Coconut Rice Pudding

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So I stayed up all night yesterday watching recipe videos in a sinking spiral of late-night nausea and deepening depression that only emerges at 2 a.m., alone in bed, when there’s no one to keep you company but the bright computer screen. One good thing I came away with though: a hunkering desire to make rice pudding. Creamy, milky, sweet pudding with a soft consistency and an occasional bite from the rice. With a little big of egg and vanilla to add a custard-y flavor (one of my favorite flavors in the whole world). It’s just so comforting in the most elementary way.

My version conflates two different recipes and, as usual, left me with some kitchen lessons. First one: for the millionth time, Andrea, STOP using orange extract thinking it might be able to replace orange zest. (It won’t. And the fake taste will mercilessly mock you with every bite.) And with arborio rice, the pudding ratio for rice to liquid is approximately 2/3 cup rice for 3 ¾ liquid. The rest of the details are below in the recipe. P.S. the coconut here is very, very subtle. I would add coconut extract if you want the flavor to be stronger.

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Coconut Rice Pudding

If you want an orange flavor:

2/3 cup arborio rice
1 can coconut milk (1 ¾ cups or 14 oz)
1 ¼ water
¾ cup orange juice
Zest of one orange
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3-4 heaping tablespoons sugar (or to taste; just add the tablespoons gradually and taste in between)
1 egg yolk whisked with 1-2 tablespoons milk

If you want just coconut custard flavor:

2/3 cup arborio rice
1 can coconut milk (1 ¾ cups or 14 oz)
2 cups milk (or 1 cup milk, 1 cup water)
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3-4 tablespoons sugar (or to taste; just add the tablespoons gradually and taste in between)
1 egg yolk whisked with 1-2 tablespoons milk

Directions:

1. Pour everything minus the maple syrup and sugar (and zest) into a pan and bring to a boil.
2. Once at a boil, reduce to a simmer and let cook for about 30 minutes.
3. Add sugar and maple syrup (and zest) and keep simmering until it reaches the consistency you want. For me it was when the rice had absorbed as much liquid as it could (most of it) and there was just enough liquid left to bind everything, approx. 15 minutes.
4. Turn off the heat and maybe wait a couple minutes. To thicken the pudding, whisk in the egg yolk mixed with milk slowly. You should end up with a light yellow color. If you’re pudding is already thick enough for your tastes, omit the egg.
5. Refrigerate with plastic wrap covering the surface of the pudding, not the rims of the bowl, to prevent a film from developing. Chill overnight.

*Disclaimer: I played with my recipe while cooking a LOT. I initially only used 1/3 cup of rice and so had to microwave more arborio to add to the mixture. I let it continue cooking until it thickened even more. Ending fact: this recipe gives good guidelines but please do play with the proportions and timing.

Watermelon-Mint Granita

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I have had so much to write about this summer but it’s only now that I’ve arrived in Korea and have started my documentary work here that I feel it’s necessary to record everything. So here begins a recap: this summer, I interned at Serious Eats as an editorial intern, which was not a very challenging experience but rather something that gave me exposure to a real work environment — albeit a very relaxed one. I realized my food writing needs a lot of improvement, that I need to be more curious about the food itself and the experience, history and science of buying it, preparing it and enjoying it. I’d really like to expand my vocabulary to be more sensory and accurate in describing tastes, textures and smells.

On another note, I’ve also realized that I need to be more curious about my relationship with Chris and I’ve developed a newfound dedication to improving our life together in a proactive way rather than falling into the same mistakes and bad habits over and over again. I think it’s working.

This summer was really another trial for my depression, my relationship and self-esteem. But in the end, it’s pushing me to move forward and quit my addiction to complacency. I think the key to breaking away from this complacency is creativity. What used to fuel me as a teenager was a love for art, music, reading. As my depression made me slowly lose interest in all my previous hobbies, I think I’ve lost a lot of color in my personality as well. There’s not as much tangible passion that leads to growth. A lot of it is bursting out in these random directions without any guidance or fruition. It’s developed into a jumbled, disorganized energy that can’t find any ventilation. Kind of like a restlessness that can’t be relieved and remains suffocated under this waxy dense layer of indifference, that loss of passion and interest in the world around me.

Journalism has been a great remedy for this, letting me at least gain some passion and curiosity back. But that’s only one sector through which I should be exploring and expressing myself.

I’m rambling. After I finished my internship and ended my summer in Jersey, I came to Seoul with my brother. He stayed for two weeks during which we spent equal amounts of time bumming and going out. It was a good time — especially before he went off to college (!!).

And now I’ve started working on my documentary project on LGBT life in Seoul with Sunny. Basically it’s been incredible — meeting so many amazing people, hearing their stories, discussing in depth the issues that pervade Korean culture, the history that has produced today’s society and so much more. It’s been invigorating to say the least. More details to come in my next post.

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Anyways here is my recipe for the most refreshing watermelon-mint granita. The flecks of mint leaves a tingly, cooling sensation on your tongue and the cold, fruity watermelon tastes as much like summer as any dessert could. It’s the perfect dish to serve when it’s hot and sticky out and you need something to immediately cool you off.

Ingredients:

Cubed seedless watermelon
White sugar
Mint Leaves
Orange or grapefruit juice (optional)

1. Fill a magic bullet with as much watermelon as you can fit. Add in two spoonfuls of sugar and 4-5 leaves of mint (2-3 if you don’t want it too strong). You can also add a tablespoon and a half of orange/grapefruit juice if you don’t want it to be one-note. My dad complained that the flavors were boring — I didn’t mind it.

2. Blend until everything has liquified. Pour into a bowl, cover in plastic wrap and freeze.

3. When the mixture is completely frozen, start scraping into it with a fork until the entire bowl has been broken up into tiny flakes of watermelon ice. Serve with a sprig of mint.

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Chicago Cupcakes

The Motherload

The Motherload

I’ve personally never been caught up in the whole cupcake craze. I didn’t really understand why people freak out over these mini-cakes because, well, they’re just that – mini cakes. That is until I tried a few from Chicago Cupcakes, a cupcake truck that visited Northwestern campus a couple months ago.

There are three components that make up a Chicago Cupcake and those are the frosting, the cake and the crust. Each treat comes topped with silky Italian buttercream that adds an appropriate sweetness and smooth, creamy texture. The cake is infused with some kind of creamy diary so it tastes and feels more like a light, moist cheesecake rather than a traditional cupcake – brilliant! It’s absolutely delicious and the texture is both surprising and satisfying. And the finishing touch? A salty sweet crust that holds the entire beauty together; each crust is chosen to compliment different cupcake flavors.

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The first I tried was the Motherload and you’ll understand its name once you read the description: chocolate cake on a pretzel and brown sugar crust, filled with peanut butter and topped with a caramel Italian buttercream, chopped peanuts, pretzels and brown sugar. It is THE dream cupcake, everything you’ve ever wanted and more. Salty, sweet, creamy, nutty, decadent, light…shall I go on?

The second cupcake was the Key Lime, which had a fluffy cheesecake-like texture and a clean lime flavor that shone through. It came with a graham cracker crust and proved to be a simultaneously light and decadent treat.

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These guys at Chicago Cupcake really changed my perspective on what cupcakes can be. Try them out to learn the real potential behind these mini-cakes.

Caramel Banana French Toast

It’s the night before until I leave for school and what time was passing by in painful slow motion is suddenly moving too fast. Way, way too fast. My usual case of jitters are starting to form and anxiety is starting to pump through my blood.

With my sleeping schedule royally screwed (5 a.m. bedtimes, 2 p.m. “mornings”) and my furniture situation for the new apartment room still up in the air, I could not be less prepared for a full school year.

Yet this month has been a time when I’ve finally felt emotionally okay. My fierce uncomfortableness with being alone has subsided and the dissatisfaction I used to feel with my life is gradually transforming into hope, hope for a better year and hope for a happier soul. Ironically, knowing I’m in a good place is making me all the more nervous for the school year. I can feel the expectations I have to live up to closing in on me. Self-created expectations that are just waiting to poison my budding optimism before it gets to set root.

Expectations to enjoy my time. Expectations to be happy. Expectations to be mature, enviable, productive, successful. It’s a tall order.

Trying to live up to self-expectations is unbelievably daunting, and now that I’ve lived through it, I’ve realized, a ridiculous way to go through life.

It’s taken 20 years to absorb this knowledge and finally put it into real practice. And admittedly, it’s still a work in progress. But hey, at least the train is moving.

Caramel Banana French Toast

Ingredients:

1 slice of white bread, sliced into fours. You can use any kind of bread, I suggest brioche if you can find some.

1 egg, beaten

3/4 teaspoon sugar

1 dash of cinnamon

A pat of butter

1/2 banana sliced

Enough sugar to evenly coat the bottom of a small sturdy pot or heavy-duty pan.

Directions:

1. Soak bread into the beaten egg (into which you’ve mixed your 3/4 tsp. sugar and cinnamon) in a bowl. Let it soak for a few minutes and make sure each side is evenly coated by egg.

2. Heat a pan to medium-low heat and melt your pat of butter. Place each piece of bread down.

3. While the french toast cooks, pour enough sugar to evenly coat the bottom of your pot. Put the heat to low and do not touch the sugar. It will slowly melt and turn a light amber color. Once the edges start to brown, start dragging the sugar towards the center to make sure there are no burnt spots. (Keep a watch on the french toast and flip when the first side is done). Slowly stir and keep a constant watch until it turns into a medium amber. Toss in the bananas and coat with the caramel.

4. Plate the french toast and pour over the caramel-coated bananas. In a clean, dry pan, quickly toast a few chopped walnuts and sprinkle over the french toast. Enjoy!

Birthday Cake, for a Father I Still Love

Happy birthday daddy!

You’ve made it to another year – 55 and still alive.

It was my dad’s birthday yesterday and I made cake.

My dad and I have come a long way. I think understand him more than anyone else ever will.

You see, I love my dad, but I also resent him. I resent him on behalf of my mother, I resent him on behalf of my brother, most of all, I resent him on behalf of the man he could have been.

He is an absent husband, a barely existent father, a lazy, unmotivated breadwinner. Every night when he comes home from work, he changes out of his suit into his ill-fitted high waisted shorts and a polo, which he’s probably owned as long as I’ve lived, and goes out to sit at the table in our backyard patio. He brings three things: his cigarettes, a cup of straight Soju and a newspaper or book. In the darkness illuminated by his small lamp with no lampshade, bright lightbulb exposed, he reads, he smokes, he drinks, and he forgets about reality. He comes in at the end of the night and falls into a drunken slumber on the living room couch – glasses on, clothes unchanged – in front of the tv, which he almost always forgets to turn off. It’s become such a common occurrence in our household that this behavior doesn’t faze any of us, but when described with concrete words, the reality of it becomes clear, unbearably clear. And it’s painful.

But I still love him.

All the weird, questionable purchases in my house that we end up throwing away – fig newtons, random cans of sauces, already rotten plums – are my dad’s. My mom thinks he’s an idiot.

But I still love him.

The alcohol’s kind of fucked up his brain and the smoking has corroded his teeth. My younger brother doesn’t look up to him as a father figure as far as I can see.

His nonfunctioning marriage has left my mother silently depressed. She’s scared for her future once my brother leaves for college and she’ll be left alone with my dad and no one to communicate with.

But I still love him.

He told me a story one time about the woman he loved a long time ago. How he was too stupid and immature at the time to man up and propose. How she’d left him because he wouldn’t. Her father came to my dad to tell him that she still loved him, but my dad had too much pride to take her back. He still thought about her years later, already married to my mom and a father to me and my brother. They met up, not too long ago, and after, he was finally able to get over her. I had never imagined my father ever loving a woman, taking her out on dates and being in a real relationship. It made me realize how much more he could’ve had in his life. It made me hate him for failing my mother, his wife.

But I still love him.

Because he’s a good guy. A good guy who would rather pray to God and live a modest life rather than be rich and successful. A good guy who thinks he should’ve studied philosophy in college, not dentistry.

He’s a shadow of a man with unquittable bad habits and a good heart, the purest of the pure. He’s a man who is equally as pained as he is painful to be around. He is a man who hates himself but doesn’t try to change. He’s given up. I’ll never forgive him for it.

But I still love him.

Layered Vanilla Cake (with Blueberry Whipped Cream and Strawberries)

This cake is delicious. I mean, really freaking delicious. I cheated and used a cake mix, but hey, I was on a time limit. I used Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake mix with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Flavor and can I say, I’m glad I did. It produced the eggy scent and flavor of a most basic cake, the kind I love, and a fluffy, moist texture. I highly recommend it.

By the way, the leftovers for this cake – phenomenal. It’s the kind of thing that gets better as it sits in the fridge, the kind of thing you should pull out and indulge in for breakfast because it’s just that good.

Ingredients:

1 Package of Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake Mix

6 Ounces of whipping cream (I just about 1/4 of my 16 ounce carton)

2 Tablespoons of white sugar, or you can do this to taste for the sweetness you want, remember you’re going to add jam

3-4 Tablespoons of blueberry jam, microwaved for 20 seconds and then cooled completely (look at whipped cream directions)

15 Sliced strawberries, you might need more or less depending on your strawberries’ size

Blueberries for topping if you’d like (I think it would a nice touch)

Directions for Whipped Cream:

Mix heavy cream and sugar into a large bowl and start whipping with a mixer or whisk until peaks form. If you want to alternate plain cream and blueberry in your layers, take half of the whipped cream and transfer into a different bowl. Gently fold in 2-3 tablespoons of jam into one bowl until just incorporated, you don’t want to deflate the whipped cream. Place both bowls of cream in fridge until the cake is ready to frost.

Directions for Cake:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Make the Vanilla Cake mix batter according to the box’s directions. Or make your cake from scratch, your call.

3. Pour a thin 1/4 – 1/2 inch layer of batter into a 9-inch round non-stick pan. Repeat with a second pan, if you have one.

4. Bake the cake layer until it is just beginning to turn golden. When done, remove and let cool completely.

5. If your cake has puffed a little in the middle, just trim it off best you can until you have a even, flat surface.

6. Scrub off your pan and repeat the process. Again, if you have multiple pans, use them. You’re making four layers.

7. Once your first layer is cool, spread a thin layer of blueberry/plain whipped cream evenly across the surface.

8. Then line with sliced strawberries over the entire surface.

9. Top with your cooled off second cake layer and repeat the whipped cream/sliced strawberry process. Keep doing this until you have your final layer on top.

10. Spread whipped cream onto the final layer and line with sliced strawberries and whole strawberries in a design you like. I also took some almond toffee crisps and crumbled them on top in a ring just because I had them.

Lemon Bars

There’s just something about citrus fruits. I wish they were in my life all the time. Grapefruit, lemons, limes. These waxy orbs of sour, tart, and sweet bring me so much joy and I wish their refreshing scents would travel with me always.

A few weeks ago, my love for citrus led, naturally, to a purchase of an excessively large bag of lemons, and I needed to do something with the overflow in my fridge.

Cue the lemon bars.

This was my first time making and eating a lemon bar, but even so I knew there had to be an art behind these tasty treats. Even as a lemon bar novice, I really felt that the perfect bar should strike a balance between tart and sweet, between creamy and buttery and fruity. And last but not least, they should (they must!) be lightly and evenly dusted with a layer of superfine powdered sugar. If a lemon bar doesn’t meet these requirements, it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, mine were not perfect.

There was a slightly cheesy taste to it that emerged when not eaten straight chilled from the refrigerator. If I had to fault anything in the recipe, I think it might have been the condensed milk. Besides this flaw, everything else met my standards. The bars had a delicious buttery crust, the filling was sweet but still a little tart, and the lemon flavor shone through.

Anyway, my hunt for the right lemon bar recipe continues, but I’m really hoping these few* will quickly nip the search in the bud. Until then, here are some nice photos to placate the newfound hunger for lemon bars triggered by this post, and the recipe I used, simply because it was so damn easy and still produced something pretty acceptable, at least when chilled.

*David Lebowitz, Smitten Kitchen and Ina Garten: These are people I trust, people who have never failed me. Funny enough, Deb from Smitten Kitchen adapted her lemon bar recipe from Ina Garten’s cookbook – great minds think alike!

Lemon Bars (Recipe from Laura in the Kitchen)

Ingredients:

For the Crust:
2 Cups of Flour
1/2 cup of Powdered Sugar
2 Sticks of Unsalted Butter, at room temperature

For the Filling:
1 14 oz Can of Sweetened Condensed Milk
4 Eggs
2/3 Cup of Fresh Lemon Juice
Zest of One Lemon *Make sure it’s organic! You don’t want wax in your lemon zest…
1/4 tsp of Salt
1 tsp Baking Powder
1 Tbsp of Flour

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 by 12 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the crust and mix together until it forms a dough. Press the dough in the bottom and half way up the sides of the baking pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes.

3. In a large bowl combine all of the filling ingredients and mix until everything is well mixed.

4. Pour into the baked crust and bake for 25 minutes.

5. Cool for 30 minutes at room temperature and 2 hours in the fridge.

6. Dust with confectioner sugar and cut into bars. Make sure to dust the sugar after the bars have been chilled, otherwise the sugar will melt right into the lemon filling and you’ll never be able to get that pretty dusted sugar top again.