Valentine’s vegan samosa shepherd’s pie

This year, my Valentine (ūüö®!!!) and I booked a retreat in the piney woods of Crockett, Texas.

A few weeks earlier, I’d gotten it into my head that I needed to stay at a DIY cabin — you know the kind, with repurposed wood countertops and galvanized tub sinks. As luck would have it, we found just the one in a small town, two hours north of Houston.

To get there, KT and I drove through the winding countryside, following mysterious instructions (“pass the church and the fire department and look for the dirt road with the mailboxes”) until we found our sweet little property. There was a miniature horse and donkey grazing out front, and a babbling creek tucked behind the house. Our AirBnB hosts lived in a geodesic dome compound a few yards away. For two city kids, this was really, really exciting.

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snickerdoodle-off: classic vs. cardamom

When presented with a cookie variety plate (which, to my great chagrin, does not happen daily), I‚Äôve been pretty predictable. CCCs please. The more mix-ins ‚Äď oatmeal, walnuts, cherries, what have you ‚Äď the better.

Recently, however, I‚Äôve rediscovered the simple. Case in point: snickerdoodles. Their pure texture allows a satisfyingly chewy experience ‚Äď but the satisfying cinnamon-sugar coating prevents plainness or one-dimensionality. OG cookie realness. I made the Smitten Kitchen recipe for classic snickerdoodles and found myself itching to eating every other cookie that emerged from the oven.

Though I did, indeed, love these snickerdoodles, I later came across a version that seemed a potential, impossible improvement on the original. That‚Äôz right… cardamom! Dorie Greenspan and Joe Yonan had thrown the magical spice into the mix. After immediately fixing up a batch, I had to (very impatiently) wait for the batter to meld in the refrigerator or whatever it is that cookies do when they rest. Once I pulled the finished products out of the oven, however, it was clear they were worth the wait. Jay, my sweets-averse gold standard of taste-testing, absolutely devoured these fragrant snickerdoodles.

Two baking authorities ‚Äď two recipes ‚Äď two incredible hits. What happens at the end of it all? I‚Äôm torn. I can‚Äôt decide. Jay would probably have me make the cardamom version all year long, but those classic snickerdoodles have a firm grip on me. The only thing to do, it seems, is to continue making both, forever and ever.

Classic snickerdoodles

Recipe at Smitten Kitchen

Cardamom snickerdoodles

Recipe by Joe Yonan, courtesy of Dorie Greenspan

nutella cream crepe cake

‚ÄúOh god,‚ÄĚ I thought to myself as I stared, bleary-eyed, at the clock. ‚ÄúWhat have I done?‚ÄĚ

It was 3 AM in the morning and I was alone in the kitchen, making my 24th crepe of 30.

To fully explain how I’d found myself chained to the stove, we’ll have to rewind a bit. In New York last year, I’d had a slice of cake unlike any other: delicate crepes alternating with layers of whisper-light mousse. I knew, sitting in that crowded Dean & Deluca, that I’d have to find a way to experience Lady M’s divine mille crepe again.

I didn’t, however, want the cake so badly that I was willing to stay up into the wee hours to recreate it… yet, here I was. At midnight, I figured that I might as well churn out a few crepes now and assemble the whole thing before my friend’s brunch the next day. How long could it take? Answer: A long, long time.

The crepes, despite being time-intensive, were easy enough to make. A handful of common ingredients, a large flat pan, and a good spatula (no need for those fancy crepe sticks if you don‚Äôt have ‚Äėem) is all it takes. I also realized, after a good long while, that my range has not one but four burners. While I would‚Äôve certainly burnt down the house with all of them going, my cooking time was significantly decreased once I started using two pans simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the easiest part of this cake was also the least delicious: the Nutella pastry cream. Were I to make this again, I‚Äôd omit the dairy¬†entirely; it was cloyingly sweet, such that it rendered the taste of the crepes themselves indiscernible. I‚Äôd much rather assemble the cake with thin layers of Nutella spread between each layer. Save yourself the trouble! The cake is impressive enough as it is, with its dozens of gorgeous layers. Besides ‚Äď why fix what‚Äôs not broken? Crepes and Nutella are perfect partners.

Crepe cake

Recipe courtesy of Yossy Arefi at Food52

And, if you’re curious: here’s the pastry cream recipe, sans addition of a half-cup of Nutella!

peppermint devil’s food cake

In many ways, my relationship with this¬†cake¬†can be likened to my journey with graduate school.¬†I’d come across Bon Appetit‘s peppermint devil’s food cake¬†time and time again: reading about it in food blogs, getting a taste of it at holiday parties, discussing it with more ambitious (and often traumatized) bakers. I knew I wanted it¬†— I knew it was perfect for me — and¬†I was so afraid.¬†Last year, however, I decided it was time. I was going to tackle this culinary Mount Everest.

I readied myself for the uphill climb. I studied the texts, prepared the materials, steeled my mind. I lost myself in the process, going fully off-radar, before re-emerging victorious. The end result, monstrously imperfect as it was, was beyond words. Yes, the behemoth of a cake looked impressive, towering at a foot tall and weighing as much as a newborn baby. More importantly, though, it was delicious. How could it not be? Three intensely chocolate-y layers of cake alternated with rich, dark chocolate ganache and smooth, whipped white chocolate cream. Not pictured is the veritable blanket of peppermint frosting smothering the cake. (Here I will add that the frosting was excellent but structurally unsound, transforming the cake into an alarmingly gooey blob. A really great-tasting blob. Blobs still count as successes in my book.)

It’s only fitting that I share this now: my first recipe post-graduate school acceptance. I actually made this cake a while ago, around Christmastime¬†for a birthday in Jay’s family. While everyone¬†fully enjoyed their slices, mine tasted¬†especially sweet. The taste of victory.

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Marie H√©l√®ne’s apple cake

One of the best things I baked in 2014 was Marian Burros‚Äô famous plum torte ‚Äď such a wonderfully simple, undeniably delicious recipe. I think I may have found its counterpart for 2015: Marie H√©l√®ne‚Äôs apple cake.

Like the plum torte, it‚Äôs even named after its creator. That‚Äôs just how great some recipes are; homage must be paid. I proudly toted this cake to a friend‚Äôs birthday, but it got lost in a sea of sweets. The next day, however, I heard back from the hosts. They‚Äôd been packing up leftovers and brushing away stray crumbs when a taste of the apple cake made them stop in their tracks. ‚ÄúSo good!‚ÄĚ they cheered. ‚ÄúI wish we‚Äôd had more.‚ÄĚ (I suspect the cake had intensified¬†in¬†flavor after sitting around for a day.)

The best part, of course, is the cake’s simplicity. Start with da¬†best apples. I‚Äôd recommend using a tart variety, as the oven caramelizes and coaxes sweetness out of fruit so nicely. Cube and throw them into a pan of simple, buttery batter. Bake. You‚Äôll be rewarded with one very moist cake, interspersed with warm, tender chunks of apple and topped with a lightly crackly shell. If the plum torte is summer in a bite, this apple cake is autumnal* through and through.

* Oh wait… is it spring? Are we far away from fall as temporally possible right now? Well, it is what it is. I am what I am.**

** A hot mess… but at least one who, at one time in her life, could bake a mean apple cake.

Marie-H√©l√®ne’s apple cake

Recipe from Dorie Greenspan at Epicurious

caramel apple souffle cheesecake

There are few things in San Francisco that aren’t overhyped, overpriced, and over-Yelped. However, in the outer reaches of the city, there lies a tiny, timeless little nook called Zanze’s. From behind his dinky counter, the man¬†himself churns out cheesecakes and only cheesecakes… only incredibly magical, fluffy cheesecakes, so wonderfully wispy¬†that you must slice them using the¬†provided fishing wire. What’s more, Sam Zanze produces his work without frills, fanfare, or financial funny business. No hip packaging, no website, no mark-up — just a quality product at a reasonable price. He’s a municipal treasure.

K introduced me to the magic of Zanze’s at his birthday party last year, for which I’d made an¬†almond cake.¬†This time around, I knew what I’d be making for this dearest of friends. I was going to try my hand at cheesecake. I acknowledged it’d be futile to try and emulate Zanze’s sorcery. Rather, my goal was to copy its style¬†— airy, light and satisfying rather than heavy, dense, and cloying. This souffle cheesecake recipe was exactly that.

However! Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I topped the cheesecake with an incredibly decadent mixture of caramelized apples, apple-caramel sauce, and chocolate syrup. Would I do deface such a simple, delicate cheesecake again? Yes, because I’m a glutton. However, I’d highly encourage you to try the cheesecake on its own first. It can’t replicate the magic of Zanze’s, but it comes close.

Japanese souffle cheesecake

Recipe adapted by Just One Cookbook from CookPad

Caramel apple topping (apples and sauce)

Recipe from Bobby Flay at the Food Network

Chocolate syrup

Recipe from David Lebovitz

big, chewy oatmeal cookies

Happy birthday to the woman who has taught me everything I know, who continues to love and support me unconditionally, and who gives me the space to grow, and bake, and love — my mom.

Over the years, my mother¬†has been trying to lure me into moving back home. She would never openly admit it; she knows me too well to try and say so outright. Instead,¬†she nests. Like a little bowerbird, she’ll outfit¬†her kitchen¬†with all sorts of sleek, shiny scraps in the hopes of winning me over. A food processor here; a rubber spatula there. I’ve got to admit —¬†the lady knows me well.

Home for the holidays, I arrived on my mom’s¬†doorstep and hugged her tight before making¬†a bee-line for the kitchen. There, in all its glory, was the last addition to her arsenal: a¬†stand¬†mixer, pristine, clean, and freshly freed from its cardboard prison. I couldn’t wait to take it to task. Over the next few days, I launched into a full-scale takeover of her kitchen. First order of the day:¬†cookies for the hostess herself. I’m not a¬†total¬†brat, guys.

My mother is, incredibly, one of the few people who I love who doesn’t love chocolate. (I¬†know. I’m not sure how we share blood lines when I’m almost certain that Hershey’s chocolate syrup flows through my veins.) However, because my ma gets what she wants, I found an excellent alternative: enormous oatmeal cookies, chewy and toothsome and studded with dried cherries. Chocoholic or not, this was one¬†bliss-inducing baked good.

You’ll notice, however, that the picture above shows cookies clearly cut and rolled in chocolate. The recipe, true to its word, makes enormous, delicious cookies with crispy edges¬†and chewy middles. What to do with such a surfeit of sweets, but to give them away? In order to stack them in mason jars as gifts, I trimmed the cookies and sealed their exposed sides with melted chocolate.¬†Rest assured that my mother still got her simple¬†cookies — and that I got to lick melted chocolate off my fingers — and all was well in our little home.

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sweet orange buns

“OMG,” I texted my sister frantically. “WHAT.IS.HAPPENING.”

Earlier, I had decided that 2014 would be the Year of Yeast. 2013 was, undoubtedly, the Year of Pastry, in which I masochistically baked batch after batch of cold, flaky dough. That process, while nerve-wracking, was pretty simple; after a while, I knew my way around a pie tin pretty well. Yeast, however, was shaping up to be something else entirely.

I’d warmed the yeast in a bit of milk, disappointed when bubbles didn’t appear as promised. Soldiering onward, I’d mixed the ball of batter, placed it in an oversized mixing bowl, and left it, covered, to rise. This is where you find me now: home alone, scared, fully expecting the dough to rise out of its plastic prison and devour me whole.

At this point, I abandoned texting and hit¬†dial instead. “Nancy! The dough… it’s fucking enormous. Ohmygod. Like, it’s going to burst out of the saran wrap.” I could almost hear my sister rolling her eyes on the other line. “Yeah, Julie, that’s normal. Just unwrap it, let it breathe and deflate a little. Okay? I’ll be home soon. Bye.” Click.

Obediently, I uncovered a few inches of the bowl. The dough within jiggled and retreated, catching the plastic wrap as it deflated slightly. I watched in amazement, prodding at the porous mass. Gummy. Springy. Kinda cute (?). Really cool. I was calmer now. “I can get down with this,” I thought.

The next morning, after seeing what this lump of fermented flour could do, I decided that I was definitely down with it. As I removed a pan¬†of gorgeous sweet orange buns from the oven, nary a thought of¬†yeast beasts popped in my head. All I felt was pure joy and admiration, having watched my little dough babies become full-blown, fully-risen cinnamon rolls. I’d been pining for these beauties since first seeing them; I’d dreamt of being woken up Christmas morning by their sweet orange scent. This holiday season, I made it happen — and I conquered over my fear of fermentation in the process. 2014: the Year of Yeast!

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greatest hits of 2014

Happy New Year’s Eve, friends!

And what a year it’s been… what a truly¬†delicious year.¬†Last year, despite documenting only a few months’ worth of cooking, I was still pretty pleased with my¬†“best of” list.¬†This time around, I’ve got a much larger oeuvre thanks to a¬†few¬†developments:

  1. Becoming good friends with (or devout worshiper of) the magical slow cooker, through which all stews are possible;
  2. Being on fussy/special diets constantly, which has naturally forced me to cook at home much more often;
  3. Baking like the sugar fiend I am whenever I take a hiatus from said diets;
  4. Picking up a very nice point-and-shoot camera;
  5. Subscribing to Mariquita Farms’ life-changing mystery boxes full of produce; and
  6. Building my spice pantry so enthusiastically that I must now open my cabinet gingerly (get it?) for fear of all manner of grinders, pouches, and bottles tumbling out.

These elements, shaken and stirred with my obsessive need to document things, has resulted in ~40 recipes over 365 days. Out of these, I’ve picked ten of my most favorite dishes. In no particular order…

Beef and tomato stew: I knew I had to include a crockpot dish, but nearly overlooked this simple weeknight meal¬†in favor of some of the flashier, bolder¬†recipes I’ve made. One look at this photo, however, and I was transported: cold winter night, fleece¬†robe, glass of wine, and a bowl of this comforting goodness — what could be better?

Loaf cake with lemon glaze and toasted almonds: This might be the year that my sweet tooth changes course — away from the indulgent and¬†decadent, towards the¬†refreshing and¬†light. This subtly sweet loaf cake was perfect for summer picnics, a breakfast bite, or a snack just because.

Eggplant strata: This brunch dish is not pretty nor simple, thereby lacking two components in my trifecta for a good recipe. That said, it was so incredibly rich and delicious (and, yes, healthy!) that it secured its place in this top ten list, easy.

Roasted cauliflower a la Mary Celeste: To the naked eye, it just looks like another roasted vegetable dish — but on the tongue, it’s a completely unexpected combination of flavors. Love this (especially because I’m ethnically Vietnamese and truly believe that everything tastes better with a dash of fish sauce).

Chinese steamed fish: Again, we have an unassuming-looking preparation… but the spice-blooming technique here really amps up the flavors of the herbs and seasonings. Don’t underestimate the power of a perfectly cooked fish and an incredible Asian sofrito. This is¬†one of my very favorite 30-minute¬†meals.

The New York Times’ consummate chocolate chip cookie: I’ve made many a CCC, but none so impressive as this monumental mash-up of classic recipes. Craggy, crispy, chewy, gooey, salty, sweet — it’s as close to perfection as I’ve ever gotten.

Plum torte: The best way to showcase a surfeit of fruit? Bake it into a light, sweet cake and top with a cool scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. This, for me, was summer in one beautiful spoonful.

Orange chicken and cauliflower fried “rice”: Now is the time to acknowledge dear Jay, who has patiently withstood many meals interrupted by my demands of “Waitletmejusttakeapictureofitfirst! CanIborrowyourIphonetooplease!” I also send him plenty of gratitude for washing countless dishes and¬†picking up after I casually shake up the kitchen. Before we pity him too much, however, let’s remind ourselves that there is a silver lining to dating a home cook — and my other half¬†is one very appreciative eater. This “healthy” rendition of a Panda Express favorite earned raves from Jay, who declared this one of his most beloved bites ever.

Chia pudding: With New Year’s resolutions around the corner, a sweet like this comes in handy: a blank slate that can be tweaked and fine-tuned to fit any tastes. Make a big batch, top with fruit, nuts, granola, chocolate, or any number of additions, and enjoy guiltlessly throughout the week.

Roasted chicken with za’atar and lemons: This year, I overcame my fear of salmonella and learned to roast poultry. With that skill, many, many doors opened. This particular¬†dish¬†tasted as deliciously exciting and bright as it looked — just phenomenal.

Phew! After the jump: the complete list of 2014¬†dishes. Unfortunately, there would’ve been even more recipes had life not gotten in the way. If only you could see my backlog of entries… there are so many things I cooked¬†that I simply didn’t have the time to write into existence. Hopefully those meals, as well as many future ones, will make it here in the very near future.

In any case, friends, thank you for being here. I know I’m not a cooking authority nor blogger juggernaut, but I am a writer (I think?), and writers love readers (maybe?). For the first time ever, I’m actually encouraged to share what I’m creating with others. It’s immeasurably gratifying. I wouldn’t — I couldn’t — have done it without you. Love y’all.

See you in 2015. Cheers!

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lemon cardamom wedding cookies + the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap!

What’s more exciting than receiving a package in the mail?

Receiving a package in the mail… full of cookies!

Despite writing here for¬†over two years (!), I’ve resisted using terms like “food” and/or “blog” to describe what I do in my spare time. This hesitance is mostly due to crippling self-consciousness and a fear of failure. I mean, how can my sleep-deprived rambling and shoddy iPhone pictures compare to the exquisitely-produced posts of proper food blogs? It just doesn’t. I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself by slapping labels around willy-nilly.

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2014This year, however, I made the conscious decision to get over it. I swallowed my pride, fought back my anxiety, and signed up for my first official “food blog” “thing”: the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.

What’s more exciting than receiving a package in the mail, full of cookies?

Receiving multiple packages in the mail full of cookies.

A few weeks later, they started arriving from all corners of the country. From New York, gorgeous coconut thumbprint cookies, filled with raspberry and apricot jam and stacked high in a sweet Mason jar. From Nashville, cornflake cookies, chock-full of pecans and southern flair, with an iconic Goo-Goo Cluster thrown in for good measure. From the neighbor of my hometown, Long Beach, tender chocolate butter cookies, packaged in festive tissue paper and a cute holiday tin. I was beside myself with joy.

What’s more exciting than receiving multiple packages in the mail full of cookies?

Sending multiple packages in the mail, full of cookies.

The only thing more exciting than eating cookies four at a time was baking some myself. Being on a cardamom kick, I decided to highlight citrusy, light flavors and counterbalance the rich, intense eating of the holidays. These lemon cardamom wedding cookies from Carla Hall were the perfect prescription: perfumed with an addictive je ne sais quoi from the spices and subtly sweet thanks to a little romp in lemon sugar. My taste-testers adored their floral aromatic notes and delicate, airy texture. Once these babies were wrapped up and put in the post, I waited with bated breath to hear from my lovely recipients. Seeing their posts of gratitude pop up on Instagram under #fbcookieswap officially kicked off my holidays.

What’s more exciting than sending¬†multiple packages in the mail full of cookies?

Sending cookies for a good cause.

The best part of all this wasn’t that I conquered my fear of being a “blogger,” or that I ate about three dozen cookies within the span of two weeks, or that I got to share my creations with others, or that I met awesome people doing wonderfully¬†delicious¬†things, or that I got my first free swag (a baker’s decorating kit¬†from one of my favorite brands, Oxo!). Granted, those are all inexpressibly awesome things… but¬†The¬†Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap has an even greater mission: fundraising for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer by the Childhood Cancer Foundation. Collectively, we¬†raised over $12,000 alongside some fantastic partners. This really gets at what baking is all about,¬†during the holidays and year-round: sharing, caring, and the¬†indomitable¬†spirit of giving.

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