Sunday, October 31, 2010

Are you a "someday" person?

I moved last week so this blog has been quiet since first I was too busy moving and packing to bake, then I was busy moving and (still) unpacking to bake.  And now that I have some breathing room to bake, I still don't have internet connection at my new place so I can't post or upload pictures from my computer.  I'm currently borrowing an internet-connected computer somewhere else just to post this.  But no matter - I've started baking in my new kitchen and will update my blog accordingly once I finally get connected.

In the meantime, some random thoughts.  It took me literally all summer to pack up my old house.  I've had the detritus of my life in boxes in my garage for weeks, even months.  It actually wasn't so bad to pack things although I did keep finding stuff I didn't remember I had and in some cases, didn't even remember buying.  That's a bad sign that I have too much stuff.  It got worse when I moved and began unpacking.  Yikes.  No one person should have all this.  I moved to a bigger home and yet it seemed like as I unpacked box after box that I would fill this home just as much as my old home.  That's not my goal or my intention.  The easy answer is to get rid of some of this stuff, right?  Most people would be smart enough to get rid of things before they had to move it and I did do some of that.  But I got to a point in my packing where I couldn't declutter, decide what to donate and pack all at the same time so I copped out and just packed it all, hauled it all and am now unpacking it all.

My problem with having and keeping all this stuff is I think I will use it "someday".  That's probably a classic hoarder mentality.  You don't want to get rid of it because you might need it "someday".  But for so much of our stuff, someday never really comes.  Or if it does come, you still only need it very rarely and the amount of time you use it is excessively disproportionate to the amount of time you spent storing it and lugging it from place to place.  In the spirit of this blog, my classic example is all my baking stuff. Not just the 200+ cookbooks that I've already owned up to and have been trying to keep a reign on.  I'm talking about all my baking pans and baking implements/gadgets.  I knew I had a tad too many when I was labeling box after box "baking pans" and the boxes kept stacking up.  It really hit me when I started unpacking those boxes and had to put them in some semblance of order in my new kitchen.  At first it was overwhelming.  I had moved from a small kitchen to one that was literally double its size with more cabinets than I've ever had in my life.  Yet at first it looked like I wasn't going to have enough room?  That's when I knew I had hit the ridiculous point.

In a way, it was amusing to go through them all - at one point I must've gone through a specialty pan phase because I realized I had multiple "bundt" pans in special shapes and sizes.  They looked like they would make pretty cakes in the shape of wreaths, santas, and snowflakes but I'd only used them a few times, enough to realize what a pain in the butt they are to clean.  All those nooks and crannies you could only get at with a small toothbrush.  File those under the "life is short" category - I've got better things to do than to use those pans when I could make the same-tasting cakes in easy-to-clean pans, frost them and everyone's happy.  Those went into the Goodwill pile.  I also have every size baking pan imaginable.  Of the common 8" square and round cake pans, I have multiples of those too.  Because you never know when they'll wear out, right?  Except I take really good care of my pans and buy the good quality stuff so they haven't worn out yet.  I also have multiple pie pans of the same size.  That wouldn't be so bad....except I rarely make pies.  How did I end up with 3 pie pans?  I don't know.  I think two of them must've been a gift.  I think.  I even have a pretty shortbread pan that, when properly used, would bake "tiles" of pretty-patterned shortbread.  Really pretty.  Except when I do make shortbread, I never use that pan.  That went into the Goodwill pile too.

And let's not even start on my ramekin collection.  "Someday" I'm going to have a bunch of people over and serve them creme brulee, apple cobbler (in apple-shaped ramekins), molten chocolate cake, puddings, trifles, and every other individual-sized dessert you can think of.  Because I've got the ramekins for all of them.

I did end up taking a carload of stuff to Goodwill a couple of days ago.  It wasn't all kitchen stuff but it was a decent attempt to get rid of my someday mentality.  Since someday never comes or comes but rarely, I'm not going to live my present holding onto stuff for the future.  Life goes by too fast for that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chewy Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chewy Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookies - made October 22, 2010 from Land O Lakes Cookies (book #2)

Who doesn’t like chocolate chip cookies?  Okay, there might be some people who don’t but let’s pretend that’s in another universe and not in the one I inhabit.  It isn’t just about the taste and texture of an excellent chocolate chip cookie with crisp edges, chewy middles and melt-y chocolate chips.  It’s about the memories they invoke.  I've met many people whose early baking efforts started with following the recipe on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip package. 

For many people, there are a lot of good memories that come with chocolate chip cookies.  My funniest one from childhood wasn’t actually from my baking efforts but from my sister’s.  Anyone remember a product called Mrs. Good Cookie?  They were frozen cookie dough sold in “sheets” but already portioned into individual cookie sizes and all you had to do was break them apart, put them on a cookie sheet and bake them.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Unless you’re my sister and talking on the phone to her best friend after she put the cookies in the oven and let them bake…and bake…and bake.   A sheet pan full of burned cookies later, Mrs. Good Cookie wasn’t that good.  To this day, I tease my sister that while she's a good cook, she can’t even bake slice ‘n bake cookies.  Or rather, she can bake them, she just doesn’t remember to take them out of the oven, haha.

Despite having 2 go-to recipes that I really like, I always love trying new recipes for chocolate chip cookies.  Every new recipe is like a flag waving in front of me shrieking, “Try me! Try me!”  I can’t resist.  This one is from book #2 - the Land O Lakes Cookies cookbook.  Mine has a different cover than the amazon image posted but I hope it’s similar or just a different edition since mine is currently packed and I can’t get to it to take a picture.  The only thing better than a chocolate chip cookie is a BIG chocolate chip cookie.  You can’t make just any recipe be a big cookie simply by making the dough ball bigger when you bake it.  The dough has to be firm enough to hold the larger shape and not spread out all over your pan when you bake it.  Because the point of making a BIG cookie is to have it be thick.

I had typed up this recipe awhile back so it’s been sitting in my “Still to be made” folder on the computer.  Since I couldn’t access the actual cookbook, I did wonder if I had copied the recipe correctly when I typed it up.  For one thing, it doesn’t list any salt.  For another, that seemed like a lot of combined flour and cake flour and made me wonder if the cookies would be dry.  But, no guts, no glory so I went ahead and made the recipe anyway.  I did add a couple of pinches of salt though, just in case.  My ice cream scoop isn’t large enough to make really big dough balls so I made them the old-fashioned way – with 2 spoons.  Scoop a large amount of cookie dough onto one spoon and use the other to shape into (roughly) a round ball, working the dough back and forth between spoons until you get a sphere.  I froze them first (as always).  Lo and behold, they did make thick cookies!  Take these out when the edges are golden brown but the middles still look underdone.  They'll keep baking on the hot cookie sheet after you take them out of the oven plus you don't want dry, overbaked cookies.  These had great texture (crisp edges, chewy middles).  I could've wished for a bit more flavor though.  I think that's where it needs a little salt.  And a tad more sugar.  But that would impact the texture.  All in all, this is a good "bake sale" cookie - they make a nice size and look good when wrapped plus they're not too fragile.

One tip: when you make chocolate chip cookies, do you run out of chips towards the end of the dough and by the last cookie dough ball, there are only 1 or 2 chips left?  So that last cookie when you bake it is unbroken flatness with maybe 1 chip sticking out?  That’s simple enough to fix.  Just hold back a handful of chips from the bag and add them when you’re down to making the last few cookies.  Sounds obvious but I’d baked dozens of chocolate chip cookies before it occurred to me to do that.  Duh.  Now my cookies uniformly have the same (copious) amount of chips.  Oh and the other thing I changed in this recipe is I added more chocolate chips than the 12 ounces the recipe calls for.  With this much dough and if you’re really going for “jumbo” cookies, you need lots of chips.  I almost doubled the amount.  Go big or go home.

3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 ½ cups butter, softened
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 (12-ounce) package (2 cups) semisweet real chocolate chips or chunks

1.       Heat oven to 375˚F.  In medium bowl combine flour, cake flour, baking powder and baking soda; set aside.  In large mixer bowl combine sugar, brown sugar and butter.  Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until creamy (2 to 3 minutes).  Add eggs and vanilla.  Continue beating, scraping bowl often until well mixed (1 minute).  Reduce speed to low.  Continue beating, gradually adding flour mixture, until well mixed (2 to 3 minutes).  By hand, stir in chocolate chips. 
2.      Drop dough by ¼ cupfuls 2 inches apart onto cookie sheets.  Bake for 10 to 14 minutes or until light golden brown.  (DO NOT OVERBAKE.)  Let stand 1 to 2 minutes; remove from cookie sheets. 

Yield: 26 jumbo cookies

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Marble Molasses Pound Cake

Marble Molasses Pound Cake - made October 20, 2010 from Southern Cakes (book #1)

My work dinner last night was unexpectedly canceled so I ended up with some baking time after all.  So I decided to start my baking challenge.  As mentioned earlier, I have a plethora of baking books, many of which are barely used or haven’t been used at all (yet).  And like a magpie amongst shiny objects, I continue to want to acquire more.  To curb this acquisitive disposition, I’m challenging myself to make at least one recipe from every single cookbook I own today before I can buy another one.  That “one” being Lisa Yockelson’s Bakingstyle book being released in August 2011.  I have over 200 baking books/cookbooks as of last count.  It might be more as I might’ve stopped counting once I reached 200 since it’s hard to be in denial when you actually have facts.  So that means I need to make over 200 recipes between now and August – eek.  Technically I can give myself longer since I don’t have to buy Bakingstyle right when it comes out.  But I want to.  So I’ll do my best to get there.
While I’ve already posted recipes from the books I’ve already used, I’m resetting to zero as of now.  That means even if I’ve already baked from a book, I still need to try a different recipe from it.  This isn’t about just using the books I’ve never baked from before but also utilizing more of the ones I’ve already used.  Otherwise it’d be too easy and by definition, a “challenge” shouldn’t be too easy.

This book has produced some good cake recipes.  I figured this would be a safe one to try and I needed it for a meeting today.  I’m not a big fan of molasses.  I don’t dislike it but I think a little of it goes a long way in terms of flavoring.  Marbling it with the rest of the cake seemed like a good way to go.  The main thing that surprised me with this cake is there’s no vanilla extract for flavoring.  I’m not sure why but if I ever make it again, I’d probably add a couple of teaspoons.  It couldn’t hurt.  The marbling of the molasses batter with the rest of the cake worked really well if you want that molasses flavoring without having it be too overwhelming.  The only thing I didn’t like was the texture of the cake had a dry mouthfeel.  Normally that would speak to overbaking but I took it out when the toothpick test just passed the raw batter stage.  It could be I used a smidge too much flour.  The recipe calls for 2 cups of sifted flour.  In my time-crunch, I didn’t sift the flour but just undercut the amount I used by a couple of tablespoons (old baker’s trick).  Maybe I should’ve used even less.  All in all, a decent cake but with the seemingly good choices in the rest of the cookbook, I don’t know if I’d make this one again.  The Brown Sugar Pound Cake recipe is better and has a better mouthfeel.

Marble Molasses Pound Cake
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons molasses or pure cane syrup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves

1.       Heat the oven to 350˚F.  Generously grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan, line the bottom of the pan with waxed or parchment paper, and flour the pan.
2.      Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and stir with a fork to mix well.
3.       In a large bowl, beat the butter with a mixer at high speed until light and fluffy.  Add the sugar and beat to combine the ingredients well.  Add the beaten eggs and continue mixing until the mixture is light, fluffy and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.  Stop several times to scrape down the bowl.
4.      Add about a third of the flour mixture, and then about half of the milk, beating at low speed after each addition just long enough to make the flour or the milk disappear into the batter.  Mix in another third of the flour, the rest of the milk, and then the last of the flour in the same way.
5.      Scoop out about a third of the batter into a medium bowl, and add the molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves.  Stir with a wooden spoon or fork to mix everything into the batter well.
6.      Quickly add both batters to the pan, a few tablespoonfuls at a time, alternating between the plain and spiced batters.  Run a table knife through the batter in a figure-eight pattern to swirl the batters together.  Bake at 350˚F for about 1 hour, until the cake is golden brown and springs back when touched lightly at the center, and until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.
7.      Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel for about 10 minutes.  Use a table knife to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan.  Then turn out the cake onto a wire rack or a plate, remove the paper carefully and cool completely, top side up.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin Bread - first made September 23, 2007 from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

I haven’t had time to bake as much since I’m getting down to the wire in terms of packing, moving, taking care of the myriad details of switching households, and re-listing my house for sale with a new realtor.  Not to mention I have a day job where we’re in the busiest time of the year and I go into work while it’s still dark and come home when it’s dark.  Yeah, not a lot of baking therapy happening for me just out of sheer time crunch.  So, for now, I will make do with posting some recipes I’ve made before but haven’t written up yet.  My baking challenge will have to wait a little while longer.

Last year around this time, I had blogged about how I hadn’t really liked pumpkin since my only frame of reference was pumpkin pie – which to this day I still don’t like.  But I realized later that it wasn’t the taste of pumpkin that I didn’t like but the texture and occasional over-spicing of pumpkin baked goods that I objected to.  Once I got over my mental block about pumpkin, I started experimenting with different recipes for pumpkin breads.  I tried recipes from Buttercup Bakes at Home, Mary Engelbreit's Sweet Treats Dessert Cookbook and a recipe from Martha Stewart.   So far, Martha wins the battle.  Her recipe for pumpkin bread is easy to make and the result is a yummy bread with a soft, moist texture, just what you want in a quick bread.  These do well packed in lunches or for picnics or teas.  Careful not to underbake (or overbake) it though.  I underbaked mine slightly and while the taste was still good, the bottom part of the loaf was the slightest bit dense and heavy, a sure sign the bread hadn’t baked long enough.  If you look closely at the picture, you can tell how the bottom part of the loaf looks compressed compared to the rest of it.  

I love the smell of pumpkin bread baking in the oven in the fall.  It invokes just general well-being and coziness at being indoors on a cool day.  I don’t live in an area that gets marked seasonal changes and I’m sure my New England friends would laugh at the West Coast version of autumn which is general hot Indian summers interspersed with cooler days that aren’t quite crisp enough to be cold.  Followed by a smattering of rain here and there, just enough to get your car dirty and provide a little relief to your summer-parched-brown lawn.  But still, when fall and genuinely cooler weather roll around, I like making pumpkin bread to get into the proper mindset of the season.

Unsalted butter, room temperature, for pans
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups canned pumpkin puree
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
¼ cup vegetable oil
1⅔ cups buttermilk
  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Coat two 8½ -by-4½-inch loaf pans with butter; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt; set mixture aside.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the pumpkin purée and both sugars; mix on medium speed until well combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs and oil; mix until incorporated, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. With mixer on low, add the flour mixture in two batches, alternating with the buttermilk and beginning and ending with the flour, until just combined.
  3. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans; smooth the tops with an offset spatula. Place the pans on a baking sheet. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the centers come out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Remove loaves from pans and cool completely. Bread can be kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic, for up to 4 days.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

We interrupt the recipes to insert a commercial link

Anyone who regularly reads my blog has probably now noticed the new amazon images of the cookbooks with most of the blog posts.  There are several reasons for that - the most obvious one being I joined the Amazon Associates program and they make it ridiculously easy to insert the links and images that'll take you to their site so you can be tempted to buy stuff.  Jeff Bezos is no dummy.  He dangles a certain % of each sale driven by the associate's driving traffic/purchases to amazon back to the associate.  Rest assured anything I earn will go towards baking ingredients so I can keep trying new recipes and blogging about them, lol.

But the main driver is I want to give proper credit to the cookbooks & authors that I get my recipes from.  I'm always careful to cite the recipe source but I think it's actually cool to be able  to show you the recipe book I got something from. I believe in giving people the proper credit for their work.  Most of this baking odyssey is about my trying existing recipes from my plethora of baking books.  I rarely have time to make up my own.  I will tweak and fuss over an existing recipe and try to make it as faithfully as the recipe author intended with my notes on what I thought of it and how I'd change it up to (hopefully) make it better.  But I have to give the nod to the people who spent countless hours (because yes, that's what each recipe entails) to put the recipe together in the first place.  It's the right thing to do. 

The other reason is if some of what I post intrigues you enough to make you want to buy the book yourself, you can with a click of the link.  Or, even if you don't end up buying it from amazon, at least now you know what the book looks like in case you do decide to get it from somewhere.  It's always fun when someone tells me they tried a recipe I blogged about and they liked it so much they bought the original cookbook.  I admit to preferences for certain cookbooks and certain cookbook authors and am not shy about making those preferences known.  As I look back at the old posts and see the same cookbooks popping up, which ones I like seem to be obvious.  Once I move and unpack my 200+ baking books again, I'll have to experiment a bit more with the less-used books.  I'm still technically on a no-more-buying-baking-books moratorium until I use more of the recipe books I already have.  I'm setting myself a goal to make at least one recipe from each of the 200+ baking books I own before I let myself buy another.  My ulterior motive?  My favorite cookbook author, Lisa Yockelson, has a new baking book coming out called Bakingstyle in August 2011.  It's already up on amazon but there's no description of it, just the price and the release date.  I have no idea what the theme is or what kind of recipes will be in it.  I don't care.  I want it.  90% of the recipes I try from her cookbook always turn out.  That's a pretty high success rate.  So the challenge is on because I want this book....

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Favorite Cream Cheese Pound Cake

My Favorite Cream Cheese Pound Cake - first made November 2007 from Sticky Messy Chewy Gooey

That's what this recipe is literally called, not that I'm calling it my favorite cream cheese pound cake.  Truth be told, I've only made 2 cream cheese pound cakes and the other one is the entry just before this one.  I thought I'd post this one in case anyone wanted to do any comparative baking and taste testing.  However, between the two, I do have to give the nod to this recipe.  It's richer and (to me) has more flavor, probably because it's got a hefty 50% more butter than the other recipe.  The toothpick test works well for this one when you're testing for doneness.  It tastes great warm (most things do) but is also great at room temperature.  Don't refrigerate this as that'll dry it out.  If you need to store it because you aren't going to eat it all within a couple of days - and the consumption of anything with this much butter in it should be spaced out - then wrap it in foil or a freezer bag and put in the freezer. 

While this is richer, I wouldn't say the cream cheese is overpowering in flavor.  It's actually quite subtle.  I suspect the cream cheese helps with the excellent texture this has but if you're like me and aren't wild about the taste of cream cheese, this is a safe pound cake to make.

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
6 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups bleached all-purpose flour, sifted then measured
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325˚F. Spray two 8 ½ by 4 ½” loaf pans with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Beat the butter and cream cheese together in a large bowl, with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar and continue beating until pale and fluffy. Beat in the salt and vanilla.

3. Add the eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour again along with the baking powder into the batter and, using a large rubber spatula, fold in until no traces of flour remain and the batter is smooth.

4. Divide the batter between the two prepared loaf pans. Bake until the tops are golden and slightly cracked, and when a skewer inserted into the center of the cakes comes out with only a few moist crumbs clinging to it, 60 to 75 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn the cakes out of the pans and let cool to room temperature on the wire rack before serving.

5. At this point the cakes can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cream Cheese Pound Cake - Southern Cakes

Cream Cheese Pound Cake - made October 12, 2010 from Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott

This cookbook is turning into a nice little find. Although the two frosting recipes I've tried from it = FAIL, the cakes themselves have been turning out pretty well. They're simple, basic cakes that I think anyone can make well and sometimes simple is best. I can't try anything fancier than Bundt cakes or 9 x 13 cakes right now since almost all of my baking pans are packed but I'm looking forward to making some of the layer cake recipes once I settle in.

What I like about this cake is it has a nice crumb and a typical pound cake texture. You can't really taste the cream cheese though so if you're a cream cheese lover, you might be disappointed. I have another cream cheese pound cake recipe from Sticky Messy Chewy Gooey that I could've sworn I'd blogged about before but nothing's coming up when I search for it on the blog so I might have to post that in another update. That one is a bit richer. This one is good plain but if you want to dress it up, you can add a vanilla glaze to it.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
One 8-ounce package (1 cup) cream cheese, softened
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Heat the oven to 325˚F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan, or two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans.
2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and stir with a fork to mix well.
3. Combine the softened butter and cream cheese in a large bowl, and beat well with a mixer at medium speed to transform them into a soft, fluffy mixture. Add the sugar and continue beating 2 minutes more, stopping once to scrape down the sides. Add the eggs, one by one, beating after each addition to mix it in well.
4. Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, beating after each addition at low speed only until the flour disappears. Scrape down the bowl 2 or 3 times as you work. Stir in the vanilla, and scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
5. Bake at 325˚F for 1 hour and 15 minutes (55 to 60 minutes for loaf pans), until the cake is golden brown, pulling away from the sides, and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.
6. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel until it is at room temperature. Then gently loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a table knife and tirn it out onto a cake stand or serving plate, top side up.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Walnut" Butter Shortbread

Walnut Butter Shortbread - made October 3, 2010 from the Culinary Institute of America Baking & Pastry Arts Program

So…..remember my regular harping about not liking to use nuts in baked goods? Well, forget about that for this post because in this recipe, nuts are a critical component that make it tasty. The original recipe calls for walnuts (hence the title) but my aversion to walnuts remain. Apparently I can’t change all my leopard-like spots at once. Not to knock walnuts but they’re too bitter for my taste. Pecans rule for this shortbread cookie. Toast the pecans first to bring out their flavor. The trick to toasting nuts? You have to rely on your sense of smell. You can time them but the best way to tell if the nuts are properly toasted is if they smell really good. That might seem frustratingly vague but try toasting nuts a few times and you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t toast them long enough, they’ll smell good but not really fragrant. If you have to stick your nose all the way into the pan to get the smell, then the nuts aren’t toasted enough. If you overtoast them, they’ll look and smell burnt. Depending on your oven, and if you want to be cautious, try toasting them for 7-10 minutes and keep checking if they should be toasted longer. But ultimately, follow your nose. Once the nuts are toasted, let them cool completely before you even start making the shortbread dough. If they’re even the slightest bit warm when you use them, they can melt your dough and you don’t want that. Plus it’s easier to chop them finely when they’re completely cool. I use my nut grinder to chop them up in less than 30 seconds. If you haven’t already, invest in a nut grinder. They’re less than $10 and will save you a lot of time.

These are the easiest shortbread cookies to make – the recipe is from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) so it makes a lot but you can easily halve the recipe. The directions are pretty succinct but easy enough to follow. And you will need a food scale to measure the ingredients. My recipes from CIA are almost always based on weight, not volume since that's the most accurate measure. What I like about this recipe is the dough handles really well, i.e. it isn’t too sticky. Shape them into round or square logs, wrap them in wax paper and freeze them. When you’re ready to bake them, let the dough thaw slightly. If you cut the cookie logs while they’re too frozen, the dough will crumble. If you let it thaw too much, the dough may be soft and the log will start to lose its shape as you cut it. One trick I learned in culinary school is to keep turning the log as you make each slice so you can “re-shape” it back into the log instead of having one side flatten as you keep cutting.

The toasted pecans bring out a wonderful flavor to complement the buttery richness of the shortbread. Don’t underbake these (one of the few times you’ll see me write that) as the key to good shortbread is the “snap” of the cookie and you’ll only get that if you bake them long enough. I bake mine until the tops look a little dry and the underside is slightly golden brown. When they’re cool, they’re crisp without being hard. You can make these cookies plain and they make for tasty little tea cookies. However, this time around, I sandwiched these with a little dulce de leche. My parents just got back from South America and per my request (“PLEASE, Mom, all I want is dulce de leche”), they brought me back a couple of cans from Buenos Aires. I love dulce de leche. It goes really well with these cookies in terms of flavor and texture contrast. The only thing I would caution is you should put these together as a sandwich cookie at the very last minute before serving. Otherwise the filling (whether it’s dulce de leche or not) will soften the shortbread cookies over a few hours and you’ll lose the crispness and texture contrast. They’ll still taste good even if they’re not crisp but if you like the cookies crisp, wait until the last minute.

As the holidays approach, if you want some time-saving tips, make the dough ahead of time and wrap in wax paper before putting in the freezer, bake it the day you’re planning to serve it, put in airtight containers after they cool (Ziploc bags work really well) then sandwich them with the filling right before serving. This is also a good recipe to make with kids if you want a family activity since the dough is easy to put together, you just slice the cookie logs (no messing with flouring a cutting board, rolling out dough and cutting out cookies), and the kids can spread the filling and sandwich the cookies together.

Oh, and in case you’re not planning to go to South America any time soon, dulce de leche is available in the States. I’ve gotten the pricey jars at Williams Sonoma ($10 a jar - eek) but have been told they’re also available at Cost Plus World Market and I imagine they’re cheaper there. When my mom found that out, she wanted to know why I wanted her to bring dulce de leche back from South America when I could get it here. “But Mom, you were going to be in South America anyway….” Besides, I’d rather have dulce de leche than a t-shirt or a mug :).

1 lb soft butter
8 ozs brown sugar
1 lb, 4 ozs all-purpose flour
3 ozs cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 ozs walnuts, chopped

1. Cream butter and sugar. Sift dry ingredients together and add to the above. Add walnuts and vanilla to the batter; mix just until combined.
2. Shape dough into bricks. Refrigerate until firm. Slice ¼” thick, lay on paper.
3. Bake at 350˚F for ~15-18 minutes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Butterscotch Flip

Butterscotch Flip - made October 1, 2010 from Fat Witch Brownies by Patricia Helding

If you like butterscotch and chocolate together, this is an awesome brownie. It looks pretty and it's a great flavor combination. The sweetness of the brown sugar/butterscotch is perfectly complemented by the chocolate brownie layer. When I made this recipe, I baked it for 35 minutes as the top was the right color of brown and the toothpick came out moist but clean. In hindsight, after it cooled and I tried a piece, I should've baked it a little bit longer. The top layer was still a bit mushy. It wasn't bad but to get it a little more cakelike and less mushy, it could've used a few more minutes of baking time. It doesn't affect the flavor but texture-wise I think it would've been a bit better if baked a little longer. Once again, this was impacted by my workouts as I made the brownie, popped it into the oven and did my workout. I had to keep pausing my workout after the first 25 minutes to keep checking on it. By the 35-minute mark, I didn't want to keep pausing anymore so I just took it out :).

Bottom Brownie
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
2 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup unbleached flour
Pinch of salt
¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips

Top layer
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 large egg
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup unbleached flour
Pinch of salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup butterscotch chips

1. Grease a 9-inch x 9-inch baking pan with butter. Dust with flour and tap out the excess. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
2. To make the bottom brownie, melt the butter and bittersweet chocolate chips together in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
3. Cream the eggs, granulated sugar and vanilla together until smooth. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and continue mixing until well blended.
4. Measure the flour and salt and sift together directly into the batter. Mix gentle until well combined and no trade of the dry ingredients remains. Stir in the semisweet chocolate chips by hand, if desired. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared baking pan and set aside.
5. To make the top layer, melt the butter in a small pan or in the microwave. Beat the egg, brown sugar and vanilla together until light and fluffy. Add the melted butter and continue beating until well combined.
6. Measure the flour, salt and baking powder and then sift directly into the batter. Mix gently until well combined and no trace of the dry ingredients remains. Stir in the butterscotch chips by hand. With a spatula, spread the batter over the bottom layer in the prepared baking pan and smooth to the edges.
7. Bake for 32 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with only crumbs, not batter, on it. The top should be a golden butterscotch color.
8. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack for 1 hour. Cut just before serving.

Makes 12 to 16 bars

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Oatmeal Caramel Bars

Oatmeal Caramel Bars - made September 26, 2010 from Cookies by Better Homes & Garden

The recipe calls for making this in an 15 x 10" baking pan but I made it in a 9 x 13" pan instead. Subsequently, they came out thicker than the cookbook authors intended but I thought they were just the right thickness. I almost doubled the amount of milk called for in melting the caramels as my previous experience with BHG recipes is they don't thin the caramel enough and after baking, the caramel becomes hard and chewy when cool. I didn't want to risk that. However, I might've thinned it a little too much. Next time, I'd add only 1 extra tablespoon of milk instead of 2.

I also omitted the nuts from this as is my wont but in this case, I think it might've been better to keep them in. The taste is good but the texture is all the same gooey-ness. Nothing wrong with that but I like contrasting textures in something sweet. So toasting some pecans and adding them finely chopped probably would've made this a better product. Next time. Oh and I also baked this for a little over 30 minutes. It wouldn't have hurt to bake it a little longer but I was working out while this was baking and I didn't want to keep stopping my workout to go check on the bars :).

1 cup butter
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
1 6-ounce package (1 cup) semisweet chocolate pieces
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
24 vanilla caramels (7 ounces)
2 tablespoons milk

1. In a large mixing bowl beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed about 30 seconds or until softened. Add about 1 cup of the flour to the butter. Then add the brown sugar, eggs, vanilla and baking soda. Beat till thoroughly combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Beat in the remaining flour. Stir in the rolled oats.
2. For crust, press two-thirds (about 3 1/3 cups) of the oat mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with the chocolate pieces and nuts.
3. In a medium saucepan combine the caramels and milk. Cook and stir over low heat till the caramels are melted. Drizzle the caramel mixture over the chocolate and nuts. Drop the remaining oat mixture by rounded teaspoons on top of the caramel layer.
4. Bake in a 350˚F oven about 25 minutes or till top is lightly browned. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cut into bars. Makes 60.

Banana Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Banana Cake "with Chocolate Frosting" - made September 25, 2010 from Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott

No, your eyes aren't deceiving you - that isn't some new form of chocolate as the frosting. The original recipe calls for making this with a chocolate frosting but my personal favorite flavor with banana is a caramel frosting, especially when I add butterscotch chips to the banana cake (which I did). So I took some creative license here.

This makes a really good banana cake. It's still not as good as my favorite banana cake from Icing on the Cake but so far nothing's come up to snuff there. Regardless, this still has good flavor, a tender crumb and is moist - all earmarks of a good cake. I used the frosting recipe from the banana butterscotch cupcakes which is where I discovered the banana butterscotch combination in the first place:

If someone does make this recipe with the original chocolate frosting, do let me know how it comes out. Thanks.

Banana Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup buttermilk
1 ½ cups mashed ripe bananas

Chocolate Frosting
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1/3 cup cocoa
1/3 cup evaporated milk or half-and-half
4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. To make the cake, heat the oven to 350˚F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl, and stir with a fork to combine well.
2. In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar, and beat well, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one by one, and then the vanilla. Beat well for 2 to 3 minutes more, scraping down the bowl occasionally, until you have a smooth batter.
3. Using a large spoon or spatula, stir in half the flour just until it disappears into the batter. Stir in the buttermilk, and then the remaining flour, the same way. Quickly and gently fold in the mashed bananas, and then divide the batter between the 2 cake pans.
4. Bake at 350˚F for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cakes are golden brown, spring back when touched lightly in the center, and begin to pull away from the sides of the pans.
5. Cool for 10 minutes in the pans on wire racks or folded kitchen towels. Then turn out onto wire racks or plates to cool completely, top side up.
6. To make the frosting, in a medium saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa, and evaporated milk. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until the cocoa dissolves into a dark, shiny essence. Remove from the heat and stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Beat with a mixer at low speed until you have a smooth, thick frosting.
7. To complete the cake, place one layer, top side down, on a cake plate or serving plate, and spread about 1 cup of frosting evenly over the top. Cover with the second layer, placed top side up. Spread the frosting evenly, first over the sides and then covering the top of the cake.