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Shrove Tuesday / Vastlapäev

Happy Shrove Tuesday, or as the Estonians say, head vastlapäeva! I last blogged about this day a few years ago when we made pea soup, which is one of the foods traditionally eaten on this day in Estonia. The other food associated with today is the vastlakukkel — a lightly sweetened yeast bun with the cap sliced off, topped with a hefty swirl of whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. Some of them also contain jam under the whipped cream, like this one I picked up on the way home from choir rehearsal this evening. Yum.

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Cutting out the junk

I’ve never read Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules, but I have heard some of his rules and love how simple and straightforward they are. His first rule regarding food and eating, which some of you may have heard before, is as follows: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pretty simple, right? I saw an interview with Pollan on TV during which he spoke about another rule that got me thinking: Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself. I believe the example he used was French fries. Americans (and people all over the world) eat tons of French fries because they’re so accessible and cheap. But what if you had to make them yourself? What if you had to scrub the potatoes, peel them, cut them into thick matchsticks, heat a large pot of oil, and make a big splattery mess in your own kitchen, rather than just rolling up to the McDonald’s drive-thru and shelling out a dollar? Clearly we’d all be eating a hell of a lot fewer French fries.

Semi-homemade poutine (with frozen fries, not homemade)

I got to thinking about Pollan’s rule recently when I made these delicious sesame wasabi crackers and realized I rarely feel compelled to buy manufactured cookies or crackers anymore because the ones I make at home are so much better. I hope it doesn’t sounds like bragging when I say that– my point is that foods made with real ingredients according to simple recipes are usually superior to their processed counterparts in terms of flavor and nutritional value, no matter who makes them.

Stovetop popcorn with Old Bay spice

I decided to challenge myself to cut out even more store-bought junk/fast food and have fun creating real-food substitutes at home. So, this year for Lent I am giving up all junk food… except for that which I make myself. What counts as junk food? Burgers, pizza, fries, pelmeni, chips, candy, ice cream, microwave popcorn, any mass-produced sweets and anything fried. I think this will be a great way to clean up my diet a bit without deprivation and will inspire me to try some new recipes. Just to be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean no eating out– restaurant meals are still ok, just no fast food or ordering anything fried. I’ll stick to things like salad, soup, chicken or fish when eating out. Oh, and this challenge is only for food– I’m not planning to cut out alcohol (or attempt making my own at home!). The beverages that I think of as “junky” (soda, energy drinks, sugary juices) I don’t drink anyway, so that’s a non-issue.

Something that I failed to think about before this moment — I generally chew 1-2 pieces of gum a day. Is gum junk food? I would argue that it’s not because you don’t actually eat it, but it is still a processed product. What do you think? Should gum go out the window during Lent too?

Happy Nutella Day!

Happy World Nutella Day!

I’m not submitting a recipe to the roundup this year, but I still wanted to take a minute to remind everyone that today’s the day to celebrate the delicious chocolate and hazelnutty goodness of Nutella. Go ahead, eat some during the Super Bowl!

Trader Joe’s

Do you know Trader Joe’s? I’m sure my American readers have heard of it, but European readers probably haven’t. Trader Joe’s is a chain of grocery stores in the United States that sells a lot of gourmet foods, organic products, vegetarian foods, prepared foods and interesting snacks. Prices are kept low because the chain buys products and sells them under its own brand name. In addition to that, it’s  just a fun place. They often come out with new products so you never know what you’ll find when wandering through the aisles of brightly-colored packages.

Now I must confess that I haven’t actually set foot in a Trader Joe’s in years. J and I wanted to visit one during our last trip and ran out of time. (We almost went into one that we saw in Philadelphia, but we couldn’t find the door. True story). Luckily I have a wonderful friend who likes to keep us well-stocked with Trader Joe’s treats, so here are a few of their delicious products we’ve been able to try recently.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from these Lime & Chile Mixed Nuts. They’re a little scary– look at those chunks of dried chili peppers!

While they do have a kick, they’re nothing that two spice-lovers like J and I can’t handle. The nuts are perfectly toasted and the flavors (tart lime and hot chili) are potent, making this a unique and delicious snack. A little handful goes a long way.

And the dark chocolate-covered edamame? These might just be the perfect chocolate-covered snack. In case you didn’t know, edamame are soybeans, in this case dried and roasted (I think). The edamame are crispy and nutty, less dense than peanuts, and lightly salted under the chocolate coating. I think what really struck me was the quality of the chocolate layer— it’s pretty thick, not too sweet, and just delicious. And look, 7 grams of protein per serving!

One other product my friend gave us (but I don’t have a picture of) was the Chili-Spiced Mango— dried mango slices dusted in a chili spice powder. While dried mango is probably my favorite dried fruit, I wasn’t a fan of the sweet-spicy combination in this snack. However, J loved them and I can vouch for how quickly the bag disappeared!

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Project: Part XV

Subject #15: Giant Cookies from How Sweet It Is

Apparently the last time I wrote about a new cookie recipe was over a year ago. How is this possible?? Did I really go a full year without trying a new (chocolate chip) cookie recipe?? Not quite: I made this recipe in November just before leaving for Russia so that I’d have something delicious and comforting to nibble on when I arrived in the strange land. Then came December and the holidays and I never got around to posting it, but a polite request from a dedicated reader for another cookie recipe reminded me ;).

What interested me about this recipe was the technique used to form the cookies: roll the dough into a ball, then tear the ball into two pieces and stick the rounded sides together, forming an oddly-shaped cookie stack. Place it on the cookie sheet with one of the torn sides facing down. (I didn’t take any pictures of this, but there are photos demonstrating the technique along with the recipe). The cookies that result should have an attractive craggy surface after baking.

The author used mini M&M’s to make colorful cookies while I used my regular chopped chocolate. I also didn’t make mine quite as giant as hers. Some commenters on the post stated that the recipe is the same as the Cooks Illustrated chocolate chip cookie, which I’ve tried before. However, it’s not identical– Cook’s Illustrated has you brown the butter, and and browned butter has characteristics that make it different from regular melted butter. Plus CI had the interesting step of whisking the eggs with the sugar and butter several times until the mixture is thick and shiny, while the How Sweet recipe just says to combine until mixed. That’s different enough for me!

So how did my cookie stacks turn out? To be honest, some of them melted together in an odd way while baking and came out looking like lumpy alien cookies.

But putting aesthetics aside, these cookies were wonderful! Even fully baked these were sort of like cookie-dough cookies, soft and rich and buttery. I think the stacking method helps to make the center of the cookie thicker and therefore it stays softer while the edges brown and become nicely crispy. The cookies also maintained their texture for several days after baking, which made me happy (I hate it when cookies become harder and dry within a day or two!). The tear-and-stack technique is something I’ll try again with other recipes since it does seem to help with texture. In the future I’d probably choose this recipe over the CI one, since without having to brown the butter it’s much quicker and more simple.

Sesame wasabi crackers

I was in a baking mood last week. On Thursday evening I wanted to bake some cookies. J, like much of the world, is on a new-year diet, so I decided to bake while he was out and made sure to put away all the evidence before he got home. Of course when he walked in the door he asked, “What smells so good?”  Dang, caught in the act :). Fortunately the next day I was checking out the daily Top 9 recipes on Foodbuzz and this recipe for sesame wasabi crackers caught my eye. Perfect– something fun to bake that was healthy enough for J to partake in too!

The original recipe was gluten-free and called for 2 cups of almond flour. I only had enough almonds on hand to make slightly over a cup of almond flour, so I substituted whole-wheat flour for the rest. Therefore my crackers weren’t gluten-free, but they were slightly lower in fat! The rest of the recipe I followed exactly as written, and I left them in the oven for slightly over an hour after they were done baking (while I went to take a nap, since we had woken up at 6:15 [on a Saturday!] to walk a friend to the harbor).

They came out perfectly! I scored the rectangle of dough with a butter knife before baking and they easily snapped apart into neat little squares. The crackers are slightly crumbly but not hard or dry, and the sesame seeds give them a a bit of crunch. J commented that flavored crackers from the store tend to smack you in the face with whatever they’re supposed to taste like, but with these the wasabi flavor slowly becomes more distinct as you eat one. And while the flavor is definitely present, these definitely don’t contain enough wasabi to make your nose burn or anything.  I highly recommend this recipe (did I mention that it’s also super-easy and makes me wonder why I don’t always make my own crackers?).

Vacation-inspired food: Poutine

I’m sure we’re not the only ones this happens to: we’re eating out somewhere (usually on vacation), something delicious crosses our lips, and we look at each other and say, “We should totally make this at home.” More often than not we realize that the components would be easy to find (and if not, then we immediately start thinking of reasonable substitutes that would be available in Estonia). Such was the case with poutine*, which J tried for the first time when we were in Montreal in September. I mean really, can it get any simpler? Traditional poutine has only three components– french fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds.

The poutine we shared in Montreal… delicious.

In our first-ever at-home poutine attempt, we decided not to go totally traditional. Although we could have found a reasonable substitute for squeaky cheese curds in Estonia, we found ourselves drawn to the smoked cheese corner of the dairy case and decided that a smoky-flavored cheese would suit poutine just fine (if the Canadians can create variations on the classic, then so can we!). I also must confess that we bought frozen french fries, which I am usually categorically against because potatoes are so much cheaper. But for the sake of texture and consistency we baked frozen french fries in the oven until crisp and they were perfect (though next time I may make my own oven fries).

Chopped smoky cheese

What I did make from scratch, however, was the gravy. I’d wanted to make a nice toasty roux ever since my New Orleans cooking class, so I combined my fat and flour and then stirred my little heart out. I was thrilled when the roux actually started taking on a nice brown/beige tint, but I didn’t push it too far after that since I was afraid of burning it. Still, it smelled delicious and definitely enhanced the flavor of the gravy.

Waiting for gravy to thicken…

I cooked the gravy for quite some time and it still didn’t get quite as thick as I’d hoped (I feel like this always happens to me! What’s the secret to thick gravy? Do I have to add starch?). I knew it would thicken up a bit when I took it off the heat, plus we were getting impatient, so we went ahead and dished up some (mostly) homemade poutine.

You can see from the picture how the gravy is lighter and more liquid-y than the gravy we had in Montreal, but the flavor was great! It was all there– crispy fries soaking up the salty gravy (I actually like it when the fries get soggy!), with creamy smoky cheese bits mixed in. Certainly not an everyday food, but so. very. good. I think this “recipe” could come in handy next time we have hangovers…

* J insists on calling it “Putin”. Does anybody else do this?