cooking again

When I moved here, I decided I was going to really commit to observing Sunday as a religious day of rest, per my religion. In New York, I wasn’t super, well, religious about this. But I know I’m a happier person when I actually make Sunday a break from the every day. Plus, I figured it would be good to have one day when I wasn’t eating out. And so, after the first week (I am realistic in my goals…I arrived on Saturday at 5 pm), I have been very committed to this. This meant I was actually going to have to cook again…at least if I was going to eat real food.

The first thing I did was figure out how to use my Japanese rice maker that has no English on it anywhere. And while we’re on the topic of rice, can we just all acknowledge that Japanese rice is better? I know most of you haven’t actually had rice in Japan, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing. So good, in fact, that I’ll be hauling a two-kilo bag home for my sister in November because she likes rice even more than I do. Moving on…

I figured out the rice and just started with something basic. I absolutely love to bake, but cooking is a whole different ball game. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but it’s more about speed than precision and I was made just the opposite. Even when I’m making savory things, everything I’m good at is something you put together and bake (swiss cheese chicken, leg of lamb, lasagna, Thanksgiving turkey…yes, my repertoire is weird) or something that requires people to cook their own food (fondue, raclette, paninis), so actual cooking without a recipe…not my strength.

Well, apparently, basic was a good place to start because it was delicious.  It might also help that I think the Japanese have much less tolerance for mediocrity (yeah, that’s right, I’m calling most Americans mediocre) when it comes to food. They are definitely quality over quantity.

So, this was a good start. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I was at my friend Holly’s house for dinner and she had made tonkatsu (this delicious breaded pork amazingness that I’d had one at a restaurant) using chicken instead of pork and it was so good. As good as the restaurant’s, in fact (you know, if the pork had been chicken…). And Holly also informed me, by showing it to me, that you can purchase tonkatsu sauce in the grocery store. It is available in the US, as well.  
Restaurant version

Well, that inspired me to branch out a little and try a fancier stir fry. It turned out quite nicely (I used squash instead of carrot and overcooked that slightly, but otherwise, it was delicious). That’s what I struggle with the most…getting all of the components of a meal hot, cooked, and ready at the same time. Baking is soooooo much easier.

And then I was at Holly’s again, to babysit while she and her husband went out on a date (maybe their first one sans baby since moving to Japan?), and she had made another delicious meal. This time it was gyudon, this super yummy beef on rice thing (bottom right) along with no-bake cookies (and they had a DDP for me, which is not an easy thing to find in this country, a cute baby, and Hulu Plus–if you want me to babysit for you, it doesn’t require much to make me happy).

Side note – I kind of love Mindy Kaling’s new show.
I know the gyudon may not be much to look at, but let me assure you it was unbelievable. I might have considered licking the frying pan. I didn’t, although I’m sure none of you would have been surprised if I had with only a baby to witness it. In any case, this convinced me to do two things. The first? To attempt making tonkatsu (it seemed easier than gyudon). The second? To buy a Japanese cook book. 

So, on Saturday while out and about with another friend, Erika, we found a bookstore and she, being Japanese, helped me find a really good cookbook. We went to a huge store in this lovely part of town, had dessert (it has a restaurant in it), and then wandered over to the cookbook section and found a few books in English. I’m super excited to try so many of the recipes. Unfortunately, the only recipe not in the book I chose was gyudon (it might have been in another book by the same woman and I might have taken pictures of the recipe…it makes me feel better to know I found almost the same one online when I got home that night).

And on Sunday, I made tonkatsu using pork. I didn’t follow the recipe in the book (here’s one from the Food Network if you want to try it). I just did what Holly did and it was incredible. Hot and crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The only difference between this and the restaurant in terms of the cooking was that I pan fried, while traditionally it’s deep fried. My Japanese teacher, Sawaki-sensie, also informed me that it is typically served with cabbage. Next time. That said, it was still so delicious and how delectable does it look on a bed of oh-so-delicious sticky?

The best part about this goal to not go out to eat on Sundays (or shop, etc, etc) is that this cooking thing is now spilling over into my weekday life, too. Part of it is that some night’s I’m just so exhausted that the thought of having to use my brain enough to try and order food in Japanese is too much to handle. But the other part is that I’m not so overwhelmed by it anymore. Oh, and knowing that, if I leave my dishes in the sink all week (rinsed, of course), on Friday the cleaning lady will do them. Yeah, my life is pretty awesome. Now, don’t you wish you lived here so I could invite you over for dinner?

randomness (aka jobs, baking, and spending habits)

I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but when I first started working as an esthetician I had four jobs. Yes. Four. I only had 25 hours a week at the salon and I was building my clientele, so I had to figure out how to pay the bills. Which meant I was working 25 hours a week at the salon, 10-15 hours a week at Williams-Sonoma, 1 day a week as an esthetician in a chiropractic office in Globe, AZ, and whatever nights I was needed to stock at Bath & Body Works. (Obviously, I don’t have pride issues when it comes to working. A job is a job…especially when you need money.)

It was insane. But I loved it. It was just so fun and chaotic. And the discounts were amazing! I was getting all of my personal care needs met for pennies at the salon. I enjoyed the benefits of the B&BW discounts for all the bridal shower gifts I was purchasing at that point in my life, and oh how I LOVED the Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn discounts.

When I finally had enough hours and enough clients to support myself with my main job at the salon, I quit B&BW and the chiropractic office, but I just couldn’t give up the Williams-Sonoma discount, so I continued to work a total 50-70 hours a week (depending on the season) to keep the discount. And the extra income from Williams-Sonoma was also my spending money for it. It was rare that I ever took home money from that job, but it was totally worth it. Eventually, I transfered to Pottery Barn for a little variety, but the discount remained.

The problem with this is that I got used to being able to purchase whatever I wanted from those two stores. And now I think that I should still be able to do that. But I really can’t. That said, I recently saw this amazing tartlet pan when I was window shopping. For those of you who know me, I kind of love making tarts. I like eating them, too. But I love making them more. So, I bought the pan. And for about a month it just sat in a box. Staring at me. Making me feeling guilty for purchasing something so frivolous. Something I really didn’t need. Something I hadn’t even used yet.

Yeah…the hot pads are from Williams-Sonoma, too…but they were purchased during my discount days. 🙂

And then I finally busted it out and I’ll tell you what…the guilt is gone. This pan is my new favorite. What could be better than bite sized tarts or quiches? I’ve discovered a new favorite recipe for pancetta, leek and goat cheese tartlets. And on Sunday I made my favorite tart in tartlet form. Both have been a total hit.

Such deliciousness.

So, basically what I’m saying is that frivolous, impulse buys are awesome. Or maybe what I’m really saying is that sometimes it’s worth investing in good equipment for the hobbies that you love. In any case, if you ever want to try one of these, just invite me to a potluck and I’ll be happy to bake them for you!

pancetta, leek, and goat cheese tartlets

They taste even better than they look

Remember once upon a time when I used to cook a lot. Not sure what happened or when it happened, but I just kind of stopped…and then recently, the baking bug has bitten again. It started with cookies. And then the tartlet pan (total impulse buy) was just sitting in the box, unused, whispering to me from beside the couch where I was storing it. So, I got online and found a recipe for delicious little tartlets (mini quiches, if you will). And tonight, I baked. And I had people over to my apartment for the first time in a while. And it was lovely. And the tartlets? Amazing, if I may be so bold.

The recipe isn’t mine, but I did improve the crust because, well, I’ve got some serious pastry skills (tart pastry anyway). So, without further ado, here’s the recipe (as posted on epicurious–originally seen in Bon Appetit):

1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 ounces chilled cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Ice water to texture

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 cups chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only; about 3 large)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, chopped
2/3 cup half and half
2 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled

Fresh parsley leaves (I didn’t use the garnish)

For crust:

  • Blend flour and salt in processor 5 seconds. Add butter and cream cheese. Using on/off turns, blend until moist clumps form. Gather dough; shape into 6-inch-long log. Wrap and chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
  • Cut log into 24 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Press 1 round into each cup of 2 nonstick 12-cup mini muffin pans; freeze 30 minutes.

having the right equipment is key

And what I did: 

  • Put the flour, cream cheese, and butter in a bowl and place the bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes (assuming you started with cold cream cheese and butter–if not, freeze it longer). 
  • Using a pastry cutter–this is imperative for keeping all the ingredients chilled which is what will give you the lovely, light, flakey crust you want–cut the butter and cream cheese into the flour until you have pea-sized balls of dough. 
  • Slowly add ice-cold water (a tablespoon at a time) until the dough just comes together to form a ball. 
  • If the dough feels at all greasy (like the butter has started to soften), refrigerate it for 5-20 minutes. 
  • Roll the dough out to 1/4″ thickness and cut circles (I use a cutter) large enough for whatever pan you are using (muffin tin, mini-muffin tin, tartlet pans), place the rounds in the pan and then freeze for 10-20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, prepare filling: (No changes here–except the parsley garnish)

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and sautĂ© 10 minutes; cool. Heat oil in small skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sautĂ© until crisp, about 6 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to paper towels. Whisk half and half and next 3 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Mix in goat cheese, then leeks and pancetta.
  • Spoon filling into shells. Bake until filling is set and crust edges are golden, about 25-30 minutes. Cool in pans 5 minutes. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and chill in pans. Rewarm uncovered in 350°F oven 12 minutes.)
  • Using small knife, cut around tartlets to loosen. Turn out tartlets and arrange on platter; top each with parsley leaf 

chewy oatmeal chocolate chip bars

I finally had the opportunity to bake. This is the recipe I found for the ingredients I had on hand (I had no desire to go to the grocery store at midnight last night). It was very serendipitous because I don’t know that I would have made these otherwise…and they are delicious!

Ingredients (Yes, this was copied from a website. You don’t have to use brand named stuff…although that happened to be what I had on hand. Does that say something about me?)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
2 1/2 cups Quaker® Oats (quick OR old fashioned, uncooked)
2 cups NESTLÉ TOLL HOUSE Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels (12-ounces)
1 cup chopped nuts (optional – I opted out…I rarely use nuts in baking, just because)

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Beat butter and sugars in large bowl until creamy. Add eggs, milk and vanilla extract; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda and salt; mix well. Stir in oats, morsels and nuts; mix well. Press dough onto bottom of ungreased 13 x 9-inch baking pan.
  3. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely in pan on wire rack; cut into bars. Store tightly covered.

put the lime in the coconut cupcakes

So, once again I’ve stolen a recipe (and post) from Mel, but I did modify it a bit. I have now made this twice (both times in Las Vegas because Justin and Cherity like coconut as much as I do); once as a regular cake (in a 9×13 inch pan with no layering or anything) and once as cupcakes. Both were delicious. The pics, obviously, are the cupcakes and should explain what I did. The only modification that won’t be shown in the pictures is the bake time…which I just got from looking at a box mix. This recipe makes 24 cupcakes…except you can half the glaze.

Cake: (don’t you dare use a coconut flavored box mix. The cake is A-MAZING and not too time consuming to make from scratch.)

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon coconut extract
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup coconut milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease and flour 2 (9-inch) cake pans.

In an electric mixer or using a hand beater, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add coconut extract and eggs 1 at a time. In a mixing bowl or on a sheet of parchment paper, combine flour, salt, baking soda and powder. To mixer add coconut milk and flour to creamed mixture alternately, beginning and ending with flour. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 25 to 28 minutes. Allow to cool 10 minutes then turn out of pans onto rack(s) over a sheet pan and allow to cool completely.My little scraper cleaner!

Lime Glaze

  • 1 cup sour cream or yogurt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 limes, zested and juiced
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk
  • 1 cup shredded coconut

In a medium bowl combine sour cream or yogurt, sugar, lime zest and juice, coconut milk, shredded coconut. With a bamboo skewer, poke holes in cake and spread glaze on both sides of both cakes. Cover with plastic wrap, chill until ready to frost cake.

Icing: (if you’re making an actual layer cake, you may need all of the icing this recipe calls for. If you’re just going to frost the top of the cake, 1/2 or even 1/4 of this amount will be enough.)

  • 1 cup butter
  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 pound box plus 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups shredded coconut

In an electric mixer or using a hand mixer beat together the butter and cream cheese until well blended and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar gradually at low speed. Beat in coconut milk and vanilla. Frost cake. Coat top and sides with shredded coconut.