Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Brownies are a busy baker's best friend. They can be mixed in one bowl, poured into a pan and baked in no time at all. Given both the hours I work and the amount of time I have to bake, brownies are a crucial part of my baking therapy. You can fit them in almost any time.

Unlike many other sweets that require being exact in ingredients, brownies are a little more forgiving about "add in" ingredients. I've been known to add chocolate liqueur in lieu of or in addition to vanilla as well as chocolate extract, Kahlua, etc. You can also dress up a plain brownie with chopped up candy bars, chunks of chocolate, M&Ms, Rolos, Snickers - you name it, it can probably be added. Don't go wild though as the beauty of the brownie is its simplicity and you don't want to lose its richness by adding too much other stuff. I added plain M&Ms to this recipe. Peanut M&Ms would've been too big and the softness of the texture of these brownies would've been overwhelmed by anything bigger than the plain M&Ms.

Most brownie recipes call for nuts to be added to the batter. As previously stated, I am diametrically opposed to nuts in my brownies and other baked goods. If they're layered on top, they might be okay but inside the batter? That's just wrong. Brownies tend to have a higher proportion of chocolate so it's crucial to use good quality chocolate. Your brownies are only as good as the ingredients you put in.

The most common mistake people make with brownies is they bake them too long. They wait until the toothpick comes out "clean". No, no, no. Did I mention "no"? By the time your toothpick comes out clean, your brownie is likely overbaked and possibly dry. Since most brownies have a high proportion of chocolate compared to the rest of the ingredients, it's okay to err on the side of underbaking them. The chocolate will "set" as it cools. Some people like their brownies fudgy, others like them cakey. I belong in the fudgy camp. If I wanted cakey brownies, I'd make a chocolate cake. Some people mistake my brownies for fudge. I'm okay with that. There's a fine line between the two anyway.

Lots of people like the brownie edges and they even make an Edge pan for those who only like the edges
That would NOT be for me. I like the middles. They're generally more moist and chocolatey. I give the edges to other people.

I tried a new recipe last night - Bittersweet Brownies from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours. It's a fantastic book and I highly recommend it for even the most novice bakers. So far all the recipes I've tried from it have turned out pretty well. The original recipe called for the brownies to be thin and baked in a 9 x 13 pan. I'm almost as opposed to thin brownies as I am to nuts in brownies. Thin brownies? Are you kidding? Thin should only be applied to my weight loss goals. Thin doesn't belong with brownies. I compensated by baking them in a smaller pan so, while they weren't really thick, at least they weren't thin. Some brownies are so rich that you probably don't want them too thick. In that case, just cut them smaller. But don't make them thin.

I brought these into work today for a few meetings and I passed out the leftovers amongst some of my coworker friends. Ran into one of them, Rick, after I'd passed out the last brownie and I had to confess they were gone. That earned me a searing look and the declaration from Rick of "You're dead to me!" LOL. Guess Rick likes brownies too. Fortunately for him, Albie saved the day and shared one of the ones I had given her. Maybe next time, Rick, I'll bring you your own. Maybe.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peanut Butter Fudge Cookies

I am not a huge fan of peanut butter - at least not by itself. Never had a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in my life (don't even get me started on not liking jelly). However, I don't mind peanut butter combined with other flavors, especially chocolate. Or peanut butter baked into cakes, brownies or cookies. Just don't like the stuff straight out of the jar.

While I like peanut butter cookies for the most part, I don't like the traditional flat peanut butter cookie that's a bit crisp. Crisp in a cookie often translates into "dry". I like my cookies rounded, thick and moist. Crisp also often signifies the use of shortening in a recipe and I much prefer butter.

I like this recipe for Peanut Butter Fudge Cookies because it holds its shape well and is a nice combination of peanut butter and chocolate. It's moist, fudgy and not too overwhelmingly peanut butter-y. Watch the baking time on this one. It bakes for 10 minutes in my oven. When in doubt, err on the side of underbaking rather than overbaking. This is from Nancy Baggett's All-American Cookie Book.

Peanut Butter Fudge Cookies
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened American-style cocoa powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (6 ounces) milk chocolate morsels, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease several baking sheets or coat with nonstick spray.
2. In a small, microwave-safe bowl, microwave the unsweetened chocolate on 50% power for 1 minute. Stir well. Continue microwaving on 50% power, stirring at 30-second intervals. Stop microwaving before the chocolate completely melts and let the residual heat finish the job. (Alternatively, in a small, heavy saucepan, melt the chocolate over lowest heat, stirring frequently; be very careful not to burn. Immediately remove from the heat.)
3. In a medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on low, then medium, speed, beat together the melted chocolate, peanut butter, brown sugar, sugar, and cocoa powder until very well blended. Add the butter and beat until very well blended and smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until fluffy and well blended, about 2 minutes. Beat or stir in the flour mixture, then the chocolate morsels, just until evenly incorporated. Refrigerate the dough for 15 minutes, or until it firms up slightly.
4. Divide the dough into quarters, forming each into a flat disk. Divide each portion into quarters, then eighths. Shape the portions into balls with lightly greased hands. Place on the baking sheets, spacing about 2 ½ inches apart. Lightly oil the tines of a fork. Using the fork tines, firmly press down each ball horizontally and then vertically until the ball is about ½” thick.
5. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 8 to 11 minutes, or until not quite firm when pressed in the centers; be careful not to overbake. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack and let stand until the cookies firm up slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to wire racks. Let stand until completely cooled.

Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 1 ½ months.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lemon Cream-Filled Cookies

These are nice, simple cookies, perfect for serving at a tea or brunch. They take a little more time than drop cookies but are fairly straightforward and simple to make. My niece Lauren made these for my dad's birthday party last weekend, using my recipe below. She made the dough herself, rolled out the dough, cut out the shapes, baked them, cooled them, made the filling and she and Shyla put them together.

Usually I don't have the time to make sandwich cookies. The chilling, rolling out, baking, cooling and sandwiching together are great for a weekend project but not so much during the week when I get home late from work. The thing with any kind of sandwich cookies is the importance of uniformity. The dough has to be rolled out to just the right thickness. Too thick and you'll get a bulky cookie when you sandwich the halves together. Too thin and they'll break apart easily, not to mention they brown too fast when you bake them. You can't have a thin half and a thick half either - looks weird. Plus each one has to be the same size and shape in order to put together neatly. If you like the homey touch, then it doesn't really matter if the cookie halves are mismatched. But (you guessed it), I'm a bit anal about stuff like that so I prefer to use a cookie cutter to get uniform shapes and sizes for my sandwich cookies.

The filling is important too. If it's too liquidy, the filling will run out the sides of the sandwich cookie or leak out when you bite into it, making a mess. If it's too hard, it ruins the texture contrast with the cookie halves or won't be soft enough to hold the two sandwich halves together.

This recipe is from a Mrs. Fields cookie book. You can use any size and shape cookie cutter to cut the cookies. I like to use small ones for more dainty-looking cookies. Normally I use a scallop-shaped cookie cutter to make these prettier but I had Lauren use a plain circle this time around just to keep things simple.

¾ cup salted butter, softened
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons pure lemon extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch

¼ cup salted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream
juice of 1 freshly squeezed lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
grated zest of 1 lemon (2-3 teaspoons)

To make the cookie dough
1. In a medium bowl, cream butter with an electric mixer set at medium speed. Add sugar, and beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
2. Add lemon extract, and beat until light and fluffy. Then add flour and cornstarch; blend at low speed until thoroughly combined.
3. Gather dough into 2 balls of equal size and flatten into disks. Wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap or a plastic bag. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
To make the filling:
4. In a small bowl, beat butter with mixer until fluffy. Gradually add sugar while continuing to beat. Add cream, lemon juice and lemon zest. Mix until thoroughly blended and set aside. To harden filling quickly, refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.
5. At this point, preheat oven to 325˚F.
6. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the chilled cookie dough on a floured board to a ¼” thickness. Cut circles of dough on ungreased cookie sheets, ½” apart. Continue rolling out and cutting dough scraps until all dough is used.
7. Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Immediately transfer cookies with a spatula to a cool, flat surface.
8. When cookies are completely cool, spread a cookie with 1 teaspoon of the lemon cream. Place another cookie on top of the filling to make a sandwich. Complete entire batch.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pancit Palabok - a Filipino noodle dish

My mom is an awesome cook – one of those people who don’t use a recipe and just cook by taste. For as long as I can remember, she was always cooking, seemingly effortlessly. She did NOT pass those abilities onto me. I can bake but I can’t cook. Trust me, there’s a difference. The few times I’ve attempted “real cooking” – well, let’s just say my worst baking failures are probably still better than my best cooking efforts.

Cooking is more of an art and there’s much more room for ad hoc creativity and going by how something tastes. Baking is more of a science and is more exact in its ingredients and instructions. Most chefs, amateur and professional, prefer one over the other and are better at one over the other, even if they can do both. I’m on the baking side and always will be. I can create all sorts of desserts and pastries but can barely boil water for the pasta to go with the canned jar of sauce from the grocery store. Those frozen dinners you can microwave are a staple in my freezer.

This is a picture of a traditional Filipino dish called Pancit Palabok – it’s a noodle dish with sauce, hard-boiled eggs, shrimp, a little chicken, green onions and a bunch of other “stuff” (says the non-cook). I’ve tried to get my mom to write down the recipe for the tastebook I’m creating for my nieces but while she’s made this dish for years and can probably make it in her sleep, she doesn’t have a recipe for it. She just knows how to make it. That’s a cook. Whereas I have reams of dessert cookbooks and pore over recipes, making notes, refining them and writing them out to document them. That’s a baker or a pastry chef. A world of difference. Fortunately for my nieces, my sister, Corin, inherited Mom’s cooking genes so she can make the traditional Filipino food. Although she doesn’t really use recipes either. Argh.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake - More from Magnolia Bakery cookbook - September 19, 2009

My nieces came up for the weekend for my dad’s 70th birthday party. In what’s now becoming our tradition, they stay with me for a night and the rest of the time, they spend at my parents’ house. On “my” night, we get takeout from Krung Thai, my favorite Thai restaurant, and I make dessert. This night’s dessert was red velvet cake. I tried the recipe from the More From Magnolia Bakery cookbook. It turned out pretty well but I confess I like Diane’s recipe better. I also made the Creamy Vanilla Frosting that was in the Magnolia cookbook and it was good but I still prefer cream cheese frosting with red velvet cake. Overall, I’m not a big fan of frosting. Most frostings and icings are too sweet and I’m more about the cake than the frosting. I’d rather have just a tiny bit of frosting, only enough to hold the cake layers together. Some of my friends are the opposite and would rather have a ton of frosting than cake (shudder). I need to hang out more with those people because we’d never let a slice of cake go to waste – I can eat the cake and they can eat the frosting.

I don’t make layer cakes that often because it’s time consuming – not so much the mixing and baking part but the waiting for the cake layers to cool enough to frost. You always want cake layers to be completely cool or else your frosting will melt. I do have some cake recipes where you’re supposed to let the frosting melt over the warm cake – yum. It’s also almost inevitable that the outer edges of the cake layers are a tad dry in the time it took to get the center baked enough to take out. I tend to underbake my cakes just a trifle to avoid this but then sometimes the center comes out gummy. I know people recommend the Magi-Cake strips but they’ve only been marginally successful to me and sometimes not really worth the bother. But layer cakes do make a nice presentation and are very photogenic.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Going back to red velvet

I combine my love of baking with my love of reading when I read culinary mysteries. Some notable authors of the genre are: Virginia Rich, Diane Mott Davidson, and Joanne Fluke. I love a good mystery and when the books are based on characters who bake or cook for a living with recipes sprinkled throughout the chapters - well, what's not to love?

This is a picture of red velvet cookies whose recipe is from The Carrot Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke, who writes the Hannah Swensen mystery series. Normally I don't try a lot of the recipes in the books but I was going through my red velvet cake obsession at the time that I read this book so I had to try the cookie version. Am I glad I did. These are to-die-for cookies. Essentially they're chocolate cookies with red food coloring just as red velvet cake is chocolate cake with red food coloring. Like the cake, these cookies are frosted with cream cheese frosting. My nieces love these cookies and they're perfect for Christmas and Valentine's Day because of their color. The only drawback is because they're frosted, you can't stack them or package them for mailing. They don't spread much and stay nice and thick. This is one of the few cookies I'm actually very careful to time in the oven. Due to their color, you can't tell when they're done by appearance alone and you don't want to overbake these. They're perfect just slightly underbaked as they're nice and fudgy. The cream cheese frosting provides a nice contrast to cut the richness of the cookie with the sweetness of the frosting.

Red Velvet Cookies

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
½ cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature
2/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 tablespoon red food coloring
¾ cup sour cream
2 cups flour (pack it down in the cup when you measure it)
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1. Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper with nonstick cooking spray. Melt chocolate and let cool.
2. Combine the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat them on medium speed until they’re smooth. This should take less than a minute.
3. Add the baking soda and salt, and resume beating on medium again for another minute, or until they’re incorporated. Add the egg and beat on medium speed until the batter is smooth. Add the red food coloring and mix for about 30 seconds.
4. Shut off the mixer and scrape down the bowl. Then add the melted chocolate and mix again for another minute on medium speed. Shut off the mixer and scrape down the bowl again. At low speed, mix in half the flour. When the flour is incorporated, mix in the sour cream.
5. Scrape down the bowl again and add the rest of the flour. Beat until the flour is fully incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and give it a stir with a spoon. Mix in the chocolate chips by hand.
6. Use a teaspoon to spoon the dough onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets, 12 cookies to a standard-sized sheet. Bake the cookies at 375˚F for 9 to 11 minutes, or until they rise and become firm. Slide the parchment from the cookie sheets and onto a wire rack. Let the cookies cool on the rack.

Cream Cheese Frosting

¼ cup butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1. Mix the softened butter with the softened cream cheese and the vanilla until the mixture is smooth.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar in half-cup increments until the frosting is of proper spreading consistency.

Oh and I did bake tonight after work but it was Petra's Banana Bread recipe that I already posted about. My aunt and uncle are arriving this weekend from Canada for my dad's 70th birthday and this is one of my aunt's favorites so I had to make enough for her to enjoy while she's here and some for her to take home to my cousins back in Winnipeg.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Random Act of Kindness

Can I say I love my coworkers because they’re an awesome bunch of people? Today, my friend and coworker, Erin, came over and surprised me with a signed copy of The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. She had been to a book signing/talk by Alice Waters at Berkeley and presented the cookbook to me from the Yahoo! for Good team – talk about a random act of kindness! Erin was also very sweet and told me how appreciated I am – always a nice thing to hear from good people, especially with the mountain of work that had been crushing my spirit lately. Incidences like these and people like Erin never fail to remind me why I am where I am and why I’m grateful for it.

One of my favorite things to do when someone gives me a cookbook as a present is to make something from that cookbook and give it to the giver. To me, that's one of the best things about getting a cookbook. It can literally be the gift that keeps on giving. So, YFG team, you never know what you'll be surprised with in my baking future but it'll be coming your way soon.

No baking tonight as I’m having dinner with another group of current and former coworkers whose company I enjoy. Feeling very blessed indeed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I can't believe I've gone through most of my baking life and never had red velvet cake until a few years ago. Where have I been?? I LOVE this cake. I first tried it when one of my coworkers, Nathan, had me try a test piece of a red velvet cake he was making for his mom (is that cute or what? I rarely meet guys who bake). When I was in New York a couple of years ago on a foodie trip, I visited every bakery I knew of or could find in Manhattan and came upon the red velvet cake from the Buttercup Bake Shop. It was fabulous!

I also heard of a bakery in New Orleans called Gambino's and people raved about their red velvet cake. I haven't made it to New Orleans yet but I always wanted to try their red velvet cake. Gambino's does ship but it's $70 for a cake! I couldn't bring myself to spring for it (hey, I'm cheap) but I came close to pulling the trigger so many times. Thankfully, I had an awesome boss who, last Christmas, for a holiday gift, he (or rather his exec assistant, Tess) ordered me the red velvet cake from Gambino's. They shipped it to the office and Tess drove it to my house to drop it off as my boss was on vacation. It was terrific. Not sure I would've paid $70 for it but that made the gift even more perfect, lol. I was able to share it with my family as one of our Christmas desserts. The picture of the whole, unsliced cake is the Gambino's one. For those who can't spring $70 for a Gambino's cake either, you can also get a slice of red velvet cake from the California Pizza Kitchen - it's not Gambino's or Buttercup's but it's still pretty good.

After that, I went through a period of trying recipe after recipe for red velvet cake. Most of them were just "okay" but none really came up to snuff. Some were too heavy, some not moist enough, some not "red" enough and some didn't have that much flavor. This past March, I was on a ski trip with my church singles group (ASCSA) and one of my condo mates, Diane, mentioned she had a red velvet cake recipe. Diane later sent me the recipe and yep, that one was the winner (pictured with the big ol' slices already cut out). I don't know how widely I'm allowed to share it so I'm not going to post it here but if anyone wants to try a good red velvet cake recipe, Bobby Flay's recipe on the Food Network is also pretty good.

Ironically, I have the Magnolia Bakery cookbook (they're the same owners as the Buttercup Bake Shop) and they have a red velvet cake recipe in there but I have yet to try it. Hmm, future baking project.

Chocolate Chocolate White Chocolate Cookies

You have to love a recipe that has the word "chocolate" in the title three times. If you’re a chocolate fan like me, you know the importance of good quality chocolate. I’m not talking low-rent grocery store stuff. I’m talking break-the-bank, bust-the-budget high end chocolate – the kind that sounds European because it is European. And I don’t mean “European-style Hershey’s” either. When I was in culinary school, we had one class where we tasted different types of chocolate. Bliss. A class on chocolate tasting. Yeah, it’s as good as it sounds. That’s when I discovered that my favorite eating chocolate is Valrhona milk chocolate. I prefer milk chocolate anyway (see the chocolate chip blog post) and Valrhona is the epitome of creamy, good chocolate. There are other, expensive chocolates like Del Rey and Scharffenberger but I ended up liking Valrhona the best.

I would love to be able to say I’m a total chocolate snob and only ever eat the best. However, I’d rather not lie on my own blog. Truth of the matter is, for most of us, buying high end chocolate to eat is one thing and can occasionally be a great indulgence. Buying high end chocolate to bake with as much as I bake? I might as well take out a second mortgage on my house to be able to afford it. So I’ve learned to adjust my preferences to my paycheck and live within my means when it comes to buying baking ingredients. The trick is to gauge the importance chocolate plays in a recipe. If I’m making brownies, and chocolate is in equal or lesser proportions to sugar, butter, flour and the like, I settle for Hershey’s, Nestle's and Baker’s baking chocolate, especially if it’s unsweetened chocolate. If I’m making something like a flourless chocolate cake or chocolate cookies that have a high proportion of chocolate compared to the rest of the ingredients, I upscale it a bit with Lindt or Valrhona or even Ghirardelli. Fortunately you can find some good chocolate like Valrhona at Trader Joe’s for a somewhat reasonable price. I also scour the sale ads every week, ready to pounce when Lindt and comparable brands go on sale so I can stock up. The point is, buy the best quality chocolate you can afford. It’ll be worth it. This is another instance where I can give someone the same recipe I use but if I use Lindt and they use generic grocery store brand chocolate, their results are going to be different from mine. Quality chocolate will taste creamy and make you roll your eyes to the back of their sockets in ecstasy. Cheap chocolate will taste like chalk and crumble when you bite into it and leave a waxy aftertaste. A calorie is a calorie - which would you rather spend your daily total on?

I made the dough for these cookies this past weekend, shaped them into balls, put them in freezer bags, wrote their name, baking temp and baking time on the bag(s) and put them in my freezer. Best time saver in the world. I don’t have much time these days since that thing called a job gets in my way so I have to maximize my baking time. I make the dough on the weekends and I bake off the cookies during the week when I need them for something. I baked some off last night to bring into work this morning and I’m baking the rest tonight to bring to a coworker dinner tomorrow. Thereby also freeing up my freezer for this coming weekend’s baking efforts.

This recipe is from the Buttercup Bake Shop cookbook. The dough was pretty liquidy, not surprisingly because it has 4 eggs (most recipes only call for 2) and a large amount of melted chocolate. I had to chill the dough first to get it to firm up then shape it into balls, then freeze them, THEN put them in freezer bags and stow them in the freezer. The cookies turned out okay but while they didn’t spread too much, they did still spread and weren’t as thick as I normally prefer my cookies. I didn’t make the dough balls that big though so that could be partially why. It’s also because I don’t have a convection oven which tends to bake cookies fast enough to keep them thick and not spread so much. In any case, the taste was pretty good – a nice, basic chocolate cookie. It's pretty typical of other chocolate chocolate cookies I've made before so they don't really stand out to me.

My coworkers, who serve as willing guinea pigs, bless their hearts, seemed to like them. After baking for my various workplaces for years, I have my own gauge on how successful a recipe is. I get in around 8 am or earlier and will put the cookies out in the communal kitchen on my floor when I first arrive. How fast they disappear is a testament of how much people like them. Successes will usually be gone within an hour. If people really like them, I also get instant messages thanking me - these cookies rated 3 IMs and a personal thank you in the hallway this morning. So-so baked goods last a couple of hours. Failures might make it to lunchtime. And yes, I do have failures often enough. I bring them in anyway because I figure someone will eat them (and they do). If I consider something a total failure, I leave it on a different floor so they’re not associated with me. I have a reputation to protect after all.

Chocolate Chocolate White Chocolate Cookies

¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
2 cups vanilla (or white chocolate) chips

1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
2. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs, vanilla and espresso, and beat on high speed for about 2 minutes. Turn the mixer to low and mix in the melted chocolates, stopping to scrape the bowl. Resume mixing on low speed and add the dry ingredients, mixing well. Stop the mixer and stir in the vanilla chips.
4. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving several inches between for spreading. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool the cookies on the sheets for 1 minute, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lemon Bars - pucker up

I can make all sorts of complicated desserts that take a ton of time mixing, baking, layering, frosting, chilling, decorating, etc and yet you know what is one of the most frequently requested baked good I’m asked for? Lemon bars. Nice, simple, uncomplicated lemon bars. What makes a good lemon bar? To me, they have to have just the right tartness and amount of lemon. Too often the lemon curd part of the lemon bar is too mouth-puckeringly lemony. If I wanted that much lemony taste, I’m better off just sucking a lemon. Or else the curd is too gelatinous. I’m not a big custard-y type dessert eater (notable exception: crème brulee but we’ll get to that later) so the perfect lemon bar has equal amounts of shortbread crust and lemon curd which is curd, not lemon gelatin. And a light sprinkling of powdered sugar dusted on top, not a whole blanket of snow.

I’ve tried a fair number of lemon bar recipes over the years but I always come back to the first one I remember making which is from the Land O Lakes Treasury of Country Recipes cookbook. I even remember when I first made this – I was newly graduated from UC Berkeley, living in San Francisco and working for PG&E. I brought these into the office and one of the ladies there enjoyed it so much she asked me for the recipe. I gave it to her and she made it but told me afterwards that hers “didn’t turn out” like mine. This was a good 18 years ago and I hadn’t had the baking experience back then that I have now but I remember being baffled. The recipe isn’t that hard. I just followed it and I assumed anyone else who followed it would also get the same results. Apparently not so. Looking back and over the years with making this recipe, I’ve never varied the ingredients or took liberties with the amounts but I have adjusted baking times based on the pans I’m using and the ovens I’m baking in. While baking is more of a science than cooking, there is also some art involved. My biggest secret is I hardly ever time anything. I don’t use a timer and I’m lucky if I remember to check the time when I put something in the oven. Or I check the time then forget what it is later on. The times in recipes are just guidelines. Everyone’s oven is different so you have to adjust baking time accordingly. Depending on what I’m baking, I go by appearance (for cookies) or the toothpick method (for brownies and cakes). If you’re more of a novice baker, you might want to use a timer to start with until you get more comfortable with how something should look when it’s done. I just wing it.

On the subject of sharing recipes: I used to be really zealous about guarding my recipes. It’s not like I had any wildly original concoctions either. Most of my recipes are straight out of dessert cookbooks that anyone can buy. I make the recipe once as is then I add my own notes of how it turned out, modifications that should be made and what I could do better next time. For most recipes, I don’t really drastically change them but I do figure out how to bake them and bake them well. I always felt bad if someone asked me for a recipe and I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) share it. Let’s face it – asking for someone’s recipe is the most sincere compliment they can give you that they liked what you made. It’s kind of a slap in the face if you say no, you won’t share the recipe. In my defense, I did have reasons at the time (beyond being young and selfish).

A) I thought I would someday write my own cookbook and if I gave all those recipes away now, who would buy my cookbook later? That was just self-preservation, right? While I would still like to publish my own cookbook “someday”, the reality is it would take a lot more baking experimentation than I do today (which is mostly weekend tinkering) to write a cookbook. It takes original ideas, foolproof recipes, multiple iterations of the same thing over and over again and a ton of other work. In essence, it’d be a full-time job and frankly, I already have one of those.

B) The young and selfish part – I put in a lot of work in trying out many different recipes of something. For example, I went through a lot of lemon bar recipes to settle on the original one as the best. For someone to ask me to just hand it over felt like I was working for them for free and making it easy for them to get a great recipe. Where were they when I had to fit a Costco run into my busy schedule because I’d run out of butter and eggs? Where were they when I had to fork over $1 per lemon when I couldn’t get to Costco and had to succumb to Safeway’s or Lucky’s exorbitant grocery store prices? Okay, it sounds kinda dumb, childish and bratty when I write it out like that but that’s how I felt.

C) Too much pride in my baking – I don’t mean this in a narcissist way but I take a lot of pride in my baking hobby/passion/obsession and I love being able to provide baked treats for everyone. In my younger days, I was known for a chocolate caramel brownie recipe and I was very proud of being able to bake those brownies because, while the recipe seemed really simple, it took a lot of effort and months of trial and error to get it right. To this day, if I go too long without making them, I forget all the little tricks I used to get them right and I’ll mess up the recipe. It’s still good and if you’ve never had the “perfect” version, it’s just fine since you don’t know how much better it could be. I once made the “mistake” of giving that recipe to someone. She, in turn, started bringing them to the same gatherings I would go to and taking credit for my recipe. I cringed whenever I saw her passing off “my” brownies as hers, especially if they weren’t as good as I could have made them. That probably sounds narcissist. I don’t mean it to be. I also had other issues with this person. Think of the movie “Single White Female” and you’ll know where I’m coming from – the brownie thing was just the tip of the iceberg with this one.

In any case, for the most part, I’ve been able to let go of those hangups and am able to share recipes more freely. One of my favorite chef instructors at the Culinary Institute of America said he doesn’t see why people wouldn’t share recipes. Everyone makes things differently and recipes are meant to be shared. He’s right. I can attest some of my favorite recipes are from people who have shared them with me so I can do no less than to share what I have. I constantly, constantly have people ask me for my recipes and what I try to do is ask for a favorite recipe of theirs in return. Not to give something with strings because if they don’t have one, I still give them my recipe. But it’s my way of collecting different recipes that have people’s personal recommendation behind them which all of my recipes do.

One last thing on recipe sharing – I always share the recipe exactly as I make it. I’ve heard of people who don’t want to share their recipes changing the ingredients or leaving something out so that they’re not really giving out their true recipe. I don’t do that. Like I said, it’s a compliment to be asked for a recipe so giving them an altered one seems like returning a compliment with the insult of dishonesty. I’d rather someone tell me they’d rather not share a recipe than give me an inaccurate one. So if I give you a recipe and it “doesn’t turn out" like mine, I can honestly tell you that was the recipe I used. Ovens are different, quality of ingredients used might be different, baking steps taken might be done differently – there are a whole myriad of reasons why the recipe didn’t turn out exactly the same as mine but it won’t be because I didn’t give the same recipe I used.

Lemon Bars
1 1/3 cups flour
¼ cup sugar
½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 tbsp lemon juice
powdered sugar

1. Heat oven to 350°F. In a small mixer bowl, combine all crust ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until mixture is crumbly (2-3 minutes). Press on bottom of 8” square baking pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.
2. Meanwhile, in small mixer bowl combine all filling ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often until well mixed. Pour filling over hot crust. Continue baking for 18-20 minutes or until filling is set. Sprinkle with powdered sugar; cool.

Bananas - they ripen in the blink of an eye

The banana is a cunning fruit. Deceptively alluring when you see them on the grocery store shelf – all nice and evenly yellow, showing the perfect state of ripeness with a firm texture without the chalky taste that comes with an underripe banana and without the mushy texture of an overly ripe banana. You buy a bunch and take them home, savoring that first one and effectively being lured into its deception. Because once you take your eye off that bunch of bananas and blink, somehow they manage to ripen. And ripen. Then ripen some more. Those once perfect yellow bananas with nary a blemish all of a sudden start showing brown spots. Oh, just a few at first, lulling you into thinking you still have time to eat them before they get too mushy. But then you blink again and now they’re more brown than yellow and the spots are ever bigger and the skin is not only no longer yellow but it’s also turning soft and seemingly getting thinner. You know if you peel that sucker, all you’ll get is mush and that overripe aftertaste in your mouth. Suddenly, they’re not fit for eating and they’re taking up smelly space on your countertop.

I’m convinced some exasperated yet thrifty person came up with the idea of banana bread. I can’t bear to throw overripe bananas out. I know I won’t eat them as is but I was raised not to waste food and it’s unconscionable to throw them out. Banana bread is the perfect way to use up those overripe bananas. Not only that but bananas must be overripe to the point of blackened skins and mushy-near-liquid insides to make really flavorful and moist banana bread. What you can’t eat straight is perfect for baking. I love bananas but when I can’t eat the overripe ones, banana bread is a perfectly acceptable use of them in baked goods (another exception to my I-don’t-like-fruity-desserts mantra). Now, I welcome the banana’s cunning artlessness of ripening before my eyes faster than I can consume them. I even deliberately buy more bananas than I can eat so that I can use what will become overripe ones to bake with. And if they ripen and I don’t have time to bake with them? No problem – just throw them in a freezer bag and deposit in the freezer until you’re ready. Careful what you put next to them though as the banana essence lives in the freezer and could permeate its taste and odor to whatever’s next to it.

This banana bread recipe is from my friend, Petra , who was one of my housemates at Asher House Berkeley when I was an undergrad. Back then, Petra was recently from her home country of Germany and affectionately known as “Kraut” by her fellow Asherites. Always smiling, always cheerful, Petra was a gem. She got this banana bread recipe from a friend of hers and it’s one I’ve used for years. It ranks with my recipes that not only have stood the test of time but I don’t feel the need to experiment with a bunch of different banana bread recipes because nothing really tops this one. Note its simplicity – just bananas. No nuts, no raisins, pineapple, apple or any other fancy things people add (much like carrot cake can be ruined – don’t ruin a good banana bread by adding too much “stuff” to it!). My mom likes nuts in her bread so sometimes I make a concession to her and place toasted nuts ON TOP of the loaf before baking but that’s the closest I’ll get to putting nuts in a quick bread.

The directions are sparse as that’s how I got the recipe but it’s not hard to figure out. The best thing you can do is use overripe bananas and take it from there. These freeze very well and I’m forever baking them as mini loaves and giving the loaves away as gifts.

1 7/8 cups flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup butter
1 cup mashed ripe bananas
2 large eggs
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

1. Heat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine dry ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients until batter is moistened.
3. Pour into greased loaf pans or muffin cups (about half full). Bake until desired doneness. Cover loosely with aluminum foil if top is getting too brown before bread is done.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fruity desserts

Apple Cobbler

As a general rule, I'm not wild about fruit in desserts. Don't get me wrong - I really like most fruit. I eat apples, bananas, and fresh pineapple on a nearly daily basis. Can't go wrong with green grapes and strawberries, especially in the summer. Oranges are a favorite year round. But generally speaking, I like fruit as nature intended - wholesome and pure. Doing "stuff" to it usually doesn't go over with me.

However, there are notable exceptions which I'll expound on as I update this blog. The first notable exception is apple cobbler - one of my favorite cold-weather desserts. Serve it warm with vanilla ice cream and that's comfort eating all the way. I love desserts that offer a temperature contrast - warm cobbler with cold ice cream. Note I said warm, not hot. As hard as it is sometimes, when you take something out of the oven, you have to let it cool. At least to the point that you don't burn your tongue on the first bite. It's especially important to wait at least 10 minutes (similar to those chocolate chip cookies!) when you're topping a dessert with ice cream. Otherwise your ice cream will melt into a puddle before you can even enjoy the first bite without having your tongue hang out to let the steam escape from that hot spoonful you can't swallow without blistering your esophagus.

Here's my favorite recipe for apple cobbler - straightforward, simple and easy:
4 apples, sliced
1/4 c sugar
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Vanilla ice cream

1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
2. Toss apples, sugar and salt together.
3. Divide equally among 4 individual-sized oven proof bowls.
4. Combine butter and flour with fingertips until mixture is crumbly and has the texture of oatmeal.
5. Add brown sugar, allowing lumps to remain in mixture. Distribute evenly over apples.
6. Bake 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold with vanilla ice cream.

Coconut - love it or hate it

Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

The funny thing about coconut is people either really love it or really hate it. I don't meet many people who are indifferent to it or can take it or leave it. I'm one of those people who really love it. Love the taste, love the texture, love everything about it. The only thing I don't like is coconut extract. Tastes weird when I bake with it. But coconut itself - ah. My favorite coconut cake recipe is from Mrs. Fields' Great American Desserts. Like the carrot cake recipe, I discovered this one early on and it's so good that I don't try a lot of different recipes just because I think this is the best. I've had people who don't like coconut try this cake and love it. It's moist, it's flavorful and it's just good. Also like with the carrot cake, coconut cake is fabulous with cream cheese frosting. I know there are some recipes that make it with fluffy, boiled icing but that always seems too much like whipped egg whites and why would I want to eat that? I don't make this often because it's so good I would eat too much of it.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, toasted until golden
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 pound powdered sugar
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, toasted until golden

1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Butter and lightly flour 3 9-inch cake pans.
2. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl and cream together until fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes, using an electric mixer on medium speed. Add the vanilla and beat until smooth. Add the egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the bowl.
3. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk. Beat for 45 seconds after each addition and begin and end with the dry ingredients. Scrape down the bowl. Add the coconut and beat on low speed.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy using the electric mixer on high speed. Add the cream of tartar, and beat until stiff peaks form. Fold the beaten whites into the batter until no white streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly among the 3 prepared pans and smooth the top of each.
5. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean. Remove the pans from the oven to wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Invert the pans onto the racks and let cool to room temperature.
Make the frosting:
6. Put the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl and beat until smooth using the electric mixer on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl. Beat in the powdered sugar, a little at a time, until creamy and smooth. Scrape down the bowl. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the toasted coconut and combine well.
Assemble the cake:
7. Place a cake layer on a serving plate with strips of wax paper under the edges and spread the top of it with frosting. Add the second layer and frost the top. Place the remaining layer on top. Frost the sides of the cake, then the top. Garnish by pressing the toasted coconut gently over the top and sides. If desired, place large flakes of coconut over the top. Remove the wax paper.

The best way for carrots to be eaten

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Let's talk about carrot cakes. First, contrary to some opinions, carrot cake usually isn't all that healthy. Yeah, it has carrots but it also traditionally has oil and that's why they're so moist and good. But with a really good carrot cake, you won't care that it's not good for you. Second, what constitutes a good carrot cake? To me, it has to be simple - made just with carrots. No nuts, no raisins, no pineapple, no apples, or anything else someone randomly thought up to ruin a good carrot cake. STOP after adding carrots. Don't overspice it either. Cinnamon. That's it. Third, carrot cake must be frosted with cream cheese frosting only. That's the rule. If you don't believe me, try a really good carrot cake made just with carrots, spiced only with a little cinnamon and frosted with cream cheese frosting. It's the best. I always lament that it doesn't count as a vegetable. Once you start adding all those extraneous ingredients, you've lost the essence of carrot cake.

My favorite carrot cake recipe - actually, I haven't tried many because I was fortunate enough to discover this one early on and why mess with perfection? - is from Jim Fobel's Old-Fashioned Baking Book. Normally I don't like recipe books that don't have pictures but this recipe was worth it with the accompanying cream cheese frosting recipe too.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light or dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup vegetable oil
5 large eggs
3 cups coarsely shredded, peeled raw carrots (6 medium)
1 ½ cups (6 ounces) chopped walnuts

Cream Cheese Frosting

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350˚F. Grease and flour a 13 x 9” baking pan.
2. In a medium-sized bowl stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.
3. In a large bowl combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar and butter; beat with an electric mixer until evenly blended. Beat in the oil until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then beat until thick and light, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the dry ingredients and beat just until blended. With a spoon, stir in the shredded carrots and chopped walnuts; the batter will be thick. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack. When completely cool, generously frost, making swirls over the top. Cover and refrigerate. The frosting will set. To serve, return to room temperature and cut into squares.


Marshmallow Crunch Brownie Bars - September 12, 2009

This recipe is from the Buttercup Bake Shop, one of my favorite bakeries in Manhattan. They make the BEST red velvet cake. Anyway, this is a brownie layer on the bottom, a marshmallow layer in the middle and the top is peanut butter chocolate with rice crispies. You bake the brownie layer first, cover the top with mini marshmallows and let them melt for a few minutes in the oven, then pour the melted peanut butter chocolate rice krispie layer over it and let it set in the fridge before cutting. I'm not a fan of marshmallows though and the only time I eat them is in rice krispie treats. I don't even like them in s'mores (although I'll eat the graham cracker and chocolate, lol). So why did I make this recipe? Well, sometimes you have to try new things - you never know what you'll end up liking. I haven't tried this one yet so I don't know how they taste. I'm bringing them to a friend's bbq tomorrow before we go watch the Giants game. Hopefully someone will like a chocolate peanut butter marshmallow rice krispie combo.

September 13, 2009 update - I tried a piece of this today. Meh. The bottom and top layers were good but I'm just not a marshmallow fan. Marshmallow may be okay when it's warm and gooey but when it's not warm, it just has the texture of rubber to me. So it was like eating white rubber between two chocolate layers. But that could be just me. Other people who tried it today seemed to like it (some had more than 1 piece and my friend Bryan took the leftovers home - hopefully enough made it to his wife Cheryl). Marshmallow's just not my thing. On the other hand, I liked the rice krispie top with the melted chocolate and peanut butter and that gives me an idea of making something like that for other brownie recipes.

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2/3 cup (1 1/3 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
¾ cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 package (10 ½ ounces) mini marshmallows
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 ½ cups crispy rice cereal

1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
2. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
3. In a medium saucepan, melt the chocolate, butter and ¾ cup of the chocolate chips on medium heat. Stir occasionally while melting. Set aside and cool for 5 minutes.
4. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
5. In a large bowl, place the eggs and whisk thoroughly. Add in the sugar and vanilla. Stir the melted ingredients into the egg mixture, mixing well. Stir in the sifted dry ingredients and mix well.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and even with a spatula. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the pans comes out with moist crumbs.
7. Remove the brownies from the oven and immediately sprinkle the marshmallows over them. Return the pan to the oven for 3 more minutes.
8. While the brownies are baking, place the chocolate chips, peanut butter, and butter in a medium saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until melted. Remove from heat, add the cereal and mix well. Allow this to cool for 3 minutes or so. Spread the mixture evenly over the marshmallow layer. Refrigerate until chilled before cutting.

Nuts in cookies - nah....

Double Chocolate Almond Cookies - September 12, 2009

Although these are officially called Double Chocolate Almond Cookies, I took some liberties with the recipe. As a general rule, I don't like nuts in my cookies. I like nuts to be crisp and toasted as a contrast to whatever they're baked in and when you bake nuts into cookies, they steam and soften. Instead, I substituted Heath Toffee bits for the almonds. I also used three kinds of chocolate chips: semisweet, milk and white chocolate. This recipe is from Tate's Bake Shop. Most of their cookie recipes come out rather thin but I prefer my cookies to be thick and not spread out so I always, always freeze cookie dough first before baking. These still spread out but not as much as they normally would have. You have to be careful when baking chocolate cookies because you can't always tell when they're done by looks alone and you can't go by "golden brown" at the edges because, well, they're chocolate! Plus, when a cookie dough has a high concentration of chocolate, you don't want to overbake it. Chocolate will "set" once it cools so don't worry about underbaking. These turned out pretty well, a bit fragile, especially when underbaked, but the taste is awesome if you're in the mood for a chocolate cookie.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups salted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly packed dark or light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup almonds, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two cookie sheets or line them with Silpat.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugars. Add the egg and vanilla and mix them together. Add the flour mixture and mix it till it’s just combined.
4. Add the chocolates and almonds. Mix them till they are combined.
5. Using two tablespoons or a small ice cream scoop, drop the dough two inches apart on the cookie sheets.
6. Bake them for 15 minutes.
7. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets. The cookies should be very soft when they are removed from the oven. They will firm up as they cool.

Yield: 52 cookies

Peanut Butter Crumb Cake

Peanut Butter Crumb Cake - September 12, 2009

I haven't updated this note in awhile but that doesn't mean I haven't been baking because I have. Normally I like to try out 1-2 new recipes a week, sometimes during the weekend and sometimes during the week. My work schedule has been so crazy these last few months though that I've been doing most of my baking during the weekend. I make up cookie doughs and put them in the freezer to bake during the week, I'll bake brownies and freeze them and bring them into work the following week, and I'll make cakes that'll carry over into Monday.

Today, this Peanut Butter Crumb Cake is the first thing I made this morning. This is a recipe from Fearless Baking by Elinor Klivans. Turned out pretty well and would make a nice sweet for a brunch. I'm not a huge peanut butter fan. I like it well enough but I don't obsess over it like I would with chocolate or caramel. But the texture was nice and cakey with a good crumb. Not too overwhelmingly peanut butter-y either and it's super easy to make. My friend Karen was able to pick them up today to give to her house construction crew so it freed me up to bake some other stuff.

Orange Poppyseed Cake

Orange Poppyseed Cake - February 7, 2009

I've always loved poppyseed cake, although traditionally it's been lemon poppyseed. I tried this one for something different since it's orange poppyseed cake. This recipe is from Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri. It came out pretty well albeit not that orangey. The orange syrup soaked in but didn't make the cake wet, just moist. I was afraid of it making the texture soppy but it didn't. Overall, I'd give it a thumbs up. The texture is just right for a cakey cake, not dense like a pound cake or too light like a chiffon.

Sometimes simple tastes are the best

Best Vanilla Pound Cake - February 6, 2009

This recipe really is the best vanilla pound cake I've made or tasted. It has a nice dense crumb like all good pound cakes should and it's rich with butter and vanilla. It looks so deceptively simple but the appeal is all in the flavor. If you like butter, this is your cake. I even prefer this cake over a chocolate cake.

The recipe is from The Country Baking Treasury by Lisa Yockelson. I don't know if it's even in print anymore but I found this modest little book in a bookstore in the bargain aisle. Best $5 I've ever spent as every recipe I've made from it has turned out really well. Lisa Yockelson has published other cookbooks that I also bought and she scores every time. I think there are probably only a few recipes I've made from her cookbooks that haven't turned out but dozens of others have and some have become my favorites. Considering how much baking I've done, that says a lot. I think my favorite aspect of this cake is how simple it is but I just enjoy the simple, good taste of it. Nothing fancy, no frosting or glaze, no chips or nuts, just a good simple vanilla butter cake. Sometimes simple is the best. The key to a good pound cake is creaming together the ingredients and making sure you beat in enough air when you cream the butter and sugar together. Don't skimp on this part. If you have a stand mixer, use it. Pound cakes are also one reason why I love my Kitchenaid mixer - makes it effortless.

3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
2¾ cups vanilla-scented granulated sugar
Seed scrapings from 1 vanilla bean
5 jumbo eggs, at room temperature
1½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup milk, at room temperature
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, optional
  1. Lightly butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan or a 10-inch fluted Bundt pan. Preheat the oven to 325˚F.
  2. Resift the flour with the baking powder and salt onto a large sheet of waxed paper. Cream the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer on moderately high speed for 3 minutes. Beat in the sugar in 3 additions, beating for 1 minute after each portion has been added. Blend in the vanilla bean scrapings. Beat on high speed for 1-2 minutes.
  3. With the mixer on moderate speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each one; scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl frequently to keep the mixture even textured. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour. Pour and scrape batter into the prepared pan.
  4. Bake the cake on the lower-third-level rack of the preheated oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes or until golden on top and a wooden pick inserted in the middles of the cake comes out clean and dry.
  5. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan with a thin, flexible palette knife. Invert onto a second cooling rack, then invert again to cool right side up. Dust the top of the cake with sifted confectioners’ sugar if desired.

Buttermilk Devil's Food Cake

Basic Buttermilk Devil's Food Cake - February 6, 2009

Another simple recipe from The Cake Mix Doctor - base is a devil's food cake mix and you add buttermilk, oil, eggs and cocoa. The cocoa is to presumably strengthen the chocolate flavor. It works as this one tasted less like a mix. The texture/crumb was soft and the cake was moist but not overly so.

Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the pans
Flour or unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting the pans
1 package (18.25 ozs) plain devil’s food cake mix
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1⅓ cups buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil, such as canola, corn, safflower, soybean or sunflower
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Generously grease two 9-inch round cake pans with solid vegetable shortening, then dust with flour or unsweetened cocoa powder. Shake out the excess flour then set the pans aside.
2. Place the cake mix, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. The batter should look thick and well combined. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing it out with a rubber spatula. Place the pans in the oven side by side.
3. Bake the cake until it is golden brown and springs back when lightly pressed with your finger, 28 to 30 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edge of each layer and invert them each onto a rack, then invert them again onto another rack so that the cakes are right side up. Allow the cakes to cool completely, 30 minutes more. Frost as desired.
4. Store this cake, unfrosted, covered in aluminum foil, at room temperature, for up to 4 days, or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Using a cake mix as a base

Basic Buttermilk Spice Cake - February 5, 2009

I like to try a lot of different recipes, mostly to justify the dozens of dessert cookbooks I've acquired over the years, some of them barely used. What determines what I bake is partly decided from the recipes available to me and partly by the ingredients I have on hand and need to use up. This week it's milk and buttermilk to be used before their expiration dates. I made a buttermilk spice cake to use up not only some buttermilk but also a spice cake mix I bought on sale awhile back. This recipe is from The Cake Mix Doctor by Ann Byrn. While I, as a baking snob, prefer to bake all things from scratch, a good recipe starting from a cake mix can, on occasion, be forgivable. The recipes I've tried from the Cake Mix Doctor have generally been good. While the taste is usually not very remarkable (it ends up inevitably tasting like the cake mix it came from), the crumb and texture is pretty good. I like my cakes to be, well, cakey. They either need to have a tender crumb with a moist texture (can't abide dry cakes) or they need to be packed full of flavor and have dense texture like a pound cake. I don't care much for chiffons or angel food cakes. It's a texture thing then a flavor thing. Anyway, this one turned out well.

Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the pans

Flour for dusting the pans

1 package (18.25 ozs) plain spice cake mix

1 cup buttermilk

⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce

⅓ cup vegetable oil, such as canola, corn, safflower, soybean or sunflower

3 large eggs

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Generously grease two 9-inch round cake pans with solid vegetable shortening, then dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour then set the pans aside.

2. Place the cake mix, buttermilk, applesauce, oil, eggs and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. The batter should look thick and well combined. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing it out with a rubber spatula. Place the pans in the oven side by side.

3. Bake the cake until it is golden brown and springs back when lightly pressed with your finger, 26 to 28 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edge of each layer and invert them each onto a rack, then invert them again onto another rack so that the cakes are right side up. Allow the cakes to cool completely, 30 minutes more. Frost as desired.

4. Store this cake, unfrosted, covered in aluminum foil, at room temperature, for up to 4 days, or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Chocolate Cookies

Double Chocolate Cookies - February 4, 2009

Tonight's baking is Double Chocolate Cookies from Baking with Julia by Julia Child. I've made these cookies before but I forgot to take a picture of them the first time I made them so I had to make them again and take a pic for posterity and my next tastebook. I'm bringing them into work tomorrow for a coworker lunch. These are pretty good - they don't spread that much and are really rich.

The trick to pure chocolate cookies is to use the best quality chocolate possible. It doesn't have to be super high end but don't use the no-name generic, cheap stuff either. It won't be worth making if you do. So many people ask me for recipes and I give it to them but when they make it on their own, they say it didn't turn out like mine. Most of the time, using the right ingredients is the difference. You know you've made chocolate cookies right when you taste them at room temperature and the chocolate flavor really comes through. Also, it's better to underbake cookies rather than overbake them, especially chocolate cookies. The cookies may not look done yet when you take them out of the oven but remember, the chocolate "sets" as it cools. Overbaking will make a dry, tough cookie and those simply aren't worth the calories.

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into larger than chip size chunks

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1½ cups sugar

1. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside until needed. Divide the bittersweet chocolate in half and set half aside.

2. Place the butter, the remaining bittersweet chocolate, and the unsweetened chocolate in the top of a double boiler over, but not touching, simmering water. Heat the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the butter and chocolates are melted and smooth. Remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, put the eggs, sugar, coffee and vanilla in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat at high speed for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is very thick and forms a slowly dissolving ribbon when the whisk is lifted and the mixture is allowed to drizzle back into the bowl.

4. With the mixer on low speed, very gradually add the warm butter-chocolate mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and work your rubber spatula around the bottom of the bowl, then continue to mix just until the chocolate is thoroughly incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and the remaining bittersweet chocolate chunks and mix thoroughly. The mixture will look like a thick, marshmallowy cake batter.

5. Chilling the dough: Cover the bowl with plastic and chill for several hours, or overnight. The dough can be made ahead and kept refrigerated for up to 4 days.

6. Baking the cookies: When you are ready to bake, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Using a heaping tablespoon of dough for each cookie, drop the dough onto the lined sheets, leaving at least 2 inches of space between each mound of dough – these are spreaders. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking period. The cookies will puff, then sink and crinkle and wrinkle around the edges. These cookies are better underdone than overbaked, so if you have any doubts, pull them out of the oven earlier rather than later. These shouldn’t appear dry and they won’t be crisp. Use a wide metal spatula to transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature. Repeat with the remaining dough.

8. Storing: The cookies can be wrapped in plastic and kept at room temperature for 2 days or frozen for up to a month. Thaw, still wrapped, at room temperature.