Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Perfect Party Cake

One of the great things about having my daughter get married is that I now have another excuse to make a birthday cake. How fortuitous that the future son-in-law's birthday coincided with the Daring Baker's challenge to make Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake. I got the fun of making the cake and he got the fun of having a homemade birthday cake. And what a cake! I've been longing to make this cake for a while because the picture in the book (Baking, From My Home to Yours) is gorgeous. It's a fluffy, white cake, with snow white frosting, covered in coconut. Which is the reason I've never made the cake. My family all gags at coconut.

Thankfully, Morven of Food Art and Random Thoughts, the host for this month's challenge, allowed us to play with the recipe. I cheerfully omitted the coconut and added my freezer strawberry jam in between the layers.

I am not confident with this type of frosting. I'd only previously made it for the Yule Log. I'm not sure that I made it correctly. It wasn't fun to work with, but it tasted really good. I tried to carefully gauge how much frosting to put between the layers, but came up quite short when it was time to frost the outside. The future S-I-L watched in amusement as I fussed and fumed, trying to cover the cake with the inadequate supply of frosting. Finally, I decided creativity covers up a multitude of baking sins. Sliced strawberries covered up most of the cake, and a nest of shaved white chocolate neatly covers up the top. Bonus, the flavors all worked really well with the strawberry jam filling and the tart lemony flavor of the cake layers.

I loved the way the cake tasted and will definitely make it again. I need more work on the frosting, though. Thanks, Morven, for giving me a reason to try this wonderful recipe!

Check out all the other gorgeous variations on this delicious cake at the Daring Baker's Blogroll!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Bread

Fly Lady says some people are born organized. I'm one of the others. I have to write down a schedule on a piece of paper in order to be organized. But then I lose the piece of paper.

Recently I got all ambitious in the kitchen and decided to try three new recipes for dinner. Familiar recipes are no problem because I know about how long they'll take, but a new recipe can be loaded with pitfalls for the unwary. Phrases like "let the batter rest in the refrigerator overnight" or "let the dough rise again for 2 hours" play merry havoc with my attempts to get a meal to the table before bedtime. To attempt three new recipes for the same meal was just foolhardy.

The first one to come out of the oven was dessert. Well, that fits in well with my life motto - "Eat dessert first. Life's uncertain." That will probably go on my tombstone.

Next into the oven was the bread. While it was baking I turned to the "easiest" of the recipes, meatloaf. It was a recipe my daughter had brought home from her church group, raving about, and saying I needed to make it. It involved mixing up a lot of meat (3 lbs), patting it a jelly roll pan, then layering on basil leaves, proscuitto, cheese, and then rolling the whole thing up like a jelly roll. Easy enough at first glance, but the part I didn't read was the cook time. It took forever to cook. By the time it got to the oven we were already gnawing at our sleeves with hunger.

Then there was the bread I'd just pulled out of the oven. The wonderful aroma of fresh warm bread, mixed with the tang of the oozy, melted gruyere cheese was irresistible. We had glasses of wine with bread for dinner. By the time the meatloaf was done cooking we were so stuffed with fluffy slices of cheesy bread we had no room left for the meatloaf. All 4 lbs of the meatlog went into the refrigerator. But I'm not complaining. The bread made a fabulous dinner. And there was dessert.

Cheesy French Braid
adapted from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook

1 package active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 deg. F)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 tsp salt
3 eggs
1/2 cup butter, softened
3-1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
6 oz Swiss or Gruyere cheese, diced (about 1-1/2 cups)
Vegetable oil
1 egg yolk
2 Tbsp water

Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in sugar, salt, eggs, butter, and 2 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make the dough easy to handle.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in warm place until doubled, 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready if an indentation remains when you poke it.

Punch down dough. Turn dough onto counter, gently spreading into square. Sprinkle the cheese over the dough and knead it in until it's well distributed. Divide into 3 equal parts. Roll each part into a rope, 15 inches long. Place the ropes together on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Braid the ropes gently and loosely, being careful not to stretch. Pinch the ends together on each end; tuck under securely. Brush lightly with oil. Let rise until doubled, 40 to 50 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 deg. F and position oven rack below center of oven. Beat egg yolk and 2 Tbsp water slightly; brush over braid. Place in oven and bake until braid sounds hollow when tapped, 25 to 30 minutes. (If braid is browning too quickly, cover loosely with a tent of aluminum foil.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Taxman Cometh

The house I grew up in was very old and my bedroom was nestled up under the roof. The walls slanted up with the roofline, making it very difficult to put up cool posters, and there was a walk-in closet, which wasn't nearly as impressive as it sounds. It was an angled, odd-shaped little cubby with a bar for hanging clothes and a couple of shelves. I rearranged my bedroom furniture frequently, but whichever way I put my bed, the head always had to be facing the closet door. I didn't want anything to sneak out of the closet at night and catch me unawares. I'm not sure what exactly I feared would come out of the closet, but I was sure that it was the source of all nighttime menace and evil.

All of this was, of course, in my childhood. Long before I grew up and discovered the real source of menace and evil - the IRS. As children we're told "Be good or the bogeyman will get you." As adults we're told, "Be good, or you'll get audited." Frankly, the latter is the one that makes me quake in my bunny slippers.

I don't cheat on my taxes. But I fear that one day I'll get randomly audited and they'll discover I don't have receipts saved from a business trip 15 years ago and I'll be thrown into prison and never see my family again. Is this irrational? Perhaps. I'm not really able to discern what's rational when it concerns taxes.

So, in order to calm my fears and help me sleep at night, my husband has a guy look over our taxes to be sure all the t's are crossed, the i's dotted, and all the deductions verifiable. Last week the tax guy came. Being one of the long-range, planning type of people, I was up 5 hours past my bedtime the night before, adding up columns of numbers, trying to figure out which numbers went where, and generally cursing the whole fiddly process of tax extraction.

Bleary eyed, I arose early the next morning and made a coffee cake. Dealing with numbers requires caffeine and a generous helping of carbs and I think this coffee cake satisfied the carb requirement very well. It has a moist, soft cake base, rich with cream cheese and a dreamy almond flavor that complements the apples on top beautifully. Since they are on top for the baking, the apples get almost a dried apple texture, which was very interesting. I think next time I make this, I'll try putting the apples on the bottom to see how that works. Either way, it's a delicious way to gird yourself for any difficult task. Or just to start a pleasant morning off even better.

Apple and Cream Cheese Coffee Cake
adapted from America's Best Recipe's - 1989

1/2 cup butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp almond extract
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 cups peeled, sliced cooking apples
2 Tbsp lemon juice

Cream butter and cream cheese in the a large bowl. Gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating at medium speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Stir in almond extract.

Combine 1-3/4 cups flour, baking powder, soda, and salt in a medium bowl; add flour mixture to creamed mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix well after each addition.

Pour batter into a greased and floured 9 x 13 -inch pan. In a small bowl combine 1/2 cup sugar, 2 Tbsp flour, and cinnamon. Dip apple slices in lemon juice, then combine apple slices and cinnamon mixture, tossing gently to coat well. Arrange apple slices on tjoop of batter. Bake at 350 deg. F. for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm. Serves 12.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Playing With Marbles

When I was a wee tike my mother, in an effort to encourage my growth and development, and possibly to get me out of her hair, enrolled me in summer classes at the YWCA. I took creative movement which I loved. We got to swish like a washing machine, swim through honey, and flop like limp noodles. And I looked at it as my first step toward becoming a ballerina.

Another year I got to take an art class which was awesome. All of the projects were designed so that with limited art abilities a student could produce something to feel proud of. We pressed thin copper sheets into molds to make raised pictures which we mounted onto boards and shellacked. Mine, of course, was a ballerina. We did string art. And we made ceramics. I loved transforming liquidy gloop into a shape that was then painted, glazed, and fired. I still have the little fox I made with hand-painted accents.

I get a thrill when something I create is lovely. And my family knows I get very grumpy when a kitchen creation turns out.....on the homely side. Even if it's delicious, I pout if it's not a feast for the eyes as well, which happens rather more than I'd care to admit.

These bars were such fun to make. The shortbread base and oozy caramel layer were easy to put together, and I felt like I was back in art class swirling the melted chocolate around on the top. What a bonus that they're delicious, too!

Marbled Bars - adapted from The Cookie Book by Catherine Atkinson, Joanna Farrow and Valerie Barrett

For the base:

2-1/4 cups (9 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (3 oz) superfine sugar*
3/4 cup (6 oz) butter, softened

For the filling:
7 Tbsp (3-1/2 oz) butter, diced
1/2 cup (3-1/2 oz) light brown sugar
2 x 14 oz cans sweetened condensed milk

For the topping:
3-1/2 oz semisweet chocolate
2-1/2 oz milk chocolate
2 oz white chocolate

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Line a 13 x 9-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper and lightly grease it. (I don't own a jelly roll pan this size, so just used a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.)

*If you don't have superfine sugar on hand, just put granulated sugar in your food processor and whir it around until it's fine.

2- Put the flour and superfine sugar into a food processor and blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Continue pulsing until the mixture comes together and forms a dough. This step can also be done with your hands.

3- Put the dough into the prepared pan and press it out with your hand to cover the base. Then use the back of a tablespoon to smooth it and press it evenly into the pan. Prick all over with a fork and bake for about 20 minutes, or until firm to the touch and very light brown. Set aside and leave it in the pan to cool.

4 - To make the filling, put the butter, brown sugar and condensed milk into a pan and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stirring constantly, bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture very gently, stirring constantly, for about 5 - 10 minutes, or until it has thickened and has turned a caramel color. Take care that the mixture does not burn on the base of the pan, as this will spoil the flavor. Remove from the heat.

5 - Pour the filling mixture over the cookie base, spread evenly, then leave until cold.

6 - To make the topping, melt each type of chocolate separately in a microwave or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of hot water. Spoon stripes about 2 inches wide of semisweet and milk chocolate down the length of the pan, alternating semisweet and milk chocolate.

7- Place spoonfuls of the white chocolate randomly over the top. Using a skewer (I couldn't find one, so I used a pointed chopstick), drag the tip through the chocolates, swirling to form the marbled effect.

Allow the top to cool thoroughly before slicing. Cut into 24, this makes generous sized bars. If you cut each bar into thirds, they make dainty nibbles.

Note: When I made them, the few bars that remained and sat overnight had the chocolate bloom (greyish color rises to the surface). I'm pretty sure tempering the chocolate would have prevented that, but I'm no expert at all in tempering chocolate, so....if you know how to, you might try it here. Or just make sure all the bars are eaten the first day!


The winner in the Spot Marilyn Contest is Melinda! She was the first to get the correct number of Marilyn references in my post Gentlement Prefer Blondies. Way to go, Melinda! Your lame prize is on it's way to you right now!

Monday, March 17, 2008


I've been away for a bit. Please excuse my absence - I've been on safari. Yes, the fabulous Bread Baking Babes and I put on our pith helmets and hip waders and went hunting crocodiles. What an adventure!

We went in search of the ferocious Coccodrillo Crocodile Bread, a bread dreamed up about thirty years ago by Gianfranco Anelli, a baker in Rome, and named for it's bumpy texture. Although it's rustic in appearance, it uses modern kitchen appliances to create its structure. thirty minutes of continuous stirring, to be precise. Would you like to do that by hand? Not me. My arm would fall off!

The bread takes 3 days to make, although it only involves minutes of time for the first two days. It was quite an experience. I've never worked with a dough quite like this before. It was a cross between soup and Silly Putty. The long beating period creates long, looooong gluten strands that barely hold the soup together.

There was much discussion between the Bread Baking Babes about which flour was best to use. I mail ordered durum flour from King Arthur flour but forgot to figure out what unbleached stone-ground flour was. It must have been early in the morning because I decided that my stone-ground whole wheat flour would do the trick. (Jungle drums of doom start playing here.) You'll have to visit all the other Babes' sites to see the wonderfully fluffy crocs they captured. Mine is more of a hearty, hippie whole-wheaty croc. It was good, but I'd like to try it again with the right flour to see what it's supposed to be like. My crust stayed soft and the inside was almost gummy.

Oh, and I forgot to set the timer. (Jungle drums reach a crescendo here.) I did set the timer, but my timer has this annoying design where the "clear button" is where the start button should be, so I set the timer, hit start (I think), and walk away. When I go back to check a while later, the timer says zero and the bread is starting to burn on top. Aieeeeee!

Shaping the dough is a joke. You can try to make a tidy circle, but you'll just be frustrated. It oozes wherever it wants, perhaps injesting small towns along the way.

Cutting the dough is equally challenging. The two halves like being together and don't appreciate your efforts to separate them!

But the trickiest part by far was getting the dough onto the preheated stone. I sprinkled the stone with cornmeal which promptly started to scorch, smelling up my kitchen like burned movie theater popcorn. Then as I tried to gently turn and lift the halves, they writhed like a gator on the hook, thrashing around until seared by the heat of the stone. As soon as they hit the oven, the two halves tried to return to each other, so I ended up with conjoined crocs. Fortunately, the surgery to separate them was cheap and painless.

My family enjoyed the bread and I even got a request to make it again, so it must have been OK. I think I'll stay away from whole wheat if I re-make it, though.

If you love bread baking and you love a challenge, you're more than welcome to bake with us and become a Bread Baking Buddie and earn yourself a BBB-badge. How? Click here to find out. The hosting kitchen of the month is Lien of Notitie van Lien. Thanks, Lien, for a fun adventure in baking!

Be sure to check out the other Bread Baking Babes crocodiles!

Bake My Day (Karen), Cookie Baker Lynn (Lynn), Lucullian Delights (Ilva), My Kitchen in Half Cups (Tanna), Notitie van Lien (Lien), The Sour Dough (Mary aka Breadchick), Thyme of Cooking (Katie), What Did You Eat (Sher)

Coccodrillo Crocodile Bread

Makes 2 large loaves


1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup (35 grams) King Arthur durum flour
3/4 cup (90 grams) Bob’s Red Mill unbleached stone-ground flour

Step One (this becomes first starter):
In the morning, stir yeast into water: let stand until dissolved about 10 minutes.
Add flours, stir with wooden spoon (about 50 strokes) or mixer about 30 seconds. I stirred until this was almost smooth but not lump free.
Let stand 12 to 24 hours.
Starter should be bubbly and sweet smelling.


1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 1/4 cups water, room temperature
1/2 cup (70 grams) King Arthur durum flour
1 1/2 cups (180 grams) Bob’s Red Mill unbleached stone-ground flour

Step Two (with the first starter, this becomes second starter):
In the morning, on the second day, again dissolve yeast in water allow to stand about 10 minutes.
Add water, flours and dissolved yeast to the first starter.
Mix with a wooden spoon or the paddle of the electric mixer until smooth. Again this was not lump free.
Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment another 12 to 24 hours.


1/4 cup (35 grams) King Arthur durum flour
1 to 1 1/4 cups unbleached stone-ground flour
18 grams salt

The next day, add the durum flour and 1 cup unbleached flour to the starter in a mixer bowl; mix with the paddle on the lowest speed for 17 minutes. Add the salt and mix 3 minutes longer, adding the remaining flour if needed for the dough to come together. You may need to turn the mixer off once or twice to keep it from overheating.

First Rise. Pour the dough into a Hammarplast bowl or a wide mouthed large bowl placed on an open trivet on legs or on a wok ring so that air can circulate all around it. Loosely drape a towel over the top and let rise at about 70° F, turning the dough over in the bowl every hour, until just about tripled, 4 or 5 hours.

Shaping and Second Rise. Pour the wet dough onto a generously floured surface. Have a mound of flour nearby to flour your hands, the top of the oozy dough, and the work surface itself. This will all work fine-appearances to the contrary-but be prepared for an unusually wet dough. Make a big round shape of it by just folding and tucking the edges under a bit. Please don't try to shape it precisely; it's a hopeless task and quite unnecessary. Place the dough on well, floured parchment or brown paper placed on a baking sheet or peel. Cover with a dampened towel and let rise until very blistered and full of
air bubbles, about 45 minutes.

Baking. Thirty minutes before baking, heat the oven with a baking stone in it to 475° F. You can also put a shallow pan in the bottom to preheat, then after putting the bread in, toss in a few ice cubes to steam up the oven. Just before baking, cut the dough in half down the center with a dough scraper; a knife would tear the dough. Gently slide the 2 pieces apart and turn so that the cut surfaces face upward. Sprinkle the stone with cornmeal. If you feel brave, slide the paper with the dough on it onto the stone, but the dough can also be baked directly on the baking sheet. When the dough has set, slide the paper out. Squirt some water into the oven to create more steam. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on a rack.

(The transferring problem can be fixed by scooting each half of the dough onto a piece of parchment paper and then transferring the parchment directly to your stone. This would also save the cornmeal scorching kitchen smelling like popcorn step.)

From: The Italian Baker by Carol Field

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gentlemen Prefer Blondies

My husband switched groups at work and asked me if I could make something for him to take in to his new co-workers. I had a recipe I'd been wanting to try, so of course I was happy to oblige. I am always up for a brownie, but I wanted to change things up a bit with this delicious blondie, stuffed with vanilla chips and walnuts.

My husband had been introducing his co-workers to my blog so they were anticipating food from the cookie baker. When he brought in the container, eyes lit up, faces perked up, and the blondies vanished in a flash. He reported back that they were appreciated, and that I had one marriage proposal and one offer of adoption.

Since I already have a husband, and I think it's tacky to propose to someone via their own husband, I'll politely decline that offer. Also, I have a wonderful father, so, thank you, no, for the adoption offer.

You can see that having a recipe like this in your arsenal is a powerful weapon. If you want to know how to marry a millionaire, try baking him some of these. They may seem like misfits in a world dominated by brownies, but that makes them stand out. Seriously, even a prince would fall for a showgirl if she was hanging out at the bus stop holding a plate of these.

This is one of those bars that is addictive. My husband was happy to take them to work because if they'd stayed in our house he would have eaten the whole pan. You might find you make a habit of making these often, or just every seven years or so, when the itch strikes. It's just possible, too, that they might lead to a little monkey business, so be careful how you wield this great power!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondies

1 12 oz. bag vanilla chips (or white chocolate)
6 Tbsp butter
3 eggs
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 375 deg. F. Line a 9 x 9-inch pan with parchment paper so that the ends of the paper extend over the edges of the pan. This will make it easy to remove the blondies from the pan. Make sure the corners are folded into place.

2. Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Place 3-1/2 oz. of the vanilla chips with the butter in the bowl and stir till melted. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

3. Put the eggs and light brown sugar into a large bowl and whisk well, then whisk in the melted white chocolate mixture.

4. Sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl and gently fold in along with the chopped walnuts, vanilla extract and the remaining vanilla chips. Be careful not to overmix.

5. Spread the mixture out in the prepared pan and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until risen and golden brown. The center should be firm to the touch but will be slightly soft until it cools.

6. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack to cool. When the blondies are completely cool, use the parchment paper to carefully lift the whole thing from the pan and set it on a cutting board to slice it into bars.

Notes: I was not thinking when I grabbed a pan to make these and only realized after they'd baked that I'd used an 8 x 8-inch pan. They came out a little taller and a little gooier than the recipe intended, but still delicious. Also, for attractive, evenly sliced bars, be sure to wait till they're completely cool. But if you can't wait, I don't blame you. Some like it hot.

(If you're a Marilyn Monroe fan, tell me in your comment how many references you spotted. There might be a lame prize involved.)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Here pig!

A friend of mine used to work in a supermarket bakery. She told me the part of the job that she hated most was putting out samples. Instead of saying over the store intercom, "Attention shoppers, we have samples of our delicious fudge cake back in the bakery. Come try some," she wanted to shout "Soooeeeeeeee, pig, pig!" like a hog farmer putting slop in the trough so all the little piggies would come running.

This thought made me laugh until one day I realized I am one of those little piggies. Unless I'm really hungry, I can pass by the sample tables with no problem, but there is one that's my downfall. At Whole Foods they have amazing little lemon poppyseed scones and the first thing I do when I get there is to see if they have any samples out. If they do I snag one for myself. And two for the kids with me, who then complain that they didn't get theirs. So I send them back to get their own. "And pick up one for me, while you're there," I sing out after them. Oh, oinkie me.

The last time I went to Whole Foods, they had no samples out. None! Perhaps security spotted me getting out of my car in the parking lot and they radioed ahead so the bakery staff could whisk all the samples out of sight. Whatever the reason, I was out of luck in the lemon poppyseed scone department. Denied! A reasonable person, at that point, would probably just purchase a package of the treats to take home. I am not that person. Instead I went home sans scones and did an internet search for lemon poppyseed scones. I found one on Epicurious, I made it, and cured the craving. Ha ha, take that Whole Foods!

The scones, as made per the recipe turned out really big, like Starbucks size scones. I prefer mine dainty, so I'll give you the recipe as I'm going to make it next time. If you want gigantor scones, just divide the whole ball of dough into eight pieces.

Sooeeee Scones
adapted from Epicurious

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp poppy seeds
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp kosher salt
10 Tbsp chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup whole milk

1- Preheat oven to 375 deg. F. Position rack in the upper third of the oven.

2- Mix flour, 1 cup sugar, poppy seeds, baking powder, lemon peel, and salt in food processor.

3 - Add butter and ccut in, using short pulses, until mixture resembles coarse meal.

4- Whisk egg and lemon juice in medium bowl to blend. Add this to the flour mixture in the food processor.

5- Process, using short pulses, until moist clumps form.

6 - Add 1/3 cup milk. Use short pulses, just until dough comes together, adding more milk if dough seems dry.

7 - Scrape dough out onto a floured surface. Divide dough into 3 equal parts.

8 - Shape each 1/3 into a ball, then flatten it into a round, about 2 to 3 inches across.

9 - Cut each round into 8 wedges. Transfer wedges to a large baking sheet; brush with milk. Sprinkle the tops with remaining Tbsp sugar. If they seem crowded, use 2 baking sheets, position them in the upper and lower third of the oven, and rotate them top to bottom halfway through cooking. The scones will spread out while baking.

7 - Bake until scones are light golden brown and a tester inserted into center comes out clean. The cook time for 8 large scones is about 25 minutes, so start checking after 15 minutes for little scones.

8 - Transfer scones to a cooling rack.

9 - These can be made a day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Variation: Instead of sprinkling with sugar, try a drizzle of lemon glaze on top.

And now, a little bit of back business. A while ago, the lovely Aimee of Under The Highchair awarded me an E is for Excellence award.

Thanks, Aimee! I can hardly believe that people come here to read my ramblings and I'm blushing to receive this award. I'd like to pass it along to several bloggers who consistently impress me with the quality of their blogs.

Deborah of Taste and Tell, who always dishes up something delicious
Gigi of GigiCakes, who makes delighful and charming things to eat
VeggieGirl for her boundless enthusiasm for all things vegan
The Recipe Girl for her delicious recipes and great outlook
LyB of And Then I Do the Dishes, who has had amazing photos and mouthwatering recipes from the start

I enjoy you all so much and am proud to pass on this award to you. Also, be sure to go to Under The Highchair and check out the amazingly beautiful project Aimee's been working on!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Signs of Spring

I was always told that the first sighting of a robin red breast meant that spring was on the way. That may well have been true in the mountainous desert climate where I grew up, but I was puzzled when I moved to the temperate Northwest to see robins year round.

Around here, the real harbinger of spring pokes it's little head out as soon as the first green shoots struggle out of the ground. And it eats them. The Northwest harbinger of spring is not a groundhog or a robin, it's a slug. Planting dainty, little starter plants in the ground is the same thing as putting peanuts in a squirrel feeder. It's the dinner bell ringing for the slugs.

Frankly, slugs creep me out. They're slimy, oozy, and disgusting. Sure they might be just what an old-growth forest needs to help break down the detritus, which is why they grow up to a foot long there, but seriously, what higher purpose is served by my lettuce being eaten for me? I suppose that leaves me more room for dessert, but I'm still not going to thank the slugs.

Recently I've been on a bread baking binge. Inspired by the fun of making the French bread, I somewhat randomly decided to make ciabatta bread. It was a whim, a no pressure situation, so I just had fun with it.

Ciabatta dough is wet. None of the "knead and add flour till it's smooth as a baby's bum" here. This dough has to be handled with care so that the big bubbles that develop during the rising are preserved. I always got graded down in home-ec because my muffins had tunnels, and now I want big bubbles. Hmmm.

I made my ciabatta and as the loaves sat on the counter cooling I thought how much they looked like slugs. When my daughter, who sees life in the same humorously twisted way that I do, came in, she thought of slugs, as well. So we dressed up this guy and named him Horace. Terry Pratchett fans will understand why.

Although I was initially disappointed in how flat the bread turned out, I decided that's pretty much how it's meant to be. And of all the slugs I've eaten, (none), this is by far the most delicious. It has a nice crust to crumb ratio and is chewy without causing the gums to bleed. And with bowls of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip the bread in, my family ate it all in under two days.

adapted from Bread, by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno

for the starter-
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2/3 cup water
3 tbsp millk
1/4 tsp honey or sugar
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp bread flour

for the dough-
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 cup water
1/2 tbsp olive oil
2-1/2 cups bread flour
1-1/2 tsp salt

1- To make the starter - sprinkle the yeast into the water and milk in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes, then add the honey or sugar and stir to dissolve.

2- Mix in the flour to form a loose, smooth batter. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rise for 12 hours or overnight. In the morning it should be full of bubbles.

3- To make the dough - sprinkle the yeast into the water in a small bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve. Add the dissolved yeast and olive oil to the starter and mix well.

4- Mix in the flour and salt to form a wet, sticky dough. Beat steadily with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes. If you have growing children, give them a turn to help build strong muscles. Plus it will give your weary arm a rest. The dough will become springy and start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but will remain too soft to knead.

5- Cover the dough with a dish towel and place the bowl in a warm spot; about 70 degrees is good. Let rise until tripled in size and full of air bubbles, about 3 hours. Do not punch down the dough. Generously flour two baking sheets and have ready extra flour to dip your hands in.

6-Use a dough scraper to divide the dough in half while in the bowl. Scoop half the dough out of the bowl onto one of the heavily floured baking sheets. I used a rubber spatula to help scrape the dough out. This is the part where you need to be particularly careful to not pop those beautiful bubbles that have formed.

7 - Use well-floured hands to pull and stretch the dough to form a roughly rectangular loaf, about 12 inches long. Dust the loaf and your hands again with flour. Neaten and plump up the loaf by running your fingers down each side and gently tucking under the edges of the dough.

8 - Repeat step 7 with the other half of the dough. Leave the two loaves uncovered to proof for about 20 minutes; the loaves will spread out as well as rise. Preheat your oven to 425 deg. F. with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

9- Place the baking sheets in the preheated oven. You can use a water misting bottle to spray mist into the oven against the oven walls to create a nice, steamy environment to help the bread rise. This is optional. Bake for 30 minutes until the bread is risen, golden, and hollow sounding when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Domestic Volcanoes

When I get a craving for a particular food it's like an itch. I can ignore it for a bit, then it's back stronger. I can try other foods that are like the craved item, but they don't quite hit the spot. The itch won't go away until I've made just what I've been craving.

The other day I thought about chocolate cake. I like chocolate cake. I always have. I have a philosophy about chocolate. It's good. And when you put more chocolate on it, it's better. So chocolate cake with chocolate frosting is a favorite. And after I'd thought of chocolate cake I thought about how much I'd like to have a piece of chocolate cake. After eating a handful of chocolate chips, a mini Snickers bar, and a piece of bread with Nutella on it, I decided to do my waist a favor and just make a chocolate cake.

I had my copy of Barefoot Contessa At Home on the counter and flipped it open to a picture of a double layer, deep, dark, chocolatey cake with delicious, chocolate frosting. Yummm. Yes, that would definitely hit the spot!

I set to work and in no time had the batter made. As I poured the batter into the cake pans, I thought that they seemed quite full, but maybe this was a cake that didn't rise much. I slid the cake layers into the oven and set the timer. Then I went downstairs to do a few things and when I came up again, why was I smelling smoke??? I looked in the oven and was horrified to see my cake layers had turned into twin volcanoes, spewing molten cake lava onto the bottom of the oven. I quickly stuck a cookie sheet onto the bottom rack of the oven to catch the rest and opened a window to let out the smoke.

What had happened to my cake? I reviewed the recipe step by step and I'd measured and done just as instructed. We made the best of the situation, eating the cake with whipped cream (I wasn't going to bother trying to frost such an ungainly cake) and it tasted just fine. But I was perplexed. Was it me? Was it the recipe?

So when I talked to my sister, who I knew had the same cookbook, I asked if she'd ever made the cake. I don't think so, she said. I described the cake making process to her and when I reached the part about the cake pans looking full, she said, Yes, Yes! She'd made that cake and had the same thing happen to her. And then she'd called a baking friend who'd recommended the cake and complained. That friend had had the same experience and forgot to warn her.

Aha! It was the recipe! So, as a public service to my readers, not at all because I still was wanting chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, I made the cake again. This time using 9-inch cake pans instead of the 8-inch called for in the recipe. Worked like a charm.

So if you've got Barefoot Contessa At Home, go get your copy right now, before you forget, open to page 165, cross out 8-inch and write in 9-inch for the cake pans. And then make the cake. You know you want it. Dark chocolate with just a hint of coffee. Nothing else will satisfy, so get baking!

Mocha Non-Volcano Cake
adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup good cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line them with parchment paper, then butter and flour them.

Sift flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With the mixer still on low, add the cofee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.

Set the pans on a cooling rack and cool in the pans for 30 minutes. Loosen the edges by running a knife around the inside, if needed, turn the cake onto a plate, peel the parchment paper off the bottom, then turn the cake onto a cooling rack to finish cooling.

When the layers are completely cooled, place one layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, roudned side up, and sspread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.

Chocolate Frosting

6 oz. good semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1-1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 Tbsp instant coffee powder

Place a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water and place the chopped chocolate inside. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 tsp of the hottest tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Don't whip! Spread immediately on the cooled cake.