January 26, 2013

coconut maple flan with sesame caramel

If there was one thing I was reminded of this week, it was this: I don't have as much experience as I'd like as a cook. Because of this, I sometimes end up testing recipes much longer than a very experienced cook would, and I try things a seasoned chef wouldn't bother with. What I lack in experience, though, I make up for in creativity, and in sheer determination to keep at it until I achieve what I had in mind. I love it when an idea works, and somehow in the long process of getting there, I wasn't completely exhausted. I'm guessing it may have been the small doses of sugar I had from testing this recipe that kept me going.

Sugar is the theme here, but it's balanced by a creamy full-fat coconut milk. To make the sesame caramel work, a pure white refined sugar is necessary, but to sweeten the flan custard, I used a combination of a deep, dark grade B maple syrup and a caramel-ly coconut-palm sugar. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that caramel is the theme here. This leads me to the next point, and the reason for the longer than normal recipe-testing process: getting the hang of caramelizing sugar. If you're like me, you'll probably need more than one attempt to get it right, unless you're lucky, or you've watched someone else do this technique often. It definitely takes more than one try to get comfortable with caramelizing sugar properly, and since you are heating it to the point to almost before it burns, at a high temperature, it's a good idea to educate yourself. David Lebovitz has ten tips and a very helpful tutorial on the matter, and Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes has a short instructional post too. If you're not an experienced caramelizer, take time to read those posts, and you'll at least be well-informed on your first attempt.

The other side of the story of the long process of recipe testing is what identifies a good flan; very creamy, very smooth and yet still solid enough to hold a form when unmolded. The importance of cooking the custard to just the right point, much like the caramel, is a deal-maker or a deal-breaker. For discriminating flan eaters, like my husband, it makes every bit of difference, as it will to you when you get it right. If you don't judge the doneness quite right the first time around (undercooked and too soft, or overcooked and grainy), you could blend the unmolded cooked flan in a blender until smooth, pour it back into the ramekins, and treat it as a creme brulée. I have a batch waiting to be used just like this.

So that's my story, and after this long week of recipe-testing, I'm glad to have gained a little more experience as a cook. And since it involved sugar, who's complaining? Definitely not me-and I hope you won't either when you eat this flan.

January 18, 2013

roasted garlic, broccoli and potato soup

Temperatures have dropped quite low recently, and we've even had a second occurrence of snow. Though we do get ice storms, the soft fluffy white stuff is somewhat uncommon for these city parts of Texas. As old and expiring car batteries are prone to do, mine chose the snow day to fail to start the car. Fortunately, the cable guy working on a neighbor's house was willing to loan his van for a battery charge. Still, the process involved me digging the jumper cables from among the clutter in our garage, removing the plastic protective cover from the battery, and properly attaching the large positive and negative clamps to their very small matching bolts on the battery. I somehow did this without blowing anything up (though the cable guy had to re-set the clamps a bit), as my husband's words "just don't let the clamps touch each other" were clearly in my mind the entire time. Did I mention it was freezing outside?

So it wasn't surprising, that the very next day, I made this soup, inspired by the "Creamy Potato and Roasted Garlic Soup" recipe from Anna Thomas' cookbook Love Soup. Aaahhh...have I mentioned the restorative properties of the aroma of roasting garlic in a warm kitchen before? Well, it is restorative, just as roasted broccoli and potatoes and a touch of creamy coconut milk are. Add to that the subtle undercurrent of turmeric and sweet smoked paprika, both warming spices, and this soup, with its substantial texture, more than made up for the very cold weather and previous day's troubles.

Most importantly in a good soup is the stock, so as always, I recommend you make your own for the best flavor and restorative effect. I made use of the remaining stock from the oxtail we made for visiting family this past weekend, but a good, rich homemade chicken stock would provide a great flavor base too. I like my winter soups to have lots of texture, so that they're almost chewy. To get the same texture as you see in the picture below, be careful not to purée the soup too long, unless of course you prefer it smoother. Take it from me; if you're in need of some inner therapy, and are weary from the weather or the week, I recommend a bowl of this well-balanced potage unreservedly.

January 11, 2013

my kitchen apothecarium, part two

I thought I'd re-visit the topic of homemade personal care items with another recipe, this time with a lavender-scented hair gel made from golden flaxseeds. When cooked in hot water, flaxseeds release a clear, thick liquid that works great as a gel. This recipe is adapted from Naturally Healthy Hair by Mary Beth Janssen and will work for both girls and guys. I've added a teaspoon of coconut oil for its conditioning benefits; though I've not tried them, olive or almond oil might be nice too. If you prefer a scent other than lavender, you can try a different essential oil; before doing so be sure to read the "important note" section in the recipe below.

The consistency and feel of the gel, which is very similar to egg whites, is a little different than commercially manufactured gels. Because of this, the gel takes a little getting used to when applying, and may take a time or two to know how much to use to get the result you want, which is also dependent on how thick of a gel you make. I've been using variations of this gel for several months now, and I really like it; it's nourishing and doesn't build up with repeated use, and it works for wavy, curly, or straight hair days. Along with the money I save and the extra additives I avoid, it's another thing I'm happy to be making from my kitchen apothecarium.

January 4, 2013

follow your heart

The guiding precepts for my goals for 2013 are only two: to simplify and to savor, however, whenever and wherever possible. I hope this opens the door for more inspiration, and that what you read here will inspire you too. Though it's a new year, it's easy to follow old routines; sometimes it takes a little extra effort to shake things up or take a path not traveled before. I hope you're able to find your way a little better this year, and I offer this thought for your consideration: Don't follow the money, follow your heart.