Tasty Tufts: Easy Ways to Improve Flavor

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Happy Friday, everyone! Click on over to Tasty Tufts to read my new post on how to improve the flavor while you cook. There’s all sorts of food science and tips for how to apply the information to your meals, whether you eat all your meals in a dining hall or at home.

(Unrelated photo, but if you’re looking for a way to celebrate spring break, make a batch of my favorite chocolate chip cookies!)

Pumpkin Bread and Tasty Tufts


Some of you may already know this, but this semester in addition to posting on Kinsey Cooks I’ll be contributing to the Tufts food blog, Tasty Tufts. It’s a great website full of Boston and Somerville restaurant reviews, recipes, and thoughts on eating in college. My first post (which you can find by clicking here) is the recipe for my favorite pumpkin bread, and more posts will be coming from me this semester. Anytime I have a post on Tasty Tufts, I’ll post the link here on Kinsey Cooks so that you can stay up to date with the Tufts food scene.

Carrot-Ginger Soup

A few weeks ago, I got a text from a friend asking what I had been cooking over break. I immediately sent him a picture of this carrot-ginger soup, and got a recipe request in response along with the accusation that I had “staged” the photo. True, I did set up this picture on the floor of our kitchen near a full-length window, but nothing about this soup is fake–the flavor of carrots is as prominent as the orange color suggests, and the texture is perfectly silky without any milk or cream to deaden the spice from the ginger.

What makes this recipe so revolutionary is the addition of just one simple pantry ingredient. Cooks’ Illustrated came up with the recipe of course, seeing as the test cooks there remained unparalleled in their use of kitchen chemistry in recipes for the home cook’s advantage.  Just half a teaspoon of baking soda added to the simmering carrots raises the pH of the soup enough to break down the cell walls of the carrots in record time. It’s the same trick that I use to make stir-free polenta, tender braised green beans, and nutty broccoli pesto.  Twenty minutes later, the carrots get pureed into an unbelievably silky soup that is quickly brightened up with a splash of cider vinegar, which is added at the end of cooking to keep the pH in the basic range. The short cooking time has advantages beyond just saving time, too; having the soup simmer for less than half an hour prevents the flavor and heat from the ginger from fading into the background. No fussy straining or special techniques are needed, just sauté some aromatics in butter with ginger before adding the rest of the ingredients, then blend the soup quickly and serve, preferably with a grilled cheese sandwich made with good bread and sharp cheddar.

I made this when I was in the always-temperate Palo Alto, but I would love a bowl of this to combat the twenty degree weather in Massachusetts. No matter the weather outside your house, this soup is a simple, healthful meal that everyone will love.

Carrot-Ginger Soup

Serves 6

Adapted from Cooks’ Illustrated

2 tablespoons unsalted butter (If you need to make the soup vegan, use canola oil or another similarly neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed.)

2 onions, diced fine

1 ½ tablespoons grated fresh ginger (store your ginger in the freezer to make it easy to grate)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick

5 ½ cups water, divided

2 sprigs fresh thyme

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

  1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, fresh ginger, garlic, two teaspoons table salt, and sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes.
  2. Increase the heat to high, and add the carrots, 4 ¾ cups water, thyme sprigs, and baking soda. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered until carrots are very tender, 20-25 minutes.
  3. Discard thyme sprigs. Puree the soup in a blender in two batches until smooth, 1-2 minutes. Return soup to a clean pot and stir in remaining ¾ cup water and vinegar. Return to simmer over medium heat, then serve. Soup can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Blue Cheese, Walnut, and Fig Thumbprint Cookies

It’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve been back home for winter break. Much as I expected, Palo Alto has stayed more or less the same—there were some rumors about our favorite local restaurant closing, which prompted a frenzy of lunch visits and curry takeout orders all around the neighborhood, but it appears as though the claims were for the most part unfounded. Despite the continuity of our life here in California, it seems ever so slightly different after being away for four months. Things I used to take for granted, like eating my mom’s Almond Roca or taking my dog for a walk, are a treat after getting used to living in a dorm. It’s so nice to be able to see my high school friends and cook in our kitchen.

It seemed so luxurious to bake these thumbprint cookies for our Christmas Day party; I had forgotten how nice it is to use a standing mixer and dishwasher and to have all of the ingredients at my fingertips. I didn’t have to take the blue cheese from the salad bar or remove nearly a cup of chopped walnuts from the condiment station—what a treat!

We had a container of fig jam in the freezer left over from the summer (long story, but it involves homemade fig newtons), and after making a batch of fig and blue cheese focaccia, I thought the flavors would do pretty well together in a cookie. These cookies are barely sweetened, a resemble more of a savory shortbread, and have toasted walnuts and Roquefort folded into the dough before the centers are filled with fig jam. They’re a great accompaniment to a cheese plate and serve as great puzzle-solving fuel if, like us, you still have an unfinished 1000 piece puzzle that is the one lingering guest from your Christmas party.

Walnut, Blue Cheese, and Fig Thumbprints

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

½ cup granulated sugar

1 egg

3 cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

4 oz. blue cheese, crumbled

¾ toasted walnuts, finely chopped

½ cup fig jam or spread

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. For the dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and pistachios and set aside. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream them together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and mix until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Add the blue cheese and walnuts and mix on low speed until distributed throughout the dough.
  3. Taking 1 tablespoon of dough at a time, roll the dough into balls and place 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Using a wine cork or the back of a wooden spoon, press an indentation in the cookie. Fill the indentations with the fig jam. Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes until just barely golden. Let cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Salted Caramel Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

It’s time for one of the biggest food blogging events of the year: The 2014 Food Blogger Cookie Swap! All around the world, food bloggers exchange holiday cookies to support the organization Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. Long-time readers may remember that I participated in the cookie swap last year as well, with my recipe for Almond Toffee Cookies. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do the cookie swap this year. Baking and packaging cookies at home is a breeze, but carrying ingredients and equipment down to my dorm kitchen involves a few more logistics. Even so, I’m really glad that I decided to participate in the cookie swap this year; it was a great study break to dream up a new cookie recipe, and getting boxes of cookies in the mail has been such a nice surprise during finals week. This year, I sent cookies to Emma from My Upbeet Life, Kate from Three Sixty Five Degrees, and Diana from The Dreamery. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten Mexican Chocolate Cookies from Hannah of FleurDelicious, Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies from Aly of The Michigan Mom, and Peppermint Chia Seed Cookies from Holly of Happy Food Healthy Life. All the cookies were absolutely delicious and my friends and I have been enjoying them after dinner or for snacks in between classes.

This year, I decided to make a peanut butter oatmeal cookie with salted caramel peanuts mixed into the dough. The recipe may or may not have involved the always-treacherous task of taking a mug of half-and-half from the dining hall without being noticed, but it was worth the risk. The cookies are full of flavor from the dark brown sugar, brown butter, and peanut butter, but still have the delicate, almost shortbread-like texture that peanut butter cookies are known for. The peanuts are coated in a simple salted caramel sauce before being folded into the dough, and if you are lucky enough to have any peanuts leftover they make for an excellent sundae topping.

With that, I hope everyone gets to bake and eat plenty of cookies this holiday season and that you all have a wonderful start to 2015!

Salted Caramel Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Cookie dough recipe adapted from How Sweet Eats

Salted Caramel Peanuts:

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons water

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2 cups dry roasted, unsalted peanuts

Cookie Dough:

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and browned

1 7/8 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups rolled oats

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/8 teaspoon baking powder

9 tablespoons creamy, salted peanut butter

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups salted caramel peanuts

  1. For the salted caramel peanuts: Line a baking pan with parchment paper and set aside. Stir together the granulated sugar and water in a large skillet, then place over medium-high heat. Cook the sugar, without stirring until it turns a deep amber color and smells like caramel. Immediately remove the pan from the burner, then stir in the butter until melted. Return the pan to medium-low heat, and add the cream and the sea salt and stir well to combine. Add the peanuts to the pan and toss until coated, and cook until sticky and covered in caramel sauce. Transfer the peanuts to the prepared baking pan and let cool completely before proceeding with the recipe. Once the peanuts have cooled, break them apart so that each nut is separate from the rest.
  2. For the cookie dough: Place 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of the butter in a skillet over medium heat and cook until melted and browned, 5-6 minutes. The butter should be a deep golden brown in color and have a nutty fragrance. Pour the butter into a large bowl, and add the remaining 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons of butter) and stir until melted. Let the butter sit for 15 minutes.
  3. While the butter cools, line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 325F. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking soda, and baking powder, and set aside.
  4. Once the butter has cooled for 15 minutes, whisk the peanut butter into the melted butter until smooth. Add the brown sugar and the granulated sugar and whisk until well combined. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla and whisk to combine. Add the dry ingredients, and fold gently to combine until just incorporated. Fold in the salted caramel peanuts until evenly distributed.
  5. To form the cookies, roll 1 tablespoon of the dough per cookie into balls, then flatten into disks, and place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes until the edges of the cookies are golden brown. Take care not to overbake these cookies. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

ABC Kitchen’s Squash Toast

I like to think that college has turned me into somewhat of an opportunist—go explore Boston or Sommerville for a day? Sure, why not. Take a butternut squash from the dining hall’s autumn display and stealthily walk out of breakfast with a suddenly much heavier backpack? Of course. There were plenty of other decorative gourds where it came from, anyways, and I couldn’t bear to see such a seasonally appropriate food languish on top of the salad bar when I knew it could become so much more.

The butternut squash sat on my desk for nearly two weeks, staring me down every time I sat down to finish a problem set or write a paper. Last Saturday I finally decided put it to good use. This dish we made, a recipe for butternut squash toast with ricotta and caramelized onion jam is certainly nothing new, but the recipe from the John-Georges Vongerichten’s famed ABC Kitchen has been a favorite recipe of many home cooks for the past few years, and the combination of good cheese and fully caramelized, seasoned vegetables sounded too good to be true after eating dining hall food for the past few months.

So, with a few friends, a cutting board and a mixing bowl bought from Goodwill for two dollars each, the squash, a few drinking glasses of oil, vinegar, and a bowl of sliced onions taken, again, from the dining hall, we sat down in the dorm kitchen and had our first dinner party of the semester. After having eaten nearly all of our meals in the bustling dining hall—the kind with tall ceilings that noises reverberate off of so that that every meal is punctuated with the clatter of dropped plastic cups and the whir of the soft-serve machine—it was such a treat to sit down in a cozy kitchen and enjoy hearty bread topped with creamy ricotta, spicy roasted squash, and caramelized onion jam. The vegetables were cooked but still had life in them—a delicate balance to attain when cooking 5 gallons of broccoli florets for hundreds of students, but straightforward when roasting a single pan of sliced squash—and the contrast of the mild sweetness of the squash against the tangy onions tied all of the flavors into a perfect autumn tartine. It may have been our first dinner party of the semester, but it certainly won’t be our last.

Special thanks to Tufts University Dining Services for creating such a practical autumn display and for having all kinds of vegetables and vinegars in the salad bar. My friends and I are most grateful.

ABC Kitchen’s Squash Toast

Recipe from ABC kitchen found via Smitten Kitchen and adapted for dorm living

Serves 4 as a light main course

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion thinly sliced—I used 2 cups of sliced red onion, which worked well

1 teaspoon table salt

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar—I used red wine vinegar, which served in a pinch

3 tablespoons maple syrup—I used an equal amount of brown sugar

1 medium butternut squash, 2 ½-3 lbs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 ½ teaspoons table salt

½ teaspoon red chili flakes

8-10 slices of hearty whole grain bread, a nice Pain au Levain or any sort of seeded rustic boule will work well

Extra olive oil, for brushing the bread

4 oz. whole-milk ricotta cheese, at room temperature

Optional garnishes: chopped fresh mint, a few pinches of kosher or sea salt

  1. Heat the 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onions and 1 teaspoon salt, and saute for 10-15 minutes, until beginning to turn golden brown. Then add the vinegar and maple syrup or brown sugar, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook until the onions are thoroughly caramelized and jammy, 15-20 more minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel and seed the butternut squash, then cut it into ¼ inch thick slices (see the photos above for a visual). In a large bowl, toss the squash slices with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and chili flakes. Spread into an even layer on the prepared baking sheet, then roast in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until the squash is tender and beginning to turn golden brown.
  3. Once the squash is finished, remove the sheet from the oven and transfer the squash to the bowl with the onion jam. Mash the squash into the onions with a fork until combined but not too homogeneous. Set aside and keep warm.
  4. Toast the bread under the broiler element until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Brush each slice of bread with olive oil, then spread with a heaping tablespoon of ricotta. Place a layer of squash on top of the ricotta and top with mint and salt, if desired. Serve immediately.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Dorm Kitchen Caramels

I don’t want to make any blanket statements, but I think I’m probably the only person who has made caramels so far this year in a Tufts dorm kitchen. I made caramels, not because I have a masochistic love of boiling sugar on slightly unreliable kitchen appliances, but because I wanted to bring something to a get-together in Brookline that traveled well and used minimal ingredients. Caramels are something I’ve made many times before at home, and they come together easily when you have potholders and a laser thermometer at your disposal, but they require a little more creativity and chemistry outside of without modern equipment. Turns out, a small ice water bath (or moderately cold water bath) allows you to check what stage of caramelization the sugar is at during the cooking process. For caramel candies, the ideal stage is somewhere just beyond the “soft-ball” stage, meaning that when a few droplets of caramel are added to the ice water, they will solidify into a small clump that can be rolled into a ball that will hold its shape but will yield easily under pressure. The technique is nowhere near as precise as using a thermometer, but while I don’t mind borrowing the odd plate or cup from the dining hall I’m not yet bold enough to borrow a glass thermometer from my biology lab. (Don’t worry, Mom, Dad, and any other concerned adult reading this; I don’t plan on doing that for at least another semester.)

The stars—and Massachusetts humidity—could have aligned against me that Friday, but luckily the caramels set up perfectly—they were firm enough to hold their shape but not a danger to orthodontia. Unlike most candies the almost-bitter taste of the caramelized sugar keeps the caramels from being too cloyingly sweet, making it all too easy to eat more than one. Just one batch of this recipe makes quite a few caramels, so if you happen to be going to a college reunion in place of your dad on one night and hosting a TV night the next, you’ll have plenty of caramels for both events.

For those of you back home who are curious about what the dorm kitchens are like, here’s a snapshot of the Houston kitchen:

On the stovetop is a batch of Brown Sugar Cookies that I made last Sunday, and Kenny and Ellie would like you all to know that they got their stamp of approval.

Soft Caramel Candies

Makes about 64 Caramels

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

2 tablespoons water

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream

  1. Fill a small bowl with ice water and set it within reach of your stovetop. Line an 8 x 8 inch baking pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and water and place over medium-high heat. Cook without stirring until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize, swirling the pan to ensure even cooking. Continue to cook until the caramel is the shade of deep amber but not yet burnt—this process will take 10-15 minutes total depending on the material and surface area of the pan.
  3. Once the caramel is about 30 seconds from becoming burnt sugar, take the pan immediately off the heat and add the butter and cream. Stir until the butter is melted and incorporated, then return the pan to the burner over low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk, until the caramel has reached the soft-ball stage. This means that when you drop a small spoonful of caramel into the prepared bowl of ice water, it will quickly form a soft, malleable ball that can be flatten once squeezed but will not harden into a toffee. Alternatively if you are cooking in a well-equipped home kitchen and not the basement of your dorm, cook the caramel until it registers 245-250F. Once the caramel has reached the appropriate temperature, pour it into the prepared pan and let it sit until set, at least 2 hours. Remove the parchment and the caramel from the pan and cut with a sharp knife into caramels about 1 square inch in size. Wrap the caramels in small rectangles of parchment, twisting the ends to close. Keep in an airtight bag or container, and serve within 2 weeks.

Note: If you have some nice sea salt and want to make salted caramels, stir ½ teaspoon of sea salt into the caramel along with the butter and the sugar and sprinkle a few flakes on the top of each individual caramel.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Berry Mascarpone Cake

Hello from Tufts! It’s been nearly a month since I left Palo Alto and flew to Boston. Though it’s only been three and a half weeks, it feels like I’ve been gone for much longer; from the five-day backpacking trip to the whirlwind of move-in and orientation that flowed straight into the start of classes, clubs, and events. Just like everyone has been telling me since I decided on Tufts, the campus is full of people with all kinds of interests that don’t mind making friends with a Californian, even though I don’t say “wicked,” say “melk” instead of “milk,” and can’t understand why everyone says “rotary” instead of “roundabout.” Vernacular differences aside, however, I feel like I fit right in with this student body that talks about politics, science, and food with the same enthusiasm as the geeks of Silicon Valley.

This cake was the very last thing that I made in my kitchen at home; a recipe born partly out of the necessity to finish off a container of mascarpone that I knew would languish in the fridge unless I did something about it, but I also wanted to seize any last moments I had in the kitchen that I have used for so many years. There’s been a lot of cooking at Tufts—a pan of toffee made on a Whisperlite at a shelter on the Vermont Long Trail, a batch of brownies in a spare basement kitchen, four trays of dehydrated fruit in my friend’s dorm room, and a spectacularly constructed ice-box cake made from stolen dining hall cookies and whipped cream—but I’ve not yet begun to trust ovens and stoves in the same way that I did at home, where a batch of perfect chocolate chip cookies took exactly six minutes and 30 seconds and a loaf of bread went from dough to a deep brown boule in 45 minutes.

Although this cake was something more or less improvised, it deserves to be made again and again. The mascarpone creates a tender and buttery crumb that supports the berries that sink into the cake while it bakes, creating pockets of jammy flavor in every bite. A layer of sugar on top of the batter and the cast-iron skillet together make for a golden-brown crust on all edges of the cake that gives way to the delicate cake. It may look like a summer recipe for the final weeks of berry season, which it is, but with some frozen berries it can be made all year round. It’s a cake simple enough to make for a potluck but impressive enough for a dinner party. Who knows, maybe sometime I’ll see if my dorm kitchen can handle this recipe.

Berry Mascarpone Cake

Makes 1, 10-inch cake

Adapted from the recipe for Raspberry Buckle

1 1/2 cups flour

Pinch allspice

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon table salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

1 cup sugar

6 oz. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature

2 eggs

2/3 cup milk

12 oz. mix of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, either fresh or frozen

1 tablespoon sugar

1. Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with butter and preheat the oven to 350F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, allspice, baking powder, and salt, then set aside.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the melted butter and sugar, then beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the mascarpone and beat until well combined, 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is smooth and homogenous. With the mixture running on low, add the milk and mix until evenly incorporated.

3. Scrape down the sides of the mixer, then add the dry ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the batter with a rubber spatula until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Spread the berries in a single layer on top of the batter, then sprinkle with the tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out mostly clean, with only a few crumbs attached. Let cool for at least 30 minutes, then serve with powdered sugar and whipped cream, if desired.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!