Yellow Cake

I love cake. It is my all-time favorite dessert. The perfect distribution of frosting and filling; the tender, moist inside; the sharply sliced edge -- heaven. Cupcakes don't even compare.

A few weeks back, I made a chocolate cake. At Dan's request, I made a yellow cake this week. Apparently, he loves yellow cake. I didn't know it was possible to love yellow cake, especially when chocolate cake is an option.

Nonetheless, I proceeded with a recipe from a trusted blogger. I used a basic chocolate buttercream to frost.

It wasn't my favorite cake--the crumb was uneven, and fairly crumbly. None of the flavors were overwhelming, which also meant that they were all overwhelmed by the chocolate frosting.

However, it was incredibly easy to frost (didn't even need a crumb coat), sturdy, and way better than the stuff from a box. If you're new to cake baking, or just want something easy (say, for a kid's birthday), this is a good go-to recipe.

Up next: Carrot cake with Ginger Lime Swiss Meringue Buttercream (for those of us that hate cream cheese frosting)

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Menu Planning 2/18

Sorry for the limited updates: our internet has been a little bit flaky recently.

Last week, we had a few delicious meals, and a few flops. 

- Our red lentil soup with coconut curry was flavorful and filling; it left your mouth lightly smoldering from the spice, but the heat never overwhelmed the flavor.
- The hash browns, made with leftover baked potatoes and brussel sprouts, were incredibly satisfying--a perfect comfort food. We added onion and cumin seed for flavor, but otherwise just enjoyed delicious execution.
- I have always been a fan of savory oatmeal, but Dan upped the ante from my microwaved spinach dining hall experience. He lightly sauteed frozen spinach and peas in garlic and green onion to add to our slow cooker oats. Yum.

- The idea was to make roasted broccoli and roasted chickpeas and serve them with pasta that had been lightly simmered in stock and then tossed with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. A few things got in the way (like not having parmesan or breadcrumbs and two voracious appetites..) and in the end, we had steamed broccoli and mildly heated chickpea noodle soup. It wasn't inedible, but not something worth repeating.
- Our winter squash has been languishing in the fridge, unused. Of course, we'll probably use it tonight, as planned, but any recipe that doesn't get eaten until the last day must have some fundamental flaw. In this case, there are two. First, Dan's not a big squash fan. Second, it's a pretty complicated preparation for a relatively simple meal! Good Saturday night food, but definitely not easy to make.

We were very good about sticking to our menu from last week, but have a few leftover ingredients anyways. The plan for this week primarily uses up those leftovers, with a few new items:

Sunday: Sandwiches with pinto bean mash, cabbage slaw, and optional barbecue chicken
Monday: Lentil red pepper soup from the Zuni Cafe cookbook
Tuesday: Salad with lettuce, bell pepper, carrots and buttermilk dressing
Wednesday: Pan-fried brussel sprouts with cheese polenta
Thursday: egg noodles with ginger scallion sauce, bamboo shoots, snap peas (if they're in season) and pan fried cauliflower
Friday: Buttermilk mashed potatoes with side salad

- Oatmeal
- English muffin
- Hard-boiled egg
- Teddy grahams w/ cream cheese
- Triscuits with cheddar
 - Carrots with hummus
 - Applesauce

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Red Coconut Curry Lentil Soup

The ingredients for this recipe went into our slow cooker in less than five minutes, just after breakfast. It was ready by lunch time, and perfect for the cold, rainy day.

Because of the curry paste, it's not vegetarian. However, it's a super low-meat meal, and both hearty and flavorful. It's got a little bit of spice to it--the kind that leaves your mouth gently smoldering--so if you're sensitive to heat, consider halving the curry paste.

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Red Coconut Curry Lentil Soup
serves 3-4

2.5c red lentils
4.5c water
1 15oz can light coconut milk
2T thai red curry paste [ours was from Mae Ploy, but Thai Kitchen has a version, too]

1. Mix all of the ingredients together in the slow cooker, breaking up any large chunks of curry paste.
2. Cook on high for 4 hours. For a heartier meal, serve with rice.

All soups are better with a garnish. Try toasted, unsweetened coconut or strips of homemade naan.
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On the Menu

I know it's been less than a week since our last menu planning, but since the farmer's market is on Fridays, I really do my planning on Thursday evening or Friday morning.

Last week, we didn't do a great job of sticking to our menu. We were a little bit ambitious with our plans, and many of our menu items required last minute cooking. Our slow cooker barley was also a complete fail, so we ended up going out to dinner.

We did learn a few interesting things last week though. First, a whole chicken can be salted, peppered and shoved in the slow cooker. The skin doesn't get browned, but it ends up falling off the bone tender. Second, the leftover bones from said chicken can be thrown in the slow cooker with some water overnight to make chicken stock. Third, the leftover chicken and stock can be used to make chicken tortilla soup in the slow cooker. Result: a happy husband.

This week, we've included a few more slow cooker recipes, and items that can be prepped in the mornings and just thrown together. Things like soups and our savory oatmeal will be eaten on busy days.

Next weekend is likely to be very busy, so I've planned enough meals to get us through next Sunday. We have a fair amount left over from this week, so we don't need to buy much to fill out this menu.

Here is our menu for the coming week:
Friday: Baked potatoes with sauteed green beans

Saturday: Roasted winter squash with shallot cream sauce over brown rice

Sunday: Hash browns with brussel sprouts and eggs (Note: this is our lunch plan; dinner is corn chowder with my parents.)

Monday: Tortilla soup

Tuesday: Savory oatmeal with frozen spinach and peas, topped with cheese

Wednesday: Stirfry with napa cabbage, chinese greens, red cabbage and rice

Thursday: Salad with carrots, and homegrown kumquats and radishes, with a lemon-honey dressing

Friday: Thai curry red lentil soup

Saturday: Red cabbage slaw with lime-paprika dressing on tortillas with cheese, black beans, corn and homemade salsa verde

Sunday: Roasted broccoli with chickpeas over pasta

Snacks for the week include:
- homemade whole wheat bread
- homemade bagels with cream cheese
- homemade granola over yogurt
- homemade applesauce
- crackers with cheese
- olives
- carrots and hummus
- apples/bananas with peanut butter
- orange wedges
- kiwis and grapes
- fried egg on an english muffin
- homemade granola bars

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Better than Expected

Earlier this week, I had an afternoon off of practice. In addition to catching up on some grocery shopping and work (planning practices, making line-ups, etc.), I decided to make a somewhat elaborate dinner.

The first two components of this dinner are super simple--open some cans, make a few chops, toss, heat, serve. The third, a recipe whispered by my aunt during the festivities leading up to our wedding, is perhaps the most spectacular potato recipe I've ever eaten.

Each of these dishes could be served solo. Together, they merry incredibly well for a savory, filling, and flavorful meal.

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Chickpea Salad
serves 2

This salad could be served warm, but was extra delicious heated just above room temperature in the microwave. The lemony brightness contrasts well with the garlicky richness, and the soft bite of the beans provides the perfect texture.

2c cooked chickpeas
1t paprika
0.5t salt
freshly ground pepper
1 clove garlic, finely minced or microplaned
1T garlic oil or extra virgin olive oil
0.5 lemon, juiced
1t sugar

1. Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl. Microwave for 1-2 minutes, or until just warm.
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Roasted Broccoli
serves 2

The rest of the meal was super complicated, so this had to be utterly simple. The roasting softens the stems and crisps the florets, making a wonderful play on textures. A little bit of salt cuts any bitterness, leaving pure, sweet broccoli joy. Dan, of course, added pepper.

1 large head of broccoli

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F
2. Rinse the broccoli and cut it into big chunks (maybe 5 or 6 pieces per head). Sprinkle lightly with salt.
3. Place the broccoli on a baking pan and roast for 25-30 minutes, or until the florets are as close to burned as you're comfortable with.
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Crispy Herb Potatoes
serves 3 (or 2...)

Crispy on the outside, soft of the inside, herby, garlicky, carby, fatty--everything you could want from a potato.

7-8 waxy skinned potatoes
3T olive oil
0.25c minced herbs (we used basil, oregano, tarragon, parsley and marjoram)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
salt, pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, wash your potatoes and cut them into equal size chunks.
3. Lightly salt the boiling water, and return to a boil. Add the potatoes and boil for 10 minutes (and not a minute more).
4. Drain the potatoes and toss with the oil, herbs, garlic and salt/pepper.
5. Spread the mixture on a baking tray. Bake for an hour, tossing every 20 minutes.
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A lot of this can be prepped ahead of time. You can pre-boil the potatoes and let them sit in the oil/herb mixture all day. The chickpea salad can be made a day in advance. The broccoli can be pre-cut and salted, ready to go on the baking tray. In addition, most of the clean-up can be completed while dinner is cooking.

This would make great party food. Lots of oohs and ahs, without tons of effort. It's also not overly heavy or fattening, and very food-restriction friendly--vegan, gluten-free, nut/soy/dairy free--and without any weird substitutions.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or emailing me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Chocolate Banana Muffcakes

In an effort to not gain weight, Dan and I have been purchasing limited quantities of dessert. This way, instead of immediately eating cookies from a box, we spend an hour discussing whether to get ice cream or make cupcakes.

This weekend, cupcakes won out.

After foodgawking for 15 minutes, I clicked on a chocolate banana cake/muffin recipe, and immediately decided to make it. We had all of the ingredients, including exactly 0.5c of sour cream that was languishing in our fridge and leftover frozen bananas.

The recipe came together very quickly, especially with some help from Dan.

The end result is tender, moist and equal parts chocolate and banana. The crumb was tight, but had a lot of give. They would make spectacular cupcakes without the chunky fillings, and topped with peanut butter frosting.

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Chocolate Banana Muffincakes
makes 6 jumbo muffins

1.25c AP flour
0.25c cocoa powder
1t baking soda
0.5t salt
1 stick butter, room temperature
130g sugar
2 eggs
1t vanilla
0.5c sour cream
1.25c mashed bananas (4-5 medium)
0.5c chocolate chips
0.5c slivered almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Sift together the first four ingredients.
3. In a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until slightly fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time. (It looks kind of like pancake batter at this point.)
4. Add the vanilla, beating to combine.
5. Add the sour cream and dry ingredients alternately, beating until just combined.
6. Fold in the mashed bananas, chocolate chips and almonds.
7. Divide into jumbo muffin tin and bake for 35 minutes, or until center is set. (Test w/ a toothpick). 
For regular muffins, divide into 12 muffin cups, and bake for 18-20 minutes at 350°F.
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These were good even the next day, and didn't need any warming for consumption. Keep them in an airtight container, preferably out of sight (or you'll eat them faster than you should).

Note: These are in no way good for you, unless you're trying to gain weight. They've got about 500 calories apiece! I think they're delicious for breakfast--I can't handle less than about 600 calories in the mornings.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or emailing me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com.

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On the Menu

Dan and I have been getting much, much better about planning out our menus and really using everything in the fridge. We find that if we only plan out dinner, we tend to end up buying enough food for breakfasts and lunches as well.

Here is the plan for this week, in no particular order:
- Stirfry with bok choy, celery, carrots, bell pepper w/ rice
- Salad with lettuce, cucumbers, pre-cooked chickpeas and pre-made salad dressing from last week, olives, cheese, and radishes and spring mix from the garden
- Barley with peas, cheese, and chorizo
- Pea shoots with bread/pasta and roasted chicken for Dan
- Quesadillas with black beans and a cabbage slaw
- Baked potato fries with roasted or grilled broccoli

We also have applesauce, granola bars and salsa on the 'to make' list.

When we plan our menu, I go through our fridge and make a list of everything in it, sorting into fruits, vegetables, herbs/seasoning, dairy/protein, etc. From there, I tried to plan a few meals around what's leftover.

Some weeks, we have very little leftover. Most weeks, though, we end up going off menu for one meal, eating out, or repurposing a main ingredient. A little bit of creativity uses most of this stuff up pretty quickly.

Once the leftovers have been planned, I pick a few recipes using seasonal ingredients. These recipes come from my cookbook collection, blogs, and recipe archives around the internet. We almost always cook seasonally. First, the seasons in California are very long, so this isn't very limiting. Second, where we shop, they stock almost exclusively seasonal produce. You pay dearly for out-of-season produce, both with money and quality.

As the menu comes together, I make a comprehensive list of what we need for each recipe, underlining the things we don't have. This creates our weekly shopping list.

Our first stop is the farmer's market, where I try to buy most of our weekly groceries. The busier my weekend is, the more I try to find at the market (or do without), to save us a trip to the grocery store. (With bikes, it takes about 2 hours.)

If we need to, we'll also make a stop at the Berkeley Bowl. Otherwise, we'll pick up any leftover items at Trader Joe's (2 miles away, instead of 4.5). If we're short on ingredients, I can also run out to the store midweek, or we can use our abundance of stockpiled dried and frozen goods, like beans, rice and spinach, to make an additional meal.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or emailing me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Exercise Update

I took some time off of seriously working out to prepare for our wedding. I know this is the opposite of most brides, but losing some muscle probably helped me fit into my dress.

It was a pretty snug fit--the dress was strapless
Now, I'm getting back into the swing of things. I haven't been out on the water for way too long, but have found it impractical to travel out to work early to get on the water, miss out on carpooling, and get sweaty and cold for the kids' practice.

Instead, I've come up with some alternative solutions.

First, I've started running the stairs in our apartment building. Of course, Dan informed me that in football, they made the players run stairs as punishment. Fortunately, I don't weigh 250 pounds, so running stairs is fun, not torture. It's also a great way to redevelop my leg strength.

I've also been doing some running outdoors. It's finally warm enough to run in shorts, so I'm starting to branch out and explore our neighborhood. Last week, I ran the 2 miles to the closest bread bakery around. The route runs by our local lake, and I saw lots of other joggers out--nobody else was carrying a baguette.

Other than rowing and running stairs, my third favorite work out is on the rowing machine. Instead of paying $40/month to join a gym, Dan and I decided to purchase a rowing machine! The club where I work is selling their used machines.

It's a little bit big for our apartment, but they stand up vertically. We plan to keep it in our bedroom, but in the summer I look forward to wheeling it out onto our balcony! I'll probably get strange looks from passersby, but at least I'm exercising!

As my mileage increases, look forward to more and more cake recipes! I eat a lot when I work out.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or emailing me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Brussel Sprout Pasta

As we were menu planning last week, we realized we'd been relying heavily on Asian flavors for our weeknight meals. (Probably thanks to our local farmer's market.) We were ready for a change.

We don't usually make pasta because meat-free sauces tend to be tomato-based and too sweet/acidic or cream-based and too fatty. Instead, we dreamed up this awesome vegan "sauce"--really it's more like a hot pasta salad.

This dish is full of vegetables--way more than the standard pasta sauce--and can be customized to your tastes. We added parsley, basil and oregano. Add your favorite herbs (or whatever is in season). Throw in some chickpeas (I did--the next day for lunch!) or top with parmesan/nutritional yeast. We decided to go for simplicity--we wanted dinner on the table ASAP--so the ingredients are brussel sprouts and herb.

As for pasta shapes, I recommend campanelle, mostly because it's our favorite shape, but also because the strings of sprout get tangled in the dough. Fusilli, radiatore or rotini are good alternatives.

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Brussel Sprout Pasta
serves 3-4

1T oil
1.5-2 pounds of brussel sprouts
1c veggie stock
0.25c parsley, basil, oregano, chopped
2T garlic oil {optional}
0.5 meyer lemon
1 pound pasta

1. Put a pot of water on to boil. In the meantime, slice your brussel sprouts into 0.25 inch disks. They will unravel into small shreds.
2. Once the water is boiling, add copious salt. Return to a boil and add the pasta.
3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying pan. Once hot, add the brussel sprouts, stirring every minute or two until the sprouts begin to brown nicely.
4. Once the sprouts are browned and a bit wilty, add the veggie stock, and simmer to reduce a bit.
5. Once cooked, drain the pasta, reserved about a cup of the cooking liquid, and return to pot. Add the brussel sprouts and herbs to the pasta, tossing to combine. Add pasta water or garlic oil as necessary until the noodles glisten.
6. Squeeze half of a meyer lemon over the top. Add the zest if you feel inclined.
7. Serve hot, with any toppings you desire. Suggestions: poppy seeds, more herbs, parmesan cheese (not vegan), nutritional yeast, garbanzo beans, blanched almonds
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A Growing Garden

Dan and I have a pretty spectacular balcony garden growing. It turns out, California winter really is mild enough for plants to thrive.

Last update, we had a few plants growing; most of them had yet to germinate. In the last few weeks, the growth has been tremendous. I also got a little bit excited and purchased more seeds to fill out gaps in the garden. Many of those seeds will go into the ground during the summer months, after the first solid harvests.

To track what has been planted and how much, I came up with this handy spreadsheet:

It tracks what I've planted, when I planted it, how much I've planted, when it will germinate, and when it should be ready to harvest. Of course it isn't all accurate. My green beans should be ready to harvest in 5 days, but many don't even have 3 leaves yet. The cold weather has definitely slowed growth.
So far, the radishes and the mesclun are absolutely thriving. I also have the lettuce inside, which is growing quite nicely. One of my cabbages has died, and I'm trying to decide whether to replant or repurpose the pot.

The carrots are showing minimal above ground growth, but I imagine they are working their magic underground. They are just about ready to be thinned again so that I can check their progress.
The beets were planted recently, but quickly shot up bright red stems. I expect they'll continue to grow nicely, as they're definitely cool weather plants.

In addition to the plants listed, we have several herbs--cilantro, basil, thyme, chives and potentially parsley. (I planted a slew of herbs and gave up on them before they germinated. They're now sprouting up in an otherwise abandoned section.)

We also have three citrus trees--a lemon tree, a lime tree and a kumquat tree. The lemon tree is absolutely thriving in the California climate.  It has grown tremendously and is starting to display the early signs of fruit.

Baby lemons.
The lime tree was less happy about CA winter. Once we disposed of our Christmas tree, I brought the lime tree indoors to take its place. It has since started to grow rapidly, including an abundance of new branches. A little bit of reading about proper watering also improved its health.

The kumquat tree is a recent addition, purchased with fruits already adorning its branches. I have it in a reasonably sunny location, just hoping the fruits ripen fully. I haven't had an opportunity to buy a larger pot for it, so it's currently living in the black nursery pot it came with.

The cucumber and tomato seedlings are growing well in our living room. I'm looking forward to transitioning them outdoors, and seeing if they survive the shock.

I still have enough soil and space for a few more plants, but I'm waiting until the weather is a bit warmer. I'm hoping to plant some in early spring (mid- to late February) for an early summer harvest, and again in late spring once the winter plantings are harvested.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or emailing me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Blueberry Bran Muffins

Last week, Dan put in a request for muffins. Specifically, he had a hankering for bran muffins. With blueberries in the fridge, we went off in search of wheat bran and a blueberry bran muffin recipe.

The recipe we found called for applesauce. We have applesauce from a granola/granola bar experiment (post coming soon! they were incredible!) but decided that banana and blueberry were a match made in heaven.

Although I'm not a fan of blueberry muffins or bran muffins, these were moist and tender--generally positive descriptors for muffins. They be divine with some shredded coconut to mask the bran flavor, and perhaps cranberries in place of blueberries..

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Blueberry Bran Muffins
makes 6 jumbo muffins
adapted from allrecipes.com

1.5c wheat bran
1c milk
1 large ripe banana, mashed
1 egg
0.67c brown sugar
0.5t vanilla extract
0.5c AP flour
0.5c whole wheat flour
1t baking soda
1.5t baking powder
0.5t salt
1c blueberries, rinsed and lightly dried (or cranberries!!)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a muffin pan or use non-stick.
2. Mix the wheat bran and milk together; let stand for 10 minutes.
3. Mix together the banana, egg, brown sugar, vanilla extract in a large bowl. Add the wheat bran and milk mixture.
4. Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt. (Sift! We didn't and our muffins had some flour lumps! These muffins are dark, so it's obviously if you've got a white clump of flour.)
5. Add the blueberries to the flour mixture, coating them with flour.
6. Add the blueberries and flour to the wet ingredients and fold to combine.
7. Divide evenly into muffin cups and bake for 25-30 minutes. The tops will spring back when lightly pressed, and a toothpick inserted into the middle will come out cleanly.

Serve warm with a big glass of water.
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Slow Cooker: Lentil Soup

When we moved into our own apartment, we quickly realized how great slow cookers are. We have a 2.5 quart super basic model--it has four settings: high, low, keep warm and off. It's a little bit small for two people, but a soup recipe will usually give us two generous dinner servings and one lunch serving.

When we moved out, my parents gave us a collection of beans as a moving out present. Slow cookers and beans are best friends. We use our slow cooker to make batches of garbanzos and black beans for use in salads, salsas and dips. Lentil soup is also one of the first things we made in our slow cooker.

This recipe can be as simple or complicated as you desire. We like to brown all of the aromatics in a big frying pan and then add them to the slow cooker. That takes time, but makes the house smell delicious. For the quick and easy route, chop everything in a big food processor, dump it in the slow cooker and go.

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Slow Cooker Lentil Soup
makes 2.5 servings

2 carrots
2 celery stalks
0.5 onion
3 cloves garlic
2t cumin seed {optional}
3c water or broth
1c green/brown lentils
1 28oz can tomatoes
2-3t cumin

1. {Optional} Chop/mince the carrots, celery, onion and garlic and saute in a pan over low heat until the onions are translucent. (You are trying to mingle flavors first.) Add the cumin seed. Turn the heat up to high and briefly brown the ingredients until things are just about to burn.
2. Dump all of the ingredients into the slow cooker. Turn on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours.
3. Garnish with cilantro or parsley, and more cumin seeds.
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