Cream Cheese-filled Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Well. There’s something about the cold air today. Fall transitioning into Winter. Apple pie, hot ciders, and pumpkin everything. All of which I love, but the one thing I felt like making, in fact my very first bake in my graduate dorm kitchen, was something that had nothing to do with apples or pumpkins. It’s something I really wanted to dig into straightaway, That’s it. Simplicity in the form of divine, ooey gooey, dense, filled chocolate chip cookies. Simplicity because it’s been made too many times to count the past week, to the point where it almost becomes automatic, a habit, and you want to make it way more than what real life warrants as necessary. That, my friend, is when simplicity becomes extravagance. It feels like home, and home can be extravagant.

I sit here in my new laboratory office space writing, because it hasn’t occurred to me to try blending my two main habits– food and science, together. I’m sure this can work, especially if I have to wait for something to finish running in the lab. Makes my life that much easier, and I can’t be sitting around in cafés all the time…

Speaking of habit, lately I’ve been re-thinking my presence on social media. I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with Instagram (like most people I’m sure), but for the whole of last week I cut it out totally just to focus on the work I should be doing here and also to see if I would feel any differently during or after the experience. My takeaways: I had no urge to open the app during that week, only to reply someone who I couldn’t reach on Facebook Messenger either. I had an urge to see where everyone was going and eating in London, but resolved that by a few Google searches and actually checking my emails from London press companies properly. Secondly, after re-installing and opening the Instagram app after that little break, I felt almost completely indifferent to the feed. I pressed on a few story circles just to see what a few people were up to, stayed for a grand total of 2 minutes, then closed the app again. I actually started reading more, and the days have stretched longer. It’s a strange, surreal feeling, since for most of my teen years I remember being addicted, sadly, to the feeling I got when a photo got a certain number of likes or when someone commented on how delicious something looks. Which is fine, the whole point of Instagram for me is to find the best and newest places to eat, and to share my passion for baking, to show how easy it is to whip up something simple and delicious in the kitchen, but it was the external validation I became addicted to that I started to loathe. Everything grew into a fixation on numbers– how many followers and likes do you have? Because clearly this shows how credible you are as whatever creative artist you may be. I’m already lucky enough to have met some amazing people on the platform, and even still somehow get invited to tastings, but it was that tedious scrolling, the fixation on numbers, as well as the recent discovery that someone who I really admired on the platform blocked me for no apparent reason… yeah, that really got to me, when it shouldn’t have. Truthfully, my skin is not thick enough for me to be healthy and happy and maintain a strong presence on the platform, and that’s when I decided a break was not just an option, but something necessary. Now I do feel much less inclined to post about little mundane things about my life, and I’m less scared of posting less and less. It feels good, because Instagram isn’t real life, My main passion has been this blog, what you, dear reader, if you’ve gotten this far, are reading right now. This is the product of my passion, where I can write long-form and not worry about how many characters I write because Instagram isn’t for captions, it’s made for visual artists, Which is why food bloggers can gain a lot of ground there, but I like to write (blabber), too, and why should I feel guilty about that? Anyways, I’m not missing out on anything if I’m not exposed to it, and I’m happy with how much time I’ve been saving, too. Amazing. I can now post and do what I want whenever I want, no pressure. In a sense I am very glad my whole livelihood isn’t reliant on a social media presence, and my main goal is to use science to help humanity in a bigger way. Food will be weaved into that too, but baking doesn’t have to become my sole identity.

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One thing I realise Instagram made me do sometimes was to make things, experiment with combinations, that I myself may not necessarily have tried of my own accord. I would eat a raspberry sumac scone any day of the week but sometimes, at any one time, it may not really be something to make. However, by virtue of how pleasing it sounds, how sophisticated and exotic, I would do it anyway. These cookies, much like most of my blondie recipes, on the other hand, are something I will make again and again until the day I die. A one bowl wonder, once again. Adapted from my usual  cookie recipe, but I slightly reduced the amount of flour just to let the thickness and flavour of pure peanut butter shine through. I’m also starting to prefer dissolving salt in the wet ingredients first instead of whisking it into the dry ingredients. The final yield of cookies is the perfect mix of sweet, savoury and creamy. I hope that this can put a smile on your face one day.

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Cream cheese filled chocolate chip cookies (makes 4 filled cookies)

Ingredients

205g (1 2/3 cup) flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp cornflour

2 tsp salt

1 egg (sub: 1 vegan flax egg made by mixing 1 tbsp ground flaxseed with 2 tbsp water)

5 tbsp white sugar

5 tbsp brown sugar

150g butter, room temperature (sub: vegan butter)

3 heaped tablespoons cream cheese (I used Philadelphia brand but any will do; sub: vegan cream cheese)

3 tbsp icing sugar

160g chocolate, chopped (I used a mix of dark and white chocolate, you can use any combination)

Directions

Preheat your oven to 175C (350F) and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the cream cheese and icing sugar in a small bowl and then put in the freezer to set while you make the cookie batter.

In a bowl, whisk together the butter, sugars and egg. Add the salt and whisk it in. In a separate bowl, briefly mix together the flour, cornflour, chopped chocolate and baking powder with a fork, then tip it into the butter mixture and use a spoon to mix everything together well. Use your hands once it looks a little dry, once you get in there you’ll realise that it just takes a minute to let the warmth of your hands bring everything together nicely. You should have a thick, soft dough. To assemble, first take the cream cheese mixture out of the freezer. Then take a golf ball-sized chunk of batter, roll it up and put it on the lined pan. Slightly flatten this piece of dough and use a finger to make a mild dent in the middle, then put a teaspoon of the cream cheese mix into the centre and cover it with another chunk of dough. You only have to use enough to cover the cream cheese. Repeat until the rest of the dough is finished, you should have 4-5 large filled cookies on the baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, no more and no less. When you take them out, the edges will be a soft golden-brown and the tops will still look quite soft, but they will set a little more once out of the oven.

 

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

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It’s getting cold here, and there’s a lot on my mind. Had a rather therapeutic and somewhat emotional talk with a stranger this morning. It’s hard to admit that one needs therapy, let alone talk to others about it. Nevertheless, it was oddly, strangely therapeutic. I’m even thinking of starting some sort of online blog to chart progress. It’s mostly to do with a great deal of self-doubt and esteem issues, possibly stemming from some stuff that happened in the past. I don’t know who reads my blog, as old as it is now, but it does help to type things out, because although the daily journal does help a great deal too, sometimes my brain runs too fast and it’s just a tad more gratifying to see everything immediately leap from brain to post. It’s also juicier stuff that I can instantly plop onto here, too, for my (hopefully more regular) blogposts. And if it helps just one person today, then that will be all the more rewarding.

Before me: French Toast. So let me describe it to you. The crusty, almost too-hard outside is deceiving, there is a world of golden softness within. The right degree of egged saturation, not too soggy, although that would still be better than stiff or overdone. A pile of whipped cream and melted berries. Some fresh, some frozen, all warmed up to let a bounty of juices seep out. French toast is like a person. You don’t know what he/she is really like until they open up. It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice, big breakfast like this. Some days I forget to have proper meals and it all ends up being a big mess of sugary snacks all the way through the day, which I know sounds like child’s play but sadly it’s true, at the grand age of 22 (coming on to 23). You’d think I’d have at least a healthy side to me… Not to say it’s non-existent, but it could definitely be 3.5x better. It’s a bit disappointing; sometimes I imagine my younger self thinking about the woman I would be now in 2019, and although I’m not too far off, I do wish some bad habits which I currently harbour were not so etched into my sense of self that the sense of self is, ultimately, warped, half-false.

In times like these, when I feel out of control, I always have to remember to come back to my element. That meditation on the sweet, can help one see the sweet things in life. But there should be a careful line drawn between allowance (of the sweet stuff) and dependence (on the sweet stuff). I can’t classify my love for sugar as a sickness, but it would do me good to be mindful, and not always have the French toast at every café I visit (ok who am I kidding). It is only a distraction if you let it be that way. Some fleeting thoughts that I’m not sure may resonate with any of you:

  • Fresher’s week here at Oxford a couple of weeks ago was overwhelming but I met a good number of incredibly interesting individuals. It does seem therapeutic to engage in conversations with these people, it’s a nice peek into the grander problems of the world, and I’m whisked away into the real world, that of heavy issues that I can be part of a solution to, away from the trivialities of my own head. I do tend to get stuck in my head a lot, forget about the big picture. Why I’m here, why I love it here, why I love doing what I do.
  • I met people who I really got on with, but many are here just for a year. I’m trying to figure out who I can truly connect with over my 3 years doing a PhD here.
  • Talking about PhD, I still don’t quite know what I’ve gotten myself into, ha.
  • Looking at babies makes me happy. Oh, the innocence and bluntness.
  • I hate the way nails split or crack at the most undesirable places.

Today isn’t a recipe for French toast, but that for an olive oil chocolate cake. Yes, olive oil and chocolate. I had this wonderful olive oil cake with my friend Zoe back when I was still living in London, at the famous Towpath café overlooking the lanky swishing river. I wanted to recreate such a cake, airy and flavourful without feeling like you’re just glugging down tablespoons of pure olive oil. More flavour, less grease, I guess you could say. I had a half mind to leave out the chocolate entirely, but 1. Everyone loves a chocolate surprise and 2. The olive oil taste here is pretty strong so the chocolate addition is actually complementary, if not necessary. It’s dense and sticky, so if you prefer a more cake-like cake then add slightly more flour and reduce the volume of olive oil.

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An easy process of mixing, in a single bowl. Almost an hour in the oven yes, but it’s worth it, especially when paired with something dairy or dairy-like, such as vanilla ice cream or coconut yoghurt. Eat this warm while looking outside, crisp air heralding the new season. My favourite season.

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Olive oil chocolate cake (makes one 9-inch cake)

Ingredients

100g dark chocolate, chopped roughly

240ml (1 cup) olive oil)

2 tsp salt

240g (1.75 cups) sugar

250g flour

½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda

3 eggs

120ml milk (of your choice, such as oat, almond etc)

80ml yoghurt

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C. Grease and line a 8 or 9-inch cake tin. In a bowl and with a metal whisk, whisk together all the ingredients except the flour, chocolate, baking powder and baking soda. Then add the remaining ingredients and fold in until you get a rather wet batter. Pour into your prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes in the preheated oven. After baking, leave to rest for 10 minutes before cutting in and serving with yoghurt or ice cream.

Strawberry Streusel Cake

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This is, briefly and simply put, absolutely sublime. When I shared this loaf with my godparents, my mother and godsister, they all exclaimed it was incredible, especially doused in some heavy cream, after a lighthearted meal over denser conversation. And I do agree.

I’ll say it first before you get to the ingredients: This is a gluten-free cake. Yes, it is gluten-free, but. A but. I’ve recently become more aware of the effects of gluten not just in myself, but in others. I love my bread and might never stop eating it, however one too many a slice and I will feel it. The bloat, you get it. The carbohydrate may be the most demonised item in this current era of food-demonising, and it’s hard to determine what we could or should eat, if we end up eating anything at all. But this article puts things into nice perspective. That being said, the effects of refined flour cannot be denied and I too have to force myself to take it slow with the not-so-great stuff. There will always be room for dessert, just not every day of the week.

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Therefore, the side effects of a Saturday morning’s adventurous spirit include stepping outside of my little box of refined flour and sugar and trying things like almond flour. And how simple, plain and easy, it was. How joyous, to mix something as nondescript as almond flour with eggs and then boom, a perfectly intact cake is born.

The cake is moist without being gluey, with that perfect golden-brown all over after the single hour in the oven. I used strawberries here but feel free to use any berries you have on hand, and the same goes for the streusel topping which has mixed nuts, in which case you can use whatever nuts you like.

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Strawberry Streusel Cake (makes one 9×5-inch loaf)

Ingredients 

For the filling:

2 cups strawberries (fresh or frozen), stems cut off and diced

100g (0.5 cup) sugar

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

0.5 tsp cornstarch

 

For the streusel topping:

45g (0.5 cup) almond flour

handful of chopped nuts (I used a mix of almonds, cashews, brazil nuts and walnuts)

90g (little less than 0.5 cup) sugar

35g (0.15 cup) salted butter, melted

 

For the cake:

3 eggs

50g (0.25 cup) light brown sugar

60g (0.25 cup) caster sugar

150g (around 1.5 cups+ 2 tbsp) almond flour

0.5 tsp baking powder

0.5 tsp baking soda

1 tsp vanilla extract

*Substitution notes:

VEGAN: Make 4 flax or chia ‘eggs’ in replacement of the 3 eggs, made by mixing 4 tbsp ground flaxseed or chia seeds with 8 tbsp water, and setting that aside to gel up for a bit. Substitute the butter with vegan butter.

KETO: Substitute the half cup of sugar with half cup xylitol or two-thirds cup erythritol

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F). We start with the juicy berry filling: In a saucepan heated on medium heat, add the strawberries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice and cook until the mixture turns glistening and sticky.

Now for the cake. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugars, vanilla extract, baking powder and baking soda. Then add the almond flour and whisk. The mixture should look pretty wet, but don’t worry since this will set nicely in the oven once it is finished baking.

Make the streusel topping by whisking all the streusel ingredients together with a fork in a separate bowl. Grease a 9.5-inch loaf pan, then add half of the cake mixture. Add the mixed berry mixture evenly on top, and then add the rest of the cake mixture, and then finally the streusel topping. Bake in the oven for 1 hour exactly. Remove and let the cake cool in the pan before serving (with powdered sugar and doused in heavy cream, preferably).

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

5051011 Processed with VSCO with e3 presetNothing quite beats a café with ‘70s-‘80s music blaring everywhere. I do suck energy from my surroundings. A dearth of atmosphere, a tinge of something exciting, is sure to drain me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a deathly quiet, but I also like looking up from my screen sometimes, examine faces and bodies so different and unique, or sip a coffee without bothering the librarian. Here in London, the sun is shining. Yesterday it was pouring like every cloud was trying to squeeze out its last drops for all of eternity.

Diary excerpts:

9/6: Always looking for an excuse to start anew. But why not now? Why not on a Sunday? Isn’t Sunday the first day of the week in many parts of the world anyway?// dark turquoise is my new favourite colour.

10/6: Why does coffee everywhere in London have to be so expensive? Never mind, it’s worth it for all the café ambiences I soak myself in everyday// researchers can now use single-cell sequencing to detect differences in RNA expression in cells, thus showing when they decide to progress from neural crest cells to something more specialized.

After watching Chris Morocco speak sweet nothings in his video demonstration of Bon Appetit’s ‘best’ chocolate chip cookie, I decided to give it a go. The way he talked about the beauty of the mosaic made when ripples of unevenly chopped heap of chocolate melt and bake in a creamy batter, the way something as simple as a cookie is transformed upon a simple, short cook of butter… it was all too tempting. Having not made anything with browned butter in ages, I took the risk (I still tend to burn things, so yes this was considered a risk) and set to work. He states in this particular recipe to brown just half a cup of the butter first before adding the rest in, but I went ahead and browned all of it at once, which yielded (perhaps) not an identical result to Chris’, but nevertheless retained the toffee-like, smoldering notes of butter cooked down to an almost clear brown liquid.

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Secondly, the recipe specifies that one large egg and 2 egg yolks be used, but with exactly 2 eggs left in the fridge, I used that instead. Due to that alone, I was afraid of the cookies not turning out as dense and chewy as demonstrated, but I was proven wrong with my final, accidental amendment: So, Chris used dark brown sugar, and so did I. But unlike what I saw in the video, mine was dark. As in, straight-up camp molasses. Almost. It was therefore much harder to incorporate when mixing with the butter, because of how much stickier and clumped together it was. But that exact density and stickiness, although they did make the cookies darker in colour, also let them retain a most tempting, delicious density and chewiness all throughout its body.

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Brown butter chocolate chip cookies (inspired by BA’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies– makes 16 cookies)

*= vegan substitution

Ingredients

200g (1.5 cups) plain flour

1 tsp fine salt (leave out if you’re using salted butter)

1 tsp baking soda

170g (0.75 cups) butter (*vegan butter or margarine)

50g (0.25 cups) sugar

200g (1 cup) dark brown sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 eggs (*2 vegan eggs, made by mixing 2 heaped tbsp. ground flaxseed with 5 tbsp water in a small bowl, and letting that gel up for a minute)

170g dark chocolate, chopped

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C (350F) and line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Place your butter into a saucepan and, on medium heat, melt the butter and continue to let it cook until it turns a toffee brown and looks almost clear. There will be some frothy, lighter bits on top. Swirl the pan occasionally while the butter melts. Once it is browned, set it aside for a while to cool. In a small bowl, briefly whisk together the flour, salt, chocolate and baking soda. Add the brown and white sugar to the browned butter and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Make sure there are no lumps. Add the eggs (or vegan eggs) and whisk to incorporate everything well, and you get a smooth, lump-free batter.

Add the dry mix containing the chocolate to the wet egg mixture. You should get a moist batter that still drops off a wooden spoon relatively easily.

Using an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon, place dollops of equally-sized batter on your lined sheets, making sure there’s at least 2 inches of space between each circle of batter. As the original recipe states, let the flour hydrate by letting the batter sit for a while on the trays for 5 minutes. Then bake the cookies (one tray before the other, or both at the same time), for 8 minutes. Let them sit for a while before eating up. Alternatively these can be made and frozen ahead of a time you want to consume them.

Berry Cheesecake Muffins

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Diary excerpts:

17/5: vegan magnums are terrific// the gravity of writing my thesis has not fully weighed down on me yet

18/5: so glad to have found a fitness routine that doesn’t require a gym (more walking, running)

23/5: honestly rather sad that I’ve become addicted to the temporary pleasure of something crunchy, something sweet.

2/6: Brown adipose tissue has uncoupling proteins that allow protons to travel form the outside to inside, effectively creating its own energy? A study in mice found that during periods of overeating, the TRIP gene is activated and causes massive inflammation, triggering fat storage.

3/6: fliesen= tiles

4/6: ventouse= suction device applied to baby’s head in childbirth, to assist birth. Wow.

When efforts to bake are stymied, say due to travel or the fear of people who are at your house smelling something even mildly burnt, the itch later on comes on hard. Hard. I’ll try and write an essay or put something into Excel and then I have to physically get up and go to the kitchen to play. This muffin experiment, one extrapolated from a previous one, was borne out of one of those impulsive childish outbursts, and possesses that exact childlike quality. Such a relentless need to do something with my hands is almost childish, and perhaps it would be wise to use my hands for something else, yet this is all I want to do with them, with my time.

It has nothing of the mature notes of dark chocolate somethings, but all of the decadence. It’s much welcome in light of the past week, when a few disappointments came through, but of which were also softened by a recent trip to Vienna, Austria.

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And it’s simply beautiful there. I stayed in the suburbs with a beloved family, away from the bustle of the more touristy centre. There, a different light hits the streets, a soft one which seems to imbue all its residents with the same attitude towards life. It enables a brisk but more serene walk, or perhaps a cycle, to take in the details between cement tiles or patches of grass. It enables you to observe, feel and be. Very unlike what it feels like here, where it seems rather uncommon for people to walk not for the sake of enjoying it, and mealtimes are for sustenance, never pleasure. That light, that feel, has made me want to drown in the impossible (‘unmöglich’ in their language) beauty of everyday life. From our sun-drenched brunches pregnant with pretzels (bretzeln), to cuddling near a thermal bath, to reading (The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf) and swallowing it up easily because my phone notifications are now, permanently, off.

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A soft and gossamer muffin studded with tangy berries and sweet cream cheese.

These berries are like a dense piquant forest, pleasantly tart and just slightly biting, uprooted and plunged into new beige territory. To sleep. To rest without dying, their inborn qualities of tart and fresh and zing there, always there. A cream cheese river cutting through the forest, right in the middle, breaking up the forest and letting it lie nonchalantly on either side.

Quote of the day: “Feelings are important. But they’re important not for the reasons we think they are. We think they’re important because they say something about us, about the world, and about our relationship with it. But they say none of these things. There’s no meaning attached to feelings. Sometimes you hurt for good feelings. Sometimes for a bad reason. And sometimes no reason at all. The hurt itself is neutral. The reason is separate.”

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Berry Cheesecake Muffins (makes 12 medium muffins)

*=vegan substitution

Ingredients

For the muffins:

250g (2 cups) plain flour

2 eggs (*3 vegan eggs, made by mixing 3 tbsp ground flaxseed with 6 tbsp water in a bowl and letting set aside for the timebeing)

210g (slightly less than a cup) sugar

113g (0.5 cup) melted butter (*vegan butter or margarine)

1 tsp baking powder

0.5 tsp baking soda

240ml (1 cup) yoghurt or sour cream (*any plant-based yoghurt)

1 tsp vanilla extract

0.5 tsp salt (leave out if you used salted butter)

around 1 cup of fresh or frozen berries (I used frozen since I always have frozen berries stuffed in my freezer)

 

For the cream cheese filling:

110g cream cheese (*vegan cream cheese)

2.5 tbsp sugar (you can also use icing sugar)

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 180C. Spray your 12-muffin pan with cooking spray or grease it with some butter, going all over the insides of the pan, including the whole surface on top. This is because the batter will rise and then fall to create the signature muffin top look, so greasing the surface will help you easily get the muffins out. Line your pan with paper liners.

First, in a bowl, make the cream cheese filling by mixing together the cream cheese and sugar. Put this in the fridge while you make the muffin batter. Using a whisk or electrical mixer, whisk the butter and sugar together. Then add the eggs, vanilla, and salt and mix until everything is frothy and well combined. In a separate bowl, briefly mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda, then tip this into your egg mixture. Lastly, fold in your berries. Make sure your berries are not too big– cut large raspberries or blackberries in half before mixing them in.

Fill each muffin cup halfway with the batter. Then take your cream cheese filling out from the fridge and put teaspoons of this filling into the centre of the muffin tins. Repeat until you’re done with all 12. Finally, fill the muffin cups until the top (or three-quarters full) with the rest of the batter. As a final touch, sprinkle the tops of your muffins with Maldon salt and granulated sugar. Don’t be too liberal though, since the muffins themselves are already rather sweet by themselves.

Bake for 20-22 minutes in your preheated oven. Check with a wooden skewer or knife after 20 minutes– if there are moist crumbs clinging to it, take it out. If the skewer/knife is still obviously wet, leave the muffins in there for another 3-5 minutes. These are best enjoyed warm with some vanilla ice cream or yoghurt, or plain, but can be kept in an airtight container for 3-5 days.