Cream Cheese Mac & Cheese

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I think this simmering obsession started with a little plastic cup of instant mac and cheese mix. It was microwavable and ready in 3 minutes. I thought it tasted okay, nothing special, but since I didn’t have a benchmark for really really good macaroni and cheese, I didn’t really rely on first impressions.

I called it a “simmering” obsession because sometimes I scour recipes for inspiration, at the back of my head this image of that little plastic cup of microwavable mac and cheese always rears its ugly head. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of dinner, wishing I was eating macaroni and cheese instead. I know, it sounds strange coming from me, because I’m never one to regret dinner, unless I’m served liver of course.
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I’ve been going over recipes back and forth, knowing that there were still a few blocks of cream cheese sitting in the fridge almost ready to expire unless I make good use of them. There was an internal debate going on inside my head on whether I should cook the macaroni in the cheese sauce, or cook them separately then put it all together in the end. I decided on the latter, knowing too well my misfortune with under-cooked pasta. New Year’s Eve of 2011 saw me in the kitchen, pouring water every 10 minutes on a baking dish full of raw lasagna noodles which refused to cook, God knows why (because I’m an idiot probably). I learned my lesson and hopefully I’ll pass that little nugget of wisdom to my children, and they’ll pass it on the theirs, and so on, and so on. Of course google works, too.
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Anyway, I still had to google if Eden cheese is a universal Kraft product. Unfortunately, I think it’s not because it’s tailored for Filipino consumption. But don’t fret, I’d like to believe this is a standard recipe that welcomes substitutions – just don’t skip the cream cheese!

I would’ve liked this to have more cheese sauce, because c’mon, who doesn’t appreciate a lot of sauce? But as soon as it came out of the oven, I knew this would be good, and I was right. Dig in, and for good measure, help yourself to seconds and thirds. Well, I did.
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Cream Cheese Mac & Cheese (serves 6 – 8)

  • 300 grams macaroni
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup reserved starchy water used to cook the macaroni
  • ¾ cup grated Eden cheese
  • 1 225g bar cream cheese, softened and cubed
  • ½ tablespoon prepared mustard
  • Grated mozzarella cheese, for topping

Boil water in a pot. Add a little bit of vegetable oil, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Add the macaroni, and cook according to package directions. Stir occasionally to prevent pieces from sticking to the bottom. Reserve 1 cup of the starchy water for later use. Drain the macaroni and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt butter. Add the flour and stir everything together until a thick cohesive paste is formed (the roux). Add the milk and the water. Season it with salt and pepper. Stir until it thickens.

Add the mustard, Eden cheese, and most of the cream cheese. Save a few tiny cubes for topping. Mix everything together over low heat and allow the cheeses to melt. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C.

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resist the urge to eat it straight from the pot

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It will be a thing of beauty

Carefully add in the macaroni, mixing everything to coat it with the sauce.Pour everything on a baking pan, and top it with mozzarella and dot it with the tiny cream cheese cubes.

Bake it in the oven for 15 – 20 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and caramel brown specks have started to appear.

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See?

Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes. Serve warm and enjoy!

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Absolute Best Brownies

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I was a bit skeptical. When people pin the words “absolute”, “best”, “ultimate”, “the best you’ll ever have. Ever(!!!!)” to the names of certain recipes, it piques your interest. You wonder if these recipe testers and bloggers are so ecstatic about this recipe that they just need to call their recipe “the best ever”. Or maybe it’s all just BS, because the benchmark isn’t at all clear-cut and objective. But it’s worth a shot. There’s that shred of genuine hope, that what you have before you is in fact, the best recipe out there.

I’m talking about these brownies, which could have been prettier had I baked the batter in the right pan. I got this recipe from Joey of 80breakfasts, a food blog that I’ve been following for a while now. I’ve never made brownies before and I thought it made sense that I begin with a recipe that probably has solid credibility (she got it from David Lebovitz after all).
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I’ve always been on the fence with brownies. I thought I’ve tasted it all: from the mercilessly rock hard to the uncharacteristically cake-y. I was wrong. I haven’t tasted this one. Now my benchmark for a good brownie has definitely been raised: it should be amazingly fudge-y (uh,duh). This recipe ticks all the right boxes. It deserves to have a superlative in its name.

The only copout was that I didn’t use premium ingredients (hey, I’m broke!). But at least I have something to look forward to when I do get my hands on real butter and fancy chocolate!
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Robert’s Absolute Best Brownies

(recipe taken with slight modifications from 80breakfasts; original recipe by David Lebovitz from his book Ready For Dessert)

  • 3 ounces (around 3/4 of a stick) unsalted or salted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for the pan
  • 8 ounces/226 grams bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup nuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (I wanted to add walnuts but I didn’t have any on hand)
  1. Line the inside of an 8-inch square pan with 2 lengths of parchment, allowing for excess to extend beyond the edges of the pan (this is how you will pull the brownies out later). Lightly butter the parchment. I used an 8×12 inch baking pan, which probably makes a thinner spread, and consequently, baking time is varied. 
  2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the chocolate and stir by hand until it is melted and smooth.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla until combined. Beat in the eggs by hand, one at a time.
  4. Add the flour and stir energetically for one full minute. (Accordingly “…this is important so time yourself. The batter is supposed to lose its graininess in this time, becoming smooth and glossy, and pull away a bit from the sides of the saucepan.”) After that, stir in the chopped nuts.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a pre-heated 350F/180C oven until the center feels almost set, about 30 minutes. Do not overbake. IMPORTANT: Since I used a different sized pan (8×12), mine baked for about 20 – 25 minutes  
  6. Let the brownie cool completely in the pan (be patient!) before lifting the parchment and the brownie out of the pan. I give it an extra window of time to cool out of the pan as well. Cut the brownie into squares.

Blueberries and Cream Graham “Bars”

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Here in the Philippines, there’s this easy and inexpensive dessert called Mango Float/Mango Royale that every self-respecting homemaker probably knows how to make. My mom swears it was my aunt/her sister-in-law who shared the recipe, and when my mom first made it at home, my little 8-year old self swore it was the best dessert ever created.

It was refreshingly simple. A pyrex is filled with alternating layers of graham crackers, cream and slivers of mangoes, then it’s put in the freezer for a few hours, after which, you have a great way to cap off any meal. It’s sometimes too decadent that it can hold its own, without being an accompaniment to a meal. But I’m not complaining. I rarely get to eat it now, because I’m always afraid I might get tonsillitis if I go overboard.
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The dessert is almost too ubiquitous that I don’t really think posting it here would count as something special. And we didn’t have mangoes. There are variations of the ‘float’ – using canned fruit cocktail, peaches, and in my case, blueberry pie filling. The pie filling has been pitifully sitting at the back of our pantry probably since we moved in, more than a year ago. Or more, who knows? But it wasn’t going to go bad yet, and my mom has been prodding me to make something with the graham crackers that she bought.

It’s strange that making this made me think of making it with mangoes instead. Maybe because it’s more luscious and festive. I’m not saying this recipe is bad, of course! All I’m saying is, if mango float was summer, then this would be autumn. And as much as I’d like to imagine myself jumping in the foliage…autumn is nonexistent in the tropics.

And as for the title, well, this was just my attempt at being original. I think it didn’t work. (haha)

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Blueberries and Cream Graham “Bars”

  • 20 pieces graham crackers (1 pack usually has 20 pieces)
  • 3 cups all-purpose cream
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 1 21-ounce can blueberry pie filling
  1. In a bowl, mix together the cream and condensed milk. Add the blueberry pie filling and mix well. Set aside.
  2. In an 8 by 11.5 by 2 inch pan, assemble the first layer of graham crackers at the bottom. Add the cream, enough to create a half an inch tall layer on the top the graham crackers. Top with another layer of graham crackers. Repeat the process until you reach the top.
  3. Place it in the freezer (make sure your pan is freezer safe) for a few hours or until the cream has solidified. You can also opt to just chill it in the refrigerator instead. Slice into bars when serving and enjoy!

Fried Bananas/Prito Saging

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Sometimes when I’d hop on over to the kitchen next door, at my grandparent’s house, I’d see a bunch of bananas on the table, and I know it could become one of two things: sareala or prito saging. Sareala is bananas stewed in coconut milk and muscovado sugar, while prito/frito saging literally means fried bananas. Today was all about the fried bananas.

They make a great all-day snack that’s really simple to prepare and really really addictive. I asked them what’s the banana that’s ideal for frying, they usual say, ‘Gardava‘, and would be quick to add, ‘not Saba‘. But it is peculiar to know that when you google ‘Saba Banana’, top sites would tell you that the Saba banana is also called ‘Cardaba’. Yes, it’s confusing. Photos of the Saba banana would show you a banana that is slightly angular, almost square-ish, and I can swear that the bananas used didn’t resemble the photo. Now as I’m typing this I realize how much of a dufus I am because I didn’t even think of photographing the banana in question. Nice one, Gio.

Anyway, don’t fret. If you’re lucky enough to have an abundance of fruit stands around your neighborhood, I’m sure the people manning it can help you out. But if the varieties are scarce, it’s reasonable to experiment. Who knows? You might stumble into your own little gold mine (of fried golden bananas).
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Some recipes (and mothers, grandmothers, aunts) tell you to coat the bananas in flour, while some say just dump it in the hot oil right away. If the bananas are overripe and mushy, then it should be coated with flour to help preserve the structure. But if the bananas have peaked and ripened perfectly, then dump it in sans the flour. You’d want this kind of fried banana more – well, I would. They don’t mush too much even when they’re already golden brown. Sinking your teeth into it is a treat because if it’s perfectly cooked, then it’s going to melt in your mouth.

And slathering each piece with butter and sugar? Don’t get me started.
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Prito Saging (serves 6 – 8)

This doesn’t even have a proper procedure.

  • 1 banana bunch, peeled, then sliced in half or quartered
  • enough oil for frying
  • butter and sugar, to serve
  1. In a pan/pot, heat enough oil to fry the bananas completely. Fry a few bananas at a time until golden brown. You may need to work in batches. If it’s possible, don’t use tongs to handle the bananas – use a spatula or slotted spoon.
  2. When done, remove from pan and place it on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil.
  3. Serve with butter and sugar on the side. Enjoy!

French Toast

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It’s funny how a blog friend of mine, Jenn, made french toast when she got back from her vacation, and here I am making french toast just before I’m about to leave for mine. This isn’t any monumental move, just a ridiculously long road trip that will occupy my weekend. It’s 1:00 AM and we’re leaving at 3 o’clock. Sleep isn’t an option if I want to stay ‘sedated’ throughout the trip. Road trips and I, don’t mix.

Anyway, french toast!
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I’m not a breakfast person, and when I do get to enjoy a good breakfast, I would usually go for the classics: fried rice and fried processed meat. Delicious. It’s been ages since I made french toast, and I forgot how heavy, luscious and filling a single slice can be. I had two, or three. With maple syrup, because Molly Wizenberg says so. After a few forkfuls drenched in golden sauce, I don’t think I can have it any other way. The really fat kid who used to make french toast every Saturday is back, hungrier than ever.

A bad habit: we buy more bread than we can consume. I can’t tell you how many times we had to dispose of  loaf bread that was barely even touched, because the mold has taken over.  For this batch, I may or may not have used bread that had the slightest, tiniest speck of mold. I won’t admit it.
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But suppose I did, then I would give myself a pat on the back for giving the poor bread slices a new lease on life, even just for a few minutes.

Hopefully the change in scenery will do me some good, and with the lingering taste of this morning’s french toast still dancing in my mouth and making me hungry at 1:30 in the morning…I’m off.
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French Toast (this is pretty much verbatim; adapted from Orangette serves 2 – 4)

1 cup milk
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
Mild-tasting vegetable oil, such as canola
6 – 7 slices bread (I used a plain white loaf)
Pure maple syrup, for serving

Whisk together the first five ingredients in a wide, shallow bowl.

Place a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over low to medium heat, and add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the skillet.

Two or three at a time, add the bread slices to the egg mixture in the bowl, allowing them to rest for a minute or two on each side. They should feel heavy and thoroughly saturated, but they should not be falling apart. When the oil is hot, place the slices in the skillet. They should sizzle a bit, and the oil should bubble lightly around the edges of the bread; take care, however, that the oil is not too hot, lest the egg mixture burn. Cook until the underside of each slice is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn the bread, and cook until the second side is golden, another 2 minutes or so. Remove the bread from the skillet to a plate lined with a paper towel, allow to rest for 30 seconds or so, and serve immediately—with maple syrup, of course.

Scones!

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Because I can’t think of biscuits without thinking about scones, I made scones today. I don’t know, I just woke up with this mad craving that I had to satisfy.
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Scones are a type of quickbread ( like biscuits) that are English in origin. Basically quickbreads don’t need yeast, hence the name. The only scones that I’ve ever tried are the ones I made a few days ago, so I’m a novice. I don’t even know what to look for in taste and texture – but I sure did enjoy eating it. The end product is cake-y and chewy – I admit, I think I overworked the batter a bit, but in my defense that’s probably the only way I can really learn restraint.

Honey and walnut have been my go-to flavor combination that blends with the scones perfectly. In my head, even if I don’t know what a proper scone should taste like…I’m looking for that texture akin to puff pastry, meaning, I’d like to see scone slightly flaky, like these, where I got the recipe from.

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I’m still looking for a recipe that knocks my socks off in epic proportions. But these were good, really good.
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Scones (makes at least eight pieces; adapted from here)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup fresh milk
  • ½ cup walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper
  2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter and walnuts and use a pastry cutter to cut it into the dry ingredients – keep working it until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  3. Add the milk and use a fork (or your hands) to gently bring the mixture together. There may still be a few dry bits in the bottom of the bowl, that’s fine.
  4. Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide it in half. Gently shape each piece into a disk about 1/2-inch thick. Like a pie, cut each disk into 4 or 6 pieces, depending on how big you want your scones – I did six.
  5. Transfer the scones to the prepared baking sheet. (You can bake the scones immediately, but I like to refrigerate or freeze mine briefly so the butter is really cold when it hits the oven. – THG did this)
  6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the scones begin to turn golden brown around the edges and are slightly firm to the touch.
  7. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the scones cool for a few minutes before removing them to the rack to cool completely. Drizzle with honey and more walnuts. Enjoy!

Honey and Walnut Biscuits

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Who doesn’t love weekends? Introduce to me a person who loves to relish at the thought of Sundays becoming Mondays, and I’ll…..drop my jaw. Not really, but the point is, it’s only during the weekend that most of the family and I get to be under the same roof, caught up in our own little worlds, but at least we’re together.

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I can imagine these biscuits could be great conversation starters:

For one, grandma might say, “biskwit ba ito?, dol hinde man” (“Is this a biscuit? It doesn’t seem like one”).

Then I would go on about how this is technically, a biscuit in the most literal sense.

Then uncle would say, “hindi man crispy” (“It’s not crispy”)

Then I would reinforce what I’ve already been talking about.

Then little cousin would butt in, sniff it and say, “akala ko cookie” (“I thought these were cookies”)

Then I’ve had enough: “FINE, I’LL MAKE A GODDAMN COOKIE NEXT TIME!!!!!” No, I didn’t really scream that. This conversation didn’t really happen in real life. I played it all out in my head because that’s what the voices have been telling me.
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But that’s not to say these aren’t delicious. On the contrary, I can’t get enough of these biscuits. It just means I’ve never had a proper biscuit before. The closest thing I had, was probably a Pillsbury ready-mix that was baked in a toaster oven and had a crunchy exterior.

But after digging around, I found out I didn’t really commit any grave error. These aren’t the digestive biscuits which you might know of, hence it isn’t supposed to be crispy/crunchy. The operational definition for these little ones would have to be “a small quick bread made from dough that has been rolled out and cut or dropped from a spoon”. It’s called a quickbread because it doesn’t require yeast to rise; only baking powder/soda. It’s like a scone, not that I’ve ever had a scone before.
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The best way I can describe the sensation of eating this would be that it’s like biting into a denser version of puff pastry, with a cake-y character, but still very buttery because the dough required minimal work. The reason why puff pastries ‘puff’ is because the dough is not overworked to the point of creating a paste.

It means that there are still butter pieces and when it gets hot enough, the butter melts and forms air pockets, creating a “puff” in between dough layers.
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These aren’t perfect. It’s more like a starting point for me because I’d like to see the dough “rise” some more, beyond the semblance of a flat cookie, but not to the point of it being mistaken for a mini mutant pan de sal. The original recipe didn’t require adding walnuts, but I think walnuts make everything better with their buttery, “melt-in-your-mouth” texture.
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Honey and Walnut Biscuits (makes 14 – 16 three inch in diameter biscuits; adapted from Beti Vanilla)

A real treat is to bite into the baked walnut topping, which melts in your mouth like butter because it’s been baked. Of course, the biscuits are great too! 

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup/ 1 stick cold unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup shelled walnuts, roughly crushed/chopped, plus more for garnish
  1.  Preheat the oven to 420 F/ 215 C. Cut the butter into small cubes. Line a cookie sheet with a silicone mat or baking paper.
  2.  In a bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and cream of tartar.
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  3. Using a pastry cutter (you can also use a fork or a food processor), cut in the butter with the flour mixture, until coarse lumps have formed.
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  4. Add the milk, walnuts and honey, stir just until everything comes together. Do not overmix or else the biscuits will turn out hard. You will want tiny specks of butter.
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  5. Roll the dough with a rolling pin to about 1/2 inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters.
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  6. Place in the prepared pan and lightly brush them with milk. Garnish each biscuit with a piece of walnut. Bake it in the oven at 420 F/215 C for 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.