Small-batch baking: lemon pistachio cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

While I love cooking, baking was always my very first love. I still have fond, happy memories of being upstairs in my aunt’s kitchen, scooping out balls of cookie dough and placing them neatly on a baking sheet. I still remember the birthday cake she made me for my 5th birthday that was covered in a thick white frosting, dusted with rainbow sprinkles all over as I had requested. I sat there at the kitchen table and helped her mix and scoop the batter into the cake pan before baking… I also remember how my mom refused to let that cake be the centerpiece cake in the photos and pushed my rainbow sprinkled white cake off to the side in favor of this chocolate cake that I didn’t pick out or like. Yes, you have to remember the good with the bad.

Given that it’s just the three of us at home, and I don’t let Kaia indulge too much on sweets, there’s not too many mouths to bake for anymore. So when I get the opportunity to bake or feed more mouths, whether that’s because Chris’s parents are in town or we have friends coming over for a meal, I usually jump at the chance to bake something new. And I try to look for small batch bakes because I don’t necessarily need three or four dozen cookies, or to eat a cake for the next two weeks. For my father-in-law’s 71st birthday, I decided to make a cake that I thought of when thinking of Chris’s mom: a lemon pistachio cake with cream cheese frosting. It would be perfect because it’s a small batch cake, made in an 8×8 pan, as opposed to the 9-inch round monstrosity that was the orange olive oil cake from a few weeks ago that would require a small army to eat. This cake has toasted ground pistachios and lemon zest to give it a rich flavor, but it’s actually quite light and airy. It’s a moist sponge cake that pairs really nicely with a slightly sweet cream-cheese based frosting, with a little sugar, vanilla, and fresh lemon juice added to it. And what gives it its beautiful green hue is a secret ingredient: just a teaspoon of matcha!

This lemon pistachio cake was a beauty and a hit: both Chris’s parents had two generous slices each. There’s only three slices left for tomorrow. This cake was not only easy and quick to make, but also delicious and satisfying to look at and eat. I’m definitely making this again in the future!

British-style baked beans at home for Topa’s 71st birthday

Since my college days, I’ve always been fascinated by recipes for dishes that we typically eat store-bought, whether it’s from a package at the supermarket or from a bakery. I like seeing recipes for things like Oreos, pop tarts, and even Goldfish crackers because they’re just nostalgic: they evoke a sense of childhood and, well, pure youthful ignorance of what kind of crap goes into the food you consume and ultimately put into your body. Why am I saying this? Well, if you are aware of the food industry, you will know that packaged food items that are shelf stable and meant to last a while, such as Oreos and pop tarts, are shelf stable because of all the preservatives and artificial ingredients that are added to it. And no, those things are typically not great for your health. So it’s always fun to see homemade “upgrades” of these foods.

I did not grow up with baked beans. During the times when I did have them, they were typically a side to barbecue, usually ribs or brisket. Chris’s dad’s daily breakfast while he’s back home in Melbourne is tinned British-style baked beans, usually out of a Cole’s brand can, mixed with some sambal oelek sauce for some heat, on top of toasted multigrain bread. That’s a very British breakfast, one that is 99.9999% of the time always from a can for Brits. So when I saw that Serious Eats posted a recipe for British-style baked beans, I thought it would be a nice treat for his birthday, to have fully homemade baked beans made from my Rancho Gordo eye of the goat heirloom beans.

I soaked the heirloom beans for four hours (for heirloom beans, they say to never soak them more than six hours). Then, I rinsed and simmered them for another three hours. Finally, I made the sauce, which is a base of diced tomatoes, apple cider vinegar, onions, fish sauce (as a sub for Worcestershire sauce, which I never have), garlic, brown sugar, bay leaves, and thyme. I blitzed it in my blender and added it to the pot of beans, then simmered it down until the sauce became a thick glaze. And the flavor was most definitely an elevated version of the canned British-style beans; it had this interesting, savory, sweet, tangy flavor, with a nice bite from the velvety eye of the goat beans. The flavor was complex, but still reminiscent of the tinned beans. I was pretty pleased with my final result.

British-style baked beans are nowhere as sweet as American-style baked beans. I even reduced the sugar in the Serious Eats recipe a bit to ensure they weren’t too sweet. And I think they came out perfectly. This recipe is definitely a keeper.

Tamarind date chutney

I was looking at different ways to make our daily weekday toasts more interesting, and one way was to use Indian flavors (of course). Whenever you have Indian or Thai flavors, it’s pretty much impossible to have a boring meal. There is something about South and Southeast Asian cooking that always seems to get the right balance of sweet, salty, sour, and savory where things are just finger-licking good.

In the last couple of weeks, occasionally I’d make “masala grilled cheese,” where I’d take a white cheddar and sandwich it between chaat masala or garlic chutney-spiced mayo, some freshly made cilantro chutney, and sandwich them between two buttered pieces of bread on a hot pan. But then I got another idea, which is to make the sandwich a bit more like a chaat snack or samosa, so today, I added masala potatoes (first boiled, then sauteed), plus an additional layer of homemade tamarind-date chutney (made in my Instant Pot for the very first time this week – it was so quick!). I forgot how good the sweet-sourness of the tamarind date chutney really compliments all the savory and spicy of the cilantro chutney, gruyere cheese, and the potatoes. I made a decent-sized batch of the tamarind date chutney and froze half of it into cubes for future use.

I thought about my absolute favorite sandwich on earth, the classic mixed banh mi (banh mi thit nguoi), and how it also achieves the perfect balance of salty, savory, sweet, sour, and spicy, in the same way that this “samosa grilled cheese” sandwich does. While the bread on this grilled cheese provides crunch, in a banh mi, the crunchy raw pickled carrots and daikon also add crunch. Our family is lucky to identify with such delicious cultures!

A weekend of cooking and baking for the parentals/in-laws

My planning for the mango tiramisu did not go exactly as expected when I realized I would need the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of ripe mango puree, and I had barely 1.5 pounds with my ripe ataulfo mangoes. So in the end, I went with my plan B recipe, which was to make Maialino’s orange olive oil cake. I made a couple changes, such as slightly reducing the sugar, olive oil (this cake requires high quality olive oil since it’s the main flavor, so I used a grassy Australian olive oil that was just pressed last year), and replacing the Grand Marnier with more orange juice. I also topped it with a mascarpone based frosting, which came out nice and light.

For breakfast this morning, I made blueberry buttermilk pancakes, whose batter I allowed to rest for just over an hour. I was recently listening to a cooking podcast where a baker was talking about tips to increase flavor in baked goods without much effort. And this was the number 1 tip she had for pancakes: simply let the batter rest on the counter for anywhere from 1-4 hours, and you’ll immediately taste the difference vs. using batter that was just mixed. This small change has resulted in far more flavor than in my previous pancakes. So now when we have pancakes, I usually pre measure all the dry ingredients the night before and add to a bowl, and the morning of, I add in all the wet ingredients and mix as soon as I wake up. Then, while getting everything else ready, an hour-plus will quickly pass, and the pancake batter will “age” enough to garner a more complex flavor. I only wish I knew this tip sooner! We enjoyed these pancakes with maple syrup, plus a kimchi-spinach egg scramble with avocado on the side.

The nice thing about having Chris’s parents here is that they always enjoy and appreciate the food I make, so I have more excuses to make more things I wouldn’t always make. It’s nice to be around people who actually appreciate what you spend time and effort in doing for them and show it.

Lady fingers – where are you?

Years ago when I was still living at home, I attempted to make a raspberry charlotte cake. It was quite the undertaking: it is basically a layered sponge cake with a fruit puree filling, lined along its circumference with lady fingers, which are like miniature sponge cakes that are shaped like fingers. I was hell bent on making the lady fingers from scratch, so I actually made the batter, added it to a ziplock bag, then piped them onto parchment paper and baked them. And.. it was a complete and total mess. The lady fingers didn’t have the right texture or firmness, and in the end, I made an emergency trip to a grocery store to buy already-made lady fingers for my cake. From that point onward, I vowed to never make lady fingers ever again.

So I’ve made tiramisu once since then, and I used lady fingers purchased at an Italian grocery store and ones made from Whole Foods, both of which were quite pure in its ingredients for store-bought. I tried to go to Whole Foods to buy some more, but I found out that the Columbus Circle location had stopped selling Whole Foods-made lady fingers for whatever reason. I ended up having to go to Brooklyn Fare to buy a pack. They only had Goya brand, which was also surprisingly short in its ingredient list (and only $3 for a full pack!), so it was hard to complain.

I’m planning to layer these with mango puree and mascarpone and heavy cream for a mango tiramisu tomorrow. I’m so excited about my no-bake dessert project!

Rancho Gordo Marcella beans – another form of delicious magic

When I had read on the Rancho Gordo website that they encourage you to use the bean stock for future soups and stews in cooking, I was a bit confused. When they say “bean stock,” did they mean the liquid leftover from initially cooking the beans? Because previously whenever I cooked beans (other than dal, which would usually disintegrate into the water and would become the main dish itself), I’d just discard the cooking water; it never really tasted like anything and just seemed like discard itself. So I figured this time, I’d try it to see how flavorful it was after simmering my Marcella beans for just over three hours over the stove. I did exactly what the recipe suggested for the roasted leek and white bean soup: I soaked the beans for about five hours, then I simmered them simply, with just water and a single rind of parmesan for three hours. I didn’t even add any salt or pepper until after my first taste. But when I took that first spoonful, I couldn’t believe it: it really WAS a flavorful, rich bean stock all in itself! It tasted like something slightly umami, a bit vegetabley, and rich. And once I added the salt and pepper, that bean stock easily could have been its own soup!

So I ended up reserving every last drop of that bean stock for my roasted leek and white bean soup. And it was another hit at brunch yesterday: our friends had second helpings, and I was just extremely impressed by how flavorful such a simple soup with so few ingredients could be. Rancho Gordo heirloom beans are definitely a hit!

Mushroom walnut “pate” – an ingenious substitute for animal-based pate

As long as I can remember, I have loved Vietnamese pate. I also love French pate (of course), but I’ve been eating Vietnamese pate since before I even knew what pate was. It was always a crucial ingredient that makes up the delicious key fixings of banh mi. Banh mi really isn’t quite the same without that creamy, extremely umami component. So I was curious when I was reading Andrea Nguyen’s vegetable-forward, plant-based cookbook called Ever-Green Vietnamese, where she has a very popular recipe for mushroom walnut pate. To start, you have some oil or butter that you heat up in a saute pan. You add chopped cremini mushrooms, chopped walnuts, minced shallots, and you saute until everything is beautifully browned and fragrant. Then, you add a touch of five-spiced powder, some salt and pepper, and a dash of Maggi seasoning; allow the mixture to cool, then blitz it all in a food processor. And in that short time, some real magic happens: the mushroom mixture gets extremely fragrant and umami and creamy to the point where the taste and texture of this mixture truly, truly does mimic real animal-based pate. When I smelled it after pureeing, I knew it had promise. But once I actually put a small spoonful in my mouth, I felt completely floored: this is really a legit substitute for meat pate!! The texture is moussy and meaty with a creamy mouth feel. The flavor is rich and luxurious. It’s what Australians call “moreish.”

Vegetables and legumes have a lot of power and potential, but it’s up to us to find creative ways to use and apply them, especially in a world where obesity and heart disease are on the rise, and a huge part of climate change is due to our unsustainable levels of meat consumption. This mushroom walnut pate is likely one of the most ingenious meat substitutes I’ve ever tasted in my life. If you leave out the butter (I used it this time, but next time, I’ll use olive oil), it’s even 100 percent vegan. I served it for brunch with friends this afternoon, and I will honestly say that it was probably the best thing that was on the table.

Rancho Gordo heirloom beans delivery

I first read about heirloom beans during the height of the pandemic. The sale of dried beans in general had gone up once the pandemic and lockdown were in full force in early 2020. People were looking for pantry items that could not only last a long time, but were also economical. At that time, I never thought much about dried beans or beans in general, though I did eat and cook them. I never thought about how they were grown, dried, or packaged up for selling. I didn’t think about their shelf life since when I thought about dried beans, I just thought they’d last forever in my pantry. Most of the time when I got them, I would buy bags of dried beans (since they’re cheaper, healthier, and taste better), plus the occasional can or two as emergency supplies. Beans in the U.S. have always had an association as “poor people food,” or the food that you eat when you don’t have much money. The saddest thing about that association is that beans are not only one of the tastiest things you can eat, but they are probably one of the healthiest things you can consume. There are endless varieties of beans, from big fat cannellini beans to teeny tiny varieties of lentils (dal) in colors of the rainbow. To say that you don’t like beans at all is like saying you don’t like any pasta, any rice, any fruit, or any vegetable — it’s absurd and likely ignorant. And I found out another fun fact about beans: they are also great candidates to aid in crop rotation, as they are able to replenish nutrients in soil. So, they would be perfect to plant in between seasons for other fruits/veggies!

Rancho Gordo aimed to change the image of beans as a cheap food. They wanted to highlight how rich and complex beans can taste, and also aimed to get dried beans even fresher to you (less than two years from picking). They also wanted you to discover the sheer variety of beans from all over the world and how amazing it all could be. Rancho Gordo even has an heirloom bean club that literally has tens of thousands of people on the wait list (including me, annoyingly enough). I was on the wait list for a while and finally came to terms that I was likely never getting off this stupid wait list, so I finally went on their website last week to order several pounds of different varieties and see what the hype was all about. I just got my order yesterday, and I’ve never been more excited to cook beans. I have Christmas lima beans, “Marcella” white beans (literally named after Marcella Hazen for the cannellini-like beans that she said were her favorite from Italy); I also got these interesting ones called Jacob’s cattle bean, which are a bespeckled white and red bean that would serve well in a baked beans application.

I think beans are our future, so I’m all for looking for new ways to cook with beans, as well as more types of beans to cook with!

Toddler Kaia eats eggs for the first time

As a baby, Kaia ate eggs in different ways: strips, omelettes, scrambles. Even back then, she didn’t seem to be a fan of them when they were hard boiled, though she did gobble them up when they were marinated in a Vietnamese caramelized pork belly braise. But after she turned one, she pretty much refused eggs no matter which way they were presented, and I have a feeling it’s because she wasn’t a fan of their squishy texture. Today, I realized I had some languishing tomatoes in my vegetable drawer in the fridge, so I tossed them into a hot pan with leftover scallions, some minced pork, and eggs to make a very saucy tomato, pork, and egg scramble. Because of all the liquid that came out of the tomatoes, the eggs were a lot runnier and soupy than I had hoped; they begged for some rice to soak up all the juices. When lunch time rolled around, Kaia was being fussy with the food we presented to her, so I randomly offered her some of the eggs, thinking she’d definitely reject them. But surprisingly, she actually ate a really good-sized helping. First, she took a small pea-sized amount and put it in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Then, she grabbed some more out of the bowl I presented and stuffed more in her mouth. I added some more onto her silicone plate, and she continued to eat it until there were just tiny remnants left. And in the end, she ate a very healthy toddler-sized portion of my tomato scramble.

We tend to assume our kids won’t eat things. We think that after multiple times of rejection, they will just keep rejecting. But it takes a lot perseverance as parents and caregivers to just keep offering a rejected food every time it’s on the menu, even if it’s literally just showing them the food and having them push it away. It takes just a few seconds of our effort. Because you never know when your child might actually say “yes” again.

Lasagne bolognese – first time in years!

I was rummaging through my cupboards to see what random things I’d purchased that I’ve forgotten about over the years, and I found some no-boil lasagne noodles I’d purchased at Trader Joe’s. I still remember when I bought this item, too: it was in autumn 2021 when I was very pregnant, and I thought then that a good dish to make while on maternity leave would be lasagne. Well, little did I know that layering pasta noodles with a long-simmered meat or vegetable sauce and different cheeses would be little priority with a tiny human to constantly care and pump milk for.

So I took out the package and decided that lasagne for our home was long, long overdue. I used my latest Butcherbox ground beef to make a four-hour simmered bolognese sauce on Friday. It even injured me with all the bubbling, as the sauce popped everywhere, including the inside of my right wrist, which still has purple-red bruise marks from the burn marks. Lucky me with my food prep, I already had my parmesan finely grated and stored in the freezer for future use. And today, I spent the late morning layering my lasagne in my much-neglected 13×9 casserole pan. And it felt really fun and satisfying. Lasagne making is almost like therapy. It’s very methodical but doesn’t take too much thinking. Once you know the method: one layer of noodles, one 1-cup layer of bolognese, one 1/2-cup layer of bechamel, and one 1/3-cup layer of grated parmesan — you just keep following it until you run out of noodles. Unfortunately for Trader Joe’s, I only had 3.5 out of five needed layers of pasta, so my pasta layering process got abruptly cut short, so I had to improvise my top layer.

But when it came out of the oven, I was pretty satisfied: forty-five minutes in the oven yielded an evenly browned and bubbly top, with a lid that was very crunchy and satisfying. A small piece really left me feeling satisfied with my efforts from Friday as well as today. It also confirmed something else I’ve always thought: every time I’ve had lasagne that was not homemade, I’ve just never been as happy with it. The meat sauce is rarely as nuanced and flavorful as the one I’ve made, and likely the quality of the meat to the cheese is never as high. Most of them rely too heavily on too much shredded mozzarella to mask anything that the sauce is lacking. So it always feels like a deflating experience ordering it out. Lasagne is really one of those things that I think needs to be homemade, loved, and eaten at home. My next idea is to make spinach lasagne with four cheeses, which I just got an email about from Food & Wine. It’s a doozy in other ways in that it uses four different cheeses and certainly is not for anyone who is watching their waistline, but I still think it’s worth an occasional indulgence… especially since before this, the last time I made a lasagne was when we still lived on the east side — that was over 7 years ago!!

Another bonus: I doubled the bolognese recipe, so I have a full recipe of bolognese meat sauce in my freezer, frozen in large 1/2-C cubes! So less work and more enjoyment in the future await. In that sense, the inner wrist bruising from the sauce burn is more worth it given it was an investment also in future meals and not just this week’s.