Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Eggplant Parmigiana

As a child, I was a painfully fussy eater, especially when it came to vegetables. Things like okra, karela (bitter gourd) and broccoli I don't eat to this day. Eggplants were on this list of no-nos too, till my mother introduced me to grilled eggplant slices in pita wraps. For whatever reason, that preparation helped me overcome my aubergine aversion. Now, eggplants are a regular feature in my kitchen, cooked in several different ways. My absolute favourite way to have eggplant, however, is alla parmigiana.

What it is, is simply layers of three key components: eggplant slices, tomato sauce and cheese, baked together. If you scour the Net, you'll find that there is no one definitive recipe; people put their own spin on the three basic ingredients, so you can confidently adapt this to your taste and the available ingredients, and be assured of success.

I'm starting off with the recipe for the tomato sauce. I make this basic sauce almost every week, to go over pasta, or even to dip pita bread or chapati in. I play around with the herb & spice combinations all the time, as the same flavours too often gets boring. So again, flavour it the way you like. I've used pepper and chilli here to give the dish some zing; leave it out entirely or up the quantities if you want real heat. This sauce can be made ahead of time and will keep in the fridge for a week.

Basic Tomato Sauce
2 x 400g cans chopped tomato (which I then roughly pureed)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely minced (works out to 2 tsp)
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano (or basil)
1/2 tsp chilli flakes (optional)
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, for cooking

1. Put a heavy-bottomed saucepan on low heat, pour about 3-4 tbsp olive oil and immediately add the minced garlic. I got this tip from Nigella: you want the garlic to heat gently along with the oil and release its flavours without it going brown and bitter.
2. Once the garlic starts sizzling lightly, add the pepper and chilli flakes.
3. Add the chopped onion and raise the heat to medium; saute till the onions are translucent.
4. Add the tomatoes, then the salt and oregano and stir.
5. Turn the heat back down to low and simmer covered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn't catch.
6. Turn off the heat, and let it cool uncovered. Check the seasoning, and add more if required.

Note: To make the sauce more nutritious, you can add chopped carrot and celery after adding the onions and saute till they're softened; then add the tomato. If you want a completely smooth sauce, puree the whole thing after it's cooked .... fussy kids wouldn't even realise they were eating carrot & celery!

Eggplant Parmigiana
2 eggplants
1 tsp chilli powder (optional)
The tomato sauce (described above)
100g grated parmesan (or cheddar; use more or less as per your preference) 
Olive oil, for cooking
Salt, to taste

1. Wash, dry and trim the stalk and base of the eggplants; then cut into 1 cm thick slices.
2. Mix the salt and chilli powder together and sprinkle over the eggplant slices.
3. Heat about 3-4 tbsp olive oil in a skillet, and when it's good and hot, start frying the eggplant slices on both sides till golden brown. Set aside on a plate.
4. Once all the slices have been fried, you can begin layering. In an oven-safe dish, start with a layer of tomato sauce, topped with eggplant slices and then a sprinkling of the cheese, followed by more sauce, eggplant and so on. You should end with the tomato sauce topped with a generous layer of cheese. With this quantity and the dish I used (a glass baking dish, roughly 6 1/2" x 10"), I got 3 layers.
5. Pop the dish into a preheated oven and bake at 190C for 30 minutes, till the cheese is golden.

Note: To cut down on calories, you can omit the cheese in the inner layers, reserving it only for the top.  

Eggplant Parmigiana can be served hot or cold, as a side to a meaty main, or as the main itself, with pasta or salad. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Chocolate Lovers' Cupcake

Before I get on with this post I must take a moment to bow down in gratitude .... just for being alive, for the universe aligning itself to get me this recipe, and for being able to prepare and savour these magnificent cupcakes. A tad over-the-top? Make it, and then decide.

Knowing my love for baking, a friend lent me this book: The Crabapple Bakery Cupcake Cookbook by Jennifer Graham. They're a Melbourne-based business, and currently supply to cafes and markets in that city. (Guess what's on my to-do list if ever I make it to Melbourne?) I'm so glad I got my hands on this book, because every single recipe I've tried from it has been fabulous, and this gorgeous chocolate cupcake tops them all. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that it's the best cupcake I've ever had.

Flourless Chocolate Cupcakes
(Makes 12 regular cupcakes)
175 g butter
225 g dark cooking chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups caster sugar
3/4 cup almond meal
1 cup cocoa
5 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 140C. Line muffin tray with cupcake cases.
2. Combine butter, chocolate and caster sugar in a heavy-based saucepan over low heat. Mix continuously with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon until melted and smooth. Let cool slightly.
3. Sift the almond meal and cocoa into a bowl. Add the chocolate mixture and beat for 1 minute on low speed till thoroughly combined.
4. The original recipe in the book was for 24 cupcakes which I've halved. It said to add the eggs two at a time, beating after each addition till just combined. I added the eggs in three additions of 2, 2 and then the last egg and vanilla extract together. Over-beating will make the cupcakes crack during baking.
5. Divide the batter between the cupcake cases. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or till a skewer inserted comes out clean*. Remove cupcakes from the tray and let cool fully on a wire rack before frosting.

* In the book, the cupcakes were baked in foil cases with a baking time of 30 minutes; it said that with paper cases, it'd take longer. In my oven, with paper cases, these took the entire 45 minutes. So please check on the cupcakes according to the cases you use.

Buttercream Frosting 
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups icing sugar, approx
1 tsp vanilla extract (or flavouring of choice)
2-3 tbsp milk or heavy cream

1. With electric beaters (or in a stand mixer), cream butter to get it smooth. Add sifted icing sugar a cup at a time, and work in gently before turning beaters on. Beat till all the sugar is incorporated.
2. Add vanilla extract and milk a little at a time just till you get the frosting to a soft peak consistency, so that it'll hold its shape for piping swirls. But don't worry even if you happen to add too much milk; you can always thicken the frosting back with more sugar.   
3. Place the frosting in a piping bag fitted with a large star or round nozzle and pipe the frosting on to the cupcakes. Top with sprinkles or flowers of your choice. 


Now I tried to be as careful as I could to not over-beat the cupcakes. The tops still ended up cracking. Not the end of the world. At first bite, they still tasted like heaven, and that was just without the buttercream. With it, it ascended to a whole new level. It really was an emotional moment for me, to have finally found the perfect chocolate cupcake.

I'm also a big believer in make-it-ahead-of-time food, that gives you plenty of breathing room to get dishes ready without rushing like crazy. This way, you enjoy the process as much as the result. That's why I was delighted to read that this cupcake keeps for 1 week, unfrosted. One more reason to love this recipe!

I have to say though, that if you like your cupcakes light and fluffy, this is not the cupcake for you. I cut one in half to illustrate:

This is at the other end of the spectrum from light and fluffy. Look how gorgeously gooey, how decadently dense it is! Pure bliss if you're as choco-crazy as I am. Again, I am so immensely glad I found this recipe. Definitely not your everyday thing, this is truly worthy of any special occasion.