Sunday, February 27, 2011

February Daring Bakers Challenge - Panna Cotta and Florentines

The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.

I was so excited when this month's challenge was announced. I had seen panna cotta before, and had wanted to try my hand at it, but, for some reason, I never tried. It could be that the versions of panna cotta that I had seen before were on foodgawker, and looked so exquisitely fancy that I was a little intimidated. Or it could be that I am always a little wary of recipes calling for gelatin, since I have had the oh-so-fun experience of getting the proportions wrong with that ingredient before. Or it could be that I have a very long baking-wish-list, and I just hadn't gotten to it yet. But this was my perfect opportunity!

And to make it even more fun, when daddy saw the challenge, he was super excited about the florentines. Apparently he loves them, and was very excited at the prospect of me learning to make them. Worked out well!

Panna cotta is a classic Italian dessert. The name itself literally translates to "cooked cream," and that is pretty much what the recipe is - a stabilized cooked creamy almost custard type of dessert. It is relatively simple to make, yet is smooth, creamy, delicious, and can be prepared and presented very elegantly and beautifully.

I chose to make vanilla panna cotta. Here's how it went:

First, I softened the gelatin by sprinkling it over milk:

After a few minutes, the gelatin was softened up, and the mixture looked kind of like a bowl of brains:

(a little hard to see, what with the picture being white on white, but seriously, I looked in the bowl and thought it looked like a brain...)

Anyway, while the gelatin was doing its thing, I also measured my cream, and, to up the vanilla flavor of my dessert, added the seeds and pod of a vanilla bean to soak in it:

Once all of my ingredients were measured, prepared, soaked and softened, it was time to combine them in a saucepan:

And then pour the cooked mixture into ramekins:

Then the ramekins went into the fridge so that they could cool and set.

I knew that I wanted a fruit component to my panna cotta dessert, and, as luck would have it, blueberries were on sale that week. So I mixed together a simple blueberry sauce from some apple juice, sugar and the fresh blueberries. I let all of the ingredients cook down and simmer until most of the blueberries had burst, then let the sauce cool. It then joined the panna cotta in the refrigerator to wait until dessert time.

After dinner, I was very excited to prepare our dessert. I was anxious to see if the panna cotta had actually set, and to see if I would actually be able to remove them from the ramekins, yet have them retain their shape.

It was interesting to see how each member of the family chose to prepare their dessert. Little miss did not want to bother with un-molding her serving. Nor did she want to bother with the blueberry sauce. She chose to garnish her panna cotta with chocolate chips:

Me? I tried to make mine simple, un-molding the panna cotta and serving it with the blueberry sauce:

Daddy? He chose the best of both worlds:

Yes, that is panna cotta, topped with whipped cream and chocolate chips, with a side of blueberry sauce. He take dessert very seriously!

The next day, it was time to tackle the florentine cookies. Florentines are a thin, almost lacy oat cookie. They are also super fun to make with a four year old sidekick, as they are prepared differently from any other cookie she has ever made. When I told her we were making cookies, she thought she knew what she was in for, but when I told her that we would not need the mixer, she was confused. Then when I told her that we would be making our cookies in a pot, she was amused.

The florentine recipe provided called for two ingredients that I didn't have. Well, kind of. The recipe called for quick oats. I never have quick oats in the house, but almost always have old fashioned oats. A quick bit of research taught me that the only difference between old fashioned and quick oats are the size of the pieces - quick oats have been chopped to make them smaller, thus allowing them to cook more quickly. No problem - I just gave my old fashioned oats a quick spin in the mini-blender (seriously - about two seconds did the trick!), and we were in business.

The other ingredient that I didn't have was dark corn syrup. I have light corn syrup. A couple more minutes on google taught me that the difference between dark and light corn syrup is molasses, an ingredient I also had on hand.

Handy conversions ready to go, we were ready to bake.

To make the florentines, butter is melted in a saucepan, and then all of the other ingredients are mixed right in that same pot:

The resulting cookie dough was thick and sticky. And thanks to their being no eggs in the dough, we were able to confirm that the dough is also quite delicious.

We then spooned it out onto our baking sheets, where little miss helped to carefully flatten out the balls of dough before I put them into the oven.

The final step in preparing these cookies is to add chocolate. Usually, two florentine cookies are sandwiched together with chocolate. As the cookies themselves are very sweet, dark chocolate is a favored choice. Me? I chose semi-sweet.
We sandwiched about half of the cookies, but I chose not to sandwich all of them because, even for a sweet-tooth dessert lover like me, that made for a pretty big cookie. For the rest of the cookies, I made designs with the chocolate for a delicious decoration:

I have to say, this was really a wonderful challenge, and a great pairing of desserts. The cool, creamy panna cotta and the crisp, sweet florentine were each so much fun, and together made for a really decadent dessert.

Mallory, thank you so much for this wonderful challenge. I am so glad that you gave me the excuse and opportunity to finally make panna cotta. I am so excited to try my hand at so many different flavors and variations now!

I highly recommend checking out the impressive and amazing work of the other Daring Bakers this month - they went above and beyond in creating some amazing, beautiful desserts this month. You can check them out here.

Can't wait to see what next month brings!

Monday, February 14, 2011

February Daring Cooks Challenge - Tempura and Cold Soba Salad

One of the reasons that I joined the Daring Kitchen last year was to expand my cooking and baking horizons - to learn about different methods and styles of cooking and to introduce new foods to myself and my family. One of the coolest parts of the challenges is that I know that at least once a month, I will have something on my dinner menu that I, most probably, would not have otherwise tried. This month was one that proved that the decision to join was a good one!

The February 2011 Daring Cooks' challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including,, and

I do not have a lot of experience with Japanese food, so when the challenge was announced, I was a little skeptical. Between my lack of knowledge and my general preference against cold noodles, I was worried that this challenge just wouldn't be for me. But I have tried tempura before, and, let's face it, anything deep-fried is bound to be pretty tasty, so I was hopeful that I might enjoy it.

The first thing that I had to do was locate soba noodles. Soba noodles are thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. As luck would have it, these were actually very easy to find in the International food isle of the food store. They actually had quite a variety to choose from. Having never tried soba noodles before, I wasn't sure which to pick, but finally decided on a package of yam-soba noodles. Sounded interesting, plus they were on sale. Always helpful. Several super daring cooks made their own soba noodles. Maybe one day I will try that... for now, I am okay with these.

Another aspect of the cold soba salad portion of this challenge was to make a dipping sauce for the soba noodles. Our hostess provided us with two sample recipes for dipping sauces, one traditional and one spicy, but both contained ingredients that are either specialized (dashi, mirin) or that I don't generally keep on hand (rice vinegar). I decided to create my own recipe, loosely based on the traditional recipe given, with the ingredients that I had on hand. I combined chicken broth, soy sauce, a bit of brown sugar and a sprinkling of ground ginger in a saucepan, boiled the mixture, then added thinly sliced scallion. I then moved the pot to the back burner and allowed the sauce to cool.

Once the soba salad was underway, it was time to work on the tempura. Tempura is a Japanese dish of seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. We are not big seafood eaters in our house, so I knew that we would be sticking with vegetables. We went with broccoli, cauliflower and thin-sliced sweet potatoes.

Vegetables ready, it was time to prepare the tempura batter. The batter is actually super easy and quick to prepare - flour, cornstarch, baking powder, an egg yolk and ice water. The ingredients are barely mixed together with chopsticks, purposely left lumpy, and there you have it. Super quick, super simple. The tricky part was what came next - deep frying. Not that deep frying is overly complicated, but between little miss and little man, coordinating the process can be a little tricky. Which is why we prepared this meal on a weekend. Between me and daddy, we had a good system - set little miss up with her favorite learning website (, in case you are interested - it is fantastic!) and trade off between the newborn and the frying. The frying process involved dredging the vegetables in flour, dipping them into the batter, then frying them in oil until they are ready, which was actually quite quick.

The final prep-step in preparing our meal was to actually cook the soba noodles. The recipe provided by our hostess involved a process of bringing water to a boil, adding the noodles, then cooling the water and bringing it back to a boil several times. The process sounded interesting, but I thought it would be best to follow the cooking directions on the package for the noodles, on the off chance that the way these noodles were processed would make them not cook properly using the challenge process. Once the noodles were boiled and drained, I set the colander into a bowl of ice water to fully cool the noodles, since, by definition, this is a cold noodle dish.

At last, all of the pieces were in place, and it was time to put together our meal. Since we did not include seafood in our tempura, which would have provided us with the protein for our meal, I quickly scrambled some eggs and cut them into strips to go on top of our soba noodles along side the tempura. We each dressed our noodles in our own bowls with the dipping sauce, then piled on the tempura and egg. The result was a beautiful, colorful bowl that looked very fresh and appetizing.

But the real question was how it would taste. And the answer was great! Daddy, little miss and I all really enjoyed each aspect of this meal - the noodles were great (even cold!), the sauce was just right for us, and the tempura was delicious. All three elements together made for a really delicious meal.

Lisa, thank you so much for this fantastic challenge! I don't know that I ever would have tried soba noodles without it, or that I would have attempted to make my own tempura, and now I am so glad that I did. This is a really great addition to my cooking repertoire, so I thank you for challenging us to do it!

To see the great dishes of the other Daring Cooks, check them out here.

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!
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