Category Archives: herbs and spices

Pumpkin Cheesecake Sopapilla Bars

Merry Christmas everyone! Wouldn’t you know it, it’s Christmas Day and here I am trying to make a post about a pumpkin-themed dessert bar from before Thanksgiving :) Better late than never though, right? I have been traveling a lot for residency interviews these past couple of months, so it has been impossible to sit down and make a post with all my pictures. At some point, I was told that we (the interviewees) were flying around like lost planets in space, and I thought that phrase captured the circumstances quite well! Indeed, at some point, having been in three different time zones and 2 different coasts in the span of 3 days, my internal clock was completely out of whack and I only ever knew to do whatever the time on my watch dictated I should probably do. It’s been an experience! But one that I have thoroughly enjoyed for the number of new friends I have made and future colleagues I have met during these trips. Like the excitement of starting college and medical school, there comes an excitement of starting residency where I will have yet another opportunity to meet new people and bond over our unique experiences together. Most folks only get to do this once for college; I feel extremely privileged to be able to do it three times :)

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars

So back to the pumpkin bar! One of my favorite flavors of the fall season is pumpkin. I look forward to it as the leaves start to turn color in early October, and when the cans of pumpkin start to go on sale in the grocery stores, I know it is time to break out the pumpkin themed desserts. Sure there is always pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, but I am perpetually looking for different and unique ideas that incorporate pumpkin. This year I saw a post on Willow Bird Baking about pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars, and it piqued my interested because of how it combined two things I love (pumpkin cheesecake and sopapillas [a Mexican crispy fried dough topped with cinnamon sugar and honey]), and how it was sinfully easy to make (you cheat by using cans of crescent roll dough). You layer the dough on the bottom of the cheesecake to serve as a crust, and then you layer it on top of the cheesecake to bake into a “sopapilla” topped with cinnamon sugar for a crunch. Sure, it is neither cheesecake nor sopapilla in their true forms, but as my friend put it… the bars tasted like a cross between pumpkin pie and churros. Now that’s a lot of fun in a simple bar!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars



Pumpkin Cheesecake Sopapilla Bars (makes half a 9×13″ pan, or approx 9 bars)

Recipe slightly adapted from Willow Bird Baking

Ingredients:

For the bars:

  • 1 can crescent roll dough (I used reduced fat)
  • 1 package (8 oz.) of cream cheese (I used light/Neufchatel), at room temperature
  • 1 cup of canned pumpkin
  • 3/8 cup granulated sugar (measure out 1/4 cup and then add another half of a 1/4 cup to it)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • Pinch of salt

For the topping:

  • 3 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • Honey (for drizzling on top when serving)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease your 9×13″ pan (or you may use 8×8″).

2. Open and unroll crescent roll dough, divide into two halves. Press half the dough into the bottom of your pan to cover half of the 9×13″ pan – you may have to press to thin out the dough a bit. Don’t worry about sealing the edges of the triangles together.

3. Take the rest of the crescent roll dough and press it out over a piece of plastic saran wrap, until it is approximately the same size as the piece in the pan. (You may find it useful to lift your second piece of dough with the saran wrap and gently lay it over the first piece in the pan to compare the size). Try to pinch the edges of the triangles together on this piece so that the top layer of dough will be evenly sealed. Set the second dough aside.

4. Make a small divider from aluminum foil, doubled over, and set it along the edge of the dough to help contain the bars to one side of the pan. Tuck the bottom of the foil just underneath the dough to keep it secure.

Bottom layer of dough with foil divider

5. In a bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar together until fluffy. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and salt. Stir well to combine.

Pumpkin cream cheese filling

5. Carefully spread pumpkin cream cheese mixture over the layer of dough in the pan.

6. Using the saran wrap, flip the second piece of dough over and lay it gently across the top of the pumpkin layer. Don’t worry if it doesn’t lie perfectly flat, just try to keep the seams closed. Peel off the saran wrap.

Top layer of dough is placed

7. Pour the melted butter gently over the top of the second dough layer. Stir together the sugar, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice for the topping. Sprinkle evenly over the tops of the bars.

Cinnamon sugar topping

8. Bake for 30 minutes or until tops are golden brown. The cinnamon sugar on top will be liquid. Remove from oven and cool completely in pan. The cinnamon sugar topping will set up nicely as a crust.

Sopapilla bars finished baking

To serve: You may refrigerate the bars and serve them cold or warmed slightly in the microwave. I like to give a light drizzle of honey over the tops of the bars and add a dallop of whipped cream sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice to garnish. I think the bars would be fantastic with some vanilla ice cream as well :) Enjoy!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars

Bonus fun facts: While I was on the interviewing trail, many interviewers asked me about my food blog, as it was something that I put on my application under “hobbies”. They often asked me how time-consuming it is to make the food, do the food photography, and then write the post. I would say that making the food and writing the post is the least time-consuming part. The food photography is what takes time to set up and do. For those of you that are curious, for this recipe, I took a total of 112 pictures from which I selected the above photos to post. I’ve had upwards of 200+ pictures for a particular recipe, and as few as 10-20 pictures if I don’t photograph the process.  Many people like to spend time editing their photos with software afterwards, but that takes even more time and you can edit photos endlessly to suit your tastes, so I don’t go down that route very often unless my pictures were taken in poor lighting. Anyway, just to help you put it in perspective if you’ve ever wondered :) Happy holidays!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars


Mystery Ingredient: Sweet Osmanthus (gui hua 桂花)

Growing up with Chinese cooking in the home, there were a lot of unique ingredients that I had the pleasure of experiencing, often without even knowing how special they were. It wasn’t until I moved out of the house and started cooking out of my own pantry that I suddenly realized just how interesting some of these Asian ingredients were (and how hard they can be to obtain!). I sometimes start to worry that I might go stir crazy if I move to a place without an Asian market, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to cook half the things I cook without one! It is my hope that through my posts I can introduce some of these interesting ingredients to all of you, and maybe the next time you wander into an Asian market, you won’t feel as intimidated by your surroundings. Maybe you’ll even experiment with a thing or two!

sweet osmanthus in bloom (Photo source: Nipic)

Enough about me, let’s talk about today’s mystery Asian ingredient – sweet osmanthus. If that name sounds completely foreign to you, don’t worry. I had to look it up just for this post! In fact, growing up, the sweet osmanthus was always called by its Mandarin name in my household: “gui hua” (桂花). It sounds something like “gway hwa”. It is the fragrant dried small yellow flowers of the sweet osmanthus tree that we value in cooking. These trees are found in Asia, particularly in eastern and southern China. And if you ever have the pleasure of visiting when they are in bloom in the fall, the fragrant flowers will woo you with the scent of apricots. The flowers can be white, yellow, or even orange. The dried flowers are tiny, about the size of rice kernels, and retain their sweet fragrance.

sweet osmanthus (gui hua)

It is this sweetness that makes the sweet osmanthus so popular in Asian cooking, particularly in the desserts. In fact, you can buy the sweet osmanthus as unsweetened dried flowers, as a jam paste, or even as an infused sugar (much like vanilla sugar). When I was younger, my mother would often prepare one of my favorite desserts, lotus root powder congee with sweet osmanthus. I know, that’s a mouthful, and you probably also have no idea what this lotus root powder congee is. Perhaps that should be its own mystery Asian ingredient post sometime! Suffice to say that it’s a thick starchy soup made from ground lotus root and flavored with sweet osmanthus sugar. It was always warm and soothing to eat… a welcome treat in the wintertime or at night. And it was never quite complete without the sweet osmanthus sugar, although it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how the flavor changes. But you just know, when it’s not there, you’re not getting the whole package. As I grew up, I began to learn that the unsweetened sweet osmanthus flowers are often infused in teas in China. Green teas and black teas, they would only need a sprinkle of sweet osmanthus before steeping with hot water, and the fragrance would bloom. What a wonderful little flower!

As it turns out, what with this tree being native to Asia and all, sweet osmanthus is pretty difficult to obtain in the US. I sort of think of it as the saffron of China. Whenever I see it in the Asian markets, sold as jam or sugar, it is at a premium price (something like $4 for a 1 oz. jar). If you are looking for it, you can sometimes find it under the name “cassia flower”, which is a literal translation of the word gui hua, but not the proper name for the flower since cassia is a different species. I have also heard that the sweet osmanthus is known as the Tea Olive down south in the US. In any case, my source of dried sweet osmanthus is typically straight from China. When I go to visit my relatives in Shanghai, they give me a baggie of the stuff, and it lasts a long time. I love infusing my tea with it, and sprinkling it into some of my desserts for a sweet fruity aroma and flavor.

This week I was making a coconut sago dessert soup at home, enjoying the lovely scent of the coconut milk as I was dissolving rock sugar into it, when I had the idea to toss in some sweet osmanthus. It was a wonderful combination! I have previously posted my taro sago with coconut milk recipe, but the one I made this week was slightly different because I did not have any taro and only had 1 can of coconut milk. The soup was  very thin (not thickened like the taro sago), but at the same time very refreshing with the nice chew from the tapioca. Some restaurants like to serve it thinned and some serve it thicker. I like both versions, depending on my mood! The sweet osmanthus definitely added a delicately sweet aroma and a little bit of that “je ne sais quoi” to the coconut milk, and thus I was inspired to write this post. While I was doing some reading on the Wikipedia article, I noticed that the sweet osmanthus supposedly has neuroprotective, free-radical scavenging, and anti-oxidant properties! A superfood of sorts! In any case, I hope you’ll find the opportunity to try it sometime, or I hope at least it was interesting to hear about :)

coconut sago with gui hua (sweet osmanthus)



Coconut Sago Dessert Soup with Gui Hua (Sweet Osmanthus) (makes 8 servings)

Recipe adapted from Taro and (Tapioca) Sago in Coconut Milk

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup dry mini tapioca
  • 1/3 cup rock sugar (or granulated sugar)
  • 1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk
  • 3 cups milk
  • generous sprinkle of dried gui hua (sweet osmanthus)

Directions:

1. Bring a pot of water to boil, and add the dry mini tapioca. Boil for 6 minutes, then turn off heat and cover, allowing the pot to sit for 15-20 minutes, until the centers of the tapioca are translucent. If they remain opaque in the centers, you may heat up the pot while stirring, until the tapioca are translucent.

2. Meanwhile, in a large pot, add the coconut milk and rock sugar, and heat on medium to medium-low. Continually stir the rock sugar until it dissolves completely. Do not let the coconut milk come to a full boil (it may curdle). Sprinkle the sweet osmanthus into the pot when the rock sugar is nearly dissolved, allowing it to heat with the coconut milk for about 5 minutes.

3. After the rock sugar dissolves, turn off heat and stir in the milk. Taste for sweetness at this point, and adjust as necessary by adding granulated sugar or more milk as desired. It should be slightly more sweet than your final desired sweetness.

4. When the tapioca is ready, pour it into a fine sieve while running cold water over it to wash off the excess starch. Add the tapioca to the pot with the milk, and stir well to break up the tapioca clumps. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled, as desired. (The coconut milk may clump slightly when chilled.) Sprinkle more sweet osmanthus on top for garnish when serving. Enjoy!

coconut sago with gui hua (sweet osmanthus)


Chicken Tikka Masala for the Beginner

When I want to indulge, the creamy curries and smoldering spiciness of Indian food never fail to satisfy me. But making it for yourself at home, now that’s a whole different story. I never seem to have the right ingredients, and the recipes always seem more complicated than I want to deal with. Well, I’m making it my goal to start making my own Indian food, because it really shouldn’t be that daunting to make something I love so much. So I started with one of my all-time Indian food favorites – chicken tikka masala. Okay before I get any farther, can I please just say that one of my biggest pet peeves in the food realm is hearing people call it chicken “tikki” masala. That is not the name of this dish!!! This isn’t a tropical bar on a Pacific Island… okay, now that’s out of my system, we can carry on lol.

Anyway, chicken tikka masala (or any kind of tikka masala) is what I consider a combination of all things I like about Indian food. Somewhat spicy, with a savory tartness and a creaminess that complements any protein you add to it and rounds out the main dish with a satisfying bloom of flavor on your tongue. It is the perfect accompaniment to a plate of delicious saffron-laced basmati rice. Now, I know, tikka masala isn’t traditional Indian food any more than one could consider General Tso’s chicken traditional Chinese food. Somewhere along the way I heard that tikka masala was invented in England where a chef threw together a dish using tomato paste and spices and cream, in order to please a Western customer who came in desiring something different from what was offered on the Indian restaurant menu. Whatever, I still love it! The problem with making tikka masala in the comfort of your own home is that most true-to-the-flavor recipes require quite a bit of prep work, often including many spices and ingredients that are not common in households, and also tacking on some long overnight marinating business. So I went in search of a simple but still (mostly) faithfully tasty recipe that I could make for an easy dinner, especially having not made any Indian food by myself before. The only tricky ingredient here is the garam masala powder, which you should be able to find at any decent sized supermarket along with the other spice bottles, but please don’t skimp on it because it is the key ingredient in this dish and the taste will be very different without it!

Chicken tikka masala

Chicken tikka masala


Chicken Tikka Masala for the Beginner (serves 4)

Adapted from Serious Eats

Ingredients:

  • 4 boneless chicken thighs, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup scallions, finely chopped
  • ½ lime
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp Madras curry powder
  • 2 tsp garam masala powder
  • 1 cup plain yogurt plus 1 tsp flour
  • 2 tsp tomato paste

Directions:

1. Combine the ginger, garlic, scallions, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, the juice of half a lime, a tablespoon of yogurt, salt, and pepper. Stir, add chicken to bowl, and set aside to marinate (may let sit for 1-2 hours if time permits).

2. While the meat is marinating, heat the remaining oil in a heavy, large skillet over low heat. Add the onion, cook gently for 10-15 minutes until falling apart and caramelized (be patient!)

3. Add the garam masala and stir well to combine. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes to combine the flavors. Season with a good pinch of salt, then scrape into a bowl and reserve.

4. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken pieces. Cook, turning occasionally, until chicken is still barely pink.

5. Return the onion mixture to the skillet, and add the flour then yogurt. Stir in the tomato paste, Madras curry powder and simmer for 5 minutes.

6. Check for seasoning, adding sugar, salt or lime juice as needed. Serve over white rice.

(P.S. If you want your tikka masala to be more red like the restaurant version, you should use chili powder per the original recipe. I had to make some substitutions here because I didn’t have any chili powder on hand at the time. Also, feel free to substitute for your choice of protein to suit your needs – tofu, paneer, and fish are popular choices.)

Tony and I at the comedy club

Tony and I at the comedy club

Mmm so hearty and flavorful. I made this dish with my boyfriend on a night before we had to leave for a comedy show, so we were somewhat pressed for time and I was impressed with how easily everything came together and how delicious and satisfying it was. We paired it with a side of mixed vegetables (carrots, onions, and cabbage) cooked in a Madras curry sauce, which was a nice mild flavor to switch to when I wanted a break from the spicy flavor of the tikka masala (although don’t worry, I am pretty wimpy when it comes to spiciness, and this dish definitely qualifies as “mild”… add more spices as desired!) The spices just warm you up from the inside out, perfect for this chilly weather in the middle of November. Keep an eye out for the next Indian recipe to come, a mouth-watering and rich-tasting cashew chicken curry with cilantro pesto!


Caramelized onion and goat cheese phyllo tarts with fresh basil

Summer is in full swing, and the basil plant that I acquired a month ago has been reminding me of its bright and refreshing flavor with its bountiful jewel-green leaves. Ever since I got this plant, I’ve been in love with fresh basil. I tear up a leaf or two and sprinkle it on top of my rice when I eat my meals, and it adds a hint of fresh flavor that reminds me of eating at a Thai restaurant. When I water my basil, the smell of the leaves always reminds me of delicious appetizer skewers of cherry tomatoes with balls of mozzarella and basil leaves, all drizzled with the most luscious balsamic vinegar. And one of these days, I am going to harvest a big handful of basil to make the freshest, most flavorful pesto sauce, mmm.

fresh basil

Last week when my boyfriend was in town visiting for the July 4th long weekend, we were discussing options for a night of cooking in when I remembered a recipe for goat cheese tarts with sweet onions and thyme that I saw on the Serious Eats French in a Flash column. They sounded like the perfect appetizers to go with a pasta dinner that we were planning. I was particularly excited about the goat cheese, as I had just recently bought a small pyramid of spreadable Chavrie (goat’s milk cheese) and had not thought of a good way to use it yet. And instead of thyme, the thought of the bright taste of fresh basil paired with this tart made my mouth water. The original recipe also calls for using frozen puff pastry for the tart bases, but I had some frozen phyllo dough that I’ve been wanting to use instead, which I thought would add a dimension of lightness to the appetizer as well. My inspiration for adding honey to the tarts came from the multiple experiences I have had with restaurant appetizers that wonderfully pair the salty creaminess of cheese with the sweetness of fruit and honey, such as with baked brie and sheep’s milk ricotta. So thus was born the concept of crispy flaky squares of phyllo dough topped with soft caramelized onions, basil, goat cheese, and a drizzle of honey to bring all the flavors together.

In execution, this recipe is actually pretty straight-forward. But do plan ahead, as it takes about an hour to make these tarts, although most of the time is spent waiting, with some stirring here and there, so it is definitely an appetizer that is great to make alongside your main dish and it will be piping hot and ready to serve just when you are finishing up your cooking. If you have never used phyllo dough before, fear not! This recipe was my first time using my frozen phyllo dough as well, and although the directions on the box sounded scary and involved, the actual preparation of the dough was very easy. It would help immensely if you have a pastry brush to brush the phyllo layers with oil, but if you are a poor student like me, the back side of a big soup spoon will do just fine too :) These tarts were so good hot out of the oven, even my boyfriend who doesn’t like cheese enjoyed these. The flavors come together to be savory, the textures of the soft cheese and onions contrast with the crisp phyllo dough, and the hint of richness from the goat cheese is balanced by the brightness of the basil and the touch of honey. I will be keeping this recipe for the future when I want to serve French hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party, and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!

caramelized onion and goat cheese phyllo tart with fresh basil



Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Phyllo Tarts

with Fresh Basil (makes 6 small tarts, serves 2-3)

Recipe adapted from Serious Eats

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced into bite-sized strips
  • 2 sprigs fresh basil, about 20 leaves
  • 1/2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 oz spreadable goat cheese (Chavrie brand is the easiest to find at grocery stores)
  • 20 sheets of 9×14″ frozen phyllo dough, freshly thawed and cut in half (approx 9×7″, or 4 oz. by weight)
  • grape seed or olive oil for cooking and brushing on phyllo
  • honey to garnish

Directions:

1. In a skillet on medium heat, gently saute onions with 1/2 tbsp of grape seed oil, stirring often, for 15 minutes.

2. Tear up the leaves from 1 sprig of basil (about 10 leaves) and add to skillet along with brown sugar. Stir to mix well, and continue to cook for an additional 10 minutes. Turn down the heat slightly if the onions are browning too quickly.

3. Remove onions from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Prepare thawed phyllo dough on a clean cutting board. Layer one sheet of phyllo on top of the next, brushing each layer with a light coating of grape seed oil (it does not need to coat entire sheet, but do brush enough to ensure that each sheet adheres to the next. When all 20 sheets have been layered together, use a sharp chef’s knife and cut into approximately 6 squares.

5. Line a baking pan with foil, and spread phyllo dough squares into pan. Top each square with onions, then the goat cheese.

assembled tarts ready to bake

6. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F until the phyllo bakes to a golden color.

tarts done baking

7. Remove tarts and serve warm, drizzled with honey and garnished with torn fresh basil. Enjoy!

And just for completeness sake, this was the delicious main dish that followed the appetizers,  made by my boyfriend. A hearty whole wheat penne with chicken thigh, onions, mushrooms, and basil in a vodka sauce. Such a good dinner… I think he should come visit and cook for me more often :)

chicken with whole wheat penne in vodka sauce


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