Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Where were we?

I think we were discussing fruit sugars, or other sugar substitutes. Which I am still really interested in and I think we could explore that topic in a lot of depth. Unfortunately, I am more excited about some other things right now, so we'll get back to that one soon.

Gosh, where has the cooking gone? Don't you miss it? Well, I haven't stopped, but I did stop or significantly decrease the pictures of the stuff I have been making lately. I have been enjoying my kitchen and there have been successes (white bread that turned out great!) and failures (white bread that turned out really yummy, but looked funny), and then a lot of old standbys. I made lasagna about a week ago, I made biscotti the other night, I've been savoring the end of summer tomatoes in a simple salad, sliced with lemon olive oil, salt, pepper, and shavings of romano cheese. We had chicken picatta, mushroom risotto and spinach salads last night, and it has all been wonderful. I am sorry that I haven't shared these, I just needed to cook without thinking for a while. Please share the comfort foods you make when you don't want to think about it- sometimes those simple things are the best.

Okay, before there is a riot from all this teasing and no pictures, I do have something fun to share. Hope you enjoy...
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake:
Before you start thinking that you have to have an excuse to make this cake, you totally don't. I promise that your co-workers won't object! The cake is a one-bowl process, as you can see, I didn't even use my stand mixer. I was a little disappointed because I never like to over bake things, but then my cakes shrunk a bit, so I would keep them in the oven for the full time. The recipe gives a range, and I always check at the front end, but these could have used the extra 5 minutes. It's a sour cream based cake, which in my experience is always yummy and rich, but can benefit from a little longer in the oven without drying out. As a warning (which really shouldn't be a surprise), this cake is ultra rich.
Whipping the cream cheese, sugar, and butter for the PB frosting. I usually put my frostings in the fridge for a couple minutes before I start actually frosting the cake. It seems like that helps everything come together. I was worried that this might not be enough frosting, but there were leftovers (darn...).
This cookbook has been fun, most recipes are 3 layers of 8 inch round cakes. It's nice though, because unlike 2 9 inch layers that you have to slice, these you just layer one on top of the other. It keeps the layers nice and even, but still makes the cake fun and tall with no shortage of icing. Lots of the cakes in the book have a different filling or icing for in between the layers than on top, or unique topping and decorating ideas. It's a fun book to just look through, if nothing else!
Once you have frosted the cake, return it to the fridge to set, and then make the chocolate peanut butter glaze. Ummm, yea, that's what I said. Seriously, this was the best part of the cake in my opinion and I hopefully will find another place to use this in the future.
Once the glaze is finished, pour it over the top and spread it with a cake frosting spatula allowing it to drip down the sides. (In an oh-so-temptingly way, of course!) I recommend making the cakes 1-2 days ahead, wrapping them tightly and storing them in the fridge or freezer once completely cooled. Then make the frosting and assemble the night before your event so that everything has 1 full night in the fridge to stay together. Then drive very carefully to work the next day to share with your coworkers! It will be worth the effort.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lan Kwai Fong

Ahh the trendiness! So this is where they have been hiding it! You knew it when you saw these people... prim and proper for the most part, but maybe rocking some seriously adorable wedges, or just a hint of some crazy eyeliner, and that's not even talking about the boys! Oh the boys in Hong Kong are sooo fashionable. Chris and I were rather impressed. The attention to detail and the hair. Oh the hair. I'm telling you it was a sight to be seen. I know it isn't fair for me to talk about it and not provide examples, but I was in a foreign country and I did not want to get in a scuffle over taking someone's photograph. Teased, tousled, feathered- these guys were peacocks. It was rather impressive. So anyway, underneath their prim demeanor, I knew they were hiding this fun loving side somewhere close by. The neon lights are super big in HK, but by far the coolest example was the Coach Store on Queens' Road and D'Aguilar. Of course, I didn't find this until Chris and I went there together, so I didn't do any shopping, but it was really fun just to walk around and take it in.

This is where we found the best food- our favorite restaurant was appropriately named California, which apparently vaulted this area to its current status of hip nightlife hangout. I had the "Best Burger" which was a perfect patty, juicy with the normal fixings, but also included a portabello mushroom and garlic mayo. I had to cut it in half just to be able to lift this thing, and as the sign of great food- it was still steaming when I started in on the second half. We shared Thai crab cakes to start, which were so cute. They served them on little chinese soup spoons- you know the kind you get with your wonton soup? It went ginger/wasabi cream at the bottom of the spoon, then this tiny crab cake, topped with ginger, a teeny slice of cucumber (think the size of a dime in diameter), some pickled red cabbage and black and white sesame seeds. It was to die for. Chris had the coolest meal too- pecan and Parmesan crusted pork chops with apple-studded mashed potatoes. The presentation of everything was great, the food was innovative and delicious the service was attentive (for the first time) and we were the only ones eating dinner. Hah! We were like the early bird special people! We were eating at 8:30 at night and you would have thought we were nuts! There were lots of other people in the place, but they were at the bar, not the restaurant... which wasn't much of a division, just a small step up to the 'dining' area, and there were maybe 10 tables in the dining section. But it was okay, we were starving and the food was fantastic. We finished with crepes Suzette filled with bananas, grand marnier, and topped with orange slices and this coconut gelato. Even Chris, who I have never seen eat coconut willingly gave it a try. I think we both had to admit it complimented the dessert. HK is funny though. We wandered down this street because I wanted to have a looksee, and at the Tsui Wah Restaurant (the large pink neon sign) there was stuff hanging in the window that you really didn't need to see. Luckily we had already eaten! We headed to another place the next night that was an italian restaurant. It was also great, but not as cool as California. Then again... few things are.
But Hong Kong is definitely not short on the cool factor, for sure. Just check out the boys.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mid Levels / Hollywood Road

After we rode the Peak Tram, we wandered around Central. Central is basically the business district, and the Mid-Levels are the residential piece kind of directly behind Central. This is the view to the East near the tram station.The fashionable by day, party by night Lan Kwai Fong district. Some of the best restaurants in Hong Kong we found in this area... more on that later!Looking up towards the mid-levels in Lan Kwai Fong... The Mid-Levels Escalator! At last! We had heard rumors about this escalator, the longest covered outdoor escalator in the world. Since Hong Kong is so hilly and everyone walks everywhere, they figured this would help people get where they wanted to go! The escalator runs down from the mid-levels to central in the mornings until about 10am. Then it runs up the hills for the rest of the day and all night.
The escalator is basically a huge moving sidewalk, which stops at bisecting streets so you can get on and off where you please. It runs for 800 meters, and it would take about 20 minutes from start to finish if you just stand and ride the whole thing. It's completely free, which is kind of amazing, but it would probably take more time to charge people to ride it. It was really nice to be able to hop on and off at specific spots. The escalator has been running since 1993, and I am sure it has made a considerable difference in the mornings and afternoons of its riders!
As you ride, you also get an interesting perspective of the mid-levels themselves. I guess just like most urban cities, people live above retail space, and Hong Kong might rival any city with the amount of retail space here. Lots of interesting areas were intersecting the escalator. It was very helpful that so many signs are in English as well as Chinese. Most things seemed to default to English, except for shops, stores, or restaurants. We weren't really in the mood for shopping on this day, but enjoyed seeing what was there! When you see the street that you want to get off on, you just exit the escalator and take the stairs down to street level.
Hollywood Road. No, I'm not kidding. And there is even an area called SoHo (south of Hollywood Road) and NoHo (north of Hollywood Road). This was a cool part of town with all sorts of neat places. There were pubs, restaurants, huge apartment buildings, a busy street- Hollywood Road seemed like another major conduit, south (towards the middle of the island) of Queens Road. (Basically the escalator takes you in this direction.) But the interesting thing is that Hollywood Road wasn't named after Hollywood California. It was named in 1844 for the second British Governor of Hong Kong. Go figure! Well, true to form with the other Hollywood, this area is swanky and one of the shinier parts of HK. The street is wide, and the shops are interesting. Lots of antiques and housewares. Surprisingly (haha, not really) I saw some cool wine glasses in a store window that I wanted to take home with me. I did not get them however, because-oh my gosh- they were so fragile looking, I just knew they would never make it home in one piece. And that would have made me so sad!While we were walking, it was interesting to watch the people working on these super steep side streets. Guys would literally push wheeled carts up these hills at a running/crouching level. Sometimes the carts would be replaced by a rolling office chair where the object was secured with shrink wrap- pretty funny to imagine, but keep in mind its 90+ degrees and humid. So there were a lot of sweaty guys with no shirts on down these streets. They were working hard. Anything and everything you could imagine could be found in this area, fresh fruit stand to electronics, to bed sheets.Again, the English signs are so helpful....It just keeps going up and up. I don't think we went past Hollywood Road, but the escalator would take you as far as Robinson Road, and higher, possibly to Conduit Road. I think Robinson was the furthest up that we made it on our visit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Peak

So Hong Kong Island has this ridiculously high mountain in the middle, called Victoria Peak (the harbor is Victoria Harbor, etc. etc. These British names are all from when it was annexed by the Brits back in 1842- or sometime around there.) The story goes that the govenor (appointed by the Queen of England, I suppose) decided one day that he needed to find a cooler place to live in the summers. So he decided to move up to the top of the Peak. Well, apparently it caught on, and all these wealthy British families decided to build houses up there. Getting up there was a chore, they had to have people esentially lug them up the hill, in which they built paths through the dense vegetation. It had to be a horrendous job if you were the one to drag these people up the mountain! It certainly didn't seem cooler up there to me, either! Well eventually they built a cable car system, and it has been updated over the years and is now the Peak Tram. Funny story about the tram- They used to reserve a seat for the Govenor until like 2 minutes before the tram left the station each time, just in case the Govenor arrived unnanounced. Then, if he wasn't there, someone could use that seat. There have also been multiple versions of the Peak Observation Deck from which we took these pictures. The newest one is about 7 or 8 stories high and it overlooks the whole island. Unfortunately it was really hazy the day that we were there, but we got some good pictures, nonetheless.

This is the view of Victoria Harbor and Central Hong Kong from the Peak. The tall building is the International Financial Center 2. The one under construction across the harbor is going to mirror this one. If you saw the latest Batman movie, this is the building in the movie that he jumps off to save the day. There is a smaller IFC (IFC 1) directly left and down from the IFC2 in the picture. It's about half the size with a measly 38 stories. (Which would probably make IFC1 one of the tallest if not the tallest bulding in San Diego, just for comparison's sake!) Looking across the harbor is the Kowloon side. This is actually the peninsula of mainland China. This area and the surrounding peninsula and islands were also annexed by the British and are collectively called the "New Territories". If it were clearer, you could see all the buildings across the way. That side of the Harbor is much flatter and even more densly populated than Hong Kong Island. There are ferries that run multiple routes between the sides daily and the subway also goes under the harbor.
We are lucky that these pictures don't show how truly sweltering it was that day. It was almost unbearable to be outside. You couldn't touch the metal railing, it was too hot! It was generally 93 degrees for the high the week that we were there, and about 100% humidity.
I wanted to share some of these images so that you can get an idea of just how densly populated this city is. It is unbelieveable. Most of the tall buildings are around 50 stories, and some are much more. The IFC2 is 88 stories.
Approximately 7 million people live in Hong Kong, which is just about a million less than live in New York City. Hong Kong is the 4th most densely populated country, behind only Macau, Monaco, and Singapore. The city is only about 60% the size of New York City, and has almost as many residents. The Peak Tram runs throughout the day, and it takes about a half-hour to get to the top of the Peak. The Tickets were HK$48, or about $6.50 each. This included access to the Sky Terrace, which is where we took these pictures. Inside it is like a mall, there are shops, restaurants, even a video game arcade. There is another mall at the top as well, but it was mostly restaurants. The shops at both were pretty souvenier-y so we didn't spend much time at them.
View from the windows of the tram going up...
This is the West side of the Island.
This is the middle of the island, the low building with the pointy front is the Hong Kong Convention Center.
Looking to the East side of the island.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Walking in Hong Kong

You know that song, "Walking in LA, Walking in LA-A, nobody walks in LA..." Well, everybody walks in Hong Kong! ;) As did we, and quite a bit!! These were taken outside our hotel, it is in the foreground of this photo. I didn't venture too far while Chris was in meetings, so I basically just stayed close to the hotel which was a pretty business-centric district. The street below is Queen's Boulevard. It was always super busy. Look at how much higher the buildings on the right are than those on the left- the island is just so steep and this was less than a mile from the coastline. This building might not look that cool during the day, it is really tall of course, but the cool thing is that at night, the parts where you see white color are lighted up and the lights change colors and formation throughout the night. Really cool.
I liked the juxtaposition of the old and new here in the skyline. The building on the left was right across the street from our hotel and there was a courtyard where people were eating lunch when I took this picture. The tall building on the right has some of the PwC offices in it, but it wasn't the building that Chris' meetings were in.
Fountain in the courtyard near that older building...A relatively new sight in Hong Kong- the Chinese flag. Technically Hong Kong is considered a "Special Administrative Region" and there are still 40 years until we will know whether it will become fully incorporated into China. The British had annexed the territory for 100 years which expired in 1997, so they have only been part of China for the last 10 years. Everything is in English and Chinese as far as street signs, names of buildings, etc.
This is the building that Chris' meetings were in. It was connected to our hotel via a skybridge. The cool thing about Hong Kong is that pretty much all of the buildings in this part of town are connected, either via a skybridge or underground through the MTR stations. Also, there are covered walkways all the way from where the ferries dock at the shore to these buildings as well. Therefore walkers are kept out of the sun and rain on their way to and from work.

Initial snippets... more to come, I promise!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hong Kong- Monday Night and Tuesday Morning

Good morning! It is about 9:30 here on Tuesday morning in Hong Kong, and it is Monday night, around 6:30 back home. It really does feel funny to be on a totally different day. After our long flight, however, it was really nice to know that a good night's sleep wasn't far away. I can only describe the flight as this- the whole time, you are counting down the hours. With about 10 hours to go, you think, okay, 10 more hours, okay, that makes sense. Wow, 10 hours. What am I going to do with 10 more hours!! At only 4 hours left you are starting to see the light, however, you're still thinking, wow 4 more hours!? With only and hour and a half left, they served a final meal... and you are kind of thinking 'We made it! We made it!!' I wasn't sure if I wanted to eat that meal, but it is a good thing that we did, because it took a while to get through immigration and get our bags, pick up some Hong Kong dollars, flag a red/urban taxi, speed through the streets on the left side (a little unnerving), pass enormous buildings with all kinds of different light effects, to arrive at our sparkly hotel. Everyone is sooo nice. Everyone is 100% agreeable. Even in negotiations, they say that they will agree with you until the end when you realize that you are at an impasse. So it is interesting. It is strange to turn on the tv and see that there are American stations, but there's a lot of other ones too.

This morning we ordered room service, and it was impeccable. It was classic English breakfast, 2 eggs poached, sausage, ham, and fresh tomatoes, fresh fruit- papaya, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, cantaloupe and honeydew, chocolate croissants, tea, coffee, and orange juice. I should have taken pictures of it, but we couldn't help ourselves... We dug in. I can't upload pictures here, so I might have to wait to share images when I get back. The guy who brought it all up was so cute. He was so nice and he had such an attention to detail. He poured the tea into a small strainer, swirled it around to get the last drops out, placed everything perfectly by the window -which we left closed, considering it looks directly into an office building! There was even two cute little glass containers of lemon yogurt, which we have saved for later in our room fridge. He asked about our visit in Hong Kong, to which we replied, "Our first time!" and he asked if it was a little "buggy" for us, but I think that meant "muggy" which it is! A little hot and humid, in the high 80s with a lot of humidity.

Chris' office is right across the street, and accesible by an overpass from our hotel, which is really nice. They keep showing views of the harbour on tv this morning, and I just think the city is beautiful. You have to like high-rises, but it is really stunning. It was quite impressive as we flew overhead last night. We are looking forward to what the city will reveal on our first full day here. I have a couple things on my agenda. 1. Finding some shopping- There is "shopping" near our hotel, Prada, Chanel, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels... so I will have to find some other shopping as well! 2. Staying close as possible, I won't be venturing too far until we can go together. Hope your Monday was wonderful!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fruit sugars

Fruit sugars- This isn't anything ground-breaking, but using sweet-tasting fruits with other things can help cut down on the need for added sugars. Good examples are strawberries, mango, apples, peaches, and bananas. Think about your recipe and what enhancements make sense for what you are making. For baked goods, mashed bananas not only add a sweetness and moistness to the crumb, it also adds a wonderful, unmistakable flavor as well as lots of potassium that you wouldn't get otherwise. Mango is wonderful with steak as a salsa and peaches compliment pork tenderloin and chicken fantastically. Even simmering these fruits in the skillet while you are finishing meat adds a depth of flavor to the dish which can be enjoyed alongside the vegetables that you are making with your dinner.

Example recipe:

Banana Bread - Adapted from Molly Wizenberg, Orangette
Fruit Sugars, honey, and Agave Nectar
3 bananas
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup agave nectar
2 eggs
1/4 cup water
1 & 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 & 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tablespoon of sugar

In the bowl of a stand mixer, break up the banana into small pieces. Leave chunky for sticky pieces of banana in the bread, or mash if you prefer an even texture.
Add the oil, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, honey and agave nectar. Trick- whenever you are measuring honey, always grease the measuring spoon with a little oil. In this case, I just measured both the honey and the agave nectar in the same measuring cup immediately after I used it to measure the oil. Works perfectly- you aren't left scraping it out. I hesitated on whether to post this, because I still thought this bread was awfully sweet. I think the next time I make it I will reduce the sugar to a 1/2 cup. I considered omitting it all together, but I am hesitant to given that the honey and agave nectar will yield a different crumb than the sugar. There is a possibility that it will be quite dense. If you are really trying to limit sugar, and want to give it a try I would use the following ratio: 1/4 cup honey, 1/2 - 3/4 cup agave nectar.
Mix on low speed until just blended. Then sift in the flour, baking soda and salt. Again mix until just incorporated and then stop. It will be thin, like this:Pour the batter into a prepared bread pan, I used a 9x5 inch pan. Mix the sugars and cinnamon in a bowl for the topping. This also helps you cut down the sugar in the recipe. You use a lot less of sugar in a sugar topping that you would usually add to the recipe. Plus the person enjoying the bread gets that sweet kick right up front, so it is missed less in the rest of the bread. Sprinkle the mixture over the top of the bread, and bake at 350 for about an hour.

The bread has a nice texture, and the crumbly topping makes it feel like dessert. I kind of like the chunks of banana that find their way to the bottom, but if that bothers you, just mash the banana more before you start adding the other ingredients, or use frozen bananas.Enjoy all on its own- it doesn't need anything. although it would be great with marscapone or cream cheese. : )

I know that this isn't a "low sugar" recipe, but it does make some nice swaps, and I think the end result is better than the other. The flavor of the agave nectar is so clean and nice. I have another recipe that I used it in that I will share next. Keep an eye out for it in the Trader Joe's baking section. You will end up using it more than you can imagine!

I will keep adding to this category going forward. Hope it provides some good ideas, and I hope that you will share your strategies as well! I probably won't add anything for a week or so, but I am sure I will have lots to share when I get back!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

On my mind...

Natural sweeteners. You know that I love dessert. I have no problem with granulated, caster/superfine, light brown, dark brown, even powdered sugar. There is something special about dessert, and I love that. But what I don't like is sugar where it isn't necessary. I hate to think about the wasted tablespoons of it in things like packets of oatmeal, breakfast cereal, baked goods, especially whole wheat or "health" breads. I just don't like people being tricked into eating sugar when they aren't expecting it. So, I avoid these things, and I try to use alternatives in my cooking where they are appropriate. Here are some of my strategies, including honey, avage nectar, nuts, nut butters and fruit sugars. Also, I think that many recipes today are written to appeal to the sweet-addicted tastes of most Americans. Sometimes I think the sweet flavor is considered a substitute for flavor. When you add depth of flavor and multiple tastes, the need to have that sweet sensation diminishes. Feel free to pick and choose the ones that work for you. I will never be able to cut out white sugar completely from my diet, but I hope that I can cut it out in places where it won't be missed, and enjoy it to its fullest extent in the cakes, pies, cookies, and tarts that I love making for my family and friends.

Cheesecake tart with fresh fruit

I wanted to try a tart with a dense graham cracker crust. I love my tart pan, so it seemed like a no brainer to try making a cheesecake like tart in it. I started with most of a sleeve of regular graham crackers, which I processed until fine in the food processor. To this you add about 6 tablespoons of melted butter, 1/2-2/3 cup sugar, and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon. Press into the buttered pan using a metal dry measuring cup. Bake at 350 degrees for about 8-10 minutes. While that bakes, prepare the filling to pour into the hot crust. I used 1 cup softened marscapone cheese, 1 8-oz package of softened cream cheese, 2 eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, the juice and zest of 1 lemon, and half a vanilla bean, split and scraped. Blend these together using a hand or stand mixer, then pour the filling into the crust once it finishes baking. Return to the oven for 20-25 minutes. The tart will puff up, but should not overflow. As it cools, it will return to the normal size.
Fruit topping. This was a great trick that I learned in order to make glazed fruit for the topping. What I love about it is that you can use whatever fruit you have on hand. Using a little bit of apricot jam, microwave for about 30 seconds until warm and gooey. Then toss your fruit of choice in the bowl and arrange on the tart.
I had beautiful fresh strawberries and blackberries on hand, so I used those. The jam gives that beautiful shiny coating to the fruit, and you would swear that this dessert was purchased at a fancy boutique! This is a great dessert to make ahead of time, because it benefits from spending a night in the fridge to chill. Once it is time to serve, remove from the fridge about a half hour before you want to use it. To separate the metal edge from the pan, invert a bowl on the counter and set the tart on top. Gently press down on the metal as you turn the pan on the bowl. It might take a little while for the crust to release, but try to be careful to not push too much in one spot. After a while, gravity kicks in and will help the ring fall away.
Cut into 10-12 wedges. It would be especially pretty served with fresh mint sprigs. This one came to work with me. Needless to say, my coworkers were happy to see me that day! It went out on the counter around 8:30 am and was gone before lunch.

Other fruit ideas: sliced nectarines, raspberries, kiwi and mango.