Only a Week Left? Final Ramadan Reports

Checking in to you live from the last week of #ramadiet2k17 and y’all, it’s hot! We were in the midst of a heat wave last week, which promptly followed a cold snap that I was not at all complaining about. But here we are, nearly at the home stretch. It flies by every year. Let’s finish strong!

I’m going to tell you about what I’ve been making and eating. Because of this diet where I’m avoiding simple carbs and added sugar, I get to be creative not only about my savory meals but how I stay content with some alternatively sweet treats.

One of my favorite ways to break my fast (after a date or 3) is with a smoothie. Bananas, peanut butter, frozen blueberries, almond milk. It’s easy and full of good stuff, and sometimes I even freeze it for a frozen dessert.

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A great breakfast hack I’ve been doing all month is making French toast with Ezekiel bread. This idea also comes from my friend Rebecca, healthy eating extraordinaire. I soak slices of bread in almond milk, egg, vanilla extract and cinnamon. I don’t like almond milk on its own, but when it’s being used for something like a smoothie or French toast, you can’t taste it anyway. And when I say soak, I mean it – the bread isn’t ready until you can squeeze it in the center and batter squishes out. This will take around 30 seconds. I make the batter in a shallow tupperware the night before to save time in the morning. I put peanut butter, maple syrup, and sometimes fruit on this French toast, and satisfies my sweet tooth just fine. Yes, I’ve allowed myself maple syrup as my one sweetener for the month. Frankly, this French toast kinda needs it.

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I always make sure to keep oatmeal in my suhoor (pre-dawn meal) rotation to regulate my cholesterol and stay fuller longer in the morning. Don’t be discouraged by oatmeal. There’s so much you can do with it. Add fresh fruit, honey, toasted nuts, coconut oil, nut butter, dates and other dried fruit…the possibilities are endless. Think of it as a vessel for things you like instead of just morning sludge. Get creative – I know you can do it, I promise.

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As we approach the final days of Ramadan, Muslims around the world get focused on their worship with prayer, reading the Qur’an and more. In the last ten nights is Laylatul Qadr, or the Night of Power. This is the night that the Qur’an was brought down for mankind. It is believed that this night has the strength of 1,000 months, so any good deeds (prayer and charity, for example) done on this night are considered as if they were done for 1,000 months. As you can imagine, it’s a particularly spiritual time for Muslims, and many spend longer hours at the mosque at night praying. In a week will be Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, full of food and festivities. Check back in soon to see how we throw down in NYC and some final reflections. Stay cool, friends!

#notevenwater? Dispatches from Ramadan 2017

We’re already a third of the way through Ramadan, and I’m thanking God for the mild weather in New York City thus far. When it’s hot, chugging hella water is just as important, if not more important, than what you eat for suhoor, the meal you have before dawn breaks – because you can’t eat or drink when fasting. The first thing I grab when I get up at 3 am is my big Nalgene bottle and I fill it with water, making sure to finish it before I go back to sleep. When breaking my fast, either at home or with others at the Islamic center, I have the same bottle by my side, and I’ll usually try to have another glass before I go to bed. Yes, our bodies can do amazing things under some duress, but water plays a very important role in their general functionality (think muscles – that means the brain!). So don’t stress it if you don’t have to. Stay hydrated folks, fasting and otherwise.

As far as this diet goes, I will say it’s been exciting to cook both hearty and tasty food for myself. And I was feeling great about avoiding sugar and empty carbs, appreciating life and all, until yesterday when I was arranging those jam-in-the-center sandwich cookies on a platter for the bake sale at my Islamic center and started considering a weekly cheat day for the rest of the month. But then I thought about how amazing the first cookie to hit my tongue will taste, and how impressed and content I will be with myself for my self-restraint. To make up for the lack of sugar, I’ve been eating sweet strawberries from the market straight from the pint, and popping back dates like chocolate chips. Dates are the traditional food to break one’s fast with, as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said to do so, around the 6th century. Lucky for me, dates have a lot going for them: fiber, potassium, magnesium and copper. I used to dislike dates like I dislike figs, but now I love them. Besides, when you haven’t been eating for 16 hours, there’s an extra dimension of taste once your lips touch food again.

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One dish I learned to make from my friend Rebecca is chicken and bulgur. It sounds unfortunate, but Rebecca fed it to me for dinner a couple weeks before Ramadan, and I asked for seconds. It’s super easy, filling, and good to boot. Here’s my adaptation; check Rebecca’s wellness blog for the original recipe!

 

Chicken Bulgur
Makes over 4 servings

Ingredients
3 cloves of garlic
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 lb ground chicken or other meat
Oregano, garlic powder, and other Italian seasoning to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup bulgur
24 oz pasta sauce

Heat cooking oil in a large pot and sauté the onions and garlic. Add the chicken and season with the spices/herbs, salt, and pepper. Add the bulgur once the meat has browned, a few minutes. Stir the bulgur and the pasta sauce. Season again to taste. Let simmer until the bulgur turns soft, about 10 minutes. Serve with vegetables.

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If you’re wondering why this month’s photos have some questionable lighting, recall that I cannot eat during the lovely daylight hours #nothingisstaged #reallife #realdark 😛

Come back later for more communiqués, vis-à-vis fasting in this blessed month of Ramadan!

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~ Hey blog fam, it’s been a minute! I’ve been putting together my latest food endeavor – Carmen’s Cookies! Follow me on the IG and stay tuned for details coming this summer ~

Ramadan, the month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is quickly rolling through, which means that I’ll be monitoring what goes into my body more than normal. But this year, I’ve made a decision to take it one step further and go on a diet. Yes, the cursèd word that some say explains itself in its first three letters. My reasoning was that during Ramadan, I already strive (yes, this truly takes effort) to avoid things that give the false hope of energy and happiness, but only leave me with a sugar crash and sleepiness shortly after consumption. So in an attempt to heighten energy levels, and assess my regular eating choices, I will be removing sugar and refined/processed carbs from my diet.

I know. If you’ve read this far, then you know me, and you know this is going to be a serious challenge. But what better time to do it than the holy month of Ramadan, when I will be working on my “reflection and focus”, religious and otherwise. Every year, Ramadan creeps up on me and ever year I get stoked about the month I treat as a reset and reassessment, weeding out the negative vibes and bringing back the good ones. For example:

“Do I really need to curse out this terrible Brooklyn driver?”
“So the subway is super packed and I can’t reach my phone…it’s not that serious.”
“One more bite: good idea or nah?”
“I’m so #blessed and I’m grateful for living in a place with four seasons. This 95 degree humidity will pass…right…”

Now is as good a time as any to do a deep dive on my diet and see where I can improve. By the end of the experiment, I’m hoping I’ll have motivation to adjust some eating habits (will I survive without a cookie after lunch?) and get to know my body better.

Sooo, to make up for at least part of the month without sweets, I sprinted to some places I’ve wanted to check out for a while before my time ran out. Below are the highlights…

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetDu’s Donuts The latest fancy NYC doughnuts put themselves on the map in April, and I tried the Strawberries and Cream and, I think Grapefruit Chamomile? I honestly can’t remember. My favorite part was the attractiveness of all the doughnuts; beautifully piped lines of icing on many varieties. The doughnuts themselves were good, but Dough still ranks number one in my heart.

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 presetI’d just happened to be walking by the small, seveeerely hyped cookie dough-scooping shop in Greenwich Village on my way to an appointment, when I noticed that there was no 3-hour long line wrapping the block. In fact, there was no line at all. I quickly attributed it to the early hour and having just opened for the day. Later, on my way back, there was still no line. Since I’m not usually in that part of the area, I figured I may as well finally see if Dō was worth these egregious NYC-trend lines. I left with a scoop of salty + sweet dough, with salted caramel and chocolate chips, at $4, and was promptly reminded of how weird I think it is to opt for raw cookie dough over fresh-baked cookies. I could not eat the small mound in one sitting, but it was not a terrible experience. 

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 presetBrownstone Pancake Factory I love this place as much as I love pancakes, and if my friends Rebecca and Shyla are up for it, and our amigo Tommy is also in town, I get to eat here when I visit them. As you can tell from the photo, this breakfast-all-day restaurant has more than pancakes, as I was the only one that got pancakes…I had to represent for the team. We also shared an Oreo Cake freakshake. Delicious? Yes. Fit for one? Noo.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 presetKith Ice Cream Not long after I moved to Brooklyn, this sneaker store by Barclays Center opened a cereal bar. Don’t ask questions; this is Brooklyn. The cereal bar also features soft serve ice cream with your choice of cereal add-ins and toppings. I meant to check it out but never got around to it. Luckily, they’ve since opened a location next to my office, and I tried it out on one of those super hot days last week…you can see my ice cream started melting as soon as I stepped outside. They whip the whole thing up DQ Blizzard-style, and the ice cream itself was very sweet. Overall, fun if overpriced spot for only the occasional visit.

Come back soon for my dispatches from the frontlines of Ramadiet 2017!

Butter: On Browning

For the second installment of “Butter”, we’re going to chat about brown butter. I’m obsessed with the stuff, and usually try to sneak it into any recipe that requires butter. But what’s the hype? Why does it smell so good? Why is it so hard to do? Read on to demystify the secrets of this mystifying ingredient.

The Science
So what does “brown butter” mean? The part of the butter that’s browning is the milk solids, once they’ve separated from the butterfat in the beginning of heating process. You know when you melt butter in the microwave and white seafoam-type stuff floats around the bowl? That’s the milk solids. When you heat butter past this point on the stove, the milk solids sink to the bottom and start to toast up and brown. This is the milk solids caramelizing, creating an amazing smell in your kitchen that most describe as “nutty”, while I personally prefer butterscotchy. It’s just so warm and enveloping, sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t go any further with the recipe; I can stop right there. During this process of browning, the water in the butter also evaporates, creating the bubbling and spitting that you’ll experience. Once the milk bits have browned, you have brown butter.

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The Trick
Browning butter is not that hard. I repeat: browning butter is not that hard! And I’ll tell you why. There are different degrees of brown butter. You’ll notice when the milk solids start to get darker, and you’ll wonder “Is this it? Do I have brown butter?” Well, you sure could have it. Brown butter does not discriminate. You can have light brown butter, you can have dark brown butter, and anything in between. I think scientifically speaking we can say that if you’re smelling good things, you have brown butter. But 7 seconds later, the solids will be even browner. Are you getting nervous? “Oh no, is this what the internet warned me about? Will I have burnt butter in a matter of moments?” If your solids are not black, you’re safe. My point here is that there is a reasonably sized window for removing the butter from the heat that will give you brown butter before it burns. It all depends on how brown and aromatic you want to get. As long as you’re paying attention, you’re in good shape. After some practice, you will feel more comfortable leaving the butter on the heat for longer until it’s just about to burn. That’s my personal b.b. preference, but it will also depend on why you’re browning the butter in the first place.

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2 hours later….back to room temperature and golden yellow.

The Usage
You can use brown butter in any place that you would use normal butter. For me this means browning butter for my baked goods. For others, it may mean as a sauce for fish or pasta, or simply on toast. I prefer the brownest of butters for baking because that butterscotchy flavor will come out the best. When cooking anything with brown butter, be sure to get all of the bits in play with a rubber scraper (obv.) so the flavor is at its maximum. If you answer “yes” to wanting a warm, umami-enhancing flavor added to your dish, using brown butter is a good choice.

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See that’s it’s not completely solid.

The Recipe
The following procedure is how I brown butter, and it works like a charm every time.

Prepare a heat-resistant bowl near your stove or in the sink to pour the butter into once it has browned. Put your butter in a large skillet and place on medium heat. When the butter has melted, turn the heat down and stir constantly with a spatula (this keeps the milk solids from sticking to the skillet and makes for easy cleanup later). After the butter has finished spitting, pay close attention to the milk solids at the bottom of the skillet. Use the spatula to help clear the bubbles from the surface to see better. Once the solids have browned to your liking, take the skillet off the heat and carefully pour the butter into the prepared bowl. If you have a heat resistant rubber scraper, use it to scrape the sides and bottom of the skillet to catch all the butter. Use immediately for hot dishes or let cool for baking.

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The dark and browned milk fats at the bottom are the most important part!

Sometimes I have enough time to wait for the brown butter to solidify to room temperature before I start to make a dough, and other times I’ll throw it in the fridge for a few minutes to cool it off enough to keep the eggs in the dough from cooking. It’s usually a little easier to work the dough when the butter has cooled, but either option will give you delicious results.

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Dumped into a large mixing bowl. If you could smell this lump of fat…

Go forth and brown! What other butter questions are you dying to have answered? Leave them in the comments below ⬇

Wing it: Chocolate Speculoos Popcorn

I’ve been playing around a lot with Speculoos spread recently and thought I’d throw it in some popcorn and see what happened. Naturally, great things happened. If you’re unfamiliar with Speculoos, it’s a tea biscuit from Belgium that I think of as a cross between a graham cracker and a gingersnap. You can find them at Wegmans, Fairway, and many other large supermarkets. The spread is what you get when you crush up the biscuits and add some other emulsifying stuff. It’s also known as cookie butter, easily found at Trader Joe’s, and is better than Nutella. It has a somewhat spicy flavor and fun texture that is fun to bake with.

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I hoped that melting the spread with chocolate chips would make for a good popcorn topping, and I was right. I didn’t bother measuring anything; the amounts are mostly based on personal preference anyway. Here’s what you need to do:

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Step 1: Make some popcorn from scratch. You can buy popcorn kernels at the grocery store, and either pop them on the stove (instructions here), or in a large microwaveable bowl. Cover the bottom of the bowl with one layer of kernels, and cover with a plate that fits over the bowl. Microwave the popcorn until there are 3 seconds between the pops. Sprinkle salt to taste.

 

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Step 2: Microwave some chocolate chips and Speculoos spread on high in 15 second intervals. If you’re not sure you’ve microwaved enough, it’s easy to add more later.

 

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Step 3: Pour the meltedness on the popcorn and coat evenly with a spoon, rubber scraper, or both.

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Step 4: Spread the popcorn onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and stick in the fridge for at least 20 minutes so the chocolate can solidify.

 

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Step 5: Take out and enjoy! Great as is for a party dessert, or on top of ice cream!

Top 5 of 2016

Poor 2016…it’s going in the history books with a hashtag next to it. Lost your job this year? #2016. Lost a beloved celebrity role model? #2016. Despite the slew of unfortunate events in the last 365 days, it’s still important to look back to remember the progress we made and good things that happened. Here are 5 of your and my favorite posts from 2016, and here’s to a new year that we’ll be proud of 365 days from now.

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1. Mast Brothers: Genius or Nah?
What’s all the hype about? Is their chocolate chip cookie recipe really all that?

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2. Don’t Get Pancakes at a Place Called “egg”
Lessons learned: 1. It’s best to order something that a restaurant is named after, and 2. Not all brunch is created equal.

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3. Skillet S’mores
The most impressive party dessert to whip out in your times of need.

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4. The 3 Why’s of Chocolate Chip Cookies
So many questions…here are 3 answers.

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5. The Art of Dining Solo
The ultimate treat-yourself with its own perks.

Don’t see your favorite? Leave it in the comments below!
Happy New Year!

Butter: What and When?

Since the beginning of my cookie baking career in 5th grade, I’ve always had questions about butter. What happens to my cookies if I melt the butter? What is brown butter and why is it awesome? Why are there so many types of butter, and what’s the big deal about this fancy European brick butter? The list goes on, and I’m still working on getting to the bottom of many questions. As the holidays draw nearer, I thought I’d help demystify the enigmatic fat that is ~butter~. I talked (virtually) with some of the butter and baking experts of the what’s what of butter. Read on to the one of several posts that will help you make better choices in butter.

First: what is butter?
Butter is churned milk or cream, usually from a cow. The first part of churning separates the skim milk from the buttercream. In the churning process of the buttercream, the butter fat and buttermilk are separated. Have you ever shaken a jar of heavy cream until it gets chunky, with thinner liquid running through the lumps? That’s exactly that – the butterfat, sometimes called popcorn butter, and the buttermilk (sold in cartons just like milk). The buttermilk is separated from the butterfat, and more churning yields regular velvety-textured butter.

How is European butter different from American butter?
Regulations in America require butter to have a butterfat percentage of 80% or more. Land o’ Lakes butter is almost 81% butterfat. European butter tends to have closer to 85% butterfat. This means less water in your butter. A good way to see this is when you brown half a cup of American butter, and half a cup of European butter, you’ll come out with a higher volume of butter with the European butter, because the water in the butter evaporates in the browning process. European cows also tend to eat better than American cows, and are often fed grass instead of mysterious corn feed.

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This is a 1 lb block of butter from Plugra

What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is not fully synonymous with European butter. European butter is usually cultured, but cultured butter is not always European. Culturing the butter doesn’t make for a higher fat content. For example, Organic Valley sells a cultured butter, and a  European-style cultured butter. The cultured butter has a butterfat content of 80% (thank you, Twitter) and their European-style cultured butter has a butterfat content of 84%. According to Cook’s Illustrated, cultured butter is “made more slowly, with cream that’s allowed to ripen for a few days to develop flavor and then inoculated with bacterial cultures before churning.” The bacteria release lactic acid, giving this butter a deeper flavor that some describe as tangy.

Okay, so that’s all great…but which butter does one choose when baking? And is that butter different if baking cookies or pie crust or croissants or ???

Salted vs. Unsalted
First of all, I’ll start by saying that unless I’m in a pickle, I use unsalted butter for baking. Not that I measure every ingredient to the last granule, but it helps keep your salt amounts accurate. Not all salted butter is treated equally; brands don’t have the same salt-to-butter proportions.

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USA vs. Europe
Who’s butter’s better? Consider King Arthur Flour’s shortbread experiment described in their article “Butter for Baking: Which Kind Should You Use?” where they use European butter and American butter for the same recipe. The shortbread with the European butter came out both drier and greasier than the American butter shortbread. Not ideal for cookies. However, these attributes may be just what you need for your buttery, flaky pie crusts and croissants. That being said, with the extra butterfat goes the extra water, which would help pastries rise in the oven during evaporation. The choice ultimately comes down to several factors, and your personal choice. Maybe you’d rather sacrifice some (potentially minor) height for a flakier pain au chocolat.

Cultured vs. Uncultured
My answer to this is simple: since cultured butter costs more, use regular, uncultured butter. The extra money is not worth the extra flavor you probably won’t enjoy anyway. I asked Kye Ameden, author of the King Arthur Flour article from above, why in the article she said cultured butter isn’t the best for baking:

“[W]hile cultured butter is delicious, it tends to have a unique flavor that’s not always welcome in all recipes. Consider your favorite pumpkin bread or chocolate chip cookies; the zippy tangy might seem out of place. It also tends to be more expensive than Grade AA butter, so we like to save it for putting on top of baked goods when we’ll be sure to enjoy the flavor to the fullest.”

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I did a quick cookie test with a simple recipe (no chocolate chips/solid objects) to see if these claims could be proven. In one batch, I used Cabot AA unsalted butter, and in a second batch I used Plugra unsalted butter. My hypothesis going in was that the first batch would come out higher due to the higher water content of the American butter, and the Plugra flatter, and greasier. However, just the opposite happened.

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I wasn’t all too scientific with this experiment. There are many variables that could have been altered unintentionally. For example, the butter may have been beaten more the second time around. This is a good example of all the little things that can make a difference in your cookies. When seeking consistent results, be vigilant and have patience.

Take these truths bestowed upon you to forge head in this holiday season, and bake your friends’ sorrows away. And stay tuned for the next installments of Butter!