Friday, December 31, 2010

Pecan Shortbread Cookies

Pecan Shortbread Cookies - made December 25, 2010 from the Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Murphy (already counted as book #4)

I had liked almost every recipe from this book so the results from this one was a trifle disappointing.  It's your basic Mexican Wedding Cake-type of cookie so it was easy to make and I thought it would turn out okay.  Couple of things that went wrong for me: 1) it called for too many nuts with too little dough.  By the time I had rolled the dough into cookie balls, I still had a small handful of nut bits left but no dough to hold them together.  Not a show stopper but still....

Issue #2) While the taste was pretty good, they came out too fragile to roll well in powdered sugar and even to eat.  They crumbled instead even after they had cooled and you picked them up.  That could partly be my fault since I didn't bake them as long as the recipe said to.  Baking them for that long seemed like they'd be more of a sandy texture than the melt-in-your-mouth texture so I took them out early, when the bottoms were barely golden.  That didn't work out as I had hoped. You can see I couldn't roll them in the powdered sugar like with a more firm cookie by how clumpy the powdered sugar looks over it.  I sprinkled the sugar over the cookies instead of rolling the cookies in the sugar and it still didn't look right. One of my nieces was taking a bite out of one and it literally crumbled through her fingers and dropped to the ground.  While it made for a good laugh, that's not normally how I want my cookies to behave! I guess that'll teach me about risk taking.  I should've stuck to my old recipe for Buttery Tea Balls.

I haven't baked anything new since Christmas Day (just the tried and true stuff) so I close 2010 with my final failure of this holiday baking season.  Live and learn.  Time to explore more new territory (and 170+ more cookbooks) in 2011.

10 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 ¼ cups shelled pecan pieces, finely chopped
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, for coating

1.     Position a rack in the center of your oven.  Preheat the oven to 325˚F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
2.     In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the butter, sugar and salt to combine.  Add the vanilla, and pulse to combine.  Add the flour and pecans, and pulse to combine.  Remove the dough from the mixer.
3.     Using a small cookie scoop or a tablespoon, form balls and place 1 ½ inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the bottoms of the cookies are lightly golden.  Remove to a wire rack to cool.
4.     Put the confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl.  When the cookies are almost cool, roll them in sugar.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Peanut Butter Brownies

Peanut Butter Brownies - made December 21, 2010 from The Little Red Barn Baking Book (book #32)

I underbaked these so they almost tasted like peanut butter fudge.  Or I have fudge on the brain since I still haven't made one successfully in my mind.  But these were pretty good and I like the two-layer combination look.  I didn't go exactly halfsies on the batter and made the peanut butter layer a little more than the chocolate layer.  No deliberate reason other than I wasn't that precise is halving the batter.  The chocolate layer looked a little nubbly, maybe because there wasn't enough base batter to go with the melted chocolate.  Still, both layers tasted good.  The only change I would recommend though is to bake in an 8-inch pan instead of a 9-inch one.  The 9-inch pan made the brownies a little thin and, as mentioned, I'm prejudiced against thin brownies.  Making this in a smaller pan would've enhanced the layered look a bit better.  Just remember to adjust for baking time and possibly bake them a little longer.  But not too long as the moist, fudgy texture makes these good. 

4 ounces semisweet chocolate
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar, tightly packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (add to the peanut butter layer if you wish) 
1.     Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour a 9-inch square pan. (I recommended using an 8-inch pan.)
2.     Melt the chocolate with half the butter in a double boiler set over hot water.  Stir to combine, then let cool for a few minutes. 
3.     Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl.
4.     In a separate bowl, beat the remaining butter with the granulated and brown sugars until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one by one, beating after each addition.  Add the vanilla.  Gently fold in the flour.
5.     Spoon half of the batter into another bowl.  To one half, had the peanut butter and to the other half, add the melted chocolate.  Spread the peanut butter batter in the prepared pan to form an even layer.  Spread the chocolate batter evenly over the top.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until set in the middle.  A toothpick inserted in the center should come out with a few moist crumbs on it.
Makes 16-20 brownies

Friday, December 24, 2010

Devil's Food Cake with Chocolate Buttercream

Devil's Food Cake with Chocolate Buttercream - made December 21, 2010 from The Magnolia Bakery by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (book #31)

It's hard for me to make a good chocolate layer cake.  They never come out moist enough for my taste.  The outer ring of the cake is just a trifle dry while the middle is moist.  I want uniform moistness in my cakes.  One answer would be to use the Magi-Cake strips to prevent the outer ring from baking faster than the center but I can't find the velcro version in stores and keep forgetting to order them online until I want to make a layer cake and by then it's too late.

I also have realized I don't make good chocolate frosting and after making this layer cake, I finally figured out why.  My deep dark secret when it comes to frosting?  I never measure how much powdered sugar I put in.  Blasphemy, I know.  Especially since baking is supposed to be such a science.  But when it comes to frostings, I go by taste and spreadable consistency.  Which actually works well for frostings that aren't chocolate like vanilla or cream cheese.  But chocolate?  Remember chocolate sets once it's cool.  So even though I might've liked the consistency of my chocolate frosting when I first mix it and frost with it, it invariably hardens to be more like thin fudge on the cake.  Which makes cutting cleanly somewhat problematic, not to mention eating it.  I solve the problem by microwaving the frosted cake for 20 seconds.  Then the cake is warm (and moist) and the frosting is just melt-y.  Those 20 seconds cover a multitude of baking sins.

For this particular recipe, it calls for making the cake in two 9-inch round cake layers.  When I mixed up the batter, there seemed to be quite a bit of it, too much for only 2 cake pans so I ended up pouring it into three 8-inch round cake pans.  Hence I got quite the towering cake once it was put together and frosted.  The taste was good but the texture could've been a little softer.  That could also have been my error since I didn't read the directions that closely and didn't whip the egg yolks for 2 minutes as instructed.  That would've put more air into the yolks/batter and made it lighter.  I don't mind a dense cake but definitely should've baked these a few minutes less.  Back to the cake drawing board.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
8 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 cups milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1.     Preheat the oven to 350˚F.  Grease and lightly flour two 9” round cake pans (or three 8” round cake pans), then line the bottoms with waxed paper or parchment circles.
2.    In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.
3.    Beat the egg yolks until thick and lemon colored, about 2 minutes.
4.    In a large bowl, cream the butter and the sugar until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg yolks, beating until well combined.  Add the chocolate, mixing until well incorporated.  Add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with the milk and vanilla extract, beating after each addition until smooth. 
5.    In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites on the high speed of an electric mixer until soft peaks form.  Gently fold into the batter.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean.  Let cakes cool in pans for 10 minutes.  Remove from pans and cool completely on wire racks.  When cake has cooled, ice between the layers, then ice top and sides of cake.

Chocolate Buttercream

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon milk
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled to lukewarm
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

1.     In a medium-size bowl, beat the butter until creamy, about 3 minutes.  Add the milk and beat until smooth.
2.    Add the melted chocolate and beat well.  Add the vanilla extract and beat for 3 minutes.  Gradually add the sugar and beat until creamy and of desired consistency.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Super Sugar Sparkles

Super Sugar Sparkles - made December 21, 2010 from Great Cookies by Carole Walter (book #30)

I may just need to rename these "Damn Good Sugar Cookies".  Because they are, especially eaten just slightly lukewarm.  They come out thick with crisp edges and the middle is the perfect combination of cakey and chewy in a sugar cookie.  Almost like Specialty's cookies.  And I adore Specialty's cookies.  Use fresh butter when you make these because so much of the flavor in a vanilla/sugar cookie is the butter.  I normally don't make sugar cookies that often as I don't eat them as often as chocolate chip or even pure chocolate cookies.  But I can see making these regularly.  It's a good gift cookie for people who don't like chocolate (hard as that is for me to fathom but those peeps do exist) and prefer vanilla flavors.

The recipe calls for using sparkling white sugar, which can be obtained from The Baker's Catalog.  I used regular granulated sugar and that was just fine.  If you want to make it less plain and dress it up a little, you can also sprinkle with colored sugars.  I'm a bit of a purist though and think sugar cookies should be equally pure.  I like it sprinkled with plain white sugar.

Oh, and I tried one batch with the egg wash and sugar sprinkled on top and another batch without the egg wash and just the sugar sprinkled on top.  Although the ones with the egg wash browned more nicely, the sugar sprinkles were absorbed too quickly into the egg wash and didn't really stay visible even before baking.  I actually prefer the version without the egg wash.  Bake only until the edges are golden and the top of the middles look only just dry.  Don't overbake them as part of the goodness is the middles being moist and chewy.

3 cups all-purpose flour, spooned in and leveled
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 ¼ cups superfine sugar
2 large eggs, separated
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons water
1/3 cup sparkling white sugar, for garnish

1.    Preheat the oven to 375⁰F.  Line the cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2.    Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar.  Set aside.
3.    In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and lightened in color, 1 ½ to 2 minutes.  Add the sugar ¼ cup at a time and beat for 2 minutes longer.  Add the egg yolks and vanilla, mixing for 1 minute longer.  Scrape down the bowl as needed.
4.    On low speed, add half of the dry ingredients, then add the milk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, mixing only to combine.
5.    With lightly floured hands, shape about ¼ cup of the dough into a ball.  Place six balls of dough about 3 inches apart on each cookie sheet.  Using the heel of your hand, press each ball into a 3 to 3 ½” disk.  Using a flat-bottomed glass lightly dipped in flour, flatten each disk into a 4” circle.
6.    Combine the egg whites with the water and beat lightly with a fork.  Brush the top of each disk heavily with the egg wash (or omit completely if you prefer).  Sprinkle with ½ to ¾ teaspoon of sparkling white sugar.  Bake the cookies for 13 to 14 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned.  Let rest on the cookie sheets for 3-5 minutes, or until firm enough to handle.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Store in an airtight container, layered between strips of wax paper, for up to 3 weeks.  These cookies may be frozen. (My recommendation is freeze the cookie dough and bake the cookies when you need them so they'll always be fresh.)

Wicked Brownie Bites

Wicked Brownie Bites - made December 18, 2010 from Bite-Size Desserts by Carole Bloom (book #29)

Here's the "1/2 failure" I mentioned earlier.  These mini brownie bites tasted great, nice and chocolatey with a slightly crisp outside but fudgy goodness inside.  The failure part was their appearance.  The batter firmed up/cooled off faster than I expected and didn't really smooth out during baking so if they go into the mini muffin pan craggy, they come out craggy.  They also didn't come out easily although I used a nonstick pan and had sprayed it with nonstick cooking spray to boot.  I ran a little spatula around the sides to get them to release more easily but the firm outside meant the spatula met with resistance so sometimes the outside broke and the mini bites came out misshapen.  It didn't affect their taste but this isn't something I'd parade in a magazine either.  To salvage their appearance, I put them in festive little mini cupcake liners.  That probably didn't fool anyone but it hid some of their Quasimodo-ness at first glance.

I kept the worst-looking ones as my taste test by putting a couple of them in a ramekin, warming them up in the microwave for 10-15 seconds and topping with vanilla ice cream.  All was forgiven then.

1 cup (4 ½ ounces) coarsely chopped walnuts (I substituted mini chocolate chips instead)
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70 to 72% cacao content), finely chopped
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
4 ounces (8 tablespoons, 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup (4 ounces) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (4 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup (2 ¼ ounces) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons (½ ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural Dutch-processed)
¼ teaspoon kosher or fine-grained sea salt

1.     Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350˚F.  Place the mini muffin pans on a baking sheet.
2.     Toast the walnuts if using and cool completely.
3.     Place the bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over low heat.  Stir often with a rubber spatula to help the chocolates and butter melt evenly.  When melted, let cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.
4.     Whip the eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer with the wire whip attachment until they are frothy.  Add the granulated sugar and brown sugar and whip until the mixture is very thick and pale colored and holds a slowly dissolving ribbon as the beater is lifted, about 5 minutes.  Mix in the vanilla.  Add the melted chocolate and butter mixture and blend completely on low speed.  Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with the rubber spatula.
5.     In a medium-size bowl, sift together the flour and cocoa powder.  Add the salt and stir to combine.  In 3 stages, add this flour mixture to the chocolate mixture, blending well after each addition.  Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with the rubber spatula.  Add the walnuts, if using, (or chocolate chips) and stir to distribute evenly.
6.     Use a1 ½” round ice cream scoop to divide the batter evenly among the cavities of the mini muffin pans, filling each cavity.
7.     Bake the brownies for 25 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out slightly moist.  Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the mini muffin pans to racks to cool.  Remove brownies from the mini muffin pans when they’ve cooled slightly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lemon Bars

Lemon Bars - made December 18, 2010 from Fat Witch Brownies by Patricia Helding (book #28)

I mentioned before that I don't like to try new recipes for my holiday baking because of the risk factor in something not turning out when I need it to.  I've gambled on a few new recipes this holiday baking season and for the most part, they've turned out fine.  However, I have had 2 1/2 failures so far.  In addition to my not-so-creamy-nor-dreamy fudge failure, these lemon bars can be chalked up in the failure column (I'll explain the "1/2" failure in a future post).  I knew I shouldn't have been experimenting, especially since I already have a lemon bar recipe I already like.  But I had extra lemons to use up and this one used more lemon juice than my normal recipe so I thought I would just try it and see.

Where did this go wrong?  Let me count the ways.  First, the crust didn't turn out.  I baked it for 15 minutes like the recipe said but it wasn't golden yet or even "not raw" so I left it in for another 5 minutes.  Still wasn't really done but I took it out anyway, thinking maybe once it baked some more after the topping was put on, it'd be okay.  Second, the topping.  I should know by now that when something calls for 1/2 cup of lemon juice, it's going to be, well, lemony.  As in tart.  As in way too tart and lip-puckering for me to really enjoy.  Once I put the topping on, I baked this another extra 5 minutes more than the recipe said to but it wasn't really browned on top.  I thought maybe it wasn't supposed to be.  I was wrong.  After I let it cool and sprinkled the powdered sugar on top, the moistness in the top kept absorbing the powdered sugar.  Not a good sign.  The crust was almost soggy and was too thin for the tart lemon topping.  Major failure.

It's probably good for me to have a failure once in awhile.  Humility is good for the soul and there's nothing more humbling than having a basic recipe fail on you.  I also tend to learn more from mistakes than failures.  My lessons learned here would've been to follow my instinct and bake the bottom crust longer than the recipe says to until I was satisfied with how "golden brown" it was, bake it in a smaller pan to get a thicker crust, cut back on the lemon juice and bake it longer as a whole so the top layer isn't so soggy and greedily sucking up all the powdered sugar into it.
My only regret is this failure came at a bad time as I was baking it for some goodie bag giveaways for friends at church.  Their bags were a little lighter than usual this year as by the time my baking came to an end, I didn't have time to rectify the mistakes and make another batch of lemon bars.   Oops.

1 cup unbleached flour
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, not yet to room temperature, cut into pieces

3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
1 ½ tablespoons fresh, finely grated lemon zest (1-2 lemons)
3 tablespoons unbleached flour
Big pinch of salt

1.     Line a 9” x 9” baking pan with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.  Dust with flour and tap out the excess.  Preheat the oven to 350F.
2.     For the crust: sift the flour, confectioners’ sugar, and salt into a bowl.  Add the butter and mix into the flour, cutting in with 2 knives or a pastry blender.
3.     Pat the mixture evenly in the prepared baking pan and bake for 15 minutes or until golden.  Allow the crust to cool while you make the filling.
4.     Filling: beat the eggs until frothy.  Slowly add the granulated sugar, until just combined.  Beat in the lemon juice and zest and combine well.
5.     Measure the flour and salt and then sift together directly into the filling mixture.  Mix gently until they are incorporated into the lemon mixture.  Pour the filling over the baked crust and bake for 15 minutes or until the top is set.  It should have tiny bubbles on the surface and the edges should be brown and slightly pulling away from the sides.
6.     Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 1 hour.  Cut just before serving.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chocolate Decadence Cookies

Chocolate Decadence Cookies - made December 17, 2010 from Alice Medrich's Cookies and Brownies (book #27)

ETA: I mistakenly attributed this recipe for Lisa Yockelson's A Country Baking Treasury but I got my recipes mixed up and this is from Alice Medrich's Cookies & Brownies baking book instead.  Sorry, Alice.  Want to know what baked fudge tastes like?  Then make these cookies.  Not only is the flavor pure chocolate but these stayed thick and didn't spread much which is what I look for in a good cookie.

These are super simple to make.  The dough can be made ahead of time, portioned into dough balls and frozen until you're ready to bake them.  Time them in the oven and don't be afraid to underbake them.  Unlike chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cookies actually taste better at room temperature rather than warm from the oven.  That's because you can savor the chocolate taste better.  When it's warm, it's still almost like liquidy dough.  But when cool?  Baked fudge.  And of course, as always, use good chocolate.  It makes a difference.  Once again, I omitted the nuts from this cookie, not just because I don't like nuts in my cookies but also because for a pure chocolate cookie, I didn't want any other flavor getting in the way.  Chocolate is king.

2 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped or left in large pieces
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1.     Preheat the oven to 350˚F (unless you’re planning to refrigerate the dough first).  Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
2.     Whisk the eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a small bowl to combine thoroughly.  Set the bowl in a larger bowl of hot tap water while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
3.     Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in another small bowl and mix thoroughly together with a whisk or fork.
4.     Melt the chopped 8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate and the butter in the top half of a double boiler over barely simmering water, stirring frequently.  Remove from heat and let cool until chocolate is warm, not hot.  Add the egg mixture to the chocolate, stirring just until thoroughly combined.  Stir in the flour mixture, then the nuts and chocolate chips.
5.     Scoop slightly rounded tablespoons of batter and place them 1 ½” apart on the cookie sheets.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the surface of the cookie looks dry and set and the centers are still gooey.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Milk Chocolate Florentines

Milk Chocolate Florentines - made December 15, 2010 from Cookies by Natalie Haughton

I've already made something from this Cookies recipe book so it doesn't count as another book towards my baking challenge.  However, I've always wanted to make florentines so I used the same book anyway.  Florentines are thin, lacy cookies, typically made with oats and/or sliced almonds and sandwiched with chocolate filling that hardens and holds the cookies together.  We made them at the CIA and I remember thinking they were a total PITA to make because they required precise timing  and handling.  You need to make them as thin as you can, they have a tendency to stick so it's best to bake them on silpats or parchment paper and, if you want a professional look to them, you need to cut them out with round cookie cutters after they come out of the oven.  Only your timing has to be impeccable because if you wait too long and they have time to cool enough to crisp up, they'll break when you try cutting them into cookie cutter rounds.  And even if you cut them out while they're hot enough to be malleable, they can also stick to your cookie cutter at the edges and tear apart.  Yup, total pain.  But, like all things that require effort, a well-made florentine is worth it.  They're crisp and tasty, sandwiched with chocolate - yum.

Fortunately, this recipe wasn't as difficult or as high maintenance as the CIA one.  It uses oats and no sliced almonds.  I also wasn't going for the perfect look so I shaped the cookies into approximately round shapes and didn't bother trying to cut them into perfect rounds.  Usually when I make something for the first time, I try to follow the recipe to the letter and make my adjustments later.  For this one though, I couldn't bring myself to take out the cookies after only 7 minutes as the recipe calls for as the cookies still looked pale and anemic.  I'm used to florentines having some healthy brown color to them so I baked them until at least the edges were brown even though the middles still looked a little wet.  For the filling, I had some milk chocolate fondue chips so I melted those instead of regular chocolate chips and they worked just fine.  Don't heat the chocolate too much though or else it'll be too liquidy and could drip out of the "lace" of the cookie and make a mess.

I have to say I really like these cookies.  After I baked the first sheet pan, I got bolder and left the cookies in longer until I liked how brown they were, which meant baking them closer to 15 minutes than 10 minutes.  Once the cookies cooled and were sandwiched, they were deliciously crisp.  The first sheet pan I baked were a bit soft.  Still tasted good but didn't have the crisp texture I like from a good florentine.  Because they're sandwiched together, these make good care package cookies as they're not likely to break or dry out during the mailing time.  Don't overbake them too much though as even though they look better browned, you don't want them to get too hard when you have to bite both halves of the sandwich cookie.

2/3 cup butter
2 cups quick oats, uncooked
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup corn syrup
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
One 11 ½-ounce package (2 cups) milk chocolate chips

1.    Preheat oven to 375⁰F.  Melt butter in medium saucepan over low heat.  Remove from heat.
2.    Stir in oats, sugar, flour, corn syrup, milk, vanilla extract and salt; mix well.  Drop by level teaspoonfuls, about 3 inches apart, onto foil-lined cookie sheets (I line with parchment paper).
3.    Spread thin with rubber spatula.  Bake for 5-7 minutes (or longer, 10-15 minutes until the edges are brown and middles are no longer wet).  Cool completely on wire racks.  Peel foil away from cookies.
4.    Melt the milk chocolate chips over hot (not boiling) water; stir until smooth.
5.    Spread chocolate on flat side of ½ the cookies.  Top with remaining cookies.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gift Giving for a Baker

5 shopping days before Christmas!  Are you done with shopping or still trying to brave the crazy crowds and the feeding frenzy at the malls?  Do you have a baker in your life that you need to buy a gift for?  I think bakers (and cooks) are some of the easiest people to buy gifts for.  Those who are not of a culinary bent would probably disagree with me but let me offer some ideas for anyone still looking for last-minute gifts.

But first, what not to buy a baker:
Gadgets and baking "stuff" - some people may disagree with me as they think of course a nice set of  mixing bowls, a nut grinder, a food scale, baking pans and various other accoutrements are the perfect gifts for a baker.  And they might be...if your baker doesn't have several of them already.  If your recipient has been baking any length of time, trust me, they have it all.  If you're absolutely sure they don't have any of the above or are looking to get new ones to replace what they already have, then by all means, buy it for them.  But otherwise, save your money.  Us bakers love our hobby enough that we'll buy what we need.  I went through an acquisitive phase myself and, after having moved households, I'm convinced I have every baking pan known to baking mankind.  I even have several mini cheesecake pans.  And I don't even like cheesecake!  Nor do I bake it.  But I'm of an acquisitive bent and every baking thing fascinates me so - ooh, look, shiny object!

Another suggestion of what not to get a baker: specialty pans.  You know the ones I mean - the ones shaped like a giant cupcake or Barbie's face.  Your baker may use it once (if that), curse how hard all the little nooks and crannies are to clean, wonder when on earth they'll be able to make that shape cake again and give up.  Don't do it.  Put that pan back on the store shelf.

Cookbooks can be a great idea for a baker or chef but only if you're absolutely sure they don't already have that particular one you're about to give them.  Either that or include a gift receipt.

If you really feel like you want to get your baker something, regardless of whether they have it or not, here are some of the safer items to get, i.e. most bakers wouldn't mind having extras of these because they'll use the extras:
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • High heat spatulas
  • Wooden spoons
  • If you know if they have a Kitchen Aid, an extra mixing bowl for their mixer is always handy.
  • Simple baking pans - bakers can always use an extra 8" or 9" square pan, light metal cookie sheets (light metal is important as dark cookie sheets can burn your cookies), and 9 x 13 pans.  If they make a lot of cakes, 8" or 9" round cake pans also make good presents.
  • Oven mitts
  • small metal spatula

If you truly want to play it safe and give your baker something useful, then the best present you can give them is ingredients.  Yup, you read that right.  Now I don't mean butter or eggs.  Besides being logistically impractical to wrap and have them wait until Christmas to open it (ewww), that'd just be weird.  But you can give:
  • Chocolate - baking chocolate such as the 3-oz bars of Valrhona or Lindt bittersweet chocolate. You can get them at Trader Joe's for $2.99 a bar.  World Market also carries chocolate bars that are great for baking.  But please buy the good chocolate.
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder: Pernigotti cocoa from Williams Sonoma is good and so is  Scharffenberger
  • Chocolate chips (I received the Costco-sized 72-ounce bag a couple of weeks ago and let me tell you that's one of my favorite presents this year)
  • Cacao nibs - can be used in addition or instead of chocolate chips in cookies and brownies
  • Nuts (Trader Joe's and Costco are a good source for these)
  • Vanilla extract - not the little bottles of Schilling at the grocery store, that'd just be cheesy.  Try Madagascar pure vanilla extract, aka the good stuff.  If you don't want to spend $19 at Williams Sonoma for the large bottle, try TJ Maxx's packaged food section.  They generally carry them for $12.99 or so
  • Jars of dulce de leche and/or Nutella
  • Parchment paper - every baker goes through rolls of parchment paper like no tomorrow, especially if they bake a lot of cookies
  • If you're feeling adventurous or daring, look for hard-to-find ingredients that can be special-ordered.  The Baker's Catalog has a nice selection of uppity cinnamon, whole nutmeg, blocks of caramel, black cocoa, etc.
Why ingredients?  Because it's something they'll actually use.  Even if they buy it themselves and already have, bakers can always use ingredients.  It's the tools of their craft and something they invest in regularly.  I've been known to spend more on baking ingredients than I do on real food.  And if your baker recipient is known for making a particular delicacy or makes something you particularly like, try to get them something that uses that ingredient in that recipe.  It's a very sincere compliment that you like what they make and want them to keep making it.  So if Aunt Martha is known for her pecan pie, make her a present of a bag of whole pecans in a pie pan or tied to a pie server.  Love someone's baklava?  How about a bag of nuts and a jar of honey?  Put in a gift bag with a complimentary note of what you like that they make and you'll make a baker's day.

Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with any of these stores or products.  I'm just telling you what I use and, by trial and error, have found to be useful.

Creamy Dreamy Walnut Fudge...or not

Creamy Dreamy Walnut Fudge - made December 12, 2010 from Chocolate & Vanilla by Gale Gand (book #26)

I love fudge, especially with (toasted) almonds or a ribbon of caramel running through it.  It can be sickeningly sweet and it's totally bad for you but the trick is to just have a little.  It's meant to be a treat to be savored, not a full-on serving to stuff down.  I first discovered fudge as a teenager when I worked in my dad's office in San Francisco one summer with my sister and my cousin.  We would "take a break" and go down to the See's candy shop near his office building and each get a piece of chocolate.  I usually got either the almond turtle or the fudge.  More often than not I chose the fudge.  Heaven.  Later on, I discovered another wonderful purveyor of fudge, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, which was even better as they offered more varieties of fudge, including caramel.  Load up the empty calories, there's nothing better.

I also remember trying to make fudge on my own.  The first recipe I tried was the recipe on the label of the Kraft marshmallow creme jar which conveniently used all of the jar (you don't want leftover marshmallow creme, it's just too sticky/icky) plus melted chocolate chips.  As my first try, I thought it was pretty good.  It got even better when I would add toasted almonds, roughly chopped, as it offset the sweetness of the fudge and gave it a little texture.  I graduated to "fudge from scratch", i.e. with milk, sugar and the good chocolate.  In culinary school, our chef instructor explained the tricks to getting  that smooth, creamy texture of fudge and how it can quickly go wrong and become grainy..  Ironically his demo fudge came out - you guessed it - grainy.

In recent years, I've been on the search for a good fudge recipe.  The ones I've tried were just too sweet or weren't creamy enough.  I don't know whether my taste buds are becoming less tolerant of sweetness (which is a pretty horrifying concept to me as a baker, let me tell you) or if my standards for fudge are just getting higher and the ones with marshmallow creme and anything overly sweet just weren't going to cut it anymore.  Plus the texture was important to me - a good piece of fudge will be moist and creamy, not dry and crumbly.

So when I saw this recipe for "creamy" dreamy fudge from Gale Gand, I had to try it.  It makes fudge the old-fashioned way with milk and chocolate, boiled to soft ball stage, then beaten until it's the proper texture.  During the heating stage, it seemed to take forever for the candy thermometer to hit 234 degrees or the soft ball stage but when it finally did and I poured the fudge into my Kitchen Aid to start whipping it up, everything looked really promising.  The fudge was steaming as it was whipped around in the mixer but it gradually went from liquidy to something firmer.  The directions say to beat it for 3-6 minutes, add the nuts then beat for another 2-3 minutes.  Everything was all good for the first 3 minutes and I started thinking I had discovered THE fudge recipe.  Then minute 4 hit and the wheels started to come off my fudge bus.  It started losing its gloss all right.  But it was supposed to, right?  So I let it beat some more.  Mistake.  By the time I added the chopped toasted almonds and beat it for another 2 minutes (cringe), the texture of my fudge went from creamy and dreamy to dull and nightmarish.  I valiantly tried to rally by pouring it into the prepared baking pan and telling myself it would still work out once I smoothed it out.  Heh.  Not so much.

The top looked dry and unappetizing.  The only thing that gave me the slightest bit of hope is the fudge really was creamy once you put it in your mouth.  It wasn't crumbly - it just looked like it was.  At least while it was marginally warm.  I let it cool, still holding out hope that all was not lost in my attempts to make good fudge.  Once it was cool and I inverted it and cut it, the bottom side was still "creamy" looking but the rest of the fudge had given up the ghost.  My fudge = FAIL.  In the picture, you're looking at the bottom of the fudge top side up.  It only dried out from there.  Sigh.  The depressing thing is I don't think it was necessarily the recipe.  If only I hadn't beaten it so much, the texture might not have changed so drastically for the worse.  So now I'm determined to try this recipe again and see if I can make it work.  The taste was good.  But dry fudge just won't do.  Back to the drawing board.

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 ¼ cups milk
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted (optional)

1.     Grease a 9-inch square baking pan and set aside.
2.     In a medium saucepan, stir the chocolate and milk over low heat until the chocolate is melted.  Add the sugar, corn syrup, and salt, hook a candy thermometer onto the pot, and cook the mixture to the soft-ball stage (234˚F).  Add the butter, then scrape the mixture into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
3.     Beat on medium speed until the mixture begins to lighten in color, 3 to 6 minutes, adding the vanilla in the first minute.  Add the nuts and continue beating on low speed until the fudge loses its gloss and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. (note: watch how long you beat this - depending on your mixer, it might not need to be beaten so long - check at the 3-minute mark)
4.     Pour into the prepared pan, spreading it out evenly, preferably with an offset spatula.  Let cool completely before cutting into 1-inch squares.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Espresso Cheesecake Brownies

Espresso Cheesecake Brownies - made December 12, 2010 from Sweet Times by Dorie Greenspan (book #25)

Usually I avoid anything with "cheesecake" in the title since I'm not fond of the taste of cheesecake.  But when the cheesecake layer is paired with a brownie layer, it's usually acceptable to my finicky taste buds, primarily because I count on the brownie layer dominating the cheesecake layer.  This particular recipe also has the added advantage of having an espresso-flavored cheesecake layer so I figured that would help drown out the cream cheese taste.  It did which means I like this recipe.  The  brownie has a fudgy texture which contrasts nicely with the creamy cheesecake layer.  I don't drink coffee or espresso but I'm fond of coffee-flavored things (everything except coffee itself, go figure) and this one has a great flavor to complement the chocolate brownie.

The recipe is from a Dorie Greenspan book and, like Lisa Yockelson, Dorie Greenspan has some great baking books out there, meaning almost every recipe I've made from one of her books has turned out pretty well.  Dorie also tends to write for more novice bakers so her directions can sometimes be long, detailed and especially helpful if you don't bake much.  I've abbreviated some of it as well as wrote in what I normally do as a baking step.

This makes a great care package brownie and is pretty to look at as well.  The only thing I would recommend is if you do send in a care package, mail during the winter months or to cool climates.  I wouldn't risk the cream cheese/cheesecake part in warmer climates or hot weather.

½ cup all-purporse flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
6 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate such as Lindt or Tobler, broken into small pieces
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
2/3 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 ½ teaspoon espresso powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1.    Brownie: Preheat the oven to 350⁰F.  Line a 9 x 9” baking pan with foil and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.  Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon, if using, in a bowl.  Set aside.
2.    Melt the chocolate and butter together in the top of a double boiling over hot water.  As it’s melting, stir together to blend.  Add sugar and mix well, using a small whisk.  Add the vanilla and eggs, one at a time, stirring after each addition until mixture is smooth. Pour ¾ of the chocolate batter into the prepared pan and reserve the remaining ¼ batter.  Set aside.
3.    Cheesecake: Dissolve the espresso powder in the boiling water; set aside to cool.  Beat the cream cheese in a mixer with the paddle attachment until very creamy.  Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until the sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes.  Blend in the espresso.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Beat at medium speed for 1 minute.  On low speed, add the flour and beat just until blended.
4.    Pour cheesecake batter over the brownie batter in the pan and let it spread over the brownie layer.  Scatter teaspoonfuls of the remaining ¼ brownie batter over the cheesecake layer.  You can choose to marble it or let it drop as is to make a random pattern.  Don’t disturb the bottom layer and don’t go across the pan more than once.
5.    Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.  Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes.  Let cool to room temperature, cover and place in the refrigerator to chill.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Care packages

My friend Kendra wrote a hilarious blog post on her attempts to make cute little snowman cupcakes.  My horror aside at her using a box mix (Kendra!), I can utterly sympathize with the attempt to dress up food for a party.  There was a time when I wished to be one of those clever and creative bakers who can make eye catching desserts and have that "ooh" and "ahh" factor.  How many of us haven't been in awe at beautiful wedding cakes, cakes in the clever shapes of purses or poodles that "look real"?  In culinary school, I had two classmates that seemed to execute this flawlessly - their stuff not only tasted good but they looked awesome, almost too good to eat.

I, on the other hand, have long ago accepted that I'm not like them.  Yes, I like to make things nicely presentable but my focus is in how stuff tastes, more than how it looks.  Maybe I've eaten too many beautiful-but-sawdust-like wedding cakes to truly accept that something can look and taste good.  By looks, I don't mean something is on a pretty platter or looks temptingly edible.  I mean it looks clever, be it a beautifully decorated sugar cookie with royal icing, a sugar-frosted cake with gum paste flowers that look like they grew in my mom's garden, a chocolate souffle in a caramel cage or what have you.  I did a lot of those decorating touches at the CIA and they're not only time consuming but you have to have the creative touch to really enjoy doing them.  I'm lacking that touch. But I'm okay with that because I know I can bake things people like to eat.  They may not look clever but they can still look good.

This is a long lead in to say, from my comments on her blog post that I can't make pretty food, Kendra suggested a post on making up pretty care packages.  Now that I can do.  I love sending care packages filled with baked goods.  If only postage wasn't so criminally expensive, I'd send them more often.  In some of my posts, I add commentary on what might or might not be good to send in a care package.  Based on my experience, here's what works well and doesn't work well when you send a care package:
  1. Things like brownies, bar cookies and loaves of quick bread are good to send since they're less fragile and you don't have to worry about them breaking en route.
  2. Individual-sized packaging is important.  When I send brownies or bar cookies, I cut them into individual-size pieces, wrap them two pieces at a time in plastic wrap and group like-flavored brownies together in a cellophane bag.  This makes it easier for your recipient when they get your package.  I also typically send brownies that can easily go into the freezer directly from the package if they can't eat them right away.
  3. For mini loaves, I leave the whole loaf intact, wrap it in foil and ship as is or put the foil-wrapped loaf in a cellophane bag with a twist tie.  Looks prettier. Don't cut it as the cut edges will just dry out faster.
  4. Grouping like-flavored items is important.  Remember that whatever you send is likely going to be in the same box with everything else for at least a couple of days, if not more.  Strong flavors like banana and peanut butter can permeate everything else in the box so keep that in mind when sending a package.  If you do have to send strong-flavored items, wrap them individually as much as possible and put the like-flavored items in a ziploc.  They sell decorated ziploc bags for the holidays if you want it to look prettier. Otherwise, only send like-flavored items.
What doesn't work well to send:
  1. Most cookies don't ship well.  Even if you can find sturdy enough cookies that aren't likely to crumble in shipping (typically oatmeal cookies work well), cookies dry out faster than brownies or even cakes so the few days they spend in transit are days they're losing their freshness.  I'm one of those fanatics who think cookies I bake the night before aren't as good the next day so I can't fathom eating cookies several days old.
  2. If you do have your heart set on shipping cookies, package them well - this means wrapping them in plastic wrap or putting them in ziploc bags with as little air as possible in them.  Cushion them with wax paper or other soft materials and wedge them in tins or sturdy small boxes that allow for as little movement as possible.  When trying to prevent breakage in shipping, movement is the enemy since it's the space to move around that causes most things to break.
  3. Thick cookies will likely survive better than thin cookies and will also likely dry out less during shipping time.
  4. Layer cookies with wax paper in between the layers.  Stacking them as is on top of each other can lead them to stick and not be appetizing by the time they arrive at their destination.
  5. Frosted cookies?  Forget about it.  Unless you're talking royal icing type of frosting that hardens and doesn't stick or rub off on anything.  But honest-to-goodness frosting that sticks to paper and plastic when wrapped?  Not so much.
  6. Cupcakes also don't fare well, both because cakes can also dry out quickly and because the frosting will stick to everything.  Not to mention they're harder to pack without having them move if they have too much space or they'll end up squished if you pack them so they won't move.  
I'm still working on my last care packages to send out.  Brownies I can bake ahead of time, wrap in individual packages and put directly into the freezer until I'm ready to mail them out.  I like to put a variety of treats into a care package so I also plan for my mass baking day - last one coming up this weekend as I'm running out of time to mail them to arrive before Christmas.

Adding a few more notes on sending care packages:
Make sure you use a sturdy box to ship your goodies in or else they may not make it in the shape you intend them to.  If you've ever seen the volume of packages the postal workers throw around, you wouldn't choose flimsy packaging.  A boon for sending packages is the flat rate boxes, especially when you're sending boxes across the country.  You can get them from the post office for free and you can load them up as heavy as you'd like as long as it fits into that size box.  The medium flat rate box works best when sending a good-sized care package:

Currently, the cost to send this size box anywhere in the country is $10.70.  Which may sound like a lot but if you're sending a heavy package in the farthest postal zone from you, you'll be spending a lot more than that.  This size box can actually hold quite a lot of brownies so when I use it, I try to send it to someone who I know will be able  to share it with others.  No point in making your friends sick of sugar (or your baking!).  For individuals, there's the small flat rate box, about the size of sending a VHS tape or slightly larger but it can still hold a fair amount of brownies for one person.

Here's what can fit into the medium flat rate box before I add the additional padding/packing materials to keep the contents well-cushioned for their journey from CA to MA:

Without overly crowding the box, this holds 5 goodie bags.  For the holidays, I like using decorated cellophane bags and ziploc bags.  Just makes things a little more festive looking.  I also have labels that I'll write what the treat is - I don't always do it (depends if I can find my labels or not, lol) but I figure it's nice for your recipients to know what they're eating.  Everything is individually wrapped and packaged so your recipients can also put everything directly into the freezer upon the box's arrival if they don't plan to eat it right away.  That way, everything will stay relatively fresh until it's time to consume them.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Black Bottom Brownies

    Black Bottom Brownies - made December 10, 2010 from Brownies & Blondies by Lisa Yockelson (book #24)

    This is the last of the 3 recipes I tried out for the first time for my Dessert Extravaganza party.  While I'm usually hesitant to try out recipes for the first time when I need them for something like a party or a gift since you never know how they'll turn out, I'd made enough of Lisa Yockelson's recipes (and found them fabulous) to consider this a low-risk effort.  This is from a little recipe book that I can't even remember where I got it or how long ago but since it's by one of my favorite cookbook authors, it was a no-brainer to get.

    Cream cheese swirl brownies are pretty to serve at a gathering and one of the few ways I'll eat cream cheese in any form so this seemed like a safe bet to try.  I'd like to be able to say this tasted great and it might have.  But I don't know since I forgot to try a taste test piece before or during the party and I sent leftovers home with my guests.  Before the party, I had set aside some pieces for care packages I gave to friends the next day but I didn't dip into their stash either.  But while I don't know how they taste, I will say they looked great and appeared to have the fudgy texture I like in brownies.  I need to make these again so I can verify their taste.

    ¾ cup unsifted all-purpose flour
    ¼ teaspoon baking powder
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
    3 squares (3 ounces) unsweetened chocolate melted and cooled
    1 cup superfine sugar
    2 extra-large eggs
    1 extra-large egg yolk
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract

    Cream Cheese Topping
    2 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
    ¼ cup granulated sugar
    Pinch of salt
    1 extra-large egg
    ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
    ½ cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

    1.     Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour a 9 x 9 x 2” baking pan.
    2.     For the brownies: thoroughly mix the all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside 2 teaspoons of the flour mixture for the cream cheese topping.
    3.     Whisk the butter and chocolate in a bowl; beat in the sugar, eggs, egg yolk and vanilla extract.  Add the dry ingredients and stir to form a batter.
    4.     Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan; spread the batter evenly.
    5.     For the cream cheese topping, beat the cream cheese, sugar and salt in a bowl on moderate speed for 2 minutes.  Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat for 1 minute.  Toss the chocolate chips with the reserved 2 teaspoons of dry ingredients and stir into the cream cheese mixture.  Pour the topping over the brownie batter; gently swirl the cream cheese mixture into the chocolate batter using a table knife or small spatula.  Bake the brownies for 30 to 32 minutes, or until just set.
    6.     Cool the brownies completely in the pan on a rack.  Cut into squares.   Refrigerate in an airtight tin.