Monthly Archives: February 2010

Glorious Eats around Houston,TX

I had a wonderful weekend in Houston last week visiting with my parents.  Collin and I stayed at my dad’s house which was a nice change of scene because we usually stay at my moms.  My stepmom is currently in Phillidelphia where she is working on her surgical residency, she is quite the amazing woman to say the least, but I could tell my dad missed her terribly.  So it felt nice to keep him company and to just have quality time with pops, it had been awhile since we’ve done so.

He made me his specialty, “tang yuan” which is a glutinous rice ball filled with a sweet center, usually with black sesame paste (which he did in this case) and then made some ramen noodles sauteed with spinach and red chili paste. I definitely had dessert first :)!  Though my mom was the main cook of the family back then, my dad has always been adventurous in the kitchen. Granted not all of his attempts were successful, he always approached each venture with much gumption, which I admire because fear should never be an emotion when cooking.

My stepdad was also in town from Guangdong, where he is currently the assistant dean at Shantou University Medical College.  The last time I saw him was back in October,  so it was nice to spend time with him as well.  It is also a hoot to watch my mother and stepdad interact with each other — they both have to speak (broken) English to each other because my mother speaks Mandarin and my stepdad speaks Cantonese.  Despite the language barrier, their love for each other is undeniable –they both light up when they are around each other and especially my mother, bubbling over with happiness.

She’s a pretty lil lady ain’t she? 🙂  William was gracious enough to invite all of us and my cousin Yin-yin and James to Dong Thang (located on 6968 Wilcrest Dr Ste A, Houston, TX. Tel: 281-776-0068.) for a belated new year’s celebration!

We each got to pick a dish, I chose the Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot — which was absolutely delicious, but I’ll get to that later, let’s start at the beginning shall we?  We started the meal with a delicious fish and crabmeat egg drop soup.  I loved the consistency of the smooth silky texture, and the way the delicate meats of the fish and crabmeat swim together in harmony with whisps of egg.

We also ordered Stirfry Beef and Chinese Broccoli, Fried Salt and Pepper Squid, and Sauteed Fish Head.  The beef was extremely tender and the broccoli was nice and crunchy, I really hate overcooked veggies.  The squid was good and the fish head, I thought it tasted “fishy”.  Okay bad adjective to describe a fish dish…let’s just say it wasn’t my favorite dish in the world, a little too traditional for me O_O (But mama loved it).

Before I go on, I’d like my readers to please note the boss lady aka mom in the collage above.  Whenever we order at restaurants, my mother gets down to business.  She will whip out the good ole reading glasses and immediately begins to study the menu.  As a result, I have become the same way.  When it comes to ordering food, I will scan the menu at least 2 times, then go back to my top 3 favorites and then it’s a slow process of elimination from there.

Now for the uber glorious dishes: Fried Lobster with Ginger and Scallion, my Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot, and Breaded Scallop in Garlic Sauce.    The lobster was succulent just like last time.  I love that they bread it in cornstarch so once they stirfry it with the ginger and scallion the sauce becomes nice and gooey.  The lobsters itself were smaller than last time, but maybe other than that the dish was superb.  My eggplant hot pot was quite delicious too, though Salted Fish is a very acquired taste I absolutely love it for its intense umami qualities.  The scallops were cooked nicely but I thought the flavors of the dish were forgettable, the lobster dish outshines it by far!

All in all, dinner was delicious and absolutely wonderful.  I always enjoy having family styled dinners together, a quality in my culture that I have always loved and appreciated.  Not only do you get to eat tons and tons of different types of dishes, but it’s nice to have a sit down meal with family where you can take your time to converse and catch up, drink tea and enjoy each other’s company together.

We talked about William’s time in Shantou and we discussed our plans for me and Collin’s upcoming trip to Shanghai as well as future wedding plans (In Puerto Vallarta) for 2011!!  I’ve also been slowly teaching Collin some basic Chinese like “How much?” or “Hello.  Thank you.  Please.” and in case any ladies try to hit on him while I’m not around “You smell bad, go away” and “No thank you, goodbye”  See, even if Collin got lost I have full confidence he could find his way home with all the (useful) Chinese lessons I’ve been teaching him :).

Btw, if you haven’t noticed by now, this is probably the longest post I’ve ever done.  Which is probably why it took me 4 days to write/edit it.  But I had so much to share!! I just couldn’t help myself so thank you for hanging in there.  On Sunday morning I had lunch with my best friend Courtney, whom I’ve been friends with since middle school!  Though we do not see each other as often as we like (She a slave to law school, I a slave to…eating?), everytime we get together it always seems like we pick up right where we left off.  She recommended a cute place called “Dry Creek” located in the Heights of Houston (544 Yale St. Hou. Tx 77007 Tel: 713-426-2313) at the cross street of Yale and 6th.

I really loved the set up of this place, which is housed in a refurbished 1930’s gas station (how cool is that???).  For those of you who have heard of Onion Creek Cafe, Dry Creek is actually the sister cafe to that restaurant.  Upon walking in, you instantly felt at home with the laid back setting of metal tables and wooden chairs, a nice mom and pop place if you will.

We decided to sit outside though it was cloudy, it felt really nice outside, plus I couldn’t pass up the cute picnic tables (and lighting).  Started the meal off with a hot cup of joe, which they serve in various kinds of mugs that you would probably find…you guessed it, at home.  Like I said, the character of this place was too cute for words.  I meticulously studied all the items (which I already looked over once at home) and finally decided on the epitome of Southern comfort — Crab Cakes with Cheesy Grits.  MMMMM HMMM that’s right, can I get a hallelujah!!

MMmm just thinking about the flaky morsels of crab meat enveloped in a crispy cornmeal crust is making me drool uncontrollably all over my keyboard, okay not literally but if I could produce that much mucus it’d definitely happen.  The crab cakes come with two eggs any style (I picked over easy, but it was a bit hard), english muffin, and last but not least…cheesy grits.  O-M-G, after eating this meal I’ve decided that crab cakes and cheesy grits should always belong together like pork and beans or carrot and peas, both not as good as crab cakes and grits but you get the idea!

Collin ordered Bagel and Lox which was quite deeerricious as well, I like the addition of the capers and the consistency of the bagel was just right.  Not the best bagel and lox I’ve had but definitely not too shabby either.

It was nice to catch up with Courtney and Dave (her boyfriend) and we laughed over stories of Collin’s first trip overseas to bad neighbor stories to Dave’s secret love for “curling” in the Winter Olympics.  At times I laughed (and talked) too loud and realized everyone outside (and probably inside too…) could hear my boisterous voice, maybe Collin is right, maybe I am making myself deaf.  But I couldn’t help it! It’s hard to contain my excitement when I am hanging out with the people I love :).

So I saved the best part for last.  I would like to invite you guys to witness the magic of my mother’s cooking.  A private insider’s look of the woman who inspired it all — Mrs. Jingyu Zou.  I am glad she doesn’t know how to use the internet because frankly she would kill me for posting pictures of her that has not been granted the “Mama Zou seal of approval”.  But I had to share this with you guys because she is the reason for why I have my deep rooted passion for food.

The most important element in my mother’s magic is the “Almighty Wok”.  She has always told me — “Xin xin ah, you make Chinese food you MUST have wok! Taste better and you cook outside so less messy at home.”  And it’s true, the wok really is the most important element in Chinese cuisine — the intense roaring fire heats up the oil at a much higher temperature than you can ever reach with a regular household burner.  In order to achieve that nice smokey flavor along with perfectly cooked ingredients, the temperature of the oil is essential.

The second element in my mother’s magic: fresh ingredients.  She shops with much precision whenever she goes to the stores, picking only the freshest and quality ingredients — pictured above are fresh water chestnuts, baby pea shoots, lily flower, black fungus, and bean curd.  For those of you who are not familiar with these ingredients you are probably reading on with horror…black fungus??? lily flower??? One sounds deadly and the other, a bouquet.

I assure you that all of these ingredients are delicious.  Black fungus, though tasteless has an unique slippery and rubbery texture that adds an unexpected twist in any dish.  The lily flower has a natural sweetness and the texture is reminiscent of spinach but more resilient, without any floral taste to it at all.

Is your mouth watering yet?  Stay with me… The last element in my mother’s magic is the seasoning.  I am not sure how to explain this one, maybe this part is her “secret”.  Her flavors for her dishes are always on point, never too salty never too sweet — perfect to the tee.  She always tells me “As you cook, you must taste! Always taste!”  I definitely had no problem being her personal taster for the first 18 years of my life but she is right.  Always taste, and then adjust to what you think would be the most appealing flavor to whoever you are serving.

Stir fry cabbage with bean curd, lily flower egg and black fungus — a wonderful vegetarian dish that would satisfy any palette/tummy.  She also made “spoiled Collin” one of his favorite dishes — Pork with Garlic Sauce.   She always makes sure Collin is taken care of whenever he comes down to visit “Xin xin ah, ask Caahleen what he want to eat! I cook for him.” Sometimes she almost takes better care of him than me…:(!  He loves it though, soaking up any reigning moment he can get because let’s face it, I am always the champion :).

This is actually one of my favorite dishes too — this spicy and slightly sweet and tart dish is phenomenal.  My mother opted for fresh waterchest nuts (trust me they are 1000 times better than the canned), garlic, red chile paste, red chiles, black fungus and pork.  I love the smell of the garlic and chiles sauteeing in the hot oil, it instantly awakens your senses.  Once it’s done cooking she likes to garnish it with a little bit of cilantro, green onion can be used here as well.

GLOOOOOOORIOUS!!!!!  I think now you guys can understand why I may be slightly “snotty” when it comes to Chinese food — Pei Wei just really doesn’t do it for me.  Imagine eating like this ALL THE TIME when you were a kid, I mean it was ridiculous.  When I left for college, it was quite the rude awakening.  No more mama’s magical food, just scary looking dorm food, nasty fast food and greasy gross everything else (I gained 30 lbs in college).  Sad Panda 😦

My mother always made sure I was well fed.  Even when she was swamped at work, trying to manage her hair salon, working 12 hour shifts almost every night, she always made sure I had dinner on the table waiting for me.  I would come home and find not one dish, or even two dishes but always three — which is why for the longest time I thought she was magic.

Now I come to realize her magic was really just her love and dedication as a mother.  Granted I still do not understand how she found the time to do what she did, she always made sure it was done.  No matter how busy, every day I would come home literally with food on the table — wrapped up perfectly, sometimes labeled and always delicious.

Also, with the dishes she made me, there were never repeats — unbelievable, I know.  This is the reason why I always say “Food is Love” because it was always my mother’s way of saying, “Hey I love you, and I am thinking about you all the time.” amidst her busy hectic schedule.  I rarely ever saw her, I would always leave for school before she got up in the morning and she wouldn’t come home til after 9:00pm.

She never ceased to amaze me to what lengths she’d go to make sure I was well taken care of.  I consider myself to be very fortunate and as a result I now cook for the same reason.  I cook because I love, I cook because it is my way of saying — hey I am thinking about you and hopefully this food will bring you comfort.  This way of thinking always ensures that I will cook to the best of my ability, because there is nothing else more important than taking care of the ones I love.

Wow guys, now that’s a lot of love.  Maybe I got a little mushy there so I am taking a Layla break.  Layla tagged along with us to Houston and before I move on I’d like to rewind to a story.  During the initial meeting of my mother and Layla, the first thing she immediately said was “Why you pick black dog? You cannot even see her face, so scary like ghost!” But ghosts are white mom… “Oooooh nooo, I do not like this dog, she look mean!”

Little did she know, Layla is probably one of the coolest dogs I know and after the 3rd or 4th time of my mom meeting her, she fell in love.  Now when she sees Layla she gets excited and in a very LOUD (and happy) voice she will greet her: “LAAAAAYLAAAH LAYLAH LAYLAH!! HI HI HI *cooing high pitched noises*”  Not only that, my mother will jump around with Layla outside and then say “Oh…Layla she very strong! I jump and she jump and push me, I almost fall back!” Mom, I don’t think that’s a good idea to do that.  “OH SHE IS GOOD GIRL! SO FUNNY…dui bu dui Layla? LAaaaayla!”

She then will proceed to feed Layla some “treats” and as she is feeding Layla she will pet her whispering softly “Layla guai, Layla good girl” Guai meaning obedient or good.  And whenever I say “Layla loves her grandma!!” my mother immediately will say “WHO IS WHO’S GRANDMA?! HOW COME YOU CALL MOMMY GRANDMA I DONT THINK SO!” Hahaha ooooh mommy, you really are the best.

I will be returning to Houston this weekend, unfortunately one of my dear friends’ father has passed away.  I would like to write a tribute to him upon my return for he was a great man, a loving man and truly a man with a heart of gold.  The world will be a sadder place without him but the footprints that he has left behind as a result of his beautiful heart and soul will last forever.  Immortality is best achieved through the good deeds and positive effects that you make on others.

See you guys when I get back and thank you for sticking through this post for this long, you guys are great :)!

Roasted Vegetable Salad with Fried Egg and Shaved Parmesan

It was really nice seeing my parents this weekend in Houston, I had felt a little homesick since finding out that my mother has decided to retire and will move back to China in the next couple of years.  Though it is hard to imagine life without my mother right next to me, we all have to grow up sometime…right? I had quite the adverse reaction when I first heard the news, which she conveniently told me during my lunch break at work of all places (that’s how my mom rolls, abruptly).

With tears (and snot, lots of it) streaming down my face, my bosses  thought something horrible had happened.  Which at the time, it really did feel terrible.  I seldom cry in front of anyone, but because the news was completely unforeseen, I felt as if someone punched me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me.  I know it sounds cliche, but my mother is one of my very best friends.  I love her to pieces, even when she has her what I’d like to call her “crazy asian mom moments”,  it is so hard to imagine life without her being right beside me.  She has always been my rock and the older I become, the more I come to understand (and appreciate) the difficulties of being a good mother.

But I understand this is something she has to do and I completely respect her decision.  Sooner or later this was going to happen and maybe this reality check was exactly what I needed to push me to work harder than ever before.  I appreciate both of my parents for moving to the United States to provide me with a better future and can’t even begin to wrap my brain around the numerous sacrifices they must have made to ensure that their child will have a better life and future than they did.

Though I have picked a career route that my parents may not deem to be “practical” the more I come to think about it, the happier I am with my decision. I couldn’t possibly imagine myself doing anything else.  Food has always been my passion, for many reasons which I will save for another time.  I had a friend ask me this weekend “So what is the purpose of your blog?  What do you think will come from it?”  The reason why I spend so much time on each post is because I know my efforts will be appreciated, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.  My purpose is to solely provide a place for everyone to enjoy, whether you use my recipes is not my main concern, but the fact that this place provides you a momentary (and hopefully visually appealing) break from this busy hectic schedule we call life.

I’ve always appreciated the importance of art and music for this very reason — it is able to provide us with a form of escape even on our crappiest days.  Whether its blasting your favorite love song that tugs at your heart strings or looking at an awe inspiring painting that brings you to a different world, ultimately it provides us with happiness that otherwise would be lost.  So to my dear readers, I thank you guys for reading/looking at my blog, you all are the inspiration for why I started to write this blog and you guys continue to be my drive to keep this bad boy going.  I think happiness is best enjoyed when it is shared, don’t you? 🙂

I would also like to thank Eggland’s Best for providing the eggs for this dish.  When I went home this weekend, I found out my mother uses your eggs as well!  Anyways, even before I volunteered to be a tastemaker for their product, I have always bought their eggs.  Their eggs are not only lower in cholesterol than your average egg but somehow they magically pack all of these healthy vitamins along with it too!  Because they feed their hens with all natural and all vegetarian feed and they never use antibiotics or hormones, this ensures that the quality of the egg is always fantastic.  So thank you Eggland’s Best for providing me with a carton of your awesome and delicious eggs!

For this salad, I decided to roast some vegetables and topped it off with a fried egg and freshly shaved Parmasean.  I always fry my egg over easy, but it is important that you always use fresh eggs if you are going to cook them this way.  I really love the way the runny yolk pairs with the cheese and field greens and nothing beats the flavor of a roasted red bell pepper.

To roast a red bell pepper it is quite easy.    You can either broil all four sides in your oven or blacken them on a skillet as I have shown above.  Once you’ve browned all four sides, place it in a bowl and cover with saran wrap.  This will help you remove the outer skin of the pepper easiest.  Once the pepper cools, simply peel off the outer skin and discard the stem and seeds.

Ingredients for Roasted Vegetable Salad with Fried Egg and Shaved Parmesan:

(serves 2)

  • 1 Portobello Mushroom, stem removed
  • 1/2 lb Asparagus, ends trimmed off (about 1″)
  • 1 Red Bell Pepper, roasted (see instructions above) and cut into strips
  • 1 Tomato, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup Mixed Field Greens
  • 1 cup Arugula
  • 1/2 cup Spinach
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Herbs de Provence, or Basil (dried)
  • 1 teaspoon oil or cooking spray
  • 2 Eggs
  • Parmesan cheese, shaved for garnish
  • salt pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large baking sheet coat the asparagus with the 2 tablespoons of oil along with the garlic and dried herbs.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until tender.

Heat an iron skillet on medium high heat and spray with cooking spray.  Sear the portobello mushroom, about 3 min on each side and place in the oven with the asparagus until tender.

Meanwhile, mix your greens in a large bowl with salt and pepper and place the tomato slices on each plate.  Heat a medium saucepan on medium heat with 1 teaspoon of oil or cooking spray.  Cooking one egg at a time, crack an egg onto the pan once heated.  Cook until the whites are almost solidified, about 3-4 minutes, and carefully flip the egg over using either a spatula or the magic flick of the wrist (I do not recommend using magic if you have no tried it before) and finish cooking on the other side, about 1 minute.  Repeat with other egg.

Take your roasted vegetables from the oven and cut the asparagus 3 ways and thinly slice the portobellos and bell pepper.  Place vegetables over the greens and top with the fried egg.  Garnish with the shaved Parmesan, placing as much as you prefer.  Serve immediately.

Price of Items:

  • 1 Portobello Mushroom – $1.50
  • 1/2 lb Asparagus – $ 1.50
  • 1 Red Bell Pepper – $1.00
  • 1 Tomato – $0.33
  • 3 cup Mixed Greens – $1.10
  • 2 Eggs – $0.67
  • Parmesan cheese – $0.50

Cost Per Serving: $3.30

Warm Medjool Dates Stuffed with Goat Cheese served with a Strawberry Cucumber Salsa

It is crazy how fast time is flying by this year, in a blink of an eye February is already half way gone.  In a month I will be flying to Shanghai with Collin, where he will meet my grandmother for the very first time.

My mother has been sending her photos of us which my grandmother keeps next to her chair so she is able to look through them everyday.  As much as I’d like to see my grandmother every year, it has been over 5 years since I’ve last seen her.  Since living in America I have only visited twice and seen her a total of three times.

She is the only grandparent I have left, being 92 this will probably be one of the last times I see her.  It makes me sad that I was never able to spend as much time with my grandparents as I would’ve liked.  Though I know all of them loved me dearly, a big part of me feels guilty because I was never able to return the favor.  I try to send cards, art projects and pictures whenever possible but a lot of times I feel it’s just not enough.

I attribute my constant happy attitude to the overwhelming amount of love that I received when I lived in China.  My parents would tell me all my grandparents would almost argue over who would hold me next, and being the youngest one of the family it was natural for everyone to spoil fat little round me.  Yet I don’t remember any of it.

Now that I’m older, and with only one grandparent remaining, I’ve come to realize that this trip will probably be the most important one of my life.  I left when I was a 2 year old baby and this time I am coming back as a young adult.  I have so many questions that I want to ask my grandmother, about our family history, about the life lessons she’s learned, and perhaps any embarrassing stories about my mother that I later can pull out and chuckle at her about. 🙂

But most importantly I want to give my grandmother a good impression, to show her that I am confident in myself and my abilities as well as introducing her to the love of my life.  She has adored Collin since the first day she laid eyes on his picture, telling my mom that “He is a Hollywood movie star.”  I’ve been racking my brain as to what I should buy her from here that she could enjoy in China, but nothing seems good enough.  What could a 92 year old woman need?

So with one month remaining before the big trip, I am beginning to freak out a little bit.  It starts with the little things, like not being 100 lbs like all the other girls in Shanghai to bigger things like What can I do to express all of my gratitude and love to my grandmother?  Especially with my mother not coming with us, I even question the level of my Chinese.  What if my Chinese is so shoddy that they can’t understand me?

I push these pestering questions to the back of my head and try not to worry about things that I am unable to control or simply just too minuscule to matter.  I should just concentrate on the present.

And presently I am enjoying eating healthy this year.  My meat consumption has been cut down tremendously, however because I have a pretty active workout regimen at times I feel myself getting tired.  Do any vegetarians out there have any tips as to what good foods will provide energy and give me the protein my body needs after an intense workout?

I found this salad to be pretty satisfying, I love the combination of sweet and savory so this was the perfect combination for me.  I found these beautiful Medjool dates at a local Mediterranean market and found an interesting recipe the other week in Nancy Oakes’ Boulevard cookbook.  Warm Medjool Dates Stuffed with Goat Cheese, the title itself made my mouth water.

I made the dates by her recipe and made the salsa and salad on my own.  If you’re interested in obtaining the original recipe just shoot me an e-mail and I can send it to you.  I thought the strawberries meshed well with the dates while the cucumbers and pecans added a nice crunch.  I brightened the salsa with some fresh lemon juice that paired well with the goat cheese.  Though a peculiar combination, the flavors were quite delightful 🙂

For my greens I chose Mesclun, Spinach and Arugula, all are pretty mild in flavor except for Arugula, which packs a peppery earthy kick that I really enjoy.

To toast the pecans, preheat the oven to 350F.  Put the pecans in a small baking pan and toast for 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly browned.  Remove from the oven and place in a bowl, set aside.

Ingredients for Warm Medjool Dates Stuffed with Goat Cheese:

(serves 2)

  • 8 Medjool Dates
  • 2 ounces of goat cheese
  • 1 cup Mesclun
  • 1 cup Arugula
  • 1 cup Spinach

From Boulevard:

For the Dates – Make a lengthwise slit in each date and pull out the pit.  Roughly divide the goat  cheese into 12 pieces, stuff into the dates, and press them closed.  Place, seam side down, on a small sheet pan or baking pan.  Set aside or refrigerate until ready to serve.  Just before serving, heat the dates in a 350F oven for 1 to 2 minutes, or until warm.  (I placed mine in for 7 minutes until the goat cheese was browned)

Ingredients for Strawberry Cucumber Salsa:

  • 4 strawberries, husked and small diced
  • 1/8 cup celery, small diced
  • 1/8 cup cucumber, small diced
  • 1/4 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • salt to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and taste with salt.  Set aside until ready to serve.

To serve the salad, toss the mixed greens in a little lemon juice if desired, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Place in a mound on a plate and place the salsa ontop.  Place 4 warm dates on each plate and serve immediately.

Starting from this post, I will be listing the price per serving of each meal I make.  This wonderful idea actually came from my friend Karen, who is a tax analyst by the way (this made me chuckle) and I thought it was a great way to not only show people how inexpensive it can be eat well but it can finally convince all my friends that cooking at home is SO MUCH CHEAPER than eating out all the time (and much more cleaner might I add)!

Price of items:

  • 4 strawberries – $1.00
  • 1/4 cup pecans – $0.75
  • 1 celery stalk – $0.15
  • 1/4 cucumber – $0.25
  • 8 medjool dates – $1.50
  • 2 ounces goat cheese – $2.00
  • 3 cups Mixed Greens – $1.10

Cost per Serving: $3.38

WOW!!! In the words of Borat “VERRRY NIIICE, I LIIIKE” Thank you Karen for the fabulous idea.  I think this way I am actually able to show readers and friends how inexpensive it is to cook at home as well as eating healthy. My biggest tip would be to look through your local grocery ads to see what produce is on sale and in season, that way you get optimal quality ingredients at a good price.

I will be heading off to Houston this weekend to visit my parents as well as to pick up our visas for China (yipee!!).  Hope everyone has a great week and I’ll be back on Monday hopefully with fun food adventures in Houston.

Happy Birthday to Mary Moh

One of the many reasons why I enjoy blogging is being able to meet people from all different regions of the world.  One of the very first blogger friends I made was Mary Moh from Keep Learning Keep Smiling.  I was instantly drawn to her warm nature and kind heart.  Her recipes always give me a sense of home, cooking many dishes that my mother had prepared for me when I was a child.  This has not only helped me appreciate my own mother more but has taught me how powerful something as simple as food can be.

Aside from triggering memories of my childhood (and making my stomach growl in the mornings), Mary also provides exceptional wisdom and insight that applies to everyday life.  I think the name of her blog says it all — “Keep Learning Keep Smiling” a good mantra that we should all take in life.  We will always have obstacles throughout our lifetime but the important part is to not only keep going but maintaining a positive attitude through it all.

So when Mary e-mailed me a couple weeks ago asking if I could do a guest post for her birthday of all things, you wouldn’t believe how honored I felt.  Of course I agreed, and I thought long and hard as to what I would make her for her birthday.  First I was going to do a banana tart but then I felt it was too simple for a birthday, then it was cheesecake but it felt too boring so finally I settled on this: Chocolate Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and a Black Sesame and Walnut Crust topped with Miniature Vanilla Cupcakes. I just had to go all out for this one, not only because it’s Mary’s birthday but it is also my way of saying “Thank You” Mary for your blog has provided me with great memories, grumbling tummies and a kind and open heart.

So I hope you enjoy this cake Mary Moh!  Granted you are far away in Scotland, I lighted some candles and sent you a happy wish from Texas 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful birthday today, and may it be filled with lots of FOOD, presents and of course Love!

Mary also requested some funny pictures and I jumped at the opportunity.  As you can see my Lily cat really enjoys it when I dress her up, I would almost say she lives for it.  🙂  Layla was a very good model, she pulled out her best tricks to make these shots work.

As you can see she is a very good little balancer 🙂  She can also dance and when we do yoga, she does her downward dog with us.  Lily on the other hand just sits there and eats (alot) and takes unusually large dumps…I am not sure how.  But all in all, both my pets are very good models as you can see!

For the chocolate cake, I used the same recipe from a previous post which you can find here.  When making layer cakes like this, it is easiest when you either freeze or refrigerate your cake layers.  This way, during assembly time, the cake will not crumble easily and it will be easier to move the layers without breaking them.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting, it is actually the same as the frosting I used for the Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes which you can find here.  To make the cake you will probably have to make at least 5-6 batches of the icing.  If you have leftover icing you can always keep it in the fridge for up to a week to a week and a half.  Cream Cheese icing goes great with everything!

Also when assembling the cake, be sure you lay down a cake bottom first, that way you can move the cake around.  If you do not put a sturdy base at the bottom, once you are done icing the cake you will have a hell of a time transferring it to a plate or cake stand.  I actually like assembling my cakes on a cake stand because it makes icing the cake a lot easier, because you are able to rotate the stand.

To assemble the cake, put 1 cake layer, rounded side up, on a cake stand or platter and, using offset spatula, spread top with about 1 cup frosting.  Top with the remaining cake layer, rounded side down, and frost side and top of cake with 2 cups of frosting.

You will need a mini-muffin pan along with 24 mini muffin cups.

Ingredients for Vanilla Mini Cupcakes:

(Makes 2 dozen)

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3/4 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 3/4 cups cream cheese frosting

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line muffin cups with liners.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.  Mix milk and vanilla in another bowl.  Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes.  Add egg and beat until just combined.  Reduce speed to low, then add flour and milk mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour and mixing until just combined.

Divide batter among muffin cups, filling them two-thirds full, and bake until tops are pale golden and a wooden pick inserted in centers comes out clean, about 15 minutes.  Invert cupcakes onto a rack and cool completely.

You can also make different colored icings by taking 1/4 cup frosting in a small bowl and ting with food cloring, then frost tops of cupcakes.

To finish decorating, simply place the miniature cupcakes ontop of the cake in the following quantities – 1st layer: 6 cupcakes (5 in a circle 1 in the center) 2nd layer: 4 cupcakes (centered) and 3rd layer: 1 cupcakes on top.  Coat the edges of the cake with ground toasted walnuts and black sesame and sprinkle ontop of cupcakes as well.  You may garnish with fresh fruit or flowers, or both!

Happy Birthday Mary, I hope you’ve enjoyed my post.  As you can see both my animals had fun making this post with me as well 🙂  May all your wishes come true today my dear friend!

Cream of Potato Soup with Jalapeno Oil & Neiman Marcus Popovers with Fresh Strawberry Butter

You guys will not believe the weather we are having in Dallas.  For the 17 years I’ve lived in Texas I have never seen this much snow, a record breaking 12.5 inches of snow in a 24 hour period.  INSANE!!  We had a transformer blow out last night and the power went dead, thankfully we were able to seek shelther at Collin’s parents.  Thank goodness for family 🙂

We woke up early this morning and built an 8 foot snow man!  Actually it was more Collin who built the entire 8 foot body and I sculpted the face :).  I was off taking pictures and I turned around and what do I see?  Collin rolling a gigantic snow ball around the front yard that sat almost as tall as my shoulders… I was concerned as how he was going to get the midsection on there, which weighed at least 200 lbs.  Thankfully with a family full of big Polacks (sp?), Collin and his dad moved it on there just fine.

It’s been years since I’ve built a snow man, and never one of such massive proportions (Which I have my intense fiance to thank for that)! 🙂 On our way back to our house this morning we saw streets decorated with all different types of snowmen of all shapes and sizes, it was truly adorable.

With weather like this I felt nothing could be better than warm bread and soup.  This classic cream of potato soup recipe can be dressed up in several different ways.  You can add bacon or sour cream, or perhaps some smoked chicken and cheddar cheese?  I decided to add some heat and drizzled it with some Jalapeno oil to give the soup an extra kick!

The popovers are to die for.  I had my first popover experience when Collin’s father took us out for dinner over the holidays and the restaurant had served them as starters.  They were warm and had a crunchy outside but a warm and chewy inside.  The recipe I am using is Neiman Marcus’, they suggest using a their popover pan, which I recommend using if you have it, but if not you can use a muffin pan.

Ingredients for Cream of Potato Soup with Jalapeno Oil:

(serves 4)

  • 8 medium sized potatoes, cleaned peeled and cut into 1 1/2″ pieces
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 jalapeno, top discarded and thinly sliced
  • 2 small leeks, white part only, washed and finely chopped
  • 4 shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, washed, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 celery washed and finely chopped
  • 4 cups of chicken broth or water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • salt pepper to taste

Heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until the butter starts to foam.  Add the leeks, celery, carrots, onion and shallots along with some salt and cook over gently heat for 5-6 minutes until the vegetables start to soften.  Add the stock and potatoes, bring back to the boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer and cook slowly for 10 minutes.  Puree the soup in batches in a blender.  If you’d like you can pour the soup through a metal sieve.  Heat the pureed mixture and cream in a pan, check for seasoning and taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat until oil slightly smokes.  Add the sliced jalapeno and allow to sautee until oil is fragrant and jalapenos are softened, about 3-4 minutes.  Remove from heat and pour oil mixture through sieve.  Set jalapenos aside for garnish.Divide the soup among four bowls and add a generous dash of black pepper.  Drizzle with jalapeno oil and add jalapeno slices.  You can also serve this soup with some crostinis as I have.  You simply slice a baguette into 1″ pieces and brush with a butter mixture.

Ingredients for Crostini Butter mixture:

(for about 12 crostinis)

  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, minced

Mix ingredients together in bowl and brush onto sliced crostinis.  Bake at 350F for 10 minutes or until bread is golden brown.

“The key to making great popovers is having the eggs and milk warm before mixing.  It is also important to let the batter sit for an hour before baking it.  Popovers do not freeze well, and pre-made batter has a tendency not to work properly the next day.”

Ingredients for Neiman Marcus Popovers:

(about 2 dozen popovers)

  • 3 1/2 cups milk
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Place the milk in a bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes, or until warm to the touch.  Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a large mixing bowl.  Crack the eggs into the work bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk and beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until foamy and pale in color.  Turn down the mixer to low and add the warm milk.  Gradually add the flour mixture and beat on medium speed for about 2 minutes.  Turn the machine off and let the batter rest for 1 hour at room temperature.

Spray a popover tin or muffin pan generously with nonstick spray.  Fill the popover cups almost to the top with the batter and place the popover tin on a cookie sheet.  (If you are using a muffin pan, fill every other hole because the bread will puff up when baking).  Transfer to the oven and bake for 15 minutes.  Turn down the oven temperature to 375F and bake for 30 to 35 minutes longer, until the popovers are a deep golden brown on the outside and airy on the inside.  Turn out the popovers and serve hot with strawberry butter.

For Neiman Marcus’ recipe they used strawberry preserves, I actually used fresh strawberries and 1 tablespoon of agave syrup.  I have cut down the quantity of butter so the following recipe makes about 1/4 cup of strawberry butter.

Ingredients for Fresh Strawberry Butter:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 cup good-quality strawberry preserves (I used 1/2 cup fresh strawberries, chopped)
  • 1 tablespoon of agave syrup (I added this)

Place the butter in a bowl with minced strawberries and syrup.  Beat on high until lught and fluffy.  To serve, spoon or pipe the flavored butter into a plate or bowl.

If you have leftover strawberry butter it goes great on toast or any type of bread you may have lying around.  It am sure it is great with preserves, but the butter is SO fragrant when I made it with fresh strawberries, I recommend that everyone tries this recipe.  It is so ADDICTING!!

I hope everyone has a great weekend.  I am off to ice a cake for a special someones birthday that is coming up!  🙂  Stay tune on Monday for a very special birthday dedication post for a very special lady!  In the meantime, everyone stay warm eat lots and be merry!!!


Our 8 foot snowman 🙂