Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Pecan Cookies

Munching on these soft and chewy cookies brings us back to a kitchen incident in which T and I still chuckle over. Clearly, two people working in the kitchen at the same time but for entirely different reasons could be quite a challenge. The chilled dough was ready to go in the oven and T was working on making dinner in front of the stove. The cookies were baked in four separate batches; after a batch was done, in goes another batch into the oven, and so on until all the cookie dough was baked. Between putting the news batches of dough into the oven and taking them out when the timer rings, I was in the room working on the computer. So focused on making dinner, I must say that T was probably quite oblivious to the fact that I was baking the cookies in several batches and that was why I was disappearing from and appearing again in the kitchen multiple times.

The timer rang for the last batch of cookies; they were ready. I opened the oven door and upon taking the baking sheet out of the oven I thought aloud, "This is very strange. Why are the cookies hardly done?" Upon hearing me, T came to a realization and exclaimed "Oh no, when I saw you taking out the previous batch from the oven I thought you were done with baking and had forgotten to turn the oven off so I turned it off! I didn't see the last batch of cookies going into the oven." Adding to the summer warmth, the heat from cooking in front of the stove as well as from the oven was getting to T so he thought he was helping out the "forgetful" me for "forgetting" to turn the oven off.

The first three batches before the oven incident were perfect; they were soft and chewy. The cookies are very sensitive to baking time in order to achieve the right level softness and chewiness. Over baking by two minutes can turn a chewy cookie into a crunchy one. As for the last batch of cookies with the oven incident, let's just say they came in pretty close. T felt terrible and said he would eat the cookies from the last batch. I made sure he ate the perfect and the less perfect ones.

Adapted from by David Lebovitz's Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 oz semisweet baking chocolate, chopped into 1/4 - 1/2 inch chunks
4 oz bittersweet baking chocolate, chopped into 1/4 - 1/2 inch chunks
1 1/2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped coarsely

1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

2. Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars under medium speed until just smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then add in the vanilla extract. Stir in the flour mixture in three batches. Combine the chopped chocolate and nuts and stir until well combined.

3. On a slightly floured surface, divide the dough into quarters. Shape each quarter into a log until about 9 inches in length. Tightly wrap the logs individually with parchment paper. Chill and let the logs sit in the fridge for at least 6 hours; they turn out best if you let them sit in the fridge for 24 hours. If during the first few hours you find the logs not holding its shape entirely, gently shape it back to a log. As the dough chills longer, the more firm it becomes and thus will hold its shape better.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Position the oven racks so that they are on the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

5. Using a sharp knife, slice the logs into disks about 3/4 inch thick. Place the disks 3 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies, rotating the baking sheets midway through baking, until the center is very lightly browned, for 10 minutes.

6. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets until firm enough to handle. Using a spatula, gently lift the cookies and transfer to a cooling rack.


Watermelon Salad with Honey Mint Syrup

There probably isn't a time during the year when I don't crave for watermelon. Watermelons make their way to grocery stores and the farmers market in the summer but come winter the fruit is almost non-existent at fruit stands. Growing up in a tropical country located right on the equator, we were used to seeing watermelons in abundance the whole year round. We never really thought about what was in season and what was not because everything was always in season since well, there was only one season: summer. Now living in Chicago where there are clearly (and drastically) distinct seasons, it makes us appreciate and think more about what fruit or vegetable is in season and make the best out of incorporating it into our meals.

Watermelons are refreshing to eat by themselves but the scent of fresh mint leaves and flavor of raw and unfiltered wildflower honey bring the watermelon salad up a notch.

Cubed watermelon pieces
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon good quality honey
2-3 sprigs of fresh mint

1. Combine water and honey in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.
2. Remove from heat and pour the syrup into a small bowl. Put the sprigs of mint into the syrup and let steep for 10 minutes.
3. In a salad bowl, combine the watermelon and blueberries. Drizzle the syrup generously over the fruits. Garnish with julienne strips of fresh mint.


Maude's Liquor Bar

We constantly find ourselves transported to circa 1930s France at Maude's Liquor Bar.  Vintage blue metal chairs, wooden rustic tables, and dark brown retro couches make up the furniture. The wall on one side of the wall is made up of exposed bricks and the other side of the wall is plastered with white ceramic which enhances the vintage look. On the ceiling are mismatched lamps and chandeliers that function more as decorative items than a main source of lighting. Maude's is always such a dim place. It's sexy and mysterious. The facade is a black wall and black door with an inconspicuous lettering that says Maude's. Now that it's summer and with the days getting longer, the mysterious door is left open, allowing that burst of sun light to penetrate into the first half of the restaurant near the entrance until the sun goes down.

Brendan Sodikoff does it again with Maude's offering down to earth French food. Along with his other projects that turned into instant successes, Gilt Bar and Doughnut Vault, his entrepreneurial goal is to cater to foodies and scenesters. His ventures' presence are definitely felt in the Chicago dining scene. The kitchen at Maude's is helmed by Jeff Pikus as the executive chef, an alum of Alinea.

The beer list includes a good variety of local micro brews and unique import beers. The cocktail list is made up old time classics such as Sazerac. The wine list is equally good in variety and if nothing else floats your boat, you can't go wrong with the $4 table wine by the glass.

One of the items that make Maude's menu stand out is the seafood platter called Maude's Plateaux clearly stands out as memorable. Served in two tiers, it includes a dozen west coast oysters, a dozen east coast oysters, octopus ceviche, salmon crudo, and jumbo cocktail shrimps. They were very accommodating to my shrimp allergies and substituted the shrimps with an entire lobster. For those with an even bigger appetite for seafood, the Grande Plateaux is served in three tiers and comes with everything mentioned. Our favorite presentation among the seafood items in the Maude's Plateaux is the octopus ceviche which is served on a slab of stone salt.

The pomme frites served with garlic aoili is also a favorite. As with all fries, we dig into the tall cup of fries as soon as it's served since they're best when still warm. The crispy and warm fries dipped into the cold aioli are a wonderful combination of texture, temperature, and taste.

The chicken liver mousse, served in a canning glass jar, is very smooth and rich making it a perfect spread on the toast accompaniment. Along with the toast is also the shallot marmalade to go with the liver mousse.

Several of their items are reminiscent of Gilt Bar such as the tenderloin steak tartare, roasted bone marrow, and steak. An item worth noting on Maude's menu is the Lyonnaise salad with a twist. Instead of the traditional bacon served in Lyonnaise salads, it comes with grilled pork belly. Other classic French items include herb buttered escargots, foie gras, chicken cassoulet.

The famous classic creme brulee is must-have for every visit to Maude's. Inspired by Francois Massialot's original creme brulee recipe in French dating back to 1961, a round cast iron is first heated and then put on the surface of the creme brulee instead of using a blow torch to produce the crisp burnt sugar.

Our favorite way to end the night is the $3 whiskey shots. The whiskey used for the shots change constantly but the both times we had it they were rye whiskey. Sticking to the vintage and down to earth theme, the whiskey is served in the stainless steel device usually used to measure a shot.

Maude's is here to stay for a long time in the Chicago dining scene. Given the competition since it is smacked in between other popular restaurants along Randolph Row, the well known stretch of dining scene in the Fulton River District, there is nothing that Maude's need to worry about. With it's unique character that exudes the feel of 1930s France, this alone makes Maude's a stand out. Just make sure you score an advance reservation.

Maude's Liquor Bar
840 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607

Best Restaurateur of the Year 2011 Nominee, Brendan Sodikoff


L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London

My sister L and I can be very different individuals on so many levels but the one thing we sure have in common is seeking out restaurants at our travel destinations and making advance table reservations before departing for our travel. As she is trying hard to secure a table at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant for her upcoming trip to London, it reminds me of my own gastronomy moments when T and I were in London. We did not make it to Blumenthal's Fat Duck but will be keeping that, and his new restaurant Dinner, for our next trip out there.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon was the best dining experience that happened to T and I on that trip to London. Voted Best Chef of the 20th Century, Joel Robuchon also holds the most Michelin stars in the world across his restaurants. He pursues perfection in his restaurants and cuisine and his restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is another reflection of his culinary confidence. Right from the service to the execution of the food, this restaurant deserves its 2-Michelin stars. The servers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the menu and the French cuisine had an exquisite flair without any pompousness.

Unlike what one would come to expect of bar seatings in general, i.e. where you get to see the bartender and mixologist at work, the bar seating at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon offered an experience on a different level. We sat on stools at the high top counter that enabled us to observe and participate in the action going on in the kitchen which included the kitchen crew preparing and plating the appetizers, entrees, and desserts. The bar counter seats a reasonable number of people although it seemed like only parties no larger than two people were seated there, presumably for reasons of easy communication between larger parties. Any parties of three or more were seated at tables in the dining room although I don't imagine they would not try to accommodate requests to be seated at the kitchen bar.

One of the impressively presented items was the baked clams with minced garlic and mushrooms. The clams were served on a thick bed of sea salt and whole red peppercorns.

One of the signature dishes is the La Langoustine, perfectly fried until crispy and served with basil pesto.

The Les Spaghetti was entirely on a class of its own and it truly stood out for me. It was so much more than just spaghetti. Prepared Atelier-style, the dish came with sea urchin. I am a big fan of uni (sea urchin in Japanese) at sushi restaurants and while sea urchins are commonly found on sushi menus, they are not commonly found at non-sushi restaurants. Admittedly, sea urchin may be a matter of one's own personal taste and may not be widely appreciated in western cuisine. Always served in sashimi or nigiri-style at sushi restaurants, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon took the wise risk of introducing it with spaghetti and it worked beautifully. The sea urchin was used to make the creamy sauce and there were also bite-size pieces of sea urchin hidden in the sauce.


Another memorable dish was the octopus salad. The octopus was tender and delicate; the texture was smooth, almost like medium rare. The perfectly seared duck liver pate came in a generous portion that was rich enough to be shared but even if anyone wanted it all for him or herself, who could blame him or her? It was fantastic.


For dessert we shared the Rum Baba which was absolutely divine. The sponge cake was soaked with rum and the liquor taste shone through pretty strong. The rum-saturated cake came with a thin piece of yellow meringue shaped into a star and also accompanied with sorbet. Several types of alcoholic coffee drinks were offered on the dessert menu with descriptions on the country of origins of the coffee.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in this London location delivered and matched expectations for being a 2-Michelin stars recipient. We would be very interested in experiencing the other L'Ateliers in other parts of the world for a basis of comparison but this is for sure: the London location deserves the recognition it has.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
Covent Garden, London

2011 2-Michelin Stars
2010 2-Michelin Stars
2009 2-Michelin Stars
1989 Best Chef of the 20th Century by Gault Millau


Doughnut Vault

Move over, cupcakes. Doughnut Vault has been the talk of the town since it opened a few months back. Heck, even our neighbor asked if we had tried it yet. Every day (except for Sunday and Monday when they close) brave souls stand in line before opening hours to buy their share of doughnuts. Throughout Doughnut Vault's opening hours, the line continues to form and it consistently stretches around the block. The average time spent standing in line is about 1 - 1.5 hours. They open at 8:30am on weekdays and 9:30am on Saturdays and stay open until they are sold out. The doughnuts are usually sold out by 11:00am or a little past that time. On National Doughnut Day (yes there is such a thing!), I woke up and decided to brave the line for doughnuts. T wasn't going to participate in the craziness. I brought a book with me to read which turned out to be a very good idea. And I guess I lucked out that I only had to wait 45 minutes(!).

Who would have thought Doughnut Vault would be this successful? It almost seems like whatever Brendan Sodikoff embarks on, it becomes golden. His other equally successful projects are Gilt Bar, Maude's Liquor Bar, and the future Ox Diner.

The blue facade of Doughnut Vault is an attention-getter in itself. It makes you curious. The name Doughnut Vault does not lie. Behind the rustic blue door is literally a vault that will fit about 5 people comfortably. Behind the tiny counter is only one employee taking your order and packing your doughnuts while also being the cashier.

I think standing in line for 45 minutes warrants getting each of the doughnut varieties so I got one of each except for the chestnut glaze which I ended up getting two pieces of. The lady behind the counter said, "Good choice. The chestnut is my favorite". For a dollar I also got a cup of Metropolis coffee, roasted locally in Chicago.

The huge glazed doughnuts were fluffy and airy. First bite into one of them and it felt like I was in doughnut heaven. The chestnut glaze, which turned out to be my favorite, had hints of chestnut flavor that were rightly subtle but not until you couldn't taste it. The vanilla and chocolate glazes are also wonderful options if you are going for the big fluffy and airy doughnuts.

Moving away from the fluffy and light texture of the glazed doughnuts, the buttermilk old-fashioned deserves a try as well. It looks almost like a crater doughnut with an uneven surface but don't let the look fool you. The edges and surface of the doughnut are crisp and the inside has a moist cake-like texture. Despite the cake-like texture, it is nowhere near dense. An order of the gingerbread stacks comes with 3 pieces and is a good idea for sharing. I never thought I would enjoy them as much since I've never been a terribly big fan of gingerbread in general. T, however, insisted we got the gingerbread stacks. These doughnut stacks changed my mind on how I feel about gingerbread. I am a convert now. While not overpowering, the taste was obviously there and had just the right amount. A hint of cinnamon added perfection to the flavor as a whole.

The leftover doughnuts keep well for a few days and they still taste as good after they are kept in the fridge. We either let it sit out in room temperature for 5-10 minutes or gave them a quick nuke in two 10-second successions in the microwave and they were as good as the day we got them from the store.

Doughnut Vault is worth the hype so if you have got some time to spare waiting in line for some doughnuts, go for it. You can also get a dollar coffee which will be your next best reward (besides the doughnuts) in form of caffeine boost for waking up and taking your place in line.

Doughnut Vault
401 1/2 North Franklin Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Best Restaurateur of the Year 2011 Nominee, Brendan Sodikoff