Sunday, June 28, 2009

A very late Sweet Melissa Sundays: Chocolate Chip Cookies

I'm quite behind on making and posting about this Sweet Melissa Sundays recipe, Chocolate Chip Cookies. Two weekends ago, when the cookies were supposed to have been sitting pretty in the cookie jar on my counter, I had been too busy to post. First it was my boyfriend's graduation from university, and then a bridal shower in my hometown, and then another bridal shower that same weekend. I didn't spend any time in my own kitchen that entire week.

When the week came to a close and I found myself back in my apartment, I was perusing the Sweet Melissa Sundays website to see what recipe I had missed out on. It was a special week, and the announcement came late: Melissa Murphy, the author of the Sweet Melissa Baking Book, had chosen Chocolate Chip Cookies with Toasted Almonds.

How could I resist? I'm a sucker for chocolate chip cookies.

So I set out to make these, a few days late. Unfortunately, I was unable to post them even last week due to internet issues. Well, actually, my landlords turned off the modem and router to save power while they went on vacation - I was very unhappy, to say the least!

Back to the cookies: the batter came together easily. I skipped the toasted almonds, and instead used a mixture of half semi-sweet chocolate chips, and half milk chocolate, which I cut into chunks. I loved the contrast between the milky sweet chocolate chunks and the darker chocolate chips.

The batter itself wasn't very sweet, which meant that the chocolate created a just-sweet-enough cookie, without that cloying sugariness that can make a dessert taste too rich. The downside of this, of course, is that you can eat many cookies in a row without that self-protective guilt kicking in. Great for my tastebuds, but from a health perspective, probably not-so-good.

What I loved most about these cookies, however, was the texture. I've been looking for a chewy, thin chocolate chip cookie, and I finally found it. Even days later, when the cookie had lost its crispy edge, it was still perfectly chewy.

A big thank you goes out to Melissa Murphy for this choice - I've found my new go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe. Sorry, Anna Olson. Check out her post on Sweet Melissa Sundays for the recipe.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shrimp and Tomato Risotto

When I was in Stockholm in April, I had the most amazing seafood risotto. Rice, cooked al dente, in a light tomato- and seafood-infused broth, served with a generous portion of shrimp, calamari, and scallops. Like many things in Stockholm, it was outrageously expensive, but it was worth every penny - and not just because it was on my employer's tab (although it didn't hurt!).

The risotto that I've made and ordered before has had a much creamier consistency, and it was nice to try something different. Although it was probably richer than risotto I've made at home in terms of its ingredients (restaurants generally love to cook with plenty of fat), its light consistency made it feel like a healthy meal.

When I got home, I found myself craving seafood risotto. Although I couldn't find a recipe that would yield a lighter risotto, like that which I had in Stockholm, I decided that this Shrimp and Tomato Risotto from Food Network sounded delicious - it would definitely satisfy my seafood risotto craving.

While a traditional risotto is made (using shrimp stock instead of the traditional chicken stock), tomatoes are blended with freshly sauteed shrimp and cream. When the risotto is nearly cooked, the shrimp mixture is added. More sauteed shrimp is added to the final risotto as a garnish.

The result is a rich, creamy risotto with shrimp and tomato flavour in every bite.

For the Shrimp and Tomato Risotto recipe, click here. A recipe for shrimp stock isn't included. You can use store-bought fish or shrimp stock bouillon, or you can check out this recipe, which yields a basic shrimp stock.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Maple BBQ Salmon and Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to receive a request to host a dinner party featuring True North Salmon as the main course.

As I'm living away from my friends and family while I complete my internship, any excuse to spend time with them is hard to turn down. My family and I are also huge salmon fans, so there was no way I could turn down the request! It would have been salmon-lover-sacrilege.

I travelled to London on the weekend of June 5, a huge box of three freshly-delivered salmon halves in tow, to host the party. The afternoon of the party, my boyfriend and I spent some time portioning out the salmon into individual filets. Actually, my boyfriend was kind enough to do the portioning, while I put the excess salmon into freezer bags for our future enjoyment.

My niece was up visiting my brother and sister-in-law that weekend, so they suggested that we hold the party at their place. They're both fantastic cooks, so I knew that though we were bringing the salmon, potatoes for baking, and dessert, they'd probably put together some awesome side dishes.

For their part, my sister-in-law made a nice side salad with homemade vinaigrette, while my brother made spicy, Asian-inspired Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms.

We made Maple BBQ Salmon, a recipe from True North. The salmon marinated in a mixture of maple syrup, fresh garlic, and garlic salt for over 30 minutes. When it was done, we put it on the barbecue until it was light pink and flaky. It was perfectly tender, if a little bland (extra salt really made a difference). My three year old niece, who I don't think has had salmon before, loved it. She doesn't usually have much of an appetite, but when she began to get full, we asked her to eat more potatoes -- instead she finished her salmon. A girl after my own heart.

All in all, it was so much fun to have an informal dinner party with family. All of the elements - the salad, baked potatoes, grilled mushrooms, and of course, salmon - made for a well-rounded and extremely filling meal. We barely had room for dessert (peach cobbler), but somehow we were able to polish that off, too.

Maple BBQ Salmon

4 servings

4 Fresh Atlantic Salmon portions
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. garlic salt
1/8 tsp. ground pepper

1. Mix the maple syrup, garlic, garlic salt, and pepper.
2. Place salmon portions in a shallow dish, and coat with the maple syrup mixture. Cover the dish, and marinate salmon portions in the refrigerator 30 minutes, turning over at 15 minutes.
3. Drain the salmon fillets and discard used marinade.
4. Season salmon with salt and pepper.
5. BBQ the salmon portions over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until cooked to taste.

Here's a link to the mushroom recipe we used from Off the Broiler - keep in mind it was very spicy, so you may want to use less ginger or hot pepper:
Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesdays With Dorie: Honey-Peach Ice Cream

This week's Tuesdays With Dorie pick is Honey-Peach Ice Cream, chosen by Tommi of Brown Interior.

I'm always happy to break out my ice cream maker and try a new recipe, and it's not something that I get to do as often as I'd like to. But when you're asked to make something as sweet-sounding as Honey-Peach Ice Cream, how can you resist? It seemed like it would be perfect summer ice cream. And I think it is.

Here are a few reasons why:

It doesn't require you to turn on your oven.

You just have to simmer fresh peaches in honey and blend them with a very simple custard, then freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker. Any dessert that takes advantage of fresh summer fruit gets bonus points from me.

In the final product, the honey flavour was subtle to me, but I thought it perfectly complemented the bright flavour of the peaches.

I think the honey-soaked peaches would also be perfect to make frozen yogurt with. The tartness of the yogurt would most definitely enhance the peach flavour. I can't wait to try out this idea in the future.

To see how my fellow TWD bakers did, you can check out the blogroll. For the recipe, visit Tommi of Brown Interior. Thanks for the great choice, Tommi!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tuesdays With Dorie: Parisian Apple Tartlet

This week's Tuesdays With Dorie pick is Parisian Apple Tartlet, chosen by Jessica of My Baking Heart.

This is probably the easiest dessert I have ever put together. It goes like this:

1. Roll out puff pastry into a thin sheet and cut into a circle.
2. Halve an apple, cut this half into four pieces, and place on the puff pastry circle.
3. Dot with brown sugar and butter.
4. Bake.

That's basically it. No mixing. No dough-making. Incredibly easy.

One problem, though. The brown sugar and butter slid off and turned the bottom of the tart into a blackened mess. I caught it halfway through and slid the tart away from the charred pool of sugar, but then most of the leftover sugar also turned into a pile of char.

Next time, I'll have to make sure the puff pastry is as cold as possible (I think the pastry didn't rise enough to keep the sugar and butter in) and put the pieces of apple together to create a wider border of pastry.

The flavour of this tartlet (besides the slightly burnt flavour, of course) is worth a second chance. Simple but classic, with its homey baked apple and brown sugar taste, it would be perfect for an impromptu dessert for just one - or a dinner party, for that matter.

Just be careful where your brown sugar ends up!

Check out My Baking Heart for the full recipe.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sweet Melissa Sundays: Bear's Peach Cobbler

This week's Sweet Melissa Sundays pick is Bear's Peach Cobbler, chosen by Andrea of Nummy Kitchen.

This recipe relies on a few pounds of fresh, peeled peaches and a handful of kitchen staples.

The peaches are tossed with a simple mixture of corn starch, lemon juice, cinnamon, and sugar, then topped with sweet, lemony biscuit dough.

The mixture is baked until the peaches are bubbling violently and the biscuits are cooked through - browned on top and without a hint of raw dough left.

From classic cobbler ingredients and preparation comes a classic taste - the cinnamon-flecked peaches were were sweet, tender, and tasted like summer to me. They were, in fact, the first peaches I have tasted since last summer.

And the biscuit topping, even two nights after the cobbler was baked, was still crispy, providing a nice contrast to the tender peaches.

There was nothing I didn't like about this recipe. I halved the recipe since peaches are still quite expensive this time of year, and divided the peaches between ramekins, which yielded 5 servings in total. I served them at a dinner party at my brother's house last night, and everyone loved them.

I love recipes that can become my "go-to" recipe, and Bear's Peach Cobbler will definitely be my go-to peach cobbler recipe.

Thanks for the choice, Andrea! You can visit her blog for the full recipe.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

5 Indispensable Food Photography Tips

A typical food blog is part recipe emporium and part "food porn" gallery. A food blog without photos is just like a cookbook without photos - it may still be fantastic, but it's not the one that you're going to linger on at the bookstore. There have been times - like when my niece ate the last cookie before I could take a picture - that I decided not to post a recipe because I didn't have a photo. There have also been times when I've been sifting through my archives and thought, "That was a great recipe, maybe I should post that," but have been stopped by the sub-par quality of my earliest food photos.

So I think it's fair to say that one of the biggest challenges among food bloggers is taking amazing photos. While I don't think that my photos have become as wonderful as those belonging to some of my favourite food bloggers, I have learned some tricks along the way that have improved my photos, and I'm learning new tricks all the time.

If you're looking for ways to improve your own food photography, I offer the following five suggestions:

1. Stop me if you're heard this before, but natural light is your friend. I say that begrudgingly, as I currently live in a basement apartment and have very limited access to natural light - the sole window in my apartment is two feet wide and eight feet up. Still, the easiest way to take appetizing food photos is to photograph food in natural light with no flash. Never, ever use your camera's built-in flash when photographing food. It washes it out and makes it look slimy.

The good news is, there are alternatives. This is also helpful for the many times that you'll need to bake or cook something at night. You'll need to compensate for unnatural lighting, and there are a few ways of doing this.

2. If you don't have natural light, you can try to fake it.

Buy lights that emulate natural light. There are high/low options here. I've heard fantastic things about the Ego light by Lowel, but since I'm cheap, I use two $3 lamps from a thrift store and two $1.50 light bulbs that emulate natural light for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I found these at my local Home Depot, right alongside the other light bulbs. You're looking for something like the GE Reveal. You can even buy more than 2 lamps and create your own table-top lighting studio by placing the lamps around the table until there are no shadows. Again, don't use flash!

3. Learn the ins and outs of colour balance. Take a look at the following photo comparison. Which one of these photos of lemons looks more appealing to you? The blue-yellow lemons on the left, or the sunshine-yellow citrus on the right?

Your camera's white balance settings aren't always perfect, and can sometimes create a blue or red tone in your photos, usually in photos taken indoors. Not good. The best and easiest way that I know to correct this after the fact is to use Adobe Photoshop and add a colour adjustment layer.

Here's how you do it: in the menu bar at the top, select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. Then move the sliders around until you're happy with the way your photo looks. For the above photo, the image was obviously way too blue, and so I moved the bar away from blue and green and closer to the warmer colours.

Photoshop works wonderfully for me, but if you can't get your hands on a copy, you can use free or less expensive image editing software or websites that let you tweak the colour balance of your photos. I've heard good things about Picnik.

4. Macro is your friend.
Whether you've got yourself a fancy schmancy DSLR or a point-and-shoot, macro shots are the way to go when it comes to food photography. Macro is what allows you to get detailed, up-close photos. On your point-and-shoot camera, look for a flower symbol on the controls - this is the macro symbol - and press the corresponding button. Your DSLR will likely need a separate macro to get the best macro photos, although it may have a pre-programmed macro setting. My Canon Rebel XS has a macro setting, but won't let me take macro photos without flash in low light, and also doesn't deliver the kind of quality that my Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro Lens does. Macro lenses are expensive, unfortunately, but if you're serious about food photography (and you own a DSLR) I really believe they are the only way to go. You'll feel like an instant pro when you use a good macro lens.

5. Don't worry about the perfect staged setting - but do invest in some cheap props.
When it comes to food blogs, my favourite photos don't look staged or perfectly styled, like those in a cookbook. I don't believe that you need to let your food grow cold while you create the perfect setting, and I also don't believe that you need to invest in tons of props.

Simple backdrops are the best way I know to give a clean look to my photos when my kitchen, after cooking dinner or baking dessert, is anything but. Many of my photos are taken after I've thrown a swath of fabric over the contents of my messy kitchen table and placed my latest creation on top, moving quickly so I can enjoy my meal before it gets cold. You can buy plain fabric from a fabric store (I own a metre each of white, pink, cream, and blue fabric that was on sale for $2/metre), buy bristol board, or if you're really desperate, even tape a few sheets of plain letter-sized paper together and use it as an all-white backdrop. Lolo of VeganYumYum spray paints foam core board to get the exact backdrop colour she wants.

When it comes to plating, plain white tableware complements food very well. But unique tableware works well too, and can add a lot of interest to your photos. I got a lot of positive feedback when I posted photos of chocolate cupcakes which were placed on a turquoise cake stand. You can slowly and inexpensively accumulate a collection of interesting bakeware and tableware by scoping out local thrift stores, although of course, if you don't mind spending the money, you can buy new dishes, too. I stick to thrift stores because I've found a lot of cute dishes that way, like this Harkerware plate I found for 25 cents at a thrift store in Philadelphia.

So, that wraps it up for me. Feel free to leave suggestions of your own in the comments, or ask me a question.

For some supplementary reading, here are a few links to food photography tips I've found helpful:

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