Monday, January 26, 2015

Samoa Sheet Cake

Samoa Sheet Cake - made January 25, 2015 from Chef in Training
As I've celebrated every year, January 27 (tomorrow) is National Chocolate Cake Day. We're also getting into Girl Scout cookie selling season if my Facebook feed is anything to go by with parents of said Girl Scouts pimping offering their kids' cookies for sale. With this recipe from Chef in Training, I'm going to honor this sacred day and its Girl Scout cookie namesake as well as maximize your empty calories to the fullest extent.

I'm just going to say it: skip the cookie pushers. Salve your conscience by donating $20 directly to the local Girl Scout troop and/or buy the boxes of cookies and ship them to our troops. I've done both. So I can feel free to break out this Samoa Sheet Cake. Move over Girl Scout Samoa Cookie, there's a new cake in town and it kicks your butt. Best rendition of Samoas ever.

If all the versions I've made of Texas Sheet Cake are any indication, we all know of my fondness for easy-to-make chocolate fudge cakes. This is that and so much more. As always, I never actually bake the cake in a sheet pan so I've modified the directions slightly. Instead, I baked it in a 9 x 13 pan because that gives the right amount of cake thickness to me. I kept the frosting amount the same this time and that turned out okay too. Do not skip the step about toasting the coconut. It gives the cake a nice crunch and provides a great contrast with the gritty sweetness of the frosting. The chocolate and caramel drizzled on top just push this cake over the edge and I made the leap right along with it. As long as I have this cake, I'll never eat a Samoa cookie again.

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
½ cup butter
1 cup water
4 tablespoons cocoa
½ cup shortening
½ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup butter
6 tablespoons milk
2½ cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅛ cup caramel sauce

Additional Toppings
2½ cups toasted coconut
7 to 8 ounces caramel
⅛ cup whole milk
¾ cup milk or semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon shortening or oil
  1. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spread shredded sweetened coconut evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, checking and stirring regularly every 2-3 minutes to toast coconut evenly and keep from burning. When at least 2/3 of the coconut is light golden brown, remove from oven and let cool.
  2. Line a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, measure flour and sugar. Set aside.
  4. In a medium sauce pan, combine butter, water, cocoa and shortening. Bring to a boil. After mixture reaches a boil, add it to the flour mixture and stir to combine.
  5. Add buttermilk, then baking soda, then eggs, then vanilla in that order, mixing in-between each addition.
  6. Pour into 9 x 13 baking pan and bake at 350 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or when a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs.
  1. In a medium microwave safe bowl, combine butter and milk and bring to a boil. Stir in caramel sauce and then add powdered sugar and vanilla and stir until smooth.
  2. After cake has baked, remove from oven and poke holes in hot cake with a fork. Pour frosting evenly over top. Immediately sprinkle top of warm frosting with toasted coconut.
  3. In microwavable bowl, add caramel and milk and cook on high in 30 second increments, string in between each increment. Continue to cook and stir until caramel is smooth. Drizzle over coconut.
  4. In another microwavable bowl, add chocolate chips and shortening (or oil). Microwave on high in 30 second increments, stirring in between each increment until the chocolate in melted. Drizzle over caramel.
  5. Let caramel and chocolate drizzle set before cutting cake into squares.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sweet Potato Breakfast Cups

Sweet Potato Breakfast Cups - made January 10, 2015 from Easy Healthy Living
I did take a stab at healthier eating this month. If you consider sweet potato tator tots healthy. They make the base for this breakfast cup recipe. At first I was inclined to boil sweet potatoes, mash them and form them into cups in muffin tins but I didn’t know if that would provide enough structure or just result in sweet potato mush so I went along with the tator tot idea.

For the most part, it worked. This was super easy to make so it was suited to my cooking “skills”.Make sure to bake the "tot cups" long enough for them to crisp up before adding the ham and the eggs. Because of the eggs, you don’t want to bake these too long or the eggs will get rubbery. I made a basic mistake (typical) and didn't read the directions carefully so I didn't prebake the tots like I should have. My bad. The taste was still good but the texture would've been better had the sweet potato cups been a bit more crisp.

19-ounce package frozen sweet potato tots, thawed
½ cup lean diced ham4 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat muffin tin cups with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Allow tots to thaw then place about 5-6 tots in each cup. Mash tots with back of spoon or small glass to form cup shape in muffin tin. Bake for 10 minutes.
  3. Remove cups from oven and add diced ham. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  4. Mix eggs and milk until evenly combined, add salt and pepper as desired.
  5. Divide egg mixture between muffin cups.
  6. Bake cups for 15 minutes or until eggs are set.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buttercrunch Brownies for National Buttercrunch Day (January 20)

Buttercrunch Brownies - made January 19, 2015 from Extreme Brownies by Connie Weis (originally called Connie's "PMS" Brownies)
Back to the desserts with a vengeance! Every January I say I’m not baking until February and every year my pants are on fire because it turns out to be a lie. Let’s be honest. I didn’t last a week into January before I made pandesal. I also made another brownie recipe earlier in the month but I’m leapfrogging this one because this was for National Buttercrunch Day which was on January 20. Yes, people, here in the US, we have a day set aside to honor toffee covered in chocolate and sprinkled with nuts. Because that’s what buttercrunch is and how it distinguishes itself from plain old toffee. Not that there’s anything wrong with plain old toffee but why eat it plain when you can cover it in chocolate and roll it in almonds? Probably the most famous buttercrunch is Almond Roca. I myself prefer the See’s Candy version called Toffee-ettes.
For the brownie base, I used my new baking book, Extreme Brownies by Connie Weis. I’d been doing well for awhile in not buying new baking books (really, I have!) but c’mon, this was not only about brownies but extreme brownies. Am I supposed to resist that? No, I didn’t think so either.
The original title of this recipe was Connie’s “PMS” brownies; you know, that old adage that women need chocolate during that time of the month to keep themselves from growing horns or fangs. I don’t subscribe to that belief. Too limiting. As if I didn’t need chocolate all 28-31 days of the month to keep my inner beast leashed. Please.
Based on reading the recipe, I figured this would be a really dark chocolate so I made a couple of adjustments. I didn’t use my super-duper Pernigotti cocoa for all of the cocoa called for in the recipe as that would’ve made it too dark of a chocolate brownie. Instead I cut some bland, grocery-store Hershey’s into the Pernigotti so I used about 2/3 Pernigotti and 1/3 Hershey’s to get the right level of chocolatey goodness. The original recipe called for keeping this plain but since this was meant to be a buttercrunch brownie for National Buttercrunch Day, I made up a chocolate frosting to spread on top and have something for the buttercrunch to stick to. Some buttercrunch brownie recipes I had looked up on pinterest has you sprinkling the buttercrunch pieces on top of the brownie batter and letting them bake but I’m leery of baking toffee or buttercrunch as I’m too afraid of it melting then hardening (too much) when it cooled after baking. This was the safer way to introduce the buttercrunch component into the brownie without altering its original texture.
And I'm not going to lie - I was smugly self-congratulatory when my modifications paid off. The brownie itself is excellent, all fudgy goodness, whether you're PMS'ing or not or if you're just a chocoholic dude. The thin layer of chocolate frosting was a good foil against the dark chocolate of the brownie and the buttercrunch provided amazing crunchy contrasting goodness. Don't chop the buttercrunch too finely as  the outer chocolate coating will naturally crumble on its own so do a rough chop into chunks and sprinkle generously on top. These also freeze well so feel free to wrap tightly and store in your freezer in case you need an emergency stash of brownies on hand.
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter
2 cups (12ounces) 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
6 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups (1 pound, 5 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour
1 cup and 2 tablespoons (4.2 ounces) Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa powder
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13 pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Cut the butter into 1-inch slices and in the top half of a double boiler set over simmering water, melt butter and chocolate chips together, whisking until melted and smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
  3. Using a large whisk, beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl. Whisk sugar and salt into egg mixture just until combined. Briefly whisk in the melted chocolate and butter mixture then vanilla. Whisk just until combined.
  4. Soft together flour and cocoa powder; stir into batter until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly with a small offset spatula.
  5. Bake for 34 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs, not raw batter. Let cool at room temperature for at least 15 minutes then either refrigerate pan for 7 to 8 hours or overnight or let cool completely to room temperature.
Frosting (optional or your favorite recipe)
7 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy.
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Milk to achieve desired consistency (1-2 tablespoons)
1/2 - 3/4 cup Almond Roca, See's Toffee-ettes or other buttercrunch candy, chopped into chunks
  1. Beat butter until soft and creamy. Whisk together cocoa powder and powdered sugar and beat into butter. Add vanilla extract and salt. Add milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
  2. When brownie is completely cool, spread frosting in an even layer on top and sprinkle with chopped buttercrunch.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Philippines Day 10: Jose Rizal & New Year's Eve

December 31, 2014 - Luneta Park, Jose Rizal statue, my Filipiniana dress and New Year's Eve
The Philippine flag flying at Luneta Park

Last post of the trip and then we'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming of decadent desserts and other kitchen experiments. If you're still going strong on your new year's resolution to eat healthier and cut back on fat and sugar, enjoy the hiatus and prepare to be tempted with the next post. For now, we wrap up our last full day in the Philippines with a morning visit to Luneta Park.
Luneta Park is where the statue of Jose Rizal resides. Jose Rizal was a Filipino nationalist and one of the country's greatest heroes, executed in the late 1800s by Filipino soldiers in the Spanish army. The Philippines was under Spanish rule and Rizal was a nationalist who spoke out about establishing more equal rights for Filipinos and fair representation under Spanish colonial rule, not unlike America's own fight against the British when they were initially colonized.
December 30 is Jose Rizal Day in the Philippines so we were there a day later to visit the park and see his statue. There's a "sister" statue or the same version of the statue in Spain that my niece Lauren had gone to see when she was studying abroad in Madrid last year. Luneta Park is also the only time I've seen the tourist trap of being able to take a kalesa ride through the streets of Manila. A kalesa is a horse-drawn carriage, similar to what you can find in Central Park in New York City, albeit on a smaller scale in terms of the carriage and even the horses. Kalesas were more common years ago but time and progress marches on and they've largely been replaced by jeepneys, tricycles (motorcycles with a side car) and of course, cars. Nowadays, kalesas are for the tourists.
I've rarely done touristy things in the Philippines so I hadn't seen Jose Rizal's statue until now. It's roped off so you can't get too close to it but we were able to get some decent touristy shots in front of it and walk around. The park wasn't very crowded, probably because it was the day of New Year's Eve and a holiday for most people.
Statue of Jose Rizal
When we drove the streets of Manila to and from the park, I also caught a picture of the banners mounted on most of the streetlights depicting the imminent visit of Pope Francis. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and a pope hasn't visited the country for over 20 years, not since the days of John Paul II. Understandably, the country was in a frenzy of excited welcome for the new pope and it showed in the signage lining most of Manila.
Following the visit to Luneta Park, I had to go pick up my Filipiniana dress that I'd bought the day before which was being altered overnight. My nieces wanted to pick up a few more things at the tiangge so my cousin Albert drove us back to Green Hills and we agreed to split up to do our respective shopping and meet back again in half an hour. Unfortunately, when I went back to the store, to my dismay, they were closed. I was dumbfounded. Um, hello, you told me to pick up the dress today at a certain time and you're not even open? Worse, they had taken my name and phone number down but I'd never gotten a warning call that they would be close during my pickup time.
Fortunately I had my receipt from the deposit and it included the store's business card. I met up with Albert and my nieces and had Albert call the number from his phone (mine didn’t work for international calls unless I wanted to mortgage a kidney). The person who answered the number wasn’t the shop owner I had done business with but someone who worked for her. Fortunately Albert was able to confirm they had my dress, it was completed but that it was at the owner’s home in Makati. Albert assured me it wasn’t too far and that we could drive there to pick it up. I hated for him to go out of his way but it was my only chance to get the dress and be fitted for it to make sure the alterations worked so we made the drive to the owner’s home. I'll admit I was irritated. I roll with a lot of punches when traveling and try not to impose my Western standards everywhere I go but this seemed a bit much. We found the owner’s home and her assistant had me try on the dress. It fit as they had done the adjustments well. The owner arrived before I left and apologized profusely. By that point, I was into the zen mantra of “don’t sweat the small stuff” so I managed not to show my displeasure too much. What’s done was done and being annoyed wasn’t how I wanted to spend my last day so I let it go. I still can’t fathom why she didn’t think to tell me they would be closed that day when I arranged for the pick up based on the day and time she had given me nor why she didn’t call me when she realized the mistake and that she would be closed but….okay, I really had to let it go. Fortunately, I liked how the dress turned out and once it was safely in my hands and packed in my suitcase, I moved on.

Our last night was New Year’s Eve. If you’ve never spent New Year’s Eve in Manila or its surrounding metropolitan area, you’re in for a loud time. Seriously loud. They say Manila beat out New York, London and Sydney in its fireworks – I believe it. Fireworks are a big deal in the Philippines and it doesn’t get any bigger than fireworks on New Year’s Eve. In my town, they started at 8 pm and kept on until well past 1 am. I tried to nap so I could be wide awake to usher in the new year but that proved impossible. Even my noise-canceling headphones couldn’t withstand the relentless fireworks for 5 straight hours. No, I’m not exaggerating and yes I had a pounding headache before the last Judas Belt and Anaconda were set off. They were beautiful when exploding in the sky and it was too bad I didn’t get any good pictures of them; they didn’t come out on my camera or my phone.
A painting of my paternal grandparents
Fortunately our flight didn’t leave until the following night so we had an acceptably late start the next morning and a mellow day packing and saying our goodbyes. I discovered a treasure of a painting of my paternal grandparents sitting in the living room tucked into a corner that I took a snapshot of. A good memento to end the trip with.  Goodbye, Philippines, thanks for a great trip.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Philippines Day 9: Tiangge

December 30, 2014 - Tiangge in Green Hills
Our second to the last full day in the Philippines had been earmarked from the beginning as our shopping day, whether for souvenirs and gifts to bring back home or just to buy things for ourselves, we had a shopping plan. And that was mainly the "tiangge" at Green Hills shopping center in Makati. Think of a tiangge as like a flea market but housed inside part of the mall, jammed with vendor stalls selling new items, not used. Haggling is expected and many of the vendors sell the same merchandise so the buyer has some negotiating power if a vendor wants to make a sale badly enough,
We arrived at Green Hills a bit early; the tiangge didn't open until 10 am so we killed some time by hanging out at one of two Starbucks at the mall. As with any Starbucks around the world, it had similar branding and merchandising, a display case of mouthwatering treats (too bad I was still full from the pandesal that morning) and, to my nieces' pleased surprise, the same drinks they could get in the States but at cheaper prices.
I had a cup of hot chocolate (fortunately Starbucks was airconditioned and it wasn't that hot outside so I could down a hot cuppa) while the others had some version of frothy coffee drinks. We didn't get anything to eat but naturally I had to take pictures of all the baked goods. Many were seasonal flavors and were cheaper than their US counterparts but of course, it's only cheap if you earn dollars, not if you're paid in pesos.

After dawdling an adequate amount of time, we finally headed inside. I'll spare you the gory shopping details and my inadequacy at haggling but fortunately my cousin Abby accompanied us and is an expert negotiator so we simply pointed at what we wanted, whispered to her then stepped aside to let her work her magic. Everything you could think of was for sale at the tiangge, not just t-shirts and clothes but also shoes, purses, suitcases, trinkets, jewelry, mugs, glasses, toys, belts, scarves, packaged touristy foodstuffs like dried pineapple, dried mangoes, and nuts.
My nieces were on the hunt for gifts for family and friends back home while my sister wanted a traditional Filipiniana dress for her wedding. I didn't have anything in particular to buy as I had made most of my purchases back at Kultura the previous day but I tagged along, picking up a couple of things here and there (Christmas ornaments made of capiz shells, native to the Philippines plus some costume jewelry).

Abby doing her bargaining on our behalf
I unexpectedly ended up buying my own Filipiniana dress when my sister was buying hers. I hadn't planned on it but one of them caught my eye, I tried it on and bought it on impulse. It turned out to be an expensive impulse. Fully traditional Filipiniana dresses are made of "pina" or pineapple fiber and really, really expensive. My sister was looking at a variety of them and said, "It's 28,000 pesos. How much is that in dollars?" Me: "About $700." My niece Shyla said, "I'll buy that for you, Mom." Then she turned to me: "Tita, can I borrow $700?" Such a kidder, that one.
But no, I didn't spend $700 on a dress and neither did my sister. Fortunately, we could get a cheaper version of the same dresses in "pineapple organza". She was able to purchase hers off the rack as they had what she wanted in her size. I wasn't as lucky as I'm not as, ahem, flat-chested as the average Filipina. The long, full-length skirt fit me just fine (ha, they would normally have to take up the hemline for their typical customers but at 5'5", I'm "tall" compared to my countrywomen) but the halter bodice was too tight and would have to be altered. Since they were tailoring the top anyway, I was able to choose the type of embroidery I wanted and they took the necessary measurements, promising me the dress would be ready for pickup the next morning. That was critical since we would be leaving the day after but I was used to the speed of tailoring there and trusted their word, forking over half of the balance as a deposit.
After my dress purchase, which necessitated me converting more of my US dollars into pesos so I could pay for it (I didn't want to use my credit card overseas), I became more of a window shopper and amused myself with people watching while the others continued their shopping. I'd been to the tiangge before during my previous visits to the Philippines and it looked much the same. Perhaps the only difference is there were more non-Filipinos than I remember ever seeing in the past. Not just Americans but also Europeans. Didn't see a lot of non-Filipino Asians but definitely the North American and European tourists were well represented. I don't think they got the same good deals that my cousin Abby got for us but in general, prices at the tiangge are cheaper than a regular store in the mall so they still did pretty well for what they bought.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Philippines Day 8: NIU by Vikings, an eating day

Day 8: December 29, 2014 - buffet lunch at NIU by Vikings with the Sons at Aura Mall
This is going to be the biggest food porn post of my entire trip. I’m sure I did more on Day 8 than just eat but frankly, I can’t remember what those other activities were. Keep scrolling down and you'll understand why.

Part of our itinerary that was set before we even landed was that we would have lunch with a couple that my parents have known forever, the Sons. Actually, my dad has known Tito Dave, the husband, since they were young engineers together early in their 20s. We like getting together with the Sons not only because they're nice but also because they know good food. And you know how we like good food. The restaurant where we met them was located in Aura Mall, which we had gone to before and was billed as a “Chinese buffet”. It was called Niu by Vikings and let me tell you, calling it a Chinese buffet was as understated as calling Warren Buffett a little financially secure.

First of all, Niu was on the 6th floor (call it the penthouse floor as that’s the highest you can go) of Aura Mall. By the time you get up that high, the masses have thinned out considerably. Because if you weren’t on the 6th floor to shell out a thousand pesos per person to dine at Niu, you didn’t have any business on the 6th floor since that seemed to be the only establishment up there. The restaurant was huge. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, it was large enough to hold all of the cuisine you see below in addition to the kitchen, the dozens of tables in the main part of the restaurant and the private dining rooms. 
Thanks to the Sons booking ahead, we had our own private dining room with a view of Metro Manila.

You can safely imagine how much I went into sensory overload. I couldn't click my camera fast enough and my head probably was swiveling like an owl trying to take everything in. The buffet ran alongside one side of the restaurant. It felt like a near quarter-mile stretch. Okay, now I may be exaggerating but not by much.
The desserts were at the end closest to our private dining room but I managed to restrain myself to just taking pictures on my first pass so I could check out all of the other offerings. Hot chafing dishes of different kinds of cuisines were liberally spaced on all of the counters. There was no such thing as one buffet table, more like 20 or 30, each a different section offering various cuisines.

You could go Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Filipino, American, Italian, and different kinds of fusion cuisine. My nieces enjoyed the fresh sushi considerably, evidenced by the multiple trips back to that section of the buffet. The important thing was, it was all delicious. Not to mention beautifully presented.
The Sushi Station

And I'm not going to lie, I can personally attest to my assertions. I did restrict myself to only 2 plates of savory food but I'm not going to pretend those plates weren't full because they were. And that's not even counting when Tito Dave requested certain dishes from the buffet that the multiple servers were only too happy to go get for us and bring to the dining room. You can't beat the service here.

One section of the buffet - and it goes all the way to the back of the picture

And if you wanted a break from solid food to insert a refreshing beverage, you can have that too. My nieces went for the mango juice when they saw the guys behind the juice bar slicing fresh mangoes for the juice.

The satay was so good....

My dining companions thought this tofu was amazing. I don't eat tofu so I'll take their word for it.
If the prime rib is too rare for you (many Filipinos don't like anything more pink than medium or medium well), the staff will slice the prime rib and fry it briefly to get rid of most of the pink. I know, I know, prime rib aficionados might face-palm at that but hey, NIU knows its audience. I only heard one lady requesting they not fry her prime rib; everyone else wanted theirs fried to barely pink.
The carving and frying station for the prime rib
Oh, did I mention the chocolate fountains? One white chocolate and one dark chocolate. The only thing that kept me from indulging is they didn't have anything to dip that I wanted to eat. Sadly, no bananas, strawberries or rice krispie treats, just marshmallows, melon and pineapple chunks and watermelon, none of which tempted me to add to my already full stomach by the time I was ready for dessert.

Ramekins of creme brulee are in refrigerated display cases and if you want one, you simply pull it out, hand it to the attentive chef behind the dessert counter and he'll brulee the top for you right there. If you don't want to wait, you just let him know what table or room you're in and he'll bring it over with its freshly bruleed, crackly sugar topping. I'm not that spoiled so I waited for mine rather than having them deliver it to our private room.

Selection of gelato
When I thought I was done eating, I noticed the sign for "Crepes" with an array of flavors. I thought if I ordered one, I'd be able to watch them make it because there was a crepe maker nestled in amongst the desserts. Alas, though, they just took my order, asked me where I was sitting and promised to deliver it. Since the guy taking my order for a banana and almond crepe disappeared into the kitchen, I figured the pristine crepe maker was just for show and I didn't want them to feel pressured to make the crepe whilst I stood there so I left and waited for my crepe to show up.
It didn't take long and although yes, by this time I was already past the point of prudent indulgence and was well into the sin of gluttony, that didn't stop me from enjoying the warm crepe with crisp edges and a soft middle stuffed with caramelized bananas, drizzled in chocolate sauce and sprinkled with sliced almonds. YUM.
To give you an idea of this level of overindulgence, we met the Sons for lunch at Niu at 11:30 am. We didn't leave until 1:30. Yep, we ate for 2 hours. Needless to say, I didn't eat for the rest of the day. I think all I had room for was water. In fact, I didn't eat again until I hit the pandesal at 7:30 am the next morning. Even then, it didn't feel like an 18-hour fast. But trust me, it was worth it. Next time I'm in the Philippines, this is going to be one of my stops. Move over, Vegas, this was the best buffet ever.