Thursday, June 21, 2012

Biscoff Rocky Road

After several weeks of somewhat lackluster posting - thanks to busy schedules and, more recently, total hard drive failure - I knew I had to bring something special today. I also felt the pressure to step things up because Matt and I are about to go on a cruise, far away from wireless connectivity and kitchens, for the next week.  Oh, and did I mention that today is my little sister's 21st birthday? {Happy Birthday, Sarah!} If ever a day deserved dessert, it's today.

And this dessert, ladies and gentlemen, really is something special.

The sugary lovechild of rich, creamy Biscoff Spread and crunchy, chewy, oh-so-moreish Rocky Road, this candy may quite possibly blow your mind. What blew mine is that it doesn't appear to have been done before. You've got your Blonde Rocky Road, your Peanut Butter Rocky Road, your White Rocky Road and, of course, the lovely chocolatey Original, but as far as I can tell, there's never been a Biscoff version. So, if you've been waiting all your life for Biscoff Rocky Road, the wait is now over.

And just in case you thought these addictive little treats couldn't get any better, I've gone and added cookies. Not just any cookies, mind you - Girl Scout cookies! Their lightly spiced Dulce de Leche cookies are a perfect complement to the flavor of Biscoff Spread, but if you've already eaten all of your Girl Scout cookies (understandable, really) you can substitute other hard, crushed cookies such as shortbread, pecan sandies or, for a meta version, actual Biscoff Cookies!

For a recipe that tastes so decidedly decadent, these bars come together very quickly - and there's no baking involved which makes them a perfect summertime treat. They're perfect for taking to a potluck or picnic - just don't make them too far in advance or you might not have any left!

Biscoff Rocky Road

12 oz white chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup Biscoff Spread
2 Tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 oz crushed cookies (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cups mini marshmallows, divided

Grease a 8x8-inch pan, or line with greased foil.

In a microwave-safe or heatproof bowl, combine white chocolate, Biscoff spread, and butter. Using a microwave or double boiler, heat gently until the chocolate is melted and stir until the mixture is velvety smooth (for the microwave, heat in 45 second intervals on High power, stirring after each interval, until melted).

Once the chocolate mixture is smooth, stir in the vanilla and salt. Allow to cool for a minute or two (this should prevent your marshmallows from melting). While the mixture is still fluid, add the cookies and marshmallows, reserving 1/4 cup of marshmallows. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Lightly press the reserved marshmallows onto the top of the bars. Cool in the refrigerator until set. Cut into small squares with a sharp knife, and try not to eat them all at once!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

To Have and Have Not

Well, my friends, the worst that I had feared has come to pass. My computer is indeed dead, and while the lovely people at Apple got me up and running again with a new hard drive, all of the information on the old one was lost.

To be honest, I'm strangely okay with it. Yes, I'm sad that I lost all my photos (hence the lack of any accompanying picture), as well as lots of personal and professional documents. I'm disappointed that I lost some of my favorite tunes, and all of my settings and bookmarks, but sometimes being cut off from the trappings of our everyday lives can be strangely freeing.

Matt and I are (still) in the middle of moving, and as I spend my days packing boxes, leaving newsprinted fingerprints all over our white cupboards, and generally trying to make the sprawl of our existence simpler, tidier and more compact, I'm struck by just how much stuff follows us through our daily lives.

If I'm honest, few of these things actually get used on a regular basis, and yet I find myself unable to part with them. Some have sentimental significance, but more often than not, it's my I'll-use-that-one-day optimism that keeps me holding on.

Losing my computer was frustrating - as far as the blog goes, I'm irked that I'll have to essentially start building up content and recipes from scratch - but the whole unfortunate experience taught me some useful lessons:

1. Nothing in life is permanent - not even the material things I hold so tightly (or the thirty boxes currently crowding my living room!)
2. Our lives are not defined by the things we have, but the things we do
3. It's possible (and kind of refreshing) to react rationally to the irrational
and finally,
4. Always, always back up your hard drive.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unforeseen Circumstances

I wish I'd seen it coming.

I wish I'd known that my new little MacBook Pro was going to give up the ghost this morning. I wish I'd known that Angus MacBook (see what I did there? My computer is Scottish!) was suffering grave hard drive issues. I wish I'd known he was thisclose to packing it in all together. But I didn't, and he suffered in silence until this morning when he suddenly collapsed.

That's the worst thing about unforeseen circumstances - you never see them coming.

I've made an appointment to get my computer fixed, but since we live in the wilds of Tennessee, it will be a while before we can get to an Apple Store. Until then I'm tethered to Matthew's computer - which means I have to share. I'll try to keep updating the blog in the meantime, but what's worse is that it looks like my hard drive has been corrupted - which means I've likely lost all the recipes, photos and posts I've created in the far-too-many months since my last back-up. You know the most tragic part of the whole affair? I just told Matthew that I was overdue for a back-up...yesterday.

Moral of the story: back up your computers, folks. Don't just think about it. Don't just talk about it. DO IT!

P.S. I wanted to make a joke about a 'wormy Apple' but the pain is still a little too fresh. I'll have to get back to you when I get to the 'acceptance' stage of this process!

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Dad's Favorite Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Father's Day is just around the corner, and I love seeing all the Dad-themed crafts that are popping up all over the internet - the tie-shaped cookies, the painted stones that say 'Dad Rocks', the King-of-the-Grill aprons, the creative candy bar cards. My dad would have loved all of those things, but he passed away four years ago and this holiday has always hit close to home ever since.

To honor his memory and keep myself from too much introspection, I always make an effort to mark the day in a way that would have been special to him. Sometimes it's reading a nautical book (Arthur Ransome's stories are a childhood favorite), or watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but more often than not, it's baking strawberry rhubarb pie.

Last year, I spent the holiday on the road so I had to be satisfied with store-bought pie (at least it was Amish-made!), but this year, I had the opportunity to make my own. My Dad was a great lover of pie - a fellow sweet-tooth in a house full of savory-lovers - and strawberry rhubarb was his favorite.

We had our own rhubarb when I was growing up in England; a few large plants that sprung up at the back of our garden, amidst some rambling raspberry bushes and a hedge of beautiful-but-deadly foxgloves. I remember distinctly the first time I saw it, the slender, ruby red stalks a stark contrast to the large and spreading green leaves. I thought it was a vegetable (and it is, technically!) so I was amazed when a friend taught us to cook it with sugar and bake it in pies - such sweetness from a sour vegetable seemed nothing short of kitchen alchemy to me! I've been enthralled ever since, and though I love the magic and simplicity of a pure rhubarb pie, the addition of strawberries really does give you something special.

I make my strawberry rhubarb pies with a crumb topping because that's the way my dad liked them, but there is method to my madness - one of the most common problems with strawberry rhubarb pies is that they can become 'sloppy' during baking. Lots of recipes add cornstarch or tapioca to counter this, but I prefer to keep additives to a minimum, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve:

Firstly, the crumb topping helps to absorb some of the excess liquid while also allowing steam to escape easily during baking, unlike a regular pie crust, so there's no need for venting. Secondly, I cook my rhubarb on the stove first, with some of the sugar, to create a rhubarb compote which makes the filling thicker. And thirdly, the trick is to allow your pie to 'rest' before serving. I know there are few foods more comforting than a hot slice of pie with a cool slick of vanilla ice cream, but resting the pie does make a difference - you'll notice that I did not rest my pie before taking these pictures (do as I say, not as I do!) which is why some of them still look a little gooey.

If you really, desperately want to serve your pie hot, you can re-heat the pieces individually after cooling or just serve it fresh from the oven with the knowledge that you probably won't be dishing up picture-perfet wedges. Along the same lines, you'll get even better slice if you refrigerate your pie before serving - if you can wait that long! Of course, absolutely none of this matters if you're just going to eat it straight out of the pie plate with a fork. Or perhaps a teeny tiny spoon. Don't worry, I'm not one to judge.

Disclaimer: I have to admit that I'm not happy with the photos of this pie - Matt and I were so eager to dig into it that I didn't take the time for a proper shot, and it shows. I'm also a little disappointed that I had to use 100% whole wheat flour for the crust. I don't recommend this since it creates a drier crust, but since we're in the process of moving and trying to use up our groceries, I had to make do with what we had on hand. I guess all of that means I'll just have to make it again - soon!

Now that my excuses are out of the way, I will say that there was one thing that completely lived up to my expectations - the taste! This pie was absolutely delicious, from the first sticky-sweet mouthful to the very last brown-sugary crumb...and yes, Matt and I ate the entire thing between the two of us. Somehow, I'm pretty sure my dad would have approved.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Do You Durian?: My First Taste of Durian Candy

My recent trip to Chicago's Chinatown didn't just leave me with a tummy full of dim sum and a bag full of pork buns, it also allowed me to cross off an item on my Eat-Before-I-Die list - you know, the list that starts with caviar and foie gras and ends with 'Garbage Plate,' fried Oreos, poutine, and fistfuls of delicious Thai street food. Although I eat a lot of strange things, it's rare that I get to cross something off THE list, so needless to say I was pretty excited.

Incidentally, the item I crossed off is a Thai specialty - but I can't exactly say that it was delicious, and if you sold it on the street you'd likely get arrested! Its flavor is often described as "oniony, with a touch of gym sock," and my own Chinatown encounter was rather like chewing a lightly sweetened rubber tire on a hot day. The best description by far, though, comes from Singaporean cook Wai Ching Lee, who compared eating this food to "eating custard in a sewer."

There's only one culinary delicacy that could inspire such poetic, impassioned descriptions - that's right, folks, it's the durian.

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Imagine a skin so spiky it makes the African Horned Melon look like a cotton ball. Imagine a scent so malodorous it makes sewage seem perfumed. In case you think I'm making all of this up, or simply giving in to exaggeration, you should know that while the durian is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, it's also banned from lots of public places and forms of public transportation because of its pungent smell.

If you can imagine the combined aromas of rotting meat, dirty socks, melting rubber, and gas leak combined in sweet symphony, you'll have a slight approximation of the odor of a durian.

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At this point you may be asking why on earth I'd put this fruit on my eat-before-I-die list, forearmed, as I was, with such damning information. The truth is that in spite of its cringe-worthy stench and polarizing flavor, some people absolutely love to eat durian. I've eaten enough strange things in my life to naively believe that I might be one of them.

Sadly, I was very, very mistaken.

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Don't get me wrong, it's an 'interesting' flavor, but not one I'd necessarily go chasing. There's a hint of sweetness to it that's actually pleasant, I'm just not sure it's worth the exposure to the rotten smell and, worst of all, the lingering aftertaste. Eatocracy has a riotously funny and witty account of a durian experience that explains the untold peril of the "durian burp," but all I can say is that for the next few hours after eating one, yes one candy, my breath had the compelling odor of a natural gas pipeline!

It must be said that I did not try durian in its unadulterated form - I purchased hard durian candies (whose milky sweetness helped to mask the flavor and odor), but have been told that the custardy texture of the real fruit really helps it along - I guess the only question now is whether I'll ever be brave enough to test that out.

In the meantime, if anyone wants an opened-but-barely touched bag of durian candy, it's all yours!

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

DIY Pinhole Camera

Did you get to observe the transit of Venus yesterday? Matt and I did our best, we really did, but unfortunately we had to make do with watching it online. We did, however, have a lot of fun making our quick DIY pinhole camera for the viewing. Notice the box we used?

It took Matt about 5 minutes to put this together and we thought it very fitting (and resourceful!) to transform a Thin Mint box - proof that Girl Scout Cookies are good for more than just expanding your waistline!

The next transit may not be for another 105 years, but pinhole cameras can be used to view other events and are a fun activity to teach kids about science. If you'd like to try making your own, check out this great video tutorial at Life's Little Mysteries.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pineapple Coconut Macaroons

Okay folks, I still have a few Chicago posts to go, but I know I've been making you wait a long, long time for a recipe so I thought I'd share these little summery gems. I actually made these coconut cookies weeks ago, back when I was still wishing for heat and sunshine, but now that summer is here they're even more appropriate.

I seem to go through a coconut phase every summer - there's something so refreshing about that tropical flavor - and this particular treat came to me from David Lebovitz, by way of Baking Obsession. Their versions look crisp and delicious, but mine are a little different. With less added sugar and more pineapple, they're softer, with more of the flavor of summer and a little less over-the-top sweetness. That being said, they're plenty sweet - try them and you'll see!

Before the recipe, though, a word about macaroons. In recent years, French macarons have taken over the blog world. Those elegant, technique-heavy treats are certainly lovely, but these are not those macarons - they're stick-to-your-fingers, sugar-shock, coconutty macaroons, a great dessert in their own right, with no pretensions to being anything other than utterly delicious. If you're in need of a naptime/lunch break tropical escape, these should do the trick!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Wan Shi Da Bakery, Chinatown

Yep, I'm (figuratively) still in Chicago's Chinatown, doing due diligence on all the wonderful treats and tastes I discovered there, and today's post takes us to the delightful little Wan Shi Da Bakery on S. Wentworth Avenue.

If you read yesterday's post, you'll remember that my sister and I started off our visit with a delicious dim sum lunch at Shui Wah, so you might be forgiven for thinking that that was the end of our Chinatown chowdown. Of course, you'd be completely wrong - for the simple fact that no visit to Chinatown can possibly be considered complete without the purchase of at least one BBQ pork bun.

I've explained my fondness for pork buns in a previous post, so I'll just say that after chasing char siu bao through the streets of London's Chinatown and Chinatown NYC, I wasn't about to let them get away from me in Chicago.

So many pork buns!

If I'm honest, I spend more time thinking about these little golden pillows of sweet-and-savory, doughy perfection than I'd like to admit, so I was hardly going to pass up the opportunity to eat one...or several. In fact, for quality control purposes (of course!), my sister and I actually sampled offerings from two Chicago bakeries - the other being Chiu Quon, also on Wentworth Ave. - but determined that the pork-filled buns and other bakery treats at Wan Shi Da were most deserving of a review.

The Traditional

The bakery itself isn't anything to write home about, but the service is friendly and the treats - oh, the treats! In addition to the usual Chinese pastries, there's a large selection of fancy cakes, most of them brightly colored and covered with all sort of glazed fruits. We didn't try any of these. No, our attention was quite focused, as it should be, on the pork buns.

The Dry

Wan Shi Da is a great place to buy pork buns, not simply because they're plump, fresh, and delicious, or because they cost less than a dollar, but because they offer no less than three different kinds. You've got your traditional pork bun, your pork bun with sweet topping, and your dry pork bun (think very lightly shaved jerky-type meat on top and inside). Of course we had to try one of each.

The Sweet-Topped

The sweet topping reminds me of those almond cookies you sometimes get post-meal at Chinese restaurants, and while it couldn't woo me away from my favorite traditional pork buns, it's good for a change of pace. The dry pork bun was also an interesting and tasty alternative, but I still maintain that the original version, with its juicy filling, tender dough and ever-so-slightly-sweet glaze is the best of all.

In addition to our pork buns, we bought a few sweet pastries to carry home - my sister bought a sesame ball filled with red bean paste and an egg custard tart, while I tried a sponge cake and a custard-filled bun. Of these, I'd have to say that the sponge cake was my favorite - a pleasantly light and airy cake, reminiscent of Angel Food Cake in texture, but with a more substantial butter/egg flavor.

Sponge Cake

All of our selections were delightfully fresh and each one cost only pennies - I think I paid under $3 for four items (all carry-out items are 20% off, for an even sweeter deal!). I even bought a pork bun to take with me on my return trip to Tennessee the next day, and it was still fresh and delicious a day later, if a bit smashed from the journey. Overall, I'd heartily recommend a visit to Wan Shi Da. In addition to bakery items, there's a small cafe attached with 'real' food and on-site seating - and if there food is any bit as good as their baked goods, I think a return trip is in order!

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Dim Sum Dining: Shui Wah, Chinatown

Plop me down in any major city and you can safely bet that I'll eventually wind up in Chinatown. I just can't resist the allure of those red-painted pagodas, the restaurants serving dainty and delicious dim sum, and shops selling everything from oolong to oysters, steak knives to steamers, and, of course, decorative vegetable cutters in every imaginable shape (because everyone needs a decorative vegetable cutter). I've eaten and shopped my way through Chinatowns in London and NYC - and now Chicago.

During my visit to NYC last summer, I filled up on dirt-cheap (and delicious) dumplings at the famous Vanessa's Dumpling House and spent some time in pursuit of the perfect pork bun. Since I'm a girl who knows what she likes, I set off to do exactly the same thing in Chicago.

My sister and I couldn't find a similarly cheap-and-cheerful eatery to match Vanessa's (but really, is there any place in the world to match their four-for-a-dollar dumplings?) so we ended up at a dim sum restaurant on Archer Avenue.

Now, Archer Ave is full of restaurants and dim sum eateries, so after about 20 minutes of deliberation, we followed our noses into a little place called Shui Wah. As luck would have it, this restaurant has developed a good following for its delicious and reasonably priced dim sum.

This restaurant is tiny, but that doesn't stop it from doing a brisk business. In fact, the place was so full during our visit that we ended up sharing our table with another group - a practice we commonly encountered in Europe but have rarely seen in the US. Close quarters might also be responsible for another of Shui Wah's unusual traits: there are no carts at this dim sum eatery - instead you order on paper, as you would sushi or tapas, and the food is brought out individually. This process takes a little longer than the usual a la carte service, but it does mean that the food is piping hot when it arrives and there's no waiting for your favorite dish to make the rounds.

Clockwise from top left: chive cake, taro cake, shrimp dumpling

Between the two of us, my sister and I ordered steamed shrimp dumplings, chive cakes, fried taro cakes and steamed pork buns. The shrimp dumplings were wonderfully flavorful, if a little too soft, and the taro cake was a pleasant surprise, being both salty and sweet, soft and crispy. Of course, the highlight of the meal was the steamed pork buns - some of the best I've ever had, and I've eaten many. Even my baby nephew tried a bit for his first-ever taste of dim sum!

The delicious steamed pork bun

The atmosphere of the restaurant is a little harried (you'll have to be assertive about flagging down servers during the lunchtime rush) and, for dim sum neophytes, possibly a bit intimidating, but the food is good and the prices are very reasonable.

A few tips: don't be afraid to ask if you're unsure about any of the dishes - our helpful server even pointed out items on others' plates - and if you're really lost, ask for recommendations. The steamed pork buns are a known classic and we saw lots of delicious-looking orders of 'fried dough' and pork shumai. Additionally, the jasmine tea was a warm treat on an unseasonably chilly day - the perfect thing to fortify us for the walk back to the conveniently nearby Metra station. All in all, a Chinatown success!

Note: A message on Yelp states that the restaurant will be closing on August 1st. If true, it's a shame - but that still gives you a few months to get your fill of delicious dim sum!

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