Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pastels do Vovozinha (translation: delicious little pockets of meat)

I just recently decided to give up fried foods for Lent, and as today is Ash Wednesday I figured the perfect recipe to feature today would be my favorite little fried bits of heaven: Pastels do Vovozinha.

A few years ago, Hubby came with me to Brazil for the first time to attend a cousin's wedding and meet my grandparents for the first time.  Oh and he conveniently planned to proposed to me on this trip so that my Brazilian grandparents who miss out of so much of my life, could experience this milestone.  Again, he's a keeper.

But before that perfect moment where he asked me to marry him on a beach at sunset, we had to travel 14 hours on a plane and then another hour in a rickety van.  So when we arrived at my grandparents' apartment, he was just a touch grouchy.  It didn't help matters that since the elevators in Brazil are typically very small, I went up with my mom and the first load of our luggage, leaving Hubby and my dad - neither of whom speak Portuguese - on the street with the driver and then my grandfather held me hostage insisting on giving me a tour of the changes he'd made to what would be Hubby's room and assuring me that he'd be comfortable.  Anybody who knows my grandfather knows that the man can talk.  Fifteen minutes later (after 2 more loads of luggage went up before him) Hubby finally arrived in the apartment, sweaty, tired and a bit cranky that I had ditched him so quickly into our vacation.

I soothed him the only way I knew how.  I handed him one of these delectable little pockets of meat straight out of the pan where my grandmother (the aforementioned Vovozinha) was frying them up.  He asked me what it was and I instructed him to just try it.  He did and asked me again what it was and why I had given him one. I was a bit nervous at this reaction (who doesn't like a little fried pocket of meat?)  but he then clarified why had I given him ONLY one, he needed at least a dozen. I explained that they were "pastels" (pronounced pash-tells) and that my grandmother had made them for us.  I showed him the platter full of done ones, the pan full of in process ones and the plate full waiting to be fried and instantly his mood was lifted.  Success.

Cut to two months later at our engagement party.  We obviously had to have the pastels and were able to find a lady who could make them in large quantities for our 40 guests.  I knew the instant they were put out because within moments, guests started finding me and asking me what "those delicious little pockets of meat" were.  I'd explain that they were called pastels, be met with a blank stare, try to explain that they are a Brazilian version of empanadas but they are lighter and airier and the meat mixture is purely Brazilian in it's flavor profile, be met with another blank stare and so on until finally I just started agreeing that yes they were delicious little pockets of meat which was met with a big smile, a nod and the person going back inside for another one.

Waiting two years for my next visit to Brazil to have another Pastel was clearly not an option, so one day I asked my mother to give me the recipe that my grandmother uses and tried it out for myself.

Start by heating a large pan over medium high heat and adding some green stuff.  Wait, you don't know what "green stuff" is? How could you not? This is actually one of my grandmother's secret ingredients.  It is actually just onions, water and a little bit of salt pureed together and stored in the refrigerator.  And no, this batch has not gone bad (a question I'm asked almost monthly when Hubby starts cleaning out the refrigerator) the oxidization process once the onions are chopped up and exposed to air turns the mixture green.  It is the same process that turns potatoes or apples brown when they are cut.  The next time I make a batch, I promise I will take pictures of it because this stuff is magical.  I use it as a base for almost everything.

If you don't have green stuff and don't want to make yourself a batch, you can also dice up some onions and sweat them out with a little bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

Ignore the pot of sauerkraut on the back burner.  I actually photographed the batch I made for Hubby's birthday back in October, but I haven't had to chance to write them up until now.  

Once the onions are translucent (or the green stuff has heated through) add in a pound of lean ground beef.  Break up the beef as it cooks and keep it in motion until is is cooked through and nice and brown. At this point you should have quite a bit of grease from the meat.  If you used a nice lean packet of ground beef, this is fine.  If you used a regular variety, I'd suggest spooning off about 1/2 of the fat.

Next add two roma tomatoes that you've diced into nice small pieces.

And some chopped green olives.  As I do with pretty much any dish I make with olives, I also add a splash of the liquid from the olive jar.  You can't replicate that briny saltiness.

 Stir the olives and the tomatoes around until the tomatoes shrink about 50% and most of the juice has cooked off and then add in the parsley.

Stir the mixture around for a few more minutes until all the liquid has cooked off.  Remember, this pan is still on medium/high so it won't take too long.  Don't be worried about overcooking it.  You really can't.  At this point take a few tastes of the meat and make sure you like the seasoning.  You might need to add more salt or more parsley.

Take the mixture off the stove and let it cool.  You'll have to keep a close watch on this since if somebody finds out it is on the stove, they will periodically walk into the kitchen and "test" it until you have only half left.

When the meat mixture has cooled, it is time to wrap them.

I found these wrappers in the freezer section of my international market.  They are by Goya and are called "empanada wrappers" but I have found that they are thinner and not nearly as doughy as standard empanadas.  I also take the opportunity to roll them out a little thinner before I add the meat.  My mother likes to cut hers in half, but on this occasion I made full ones.  I'll admit, they were a little on the larger side, so I'd probably cut them in half next time.

Whether you cut them in half or not, to assemble them I spooned a couple of spoonfuls of meat mixture into the center.  Make sure to get a few olives in each one. There is something magical when you get a bite with an olive since most people don't expect that taste in an pocket of meat.

Fold the wrapper over onto itself and then using a fork, press the edges together.  You will have to press hard.

Flip the pocket over and press the other side.  This is crucial to make sure the edges are tightly sealed.  There is nothing worse than one of these pockets opening up in the pan.  Trust me, I know.

In the package, the wrappers are divided by these little plastic sheets, so as I finish each pocket I wrapped it back in the plastic.  This way they won't stick together and you can only make a few at a time.  Wrapped and covered, these can sit in the refrigerator for a few days or even be frozen.

Now, pretend I wasn't a complete space cadet and took pictures of the frying process. I plead insanity since at the time that these were being fried I was also frying schnitzel and mashing potatoes for Hubby's Birthday Feast. But the frying is fairly basic.  Just put about 3" of vegetable oil in a pan, heat it up until it sizzles when you flick some flour into it.  Lower the heat to medium and add the Pastels in batches of 2-3 (depending on the size of your pan) let them fry for 2 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown like this.

When they are golden on each side, remove them onto a cookie sheet lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil and try to keep grabby hands from taking them as soon as they are pulled from the pan.  They are best when served warm so I'd say make small batches and then fry more as needed.  But if you want to put them out for a cocktail party, they will still be good even when room temperature.

Now that my mouth is watering and my tummy is grumbling, I should go and make myself my meat free dinner like a good little Catholic.  It's gonna be a long 40 days.  Something tells me I'll be making a batch of these babies for Easter.

Shopping List for Pastels do Vovozinha (makes about 12 large pockets)

  • 2 Tbsp Green Stuff (or 1 Tsp olive oil and 1 small onion)
  • 1 lb Lean Ground Beef
  • 2 Roma Tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup Chopped Green Olives
  • 2 Tbsp Dried Parsley Flakes
  • 12 Goya Empanada Wrappers
  • Vegetable Oil for Frying

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Perfect Way to SayYou Care - Conversation Heart Cupcakes

I know I don't usually post twice a day (heck, I'm lucky if I can get two a week done) but today - since it's Valentine's Day - I decided I couldn't not share these with you.  And since they start with a red velvet cupcake which I posted about earlier today, they kind of go together.

When I think of Valentine's Day, I think of two things: Whitman's chocolate sampler and Necco Conversation Hearts.  I always hated the conversation hearts.  They are very cute and they are a standard - especially in elementary school when the whole class exchanges valentines - but to me they are deceptively chalky and boring.  I've heard that in recent years, Necco has remade them and they are now fruity and more like sweet tarts, but I haven't tried the new variety because I can't get over the memory with how they used to taste.  But regardless of how I feel, there is no denying that Conversation Hearts are a quintessential part of Valentine's Day.  And now, I've finally found a way to share Conversation Hearts and still like the taste of them!

How cute are these?? They start with a basic red velvet cupcake and cream cheese frosting (or really any flavor combination that you feel like using) with the charm being in the cute little fondant toppers with conversation hearts messages written with food coloring markers.  At first I didn't love that the markers gave kind of a faded look to them, but then I opened a package of the candies and I realized in real life, the color is faded.  Done and done.

Working with fondant tends to be a little intimidating, but for a small cupcake topper, it's actually not that hard.  You will need some wax paper, crisco, toothpicks, food writer markers, gel food colorings, white fondant, a cutter (heart in this case), gloves and a rolling pin.

Line the counter with some waxed paper and put a little piece of the fondant down.  Make sure to keep the fondant you aren't using wrapped up so that it doesn't dry out.  Using a toothpick, add little bits of color at a time.  For the conversation hearts, we want some nice pastels so less is more with the food coloring.

While wearing the gloves, knead the color into the fondant as if you're playing with silly putty or pulling taffy.  Use a little bit of crisco if the fondant starts to get too stiff.

To roll out the fondant, put another piece of waxed paper on top of the pile and roll it out.

Again, you can use a little crisco to rub out any lines that may have been left by the waxed paper.  And then just punch out a bunch of hearts.

Transfer the hearts to a cookie sheet lined with more waxed paper.

Proceed with the rest of the colors: pink, yellow, orange, green and violet.  Technically, conversation hearts also come in white, but a white heart on top of white frosting is a little boring.  Set this sheet aside in a cool, dry area to dry for a few hours.

Funny, I totally had a sweater with this pattern when I was younger and I would totally wear it on Valentine's Day

After a few hours, when the hearts are all good and dry, it is time to write the messages on them.

Half of these got some pretty generic, friendly messages since they were going to my father's office.  But the other half got the classic messages like "be mine," "kiss me," and "xoxo."

To decorate your cupcakes, you can do a nice flat swirl of frosting.  I chose not to do too high of a pile, instead swirling from the inside out, so that the hearts had a good flat surface to sit on.

And then just place the hearts on the center and they are ready for you to tell someone how you really feel about them.

I hope you all have a wonderful Valentine's Day and take the time to tell someone how you feel about them.

Classic Red Velvet Cupcakes For a Modern Valentine

Red (or any color) Velvet Cupcakes are by far the favorite dessert in my household and with the built in color coordination, they were the perfect option when my mother asked me to make some cupcakes for her CCD class.

Her only request was for something "valentin-ey" which you would think would be simple, but I don't do anything simple.  I didn't want to just settle for some basic sprinkles or a pressed sugar topper.  Since the recipients are a bunch of 14 year olds, I wanted something young and hip (do the kids today still say hip?) and when I think "young and hip" I think "hot pink sparkles."

Yeah. That just happened.

As I mentioned, I started with my favorite Red Velvet Recipe.  I originally got this recipe when I was looking for Green Velvet Cupcakes from the amazing Bakerella and since I get so many compliments on it, I've never even considered changing it up.  In fact, I use this recipe a lot. I've altered the color, taken out the cocoa, replaced the oil with butter, etc.  It is just a really great basic cake recipe.  And, it doesn't require a mixer which is made of win in my book.

I start by combining the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and baking soda in a bowl and whisking them together.

I set that aside and then I add the oil, eggs, vanilla, vinegar and red food coloring to the buttermilk (or in my case 1tbsp vinegar mixed with skim milk and left to sit on the counter for a few minutes)

 Once the wet ingredients are all mixed together, I add them to the dry ingredients and whisk until they are just barely combined.

In an effort to make all the cupcakes uniform, I like to use an ice cream scoop.  It took me quite a while to find the ultimate cupcake scooper.  I knew I needed an ice cream scoop that had the little scraper device and I knew I needed it to be about 1/4 cup in volume.  I also knew I didn't want to spend the $20 that the bake shop near me was asking or a "cupcake scoop".  I just flat out refused.  Even the $12 I'd seen them selling for at Bed, Bath and Beyond was a little rich for my blood.  And then one day I found this little beauty at the ice cream shop near my old office for $1.50! What?!? Excellent.  For that price, I bought two! It may be a little smaller than 1/4 cup, but it was close enough for me.  If you don't have an ice scream scoop, a 1/4 cup measuring cup will work just fine, but you may have to scrape the batter out a little.

Now put these in the oven at 350 degrees for 17 - 20 minutes.  Red Velvet, like chocolate, tends to burn and/or dry out if it goes too long in the oven so I'd start checking around the 17 minute mark.  Also, if your oven is like mine and tends to run a little cool, you can pre-heat your oven to 400, and then knock it back to 350 right before you put the cupcakes in.  That way they will be sure to be nice and round on top since that hit of heat is what makes the baking soda activate.  Look at that, I just used my science degree.  It's about damn time I used that thing for something.

After you remove the cupcakes, let them cool completely and then it is time to frost!

Start with a stick of room temperature butter (regular salted stuff) in your mixer with a paddle attachment.  Give it a quick mix just to break it up a bit and then add the cream cheese (full fat is a must.  Trust me, it is a chemical thing.  See, science again!) Give that a quick whirl and then add the vanilla bean paste - if you don't have any that is fine, you can use vanilla extract, but if you are going to make more than one batch of this frosting, it would be totally worth it to buy a small jar of the paste.  It lasts a really long time and it makes a real difference in the taste of the frosting.  Also add in the powdered sugar and then, finally, the milk. Add less milk if you want a stiffer frosting.  Give the mixture a quick stir on low, just until all the sugar incorporates and then kick it up to medium high for about 5 minutes until you have a bowl full of them most delicious cream cheese frosting ever made - if I do say so myself.

Now for this particular design, I decided I wanted, in addition to the pink sparkles, for the frosting itself to be pink, so I broke out my pink gel color and added a small drop.  Remember, you can always make it darker, it's really hard to make it lighter so start small.

Once the frosting was my desired color of pink, I used a frosting bag with no tip, I just cut it at a nice wide-ish place.  I was going for more of a flat frosting and I definitely could have just spread the frosting on the cupcakes with a knife, but I wanted the edges to be even and round, hence the bag.  Just hold the bag straight up and apply pressure, the blob will spread nice and evenly for a nice flat circle.

Next, I made some simple little stencils out of parchment paper and a little cookie cutter.  I decided I wanted both a positive and a negative impression which worked out really nicely because that meant, each heart I cut out was actually two stencils.  At first I hoped that I'd be able to use just one stencil over and over again and if I'd made them out of something more durable and maybe sprayed them with cooking spray first that may have worked.  But, I didn't.  It also probably would have been smart to get myself a shape punch and make my life a whole lost easier.  But, I didn't.  What can I say, I'm a glutton for punishment.

Regardless, once the shapes were cut out, I positioned them on the cupcakes and applied a little pressure just to make sure there were no gaps.

Then I took each cupcake and dipped it straight down into a plate full of the sparkling sugar.

Finally, I very gently removed the parchment paper (I also used a toothpick to smooth out any lumps or stray sparkles) and voila, super cute modern but classic Valentine's Cupcakes!

These are so simple, you could whip up a batch for some one special today!

Or since, today is Valentine's Day, and you probably already made whatever treats you're going to make, you could easily change up the color pallet and the shape and make a fun treat for any occasion.

Shopping List for Melly's Favorite Red Velvet Cupcakes (makes 24 cupcakes)

  • 2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
  • 2 Cups Sugar
  • 1 Heaping Tbsp Cocoa Powder
  • 1 Tsp Salt
  • 1 Tsp Baking Soda
  • 1 Cup Buttermilk
  • 1 Cup Vegetable Oil 
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla
  • 1 Tbsp Vinegar
  • 1 Tsp Red Gel Food Coloring
Shopping List for Melly's Favorite Cream Cheese Frosting
  • 1 Stick Salted Butter
  • 1 8oz Package of Full Fat Cream Cheese
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Bean Paste
  • 4 Cups Powdered Sugar
  • 1 Tbsp of Milk
Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dark Chocolate, Raspberry Tuxedo Cake - Be Still My Heart

Wooo I'm back y'all! Well kind of. My Mac is still mostly dead* - CPR failed and I'm currently trying to find a Miracle Max to create a chocolate coated pill so it can return to it's true love (me) (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, it will make me very very sad.) (ahem) Speaking of true love, we are swiftly approaching the lovey-est of all Hallmark Holidays**.  Valentines Day! And while I don't 100% buy into the whole creation of a holiday that needs a specific gift, I do adore thematic cooking.  So I'm kind of conflicted.  

Speaking of conflicted... no, not really, I had just kind of babbled my way into a corner and couldn't think of a segue.... let's talk cake!

I made this cake recently for my father's birthday, but the entire time I couldn't help think about how wonderful this cake would be for a nice sophisticated Valentine's Day celebration.  With the moist chocolate cake, rich dark chocolate flour-less cake layer and light, fresh raspberry filling, how could you go wrong? 

Let's get started shall we?

Start by combining the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder.

You could sift the dry ingredients together, or you could whisk them until they are all combined and all the clumps of cocoa powder are broken up.

Set the dry ingredients aside and start working on the wet ingredients.  Add the vegetable oil to the buttermilk, followed by the eggs, vanilla extract and white vinegar.

Whisk the wet ingredients until they are all combined and then pour the wet mixture into the dry.

Mix the batter until it is just barely combined and then divide the batter into two greased and "floured" 9" cake pans.  I opted to use cocoa powder to coat the pans because the cake is chocolate, but it really doesn't make much of a difference.

Put the pans in the oven for 25 -30 minutes at 350 degrees.  You really want to watch these since chocolate cake can burn pretty easily and dry out.  And nobody wants dry cake do you? No! So I'd say start checking on them around 20 minutes and if you pull the toothpick out and it is just a little covered with crumbs, err on the side of being slightly under cooked vs. over cooked and dry.

While the cakes are in the oven, I started working on the flour-less chocolate cake layer.  I'm going to be honest with you, I love brownies, and flour-less chocolate cake is really just a really dense, large, brownie.  My family went on a cruise for New Years and one day at the lunch buffet they had flour-less chocolate cake.  I about died.  I may have skipped lunch and just had the cake.  And since I'm being honest, I feel compelled to admit I may have had seconds.  And thirds.  It was during this final tasting that my sister Jessi pointed out that I should make a cake that incorporated a flour-less chocolate cake as a layer.  And she was right.  I couldn't stop thinking about the delicious surprise of eating a piece of cake with slice of the flour-less chocolate cake right in there.

And the rest is history!

Start by melting some dark chocolate chips with an equal amount of butter.

Meanwhile, combine sugar and cocoa powder.

Pour the melted chocolate into the sugar/cocoa mixture.

Add in vanilla extract and stir it all to combine and to help cool the chocolate down.

Next crack your eggs directly into the bowl you melted the chocolate in.  This will allow you to mix the eggs with the slightly warm chocolate to help temper them before adding them to the rest of the mixture.

Pour the eggs into the chocolate mixture and stir just until combined.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9" pan.  I was planning on using cocoa powder to coat the pan the way I did with the chocolate cakes - but I ran out.  It ended up just fine since this cake is just going to be a layer in the bigger cake and won't be seen.  If you decide to just make the flour-less cake, definitely use the cocoa powder so that your beautiful dark chocolate cake won't be coated in white.

Bake this for 30 minutes in a 300 degree oven.

All right, we're getting close.  You want all the cake layers to be fully cooled before you continue.  In fact, I typically put my cake layers in the freezer before stacking so that they don't get as crumbly.  While everything is chilling, go ahead and pull a block of cream cheese out of the fridge.  We need it to be room temperature to make the raspberry filling.

When you are ready to assemble all your layers, it is time to make the raspberry mousse. 

Begin by creaming the room temperature cream cheese. When the cream cheese is good and smooth, add in the seedless raspberry jam and mix again on medium until they are combined, smooth and glossy. Finally fold in the cool whip a little bit at a time until it is all combined.

Lovely.  Again, this alone is divine.  I can imagine serving this in a nice martini glass with some dark chocolate shavings on top.  Yum.  Or, oooh! In a dark chocolate candy shell! Can you tell I love the combination of raspberry and dark chocolate?

So let's stack this bad boy.

Start with your chocolate cake, flat side down.  Pipe on an even layer of raspberry mousse.  Next add on the flour-less chocolate cake layer.  Add another layer of the mousse and top that with the final cake layer with the flat side up.  I then took the rest of the mousse and did a quick crumb coat.

While this bad boy spends some time in the freezer firming up, I got to work making my favorite cooked frosting and sorting out my decorations.  I recently discovered these amazing little treats.  Dark chocolate covered acai berries and I knew they'd be the perfect accent border at the bottom of my cake.  And with the heart healthy dark chocolate and the antioxident rich acai, they are practically health food.  Almost.  Maybe? Ok fine! They aren't.  But I'm going to keep telling myself they are.

Half way through the chilling process, I checked on my cake and discovered it lilting a bit.  Imagine my horror.  Apparently the flour-less cake layer was too heavy for the mousse.  So I also inserted a border of dark chocolate covered acai berries to each of the mousse layers for support.  Pretend there  is a picture of that here.

When the frosting is made, and the cake is chilled, go ahead and frost the cake.  You don't have to worry about getting the frosting impeccably smooth because of what is about to happen.

Melt together a cup of dark chocolate chips and about 1/2 cup of milk.  Meanwhile, place the berries in a nice border around the bottom of the cake.  I went through and selected all the smaller flat berries so they would be a consistent size.

By the time you finish the border, you chocolate ganache should be done.  And then you're going to do this.

Oh dear me.  There is nothing finer than seeing molten chocolate drizzle onto a cake and ooze down the sides.  Amazing.  The drips will stop on their own as the chocolate cools.  And voila! A delicious, rich cake that looks just as good as it tastes.

As I mentioned a few thousand words ago, I made this cake for my dad's birthday so the black and white style of a tuxedo cake was just perfect for a manly birthday.  But if I were making this for Valentine's Day, I would totally tint the cooked frosting a nice pink.  Or you could even do something like this:

Yes, I made a couple of cupcakes out of the chocolate batter when I was baking the cakes and then filled them with the raspberry mousse. Why do you ask? To top the cupcakes, I dipped them into the dark chocolate ganache and then dragged a toothpick through a little drop of white chocolate ganache before it sets  for a super cute Valentine's Day treat.

Shopping List for Chocolate Cake

  • 2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
  • 2 Cups Sugar
  • 4 Tbsps Cocoa Powder
  • 1 Tsp Baking Soda
  • 1 Tsp Salt
  • 1 Cup Buttermilk
  • 1 Cup Vegetable Oil
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 Tbsp Vinegar

Shopping List for Flour-less Dark Chocolate Cake

  • 1/2 Cup Dark Chocolate Morsels
  • 1/2 Cup Butter
  • 3/4 Cup Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Cocoa
  • 3 Eggs
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract

Shopping List for Raspberry Mousse

  • 8oz Cream Cheese
  • 1/2 Cup Seedless Raspberry Jam
  • 16oz Whipped Topping
Shopping List for Cooked Frosting
  • 5 Tbsp All Purpose Flour
  • 1 Cup Milk
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 Cup Butter
  • 1 Cup Sugar (granulated not powdered)
Shopping List for Chocolate Ganache
  • 1 Cup Dark Chocolate Morsels
  • 1/2 Cup Milk
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • Pinch of Salt


* No Mac means picture quality is straight from my camera with no editing at all and while I like the idea of a cinema verites style kitchen where you can see everything true to form, I also am not using the BEST of equipment.  I love my point and shoot camera for visiting Disney World and taking pictures of my dogs sleeping on the couch, but it isn't always the best for kitchen shots. So sorry in advance.  

** I don't mean to sound like a bitter spinster but really I would much prefer for Hubby to bring me flowers on a random Thursday (as he did last night) rather than dutifully paying extra for the same flowers on a specific day because he's being told to.