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For the last several weeks of school, my brain was too full to tackle anything more difficult than pasta or chocolate chip cookies. I was writing final papers, getting forms signed, running interference between my department and the graduate office, and heading to campus for last-minute meetings and assignments. There was plenty of stress eating, but not much real cooking or baking. Things were so crazy that I nearly let Mother’s Day slip past me.

Luckily, I caught it in time to ask my own mother what she would like for Mother’s Day, and had the foresight to suggest we celebrate in person a week late, when she would be in town to see me graduate, rather than celebrate by mail. My sister and I coordinated to get her some gifts, but she also asked that I bake her something. She asked that I bake her a coconut cream pie.

My mom is the one who most frequently asks me to bake for her. It started when I was little; she would let me help when she made no-bake cookies, those little delights of chocolate, oats, and peanut butter you mix in a pan and drop onto wax paper on the counter. I’ve made those cookies as an adult, but somehow they lose their magic if Mom isn’t eating one too soon, when it hasn’t set and is still warm and gooey.

When I got older, Mom would buy cake and brownie mixes and talk my sister and I into baking a pan of brownies, or a pan of yellow cake with canned chocolate frosting. Sometimes we’d get refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough, which may or may not have made it all the way through the baking process before being consumed. Our pantry was usually stocked with a variety of muffin mixes; many a Saturday morning started with my sister and I baking muffins for mom. Mom would always rather be the baked-for, rather than the baker. If you know her, you know this suits her personality quite well.

Although I still consider myself a novice baker (this was my first cream pie, after all, and I wasn’t at all sure how to tell if it would set correctly, thicken up right, or come out edible), I got an early start at my mother’s side, as she showed me how to use a measuring cup, how to crack an egg without getting shell in the batter, and let me in on that all-important secret: the best way to clean a bowl is to lick it. I think I may have mentioned this before, but I’m pretty sure it was my mom who told me that if you can read, you can cook. Even complex recipes are simple if you follow the directions.

This is one of the more complex recipes I’ve ever followed. There’s a lot to do, and in a certain order. My sister was with me, so I was trying to explain the process along the way to a young woman who was incredibly dubious of both of our abilities on this front. Still, sharing the kitchen with my little sister to make our mother a pie was a special, if hilarious, experience. My sister raised her eyebrows when I brought out the food processor, jumped at the noise when I pulsed the animal crackers, and generally was awesome as sous chef while our mom laughed at us and read a book in the next room. We both looked at the coconut milk with some concern until a friend nearby assured us that is really is supposed to look that way. Sister was utterly nonplussed with having to wait between steps, and then having to wait three to four hours before we could eat the pie.

This pie was very tasty and not all that difficult to make, although it is somewhat complicated. It has a strong coconut flavor and is guaranteed to please the coconut-lover in your group. A word to the wise: if you are a texture eater (as I am), you should strain out the coconut flakes before you add the milk-coconut milk mixture to the egg mixture. I found the coconut flakes in the pie itself to be off-putting, but no one else minded. It’s a texture thing. The texture people among me will understand.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Coconut Cream Pie
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

6 ounces animal crackers
2 tbsp. sweetened shredded coconut
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
4 tbsp. butter, melted and cooled

1 14-ounce can whole coconut milk
1 c. whole milk
1/2 c. sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 tbsp. salt
5 large egg yolks
1/4 c. cornstarch
2 tbsp. butter, cut into two pieces
1 tsp. vanilla

Whipped Cream
1 1/2 c. cold heavy cream
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla

For crust: Preheat oven to 325. Combine animal crackers, coconut, and sugar in a food processor and pulse in one-second pulses until crumby. Then process for 5-15 seconds until fine.

Combine crumbs with melted butter in a bowl until mixture looks uniform. Press into bottom of a 9″ pie plate (I used a 9.5″ pie plate, because that’s the pie plate I have and that’s the kind of girl I am) with the bottom of a ramekin or flat-bottomed cup.

Place pie in lower third of oven and bake ~15 minutes, rotating halfway through baking time, until crust is medium brown. Set pie pan on a wire rack and cool at least 30 minutes.

For filling: Combine milk, coconut milk, 1/2 c. sugar, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

In a separate bowl, whisk yolks, cornstarch, and 1 tsbp. sugar until fully combined. Add milk mixture to egg mixture a little at a time, whisking constantly (this is tempering the eggs, so they don’t scramble); you should add the milk mixture in 4-5 batches. [This is the part where, if you are a texture person, you would strain out the coconut before you add the milk mixture to the egg mixture.]

Return mixture to saucepan and cook until boiling. Allow to boil, stirring, for one minute, so mixture can thicken.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter until butter is completely absorbed. Pour into the pie shell and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap onto the surface of the filling, and chill in the fridge for at least three hours.

For whipped cream: Just before serving, combine heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. With a hand mixer, beat on medium or high until soft peaks forms, about 3-4 minutes.

Spread onto pie, attempting to make a pretty design.

Slice and serve. Keeps in fridge, covered, for several days, or until your boyfriend finishes it.

A few months ago, I was invited to document the preparation of Vietnamese-style spring rolls in a family friend’s home. The friend is a friend of my mom’s, Candy, whose aunt was visiting from Germany. Candy’s aunt, Misuk, and her mother Chanji are both Korean, so this was truly a multilingual experience, made all the more fun since Handsome speaks German quite well. He and Misuk were able to gossip about the rest of us, and no one was the wiser!

This wonderful, generous, hilarious confirmed something for me: mothers and daughters are the same everywhere. I love my mother. She is a strong, funny, exciting, gracious social butterfly. She’s made me the woman I am today. And she is a mother, and I am a daughter. This means she gets to tell me things like, “Yeah, you need to lose five pounds to wear those pants, honey,” when I try on a suit for her. She also gets to pick me up from the airport right after finals week, take me to lunch, and immediately comment that I am too thin, look pale, and am I sick? In short, she gets to criticize me in the most mom-like way possible, irritate me to her heart’s content, and yet still endear herself to me. After all, who else can I trust to tell me that I do honestly need to rethink those pants? Certainly not Handsome. I shudder to think what the state of our relationship would be if I asked for his honest opinion of my pants and he said anything other than, “You look beautiful.” Which is why I have a mom. Love you, Mom.

Making dinner with Candy, Misuk, and Chanji gave me the opportunity to share multiple giggles and sidelong glances with my own mother and my sister as the women stepped on each other’s toes and bickered. I felt the exasperation when Candy rolled her eyes and commented on the limited number of hands she possesses. I heard the irritation when the plates on the table, filled with meticulously julienned vegetables, needed to be placed just so. The small kitchen was full with plates of vegetables, pots of boiling water, glasses of wine and tea, various ingredients, and cooks, and at times it was overwhelming and confusing. But there was the sense that, although these three women are not frequently in a kitchen together, they had a routine and a way of being around each other that was entirely comfortable. So, I also felt the pride, love, and sense of family as these three women came together to make a meal for the rest of us. There’s nothing like mothers and daughters (and, in this case, aunts and nieces) to make you feel the love in a room.

Because I would be in my hometown with Handsome, Candy and her family generously offered her house and their services to cook us a meal they have enjoyed together several times. When Mom emailed me to ask if Handsome and I would be available for a homemade Korean dinner, I was skeptical. I don’t know much about Korean cuisine, and was leery of trying it. New, ethnic foods can be scary, especially if one is not naturally an adventurous eater. Still, I can’t call myself a foodie if I’m not willing to be adventurous, so I went with an open mind.

I spent the time taking notes and photos, documenting everything that was done. (For those of you who get anxious about trying new foods, being part of the process is helpful for me.) Misuk motioned me over several times to take photos of specific ingredients, like the sweet chili paste, a sauce I’d never had before.

She had spicy chili paste (sambal) as well, and we talked about how we use it in our kitchens. She seemed impressed that I was so familiar with the ingredients, and I was delighted to learn new ways to use the sauces in my pantry already. Sambal, if you don’t already know, is a sauce made from red chilis. There are several varieties of sambal available, but the one you will see most commonly is sambal oelek, which is what you should use. You may be able to find it in the Asian section of a well-stocked grocery store, or definitely in an Asian specialty store. It’s like ketchup in that it keeps in the fridge forever.

Before I get too in-depth about the rolls themselves, the sauces Misuk made deserve some attention, if only because I plan to use them every time I make dumplings, stir-fry, tempura, or pretty much anything else. I don’t like scrambled eggs, but I think these sauces would make a spicy substitute for salsa on scrambled eggs, if you’re so inclined.

Spicy Chili Sauce
Note: these measurements are approximate. Misuk eyeballed the amounts, tasted, and adjusted the ingredients to suit her taste, which is always the best way to concoct a sauce.

You will need:
2 tbsp. spicy chili paste (sambal)
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. vinegar (she used regular distilled vinegar, but rice vinegar would also be acceptable)
1 tsp. fish sauce

Mix together in a bowl. Taste and adjust ingredients. This sauce is spicy.

Sweet Chili and Sesame Sauce

You will need:
1/2 c. sweet chili sauce
1 tbsp. sesame oil

Mix both ingredients in a bowl. Taste and adjust as desired.

The sweet chili sauce was quite sweet, with just a little spice behind it. Misuk informed me that the brand of sweet chili sauce we used this evening packed more heat than what she is used to using, so your sweet chili and sesame sauce may be less spicy. If you would like some spice, feel free to add a teaspoon of sambal and adjust the heat from there.

Now for the spring rolls themselves. These are fairly straightforward, but do require quite a bit of preparation. I’m not going to put measurements with the ingredients, because what you need will really depend on how full you stuff your spring roll, how many people you are serving, and your own personal preference. You can omit anything you like. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but that does not mean it isn’t still very easy! Lots of steps, but very few of them are complicated.

Vietnamese-Style Spring Rolls with Bulgogi

You will need:

thinly-sliced beef tenderloin
soy sauce
sesame oil

carrots, julienned
cucumber, julienned
avocado, sliced thinly
scrambled egg, sliced thinly
imitation crab, separated into thin strands
shitake mushrooms, sliced thin
1 package Chinese rice noodles

Rice paper spring roll wrappers
Hot water

To prepare the bulgogi, which is a Korean beef dish, slice the beef tenderloin into small, thin strips. Place beef strips in a bowl. Combine soy saice, sugar, pepper, and sesame oil (adjust measurements to your taste; I do not have the measurements for the marinade, but it seems pretty straightforward) and pour over beef. Toss to coat and marinate at least one hour.

When finished marinating, fry the beef in batches in a skillet on medium-high heat until it is cooked through. Drain on a paper towel.

For the vegetables, julienne or slice thinly, into match-stick size pieces.

For the mushrooms, slice thinly and sauté in a skillet until soft. Transfer to a plate.

For the eggs, beat the eggs in a bowl. Pour egg mixture into a skillet and cook, generally without moving, a few minutes. Flip the egg and make sure both sides are done. Remove egg from skillet and slice into thin strips.

For the rice noodles, prepare according to package directions. Drain the noodles when finished, and allow to come to room temperature so guests can handle them.

All ingredients can be served at room temperature, or slightly chilled.

To prepare the spring rolls, bring a pot of water to boil. Pour the hot water into a shallow, heat-safe pan, such as a tart pan.

Place on rice paper wrapper (which will be stiff) into the hot water. Let sit for 2-3 minutes until the wrapper is soft. Remove the wrapper from the water and put on a plate.

In the center of the wrapper, place desired ingredients, such as rice noodles, bulgogi, carrot, cucumber, egg, avocado, and mushrooms. Top with a little sauce (one of the two sauces described above).

When ready to wrap, fold the top of the wrapper toward you, over the bundle of fillings.

Fold in each side.

Roll the spring roll toward you until it is full enclosed.

This is a time-consuming meal if you wanted to make it for eight people and have the spring rolls ready in advance. It was a lot of fun, though, to let all the guests make their own spring rolls and customize them to their own tastes. Some preferred to put the sauce on the outside of the wrapper, some liked to dip the roll in sauce, some liked smaller or larger rolls. It was a fun, eat-with-your-hands dinner party.

Something I did not get the recipe for, but wish I had, was the recipe for the amazing chicken dumplings Misuk and Chanji serves us as an appetizer. I think the dough was homemade, and the filling was subtle but still had a lot of flavor. Much milder than the pork dumplings Handsome and I make, though. (Misuk, if you read this, please tell me how you made the chicken dumplings!) I do have Misuk’s recipe for her sauce, though, which is (again) a much simpler version of what I already do.

Sauce for Dumplings

You will need:
1 tsp. vinegar
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
dash black pepper

Mix all ingredients. Taste and adjust as desired.

Thanks to Candy, Chanji, and Misuk for the use of their home, and for encouraging me to post these recipes and photos. You are all extraordinary women, and it was a pleasure to meet you!

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