Saturday, January 28, 2012

New Year of the Dragon

Last week at work, about a dozen people asked me if I was going to take Monday off - Monday being the first day of the New Year of the Dragon on the Lunar Calendar. I've been working at this school for 5 years now, and this is the first time I've been questioned so much about taking this day off. It's like everyone just realized that Lunar New Year exists. Go figure, huh?

Anyway, weird colleagues aside, I did have a lovely new year celebration with my family that involved brunch with grandma and the making of these lovely little buns. My grand-aunt (who passed away when I was in high school) would have been so proud! I remember her always making complex-looking Chinese dishes in the kitchen right before New Year. Last year, I made cookies flavoured with toasted coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds to mimic those deep fried crescent-shaped, sugar-filled puffs of goodness that everyone buys around new year. This year, I dug right into making something more traditional: sweet red bean paste buns. Yes, Aunty would have been proud indeed.

I know us Asians don't have the best reputation for making desserts, but this is a good one for sure .. just trust me. The filling of these little buns is made with adzuki beans -- little red versions of the mung bean. The beans a boiled until mashable, and then sweetened with brown sugar and flavoured with a splash of coconut milk. The dough is pretty basic, but also includes baking powder along with the boost from yeast, making them extra light, pouffy and delicious. This recipe isn't really complicated; you just need a little time. The filling needs time to cook and cool, and the dough needs time to rise, so it's the perfect rainy weekend baking project. You do need a steamer though, but if you don't have one, I'm sure you could bake them in the oven for a different spin.

One last thing: the website where I got the originally recipe, tells you to do this fancy pleating thing with the dough once you've got the filling in the middle. Fumble-fingers me couldn't do that, so I just dropped some filling in the middle and pulled the stretchy forgiving dough around it and pinched a seam. As long as you lay the buns seam-side down, you're good to go.

Gong Hei Fat Choy Everyone! (Yeah, I know I'm late .. but ... yeah you know how it goes: reports cards always run my life. But hey! Tomorrow is everyone's birthday!

Chinese Sweet Bean Buns
adapted from Use Real Butter (dough) and Apple Pie, Patis & Pâté (filling)
makes about 16 little buns

For the Filling:
1/2 cup of adzuki beans, soaked overnight
1.5 cups of water
2 T brown sugar (or more to taste)
1/4 cup of coconut milk

1. Place you soaked beans and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer. Cook, covered for 30-40 minutes, or until the beans are super soft and mashable.

2. Add the brown sugar and coconut milk and cook, uncovered for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

3. With a potato masher, mash the bean mixture to your desired texture (I left a few little lumps for good luck). You could also let it cool and them blend. Your call. Either way, let the mixture cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for a couple or hours (or overnight if you're making this ahead of time).

For the Buns:
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 teaspoons of quick-rising yeast
1 1/3 cups of warm water
3 cups of flour
1.5 teaspoons of baking powder
1 tablespoon of melted butter (I used Earth Balance)
red bean paste filling from above

1. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, yeast and water. Let it stand for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture gets foamy.

2. Dump in the flour, baking powder and melted butter. Mix well until you get a nice soft dough.

3. Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead for about 7 minutes, adding more flour if needed, until the dough gets nice and soft and elasticy.

4. Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let it rise for about 1 - 1.5 hours, or until the dough as tripled in size. While you're waiting, prepare the steamer. Cut out little squares of parchment paper (about 2 inches per side) and place them in your steamer, about 2 inches apart. I fit about 6 in my steamer and it was little bit crowded. Lay the rest of the paper out onto a baking sheet.

5. Punch down your dough and knead for about 3 minutes or so. Divide the dough into 16 little balls.

6. Take a dough ball in your hand and flatten it out. Drop about a teaspoon of the cooled red bean mixture into the centre. Gather the dough around the filling and pinch. Place the bun pinch-side down on the parchment. Repeat!

7. Steam your buns in batches for no more than 10 minutes. They should pouff up really nicely. Remove and let cool. Serve warm (that's when it's best!). You can also refrigerate them and heat them up (either re-steam them or microwave them). They keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Everyone is Making Lentils!

Yes, everyone is making lentils. It's awesome! Lentils are one of my favourite foods, perfect in soups and stews, stuffings and casseroles. One of the first things that I remember wanting to cook, was lentil soup with lemon and parsley. I had tried it at a local restaurant, and wanted to re-make it at home. I've made that soup several times since then, sometimes sticking to the original version, other times adding spinach, or tomatoes or using lime instead of lemon. Good ol' lentils -- always a good palate for kitchen experiments.

Last week, when everyone was trucking it back to work and I was enjoying another week of winter holiday bliss, I noticed that lentil recipes were popping up all over the blog world. Curries, baked like baked beans, stuffed into collard rolls .. so many different things! But I found myself wanting to make dinner with no lentils to be found. Oh well. When looking for an alternative, I came across a list of things that I had wanted to make -- this list was made way back in March when I was trying to slow down my cooking. I had checked off quite a bit of things: vegan chocolate brownies, Jamie Oliver's humble home-cooked beans, semolina cardamom cookies. But one of the things still left unchecked was the braised barely with lemon from A Cook's Guide to Grains.

It sounded perfect -- healthy and hearty and bright with lemon. I used a combination of pearled barely and yellow split peas (after seeing this recipe!), and added some veggies -- kale and purple cabbage. If you had some fresh herbs -- thai basil, parsely, cilantro -- I bet it would make this dish even better. If you're not into kale or cabbage, maybe you'd like spinach, or broccoli? It's totally up to you. It makes a perfect side dish, but I ate mine over buckwheat noodles because I was craving the extra yummy carbs. The lemon really makes your taste buds pop in this dish, and the chewy barley and bitey split peas provide lots of nice texture. And you get your veggies too. Totally January good. Go for it!

Barely and Split Peas with Lemon
inspired by a recipe in A Cook's Guide to Grains by Jenni Muir and Kayln's Kitchen

1/4 cup pearled barely, rinsed
1/2 cup of yellow split peas, rinsed
2 teaspoon of minced ginger
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 a white onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk of celery, diced
1 cup of chopped red cabbage
1 cup of chopped kale leaves
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon of ground coriander
zest and juice of a small lemon
2 cups of water or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large pot, saute the onions, carrot and celery in olive oil for about 5 minutes, or until things start to get soft and fragrant. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook for about another minute of so.

2. Add the cumin, coriander, salt, pepper and lemon zest. Mix well. Add in the red cabbage, barely and split peas. Give it a good stir. Add the water or stock, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the barely and split peas are to your desired texture. Check occasionally to make sure there's enough liquid.

3. Stir in the kale and add seasoning if needed. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Give it one final good mix.

4. Serve with ... whatever you like! Over noodles, as a side to some roasted chicken or fish, on it's own or with some pita bread. Happy January!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Bowl of Warm and Good

It's been awhile since I've posted a nice porridge recipe. Since my first post on weekend oatmeal, my porridge-making has definitely diversified. Millet, quinoa, barely and buckwheat, baked with fruits -- yup! All kinds of different porridge. I've also stopped using quick-cooking oats in favour of the old fashioned rolled oats, that don't take that much longer to cook and have a better flavour and texture.

Today I'm going to bring you a baked porridge recipe that combines spelt flakes and quinoa. I enjoyed a nice warm bowl earlier in the week for lunch after being out in -27 degree weather and it really hit the spot. It makes me long for lazy never-ending weeks as I'm about the head back to work. Working lunches are never this interesting, so I'm probably going to save this one for a wintery cold weekend -- you know, one of those days where you never change out of your pjs or step foot out of the house. Winter has been pretty calm here in Toronto, but I have a feeling that it's just biding it's time ... And when that time comes, I'll have this baked porridge.

You can use whatever fruits and flavourings you like, but I put apples, tahini, a pinch of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg, and some chopped dates. Raisins would work just as well, as would dried cranberries, chopped banana, pear ... whatever you like. The quinoa really gives this porridge a great texture -- the little quinoa grains at the top get all crunchy and golden while the ones in the middle puff up and become chewy and toothsome. I had doubts about the spelt, since it tends to get mushy really quickly, but it baked up nice and fluffy. It's hearty, nutty and totally soothing on your tastebuds and tummy. And it's also great January food -- you know, comforting and warm because it's cold outside and you have to go back to work, but also wholesome and nutritious so you keep your healthy resolutions. Go on .. dig in!

Spelt and Quinoa Breakfast Bake
serves 3-4

1/4 cup of quinoa, rinsed well
1/2 cup of spelt flakes
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
2 little gratings of fresh nutmeg
1/2 cup of water
1/2 cup of soy milk
1 tablespoons of honey (reduce to 1/2 if your soy milk is sweetened)
2 tablespoons of tahini
4-5 chopped dates
1 large apple, grated

1. Put all your ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well. Pour into a baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or when the top gets nice and brown and all the liquid has absorbed.

2. Serve warm, with toppings of your choice. Mine were: a dollop of yogurt, sunflower seeds and an extra drizzle of tahini.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rainy First Day Baking

How did your 2011 end and your 2012 begin? Was it exiting and champagne-filled? Was it warm and cozy? Did you actually make that list of resolutions? I didn't make a list of life goals like I used to do, nor did I get all nostalgic about 2011. Mine ended with a hilariously silly and fun-filled January 30th at my best friend's house, eating delicious homemade food and playing the funnest, silliest games ever. Besides the great food and fun games, I realized that I was spending time with the greatest friends -- friends that I want to always ring out and in new years with.

And the 31st? Pretty quiet night in, a little visit to my parents', a bite of cranberry lemon curd bars and sip of iced cider .. and a quick midnight skate at the local community centre rink. It was perfect skating weather -- cold enough so that the ice wasn't drippy, but no biting wind to make the experience bitter. It was absolutely perfect. I haven't skated in many years, but I felt right at home. The rink was completely empty -- we were the only two out there, and it made me think about just how big the world is and how small our lives can seem. But as we skated and reminisced about years past, I came to realize that not matter how much we seem not the matter in the world, our actions, words and even goals and dreams that have seemingly small impacts can mean everything ... like a comfortable silence that can only happen between the best of friends, that quick call or text at midnight to let someone know you're thinking of them as the new year begins, the endless cups of coffee with sides of chatter and gossip that seem ordinary and routine, and the explosions of laughter that make your belly hurt but feel so good because you're amongst someone you love ... yeah, those are little things, but they certainly can have big impacts.

With that in my mind on New Year's morning, I wanted to celebrate this new found realization of mine with a bit of baking. And it was the perfect day to bake bread -- rainy and chilly. Not good weather for outside adventures, so I took the adventure into the kitchen and made some cinnamon bread with dates, raisin and walnuts to be shared with my parents, sister and best friend. I've made this type of bread before, but I actually goofed and while trying to fix my mistake, came up with something different and kind of cinnamon-roll like. I forgot to add two tablespoons of sugar into the dough -- I only remembered when I was half-way through kneading it. In retrospect, I probably could have just left it -- the dates and raisins are already sweet, but since it was supposed to be a treat for my loved ones, I wanted to add back a bit of sweetness. So ... I rolled the dough out just a bit, filled it with a good sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon, rolled it up again and cut out little buns. A lighter version of cinnamon buns? Yup. I pinched the ends of my rolls and baked them in muffin tins to hide the sugary swirl which was a nice surprise on the inside. But I bet if you just sliced and arranged in a baking dish, you'd have a lovely cinnamon pull-apart bread ... and maybe a citrusy glaze on the top wouldn't hurt either .. ?

Happy New Year!

Cinnamon Fruit and Nut Buns with Brown Sugar Swirl
adapted from A Chow Life

2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 packet of traditional yeast
1/2 cup of warm water
1 teaspoon of sugar

1 cup of spelt flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1 cup of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
a pinch of salt
3 tablespoons of melted butter or margarine (I used Earth Balance)
1/2 cup of water
1/4 cup of chopped dates
1/4 cup of chopped raisins
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts

1. Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl. This is your surprise swirl! Set aside.

2. Mix together the sugar, yeast and warm water and let it proof for at least 10-15 minutes. Mine actually sat for about 30 minutes while we braved the rain to get coffee!

3. Once the yeast is nice and frothly, dump everything else in .. yup, everything from spelt flour to chopped walnuts. Give it a good stir to make sure everything is dispersed nicely. Keep mixing until a nice soft but sticky dough forms.

4. On clean, floured surface, with floured handing, turn out your dough and knead it for a good 7 minutes, adding additional sprinklings of flour if your dough is too sticky. Your dough should become a nice, smooth, elastic ball of goodness.

5. Let your dough rise in an oiled bowl, covered with a kitchen towel for 40-60 minutes (mine went for about 45). Your dough should double in size.

6. It's filling time! Punch down your dough and give it a couple quick kneads. Divide it into two equal balls. Roll them out to about a 10'6 inch rectangle. Divide the brown sugar and cinnamon mixture between the two. Roll them up nice and tight.

7. Now it's up to you! I cut out 6 pieces from each roll giving me 12 rolls. I pinched the ends of each roll to hide the cinnamony- sweet surprise. But you could leave them as it and bake up in a baking dish.

8. Bake your cinnamon-y bundles in a 375 degree oven. Mine were baked in muffin tins, and only took about 15-20 minutes. It would be golden brown and your kitchen should smell of cinnamon and butter.

9. Serve warm .. perfect treat with coffee on a rainy day.

BTW: I updated my Flickr ... finally!