Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Awesome fluffy cookies in 15 minutes

The other day, a friend who just returned from a long trip to China invited me over for barbecue and to see photos. And many photos there were! We munched on shish kebab and vegetable stir-fry, and then sipped our beers for about three hours while the photos unraveled on the screen. Chinese food is plentiful today in China and is very diverse and brightly-colored. Doesn't look much like the Chinese takeout you get in a hurry from the corner shop. It looks way better! In outdoor food markets, the price is uniformly 10-yuan, but the amount of merchandise one will get for that price depends largely on one's mastery of haggling. 

We also talked about a different lifestyle. It turns out that in China grown men and women congregate in the park early each morning to play games and get some exercise before going to work. All the games are collective. You don't really see people jogging or stretching by themselves. Instead, they form circles and dance and hop, engaging in what can only be described by Westerners as childlike behavior. And this all happens at -10 °C (14 °F), what is deemed a "warm winter" in Harbin. "You'll never sell an exercise program in China," my friend comments. Being active is already an integral part of their culture and their daily lives. 

Perhaps if we lived in a society where we saw more people being active, running or riding their bikes to work, incorporating physical activity into their daily lives instead of setting time aside for "working out," perhaps we'd be more tempted to emulate them. As a collective, people in any community learn from each other. Earlier this year, in Griffith Park near Los Angeles I saw a man doing handstands and yoga poses at the top of the Hollywood mountain. It was so beautiful. I wasn't that advanced in yoga back then, but I promised myself that I would train to do handstands, or at the very least headstands without assist. Without realizing, those around us - even mere strangers - inspire us. We have much to learn from other cultures, but even more so, we have much to learn from each other.

After what seemed like days of stories and photos and novelty, we helped the host pack up leftovers before leaving. I ended up taking some of the leftovers home, which I couldn't refuse, and I once again blamed my undernourished appearance for people's compulsion to force food on me. 

A few days later, I wanted to thank my friend for the good food and good company, and what better way to say thank you than with cookies? It's not just because they are gluten free, but these babies make a very tasty and satisfying dessert. If you like shortbread cookies, or those addictive Pepperidge Farm Chessmen, or the Girl Scout Trefoils (Girl Scouts, please come baaaaack) you will definitely love these!

I'm always hungry for time, so this recipe is a quick one too. Prep time was about 15 minutes and they stayed 10 minutes in the oven. The recipe makes a lot of cookies, so before you start baking think of someone with whom you can share the plenty. I ended up sending half of them to my friend and the other half, well, they didn't last too long on my counter. Don't be discouraged by some of the unfamiliar ingredients - any Whole Foods (perhaps regular grocery stores too) carries those things and they're inexpensive. Here's what you will need:

1/2 cup butter (leave it an hour beforehand to soften at room temperature)
1/4 cup agave nectar (or honey)
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup tapioca flour (I used Ener-G Pure Tapioca Flour, from Whole Foods)
1-1/4 cup rice flour (bulk from Whole Foods)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Make sure the butter is soft - it should be neither hard nor entirely melted. Mix or whip butter, agave and brown sugar together until fluffy. Add egg and mix until creamy and fluffy. Don't panic if it looks like it's separated in the beginning, just keep mixing energetically and it will eventually hold together like this:

Add remaining ingredients and mix for about 1-1/2 minutes. This is what the dough should look like when you are done:

Place on baking tray about the size of 3/4 tablespoon, half an inch apart. If you don't have two trays, you may have to bake them in two batches. Refrigerate the remaining dough covered with plastic wrap while the first batch is baking. Bake each batch for 8 to 10 minutes.

These are happy cookies. No wheat, no dairy, no gluten and you can even substitute honey for the brown sugar to make them sugar-free too! Desserts are awesome, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

This recipe was adapted from the Ener-G Tapioca Honey Cookie recipe.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Whole wheat apple cake in 15 minutes

When I was younger, I used to spend Sundays with my grandparents. I'd go over to their house at lunch time and we'd spend the rest of the afternoon together, chatting and gossiping about Romanian celebrities. I remember two things were never missing in those days: coffee and cake. Grandpa would usually be responsible for making the coffee and he guarded it conscientiously too, because the brew swelled and foamed on the stove and a few times caught him by surprise and boiled over making a mess everywhere. As soon as grandpa tiptoed in, firmly grasping the tray with the steaming coffee cups, I would come to meet him halfway through the sitting room and take over the tray, relieving him of the responsibility that had him somewhat frazzled.

Grandma always came up with some sort of cake to make, getting creative with whatever she had in the pantry. Summers she made cake with cherries or apples, and in the winter with sweet cheese or walnuts. I developed a great fondness for cake growing up, and even now as I am contemplating gluten-free and sugar-free diets, these pleasant culinary temptations still haunt me. 

So I wanted to recreate the Sunday cake without grandma's help, to see if I could guess my way through. I started with Bob's Red Mill recipe for carrot cake and adapted the ingredients a bit, tweaked the quantities and voila - I turned back time and was having Sunday cake with my grandparents again. A wonderful memento and a great dessert. Not to mention it took only 15 minutes to prepare!

As a side note: I am trying to create healthier desserts, so lately I've been taking old recipes and substituting some ingredients for more nourishing alternatives. For instance, I replaced white flour with Bob's Red Mill Organic Whole Wheat Pastry Flour and I've also tried to replace sugar with honey or agave when possible. So here goes:

1/2 cup brown sugar
3 Tbsp agave nectar
1/2 cup olive oil
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix the above ingredients well. Add the following:

1 cup Bob's Red Mill Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (regular whole wheat flour will work too)
4 small apples (Pink Lady or Gala, they're sweeter), peeled and sliced (about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 tsp baking soda

Mix. Bake at 350°F in a greased 8'' x 8'' or 9'' x 9'' pan until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. About 45-50 minutes.

And of course, don't forget the coffee!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A post-gluten-free week

A lot of New Mexicans spend their Sundays at the mall. That's why it's hard to get a table at the Barnes and Noble Cafe. This is where the husbands sit while the wives, all done up, are oohing and aahing over this or that cute top, which they will continue to do throughout the afternoon. You can also find UNM students at the Barnes and Noble Cafe. Too poor to buy the books, they get a cup of coffee and browse the materials for free. Not a bad deal. In fact, most days I do the same. I am still a college student at heart.

Today started with a matin sauna session, where a couple of Spanish-speaking guys were talking far more than they were sweating. Since you can't do anything else in the sauna except stare at other less-clothed people, which nobody likes to do, I usually try to use the opportunity to meditate. Fifteen minutes to think about nothing but my breath. Since my chatty company of two banished any trace of peace I might have had coming my way, the whole experience left me rather peeved. So, this coffee I'm sipping at the Barnes and Noble Cafe better be conducive to meditation.

The post-gluten-free week was not as flamboyant as you might think. I made no pastries, no extravagant cakes, and aside from my signature whole wheat-sesame seed bread the only true brag-worthy thing was the goat cheese pizza with whole wheat crust - my best yet! So here they are, the week's best in pictures:

Last Sunday's breakfast was supposed to celebrate the end of gluten deprivation, but...
somehow it ended up being gluten-free too. Bacon and over-easy eggs and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers on the side.

Monday, fajitas! We made this with deeply-marinated chicken, yellow peppers, onions and a side of brown rice. By the way, did you know that out of green, yellow and red bell peppers, the yellow ones have the most Vitamin C? Who knew.

This is my world-renowned whole wheat-sesame seed bread, toasted, with butter and rose jam. Yes, jam made out of rose petals! A fitting mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

 Wednesday's salad was so beautiful I had a hard time eating it. Tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers, radishes, kale, green olives and goat cheese, with some olive oil sprinkled on top for glossy effect.

This smoothie is not for the faint of heart. Banana, raspberries, mango chunks (all frozen) plus raw protein powder and cocoa. Fruity, chocolatey and nutty all at once.

This West-African soup is a gem I found in The Soup Bible. It's made with sweet potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, raisins and spinach. I drowned a big spoon of Israeli couscous in it and it really came together.

I sense you're not completely convinced of how wonderful this soup was, so here is another portrait. This soup grew on me with every bowl, I swear.

Pizza with whole wheat crust, goat cheese (instead of mozzarella), prosciutto, mushrooms and New Mexico's finest green chile. The bread maker helped me make the dough for the crust, which is half-white wheat and half-whole wheat. The cheddar goat cheese didn't melt as nicely as mozzarella would have, so next time I'll make sure to have some of that on hand. Overall, a winner. It baked in the oven for 25 minutes for extra crispiness.