Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Tour de Hard Ice Cream

Five very different kiddie-sized chocolate ice cream cones: from left, Farmer's Daughters', Ice Cream Man, Snowman, Mac's, Moxie's On Saturday, my fiancé and I sacrificed our waistlines in the name of science (yeah, that's it) at the Profussor's Tour de Hard Ice Cream.

We had a short list of flavors that would be available at all five stops, so we could do a side-by-side comparison: Butter pecan, chocolate, coffee, maple walnut, strawberry and vanilla. After much consideration, I went with chocolate. (My fiancé went with strawberry.)

Farmer's Daughters' The first stop was the Farmer’s Daughters’ Drive-In, on Route 29 east of Saratoga Springs. The chocolate ice cream here was ... well, it was chocolate ice cream. Honestly, it reminded me of the half-gallons of Sealtest my parents would get when I was little -- sorta chocolate-y but not a lot, and tasting a bit like freezer, with a few ice crystals. It was ho-hum ice cream. And they had an upcharge for a sugar cone, which I think it crap -- come on, there's no way that bulk-ordered sugar cones are so expensive that they need to charge extra for them.

Ice Cream Man Now that we had a baseline for our ratings, we headed to The Ice Cream Man in Greenwich. What a difference there was: This stuff was richly cocoa-y and had a thick texture reminiscent of Ben & Jerry's. It was so good that I ate it too quickly and gave myself an ice cream headache. And there was no upcharge for a sugar cone, and the cone itself had a sizeable portion of ice cream for just two bucks -- it was about the size of a regular "small" portion, except that this was the "kiddie" size. We've been there once before, and this is par for the course: the last time we went to The Ice Cream Man, I got a "small," and it filled a waffle cone!

The Snowman The next stop was a ways away, at the much-vaunted Snowman in Troy. The bloggers around here have talked this place up so much that I was sure it would be phenomenal. But instead, it kinda sucked. First off, they didn't even have sugar cones! What kind of ice cream place doesn't have sugar cones? That was just nuts. And this was the only place that didn't have any seating in the shade, no shade at all in fact, not a single awning or umbrella or anything. And to top it off, the ice cream was lousy -- the chocolate flavor was dusty and muted, and that's once I got past the odd sweet taste in the first few bites cause by the scooper not being rinsed off properly between my fiancé's strawberry dish and my cone. But it could have been worse. My ice cream was just bad, but his strawberry ice cream was aggressively bad, blatantly disgusting, sickly-sweet and almost bubblegum-like. We both threw ours out without finishing them. The only good thing I can say about The Snowman is that at least the ice cream was the cheapest of the day. Still, it was worth even less than that.

Mac's Our taste buds needed relief after that, but thankfully, we got it at Mac's Drive-In in Watervliet. Their ice cream was perhaps a little bit thinner, and the sugar cones, which they charged for (grrrr), seemed thinner as well -- mine cracked while I was eating the ice cream on top. But the ice cream had a good, if not great, cocoa flavor, and the price was reasonable. I'd stop here if I was nearby, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Moxie's And then, we headed over the river to Moxie's, which seemed like a straightforward and mostly-familiar trip on paper, yet we ended up getting lost on the way there anyway. At least we weren't the only ones who got lost, so that made it a bit better. But despite the fact that this place has also been hyped up a lot by area bloggers, it wasn't really worth finding. The ice cream lacked flavor, and there were clumps of cocoa powder in it that hadn't been mixed in properly. They charged extra for a sugar cone, too. The serving of ice cream was teeny. And to top it off, theirs was the most expensive cone of the day. What a rip-off.

The Ice Cream Man was the clear winner of the day, for both chocolate and strawberry, we concluded. As for the Profussor's compiled ratings, they largely agreed, though oddly enough, those who tasted butter pecan preferred The Snowman. Even a bad place can usually do something right, I guess. But as for us, I think we'll stick to The Ice Cream Man.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Strawberry-almond muffins

Strawberry-almond muffins

A friend of ours just had her first baby! So naturally, I volunteered to bake something for the new parents.

There's a special checklist when baking for new parents. Whatever you make should be at least sort of healthy, so you're adding nutrition to their busy day, not just empty, sugary calories (though some of those are nice, too). It should be non-caffeinated -- skip the espresso-laced recipes here. Skip the boozy ones, too, obviously. And whatever it is, it should be something you can eat with one hand while holding a squirmy baby in the other.

This recipe fit the bill quite nicely, not to mention that it let me use up some of the strawberries I had in the freezer. It's got wheat flour and nuts in it, good grains and protein, and it's not too sugary. Since it's the kind of recipe that provides options for what size and shape you want to create, I went with muffins, 'cause they're easy one-handed food.

I did run into one snafu making these, though it's not one you'll likely encounter: I popped the butter into the microwave to melt it, and seconds later, I heard odd, zapping-type noises. And then, I smelled burning. Apparently, our microwave has quit dying a slow, noisy death and given up the ghost entirely. And there I was, suddenly bereft, microwave-less, with a bowl of mostly-unmelted butter, not wanted to dirty a saucepan but not knowing how else to get it melted. I resorted to cracking the oven door while it was preheating and holding the bowl over the rising heat. I felt very much like a prairie wife, lost without my modern conveniences. And I started fervently hoping that somebody gets us a microwave as a wedding gift. ;)

Kitchen equipment travails aside, I'm not sure if I'd make these muffins a lot, 'cause they tasted very much like healthy food, all wheat and nuts and fruit. But they were pretty tasty and should be good fuel for the new mom and dad. :)

Strawberry-Almond Muffins
Adapted from Eating Well

1 1/2 c wheat flour
1 c regular all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 c buttermilk (or 1 c milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice, left to sit for a few minutes)
2/3 c brown sugar
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 c frozen strawberries, thawed slightly and cut up into chunks
1/2 c sliced almonds, chopped, plus more sliced almonds for topping

1. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt and set aside.
2. In another large bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, brown sugar, butter, oil, vanilla and almond extract. Add in the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Stir in the strawberries and almonds.
3. Spray muffin cups with cooking spray, then fill about two-thirds full with batter. Sprinkle sliced almonds on each.
4. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean.
5. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then remove and cool on a rack.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Better banana bread

Better banana bread

There's always room for improvement, especially when the initial outcome wasn't all that impressive. After this rare disappointment from Cooks Illustrated, I went back to the drawing board, looking for a better banana bread recipe. And now, I'm happy to say that I've found it.

Better still, this one has the potential to be a much healthier banana bread: The original recipe comes from Cooking Light and includes nonfat yogurt, while leaving out the fattening-but-delicious walnuts. But, well, I couldn't leave well enough alone, especially when I had some full-fat sour cream in the fridge that needed to be used up. I'm sure it would come out just as good with the yogurt, though, since they're both thick, slightly tart dairy products.

I still had a little trouble getting the middle of the loaf done before the outside burned, but there was only one little singed bit on the top by the time this one just barely reached doneness in the center. Careful monitoring of your loaf is key. And the results were well worth the effort.

Better Banana Bread
Adapted from Cooking Light

3 very ripe bananas
2 c flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 c sugar
1/4 c butter, softened
2 eggs
1/3 c sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 c chopped walnuts (or less, or none, to your taste)

1. Mash the bananas thoroughly and set aside.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, then the banana, sour cream and vanilla.
4. Beat in the flour mixture on low speed, half at a time, until just blended.
5. Stir in the nuts.
6. Scrape into a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
7. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, then remove from pan and cool completely on a rack

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Sponges for dinner

Clockwise from left, crispy shredded beef, rainbow chicken, luffa with soybeans and some white rice

The other night, my fiancé and I had dinner at Ala Shanghai, an area Chinese restaurant that specializes in Shanghainese cuisine.

It's amazing how many people don't realize that China, being a big place, has a lot of regional cuisines, much like America does, from New England clambakes to Southwestern chimichangas to Southern fried chicken and grits. Most of what we grew up eating as Chinese food is actually a really, really Americanized version of Cantonese or Hunanese food (for example, there's no such thing as General Tso's chicken in China). The authentic versions of those cuisines are definitely worth exploring, but there's a whole other world of Chinese food out there, too, and we're lucky to have a place nearby that does authentic (well, mostly) Shanghainese food.

The great thing about this place, too, is that they cook seasonally. Seasonal eating is always the best way to go; out-of-season foods just aren't as good, aren't as fresh and flavorful, and why eat substandard food? Why waste the calories?

There was one particular reason why I wanted to get to Ala Shanghai now, in the spring, and it's because I was intrigued by last spring's seasonal menu and heard that they'd brought it back. And on that menu are some things you'd never see on an American menu -- like, for instance, luffa (also commonly spelled as loofa).

Yes, like the bath sponge. Except no, not quite. If you harvest luffa in the spring, when it's very young, it's not dried out and coarse. At this stage, it's a green vegetable, totally edible, something that looks a bit like squash. I had to try it, 'cause as weird as it sounds, I'd heard that it was good. We ended up getting an order of luffa with soybeans to split.


So how was it? My first impression, oddly, was of a freshly mowed lawn; it seemed to taste like you'd imagine mown grass tasting, very, very green, but not in a bad way, more of an intriguing way. It was a flavor that was easy to get used to, and it had the texture and some of the flavor of zucchini as well. Also, it was served in a sauce that was astoundingly delicious — the sauce was very, very light, but it had the flavor of char, a straight-up grill sort of flavor, perhaps wok hei, the flavor of the wok it was cooked in. It was an eye-opening flavor experience and paired perfectly with the luffa and soybeans.

Of course, as long as we were there, we had to get some soup dumplings and an order of scallion pancake (both of which I'd highly recommend). And we both got entrees, too, aside from the order of luffa with soybeans that we decided to split. It was too much food, and we knew it, but hey, leftovers are always good. His rainbow chicken (strips of white-meat chicken cooked with strips of carrot, snow pea and bamboo) was intensely chicken-y and tasty, and my crispy shredded beef was sweet and savory in just the right way.

There aren't a whole lot of restaurants around here that are up to this level of cooking, that do one cuisine and do it very, very well, but Ala Shanghai is definitely among them. They do Chinese food like it's supposed to be done, with deep flavor and textural complements and contrasts.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pound cake

Pound cake

Y'know, there's nothing like company to get you off your lazy butt and back on track with household tasks.

When I told my fiancé that my mother would be coming over to visit and see some of the things for the wedding, he actually started picking up the living room a bit — considering that the place has literally never been clean since he first moved into it, never, not once, not even in the first week he lived there, this is really saying something. (I even put a clean apartment on my Christmas list this year. No dice — he wanted to buy me something instead, no matter how much I tried to explain how much I'd love a clean apartment instead.) I have to add, too, that my mom's not one of those hyper-critical types, either; she really, honestly doesn't care if the place is a bit messy, but for some reason, it bothered him enough to pick up a bit, and hey, I'm not complaining.

Me, on the other hand, I picked up a neglected household task, too. I decided that if Mom was coming over, I should bake something, some sort of afternoon dessert to follow the lunch I was taking her out for that day. I looked through my Pinterest to-bake board, and I found one baking staple that I hadn't tried yet but kept meaning to, and it would pair perfectly with the strawberries in my freezer, which really need to be used up since this year's strawberry season is fast approaching. It was a recipe for a basic vanilla pound cake.

This cake came out pretty good; I'd definitely keep this recipe in my repertoire (maybe with some chocolate chips thrown in next time?). The flavor was pretty subtle on its own, but it was pleasant and went nicely with macerated strawberries and some homemade whipped cream. It would be a good base for any fruit topping, or maybe an ice cream sundae, but it's also not bad as just a basic snacking cake.

My only complaint is a rather small one: Why do recipes for loaf-shaped foods always call for different-sized pans? Why is there no standard loaf size? I bought 9-by-5 pans for bread, and then I had to buy 8-by-4 pans for fruitcake, and now this recipe? It calls for 8.5-by-4.5, as if to spite me. So my cake came out a little on the short side, though still delicious, 'cause I used a 9-by-5 pan (better a bigger pan than the possibility of the batter overflowing all over the oven, I figured).

Pound Cake
Slightly adapted from Diana's Desserts

1 1/2 c flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
Insides of 1 vanilla bean (split lengthwise and scrape out with a knife)
2 eggs
1/2 c sour cream

1. Grease and flour a 8.5-by-4.5 or 9-by-5 loaf pan.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
3. Beat together the butter, sugar, vanilla and vanilla bean scrapings, then beat in the eggs.
4. Stir in half of the flour mixture, then the sour cream, then the rest of the flour mixture, just until combined.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth out with your spoon. Bake at 325 degrees for about 70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
6. Let cool in the pan 15 minutes, then run a butter knife around the sides of the cake, remove it from the pan and rest it on its side on a rack until cooled.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Lime sugar cookies

Lime sugar cookies

I'm headed to a tacos-and-tequila party tonight: It's a "Cuatro de Mayo" party, being thrown by someone who doesn't believe in waiting until Saturday to party. I'm not really a partier, but then again, I don't really get invited to parties, so I figure that when I do get invited, I should try to go.

So it's a Mexican-themed party, and we're expected to bring something, perhaps a bottle of tequila, perhaps something else edible or drinkable. Obviously, I decided to bake something for dessert. But what? I don't really know any Mexican desserts. There really aren't that many, aside from flan and churros, both of which have downsides as far as being party food. So I decided to think outside the box a bit, and what I came up with was this: There will be tequila at the party. What goes with tequila? Doesn't lime go with tequila? Lime is in margaritas, isn't it? Lime it is, then.

I turned up this recipe for lime sugar cookies and decided to give it a go, figuring that I'd end up with a nice sweet treat to pair with both tacos and tequila. As it turns out, they aren't as lime-y as I'd hoped, but they're still tasty, mostly a nice sugar cookie but with a hint of lime at the finish. I'd make them again, but I might try to find lime extract to bump up the lime flavor, or I might just leave it out altogether and make plain sugar cookies.

Lime Sugar Cookies
Adapted from My Baking Addiction

2 3/4 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c butter, softened
1 1/2 c sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
Zest of a lime
3 tbsp lime juice
1/4 c sugar for rolling

1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
2. Beat together the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg, vanilla, zest and juice. Stir in the flour mixture until combined.
3. Take a rounded teaspoon of dough at a time, form it into a ball, roll in sugar and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, an inch and a half apart.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes, until lightly browned. Let sit on pan 2 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack.

Peanut butter cup brownies

Peanut butter cup brownies

Sometimes, you have this grand, elaborate plan to make something that'll perfectly fit the occasion, something fancy that will really impress, or something that's seasonal or fits with a theme. And sometimes, you just need to come up with something simple that'll please a crowd, and you don't have a lot of time to think about it.

I had a bunch of mini peanut butter cups in the fridge that I'd stockpiled from post-Easter sales. Everybody likes peanut butter cups. So I plugged in "peanut butter cup" on Pinterest, my new best friend as far as the Interwebs goes. And I found these. And they were, indeed, crowd-pleasers: one person called them "crack," and another said "you're evil -- I can't stop eating these!"

One big, huge warning before you make these, though: Cut strips of parchment wider than the muffin cups and lay them inside each cup before you put in the batter (just plop the batter on top to make the strip fall into the cup). DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Or you will end up crying and swearing, like I was, as you scrape half-brownies out of the pan and throw them away, 'cause no matter how nonstick your pan is, these will not want to come out in one piece -- the tops will peel off in your hand, leaving the rest stubbornly sitting in the pan. And my pan is super-slippery, the type of pan that I usually don't even need to grease, 'cause stuff just slides right out of it. Trust me, just use the parchment strips: You'll end up with little parchment slings that you can pull to get the brownies out.

Peanut Butter Cup Brownies
Adapted from Savory Sweet Life

3/4 c butter
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 c flour
1/2 c cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
Around 40 mini peanut butter cups, unwrapped

1. Melt the butter in a large bowl. Mix in the sugars, vanilla and eggs. Then, stir in the flour, cocoa and salt.
2. Grease your mini muffin pan. Cut little strips out of parchment paper, about a centimeter wide and long enough to put inside your mini muffin cups and have some hanging out over the edges.
3. For each muffin cup, hold a strip of parchment over the cup, then plop about a teaspoon of the batter onto it to push it down into the cup. Fill the cups only about two-thirds full of batter.
4. Place a peanut butter cup into each muffin cup and push down until the top of it is level with the top of the batter.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove them from the pan by pulling on the ends of the parchment strips, peel off the parchment and place them on a cooling rack.