Wednesday, November 30, 2011

S'more Squares - sans marshmallows

S'more Squares - made November 28, 2011 from Sweet Miniatures by Flo Braker (book #177)

This is one of those new recipes I decided to take a risk on to see how it would turn out.  The ingredients and instructions were straightforward and the risk of failure seemed minimal.  I did, however, skip the last step of the melted milk chocolate and topping with a mini marshmallow, partly because I didn't have time after work and partly because I don't like marshmallows, mini or otherwise.  So if you leave out the marshmallows, can these still legitimately be called "s'more" anything?  Maybe not.  But regardless, these were pretty good.  The graham cracker crust was a nice touch to add to the brownie which itself was also good, albeit a bit thin.  These were somewhat plain since I skipped the mini marshmallow topping but you can dress these up with a Hershey kiss or chopped up Snickers or peanut butter cups if you wish.  Or leave them plain and just enjoy.

1 ½ cups (5 ½ ounces) graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup (50 grams) packed light brown sugar
7 tablespoons (3 ½ ounces) unsalted butter, melted

2/3 cup (100 grams) unsifted all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon water
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 ounces milk chocolate, melted
4 dozen mini marshmallows

1. Adjust rack to lower third of oven and preheat oven to 325°F. Press a sheet of aluminum foil to cover outside bottom and sides of a 9” square pan. Invert pan and gently press aluminum form into pan to fit contours; set aside.
2. Crust: In a large bowl, blend the graham cracker crumbs and the sugar. Add the butter and blend thoroughly. Press the crumbs into foil-lined pan. Set aside.
3. Filling: Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda onto a piece of waxed paper; set aside. In a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat, stir in the water. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar, then the eggs and vanilla, just until thoroughly blended. Add the flour mixture, stirring just until combined. Pour filling into crumb-lined pan, spreading evenly.
4. Bake for 30 minutes only. Remove pan from oven to a rack, and cool in the pan.
5. Topping: To serve, remove the cake from the pan to a cutting board by lifting the foil by its edges. Pour the chocolate into a small handmade paper cone and pipe zigzag lines over the filling’s surface. Cut into 1 ½’ squares. Center a mini marshmallow on each square, and pipe a tiny dot of chocolate in the center of each marshmallow.
6. Store in one layer in a covered foil-lined cardboard container, such as a cake box, at room temperature up to 2 days.

Monday, November 28, 2011

O Christmas Tree - and preparing for baking gifts

As a baker, it should not surprise you that my fondness (cough, obsession. cough) for baking also manifests itself in other areas of my life.  The only thing I've been doing almost as long as I've been baking is collecting Christmas ornaments.  I started off with Hallmark and branched out to other brands and eventually ended up with a collection that had both sentimental value imbued with certain memories and ornaments I bought just because I loved them.  But Hallmark ornaments will always have a sentimental place of honor in my collection even though I don't buy them by the dozens every year like I used to.
My Hallmark tree

Nowadays I don't buy as much since I'm out of storage and display space. So I've cut back on new purchases but the old ones still remain.  I've culled out a great many in recent years but kept even more as I just like them.  Not surprisingly, I have an inordinate amount of food ornaments.  I used to decorate my largest artificial tree with just food ornaments.  Last year, my food ornament collection outgrew the big tree so I had to split it up into 2 full-size food trees.
Food ornament tree #1
Food ornament tree #2

I always start decorating early because it takes so long and I like to be done by Thanksgiving weekend. Because that time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one that I devote solely to baking and holiday get togethers.  I've got my Christmas card pictures printed, envelopes stuffed, stamped and addressed and they're all ready to mail by December 1. Yes, I'm also one of those annoying people who not only gets her Christmas shopping done early but gets the Christmas gifts wrapped as soon as possible.  Although this year I am a little behind but expect to wrap up my Christmas shopping with Cyber Monday deals.  It also helps that a lot of my gift giving is homemade baked goods.

When giving away homemade goodies, I take the appearance and presentation of the baked gift as seriously as any store-bought gift that I wrap.  Maybe even more so since it's personal and I put much more effort into the baked gifts coming out of my kitchen than the gifts I buy at the store or online.  Which means presentation matters.  Well before the holiday season, craft stores like Michaels have decorated gift bags, treat bags, treat boxes, cupcake boxes, candy boxes, plates, cellophane wrap and everything else you need to make a nice presentation of your gifts.  When I shop at the after-Christmas sales, those are the things I look for.  Even before Christmas, I save the weekly 40-50% off coupons from Michaels and buy the treat packaging a little at a time.  That's generally when they have the best selection and by the time I'm baking and giving away treats I have all the necessary packaging materials I need.  More avoidance of holiday stress.

I also take into account sizes in terms of how much I can fit into each package and quantity of baked goods for each recipient.  For friends with families, I tend to give more and possibly combine different packages together to give them a variety of treats.  For my (few remaining) single friends, I might give one treat package but put in a little sample of several different things so they still can get a variety without going into sugar overload.  The treat packages I tend to buy are small to medium in size for the most part.  It's easier to put several smaller packages together to make a bigger gift than to give one large gift that's too much for your recipients to consume. 

I hate for things to go to waste but am also mindful that this is the season of (over)indulgence and my friends are likely to be getting treats from other bakers as well or they also make their own.  So I try to give a variety of treats, some of which can go into the freezer for eating at a later date and others with a shorter shelf life are given in fewer quantity.  I also tell my friends which ones can be frozen for later and which ones should be consumed sooner rather than later so they can get maximum taste and freshness from their baked gifts.  Although some eat all of it right away - that's fine too :).

So have fun with your gift packaging - if you give away your baked treats, dress them up!  Although it's inside the packaging that counts, it's also nice for your gift to reflect the effort and care you put into making them and for your recipient to get an eye-catching gift that pleases more than their taste buds.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011 - menu pictorial

It's been a busy week and I haven't been on the computer much for the past few days.  In between baking, decorating, Thanksgiving, visiting with family and friends and hosting my first holiday get together of the season (no, not Thanksgiving itself - I'm SO incapable of that), there just hasn't been enough time.  Here's a pictorial view of our Thanksgiving meal.  Christmas posts to follow in the coming days.
Lumpia appetizer - almost always present at every Filipino family gathering

Lechon (pork roast) - also a traditional feast food
Lechon in more serving size pieces
Shrimp pesto pasta - with basil grown in my mom's garden
Leche flan (Filipino creme caramel) - made by my mom
Basque Cake (butter cake with vanilla pastry cream)
Apple cobbler, aka Apple Crumble Bars (serve warm with ice cream)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Salvaging the baking failures

Okay, we're now in the midst of holiday baking - Thanksgiving is this week, Christmas is hot on its heels afterwards.  Your pantry is now stocked up and you've done much advance prep in mixing up cookie doughs and storing brownies and bar cookies in the freezer.  But sometimes things can still go wrong when we just don't have time for things to go wrong.  When that happens, my next baking tip is to do what you can to salvage your "failures".

This happened to me a couple of days ago when I had mixed up a batch of Alton Brown's Chocolate Chip Cookies and had them portioned out into dough balls, in the freezer, ready to bake at a moment's notice.  I was meeting friends for dinner last Sunday night and I popped a batch of cookie dough into the oven to bake.  But I was multi-tasking and by the time I remembered I had cookies in the oven, it was almost too late.  I yanked them out of the oven and, while they were just short of becoming burnt, they were definitely fully baked, more so than I, the Queen of Underbaking Cookies, would prefer.  They weren't bad but they also weren't anything I considered fit enough for goodie bags to give away.  95% of people would probably think there was nothing wrong with them but I'm the 5%.

Yet I didn't want to throw them away as that would be such a waste, not only of ingredients but time I couldn't afford to lose.  So I needed to get creative on what to do with overbaked cookies.  (Thankfully they weren't burnt or they wouldn't have been salvageable because a burnt taste would've taken over anything I tried to do with them.)  I pulverized them in the food processor, mixed the cookie crumbs with a few tablespoons of melted butter and use them as a cookie crust layer for brownies.  The brownie recipe is from The Good Cookie and for added decadence, just like in the recipe, I put a peanut butter cup in the middle.  I made the cookie crust first, patting it on the bottom of each little round cavity of my mini cheesecake pan, put the peanut butter cup centered on top of the crust and poured the brownie batter over it.  I had plenty of brownie batter leftover so I baked it in a smaller pan (an 8" instead of an 9" pan) for a normal brownie per the recipe.

This turned out pretty well and the rounds made a good individual-sized treat to give away.  Sometimes baking mishaps will happen but don't let that discourage you.  Instead, go into "life --> lemons --> lemonade" problem solving.  You never know what you can come up with and who knows, it might turn out just as well or even better, than what you were trying to make in the first place.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Black and White Pound Cake

Black and White Pound Cake - made November 18, 2011 from Great Coffee Cakes by Carole Walter (book #176)

I'm still making my way through my collection of recipe books and I'm more than 3/4 of the way there, maybe even closer.  I'm feeling some pressure to wrap up this baking challenge soon because the whole reason I started it in the first place was to justify buying Lisa Yockelson's new book, Baking Style, which has already been released.  But, hello, confession time, I recently bought the book.  I know, I know, I wasn't supposed to until I had finished this challenge.  But it was on sale, I had a gift card that would pay for most of it and I had a weak moment.  So there you go.  However, I only bought it, I haven't actually used it yet.  Now my new challenge is I can't bake from it until I finish up my old challenge.  I've now been on the first challenge for over a year.  Who knew it would take so long just to bake 1 recipe from every cookbook I own?

I have several cookbooks by Carole Walter and they're always straightforward, generally easy and usually come out.  If they don't, I modify them to suit me but for the most part, she has terrific recipes.  Which is why I felt okay taking the risk of trying out a new recipe during holiday baking time.  You usually can't go wrong with pound cakes or a Carole Walter recipe.

My faith was justified as this turned out pretty well.  It takes longer to mix than the norm as the instructions have you adding the powdered sugar a little at a time and beating the batter to airy lightness.  I don't think I took the full 8-10 minutes to beat the sugar in but it did take awhile.  In fact, it took so long that my melted chocolate mixture cooled too much to use so I had to warm it slightly again before I added the 2 cups of vanilla batter to it to make the chocolate batter.  But it was worth it as the texture was perfect, not too dense but not too light.  The flavor was good as well.  Don't swirl the two batters too much as you do want distinct sections of chocolate and vanilla together once the cake bakes.

This is best eaten warm or lukewarm.  When I tried a sliver after it had cooled to room temperature, it wasn't as good.  So if you're not going to serve it warm, then heat it up in the microwave for 10-15 seconds first before slicing and serving.

4 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, such as Lindt, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup hot water
3 tablespoons strained Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
4 cups sifted cake flour, spooned in and leveled
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 large eggs
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
3 ½ cups strained powdered sugar, spooned in and leveled, plus extra for dusting
¼ teaspoon baking soda

1.    Position a rack in the lower third of the oven.  Heat the oven to 325˚F.  Generously butter a 10-inch angel food cake pan with a removable bottom and line the bottom with baking parchment.  Set aside.
2.   Combine the chocolate, hot water, cocoa powder, and corn syrup in a medium heatproof bowl.  Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat just until the chocolate is melted.  Stir to combine and set aside.
3.   In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
4.   Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl.  Blend in the milk and vanilla.
5.   Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and place in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Mix on medium speed until smooth and lightened in color, about 2 minutes.  Slowly drizzle in the oil, taking about 1 minute, then beat for 1 minute longer.  Scrape down the side of the bowl.
6.   Reduce the speed to medium-low.  Add the powdered sugar, 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, taking 8 to 10 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Slowly pour in ½ cup of the egg mixture and mix for 2 minutes longer.
7.   Add the dry ingredients alternately with the remaining egg mixture, dividing the flour into four parts and the egg mixture into three parts, beginning and ending with the flour.  Scrape down the side of the bowl as needed.
8.   Remove 2 generous cups of the batter and place in a 2-quart bowl.  Stir the baking soda into the tepid chocolate, then add the chocolate mixture to the 2 cups of batter, gently folding together.
9.   Using two large clean spoons, alternate placing large spoonfuls of the chocolate and vanilla batters in the prepared pan, carefully spreading the flavors so they touch.  Make a second layer of batter, this time placing spoonfuls of vanilla batter on the chocolate and the chocolate batter on the vanilla.  Repeat, alternating the flavors, making about four layers.  Insert a kitchen knife into the batter starting about 1 inch from the funnel and circle the pan twice.  Do not overwork the batters.  Firmly tap the pan two or three times on the counter to level the batter.
10.  Bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The cake is done when the top is golden brown and firm to the touch, and a wooden skewer inserted deeply in the center comes out clean.
11.  Remove the cake from the oven and let stand on a cooling rack for 25 to 30 minutes.  Holding the tube, lift the cake from the outer ring and place it on the cooling rack.  Let stand for another 20 to 30 minutes.  Cover the cake with a cooling rack, invert, and carefully lift off the tube section of the pan and the parchment paper.  Cover with another rack and turn the cake top side up to finish cooling.  Dust with powdered sugar before serving.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Remembering our troops - care package time again

It's Thanksgiving week and and one of the reasons Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday is it's a palpable reminder to express gratitude.  For me, I truly feel gratitude not only when I express it but when I share it as a means of that expression.  Sometimes it's sharing of positive thought and emotions, spreading happiness by being happy.  Other times it's a more tangible expression.  And this week, in thinking of our military personnel being away from their homes and families during the holidays, I wanted to do my own small part to help and express my gratitude for their service.

In the past I've used organizations like to send in donations and packages or else I've asked friends who had family and friends in the military what they would like and where I can send a package.  This year, I asked an online friend, Madeline, from my fitness forum who has a son in the military what items he and his unit would like and where I can send a package to him.  She thought it was nice of me but I'm not doing it to be nice.  In all honesty, I thought it was literally the least I could do and little enough in light of what he and our troops were doing for me.  This is just an expression of gratitude.
I've blogged before about care package tips to friends and to my college-age nieces.  This is a different sort of post because sending care packages to military personnel requires different items and packaging tips.

First of all, to preserve their safety, you're not likely to know exactly where your care package is going or what the conditions will be like in that part of the world.  So you don't know if it'll be blazing hot, freezing cold, humid,  or arid.  That means the items you send have to withstand any type of temperature.  Unfortunately that likely means no chocolate candy as it potentially could be a melted mess if it's going to a hot climate.  Send hard candies or non-meltables like Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, Sweettarts, etc.  If you send packaged food items with items like soaps, be sure to wrap each separately and buffer them with other items between the two.  Do not send perfumed soaps.  In very hot climates, the perfume will permeate everything else in the box and potentially ruin the food.  To be safe, seal them separately in ziploc bags, especially anything like liquid soap which could leak or burst out of its container.

Second, you don't know how long your package is going to take to reach its destination.  So everything you send must either be non-perishable or at least have a long shelf life.  Beef jerky is an often-requested item from our troops and should be able to withstand the journey.  Same with coffee and tea.
Package items closely so things move as little as possible
Third, safety of our troops is paramount so that means there are things you absolutely cannot send.  In more innocuous care packages, I thrive on sending the stuff I've baked.  Can't do that with a military care package.  While I know there's nothing harmful in my baked goods (except an excess of calories), the military recipients don't know that.  Just like you can no longer hand out homemade goods to trick or treating kids on Halloween night and can/should only hand out packaged candies and the like, only sealed, packaged food should be sent in a military care package.

Fourth, remember the contents of your care package are more than likely going to be shared within the unit.  Try to send individually packaged items or items that can be easily shared.  And remember women serve in the military as well so don't be shy about sending "feminine" stuff.

Lastly, in the US, the Post Office has flat rate priority mail packaging expressly meant for military care packages.  You can fit as many items as possible and pay only the flat rate, no matter how heavy it is.  See here for the guidelines, restrictions and rates on sending to an APO/FPO/DPO address.  As with any package, tape it securely and write the address legibly.  And whatever else you put in the package, don't forget a note to thank them for their service and that you're thinking of them.  I know I can safely enjoy my Thanksgiving with family and friends at home because of where they are and what they're doing.  And I appreciate and am grateful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving (week)!

Friday, November 18, 2011

The brownie version of Texas Fudge Cake

Essence of Chocolate Squares - made November 14, 2011 from Baking by Flavor by Lisa Yockelson

Have you ever had Texas Fudge Cake?  There are probably other names for it but it's essentially a chocolate sheet cake that's covered with chocolate frosting while it's still warm so the frosting melts into the cake then sets into a fudgy layer over the cake when it cools.  If you're a chocolate cake lover, it's a must-consume.  This is the brownie version of a Texas Fudge Cake.  And if you're a brownie lover or a fudge lover, I would argue this is even better than Texas Fudge Cake (ducking the cake lovers).  As you can see from the picture, the frosting melts into the cake and sets into what is essentially a layer of fudge on top.  Not "frosting" but "fudge".  This is pure unadulterated chocolate.  The brownies are moist and fudgy and the frosting is...well, to repeat, fudge.  Cut the pieces small as they're pretty rich and use a dark chocolate.  Otherwise it'll be too sweet.

I've made these before and blogged about them before so click on the title to go to the original blog post and the recipe.  Like I've said earlier, this isn't the time of year that I do a lot of experimentation so I may be revisiting and re-posting some earlier favorites.  This one is definitely a favorite and is already packaged up and sitting in my freezer waiting to go out in the next care packages or goodie bags I'm giving away.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Baking ahead

Now that you have a fully stocked pantry with all the baking ingredients you need, it's time to plan your actual baking and do as much ahead of time as you can.  Making things ahead of time alleviates stress and eliminates or minimizes wondering how you're going to get everything done in a compressed timeframe.

First, plan what you're going to make.  While I do a lot more baking during the holidays, I rarely try out new recipes unless I'm extremely confident they'll turn out.  Because I have too much to bake and too little time so I can't afford to have a recipe experiment flop and leave me without anything to bring a party or give to friends at get togethers.  Experimentation is for the rest of the year.  Holiday baking comes with a mission and nothing can jeopardize it.  Besides which, oftentimes, my friends know I'm giving them a baked gift and have specific requests of their favorites which I'm happy to accommodate.  After all, the gift is about the recipient, not the giver so my recipe ADD has to be set aside during the holidays.

Second, once you know what you're going to make, do as much ahead of time as possible.  Cookies are the best example.  Make your cookie dough(s) ahead of time, portion them out into individual cookie-dough balls and put them in ziploc freezer bags marked with the name, baking temp and time then place them in your freezer.  Or roll the cookie dough into logs, wrap wax paper and saran wrap and freeze them for slicing later.  Some people like to bake the cookie dough first and freeze the baked cookies as their time saver.  I have to admit, I'm not a fan of that.  I'm a super stickler for freshness and to me, a freshly baked cookie is better than a freshly thawed cookie.  Plus you don't have to worry about the cookies crumbling when you freeze, store and thaw them.  Cookie dough, if it crumbles, can be squished back together before baking and no one will ever be able to tell once they're baked.  You also have to remember that once you give away your cookies, you don't know how long it takes your recipient to eat them so if you had baked them beforehand, froze them, thawed them then gave them away, that's a long life you expect the cookies to have and most cookies have a shorter freshness lifespan than that.  It's better to freeze the dough and have it ready for last-minute baking and giving.

Cookie doughs that freeze well:
Alton Brown's chocolate chip cookies
Super Sugar Sparkles
Peanut Butter Fudge Cookies
Brown Butter Cookies

Brownies and bar cookies, on the other hand, (depending on the recipe), can easily be baked ahead of time and then frozen without their freshness being materially jeopardized.  What I like to do with brownies I'm giving away in individual care packages or gift bags is bake the brownies, let them cool, cut them into individual pieces then package them up, two squares to a package, wrapped in plastic wrap then put in freezer bags and stored in the freezer, marked with what kind of brownie they are.  If I bake enough in advance, when it comes time to put together the gift bags or care packages, I have an assortment of brownies to choose from and give away.  It's always nice for your recipients to get a variety.  If I'm taking brownies to a party or potluck, after they've baked and cooled, I'll wrap the whole thing without cutting it and freeze it whole.  When it's party time, I let it thaw then cut the brownies and arrange them on a nice plate.  Unless you're going to wrap each individual piece, it's best to leave the brownies uncut so the edges don't dry out.

Almost all brownies freeze well - here are just couple of examples:
Peanut Butter Surprise Bars
Nutella Crunch Brownies

I rarely freeze cakes.  The light, cakey texture I like in most of my cakes don't tend to freeze well or else if their flavor doesn't suffer from being frozen, sometimes their texture does.  The only exceptions are pound cakes which are a dense enough texture to freeze well and basque cake.  I love basque cake and I make them as individual-sized cakes which are the right size for giving away.  If you do freeze cakes, please freeze them unfrosted (make the frosting at the last minute) and wrap the cakes well.  Keep all frozen baked goods from odorous items in your freezer.  Don't cozy up even your most well-wrapped baked goods next to that package of frozen fish or overripe bananas or else the odors and flavors could permeate your baked goods.

Pumpkin Caramel Cake

Ooey Gooey Caramel Pumpkin Blondies - from Eat Cake for Dinner blog, linked from Sweets for a Saturday #41 made November 12, 2011

I discovered this on Sweets for Saturday, a link party hosted by Lisa that I usually participate in. The picture was enough to lure me to click on the link and go to Jenn's Eat Cake for Dinner blog. I'm so glad I did because this cake was scrumptious. Totally high calories but totally worth it, especially if you like pumpkin or caramel or both. Normally, when I try a recipe from someone else's blog, I link back to it so you have to go to that blog to get the recipe. That seems like good blogging etiquette to drive traffic to their blog.  However, I did make a couple of modifications to Jenn's version so I'm listing my changes and the modified recipe below. Please do visit her blog though to get the original recipe (you might like her version better) and check out her other delicious creations. I'm also taking the liberty of renaming her confection as mine turned out more like a cake than a typical blondie.

The main change I made from Jenn's version is I think it would be better if the bottom layer of batter was initially baked for a few minutes first.  When you have a caramel layer in the middle, the bottom layer tends to soak in the caramel without fully baking.  To keep the bottom from being overly moist, I recommend giving it a bit of a head start in baking.  I didn't do that and ended up having to put this back in for a second baking, even though the toothpick taste came out clean the first time.  The bottom was still too moist.  I also omitted any kind of nuts in the caramel-chocolate chip layer since I prefer cakes without them if they're mixed into the cake (as opposed to staying crisp on top).

This is one of the few confections that I prefer at room temperature rather than eaten warm.  When it was warm, it was a little too mushy/gooey for me.  When it was at room temperature, you can taste the pumpkin and cinnamon flavors better.  In fact, I think this was actually better the next day when the flavors had time to develop and meld together.  The texture was also more set; it was moist without being overly gooey.  Just general overall deliciousness - thanks Jenn!

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 extra large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (11 oz) package caramel bits
1/4 cup whole milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line 9x13 inch pan with foil and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.  
  2. Cream together butter and brown sugar.  Add eggs, vanilla and pumpkin puree and blend until combined.  Slowly add cinnamon, flour, soda and salt.  Spread about 1/2 of the batter into pan evenly and bake for 6-8 minutes.  While it's baking, melt caramel bits and milk in a small saucepan until smooth, stirring constantly.
  3. Remove baking pan from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over the top. Pour caramel evenly over chocolate chips.  Dot remaining batter over top and spread dollops out with a small spatula, gently covering as much of the caramel as possible.  Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  It might have caramel on it, but it shouldn't have cake batter.
  4. Serve warm (might get oozing caramel) or cool completely.  Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stocking up the Baker's Pantry

Thanksgiving is next week!  Despite my being a Christmas fiend, Thankgiving is actually my favorite holiday, bar none.  It honors gratitude and if you're very fortunate, gets your friends and family together for celebration and formally remembering to give thanks for all of our blessings.  I love this time of year.  It can be stressful if you let it because of all the myriad of things involved in holiday celebrations but to me, if I get stressed over the holidays, I'm missing the point of them and the true spirit of celebrating them.

One thing I've learned over the years is to minimize the usual stressors.  This can be done by planning ahead.  As any Type A personality can tell you, there's much you can do to manage a long to-do list by thinking through what you truly need to do (as opposed to the want-to-get-done list) and giving yourself enough lead time to accomplish it.  Interspersed with baking posts over the next month, I hope to also put up some tips and tricks for getting through the holidays stress-free.  Ironically though, I'm late in putting up this kind of post since it's been so busy but that doesn't mean I haven't been preparing, just that I haven't written about it.

First up for any baker: stock your pantry early.  The last thing you want is to be in a frenzy, baking for a family celebration, hosting a dinner party, attending a holiday party, going to a company potluck, etc and realize you're out of a critical ingredient at an inopportune time.  If you're truly organized, you'd plan ahead what you want to cook and/or bake, make out an ingredient list and buy everything ahead of time.  If you're the more normal kind of person and not quite that anal-retentive, never fear, you don't have to be that far-thinking.  But you can and should stock up on some staples.  Here is what the typical baker should always have on hand for marathon baking sessions well ahead of time - these are what I consider the "base staples":
  • Unsalted butter (Costco has them the cheapest in my area in four 1-lb packs)
  • Large or extra large eggs
  • All-purpose flour
  • Granulated sugar
  • Brown sugar (light and dark)
  • Powdered sugar
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Salt
  • Vanilla extract (I buy this in "bulk" here)
  • Cake flour
  • Unsweetened baking chocolate
  • Bittersweet or semisweet baking chocolate
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Pernigotti from Williams Sonoma)
  • Chocolate chips (semisweet, milk, white, mini, chunks - your choice/preference)
Many of the above go on sale at this time of year so be on the lookout and stock up when the prices drop.  I've bought 50 lbs of flour at one go when the 5-lb bags went on sale for $1.50 each.  Then I went back and bought 20 more lbs.  I bake enough that I know I'll use them well before the expiration date and that was the cheapest they've been in awhile.  Yes, I'm a baking ingredient hoarder.

Depending on what you like to make or flavors you want to use, I also suggest having on hand:
  • Peanut butter, creamy and/or chunky - your preference
  • Nutella
  • Red food coloring (for red velvet-type confections)
  • Lemons
  • Cream cheese
  • Cinnamon
  • Graham cracker crumbs
  • Marshamallows
  • Rice Krispies (for rice krispie treats and nutella crunch topping)
  • Nuts if you bake with them - they can be stored in the freezer until you're ready to use them
  • Caramel
  • Dulce de leche

More perishable with a shorter shelf life so you don't want to buy these too early but you should have a good sense of when you need them and purchase them accordingly:
  • Whole milk
  • Buttermilk
  • Heavy cream (skip the half and half - you can use half whole milk and half heavy cream for any recipe that calls for it)
  • Sour cream

Of course, the above isn't an exhaustive list and you may still need to make a last-minute grocery run when you need something for a particular recipe but if you have most of the above, there are many, many things you can whip up at a moment's notice right out of your pantry.  The added advantage of having a fully stocked baking pantry ahead of your holiday baking is you can avoid the long lines at the grocery store or Costco as holiday time nears and it fills up with people doing their last-minute shopping.  Not to mention you can spread out the cost so it doesn't run up against your Christmas gift-buying budget.

Lastly, if you plan to make any banana-flavored items, you should be buying the ripest bananas you can find now/yesterday so you can give them time to overripen.  If they turn black before you actually need them, just peel them and put the bananas in the freezer in a ziploc freezer bag.  Then when you need them for baking, you already have them ready to thaw and use.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Caramel Coconut Brownies with Oreo Crust - Take 3

Double Chocolate Brownies with Fudge Sauce - made November 7, 2011 from Chocolate Box by Linda Doeser (book #175)

Your eyes aren't deceiving you - the picture of these brownies don't match the original title of the recipe.  That's because I only used the brownie recipe part to make the top layer of the oreo caramel coconut brownies again.  I wasn't going to make this kind of brownie again but I had some coworkers in town last week and one requested that brownie.  To further my baking challenge along, I semi-cheated and just chose a random brownie recipe to make it again.  As mentioned before, I have recipe ADD: it's hard for me to make the same recipe twice unless it's a family or friend favorite when I could be trying out more new recipes. 

In any case, I think I've got the hang of these triple-layered brownies now so nothing really new or revolutionary to report on them.  I am, however, also getting sick of Oreos now so I may give these a rest.  But I did list the original recipe below as is in case anyone wants to try making them as the cookbook author intended. 

I was too busy last week to really bake much so I have to get myself in gear.  Holiday baking is coming up and that's my busiest baking season.  Not only do I bake for family gatherings but also when I go out with friends, attend parties and send care packages.  LOTS to bake.  More to come in the next few weeks....

½ cup unsalted butter
4 ounces/115 grams semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
1 1/3 cups superfine sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
½ cup white chocolate chips

Fudge Sauce
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup superfine sugar
2/3 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup corn syrup
7 ounces/200 grams semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces

1.     Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and line a 7-inch/18-cm square cake pan with parchment paper.  Place the butter and chocolate in a small heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water until melted.  Stir until smooth.  Let cool slightly.  Stir in the sugar, salt, and vanilla extract.  Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring well, until blended.
2.    Sift the flour and unsweetened cocoa into the cake batter and beat until smooth.  Stir in the chocolate chips, then pour the batter into the pan.  Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is evenly colored and a skewer inserted into the center comes out almost clean.  Let cool slightly while preparing the sauce.
3.    To make the sauce, place the butter, sugar, milk, cream, and corn syrup in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.  Bring to a boil and stir for 10 minutes, or until the mixture is caramel-colored.  Remove from the heat and add the chocolate.  Stir until smooth.  Cut the brownies into large or small squares and serve immediately with the sauce.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wedding in Winnipeg

You know it's been busy when I've barely baked and haven't blogged in over a week.  I was gone for a few days at my cousin's wedding in Winnipeg last weekend.  It was fun to have a mini family reunion with some of my relatives and I'm glad to have been able to be a part of the wedding festivities.  Her dress was gorgeous:

Being food-obsessed, I took almost as many pictures of the food as I did of the family and the wedding activities.
Mini quiches and stuffed mushrooms were 2 of the appetizers
Followed by mushroom soup
One of the entrees was beef tenderloin with scalloped potatoes and veggies
Dessert was "Flight of Mousse"
And of course the beautiful wedding cake - Red Velvet
 Congratulations to Romina and Nick!  Thanks for a beautiful wedding!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pumpkin Coffee Cake

Pumpkin Coffee Cake - made October 29, 2011 from Crazy for Crust's blog

I think I've mentioned before that one of the things I enjoy about blogging is getting exposed to all the other foodie blogs out there.  Unfortunately I can't follow them all and even the ones I do follow, I don't always have time to read all the entries.  But when I'm lucky, I have the right timing to not only catch up on some of the blogs but also catch a yummy-sounding and looking recipe like this one from Crazy for Crust.  Dorothy has an awesome blog and I encourage you to check it out for not only some delicious goodies but also some very clever and creative concoctions.  When I saw this one for Pumpkin Coffee Cake (click on the blog title to go to the original recipe on Dorothy's blog), it looked too good to pass up.  I still had leftover pumpkin puree from the Brown Butter Pumpkin Cupcakes and just enough milk that the recipe called for.  Plus I love streusel and coffee cake so it was a no-brainer to try this out.

I've learned to trust Dorothy's recommendations as she and I seem to have similar tastes.  This was validated by this recipe.  She loved this one and so did I.  It was super easy to make and turned out really well.  The cake is moist and the streusel on top crisped up to provide a nice contrast to the soft texture of the cake.  The only thing  I changed is I didn't have pumpkin pie spice so I substituted cinnamon instead.  Still turned out great - thanks, Dorothy!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lemon Chess Bars

Lemon Chess Bars - made October 26, 2011 from The Cake Mix Bible from Publications International (book #174)

I'm getting close to the end of my baking challenge.  I think I have only a couple dozen more books to go.  At this point, I confess, I just want to be done with the thing.  Not really just to lift my self-imposed ban of buying new baking books but also because my enthusiasm for it is flagging.  It was a good idea for awhile and good discipline for me to stick with what I have and to understand I don't have to buy every shiny new object, aka baking book, that catches my eye.  Matter of fact, I'm so overwhelmed with what I already have that my enthusiasm for more baking books has waned a bit.  It's hard to keep being acquisitive when you look at what you've already bought yet rarely use.  I'm all for shopping and I support retail therapy when needed but at the end of the day, it's just so much stuff.  And I know something I buy with such enthusiasm today will likely be a Goodwill donation in the future.  It's just a matter of time until I like something better or do a purging declutter because I get overwhelmed by how much I have.  This isn't a complaint as I'm one of the lucky ones to have that problem.  But it is a factual observation of my patterns of behavior.  Fortunately I've managed to tone down that acquisitive behavior in recent years.  I just still need to purge some of the by-products of that behavior, aka "all this stuff" from past years.

This recipe came from one of those books - something I don't understand now why I bought it, considering I don't really believe in cake mix.  I also don't believe in cream cheese so I'm not sure why I picked this recipe to try, likely because it looked easy and because it seemed like something I would like.  I was wrong.  It was easy enough to put together but I don't really like cream cheese unless there's only a little of it and it's paired with chocolate.  That wasn't the case here.  Other people who like cream cheese might like these bars for the very reason I didn't care for it: tasted too much like cream cheese :).  On to the next recipe and the next cookbook in the challenge.

1 (18.25-ounce) package white or yellow pudding-in-the-mix cake mix
2 eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1.    Preheat the oven to 350⁰F.
2.   Combine cake mix, 1 egg and oil in large bowl; stir until crumbly.  Reserve 1 cup crumb mixture.  Press remaining crumb mixture into ungreased 9 x 13-inch cake pan.  Bake 15 minutes or until light golden brown.
3.   Combine remaining egg, cream cheese, sugar and lemon juice in medium bowl; beat until smooth and well blended.  Spread over baked layer.  Sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture.  Bake 15 minutes.  Cool in pan on wire rack; cut into bars.