to make up the rest of the pound. The dish didn't taste super spicy, but I was coughing something awful while Josh was cutting the wax peppers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Flavor Trip to Tunisia

Years ago, when a Food Network Star contestant was asked to tell viewers what harissa is, he responded, "It's the devil's toothpaste!" From that first moment of learning of this spicy chili paste's existence, I was afraid of it. But I kept seeing it pop up in magazines and food blogs, and while the fear lingered, I also always felt drawn to it, because its name and my name are almost the same.

Well, after exploring Peru's cuisine in January, I wanted to hop over to a country in Africa next ... and since harissa hails from Tunisia, I decided it was time to conquer my fear of the stuff. I looked at prepared harissa paste on Amazon, and even found this excellent article on The Kitchn about how to make your own harissa paste, using different kinds of chilies for sweeter, smokier, or spicier flavor profiles. And suddenly, I could find very few Tunisian recipes using harissa paste, and even fewer (none?) that used enough to warrant making a whole batch of harissa paste myself.

So harissa got pushed to the back burner once again, but the Tunisian idea stuck. Here's what I made a few weeks ago:
  • Tunisian Chicken Kebabs with Currant and Olive Relish - This dish packs some serious flavor, bringing together sweet currants, briny olives, mild peppadew peppers, and smoky roasted red bell pepper. Since peppadew peppers were nowhere to be found in the grocery stores I searched, I substituted sweet cherry peppers with excellent results. And I cooked the chicken in a cast iron skillet on the stove. I was a bit concerned that the relish and marinade would be too puckery and briny, but it turned out very nicely balanced with the sweetness of the currants and the earthiness of the roasted red bell pepper.
  • Slata Mechouia (Tunisian Grilled Salad) - Versions of this dish showed up a lot in my online searching for Tunisian recipes, which leads me to believe it's pretty authentically Tunisian. You grill/roast/char a bunch of veggies, chop everything up nice and fine, throw in some spices and olive oil, and top with olives and hard-boiled eggs. Most recipes also recommended topping it with canned tuna, but I left that off. It's kind of like a thick, chunky, not-real-soupy-at-all salsa. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would definitely recommend that you give it a try. I could see potential for spooning this salad over eggs or serving it with hummus and pita.
  • Tunisian Orange Almond Cake - Okay, I don't generally like cake all that much, but this cake was stellar! The batter is nutty, sweet, rich, and laced with orange and lemon zest. And if that wasn't tasty enough, it's drenched in a syrup made from sugar, cinnamon, clove, star anise, more orange and lemon, and orange blossom water. Although the orange blossom water makes the cake feel a bit magical, you could leave it out and would still have a scrumptious dessert. You can even underbake your cake and have it completely fall apart on you so you're quite literally left with an ugly pile of cake pieces, and it will still be superb. (Not that I know that from personal experience.) The recipe calls for caster sugar, which I made myself by taking granulated sugar for a spin in my food processor. You want it to be finer than granulated sugar but coarser than powdered sugar. Also, the recipe is all metric and weight measurements, which inspired me to finally give in and buy a kitchen scale. I got this little guy for $12, and he did great!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two-Potato Hash with Poblano and Bacon (Or, Yummy Things in a Skillet)

Have you ever made a breakfast hash that seemed so promising, only to be disappointed when the potatoes seem nicely cooked on the outside but are still crunchy on the inside? Me too! Thankfully, I recently learned a few tips from a gloriously nerdy article on Serious Eats. My three takeaways: 1) boil the potatoes first, 2) add a bit of vinegar to the potatoes' cooking water, which helps them hold their shape when you saute them later, and 3) fry your hash ingredients in smaller batches so that everything can brown nicely instead of steam evenly and brown unevenly.

Two Potato Hash with Poblano and Bacon
Yield: 4-6 servings if this is the main thing you're eating, or 6-8 servings if it's part of a larger spread
Inspired by Serious Eats

2 medium-large sweet potatoes
1 russet potato
1-2 Tbsp. white vinegar
4-6 strips center cut bacon
1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
Spices to taste - I used salt, pepper, cumin, and a bit of dried thyme and smoked paprika

Wash the potatoes (no need to peel) and cut into bite-sized pieces. Put them in a pot and cover with water. Add some vinegar--1 Tbsp. for every quart of water. Bring water to a boil, then boil for just 4-5 minutes, until the potatoes are softened but by no means fully cooked. Drain them well.

Meanwhile, cook the strips of bacon in a large skillet according to package directions. Remove cooked bacon to a plate to cool. Leave the bacon grease in the skillet. :)

When the potatoes are drained, return your skillet to high or medium-high heat. Add about half of the potatoes to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally until they're nicely browned. While they're cooking, sprinkle in some spices. Mine took maybe 10 minutes, but I probably should have let them go longer. Transfer sauteed potatoes to a heat-resistant bowl and toss the rest of the boiled potatoes into the skillet. Again, cook until they're nicely browned, adding spices and stirring occasionally. Add these potatoes to your other sauteed potatoes.

While potatoes are cooking, crumble the cooked bacon and cut your poblano if you haven't already.

Return skillet to the stovetop; add the poblano. If needed, add a splash of oil. Cook until they're starting to soften and brown. Add the corn (straight from the freezer is fine, if using frozen) and continue to cook until the veggies are softened and browned. If you get some charred bits, that'll add a lovely extra layer of flavor!

Now, add your cooked potatoes and crumbled bacon back into the skillet, and saute for a few more minutes to get the potatoes nice and hot again and to let all the flavors get to know each other. Serve straight from the skillet or from the heat-resistant bowl you used earlier.

  • Onion or bell pepper(s) - saute with the poblano.
  • Green onion - add to the skillet with the corn.
  • Garlic or fresh herbs  - add to the skillet at the very end, right before adding the bacon and cooked potatoes back into the pan. Or reserve the herbs to sprinkle on top to serve.
  • Cheese - stir in at the end or sprinkle on top.
  • Eggs - fry or scramble separately, or crack them into the hash and bake them, as in this recipe.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Orange Blossom Iced Tea

I'd like to introduce you to my new friend Orange Blossom Water. She's dainty yet mighty, mysterious and strong.

Throughout the Honey and Co. cookbook, I kept noticing recipes that called for orange blossom water, and I kept feeling disappointed because I doubted I'd be able to find it in any stores here. Happily, there's this thing called Amazon, and they sell basically everything, including orange blossom water.

This tea tastes like something Lady Galadriel would sip on a hot summer day.

Orange Blossom Iced Tea
From Honey and Co.: The Cookbook
Yield: 1/2 gallon

6 cups water
2 Earl Gray tea bags
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 Tbsp. honey
2-3 tsp. orange blossom water
1 orange, sliced
4 sprigs fresh mint
Additional mint and orange slices for garnish (optional)

Bring 6 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat, add tea bags, and steep for 15 minutes. This seemed like waaay too long, but I trusted the recipe, and it turned out beautifully.

While the tea steeps, make a simple syrup: Combine sugar, 1 cup water, and honey in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for a couple of minutes, until sugar and honey are fully dissolved. You will now have about 1-1/2 cups of simple syrup, and you'll need only 1 to 1-1/4 cups of it for this recipe.

When the tea is done steeping, discard the tea bags. Pour the tea into a heat-resistant jug or jar, such as a 1/2-gallon mason jar. Add 1 to 1-1/4 cups simple syrup (see notes), orange blossom water, orange slices, and mint sprigs. Cover and refrigerate until fully chilled.

Serve over ice, with additional mint and orange slices if desired.

  • I used 1-1/4 cup simple syrup, which is what the recipe called for. The resulting tea was very sweet, though not unpleasantly so, especially if you like sweet tea. Next time I'll probably scale back to just 1 cup of simple syrup.
  • If this tea sounds yummy but it's not feasible for you to get orange blossom water, don't let that stop you from making it! I imagine this would still be lovely and refreshing without the orange blossom water. Steeping some culinary lavender buds with the tea could be an interesting way to add a floral element.