An Amuse-Bouche

You’ve seen it on Instagram, you’ve seen it on Buzzfeed, you’ve seen it all over the Internet – trendy, stylish foods that toe the line between disgusting and impressively creative. Yet we can’t get enough! We line up for hours to try rainbow bagels and cookie dough served in ice cream cones. We “do it for the ‘gram.” We are foodies.

I am one of these foodies. I watch Food Network, I follow more food Instagram profiles than anything else. I’ve made lists of restaurants to try. I can name exotic foods and spices, and I yell at Chopped contestants like I’m watching football.

But I also have a secret… I never actually learned how to cook.

I was a picky eater as a child. No one in my family ever seemed to be particularly excited about food. Growing up, I saw cooking as more of a chore than a hobby. Once I got into food, I found myself wanting to make the dishes I saw on Pinterest or practice the skills I saw on TV. In 2015, I started this blog on another platform. Now I’m continuing that blog here as of 2018.

The point of this blog is to document both my pre-med journey and my culinary exploration and share it with my readers. I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned, as well as my successes and many failures. I feel learning to cook is not only a great hobby, but a way to encourage a healthy lifestyle while I pursue my dream of being a physician.

“…no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”  -Julia Child

Cooking the Internet: Feta Pasta

A Finnish recipe went viral on TikTok and supposedly caused a shortage of the Greek cheese in the country. I started following my a video on TikTok and then decided to take some things from my pantry and get creative! I’ll be sharing the results with you today. This simple pasta has a lot of potential for customizing flavors, so feel free to share your recommendations.

Ingredients:

  • Fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, 1 or 2 containers
  • Feta cheese (1 block, but a container of crumbled will work just fine)
  • Olive oil
  • Tuscan dried herbs (about 1-2 Tbsp)
  • Tri-color rotini pasta
  • Salt and pepper

*Note: There are tons of Tuscan herb mixes out there. Make your own or buy some from the store. Mine included dried oregano, rosemary, garlic powder, cayenne, and fennel.

Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Wash your tomatoes, dry, and place in a glass baking pan. Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and mix. There should be plenty of olive oil to coat the tomatoes.
  3. Make a space in the center of the tomatoes for the feta. Drizzle the feta with more olive oil and sprinkle with pepper.
  4. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes.
  5. While the tomatoes and feta bake, cook your tricolor pasta to al dente. Strain when done cooking.
  6. When the tomatoes are done, remove from the oven. Break up the cheese and stir. Be careful of the tomatoes! They might pop and spray hot tomato juice!
  7. Add Tuscan herbs to the baking pan. Mix again.
  8. Add the pasta. Stir one last time and serve!

Week 5 Technical: Mini-Pear Pies

Paul Hollywood’s pear pies posed a tough challenge for the bakers. The pears are poached then wrapped in strips of pastry. If the pastry is too thick or thin, it won’t bake all the way through. If wrapped when the pears are too hot, the pastry can slip down.

Mini Pear Pies Recipe | Pear Recipes | PBS Food

The Bake

I’m going to be a bit nit-picky. I dislike cooking with lard and shortening. Rough puff can be made with purely butter so I’ll be using Erin McDowell’s recipe instead of Paul Hollywood’s. The rest of the recipe will be his.

  1. Rough Puff

I have to admit I was pleased when I first saw some lamination before the folds. I went through four folds (like Paul Hollywood’s recipe). The lamination wasn’t as obvious after multiple folds.

2. The Pears

For the sake of social distancing I ordered my groceries online. One pear wouldn’t sit up straight, one was a little mushy on top, and one barely had a stem. I poached the pears in the syrup, turning them every so often to evenly soak. I had difficulty maintaining a good boil if I turned down the heat at all. They were still a bit firm, which I assumed was probably good since they are still going to be baked. Unfortunately this made the removal of the core a bit tricky.

3. The Syrup

After removing the pears, I kept boiling the syrup to thicken it. I realized it wasn’t really clear when to remove the cinnamon sticks, so I left them in.

4. The Wrap

Okay I will admit that I did not measure the puff pastry like the instructions said. I tried but it was just irritating. I managed roughly even strips and they wrapped nicely.

5. The Bake

The pears baked nicely. More importantly, the pastry didn’t slide down during the bake!!I was worried the puff pastry was underdone because the color was fairly light. I should have been less haphazard with my egg wash.

The Final Result

I MADE PUFF PASTRY (and it didn’t suck)!!!!!!! The pears were cooked nicely and the pastry was cooked all the way through. I was only disappointed that I could only really taste the syrup at the top of the pear (until I poured the syrup over the top of a pear- yum).

I have to say that I have a better appreciation for the challenge. It took me several hours just to make the rough puff. The bakers only had two hours! Plus, they were cooking outside. How do you keep butter cold in an outside tent?!

Week 5 Signature: Apple Rose Custard Tart

The fifth week is for pies and tarts, starting with a classic custard tart. The classic example of this is a tarte au citron (a French lemon custard tart). The edges of the tart should be neat and the custard should be completely set so it doesn’t ooze when cut.

The Plan

There are a million different options for flavors. After some digging through Pinterest, I found a recipe using apple roses (which became popular a few years back). I’ve always wanted to try it, so why not now?

The Bake

  1. Pâte Sablée

Please excuse the fancy term. This is the name of the type of pastry used to make the crust. I wasn’t sure how much to handle it or how high it should go up the sides of the pan. I feel like I beat it up a little bit trying to get an even thickness.

2. The Custard

I was really surprised with how this came together! At first I thought I had messed up because it wasn’t quite coming together and then all of a sudden it started to congeal!

3. The Bake

The crust caught at the edges despite baking it in the middle rack. I think I should have used foil or pie crust guards. However it was nicely baked otherwise – tender and crumbly.

4. The Roses

Here’s where we ran into the issue. I sliced apples thinly with a mandolin. I then soaked the apples in the juice and sugar. I realized some of the apples did not get soaked long enough. To roll, the apple slices needed to be very pliable. Some broke as I rolled. I tried to work in batches. Unfortunately, I sliced my thumb on the mandolin and had to stop after a few roses.

Final Thoughts

This is the first challenge that I was unable to complete. I think it would have looked nice if I had been able to finish, but I’m not confident in the execution either. The custard was not quite set. It didn’t run off completely when I cut into the tart but it wasn’t nice and firm. I also didn’t care for the orange juice that took over the apple flavor. Perhaps apple juice next time?

I might re-try this at some point, but for now I need to wait for my thumb to heal.

Week 4 Technical: Tiramisu

The cake week technical challenge is the classic Italian cake tiramisu, a coffee and brandy soaked sponge cake with layers of marscapone frosting and chocolate. Tiramisu may not seem like a challenge, but I think the biggest challenge for the bakers was making the appearance to Mary Berry’s standards. Mary Berry asked for even layers that were evenly soaked. I’m just hoping the cake won’t end up looking like it was beat up in a fight…

Tiramisu Cake recipe

The Bake

At first glance the recipe doesn’t seem too complicated, but there are a lot of steps. Again, I think the challenge here is going to be keeping everything neat.

  1. The Batter

This is an odd batter. It only has three ingredients. It would have a meringue base if the egg yolks weren’t included, which means I’ll be getting the most rise from mixing the eggs and sugar. The flour is sifted and I was worried I undermixed it because as I spread it in the tray, I found pockets of flour. I mixed it as best as I could while trying to keep air in the batter.

2. The Bake

This cake came out much earlier than the recipe’s bake time but it was baked until springy (with some slight crisp edges I got to trim off). I was worried I’d have to find a way to trim this cake in half but I had enough to cut four separate squares.

3. Fillings

Nothing in this cake is sweet. The mascarpone “frosting” is essentially mascarpone and cream with a little powdered sugar. The coffee and brandy weren’t reduced into a syrup, just mixed and brushed right onto the cake.

I hate grating chocolate and hope I never do it again.

4. Assembly

My cake squares were not all perfect sizes. As a result, the cake seemed lopsided as I stacked it. Looking at the photo now, I see that I did not use enough of the brandy mixture to soak the sponge and create that darker appearance.

5. Decoration

I had zero idea how to get those loop-the-loops like in the show… I tried using one of my piping bags but the tip I chose was too large and the hot chocolate just poured out.

The Final Result

As I thought the layers were not soaked enough (something I’ll know for next time). The cake actually turned out alright and once I left the cake in the fridge long enough, I was able to trim it so it didn’t look like it had been smooshed. My European coworkers enjoyed that it was not very sweet and my American coworkers liked the high-quality chocolate.

Sweet Potato Toast

Toast seems to be undergoing a makeover recently. Everyone is going crazy about avocado toast, unicorn toast, Ezekial bread toast… but one toast trend caught my eye. Instead of using bread, you can make toast with sweet potatoes! These can be made in the oven, a toaster-oven, or in a toaster. If you’re looking for oven instructions, take a look at this website. I’ll be using a toaster.

Ingredients:

  • 2 slices sweet potato, cut lengthwise (For one person, you should really only need one sweet potato)
  • Toppings: nut butters, whipped butter, fruit jam, bananas, berries

The toppings are where it gets interesting! Here are some of the combos I’ve seen:

  • Peanut Butter + Banana Slices + Bacon
  • Nut Butter + Cinnamon + Blueberries
  • Fried Egg + Salt + Pepper
  • Apple Butter
  • Cream Cheese + Jam
  • Cinnamon + Syrup or Honey
  • Sliced or Mashed Avocado + Lox + Capers

Try any combination you want or make up your own! Feel free to share your combos in the comments!

Instructions:

1. Slice the sweet potato. Stand it on a cutting board so you can cut slices about 1/4 in. thick.

Please be careful! It was particularly difficult for me to cut through the thickest parts.

2. Toast slices for 10-15 min. on high. Flip every 4-5 minutes until browned and fork-tender in the center.

I don’t actually own a toaster oven, so I used a regular toast instead. Turn the heat to a high setting. You might need to toast them a few times. (If the slice falls through, retrieve with tongs when the toaster is OFF.)

3. Put on the toppings!

One I covered with plain butter and some brown sugar. Another I spread with peanut butter. Add fruit or anything you’d like for breakfast.


Final Thoughts: I didn’t particularly care for sweet potatoes eaten this plain, but maybe it’s an issue of toppings. I really enjoy the idea of a healthy breakfast that is easy to make and easy to play around with. I might also try peeling them. Do you guys have a favorite topping for your sweet potato toast?

Ways to Meal Prep That Don’t Feel Like Meal Prep

It’s January. This tends to be the time of year that people start making lifestyle changes (usually in the hopes of losing weight). For busy people, meal prep is key to having healthy meals and snacks ready. However, it can take a lot of time to prepare large full meals. Many people make a day of “Meal Prep Sundays” or Mondays. Not everyone has the time for this.

I started my weight loss journey after I came home from studying abroad (though I lost weight while living in China). That’s how I started learning to cook. With no job or school I could spend all the time in the world cooking, experimenting, and getting inspiration from online and cooking shows. Now that I’m working toward medical school, working full-time, and (at one point) attending classes, I had to prioritize tasks other than meal prep.

My husband is a gym-junkie. He likes protein-heavy meals. This was quite an adjustment to cooking for him (high volume and high protein) versus myself (leaner, smaller meals). Over the years we’ve learned some tips and tricks for meal prep.

  1. Hard Boil Eggs

Boil a dozen (or fewer) eggs. This should take less than 20 minutes. These will be available throughout the week. Eat eggs whole for breakfast or a snack sprinkled with salt and pepper. Cut up eggs to eat on toast. Make egg salad.

2. Cheese, Meat, and Crackers with Fruits & Veggies

Starbucks sells “Bistro Boxes”, which I refer to as “adult lunchables.” Use cheese cubes, deli meats, crackers, and slice up fruit and vegetables. These make excellent lunches. I find them incredibly filling. I also love the ideas from College Nutritionist.

Is the Starbucks Protein Box Healthy? | Eat This Not That

3. Large Batch of Rice and/or Pasta

I make several cups worth of white rice in my rice cooker. Once cool, I place it in glass tupperware in the fridge. Egg noodles, spaghetti, and other pastas are also options. It makes dinner easier when the carbohydrate is ready to be reheated. My husband and I cook up some meat quickly in a pan and eat it with rice and a frozen veggie.

4. Frozen Meatballs

I started buying these to make super fast spaghetti and meatballs (spaghetti + frozen meatballs from the oven + a jar of spaghetti sauce). Pop them in the oven for 20-25 minutes and they’re done. Very little effort. I’ve found they also can be versatile to add as a protein into frozen Steamfresh meals, salads, or with the rice and pasta I’ve pre-cooked.

The point of meal prep is to save money, eat healthy, and often to cut down on the amount of cooking you do in a week. Find what works for you. Prepare slow cooker dinners and store in the freezer so you can toss dinner in the Crock Pot to cook all day. Meal prep breakfast if you’re someone who is always rushing out the door in the morning. There is nothing wrong with relying on pre-cooked or frozen foods to help you with faster and healthier meals. Finding easy, efficient ways to meal prep will help you with your goals!

Week 4 Showstopper: Baked Alaska

This is the challenge which became the infamous “Bingate.” The bakers were challenged to make a classic ice cream cake called “Baked Alaska”. This retro treat is essentially a cake topped with ice cream and frosted with meringue, which is then set on fire. Now the bakers were baking outside, which makes working with ice cream extremely difficult. While I have the advantage of working inside, working with ice cream can still be a challenge.

I know this whole week is out of order. I am trying to get the pans I need for the technical!

The Plan

I watched the episode to see if the bakers were making their own ice cream. All of the contestants had ice cream makers at their stations. I don’t own one, but I found a no-churn recipe on NY times that I can use. I chose the cinnamon flavor to complement one of my favorite cakes.

I adapted my favorite red wine cupcake recipe for the cake base. I paired this with a cinnamon flavor for the ice cream and a brown sugar meringue.

The Bake

  1. The Cake Base

I’ve made this cake before but only as cupcakes, so I wasn’t certain it would bake properly as a single layer (without over or underbaking). It did crack, but that would all be hidden by the ice cream.

2. The Ice Cream

I swear I will actually invest in an ice cream maker to avoid the drama and destruction associated with making this.

I over-boiled the cream and made a mess all over my stove. I managed to salvage it. It steeped then I strained. I got to use my immersion blender for the first time, which is how a large portion of my ice cream ended up on the walls, and the floors, and my breadbox… and my face. Then I froze it overnight. I know I said I would try to avoid overnight, but this is ice cream from scratch and I was concerned it would melt even faster.

I had a bear of a fight with the ice cream once it was frozen. I got it into the food processor and it exploded at me for a bit. I had to fight the ice cream to blend.

3. Trim & Shape

I removed the ice cream from its pan and into a bowl lined with plastic wrap. Once this was frozen solid I flipped it onto the cake and trimmed the edges for a nice dome.

4. Meringue

I read that meringue can be made with brown sugar, which I had never tried. I bet that the brown sugar would taste better with the deeper flavors (cinnamon, chocolate, wine) than brighter flavors like mint.

I threw out one meringue because I broke an egg yolk in it. I did not have the most luck with this challenge…

5. Bring On the Fire!

I own a rose gold culinary torch (because why not?). I have never had a reason to use it until now. I didn’t burn anything down.

The Final Result

This may have been one of the hardest things to make simply because the ice cream wrecked my kitchen and my soul. But the FLAVOR! Bae said I would be star baker for this. I had to keep myself from eating a big chunk.

My meringue slipped a little, but the swirls were cute. The ice cream as a perfect consistency with a strong but not overwhelming cinnamon flavor. This paired perfectly with my chocolate cake base, which was still moist despite freezing it.

I did battle with Baked Alaska and I won!

Week 3 Showstopper: Russian Chrysanthemum Bread

And we’re back! The 2020 Great British Bake Through continues to 2021!

Week 3 (Bread Week) ended with the a bread-themed showstopper challenge. The bakers were instructed to make filled bread centerpieces. The bread should be filled or stuffed, sweet or savory. Judging was based on appearance, design and crust, bake, and flavor.

The Plan

I’ve made bread rolls stuffed with Thanksgiving leftovers before but these were no “centerpiece.” I thought of stromboli, but again I worry about presentation. It took quite a bit of research before I could decide on the best option.

Jordan was the only baker to make sweet bread. This failed and he was sent home, so I’m sticking to savory. I thought about monkey bread, but I’ve usually made that with pre-made dough. While searching I came across chrysanthemum bread (European not Korean). The bread is stuffed and arranged into a flower, perfect for this challenge.

The Bake

  1. The Filling

The recipe I used calls for a “garlic cheese spread.” My first thought was Boursin cheese, but the rules of the game mean that I can’t use store-bought pre-made foods unless indicated in the challenge. I made a copycat Boursin recipe before mixing with the remaining ingredients. Even if you don’t make this bread, you should definitely try this delicious cheese mix!

The addition of the herbs de provence didn’t seem to do much, but I do like the kick from the chili flakes.

2. The Dough

The recipe’s instructions say to mix all of the dough ingredients at once. I prefer to let my yeast bloom first. Is that the word? I like to feed it to ensure a good rise, especially since I’ll need to handle this dough a lot. The yeast sits in the warm (not hot!) milk with some sugar. Once bubbly, I add it to the remainder of the dough ingredients.

There are so many wet ingredients I was surprised it came together so well. I’m still working on how to tell if the dough is kneaded enough…

3. The Rise

It’s winter right now and my house is freezing, so I let it rise in the oven. I was worried it was too warm in the oven that I’d used earlier in the day so I kept the oven door open for a bit. I had some mild panic when steam built up on the inside of the bowl. I was worried if it was too hot, the yeast would die and the dough wouldn’t rise.

I’m not certain this is the amount of rise I need, but it did, in fact, rise.

4. The Assembly

This was the hard part! The dough gets divided, rolled out, cut into small circles, filled, and formed. Whew!

I shifted the petals around quite a bit. At first I packed them too close together. They’d have no room to rise again or grow while baking.

5. The Bake

At first I started baking without brushing the dough. I’m not sure if it was smart, but I pulled it out and brushed it quickly. I’m concerned that I messed up my timer and then it will either bake too much or not enough.

The Final Result

It browned on top quite nicely. I was a bit worried I pulled it out of the oven too soon because underneath was quite light and soft. I do think I went a little overboard with the red chili flake. Next time I may just skip it entirely.

I’m really pleased with how it looks. I haven’t felt this good about a bake since the technical Cherry Cake.

How to Spice Up Leftovers (and Premade Meals!)

As I first started to learn how to cook, I relied on “no-bake” recipes, boxed products, and pre-made items from grocery stores to make things easier. With the recent push toward “all-natural” and organic foods, I feel there’s a strong push (especially online) away from these pre-made products.

I remember watching an episode of Jacque Pepin’s cooking show during which he made a dessert with his daughter. One of the greatest cooks in the world used pre-made pie crust. If he can use pre-made products why can’t we? What’s so different between fresh and frozen vegetables? The bias is endorsed strongly by the privileged, forgetting the time constraints of full-time workers and those unable to afford more expensive organic products.

As you learn to cook, whether you want to make every little thing from scratch that’s awesome, but do not be ashamed in making cake from a box or store-bought chicken stock instead of homemade. Your cooking journey is your own. Just the other day I made “homemade hamburger helper” from a New York Times recipe. Later that day I made a Williams & Sonoma chocolate-pumpkin cake mix that a friend gave to me. Both were delicious, both were worth it for me.

And, if you’re anything like my husband, the idea of leftovers for dinner is unappealing. But there are nights when I’m tired after a long day and the last thing I want to do is cook. My go-to “no cook” meal is a SteamFresh veggie noodles. Pop them in the microwave for 3-4 minutes and it’s done. Of course, these lentil noodles are designed to be quick and easy, not necessarily flavorful or especially delicious.

One of the things I’ve learned as I started to experiment in the kitchen is that I can change anything while I’m cooking. Recipes can be tweaked. Everything can be adjusted to your personal taste. The same is true with store-bought foods and leftovers. Changing it up

  1. Combine Leftovers

Once I had leftover meatballs in pasta sauce sitting in the fridge. I added this to some leftover chicken soup (plus some hot sauce and pepper). It breathed new life into both leftovers! You can get creative with mixing new things from your pantry or finding a way to combine leftovers. This way, you eat leftovers without getting bored and you get to try something new!

2. Add spices

There is no law that says you can’t add spices to premade meals. Try heat with hot sauce or cayenne. Sometimes even a little pepper or garlic powder will work wonders.

3. Add proteins

My SteamFresh meals tend to noodles in sauce. The noodles may be made of vegetables, but a little pre-cooked chicken slices helps add texture and flavor. For the salt-and-vinegar potatoes, I fried some sausages.

4. Add frozen veggies

Spruce up mac-and-cheese or other pasta dishes with a vegetable. If you bought a rotisserie chicken from the grocery, make a meal by heating up some frozen vegetables for a side.

Frozen peas, carrots, and broccoli are all fairly versatile and easy to add to most meals without drastically changing the flavor profile.

5. Re-think the Way You Reheat

Back to those salt-and-vinegar potatoes slices. Rather than stick them in the microwave the next day, I put some oil in a pan and fried them. This made them crispy again and taste fresher. I hear air-fryers are great for leftovers (though I haven’t tried it yet myself). Reheat food in a pan or in the oven!

I swear I am the only one in my house who eats leftovers. Husband gets “bored” of food quickly if he eats the same meal too many times. Hopefully these tips help you use up leftovers and prevent food waste!

What to Eat When You’re Exhausted

Everyone reaches a point when feeding yourself seems an insurmountable task. With my mental health, this can often occur more frequently than I’d like. I also know, however, it is important to eat even if I’m too depressed to cook dinner. Exhausted, lazy, depressed, for whatever reason, here are some quick and simple ideas for meals.

EASY

  • Fast Food: It isn’t the cheapest or the healthiest option, but it’s better than nothing. Get it on the way home or order online.
  • Microwavable Meals: One of my favorite easy meals is to microwave frozen lentil noodles and add pre-cooked chicken. Canned soups can also be quickly heated in the microwave.
  • Cereal: Again, perhaps not the healthiest choice, but at least you’re eating. Bonus points if you can add protein powder and/or fruit for more calories and a balance with the carbohydrates.

MEDIUM

  • Ramen or Other Noodles: This earns a medium difficulty because you have to boil water. Top with pre-made sauce or butter with salt and pepper. You can add rotisserie chicken/ pre-cooked chicken as well!
  • Sandwiches: As long as you have peanut butter and bread in the house, you can make a sandwich. Peanut butter with honey or jelly is the simplest. If you have deli meats and cheeses in the house, you can slap those on some bread with or without condiments.
  • Tomato Soup with Pasta: Pour canned tomato soup in a pot of cooked pasta. Add some cheese (goat cheese is my favorite) if you want. I like a little pepper as well.

HARD

  1. Overnight Oats: This takes some planning. If you know there’s going to be a rough day ahead, prep these for your fridge the night before so you can come home and just eat.
  2. “Pizza” Pasta: All you need is cooked pasta, a jar of pasta sauce or marinara, some pepperoni, and balls of mozzarella. The hard part here is having the ingredients on hand, but it’s a good habit
  3. Egg Salad: Boil some eggs, peel, and mash with some mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper. My favorite egg salad also uses onion and curry powder.

I hope these relatively simple, cheap meals help you when you need them.