Friday, June 29, 2007

It's Birthday Season

I have a summer birthday. My husband has a summer birthday. All but one of my children have summer birthdays, and that one is pitied because her birthday is wrong. Too close to Christmas. At Christmas you get sleds and sweaters as gifts. For your birthday you get shorts and water toys. When do you get the cool summer toys if you don't have a summer birthday?

Today is the official kick-off for our birthday season. We've got tickets for the opening day of Ratatouille. Yeah! I can't wait. A Pixar movie about an adorable rodent who wants to be a chef in Paris? I'm all over it!

Then, tomorrow, even though my birthday is a month away, my honey is sending me to the David Lebovitz ice cream class at Sur La Table. Woo hoo! I'm a major fan of his blog (really funny writing and really toothsome recipes), so it was no stretch of the imagination for my hubbie to figure out what I wanted for my birthday when I breathlessly announced that David Lebovitz was coming to town. I'll get to watch him prepare lots of delicious frozen treats and taste them, too. My sweetie did draw the line at the "I HEART David" t-shirt, but I'll take a notebook and my camera, so look for a write-up and my bad pictures on Monday.

In honor of the occasion I made a fabulous ice cream from his new book, The Perfect Scoop. Gianduja Gelato. It has intense hazelnut and chocolate flavor - think Nutella in a cone. Silky smooth and so rich that just a tiny scoop suffices. I wanted a bit more chocolate flavor to balance the hazelnuts, so I added my favorite, The World's Best Hot Fudge Sauce. Oh, heaven in a spoon!

I'll ask David if it's OK to post the recipe. If I get a green light, you'll see the recipe on Monday, along with the write-up. In the meantime, I'll give you the hot fudge sauce recipe from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. This is fabulous stuff. A friend of mine makes it to give as gifts to her friends every Christmas. Lucky friends! This is thick and not too sweet, becoming even thicker when poured over cold ice cream. You can store it in the refrigerator for a week or two, but be wary. It's awfully tempting to just eat it with a spoon straight from the jar!

The World's Best Hot Fudge Sauce

1/2 cup heavy cream
3 Tbsp sweet butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
pinch salt
1/2 cup strained Dutch-process cocoa powder (don't substitute - it must be Dutch process for the right color and flavor)

Place the cream and butter in a heavy 1-quart saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until the butter is melted and the cream just comes to a low boil. Add both sugars and stir for a few minutes until they are dissolved. (The surest test is to taste; cook and taste until you do not feel any undissolved granules in your mouth.)

Reduce the heat. Add the salt and cocoa and stir briskly with a small wire whisk until smooth. (If the sauce is not smooth - if there are any small lumps of undissolved cocoa- press against them, and stir well, with a rubber spatula.) Remove from the heat.

Serve immediately or pour into a straight-sided glass jar to cover and store in the refrigerator. To reheat slowly, spoon the sauce into the top of a double boiler over hot water, or in a heavy saucepan over the lowest heat. My favorite way to reheat is to spoon just as much as I'll use into a small microwave-safe container and heat on high for just 8-10 seconds.

The directions say that if it looks too thick on reheating, stir in a bit of hot water, adding very little at a time. But seriously, too thick??

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Sequencing. Sometimes it just defeats me. Sequencing can take a tiny, easy chore and turn it into an onerous, unscalable mountain peak.

Here is an entirely fictitious example*:

My husband has a craving for a home-cooked Italian meal. No problem. I can whip that up easily. Except that I'm out of garlic. Which means a quick trip to the store, because who ever heard of Italian food without garlic? But it would be a waste of gas to go to the store for just one bulb of garlic. So I need to write out a shopping list. And to do that I need to do a little menu planning for the next couple of days.

Thinking about what I want to make for dinners, I remember that my daughter has been begging me to make the fabulous dish we saw in the Gourmet magazine that came last week. I add that to the menu, and then recall that I can't add the ingredients to my shopping list as I loaned that magazine to my neighbor, Gladys, to read the amusing article about shopping for truffles in Paris.

I can't go ask for the magazine back unless I take back to her the little slugger baseball cake pan that I borrowed from her 2 months ago, saying I needed to make that cake for one of my son's baseball games. And tomorrow is his last baseball game. And if I'm going to take it tomorrow, I'd better make it today so I'll have time to frost and decorate it. So I spend the rest of the afternoon baking the cake and serve boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner.

The best of intentions defeated by sequencing.

Now to the real life example. In one of the multitude of cookbooks I've looked through in the last 3 months I saw a recipe for cookies with white chocolate and macadamia nuts. It looked yummy, but I never have macadamia nuts on hand. So I tucked that into my brain - "buy macadamia nuts!" It sat there dormant in the back of my brain until I was walking through the produce section at the grocery store and spotted bins of bulk nuts. Aha - they had macadamia nuts! Even though I sucked wind at the price, I bought a largish bagful because "It's for the blog."

So I brought my nuts home and tucked them away in my baking drawer, nestled between the flour and the sugar where they would be safe from little snackers. There they languished as I moved on to the next item in the sequence - white chocolate. That required a special trip. Of course I couldn't make a trip just for white chocolate, so I had to wait for the next time I was making a Trader Joe's run to pick up a chunk of Ghirradelli white chocolate.

And home to make the cookies! Or not. Where was that recipe??? I scoured my cookbooks to no avail. I went to the library and looked through books I'd recently checked out. What's the deal? Why does no one have a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie recipe? So I adapted one that I'd found for a white chocolate pecan cookie. Close enough.

I got all the ingredients together, measured, chopped, mixed, and just before adding the nuts realized that they were salted. Aaack! Were my cookies going to be too salty? They should post these things on the bins! "Roasted, SALTED macadamia nuts." Too late now. I figured that white chocolate is quite sweet and maybe the flavors would balance out. Maybe they would be wonderful together. Or not.

As I scooped out the cookie dough I tasted a macadamia nut. It was bad. Bad like rancid, seriously old and stale. I don't know if it was bad when I bought it or went bad while I was waiting to make the cookies but this was the kind of bad that takes over every other flavor. I had hopes the white chocolate would mask the rancid taste - it didn't.

So today I give you a wonderful recipe for cookies which will taste fabulous - if you don't use bad nuts! Buy your nuts in a sealed package. Store them in the freezer. Taste before stirring them into your dough. Because, aside from tasting foul, these are wonderful cookies.

White Chocolate Chunk Macadamia Nut Cookies (adapted from Mrs Fields Best Ever Cookie Book)

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 sticks salted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz macadamia nuts, chopped (about 1 cup)
8 oz. good white chocolate bar, coarsely chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)

1- Preheat oven to 300 deg. F, with the racks dividing the oven into thirds.

2- Into a medium bowl sift together the flour, soda, and salt. Set aside.

3- In a large mixing bowl mix together butter and sugars. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as it forms a grainy paste. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy.

4- Add the flour mixture, macadamia nuts (quick taste test for freshness first), and white chocolate, and blend at low speed until just combined. Do not overmix.

5- Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving 2 inches between dough mounds. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets top to bottom halfway through baking. Take out when the cookie edges just begin to turn golden brown. Use a spatula to transfer cookies immediately to a cool, flat surface (like a clean countertop). This keeps the cookies moist on the underside.

Makes about 3 dozen

* (Disclaimer: My husband does not, nor has he ever, to the best of my knowledge craved Italian food. I do not have a subscription to Gourmet magazine. I do not have a neighbor named Gladys. I do not have a son that is currently playing baseball. While I have been known to make boxed macaroni and cheese, I would never admit it.)

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Perfect Couple

Sometimes the urge to play Cupid is irresistible. When you know two great people and you just know they are perfect for each other, isn't it unkind to deprive them of their shot at happiness together?

I met my husband to be when I was in college. He and his best friend were in the marching band and they and a couple of other band buddies were going around one night, offering to play for beer. They were across the street at a fraternity and a girl from our house yelled to them that we didn't have beer but we had Diet Dr. Pepper. Well, they wanted beer, and Diet Dr. Pepper is nasty stuff, but we were of the female persuasion, so they came and played for us. We met, sparks flew, and two years later we were married.

In the meantime, I got to know his best friend as well. I knew he loved racquet sports, had a wacky sense of humor, and liked strong women. I happened to have a good friend who was smart, strong, funny, and was looking for a racquet ball partner. So, of course I had to set them up. As with any blind date, it could have been an awkward nightmare, but they hit it off and they have now been married almost as long as we have. Sometimes you just know when it's a good match.

So what does this have to do with food? Well, one of my favorite pairings is chocolate and peanut butter. I adore each one individually, but put them together and I am in heaven! These cookies are extra wonderful because they have two kinds of chocolate paired up in a peanut butter cookie. The cookie has a sandy, moist texture, and the bittersweet chocolate ribbons through it, giving a wonderful taste and texture contrast. I adapted this recipe from Mrs. Fields Best Ever Cookie Book. I substituted 70% bittersweet chocolate for the semisweet chocolate called for. I could say it was because I wanted a more sophisticated tasting cookie, or, I could tell the truth - that I was out of semi-sweet chocolate. In any case, it ended up being delicious.

Double-Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies

makes about 2 dozen

6 oz. semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup creamy peanut butter
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
12 oz. (about 2 cups) milk chocolate chips

1- Arrange racks in oven to divide it into thirds. Preheat oven to 300 deg. F. In a double boiler, melt the semisweet chocolate over hot, not simmering, water. Set aside to cool to about room temperature.

2- In a small bowl combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.

3- In a mixing bowl cream the butter and the peanut butter. Add the sugars and beat until creamy and smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat until just combined. Add the flour mixture and the milk chocolate chips, and beat until no streaks of flour are visible.

4- Pour the melted chocolate over the dough and drag a wooden spoon through. You want to just marbleize, not combine. Leave streaks of chocolate.

5- Drop the dough in 3-Tbsp mounds 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 23 minutes, or until just set but still soft. Rotate the baking sheets, top to bottom, halfway through cooking. Cool on the baking sheet for 30 seconds then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Friday, June 22, 2007

What Goes Around Comes Around

I don't know if Mrs. Fields Cookies are global, but in the US, the cheerful little red booth with white polka dots, wafting a powerful aroma of baking cookies is a mainstay of malls. I heard a story of how Debbie Fields got her start. As a teenager, she had a friend who was anorexic. Every day Debbie would come home frome school and bake cookies to take to her friend in an attempt to lure her into eating them. With all that practice, her cookies got better and better until someone suggested she should open up a shop and sell them. From her first shop she ended up with a chain of cookie shops and a line of spin-off products, all because she cared about her friend and wanted to help her. I don't know if the story is true, but I like it.

One of the great things about baking a lot is that my kitchen overflows with treats. And rather than wolf it all down and feel ill and waddle like a hippopotamus, I pass a lot of it along. I send cookies with my daughter when she's meeting up with friends. I take baked goods to friends and neighbors. My chiropractor is always delighted with the packet of treats I bring to my appointments. Yesterday at a doctor's office I was greeted with, "You're the cookie lady!"

I say this, not to toot my own horn about how generous I am. Looked at cynically, you could even say I'm very selfish because I want the fun of baking without the calories on my own thighs. But whatever the motivation is, the result is wonderful. When I share my kitchen bounty, something good always splashes back on me. I love the happy squeals when I take a plate of blog fodder to a friend's house. The tree overhanging the property line is somehow less of an issue if banana bread is involved. And my chiropractor never has his eye on the clock when he's happily munching a cookie.

So, with this in mind, I share World Peace Cookies. They are from my favorite cookbook, Baking, and this is the recipe that convinced me that I needed to own this wonderful book. Dorie Greenspan says that they were given the name World Peace Cookies by a neighbor who, upon tasting one, said that if everyone in the world had one a day, there would be world peace.

These are amazing cookies. Simple to make, impossible to resist. The secret ingredient is sea salt. I used the Celtic Sea Salt my sweetie gave me for Mother's Day. The large, delicate crystals lurk in the cookie, giving a surprising crunch and the tingle of delicate salt against chocolate.

One note: I have my mini chips stored in a plastic bag in a bin with other chocolate products in plastic bags. One of those other bags contains white chocolate mint wafers. Only recently did I discover that the mint is so strong it seeped out of it's bag and contaminated all the neighboring bags. (Note to self: store mint-flavored items in separate closet!) This adds a very subtle, but not unpleasant mint taste to my cookies.

Try these wonderful cookies and spread a little love in your world.

World Peace Cookies

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick plus 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp fleur de sel or 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips (mint flavored, optional)

1- Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

2- In a large mixing bowl beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugars, salt, and vanilla and beat for 2 minutes more.

3- Turn the mixer off and add the dry ingredients. Cover the mixer with a pouring shield or drape a kitchen towel over it to protect your kitchen from flying flour. Pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time, Once the flour on the surface of the dough is incorporated, remove the towel and continue mixing at low speed for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough. Work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added. It's OK for the dough to look a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

4- Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you've frozen the dough, you needn't defrost it before baking - just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)

5- To bake; Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 324 deg. F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

6- Using a sharp, thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. Don't worry if they crack as you cut them, just moosh them back together . Place the rounds on the baking sheet, leaving 1 inch between them.

7- Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes. They won't be firm or look done, but that's just right. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm. You can serve them then, or let them reach room temperature.

Note: Since my cookie jar had another species of cookie in it already, I stored these in a plastic tub on the counter with a kitchen towel over them. In our humid weather they absorbed moisture and became almost fudgy-moussey, while still being sandy. I liked them that way, too, and a contractor that was over thought they were a-maz-ing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Almost Instant Gratification

In the world of comfort foods, I think cookies rank #1. Small enough to nestle in your hand, they're not as big a commitment as a piece of cake or pie. You don't even need a plate or fork to eat one. They can be eaten warm, fresh from the oven or cooled, out of the cookie jar. You can nibble on one daintily, or wolf down a handful. Packed in a lunch box, a cookie is a piece of love from home. Dunked in coffee, it's a pick-me-up indulgence. Where would we be without cookies? I shudder at the thought.

When the urge for a small calorie splurge strikes, it's nice to have a recipe in your repertoire that you can make using only what's on hand in your pantry. This recipe is so easy, it's perfect for beginners, and so satisfying that you'll make it again and again. Review the tips that I gave last time and in under 1/2 hour you can have delicious, moist, chewy, satisfying Snickerdoodles. Plus, they're whole wheat, so they're healthy, right?

The key to making these so that they're chewy and not crunchy is to seriously underbake them. When you remove them from the oven, they should be just set, still a little moisty looking in the middle. Also, this is not a good recipe to make the dough ahead of time and refrigerate. It does best if you mix and bake without delay.

Whole Wheat Snickerdoodles (from Taste of Home)

1-1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1 egg plus 1 egg white

2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

1- Arrange racks to divide the oven into thirds. Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F.

2- In a small bowl combine the flours, baking soda, and salt.

3- In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Stop mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula several times.

4- Add egg and egg white; beat well.

5- Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat well.

6- In a small bowl, combine topping ingredients. Using a small scoop, shape dough into walnut-sized balls; roll in cinnamon-sugar. (I always run out of the cinnamon sugar, so you might make more in the 3 to 1 ratio of sugar to cinnamon.)

7- Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Cookies will puff up and flatten as they bake. Remove just after they have set. If the centers of the cookies looks slightly underdone, let the cookies rest for a few minutes on the baking sheet. They will continue to cook as they cool. Remove to a wire rack to continue cooling. Or straight to your hand for munching.

Makes about 5 dozen.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Getting Back to Basics

If the heart of the home is the kitchen, then the heart of my kitchen is the cookie jar. A full cookie jar is my love letter to my family. Because I bake cookies so often, a lot of what I make are old favorites. Not flashy, not impressive, but tasty and comforting.

I was loathe to blog about something as common as oatmeal raisin cookies, but my daughter insisted that there are a lot of people out there who don't know how to make good cookies. I thought I'd share a few of my favorites along with some baking tips. Although cookies are easy to make, there are some details that make the difference between delightful, tender treats and burnt, crunchy disasters. If you're an experienced baker and cookies are no problem for you, skip right to the recipe, but if you have some problems with cookies, try some of my cookie baking secrets and see if they don't help.

I love soft, moist, chewy cookies, so that's mostly the kind of cookie I make. A family favorite is the classic Oatmeal Raisin. I did a lot of comparison baking, trying out different recipes, comparing, asking friends' opinions, to find what I considered the best. This one has it all - soft chewy texture, generous amount of raisins, and a flavor that calls you back to the cookie jar for just one more.

Tip 1 - Have all ingredients at room temperature. To do this, assemble all your ingredients on the counter. This also ensures that you actually have all the ingredients and won't have to send your harried husband to the store to buy raisins or your child next door to borrow eggs.

Tip 2 - In the first step of creaming together the butter and sugar, don't rush. It will take several minutes and the mixture will actually change color, becoming lighter and creamier, without individual sugar crystals showing. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula several times during the creaming stage so your mixture will be consistent.

Tip 3 - There is a difference between regular, rolled oats and quick-cooking oats and instant oatmeal. Rolled oats have a coarser consistency and absorb liquids differently than the smaller flakes of quick-cooking oats. The finer the flakes, the more readily it combines with liquids. Use whichever your recipe calls for. If you use rolled oats when quick-cooking is called for, your cookies will have an unpleasantly hard consistency. If you use instant oatmeal it will form a semi-edible paste similar to glue.

Tip 4 - I have a personal theory that the reason so many people hate raisins in cookies is that they've had nasty, dry, over-cooked raisins in cookies. I, too, hate the black, dry pellets that often pass as raisins in cookies. To avoid this, make sure you use fresh, moist raisins. If yours are a little old, a little soak in a bowl of very hot water will help rejuvinate them. Pat them dry with a paper towel before folding them into the dough and they will stay moist and tasty for you.

Tip 5 - All cookie sheets are not created equal. I've been using AirBake sheets for years and have never had a cookie burn on the bottom. I love them!

Tip 6 - Underbake your cookies. Take them out of the oven a little bit before they look perfectly done. As they rest on the cookie sheet they will continue to bake a bit from the residual heat. If you take them out of the oven when they are perfect, they will be overdone. I like to take them out when the outside edge of the cookie is just turning light brown. If they look the slightest bit doughy in the center, as they cool they'll become deliciously moist and chewy.

Now you're ready to try:

Classic Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups quick-cooking oats, uncooked
1 cup plump raisins

1- Arrange the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds. Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F.

2- In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt and set aside.

3 -In a large bowl beat butter and sugars together until creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and beat well.

4 - Add flour mixture to the butter mixture, mixing well. Stir in the oats and raisins, mixing well.

5 - Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10 - 12 minutes or until golden brown on the edges.

6 - Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Marvelous Meringues

I've had a 3/4 cup measure of ground almonds sitting on my counter for quite a while now. I made a recipe (I don't remember which one) and didn't use up all the ground almonds called for. So they've been sitting there, patiently waiting for me to think up something to do with them. I'd read through cookbooks and blogs and any recipe with ground almonds would catch my eye, but they would either call for more ground almonds than I had, or they would call for an ingredient that I didn't have, so there they sat. I'd clean around them and my family knew better than to touch them. I was almost at the point of getting rid of them (well, not throwing them away, of course, but putting them in a jar on the shelf which was as good as throwing them away because then I would immediately forget about them and years later in a fit of cleaning find them and think, "Hmmm, I wonder what this is and why I kept it" before pitching it.) If you wonder about this strange pack-rat compulsion of mine, visit my father's basement lair. Tours are given Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you'll need to sign the standard form releasing him from liability should a stack of camping equipment, woodworking tools, paint cans, or fly-tying equipment tip over on you.

So it was a happy moment indeed when I opened my beloved Baking to a picture of lovely chocolate meringues. They called for ground almonds and I had extra egg whites in the fridge. Bonus!

I first fell in love with meringues as a child. You may recall that I was a picky eater extraordinaire. Also single track eater. So when I was cajoled into trying a meringue, that was it. It was my new favorite dessert. I recall asking for a meringue at a restaurant in Switzerland (why I was there in another post) and the waiter asked what I wanted on it. On it? Plain. A meringue. A blob of sugary, crusty, chewy sweet goodness on a plate. What was hard to understand? I got a look and perhaps a small eye-roll (the Swiss are very polite) but I also got my meringue.

My daughter, on the other hand, dislikes meringues on principal. She says they are deceitful food. They look like whipping cream but they're crackly and crumbly instead of soft, creamy, and gooey. I don't have a problem with that, so I really enjoyed making and eating these beautiful meringue cookies, mostly with the help of my almost 5-year old. He has no principals when it comes to sugar and chocolate!

Cocoa Almond Meringues

1 cup confectioner's sugar, plus extra for dusting
1/3 cup finely ground almonds
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup very finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

1 - Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 300 deg. F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2 - Sift together the confectioners' sugar, ground almonds, and cocoa.

3 - In a large mixing bowl (impeccably clean and dry) whip the egg whites and salt on medium speed until the whites are opaque. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to whip as you add the sugar about 1 Tbsp at a time. Then whip until the whites are firm and hold stiff peaks - they should still be very shiny. Beat in the vanilla, and remove the bowl from the mixer. With a large rubber spatula, quickly but gently fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the chopped chocolate. The whites will inevitably deflate as you fold in the dry ingredients - just try to work rapidly and use a light touch, so you deflate them as little as possible.

4 - Drop the meringue by tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between the mounds. Dust the tops of the meringues very lightly with confectioners' sugar.

5 - Bake for 10 minutes, then, without opening the oven door,, reduce the oven temp to 200 deg. F. and bake for 1 hour more. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow the meringues to stand in a cool, dry place ( not the refrigerator) until they reach room temperature.

6 - Carefully peel the meringues off the parchment or silicone lining.

The meringues must be kept in a cool, dry environment or they will become unpleasantly soft and sticky. Store them in an airtight tin or uncovered in a basket at room temperature.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Shower Me With Love

When I had my fourth child, a wonderful friend, who was my doula at the birth, asked if I'd had a baby shower yet. I hadn't and hadn't even expected one as this was baby #4, old hat, been there, done that. She insisted on throwing me a baby shower, saying that each baby is special and needs to be celebrated.

We had a terrific get-together at a local restaurant, eating good food, opening presents, laughing, talking, and making much fuss over my cute baby in the baby carrier. I won't forget that kindness and try to pass it on to other women who are special in my life. A friend is expecting baby #2 and so I had a small group of ladies over to say, "We love you! We're excited for you! Let us know how we can help."

My pregnant friend is a fan of coconut. Normally I do not bake with coconut as most of the people in my family retch at coconut; my daughter has described it as eating tanning lotion with the texture of wood pulp. For my friend, however, I brought out the coconut for these delicious little cakes that I first saw on Tartelette, the blog of an amazingly talented French pastry chef. (just a moment -French pastry chef - I swoon just typing those words!)

I looked at the recipe and said, "I have coconut, I have cherries, I can do that!" Of course, I didn't figure out till I was actually mixing up the ingredients that I didn't have coconut extract. Duh. So I substituted some of my heavenly Mexican vanilla extract. This was also my first experience baking with Euro measurements. I have a kitchen scale, but it's not digital, so I don't know how precise it is.

The cakes were sweet, moist and just right for an intimate gathering of friends to celebrate life and happiness.

Cherries and Coconut Cakes from Tartelette

Makes 8-10
8 oz flour (230 gr)
6 oz sugar (170 gr)
2 eggs
2 Tb. melted butter
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 tsp. coconut extract (or vanilla extract)
1 tsp. baking powder
grated zest of one lemon
pinch of salt
1 cup fresh or frozen pitted cherries
1/2 chopped almonds or coconut

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, melted butter, coconut milk and extract.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the wet ingredients. Fold in the cherries.

Divide between muffin tins lined with cupcake liners, or other molds. I used heart shaped molds, coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with coconut, or slivered almonds if you don't like coconut. I

Bake at 350 F, for 20-25 minutes

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ask Not For Whom The Ding Dong Tolls

Making Twinkie Twins was a fun experience, but I was surprised at the comments. I had no idea that Hostess products were US only. I guess I had a hazy picture in my mind of stadiums around the globe filled with rabid soccer, excuse me, football fans with a Coke in one hand and a Twinkie in the other. OK, you probably are guessing that I am not a big traveler and that I don't spend a lot of time at sporting events of any kind. That's true. I'd rather be in the kitchen.

Anyway, back to the cakes. My husband was pleased with the Twinkies but then got a little downcast as I moved on to other baking projects. "Aren't you going to do Ding Dongs?" he asked with Bambi eyes. For some reason he loves Ding Dongs. I think it's the nostalgic fondness you can have for childhood foods that clouds your adult reasoning. I can think of no other reason why anyone would buy them. The cream filling tastes like shortening and the chocolate coating tastes like wax. A treat? I think not.

So I set about creating a wax-, shortening-, and additive-free version of Ding Dongs. I used Dorie Greenspan's Baking to make a fabulous dense, rich Devil's Food cake. I had Bavarian Cream left over from the Twinkie Twins, so I filled with that, and then covered it all in a bittersweet glaze. Each bite is intensely chocolatey, from the cake to the glaze to the chips studding the cake, and the cream gives it a nice, mellow counterpoint. Two forks up for this beauty!

Bittersweet Belles

Devil's Food Cake

1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/4 sticks (10 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1/2 cup buttermilk or whole milk, at room temperature
1/2 cup boiling water
4 oz. semisweet or milk chocolate, finely chopped, or 2/3 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

1- Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter two 8 x 2 inch round cake pans, dust hte insides with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottoms with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

2 - Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

3 - In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugars and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the melted chocolate. When it's fully incorporated, add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk in 3 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed.

4 - Mix in the boiling water. With a rubber spatula, scrape down the bowl and stir in the chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with the rubber spatula.

5 - Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. (I used a cake tester.) Transfer the pans to a cooling rack and let cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.

6 - While cooling, make bittersweet glaze (recipe below)

7 - When cooled, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to slice each layer horizontally in half.

8 - Place the single layers on a baking sheet and cut into circles, using either a cookie cutter or, as I did, a tuna can with both ends cut off. (Wash thoroughly!) I got 3 circles out of a cake layer. If you used a smaller cutter you might be able to get 4.

9 - Onto a round cut from the bottom half, spread a generous layer of Bavarian Cream then place a round cut from the top half on top of the cream.

10 - Spread the cooled glaze onto the top and sides of the cake. Place into the refrigerator to firm up. Because of the Bavarian Cream, these should be stored in the refrigerator. Garnish as desired.

Bittersweet Glaze:

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream, sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from the heat, pour the cream over the chocolate and wait 1 minute, then whisk very gently, in ever-increasing circles, until the chocolate is melted and the glaze is smooth. Leave the glaze at room temperature until it is thick, but still pourable, a state it may take up to 4 hours to reach.

I waited a bit too long, I think. I waited almost the full 4 hours and my glaze has more of a frosting consistency. But it's still delicious!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Bananas for Bread

What's a girl to do? I'd just bought a large bunch of bananas, set them on the counter to induce my children to beg and whine piteously for them, rather than for cookies, and then a week of freakishly warm weather hit. 80 degrees in May? Pleasant, but it reduced my bright, yellow bananas to a mound of ominously spotted, squishy fruit. so, of course, I made banana bread.

Banana bread is all I know to do with left-over bananas. Other clever cooks whip up cakes, cookies, or some intimidating pastry. I make banana bread. I would hang my head in shame if my banana bread weren't so tasty. I love it. It's moist, tender, with a tasty crust and loaded with nuts. I found out my neighbors from the middle East love it too, so generally when I make it, I'll take a loaf over to them. I found out, not too long ago, that they think it's the only kind of bread l I know how to make. Oops, I guess I need to broaden my kitchen offerings to them.

I've tweaked this recipe a lot over the years and it's a little different every time I make it. I'll give it to you as I made it this time, but know that you can make a single loaf, or four loaves with it and add or subtract eggs based on how much banana mush you have. One thing I did differently this time was change out the shortening for butter and it was a change for the better. Good texture and better flavor.

Back when I was hung up on fats I replaced half the fat with yogurt. I left it that way because I like the moistness it imparts to the bread. If you're worried about fats, read this fascinating article. It made me feel better about all the butter I use in baking.

Better Banana Bread - makes two loaves

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Sift together:
3-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour*
1-1/2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt

Blend until creamy:
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup plain non-fat yogurt
1-1/3 cups sugar
1-1/2 tsp chopped lemon zest

Beat in:
3 beaten eggs
2 cups mushed, ripe bananas

Add the sifted ingredients in about 3 parts to the sugar mixture. Beat the batter after each addition until smooth.

Fold in:
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (toast them for an extra flavor punch)

Place batter in 2 greased loaf pans (I use 9x5) and bake about 1 hour, or until a cake tester in the center comes out clean. Remove to a cooling rack and try to wait for it to cool before slicing. But if you do, you'll miss out on the butter melting into your slice. Oh, I'm drooling. I'd better go cut myself another piece right now!

* You can substitute up to 1/2 cup of the flour with wheat germ for extra nutrition.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

When I Say Yes

I remember a television ad from my younger days. It showed the concerned, caring mother talking to another mother about making good snack choices for her children. She said, "When I say, 'Yes,' it's Hostess."

My sister and I thought this was hilarious. The idea that Twinkies were a good, healthy, snack was laughable, even then.

Recently I read a fascinating article about the ingredients in Twinkies and the sources of those ingredients and it was pretty scary. Food you eat and especially food you give your children shouldn't have more syllables than a stutterer reading Tolstoy's work in Russian.

However, reading the article reminded me that I have a Twinkie pan in my cupboard. It's one of those silly, one-use pans that doesn't get much use, but my family loves it when I remember it and make some home-made Twinkies.

My sweet mother-in-law bought me the pan from Williams Sonoma and I used the recipe that came with the pan for the cake part. I doubled the recipe, making 8 cakes in the Twinkie pan and 12 regular cupcakes. I wanted to show that you can make these, even if you don't have the special pan. I'd forgotten, though, that the special pan is super non-stick so that the cake will slide out easily. My muffin pan isn't and since I hadn't done a super job of greasing and flouring it, the muffin cakes had to be pried out, to their aesthetic detriment. Not bloggable, but still tasty.

The cake recipe makes a very moist, tender cake, but if you felt like using your favorite yellow cake recipe, I'm sure that would work fine, too.

Previously, I used the Williams Sonoma recipe for the filling, but it was kind of gluey and everyone in my family agreed it wasn't right. Other versions of the filling on the internet called for a shortening-based filling. I'm trying to steer away from hydrogenated fats (except my beloved Jif peanut butter which I just can't give up), so I looked at other options and decided on a Bavarian Creme for the filling. It's delicious! The cakes should be refrigerated since they have real cream filling, but they taste so much better than the original Twinkies, they won't be hogging space in your refrigerator for long. And isn't that better than nasty cakes that never go bad?

Twinkie Twins

2-1/4 cups cake flour
2-1/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 Tbsp vanilla
3 eggs
2 sticks unsalted butter
1-3/4 cups sugar

Have all the ingredients at room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 deg. F. Generously grease and flour Twinkie Pan and 12 muffins cups, or 24 muffin cups.

Over a sheet of waxed paper sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together the milk and vanilla; set aside.

In another small bowl, lightly whisk the eggs; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes more. Add the egg mixture in two additions, beating well after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk mixture and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat each addition just until incorporated, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Divide the batter among the wells of the prepared pan Bake until the cakelets spring back when touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dean, 17 to 20 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cakelets cool for 10 minutes. Invert the pan onto the rack, gently tap the pan bottom and lift off the pan. Let the cakelets cool completely.

To fill, spoon the filling into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip. Insert the tip 1 inch into the bottom of a cake. Gently squeeze the filling into the cake while slowly withdrawing the tip. Repeat in two more places along the bottom. Turn the cake over so that the filling holes are on the underside and place on a serving plate. Repeat with the remaining cakes and filling. Makes 16 Twinkies or 24 cupcakes.

Bavarian Cream Filling

2 Tbsp gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup white sugar
1 pinch salt
2 cups milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream

1- In a small bowl stir together the gelatin and cold water. Set aside to soften. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt until smooth.

2 - In a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, stir a small amount in to the egg yolk mixture, then stir the egg yolk mixture into the hot milk until well blended. Whisk in the softened gelatin and vanilla. Pour through a strainer into a bowl and allow to cool. If you're impatient, as I am, you can set the bowl inside a larger bowl that has ice and water in it. Stir the mixture so it will cool evenly.

3- When cooled to almost room temperature, whip the cream to medium stiffness and fold it into the mixture. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Perils of Parties

I've got some fun stuff to blog about this week, but it's still in process. So instead of a recipe today, you just get a story.

My father just turned 75 and his sister turned 80. They rarely see each other, living in different states, but for this special occasion decided to get together and have a party. Various siblings from other states came, too, making it something of a family reunion. My sister, the gracious and talented hostess, opened her home for the event. I called her this morning for the recap.

She said the ladies at the event had selected recipes and my sister's only responsibility was the sangria, the pork, and the sauce. The sangria went over well and soon everyone was outside talking and laughing. My sister headed back into the kitchen to make the pork, which had to be made last minute, and the sauce, which couldn't be made until the pork was cooked as it used the pork drippings.

Knowing that it was going to be hectic, my sister had prepped all the sauce ingredients, chopping and measuring into bowls on the counter. But despite her organization, the sauce wasn't working. Maybe it was tripling the recipe, maybe it was the sangria she'd had, but the sauce just wasn't coming together. Boiling and boiling, it still was a soupy mess.

When the recipe said to strain the sauce she did, straining out the expensive, out-of-season, hard-to-get cranberries and tossing them into the garbage can. Then, on closer inspection, the recipe picture clearly had cranberries in it. What? The recipe never said to set the cranberries aside. It never said to add them later. And if you weren't supposed to strain them out, what were you supposed to strain out??

Her husband came in to check on the dinner progress and she said, "Here, taste this." He did and right by the open window, with guests just on the other side of the window, he yelled, "This is vile!"

Tasting it, she agreed, and dumped the whole thing down the drain - the wine, the fresh sage, and the cranberries. Then she went to her pantry and pulled out a jar of Costco cranberry chipotle sauce, poured it into a crystal pitcher, and called, "Dinner's ready," while hissing to her husband, "Don't say a word!"

After dinner our mother sidled up to her and whispered, "Is this the recipe we'd decided on?" When she revealed that it was in fact Costo sauce she said, "Ah, I thought it tasted like that."

So, feeling frustrated and embarrassed my sister went into the disaster kitchen to clean up. That's when she found the pre-measured sugar in a bowl sitting on the counter. The cheapest ingredient that never made it into the sauce.

There are many morals one could draw from this story. Don't try out a new recipe for a party. Don't drink sangria when trying to triple a recipe. Don't offer to host a big party. Or, my favorite, when stressed, let Costco do the catering.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Jane Wooley Pizza

My daughter has a younger friend she occasionally plays with who told us that she's a vegetarian. Fine. Except she's a vegetarian that eats bacon and sausage, just not chicken. Hmmm. Sounds like a politcally correct excuse for just being a picky eater. I should know all about that, seeing as how I was the reigning champion picky eater in our family.

I think it's no coincidence that I'm the youngest child. After me, my poor mother must have said, "I can't take it anymore!" Trying to get me to try a new food was like pulling teeth. From a shark. I ate only hot dogs. Until I ate only hamburgers. I wouldn't try cheese until I was 8. Mushrooms were revolting. And cooked carrots with dill was obviously an attempt to poison me and ended in a standoff with me, lips clamped, staring at a plate of cold carrots for three hours.

The rule in our family was that you didn't have to eat everything on your plate, but you did at least have to try it. You couldn't know if you liked it or not until you tried it. But I found a way around that: Jane Wooley.

Jane Wooley was a friend that I played with once in a while. Her name became apocryphal in our house because it was invoked like a 'Get Out of Jail Free Card' whenever anything unpleasant was served. "I don't like that. I know, because I tried it at Jane Wooley's." This worked quite well until Jane Wooley moved. There was only so long I could keep playing the Jane Wooley card, then I had to actually try some different foods. And the funny thing was, once I muscled my way past the gag reflex, I liked some of them.

If Jane Wooley had stayed in my life I never would have eaten this pizza, and boy would I have been missing out. It's fabulous, my new favorite. Salty prosciutto, tangy marinated artichoke hearts, savory mushrooms, spicy salami, and smooth, gooey mozzarella cheese. A picky eater's nightmare, for sure, but my idea of pizza heaven.

Pizza Quattro Stagioni - adapted from Pizza to make one large pizza

1 recipe pizza dough from here or here

about 12 cremini mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground pepper
Prego spaghetti sauce or your favorite marinara
12 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced, drained on paper towels
about 10 oz. Prosciutto Di Parma slices
8-10 thin slices Genoa Salami
1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, thickly sliced and drained on paper towels
3 Tbsp pine nuts

1- Preheat oven to 450 deg. with rack in the center of the oven. Brush olive oil on the pizza pan.

2 - In a bowl, toss the sliced mushrooms with 1/4 cup olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange the mushrooms in a single layer in a small baking dish or ovenproof skillet. Roast until deep brown, about 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool slightly.

3 - Roll your dough into a circle to fit your pizza pan, transfer it to the pan, and pinch edges to form a rim.

4 - Spread the sauce evenly over the dough, obscuring the dough underneath, leaving a 1-inch border. Arrange the slices of mozzarella in a single layer over the sauce. Distribute the mushroom slices evenly over the top. Arrange the prosciutto and salami evenly over the mushrooms and scatter the artichoke slices over the top. Sprinkle pine nuts over the top.

5- Bake for about 20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven slice into wedges. If there is moisture on top of the pizza ( I didn't drain my artichoke hearts well enough and had a small lake), gently mop it up with paper towels.