Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thumbprint Butter Cookies with Cookie Butter Filling

Thumbprint Butter Cookies - made dough October 4, 2015 from Sugar Butter Flour Eggs by Gale Gand
Oy, it’s been really busy lately and I’ve been running in place on the hamster wheel. Or the treadmill if you want to get literal about it. The hamster wheel is for work and the treadmill for my half marathon training. Which has been leaving me with very little baking time and even less blogging time. But I’m stubborn and, despite my efforts at a new direction for my blog and cutting back on baking, I’m still drawn back to it like a rubber necker at an accident.

So much of my identity is caught up in baking, desserts, baking, sweets, and you know, baking. I don’t come with a switch so it’s hard to turn that off. Not that I expected to and I’m still baking drastically less than I used to. I mean, I even almost ran out of butter if that tells you how far off the baking cliff I fell. “Fully stocked” used to mean two or three 4-lb blocks of butter in my fridge, ready for the baking marathon I could have at the first possible opportunity.
But for these butter cookies, I had to plan a trip to Costco and buy butter in real-time because I was out. Unheard of. Though it’s probably just as well I had cut back because you could’ve felled me with cheesecloth and a butter knife when I discovered the price of butter had shot up. $12 for a 4-lb pack? What madness is this? Not that it stopped me from buying it but my thrifty soul cringed.
So the bar is a bit higher that I should only use my preciously expensive butter on recipes that have a high chance of success. I’ve been going through all the recipes I’d been collecting for years promising myself I would try them someday and have had my beady eye on this one for awhile. I did alter the recipe because it was supposed to be filled with jam. But I don’t jam or jelly. However, I do cookie butter. Yup, that’s my crack of choice when filling thumbprint cookies.

My ideal thumbprint cookie wouldn’t spread much, would keep the indentation left in the dough before baking so there would be a good-sized well in the center for me to fill with cookie butter. Sadly, this didn’t meet my ideal. The cookie dough I so nicely shaped baked itself flat so the indent looked more like I had flattened the cookie dough ball with a glass instead of making a well. Fortunately, that didn’t affect the taste and, undaunted by all things cookie butter, I still dolloped some speculoos in the center of the cookie and ate it. And it was good. Butter cookie meets cookie butter. All’s right with my world.
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
2/3 cup sugar
¼ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, soft insides scraped out
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup cookie butter
  1. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy. Add the vanilla scrapings and salt and mix until incorporated.
  2. Portion the dough into golf-ball-sized dough balls, flatten slightly then, using your thumb, press the top of each cookie center to make a shallow well. Cover and chill or freeze for several hours or overnight.
  3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line several sheet pans with parchment paper.
  4. Fill the wells with cookie butter. Bake until very lightly browned around the edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool slightly on the pans then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin

Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin - made October 3, 2015 from Dam Good Sweet by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel
You remember my grand decluttering effort which included paring down my collection of baking books? Which also involved my going through them first in case there are any recipes I wanted to get out of the books before I gave them away? Of course it’s been slow going but it has been going. Case in point, I leafed through this baking book and really only found 1 recipe I wanted to make out of it so it seemed like a good idea to try out that one recipe then donate the near-pristine, good-as-new book to my local library for their next book sale. Win-win.
Astonishingly, I had all the ingredients for this recipe on hand when I went to make it. Including a random sweet potato I had bought for another recipe but hadn’t gotten around to using yet and a forlorn sheet of frozen puff pastry sitting in my freezer from my last foray into puff pastry baking. 

I had made a more traditional tarte tatin when I was in culinary school although that was with apples, not sweet potatoes. But I love all things sweet potato so I was intrigued enough to try this one. However, I will admit, I do not have fond memories of making tarte tatin at the Culinary Institute. Mostly because the biggest pain in the right butt cheek with tarte tatin is flipping it over when it was done without burning yourself on the boiling hot caramel at the bottom-then-top of the tart. Which has a distressing tendency to splash over your hand(s) when being flipped over. It’s like caramel’s revenge for the indignity of being flipped over.
Nevertheless, I took it on because that’s what makes a tarte tatin – you prepare caramel from scratch (from scratch, people – you know I almost never do that), pour it on the bottom of the pan, place the slices of sweet potatoes over the caramel (ideally in a pretty pattern but this is me so let’s not kid ourselves), cover it with the puff pastry then bake until pastry is golden brown and, well, puffy.  When you take it out, you immediately flip it over onto a waiting serving plate and in an ideal world, you have a beautifully caramelized tarte.
When you leave that ideal world and come into my world, you have a caramel I didn’t cook long enough to get caramel-y. Meaning the recipe instructions say to boil the sugar-water mixture until the caramel registers 350 degrees on a digital thermometer. Yeah, did that and the caramel was pasty and anemic-looking. Against my better judgment and baking instincts, I took it off the heat once the thermometer pronounced 350 degrees and poured it into my cast-iron pan. Arranged the not-quite-evenly-sliced sweet potatoes over the caramel (my knife skills are nothing to brag about, hence the unevenness) and covered the whole thing with the thawed sheet of puff pastry. I think the only thing I did right was to bake it the right amount of time, until the pastry was nicely golden brown but not too light.
Then the litmus test that all pastry chefs who make tarte tatin need to pass – flipping the cast iron pan over and getting the tarte tatin right side up without incurring third-degree burns from the caramel. I sort of passed. If you didn’t count the hot caramel that coursed out of the pan onto my dishcloth prudently laid on my counter top (I know my weaknesses) and the inevitable-to-me splash of caramel onto my hand. Yeah, that hurt. So I didn’t really pass that test.
After doing myself bodily harm making this, I would like to tell you this was the best thing I ever ate and worth the burn marks. Unfortunately that would be a lie. Because I didn’t cook the caramel long enough to actually caramelize, it was more sweet, anemic, liquid sugar than real caramel. The sweet potatoes were cooked perfectly, likely more by accident than anything I did, but they were just sweet potatoes with a thin covering of “caramel”. I like all things puff pastry but it didn’t work well here since the caramel soaked into it and took away the flaky crispness of a good puff pastry. So much for my foray into the world of something different. Next time, if I’m crazy enough for a next time (once my burn wounds heal), I think I’ll stick with a more traditional apple tarte tatin. 
One sheet all-butter puff pastry, thawed
¾ cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon for pastry
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, ends removed and sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the puff pastry sheet on your work surface and cut out a 10-inch circle. Set the circle on the prepared baking sheet. Prick the pastry all over with a fork and refrigerate.
  2. Place ¾ cup sugar in a small saucepan and cover with ¼ cup water. Gently stir with a spoon to make sure all of the sugar is wet. Place a cover on slightly askew, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Keep the mixture covered until the syrup is clear and producing syrupy-looking medium-size bubbles, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the cover and continue cooking until the sugar is a light butterscotch color and the temperature reaches 320 degrees F. Turn off the heat. Once the sugar reaches 350 degrees, whisk in the butter, ½ tablespoon at a time, waiting until each addition is completely incorporated before adding the next. Stir in the vanilla and the salt, and pour the caramel into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet.
  3. Cover the caramel with the sliced potatoes, starting in the center and overlapping in a spiral outward circle as you go. Top with the puff pastry circle. Beat the egg and milk together and brush over the pastry, and then sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until the edges are deep amber and the pastry is puffed and golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before inverting onto a large plate. Slice into wedges and serve with or without ice cream.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Cocoa Bella Chocolates

Cocoa Bella Chocolates - visited August 29, 2015
On my SF visit with my out-of-town friend, we stopped off at Cocoa Bella after lunch. It was in the same mall and, you know, because chocolate. They’ve got prime retail space on the street level of Westfield Mall in downtown San Francisco and they made the most of that space with their mouthwatering displays of chocolate, themed by geography and type. 

I’m not enough of a chocolate gourmand to really distinguish amongst the high end chocolates. Like in a blind taste test, I don’t think I could tell the difference between Recchiuti Chocolate and Cocoa Bella for instance (I know, I know, sorry, fine artisan chocolate makers). Between Hershey’s and Cocoa Bella, yes. Amongst the chocolates where you fork out big bucks for a tiny square, not so much. 

Still, I expect it would be good and it was. Super chocolate snobs say dark chocolate is the test of quality chocolate. Pfft. My sweet tooth says milk chocolate is the way to go. And the way I went was with a toffee milk chocolate. My friend got a bag of several dark chocolate peanut butter confections; we’ll leave her to enjoy that as her paleo cheat. I stuck with my toffee. 

If you do want some classy and delicious chocolates, Cocoa Bella is an excellent choice, even if, or especially if, you're a chocolate gourmand.

Milk Chocolate Almond Toffee

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Oatmeal Coconut White Chocolate Cookies

Oatmeal Coconut White Chocolate Cookies - made dough September 27, 2015 from Big, Soft, Chewy Cookies by Jill Van Cleave

In another “use up the milk before it expires” baking move, I made this cookie dough one weekend and put it in the freezer for baking off at a future time. Later that week, my niece was attending a potluck with some friends so I suggested she might want to bake off some of the cookies and bring it with her. That’s why I make up cookie dough ahead of time, for these kinds of occasions. I told her to bake it on the convection setting for 10 minutes then see if it was done. Our ensuring conversation went like this:
My niece: It’s been 10 minutes but they don’t look done yet.
Me (checking the clock): It’s only been 7 minutes, not 10. Give it a few more minutes.
A minute later, my niece: How ‘bout now?
Me: Not yet.
30 seconds after that, my niece: How ‘bout NOW?
Me: Not yet!
Her: Iwannacookie!!
Me: OMG. Remind me never to take you on a road trip. (You know she'd always ask "are we there yet?" every 5 minutes.)

Yeah, that’s the comedy show that is me and my cookie-loving niece. And no, she’s not 5 years old, lol. And, if this post is picture-less, it's because I made the rare (very rare) mistake of forgetting to take pictures of it! When my niece made the first batch, it was at night and there was no natural daylight left so I didn't take a picture. No big deal, I thought, since there was still more cookie dough in the freezer and I could always take a picture of a later batch.

When my other niece came home for a night and wanted to bring cookies into her office the next day, I told her to bake off the rest of the cookies. Which she did. Which I also forgot to take pictures of. Ack. This may not be a big deal to some people but you're talking to me. Someone who pretty much takes pictures of every speck of food that crosses my path. My friends will tell you I'm not kidding. How could I forget?? Argh.

But since I did and since I don't have any milk left to make another batch of cookies, I will just have to describe them to you - these cookies stayed thick and didn't spread too much, the oatmeal gave them some texture and the coconut some chewiness while the white chocolate offered the sweetness to go with the brown sugar flavor of the cookie. In case that's too technical, the layman's term is "these were delicious". It's a tad different than the typical white chocolate chip cookie because of the oatmeal and coconut but that just made them better than the norm. They were a hit at niece #1's potluck and at the office of niece #2. My second niece even said one of her coworkers ate 3. Nice.

If anyone does make this, can you post a picture? :)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
6 ounces white chocolate, cut into ½-inch chunks
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and smooth. Add egg, milk and almond extract until just combined.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine flour, oats, baking soda and salt. Add to the creamed mixture. Stir in coconut and white chocolate.
  3. Portion into golf-ball-size dough balls, cover and chill or freeze until firm.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Place cookie dough balls evenly on baking sheet.
  5. Bake until edges of the cookies are golden brown and middles no longer look raw, about 12-15 minutes. Do not overbake. Let cool for 2-3 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Restaurant Review: Lark Creek Steak

Lark Creek Steak - lunch on August 29, 2015
I completely forgot to write this up at the time I went here so my recollection may be a bit sparse. Back in late August, a friend was in town from Florida so we decided to meet up for lunch in San Francisco the weekend she was out here. I rarely go to the city these days since I don’t want to deal with the traffic and taking public transportation requires a length of time only available on the weekends. Which is what I did the Saturday she was here.
We stuck around the downtown area and settled on Lark Creek Steak for lunch. Our timing was a bit early so we were there a few minutes before they opened (we gabbed the entire time while we waited) and had to share the large dining area with only a few other diners who also were eating lunch at 11 am.
My friend is on a paleo diet (most of the time), ignored the bread basket (more for me, ha), made very specific requests to paleo-ize her order of the pulled pork sandwich (just the filling, hold the bread) then threw our server with an order of onion rings. I was used to the quirkiness (I have my own) so it didn’t faze me and he must’ve had experience with all sorts of dietary finickiness as it didn’t take him long to recover either.
I myself went with a burger and fries. I wasn’t up for a steak so a burger seemed like the next best thing. I’ve been to Lark Creek before and I vaguely remember I got a steak on that first visit so I didn’t need to get one again just because I was at a steakhouse. Remember I had no compunction about ordering fish at Alexander’s Steakhouse either.

It was a good burger and the service was excellent so it was a pretty good lunch experience.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bibingka - revisited

Bibingka, the sticky kind, again - made September 28, 2015
I did a spot of baking a couple of weekends ago, mostly to use up the pint of milk I had bought for the Chocolate Caramel Oatmeal Bars recipe. As you know, I'm still trying not to bake a lot since I don't have much time and I'm trying to cut back on sweets. And I really have cut back drastically. But I'm not dead either so I do get my hand in once in awhile.

I've been sitting on a frozen package of grated cassava for awhile, from the last time I had wanted to make bibingka and never got around to it. Plus, from my previous baking stockpiling period, I had a couple of packages of coconut flakes still in my freezer. It seemed like a good time to chip away at my stockpile and also use up the milk before it expired. Plus I had a craving for bibingka. My mom makes it often enough that I rarely make it myself but the last time she made it, it was for my parents' anniversary party and it was so popular, it was gobbled up by the other guests before I was able to get a piece. Nothing like being thwarted to make me want something.

So I made my own. This is my mom's recipe and super easy to make. Really, it is, even for the novice baker. It's also gluten free for anyone trying to avoid wheat since it uses rice flour. This time I baked it for nearly an hour and the texture was perfect. Chewy without being mushy or hard-chewy. Just perfect chewy. Plus I love coconut so anything with coconut browned on top is a good thing.

1 cup sweet rice flour (also known as Mochiko, can be found in the Asian aisle of most grocery stores)
1 teaspoon baking powder
16 ozs of grated cassava (can be purchased in 16-oz packages at Asian grocery stores like 99 Ranch)
2 cups milk
2 eggs
scant 1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
Sweetened coconut flakes, enough to cover the top of the batter in an even layer

  1. Melt butter in 9" square baking pan in preheating oven as it heats to 350 degrees F.  Meanwhile, beat eggs until lightly scrambled.  Add in rice flour and baking powder and make a paste.  Gradually add in milk, mixing with a fork to keep the batter smooth and free of lumps, then add sugar and cassava until well blended.  Do not overmix - you don't want a light or cakey texture. Pour into pan, mixing well with melted butter.  Batter should be somewhat liquidy but not so thin that it can't hold the coconut topping.
  2. Generously top mixture with coconut flakes.  Bake until coconut topping is golden brown and edges look crisp, about 45 to 55 minutes. You can't rely on the toothpick test for this one so go by appearance.  The middle should be firm enough not to jiggle when you shake the pan gently.  Don't bake for more than an hour even if the coconut isn't brown all over the top.