Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tagalong With Me

It's been said that there are two inevitable things in life - death and taxes. I'd like to add another thing to the list. Girl Scouts selling cookies. Every March, there they are. Cherubs on the doorstep, cute as buttons, stumbling through they're pre-practiced speech with Mom or Dad off to the side coaching them, peddling essentially the same selection of cookies they've had since I was a girl, although for much higher prices and in smaller quantities. I envision the day when they'll be $10 a box for 4 cookies, probably not too far in the future.

My husband is a sucker for the Thin Mints. Who isn't? He'll surreptitiously buy a couple of boxes from a co-worker and try to hide them in the freezer. Of course, they're always found and hoovered. Everyone loves Thin Mints. Thus I was truly excited to find a make-it-yourself recipe for them at 101 Cookbooks. They look delicous, but I must confess that I have yet to whip up a batch. My baking to-do list is long indeed. And it got longer when my daughter conned me into buying a box of Tagalongs, her favorites, saying, "Mom, you need to figure out how to make these and then you could blog about it!"

OK, I fell for that line. We bought the cookies. We critically munched, savored, analyzed, and then the search began for recipes. Online - zero recipes for Tagalongs. So then it was how to reproduce it from scratch. The tricky part was the base - a crumbly textured wafer. Then I hit on it - Vanilla Wafers! I found and adapted a recipe for vanilla wafers and the rest fell into place.

If you love the Girl Scout version, try these. I think you'll be pleased. They'll tide you through the rest of the year till the girls show up on your doorstep next March. Leave me a comment and you won't even owe me $5!

Tagalong Doubles

1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup shortening
1 Tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups cake flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder

Peanut butter
2 cups good quality milk chocolate chips

~ Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

~ Cream together sugars, shortening, egg, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl.

~ Add the flour and baking powder. Continue mixing until dough forms a ball.

~ Roll dough into small balls, about 3/4 -inch, and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Flatten with the palm of your hand to between 1/8 and 1/4-inch and then make an indentation with your thumb in the center.You want a thin base and the cookies will puff a bit as they bake. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until cookies are light brown.

~ Cool on rack.

~ When completely cooled, heap peanut butter in center of cookie, making a generous mound and spreading it to the sides of the cookie. Put on parchment paper covered baking sheet and place in the freezer for at least 20 minutes, till the peanut butter is firm.

~ In a microwave safe shallow dish melt the chocolate. Heat in bursts of 30 seconds, stirring in between. When the chocolate is glossy and loses its shape when stirred, it's done. Stir until it's smooth. If you keep cooking beyond this point you can scorch the chocolate.

~ Working with a few cookies at a time, storing the rest in the freezer, dip one at a time in the chocolate, using a fork to help turn and coat the cookie. Scrape excess chocolate off the bottom of the cookie and then place the cookie on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining cookies and then place the baking sheet in the refrigerator till the chocolate has hardened.

The cookies can be stored at room temperature, but don't leave them in a warm, sunny spot.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shake it Up Chicken

Routine is a good thing. It's comfortable to know what's coming and it can make your life more efficient. No time wasted on decision making or trying to figure out how to do something new. But sometimes routine can become.... boring. If you know it's Tuesday because you're making meatloaf, maybe it's time to shake things up a bit.

I have my group of recipes that I make over and over. They're easy, reliable, and my family will eat them. But I don't want to make them so often that my family cries when they see them. So I force myself to try new things at least once a month. Here are a couple of new recipes that I combined with wonderful results. The pulled chicken is smothered in a sweet sauce with an unexpected spiciness, the pickles provide a tangy contrast and crunch, and the buns are soft yet sturdy enough to hold together when full of juices. An altogether sublime combination of flavors and textures. A side of coleslaw or carrot salad would be great with this, something cool and creamy to balance the spiciness of the chicken.

I'm new to chipotle chiles (possibly the last person on the planet to be uninitiated) and I was intoxicated by the flavor - so smoky it was as if a ham was being barbecued in my kitchen. The price of the chipotle chile powder rocked me back on my heels, but it only takes a bit to pack a flavor punch, so I know my bottle will last a long time.

Because I'm too lazy to go to the grocery store, I made my own hamburger buns. I know that will make absolutely no sense to most people; it's just that I'd prefer to be in my kitchen than in the store. Plus it's fun. It's very satisfying to knead dough and then pat the silky smooth ball and say, "Smooth as a baby's bottom" just like my 9th grade home-ec teacher did.

Hamburger Buns

1 cup milk
1 cup water
2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp butter
1-1/2 tsp. salt
5-1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2-1/4 tsp. yeast

1 large egg yolk
1 Tbsp water

In a small saucepan, add milk, 1 cup water, sugar, butter and salt. Heat over low just until the butter melts - cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, mix 2 cups flour with the yeast. Add the cooled milk mixture. Blend at medium speed for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup flour and mix for another 2 minutes. Gradually stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Scoop the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic (about 8-10 minutes), adding enough of the remaining flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands. Move dough into a large bowl lightly coated with cooking spray. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 60 minutes.

Uncover and punch down the dough. Evenly divide into 12 pieces. Form each piece into a ball and place about 2" apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. Slightly flatten each ball. Cover and let rise until doubled - another 30 to 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl whisk together egg yolk and water. Gently brush egg wash over each bun.

Bake about 20 to 25 minutes until golden and they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

Pulled Chicken Sandwiches (from Cooking Light)

2 Tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp chili powder
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground chipotle chile pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs

2 tsp canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 Tbsp dark brown sugar
1 Tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground red pepper
1 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
1 Tbsp molasses

Remaining Ingredients:
8 rolls, toasted
16 hamburger dill chips

1- Spray grill with cooking spray. I don't have a grill, so I used my grill pan and covered it with a piece of aluminum foil for cooking.

2- To prepare chicken, combine first 7 ingredients in a small bowl. Rub spice mixture evenly over chicken. Place chicken on a grill rack coated with cooking spray; cover and grill 20 minutes or until a thermometer registers 180 deg., turning occasionally. Let stand for 5 minutes. Shred with 2 forks.

3 - To prepare sauce, heat canola oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; cook for 5 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in 2 Tbsp sugar and next 5 ingredients (through pepper); cook 30 seconds. Stir in ketchup, vinegar, and molasses; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally. Stir in chicken; cook 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

4 - Place about 1/3 cup chicken mixture on bottom halves of sandwich rolls; top each serving with 2 pickle chips and top roll half. Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 sandwich).

( I had a 5 lb package of chicken thighs and after skinning and boning the thighs, it was 3 lbs, so I increased all the quantities by 1/2.)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

For Gabrielle

By March I'm ready for spring. I want tulips, birds chirping, and warm sunshine. Yes, we've got cherry blossoms, and I did hear birds serenading me this morning, but our sunshine is still in it's liquid form. Buckets and buckets of it coming down. Enough already!

But in an effort to be a glass half-full kind of person (or is that rain gauge 3/4 full?) I've found an upside to the continuing dank drizzle. It gives me a reason to forego gardening, an excuse for warming up the kitchen by baking, and a great opportunity to have a friend over for tea and scones.

Scones are such friendly pastries. They can be a quick grab-a-bite as you're dashing out the door, or they can be lingered over, their aroma mingling with the steam from your hot tea or coffee.

I wanted to try the Cream Scones from my new best-loved cookbook, Baking: From My Home To Yours. I studded them with dried blueberries and they turned out delightfully - flaky, tender, with just the right amount of moisture. So here's your chance to banish the end of winter blahs. Bake some scones and share them with friends!

Cream Scones ( makes 12 darling small scones)

1 large egg
2/3 cup cold heavy cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled

Preheat oven to 400 deg. and center a rack. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Stir in the egg and cream together.

Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Drop in the butter and coat the pieces with flour. Working quickly with your fingertips or a pastry blender, cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly. You'll have pieces that are pea-size to pieces that are oatmeal flakes and everything in between.

Pour the egg and cream over the dry ingredients and stir with a fork just until the dough, which will be wet and sticky, comes together. Don't overdo it. Still in the bowl, sprinkle the berries over the dough and gently knead the dough by hand, or turn it with a rubber spatula 8 to 10 times.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour and turn out the dough. Divide it in half. Working with one piece at a time, pat the dough into a rough circle that's about 5 inches in diameter, cut it into 6 wedges and place it on the baking sheet. (At this point, the scones can be frozen on the baking sheet, then wrapped air-tight. Don't defrost before baking - just add about 2 minutes to the baking time.)

Bake the scones for 20 to 22 minutes, or until their tops are golden and firmish. Transfer them to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before serving, or wait for them to cool to room temperature.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

To Top It Off

I have tracked the decline of baking over the years in the baking aisle at the grocery store. I used to decry the enormous section of boxed cake mixes because it was a sign that people were too lazy or intimidated to do "real" baking. Then, even more worrisome, the boxed mix section shrank. That meant that people were to pressed for time or too frightened even to throw a few ingredients on top of a mix and toss it into the oven. Now you can buy your brownies in the refrigerated section - just peel off the wrapper, press it into the pan, and bake. Homemade brownies....I guess. But where's the fun in that?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not slamming people who use box mixes. My guilty secret is the row of cake mixes in my pantry. My son loves them and thinks that's where all cakes come from. He loves breaking the eggs, stirring, and helping mommy bake. And because I could give a rip how a mix cake turns out, it's low stress for me to let him learn the basics of baking in this way. I'm hoping from this that he'll learn that baking is fun and be willing to confidently expand his baking horizons beyond the box. Knowledge takes away the fear and empowers.

I think a great deal of the decline of baking is due to fear of failure. If you're unsure how a recipe will turn out, it's easier to get a mix or just go to the bakery and buy what you want. That way you won't have the mortification of showing up at the PTA meeting with a plate of oozing cookies or a cake that looks like a soccer ball landed in the middle of it.

Over the years I've had my share of baking disasters and I've learned that it's not the end of the world. It's just food. And there's a lot that can be done to salvage disasters. Warming the goo and putting vanilla ice cream on top of it. Adding frosting. Or peanut butter. Or whipped cream. Or hot fudge sauce. It's just all in the attitude.

When I made my special dinner for my husband (see previous post), I wanted a knock his socks off dessert. The recipe for Chocolate Mousse Cake looked tremendous. I substituted half of the semisweet chocolate with bittersweet as my husband is a big fan of bittersweet. The cake looked lovely and I was crushed when he took only a bite or two then put down his piece. He said it was too dry. After pouting on this for a night, I realized, the cake could be saved. I served it again the next night. Refrigerating, like the directions said to, helped the texture. And I spread it with orange marmalade (he loves the combination of orange and dark chocolate) and then dollopped sweetened whipped cream on top. Success!

Chocolate Mousse Cake

1 cup finely chopped walnuts (4 oz.)
1 cup finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds (4 oz.)
2 oz (1/2 stick ) butter, softened

1 lb. semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
6 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 cup whipped cream
powdered sugar to sweeten whipped cream, optional

Preheat oven to 325 deg.

To prepare crust, mix together nuts and butter. Press evenly over bottom and up sides of a 9-inch springform pan. I don't own a 9-inch pan and used a 10-inch. It made a slightly flatter cake. Also, when I baked the cake, the butter in the crust melted and seeped out of the pan, so I'd recommend setting your pan on a baking sheet, or first lining the bottom and sides of your springform pan with foil.

To prepare filling, in a medium saucepan, heat chocolate and cream over low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate is melted and smooth. Cool to room temperature, 10 minutes.

Beat together eggs and vanilla at low speed until foamy. At high speed, gradually beat in flour and sugar until thick, for 8-10 minutes. (I was beating, and beating, and beating, muttering to myself, "Not thick, not thick." I'm not sure what thick is supposed to look like, but in my case it ended up being slightly thickened.)

Fold one-third of egg mixture into melted chocolate mixture. Fold chocolate mixture, one-qurter at a time, into remaining egg mixture. Spread batter in prepared pan; smooth top.

Bake cake until puffed around outer edges, 45 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack to cool for 30 minutes. Remove sides of pan.

Chill cake for 4 hours or overnight. Garnish with whipped cream. And, optionally, your choice of peanut butter, jam, berry puree, or fresh berries.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Romance by the Sea

I wonder why when it's time to make a special dinner for my sweetie that my mind always jumps to seafood. Not just fish, either. Tunafish sandwiches definitely do not qualify as romantic food. Shellfish spells romance. Crab, shrimp, and lobster - ah, lobster, which is, unfortunately, not the topic of this post.

Maybe it's because I grew up in an arid valley and my only opportunity to have good seafood was on our annual pilgrimage to the sole seafood restaurant in town for a birthday dinner. I always ordered the same thing - a cup of clam chowder and a 1/2 a crab. I was extremely resistant to trying new things and I ate small portions. The former trait I'm trying to overcome and the latter I'm working on returning to.

When I had to come up with a menu for a romantic dinner, I thought immediately of this recipe for Shrimp Scampi I got from Cooking Light many years ago, back when they thought margarine was better for you than butter. I put the butter back in. The scampi has a wonderful garlicy flavor and is easy to prepare. The most time-consuming part of it is peeling, deveining, and butterflying the shrimp. After that it goes together in a snap.

Shrimp Scampi

2 lbs large unpeeled shrimp (48 shrimp)
3 Tbsp butter
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
8 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup mincced fresh parsley
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
6 cups hot cooked angel hair pasta (about 3/4 lb. uncooked)

Peel shrimp, leaving the tails intact. Starting at tail end, butterfly underside of each shrimp, cutting to, but not through, back of shrimp. Arrange 8 shrimp, cut sides up, in each of 6 gratin dishes; set aside. I don't own gratin dishes and didn't want my bowls to explode under the broiler, so I used a Pyrex 8 x 11 pan.

Set water to boil for cooking angel hair pasta. The pasta can cook while the shrimp is under the broiler.

Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add bell pepper and garlic; saute 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in wine, parsley, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Spoon wine mixture evenly over each serving; sprinkle paprika over shrimp, and broil 6 minutes or until shrimp is done. Using the one, larger dish, I took it out after 6 minutes and stirred, to uncover any uncooked bits, and put it back under the broiler for another 2 minutes.

Serve over the angel hair pasta. Yield: 6 servings (8 shrimp and 1 cup pasta each)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Match Made in the Kitchen

I love watching movies. I'm a sucker for a comedy, a romance, or the combination of the two. Throw in a murder mystery and I'm hooked. One of my all time favorite movies is the classic, Rear Window. It pairs Jimmy Stewart as the globetrotting, daredevil photographer and Grace Kelly as the elegant, glamorous New York sophisticate. They have absolutely nothing in common except they're hopelessly in love with each other.

Sometimes things that are wonderful on their own, yet an unlikely pairing are, once you finally get them together, fabulous! So it is with Fabulous Brownie Cookies. On first thought what does the Brownie, the regal queen of the baking pan have in common with the lunch bag denizen, the Cookie? When you pair them up, magic happens. The cookies puff up in the oven then as they cool, relax, leaving the surface crackled. Warm out of the oven, it's a soft, pliable cookie with oozing bits of chocolate when you bite into it. Then, amazingly, when it's cooled, it's still a soft, moist cookie with a brownie-like texture inside, studded with chunks of chocolate and nuts. Genius!

After you've made them, curl up with your sweetie, a glass of milk, and a plate of these in front of your favorite old movie. It's a great pairing.

Fabulous Brownie Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I used chocolate with 70% cocoa solids)
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups chopped pecans, toasted

In a large, heavy saucepan combine butter, unsweetened chocolate, and 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until butter and chocolate melt; set aside and cool.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Beat eggs sugar, and vanilla in a medium mixing bowl at medium speed with an electric mixer. Gradually add flour mixture to egg mixture, beating well. Add chocolate mixture; beat well. Stir in remaining 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips and pecans. I used my medium scoop (1-3/4" across) to drop blobs of dough (about 2 Tbsp) 2 inches apart onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Don't overbake - the cookies should just loose their sheen on top, but still be moist. Let them set on the cookie sheets for a few minutes (they will continue to bake a bit), then remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Nothing says "I Love You" like the gift of a cookbook

OK, I'll admit it. I have a problem. I'm sure there are normal people out there who can pick up a cookbook, thumb through it, say, "Nice pictures" or "that looks tasty" and put it down and walk away. I'm just not one of them. To me a cookbook is the Rosetta Stone of the kitchen, promising to unlock the secrets of flaky pie crusts, hearty breads, and succulent roasts (and I don't even make roasts!). I own an embarrassing amount of cookbooks, some of which have never even been used. But I can't seem to part with any of them.

So, obviously the last thing I need is another cookbook. I've got enough recipes at hand that I could cook for my family for the next 5 years without repeating a meal. And that's without surfing the net for recipes. So I decided - Enough! No more cookbooks. I don't need them. I was firm in my resolve. Until....until IT came into my life. Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan. Recommended online, checked out from the library, IT snuck into my kitchen and nestled it's way into my heart. Filled with beautiful pictures, wonderful anecdotes, and mouthwatering recipes, this one was a keeper. Well, for the 30 day loan period. And then for the two week extension period. During that time I made cookies for our annual cookie exchange from this book and our Happy Birthday, Jesus cake for Christmas day. And I took it to bed with me at night for a little light reading. Ah, sigh, the sorrow of having to turn it back into the library.

But here's where marrying a wonderful man pays off. My sweet husband gave it to me for Christmas so barely any time elapsed between turning in the book and having it back in my kitchen! Yeah!

My most recent effort from Baking was the wonderful Split-Level Pudding. What a delicious way to use up egg yolks. A dark chocolate base paired perfectly with smooth, full vanilla pudding. I'd never made a pudding using my Cuisinart, and it behaved differently but in the end yielded a lovely silken pudding that firmed up beautifully as it chilled.

I had no whole milk so I used 1/2 1% milk and 1/2 half and half. Also, I used a heavenly vanilla extract my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas. This is a recipe where good vanilla really shines.

Split Level Pudding

Chocolate Layer:
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup heavy cream

Vanilla Layer:
2-1/4 cups whole milk
6 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
3 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
2-1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Chocolate shavings for decoration (optional)

Have six ramekins or dessert cups ( holding 4 to 6 oz. each) at hand

Put the chocolate in a 1 or 2 cup glass measuring cup. Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let it sit for 30 seconds, then gently stir to blend. Divide the chocolate ganache among the cups and set aside.

Bring 2 cups of the milk and 3 Tbsp of the sugar to a boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan.

While the milk is heating, put the cornstarch and salt into a food processor and whir to blend. Turn them out onto a piece of wax paper, put the remaining 3 Tbsp sugar and the egg yolks into the processor and blend for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the remaining 1/4 cup milk and pulse just to mix, then add the dry ingredients and pulse a few times to blend.

With the machine running, very slowly pour in the hot milk mixture. Process for a few seconds, then pour everything back into the saucepan. Whisk without stopping over medium heat- making sure to get into the edges of the pan - until the pudding thickens and a couple of bubbles burble up to the surface and pop (about 2 minutes). You don't want the pudding to boil, but you do want it to thicken, so lower the heat, if necessary.

Scrape the puddding back into the processor (if there's a scorched spot, avoid it as you scrape) and pulse a couple of times. Add the butter and vanilla and pulse until everything is evenly blended. The pudding might look a bit runny at this stage, but don't worry, it will firm up as it chills.

Pour the pudding into the cups over the chocolate. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of each pudding to create and airtight seal and prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate the puddings for at least 4 hours. You can serve it chilled and you will have a nice texture contrast between the silken pudding and the firm ganache. I liked it at room temperature so the ganache was soft and blended with the pudding. To dress up your pudding you can scatter chocolate shavings on the top of it just before serving.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On A Roll

I have been having such a good time doing this blog. It's some of my favorite things - cooking, reading cookbooks, and writing. The bonus is all the nice comments I've gotten. My daughter thinks it's hilarious how excited I get when people leave me comments on the blog so she leaves silly notes, just to see me laugh.

Today I got totally carried away and neglected all my chores and baked and cooked up a storm. It might have been the looming deadline of taxes that I wanted to avoid, but I got on a baking roll and produced a cake for my son, pudding to use up the egg yolks left over from the cake, cinnamon rolls because they make my husband happy, and lemon chicken for dinner.

All this fun does have a downside, though. My family is complaining piteously (in between bites) about the size of their spread. The spread on the chair, not the one on the plate. So it was with glee that I saw a comment posted by Bruce, who works with my husband, volunteering to take on taste-testing duties. You asked for it, you got it, Bruce!

My husband will be bringing to the staff meeting a pan of my favorite cinnamon rolls. I hope you enjoy. And remember to leave comments!

Over the years I've tried many different recipes for cinnamon rolls, finding most of them dry and unappealing. Especially on the second day. Then I read the original of this recipe in a murder mystery. The plot was so-so but the recipe had definite potential. I downsized the rolls and took off the cream cheese frosting. Too much of a good thing makes me wish for less. So here is the revised, but still potentially lethal recipe. They are soft and seductive, sweet, but not headache-inducing.

Monster Cinnamon Rolls

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup milk
3/4 cup plus 1 tsp sugar
1-1/4 tsp salt
7-1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
5 large eggs
8-1/2 - 9-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar
1/2 c. butter
3 Tbsp ground cinnamon

2 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
enough milk to make glue-like consistency, about 2 Tbsp.

For the dough, heat the butter with the milk, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt in a small saucepan until the butter is melted. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, add the remaining tsp sugar, stir, and set aside for 10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly. Add the lukewarm milk mixture and the eggs and beat until well combined. Add the flour a cup at a time, stirring and using enough flour to form a stiff dough. Turn out on a floured board and knead until smooth and satiny, approximately 10 min. (or place in the bowl of an electric mixer and knead with a dough hook until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, approximately 5 min. I have a 5 quart KitchenAid and the dough burbles up and wraps around the dough hook, so I need to scrape it down frequently). Place the dough in a very large buttered bowl, turn to butter the top, and allow to rise, covered loosely with a kitchen towel, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, approximately 1 hour. Punch the dough down and divide it in half. Roll one half out to a large rectangle, about 12" x 24".

Butter two 9 x 13 baking pans. For the filling, melt the butter. Spread 1/2 the butter evenly over the surface of the dough. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle 1/2 of it evenly over the melted butter. Roll up the dough lengthwise, pinching the dough together to form a seam when rolled. Cut the dough log in quarters, and then each quarter in thirds. If you are particular about pretty rolls, trim off the ends. Place the rolls in a buttered 9 x 13" baking pan. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Cover the rolls loosely with a kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the rolls for about 20-30 minutes or until puffed and browned. Mix the icing ingredients and drizzle over the rolls. Allow to cool to room temperature on racks (if you can).

If you prefer a cream cheese frosting:

Combine 1/2 lb. cream cheese, softened with 1/4 cup whipping cream and 1 tsp vanilla extract until smooth. Add 3-4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted, blending until smooth and soft, not stiff.


If you want to "pimp up" your rolls, you can throw raisins, chopped nuts, coconut, or your favorite exotic ingredient into the filling. I'm a purist, though. My rolls will always be per factory spec.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The peanut butter quest

Last night my sweet husband and I watched "Stranger Than Fiction", a movie just released on DVD starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. I liked the movie, but don't rent it expecting a Will Ferrell comedy. It is slow paced, thoughtful, and sweet.

One of the facets of the story is the relationship between Harold, an IRS agent, and Anna, a baker he is auditing. Although initially hostile to him she realizes he is a sweet person and as a peace offering she bakes him cookies. He declines the cookies, saying he doesn't like cookies. She replies that of course he does, who doesn't like cookies? Didn't his mother ever give him milk and freshly baked cookies? He says that his mother never baked; all their cookies were store bought.

At this point I turned to my husband with a gasp and said, "You didn't tell me this was a horror movie!"

Then Anna, the baker, relates how she went from pre-law at Harvard to opening a bakery. She says that now she's changing the world through cookies.

At this point my husband turned to me and said, "Honey, she's your soulmate!"

So true. For me cookies are my favorite way to say "thank you," "feel better," or "you are loved." Thus, when a kind, inordinately generous friend mentioned that he is way into peanut butter and jam I immediately began my quest for the perfect peanut butter and jam cookie. Peanut butter and chocolate would be no problem - I have enough peanut butter and chocolate recipes to make their own cookbook. Peanut butter and jam was another matter.

My first attempt was, as first attempts so often are, disappointing. I had in mind a peanut butter version of jam thumbprints, my daughter's favorite, that uses a spritz cookie dough for a base. The recipe I found produced a tough, dry, base that only faintly tasted of peanut butter and the jam I used left merely a sticky slick. I learned that using a quality jam that contains actual fruit is important, rather than the jam I'd used, purchased for the adorable Curious George pictures on the jar.

For my second try I went back to an old faithful recipe - Hershey's Peanut blossoms. I splurged and made them with my stash of peanut butter kisses. These were fabulous, but I wanted a base that totally sang out "Peanut Butter" in a strong tenor.

My third attempt was a keeper. A moist, dense cookie base, redolent of peanut butter balanced with the sweet pull of the jam. I wrapped up and delivered the results. My friend was quite pleased and said, "Congratulations on cracking the code!"

Peanut Butter & Jelly Thumbprints

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups creamy peanut butter (I prefer Jiff)
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup honey
2 Tbsp milk
1/2 cup good quality jam, stirred (I used blueberry)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl blend together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the peanut butter and margarine. Mix on medium-low speed until crumbly, about 3 minutes. Add honey and milk; blend well. Use your hands, if needed, to work in the dry crumbs into the mixture.

Form dough into 1 inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheets 2 inches apart. Press thumb (although I use a knuckle for a deeper, even well) into center of each. Place 1/2 tsp. jam into each indentation.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges start to turn golden brown. Let sit on the cookie sheet for 1 to 2 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack. Store in airtight container. As the cookies sit the jam seeps into the base a bit and makes it even moister and jammier.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Banana Bliss

Snow in the northwest is a funny thing. People here panic, schools close, and the weather reporters run 24/7 coverage of "The Big Storm of '07." The hilarious bit is that it's for 1 -2 inches of snow that melts away by 3 pm.

It snowed last night and the sight of the cold, white layer outside triggered my natural response - bake something! When my tousle-headed child wandered into the kitchen and requested pancakes, I knew exactly what to make. I'd been eyeballing the Banana Sour Cream Pancakes in Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa Family Style (I'm loving this cookbook - I made dinner from it last night, too.).

The pancakes were marvelous- the bananas cooked into the pancakes gave them an intense banana flavor, the pancakes were hearty without being leaden, and with peanut butter smeared on top (if you're that kind of person, which I am) they were sublime. I could barely wait for my resident photographer to finish with the pictures so I could taste them. Oh my, it was difficult not to moan while eating these. My children quickly polished off theirs and the little one even asked for seconds. And thirds. I'm hoping he won't burst.

Banana Sour Cream Pancakes

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sour cream (I used low fat)
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp. milk
2 extra-large eggs (I used large)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp grated lemon zest
Unsalted butter
2 ripe bananas, diced, plus extra for serving
Peanut butter (optional)
Maple syrup

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together the sour cream, milk, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones, mixing only until combined.

Melt 1 Tbsp of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat until it bubbles. Ladle the pancake batter into the pan using a 1/4 cup measure. Distribute a rounded Tbsp. of bananas on each pancake. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until bubbles appear on top and the underside is nicely browned. Flip the pancakes and then cook fr another minute, until browned. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel, add more butter to the pan, and continue cooking pancakes until all the batter is used. Serve with sliced bananas, optional peanut butter, and maple syrup.