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Archive for the ‘coconut milk’

Thom Yum Gai 0

Posted on March 27, 2015 by Sahar

It’s hard to believe even 15 – 20 years ago most Americans had never even heard of Thai food outside of cities that had a large Asian population.  Now, Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Massaman Curry, Green Papaya Salad, and Green Chicken Curry seem to be everywhere.

As much as I like those dishes, and many others, one stands out for me: Thom Yum Gai – Chicken Coconut Soup.  The words “thom yum” basically mean “hot and sour soup”. “Gai” is the chicken version of this soup. Other styles of thom yum include – “Pla”: a fish soup eaten with rice; “Kha Mu”: a slower cooked soup made with pork knuckles.  There are several other variations of this soup.

This is not only a refreshing soup to eat any time of year, but it’s one on my go-to’s when Husband Steve and I aren’t feeling well.  Something about the alchemy of Asian soups in general that just make us feel better.

I like to make my Thom Yum Gai heavily seasoned.  So, my soup has a pronounced, but not overbearing flavor, of ginger, lime, and chiles.  I wanted to keep the flavor in line with what I’ve eaten at some of my favorite Thai restaurants. Of course, if you want to go lighter, adjust the seasonings as you like.

Besides the taste, the next best thing about this soup is the quickness and ease in which it comes together.  From start to finish, less than an hour.

I will say that my inspiration for this recipe comes from James Peterson. His award-nominated book, Splendid Soups, is arguably the best book on soups ever published. While this is my recipe, he was definitely an influence on the direction I took.


A few notes:

1.  Kaffir lime leaves are an authentic ingredient in this recipe.  However, even with the plethora of Asian markets now in Austin, I still have a very difficult time finding them. So, I now use lime peel.  However, if you can find Kaffir leaves, by all means, use them.  4 – 6 leaves, cut into julienne (thin) strips will work well.

2.  If you can’t find lemongrass, you can use the peel of 1 lemon.  Alternately, if can find it, there is a lemongrass paste that is available in some supermarkets; however, once you open the tube, it must be used within a finite amount of time.  If you decide to use the paste, check the measurements on the container to see how much you need.  DO NOT use dried lemongrass; all of the oils that give it its flavor will have dissolved leaving you with basically grass clippings.

3.  You can peel the ginger or not.  I generally don’t. If you do prefer to leave the skin on, be sure to wash the ginger thoroughly.

4.  Shiitake mushrooms are really best for this dish.  However, if you don’t like or can’t find them, you can use straw mushrooms (you can usually find them canned. Be sure to drain them first).  In a pinch, criminis will do.

5.  Chicken is the most common way to make this soup.  However, you can also make it with shrimp, mixed fish and/or shellfish, pork, or tofu.  Just use the same amount as you would the chicken.  Be sure to use the corresponding broth as well.  I’ve seen some restaurants serve thom yum with beef, but I don’t know how authentic that is or if it’s just to satisfy American palates.

6.  By the way, fish sauce is essential to making this dish. There’s really no omitting it.

7.  If you are making this dish with tofu and want to make it vegan, here is a recipe for vegan fish sauce.

8.  If you can’t find Thai (also known as bird) chiles, you can substitute 3 – 4 serrano chiles. If you don’t want that much heat, be sure to remove the seeds and membranes. You can also cut back on the number of chiles.

9.  To help stretch the soup and/or help mitigate the heat, you can serve some Jasmin rice alongside the soup.  Alternately, have some cooked rice noodles in the bottom of the serving bowl and pour the soup on top.  Just have the noodles or rice on the side, not in the actual soup pot.

10.  Even though leaving all of the seasonings in the soup is more authentic, if you want to, after the soup has cooked, you can strain the broth, pick the chicken and mushrooms out of the seasonings. and place them back into the broth before serving. This is especially helpful if all you really want to do is drink the broth from a mug.

(I know you’re asking the question – “Why not strain the broth before you add the mushrooms and chicken?” Because, the longer the seasonings cook in the broth, the more flavor you will have. Besides, it’s not really that much extra work.)

11.  If you do decide to go full authentic, serve the soup with a pair of chopsticks and a small bowl on the side so your guests can place their pieces of lemongrass, ginger, etc., aside as they eat.



The Ingredients

The Ingredients


3 c. chicken broth

peel of 1 lime, cut into 1″ pieces


2 ea. 4-inch stalks lemongrass, either sliced or minced (depending on your preference and patience)


1/2 c. ginger, cleaned and cut into 1/8″ slices (estimating is fine)


4 Thai chiles, thinly sliced


1/3 c. Thai fish sauce

1/2 c. lime juice

4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and sliced 1/4″ thick


2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and sliced thin (approx. 1 lb. to 1-1/4 lbs.)


1 can (15-1/2 oz.) coconut milk

1/4 c. cilantro, chopped





1.  In a large saucepan, add the chicken broth, lime peel, lemongrass, ginger, chiles, fish sauce, and lime juice.  Bring to a boil over high heat.

The broth, lime juice, lime peel, ginger, lemongrass, and chiles in the saucepan.

The broth, lime juice, lime peel, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and chiles in the saucepan.

2.  Add the shiitakes, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes.

Adding the shiitakes. I like to use this mushroom because it adds a wonderful flavor and stands up to the cooking.

Adding the shiitakes. I like to use this mushroom because it adds a wonderful flavor and stands up to the cooking.


3.  Add the chicken, coconut milk, and cilantro.  Continue cooking until the chicken is just done; about 3 – 5 minutes.

Adding the chicken, coconut milk, and cilantro. Cook just until the chicken is done.

Adding the chicken, coconut milk, and cilantro. Cook just until the chicken is done. You want to be sure not to overcook it.

4.  When the chicken is done, remove the saucepan from the heat and taste for seasoning.

I like to serve this with either fried won ton skins or crispy noodles (Remember those? The ones in the bag?)

I like to serve this with either fried won ton skins or crispy noodles (Remember those? La Choy?)



Happiness is Cake! 0

Posted on March 04, 2012 by Sahar

Cake.  The very word softens even the most sour of dispositions.   Cake is a constant in our lives.  We eat it for celebrations, holidays, and for after dinner dessert.  It’s the treat we give ourselves when we reach a goal in life.  It just makes us happy.

During Antiquity, the first known cakes were more bread-like and sweetened with honey, nuts, and dried fruits.  According to food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first people to show evidence of advanced baking skills. The round cakes we know today descended from these ancient cakes. Breads and cakes were made by hand and typically shaped into round balls and baked on hearthstones or in low shallow pans. The dough naturally relaxed into rounded shapes.

Ancient breads and cakes were usually used in religious rites. They were formed into special shapes, according to the ceremony. The rounded shape typically symbolized the cyclical nature of the seasons, life, the sun & moon.

The English word cake can be traced back to the 13th century. The word cake comes form ‘kaka‘, an Old Norse word. (Norsemen [Vikings] were rather frequent, if unwelcome, guests to Brittania from the 8th through 11th Centuries.  They took a lot, but the left a lot behind as well.  Language and food being two of those things.) Medieval European bakers made fruitcakes and gingerbread that could last for many months.  A necessity due to the lack of refrigeration and the purely seasonal nature of cooking and available ingredients.

The precursors of modern cakes (round ones with icing) were first baked in Europe during the 17th Century. This primarily due to better & more reliable ovens and ingredients, such as white sugar and spices, were easier to obtain (at least for the upper classes). At that time cake hoops–round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays–were popular. They could be made of metal, wood or paper.  As time progressed, baking pans in various shapes and sizes, became readily available to the general public.

The term “icing the cake” comes from the first icing recipes. These were usually made with the finest available sugar, egg whites and flavorings that were boiled together. The icing was poured over the cake then returned to the oven. When the cake was removed from the oven, the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy (ice-like) covering. Many cakes made then still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons). It was not until the Victorian era that the cake as we now know it (made with white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) became popular.

(Some historical information from

Commercial cake mixes have been around in one form or another since the 1920’s.  But, they reached the height of popularity in the 1950’s when quick & instant foods became popular with housewives.  Cake mixes are easy, mostly foolproof, and inexpensive.

However, there’s really nothing like making a cake from scratch.  If you simply follow a few guidelines, there’s nothing that can stop you from making a delicious show-stopper.

To begin with, you must use quality ingredients.  If your ingredients aren’t quality, all your work will be for nothing.

Flour: For cakes, cake flour is best.  It’s what’s called a “soft wheat” flour that has a low gluten content (about 8%).  Using cake flour creates a much lighter, moist cake.  It is generally available in 2-pound boxes and comes in both bleached (i.e. Swan’s Down) and unbleached (i.e. King Arthur).  Because cake flour has a tendency to clump during storage, you must always sift it before using it in a recipe.

I prefer to use unbleached because, well, it hasn’t been treated with bleach.

You can use all-purpose flour in a cake recipe, but because it is a heavier flour, your final cake may not be as moist.  If you must use all-purpose flour, one trick to making the cake lighter is to sift the flour 3 times and then use the scoop & sweep method to measure it (see recipe).

 Butter: Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, always use unsalted butter.  If you can, use European or European-style butter.  Commercially available American butters must have a minimum of 80% butterfat, while European and American made European-style butters have a minimum of 88% butterfat.  The amount of butterfat does make a difference.  It results in a richer, more flavorful cake.

Do not substitute margarine or light butter in a cake recipe.  Margarine can be unreliable in a recipe and is completely lacking in flavor.  Because it’s not a natural product, it is in many ways, less healthy than butter.  Light butter contains only about 50% butterfat, with the rest made up with moisture, gums, stabilizers, and emulsifiers.  It is not recommended for cooking or baking.

Eggs:  Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, the eggs called for are always going to be large eggs.  A large egg is exactly ¼-cup.   And, like with any ingredient, fresher is better.  Check the expiration date on the carton.  It makes no difference whether you use white or brown eggs.

Salt:  I generally use kosher or sea salt in my recipes.  They are minimally processed and have no additivesTable salt (i.e. Morton’s) has additives that help to keep it from clumping.  These additives can add a bitter flavor to what you’re cooking, however.  So, save table salt for the table.

Baking Powder:  Be sure it’s fresh.  (See my previous post on how to test baking powder.)

Extracts:  Always use pure extracts.  These are distilled from the essential flavors of vanilla beans, flowers, nuts, and coffee.  Artificial, or imitation, extracts are usually made with ingredients like petroleum and coal tar.  Not very appetizing.  Plus, imitation extracts have a fake approximation of the flavor you’re trying to enhance in your baked goods and can potentially ruin the flavor of your recipe.


A Few Cake Troubleshooting Tips:

1.  Be sure all your ingredients are at room temperature.  This will help your cake batter blend into a more even mixture.  However, when it comes to butter, do not use melted unless specified in a recipe.  Melted butter separates and can make your cake greasy.

2.  When you cream together the butter and sugar, be sure that it becomes a light, fluffy mixture.  The added air helps to make the cake lighter, and produces a less dense cake.

3.  Be sure that the eggs are added one at a time and the batter is thoroughly blended after each egg.  Otherwise, your cake will be dense and flat.

4.  Be sure you use the correct size pan for your recipe.  Too much batter in the pan, the outsides of the cake overcook before the middle is done.  Too little batter, your cake can overcook and have a crispy crust.

5.  Make sure you adjust your oven temperature so your cake will cook evenly and thoroughly.  *Remember, oven temperatures in recipes are for the ovens used to test the recipe.  Everyone’s ovens cook differently.  You know whether your oven cooks hot or cold.

6.  If you have more than one cake pan in the oven at a time, be sure the pans are not too close together.  Otherwise, they will bake unevenly because there’s not enough hot air circulating around the pans.

7.  If your oven cooks unevenly, and most ovens do, about half way through the baking time, rotate the baking pans, and/or, if you have more than one pan, switch racks.

8.  Always let the cake cool completely before adding any frosting or decoration.


(Some of the above information comes from In The Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley)


Now, on to the recipe.

In this cake recipe, I have a rather unusual ingredient, coconut milk.  Since this is a coconut cake, I wanted to take the flavor to the next level, so to speak.  Since coconut milk is heavier, viscosity-wise, than whole (sweet) milk, this does result in a slightly denser cake.

Coconut Cake

The Ingredients


2 c. cake flour (preferably unbleached – it can be found everywhere now)

1 tbsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt (use sea or kosher salt, not table salt)

3 eggs

½ c. butter, softened (unsalted., please If you can use European style butter, even better)

1 ½ tsp. coconut or vanilla extract (use pure extract, not imitation)

1 ½ c. unsweetened coconut milk (not coconut water or Coco Lopez)



3 c. sweetened flake coconut (if you want a little less sugar, use unsweetened flake coconut)

8 oz. cream cheese, softened (do not use low- or non-fat, please)

2 tbsp. butter, softened (see above)

1 c. powdered sugar, sifted

1 tbsp. unsweetened coconut milk (see above)

1 tsp. coconut or vanilla extract (again, see above)



Make the Cake:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and flour either 2 9-inch round cake pans or 1 12 x 18-inch baking pan.  Set aside.


The prepared pan. I opted for a single layer cake because it's easier.


Note: My Preferred way to measure the flour for cake is to pour some flour (not necessarily measured) into a bowl.  I aerate the flour and then scoop the flour into a dry measure (looks like a scoop or dipper).  Do not tap the measuring cup to pack the flour. This will make a heavy, dry cake. Once I have filled the cup with flour, I simply sweep the excess off the top.

Scooping the aerated flour into the dry measuring cup.


When scooping the flour into the cup, do not pack it down. If you do, it will result in a heavy, dry cake.


After measuring the flour, simply sweep off the excess flour. Do not tap or shake the cup to pack it down.


2.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3. In a large bowl or mixer bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Butter and sugar creamed together.


4. Add the eggs to the butter & sugar, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one. (The best way to accomplish this is to break the eggs, one at a time, into a small bowl and then pouring the egg into the butter & sugar.  This will prevent the risk of dropping eggshells into the batter.)

After the eggs have been added to the butter and sugar.


5. Add the flour mixture and coconut milk, alternating between each addition, to the butter mixture.  (Alternating the wet & dry ingredients makes a more thoroughly mixed batter.) Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl often.

The finished batter.


6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s).

Batter in the prepared pan. Be sure it is evenly distributed.


Bake the cake for 30 – 35 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Let the cake cool in the pan(s) for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack and let it (them) cool completely before frosting.

The finished cake. The holes in the top are where I tested it for doneness.


7. Make the Frosting: In the same 350F oven, toast the coconut in the oven on a large sheet pan until it is golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.  Stir every 2 – 3 minutes to be sure the coconut browns evenly.  Remove the coconut from the oven and immediately take it off the sheet pan and place it on a cool surface.

Mmm... Toasted coconut.

8.  In a mixer bowl, beat together the butter and cream cheese until smooth and creamy.  Mix in the powdered sugar, coconut milk, and extract.  Mix well.

Finished frosting right before the coconut is added.


Stir in 2 cups of the toasted coconut.

 9.     Spread the coconut frosting on the cooled cake. Take the remaining 1 cup of toasted coconut and press it into the top and sides of the cake.

The final, frosted cake. I put the cooled cake back into the same baking dish.


Cake, Anyone?


By the way, this cake would be excellent with some tropical fruit salad on the side or some chocolate drizzled over the top.  Or, just eat it as is.





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