Saturday, May 31, 2008

May Showers

I've had some people ask how Sarah's shower was and whether or not I was going to share pictures. In particular, one friend who's been housebound with plaster on her foot. How could I say no to an invalid? So here's a brief recap of the shower, with recipe at the end.

It was a tea party, so we put together a delightful collection of tea pots and cups. One of the tea pots (the one with the flowers) was a wedding present sent all the way from England by my delightful twin from another mother, Melinda.

We had an assortment of teas to choose from. Each guest got to select her own cup and tea. Please pardon the tacky tea bags! I really need someone from England to come show me how it's done properly.

Along with the opera cake (see previous post), we had plenty of food to sustain us through the shower. The hostess provided small tea sandwiches and I brought lemon-glazed madeleines which were a big hit. With their dainty size and zip of citrus, it was hard to stop at one. Good thing there were plenty!

When women gather in groups, it's an unwritten law that there must also be chocolate present. So I made chocolate-glazed brownie bites. These are dense and delicious enough for any chocoholic. The only thing I didn't think through till after I'd made them is that they have an almond flavor to them, which on it's own is nice. But served alongside the opera cake, which was predominantly almond-flavored, it was a bit much. If I had a do-over on this, I'd have left out the almond flavoring and let the brownies just be pure chocolate bliss.

And, of course, there were presents. Lots of presents. And, oddly, most of them were for the kitchen. Hmmm, does everyone who knows her think she's going to become some mad, baking-obsessed woman who lives in the kitchen? I wonder where anyone might get that idea?

There were a couple of non-traditional party games. When we got our name tags they each had two tiny clothes pins on them. If you could make someone say the words dress, wedding, apartment, or Sam, then you could take one of their clothes pins away. The one with the most clothes pins at the end of the shower got a prize. I lost my clothes pins almost immediately.

If I'd been allowed to play, I would have done much better at the next game. It was a video of Sam posing a string of true or false questions about The Relationship of Sarah and Sam. There were some tricky questions, but I would have aced it.

It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and Sarah was happy to have so many friends come to shower her with love.

Chocolate Toffee Brownie Bites
- adapted from The Good Cookie by Tish Boyle

Makes 24 brownie bites


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract


5 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp heavy cream
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/3 cup almond brickle chips

1- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 deg. F. Using either a 24 cup mini-muffin pan or two 12 cup pans, grease them well and dust them with flour.

2- In the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water, combine the butter and chocolate and heat: stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and cool until tepid.

3- Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Stir to make sure it's well combined.

4- Stir the sugar, eggs, vanilla, and almond extract into the cooled chocolate mixture until well combined. Add the flour mixture and stir until blended.

5 - Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, filling them 2/3 full. Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until set but still soft in the center; a toothpick inserted into the center should come out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. With brownies a clean toothpick means overbaked, dry, hard brownies. Not good. Let the brownies cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert the brownies onto the rack, removing them from the pan, and cool completely.

6 - In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, combine the chocolate, cream, and corn syrup and heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the brickle bits.

7 - Place the rack with the brownies on it over a baking sheet. Arrange the brownies, still inverted, so that they are no more than 1/4 inch apart. Pour the glaze over the bites, covering the tops and sides. Use a small offset metal spatula to smooth glaze over any exposed spots. Refrigerate until the glaze is set, about 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Let's Go to the Opera

When my daughter's maid of honor said she'd like to have a tea party bridal shower for Sarah, I volunteered to bake up a few things. I'd pictured making some fancy little cakes to serve to the 5 or 6 people that would come. When I called her the week before to double check on the guest count, I went pale when she told me 24. I'm not a math genius, but even I can figure out that 24 is 4 times more than 6, the number of holes in my fancy mini cake pan.

I opened up cookbook after cookbook, fretting. Most cakes serve 10, 12 or maybe 16 for an ultrarich cake. 24 would almost certainly have to be a sheet cake. Piffle. And while I was searching for the elusive perfect recipe, I was also fretting over the Daring Baker challenge I'd just received. Ridiculous amounts of work for a huge cake....that serves 20. I could feel the "aha" moment in my brain. Yes! I'd make the Opera Cake for the shower.

This is an intimidating recipe with 5 different components: a joconde (a cake layer), a syrup (to wet the joconde), a buttercream (to fill some of the layers), a ganache or mousse (to top the final cake layer) and a glaze (to cover the final layer of cake or of ganache/mousse). I was starting to freak out about it the enormity of the task when Tanna, the experienced baker of My Kitchen In Half cups gave me the calming advice, "It's just a cake. Just take it step by step."

When viewed that way, it was still daunting, but not impossible. I assembled the ingredients, figured out a timeline, then set to work. All was coming together smoothly until the buttercream. I beat and beat and beat that stuff, but it wouldn't come together. It had the consistency of maple syrup. Almost in tears with the thought of having to toss it out and redo, I went to the Daring Baker's website and read under the heading of Runny Buttercream. Many of the comments dealt with temperature, so I figured there was nothing to lose by sticking it in the refrigerator for a few hours. That worked perfectly! It was nice and stiff and after a little beating came together beautifully.

I didn't have two half-sheet cake pans, so I used two jelly roll pans. That worked well. Using the larger pans would result in thinner layers, but mine looked fine, I thought. For flavoring I stayed with almond, but added some lemon zest to the white chocolate ganache. The flavors worked really well together, the zest adding just a sparkle of citrus to the creamy white chocolate and almond.

The cake cut well when chilled and with a sprinkling of edible gold glitter made a fabulous presentation at the party. Rave reviews all around. A big thank you to this month's hosts, Ivonne at CreamPuffsInVenice and Lis at LaMiaCucina and Daring Bakers Fran at Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie and Shea at Whiskful, for this fun and timely challenge! (The recipe is loooong, so I'm not posting it here. If you'd like to take on the Opera Cake for yourself, check it out at any of our hosts' websites.)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Citrus Peace Offering

When the gracious and talented Helen of Tartelette announced that she was hosting Sugar High Friday, the monthly event created by Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess, with a theme of Citrus, I went into a citrus frenzy. Flipping through cookbook after cookbook, I looked for just the right recipe. This cake, that cookie, or those tarts? I was getting a little overwhelmed with choices when out of the blue my husband said, "You know what I miss? Those little lime cookies with powdered sugar on them."

Hmm, lime coolers. Yes, that could be good. Now for a recipe. My husband and I were on different computers in different rooms of the house IMing each other as we searched. I had a head start and each time he'd send me a link, it would be for something that I'd already looked at and rejected. I'd point out that powdered sugar was not an ingredient, and the links he was sending me with pictures of powdered sugar laden cookies were for cookies that you purchased. Due to the lag in IM, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the conversation. I ended up SHOUTING at him that he wasn't listening and I wasn't making the cookies. Then I slammed my laptop shut, the equivalent of stalking out of a door and slamming it behind you.

An argument over cookies? Rare, but it happens. But it didn't last. The next day in the paper I saw a recipe in the paper for lemon coolers. A sign from God to get over it? Yes. I dropped the pout, (actually it didn't last a full day), and modified the recipe to make it with limes and my husband was really pleased. A new favorite is born and peace reigns once again in the home of the cookie baker.

Lime Cooler Cookies

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, divided
1 tsp finely grated lime zest
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter, softened
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Line two cookie sheets with either parchment paper or Silpat.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar and lime zest. Add the butter and vanilla; beat, either with a mixer or a wooden spoon, until a dough forms.

Drop dough by generous teaspoons onto the cookie sheet, spacing evenly. Bake one sheet at a time for about 15 minutes, until cookie bottoms are golden brown. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.

Place the remaining 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar in a quart or gallon-sized zip-loc bag. Working with a dozen at a time, drop cookies into the sugar and shake to coat. The cookies must be completely cooled, or the powdered sugar will form slag. The lime cookies can be stored in an airtight tin for up to 1 week, but most likely they’ll be eaten much sooner than that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


A friend of mine is a tri-athlete. When she did a half-triathlon last year in Hawaii I was so impressed by the training and dedication that she put in to compete solidly in each area. It takes entirely different skill sets to do each element of a triathlon.

In a way (a much less exhausting way), being a food blogger is kind of like that. To put together a good blog you have to have skills in cooking/baking, photography, food styling, and writing, and to put it all together, computer savvy. My least favorite of all of these areas is the computer part.

I love playing around in the kitchen. Baking is my favorite thing to do. I'm slowly learning about photography. Painfully slowly, my daughter might say. In the food styling department I confess that I'm a shameless plagiarist; I look at cookbooks and other people's blogs for ideas on how to make the food look appealing. Writing is a lot of fun for me, and is actually one of the reasons I started this blog. But computers, oh, I do not shine there.

You see, I am learning resistant. I do not like to learn anything I do not have to. And since I live with a wonderful guy who happens to be Mr. Tech Support, I don't have to know much at all about computers. So the part about blogging where I actually have to put up a post, put in links, and insert pictures can have me pulling out my hair. Which is not a good thing, as it's thin enough already.

As I was fussing and fighting with my last post, it occurred to me (not for the first time) that I'd be doomed without Mr. Tech Support, so I'd better treat him right and make sure he stays around. He's been battling Blogger's Bloat, and while he'd be the last person to ask that I stop making his favorite treats, I could do him a favor and make lighter treats from time to time.

These cookies have a moist, cakey texture that comes from applesauce. I tasted the applesauce when the cookies were plain, but once frosted, the flavor receded. I really liked the texture contrast between the firm glaze and the soft cookie. They work very well for a coffee break or at tea-time. Or after school. Or for dessert. And since only 17% of the calories come from fat, you can feel virtuous while you munch.

Black and White Cake Cookies
- adapted from All New Complete Cooking Light Cookbook

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup applesauce
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large egg whites


1-1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided
3 Tbsp 2% milk, divided
1/4 tsp almond extract
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa (Dutch processed will give a darker look)

1- Preheat oven to 375 deg. F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- Place a fine sieve over a small bowl and spoon the applesauce into it. Let is stand for 15 minutes to drain the liquid. Discard the liquid.

3- While the applesauce drains, lightly spoon flour into measuring cups, level with a knife. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

4 - Combine drained applesauce, granulated sugar, and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed 2 minutes or until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg whites. Add flour mixture; beat at low speed until blended.

5- Drop dough by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto prepared baking sheets. Baket at 375 deg. F for 10 minutes or until set (not browned). Cool on pans 2 minutes or until firm. Remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks.

6- To prepare the frosting, combine 3/4 cup powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp milk, and almond extract in a bowl, stirring well with a whisk until smooth. Working with one cookie at a time, hold cookie over bowl, and spread about 1 tsp white frosting over half of the cookie, scraping excess from the edges. Let stand for 10 minutes or until frosting is set.

7 - Combine 3/4 cup powdered sugar and cocoa in a bowl. Gradually add 2 Tbsp milk, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Working with one cookie at a time, hold cookie over bowl, and spread about 1 tsp chocolate frosting over other half of cookie scraping excess frosting from edges. Let stand 10 minutes or until frosting is set. Makes about 2 dozen.

Store in an airtight container and place waxed paper between layers. Or just eat them right away.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Miche-on Impossible

Glancing furtively side to side, I checked to make sure I hadn't been followed. Ducking into the book seller's shop I threaded through the tottering stacks of books to the gloom at the back. Following the instructions I'd read on the microdot, I opened The Bread Baker's Apprentice. As expected, the familiar voice issued forth:

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to track down and recreate the secret formula for the internationally known Poilane-style miche, the artisanal bread known throughout France as the bread-baking gold standard. This will not be an easy challenge to undertake. There will be risks, it will be time consuming, and there might possibly be a funky smell on your counter. Be courageous. The Babes are counting on you."

I stumbled out of the bookshop, instructions recorded on my flashdrive, my head whirling. I felt way out of my league with this assignment. A Poilane-style Miche? The one that apprentice bread makers have to make from scratch? Well, scratcher than that, they have to build the fires for the bread ovens, grind and sift the wheat, and make their barm from the very beginning with wild yeast caught from the breeze. How was I to do that? My husband would kill me if I built a fire in the oven!

I tossed and turned that night, my head filled with voices of doubt that I could pull off this caper. I even put off the task, letting other jobs take priority. But the insistent message kept coming back to me. "The Babes are counting on you." I knew I couldn't let them down.

So I carefully read through the instructions. And then again. And again. Each time discouraged me more, till I read that I could skip the whole making the starter part, cutting the recipe down by 2/3's, and use the starter I had on my counter. I had taken half the starter (what would have been tossed off when I fed it), and let it sit, uncovered, on my counter for 5 days, every day tossing off half, and feeding it with 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup tepid water. This was to catch the yeast present in the air and "wild" the starter. I named this new starter Wild Buffalo Bill.

To make the profile of the starter closer to the barm, the last feeding should be with rye flour. I didn't get that message, since I was with Q being outfitted with top-secret gadgets for the mission. But my straight all-purpose feeding worked fine. But since the consistency is different from the starter called for in the book, I used 3/4 cup of starter, rather than the 1 cup called for.

When I began the first part of the mission, making the firm starter, I ran into a temporal distortion field. Although the recipe says this is a two day operation (after your starter is made), mine stretched into 3 days. Maybe it was the cool kitchen, but my dough was in slow motion, taking forever to rise.

Fortunately, one of the gadgets which Q (aka Tanna) had outfitted me with was a tall, clear bucket with measurements marked on the side so I could easily see when the dough had doubled. If not for that, I would have been tempted to hurry along to the next step and have ended up with a lethal weapon of a loaf.

At the point where your firm starter is supposed to have doubled after 4 to 6 hours, mine had barely budged, so I left mine out overnight. In the morning it was tall and happy and I didn't have to wait for the firm starter to warm up since it hadn't been refrigerated.

When it came to putting together the dough, I suffered a setback. Although the directions quite clearly said to add 2-1/4 cups water, the mind-altering qualities of the temporal distortion field (or maybe insufficient caffeine), made me carefully measure 1-1/4 cups water and add that to the flour and starter. Good thing the recipe gave me permission to add more water as needed, because I was in a quandry as to how this dry ragged mess was supposed to become a smooth, supple wad of dough.

I read and re-read the directions until I saw my error. By that point I had no idea how much liquid I'd added. And my team was shouting at me to get a move on like the building was about to blow ("Mother, come on! Aren't you done yet?"), so I don't know if my dough was sufficiently kneaded.

At this point, the dough was supposed to rise, nearly doubling in 4 hours. In four hours my sorry fellow had barely budged, so again I left it overnight to rise. Shaping it in the morning was trouble-free and I was happy to slash it and send it into the steamy oven on a heated stone to bake away.

Because of the long bake time it did brown up. A lot. Almost blacken. In fact, the crust was the one issue we had with this bread. It took considerable sawing to pry off a piece. But the flavor of the bread was wonderful. Rich and complex. So, I succeeded. Probably not up to Peter Reinhart standards, but I came up with a darn good loaf, despite all my mistakes.

Since I didn't use the Barm directions from the book, I won't include them. But you can find them on the other Babes' sites.

Poilane-style Miche
- adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

Firm Starter

1 cup (7 ounces) Barm or 3/4 cup wilded starter
2 cups (9 ounces) sifted medium grind whole wheat flour (I substituted 1/2 unbleached all-purpose flour and 1/2 whole wheat flour for the sifted flour)
About 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water, at room temperature

Final Dough

7 cups (32 ounces) sifted medium grind whole wheat flour
3-1/4 teaspoons (.81 ounce) salt (or 2 Tablespoons sea or kosher salt)
2 to 2-3/4 cups (18 to 22 ounces) water, lukewarm (90 to 100 degrees F.)
Semolina flour for dusting

This recipe makes 1 very large miche (large boule), or you can make several smaller boules.

(Make the firm starter, as follows, the day before making the bread)

1. Mix together the barm, flour, and enough water to form a firm ball In a 4-quart mixing bowl. Transfer the dough to a counter sprinkled with flour and knead for around 3 minutes, making sure the flour is fully hydrated. Place dough in an oiled bowl, rolling it around in the bowl until it's coated with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

2. Ferment the dough at room temperature until it doubles in size--about 4-6 hours. Refrigerate overnight. You now have your firm starter.

3. 1 hour before making the dough, remove the starter from the fridge and cut it into 12 smallish pieces. Cover it with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to warm.

4. Unless you're lucky enough to have a Magic Mil, you must knead the dough by hand as the dough is too big for other machines. Put the sifted whole-wheat flour, salt, and starter pieces in a large bowl, add 2-1/4 cups of the water, then stir with a metal spoon, until the ingredients come together into a soft ball. Add more water and flour as neccesary.

5. Put the dough on a floured counter and knead the dough for 12 to 15 minutes Add the flour and water to make a supple, tacky but not sticky dough. Make sure all the ingredients are well incorporated. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

6. Let the dough ferment at room temperature for approximately 4 hours, or until the dough has nearly doubled in size.

7. Transfer the dough to the counter and gently form it into a large boule. Proof the dough in a banneton or prepare a proofing bowl large enough to hold the dough when it rises to nearly double in size. Place the dough, seam side up, in the banneton or bowl and mist the exposed part of the dough with spray oil. Cover with a cloth or plastic wrap.

8. Let the dough proof at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours. The dough should grow about 1-1/2 times in size. You can also retard it overnight in the refrigerator. But, if retarding the dough, make sure to remove the dough from the refrigerator 4 hours before you plan bake it.

9. Prepare your oven for hearth baking. Set an empty steam pan in place in the bottom rack of the oven. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Remove the cloth or plastic layer on top of the dough 10 minutes before baking.

10. Dust a peel or the back of a sheet pan generously with semolina flour or cornmeal. Gently and carefully turn the dough onto the peel or pan, and gently remove the cloth liner off the dough (if you used it). Score the top of the dough with a large pound sign. Slide the dough onto the baking stone (or bake directly on the sheet pan). Pour 2 cups hot water into the steam pan and close the door. Immediately lower the oven setting to 450°F. After 25 minutes of baking, turn the loaf 180 degrees and lower the oven setting to 425°F. Let the bread bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the dough registers 200°F in the center. The bread should be very deeply browned. If the top begins to look too dark, drape it with a sheet of aluminum foil pressed on top. (I had to do that step, as my bread became quite dark). If the bottom gets too dark before the bread is done, put the bread on an inverted sheet pan, to protect the bottom.

11. Transfer the bread to a rack and let cool for at least 2 hours before slicing or serving. Store the bread in a brown paper bag. It should be good for 5 to 7 days.

Be sure to check out the lovely loaves from my fellow Baking Babes. A Fridge Full of Food, Bake My Day, Grain Doe, I Like to Cook, Lucullian Delights, My Kitchen In Half Cups, Nottie Van Lien, The Sour Dough, What Did You Eat

And if you'd like to try this loaf and be a Bread Baking Buddy and receive a badge, you have fourteen days to make and post the bread and send it to our host kitchen of the month, What Did You Eat. You have until June 2nd to bake the bread and post about it on your blog with a link to the Kitchen of the Month’s post about the bread. E-mail the Kitchen of the Month with your name and a link to your post OR leave a comment on the Kitchen of the Month’s blog that you have baked the bread and a link back to your post. Kitchen of the Month will do a round-up of our Bread Baking Buddies at the end of the baking period and send you a BBB badge shortly after you notify her of baking the bread.

No blog, No problem - just e-mail the Kitchen of the Month with a photo of the bread you baked and you’ll be included in the round-up.

Babes on Hiatus: Living on Bread and Water and Thyme for Cooking.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Easy Gets It Done

A lovely lady once told me of an epiphany moment that she had had. She'd received several sets of hand-embroidered pillow cases as wedding gifts. Her mother had shown her how, after laundering them, she had to mist them with a water bottle, roll them up in a plastic bag and put them in the refrigerator, then carefully iron them on a pressing cloth so that the embroidered design would stand up.

She was in the midst of this process, dutifully ironing, while she watched the funeral procession of John F. Kennedy on television. Then it hit her. Why was she doing this? No one besides her husband was ever going to see these pillow cases, and they were just going to sleep on them. Life was too short to do stupid things just because someone says it's the right way.

That story has stuck with me for many years. I have a programmed desire to do things the "right" way, which curiously enough, is often the most difficult way. I have to revisit this lady's story from time to time to remind myself that life is short, and we're not graded on the difficulty of the things we attempt. Sometimes just attempting is good enough.

Case in point: puff pastry. Danish pastries were one of those mystery items that I thought could only be purchased in a store, like Jello or sausages. But then I saw a recipe for Easy Cheese Danishes in Barefoot Contessa at Home. Note the alluring use of the word "easy"? When is saw that I paused, rather than flipping past, dismissing the recipe as one obviously out of my league. The secret behind the magic word was frozen puff pastry.

I bought some. I made the pastries. My family raved. I felt fabulous. I'd made cream cheese danishes! Maybe some day I'll attempt the real deal, but in the meantime, I have my back-up in the freezer.

If you'd like to make puff pastry the "right" way, the fabulous Fanny at Foodbeam has done a gorgeous how-to write up on Puff Pastry. But if you're short on time, pulled in 15 directions all day long, and just want a weekend treat that will make your family squeal for joy, just go with the frozen stuff. I promise, no one's grading you except yourself.

Easy Strawberry Cheese Danishes
- adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten

8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
2 Tbsp ricotta cheese
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest (about 2 lemons' worth)
1 cup strawberries cut into small chunks
2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp of water for egg wash

Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

Place the cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and cream them together on low speed until smooth. Add 2/3 cup of the strawberry chunks and blend. The mixture will be a pretty pink. With the mixer still on low, add the egg yolks, ricotta, vanilla, salt, lemon zest, and the remaining 1/3 of the strawberry chunks and mix until just combined. Don't whip!

Unfold one sheet of puff pastry onto a lightly floured board and roll it slightly with a floured rolling pin until it's a 10 x 10- inch square. Cut the sheet into quarters with a sharp knife. Place a heaping Tbsp of cheese filling into the middle of each of the 4 squares. Brush the border of each pastry with egg wash and fold two opposite corners to the center, brushing and overlapping the corners of each pastry so they stick firmly together.

Brush the top of the pastries with egg wash. Place the pastries on the prepared sheet pans. Repeat with the second sheet of puff pastry and refrigerate the filled pastries for 15 minutes.

While the pastries are chilling, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, with the racks positioned in the upper third and lower third of the oven.

Bake the pastries for about 20 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back once during baking. The finished pastries should be puffed and brown. Serve warm. Makes 8 pastries.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Apples to Apples

I'm sorry I've been absent of late. My brain short-circuited when my daughter informed me that the wedding was only 45 days away. 45 days? How did that happen? I've had a year and a half to prepare and now I feel so unprepared. So much to do and so little time.

For some reason, way back early in the planning stages, we decided that it would be simpler and easier to hold the wedding in our back yard. Huh? Where was my brain? What was I thinking?

We spent most of last summer having the front and back yards landscaped. Now we're into filling in the landscaping with more plants and forever weeding. Cleaning, scraping, sanding, and painting the deck comes next. And in between are the innumerable details involved. Always more things to be done. Instead of getting shorter my to-do list is getting longer.

So if I don't post super regularly or don't make it to your site to leave a comment, please understand, I'm not being aloof or snotty. I'm probably balled up in a corner whimpering. This, too, shall pass, but in the meantime, please be patient with me.

Here's the post that I meant to get up for Mother's Day, but it also fits in with today's theme of stressed mother of the bride. When I got married my mother helped put together my wedding from out of state. She did all the invitations. She sent up her wedding dress for me to wear. She even encouraged me to spend money! All this with much less whining than I'm doing.

She just makes it all look so easy. Easy as pie. Which for her is true. She's a whiz at making pies.

Growing up, I didn't appreciate pies like I do now. They didn't have frosting, so they rated much lower in my book than cakes. But now that I have made a fair amount of pies, I'm amazed at the number of pies my mother made. When our apricot tree began to dump it's annual ton and a half of fruit, my mother would whip out pie after pie and put them in the freezer so we could feast on fresh apricot pie all winter. When apples were in season, she'd throw together an apple pie just to make my dad happy. And she made it look so easy.

So here is my late Mother's Day tribute to mom and her amazing pies. Apple pie bars. The taste of an apple pie without the fuss of a crust, because as much as I practice, pie crusts aren't as simple for me as they are for her. And I know she'll understand the post being late. She knows me pretty well by now.

Apple Pie Bars
- adapted from Great Cookies by Carole Walters

6 Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg

streusel topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup medium-chopped toasted pecans

1- In a large skillet over medium heat, combine the apples with the brown sugar, lemon juice, and honey. Cover the pan for 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover when the apples have released their juices and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples have turned a golden brown and there is no liquid left in the pan, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2 - Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 deg. F. Line a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, pressing it smooth and snug in the corners and sides. Using a pastry brush, grease the bottom and sides with softened butter, taking care not to tear the foil.

3- Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.

4 - In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar on medium-low speed for about 2 minutes. Add the egg and mix to blend. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing only to combine after each addition. Divide the mixture into eight parts and place them in two rows down the length of the pan. With lightly floured hands, press the mixture evenly into the pan.

5- Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the crust has turned golden brown and begins to release from the sides of the pan. While the crust is baking, prepare the streusel topping.

6- In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, granulated and brown sugars, cinnamon, and salt for the streusel topping. Mix briefly on low speed. Add the butter and mix on medium-low speed until the mixture is crumbly and barely holds together when squeezed gently. Stir in the pecans with a large rubber spatula or a large wooden spoon. Set aside.

7 - When the crust is done, immediately spread the cooked apples evenly over the hot crust. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the apples, pressing gently to help it adhere.

8 - Reduce the oven temperature to 350 deg. F. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the topping is lightly browned and crisp. Let rest in the pan for 2 to 3 hours before removing and slicing with a long, sharp knife. They will slice better if they are chilled.

To store the bars, refrigerate layered between sheets of wax paper for up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

How I Stopped Paying Outrageous Prices and Found Vanilla Bean Scone Happiness

I'm a master at putting things off. All of my papers in school were written the night before they were due. Even if I get all the ingredients and am excited to bake it, I usually end up baking the Daring Baker's challenge the day before the posting date.

Perhaps that's why it's taken me so long to get this post put together. It was way back in October of last year that the lovely and talented Jaden of Steamy Kitchen held the Great Vanilla Bean giveaway and I won 1/2 lb of vanilla beans from

I've had it on my mental to do list for all that time to make something really excellent with vanilla to say thank you to Jaden and to for the windfall of vanilla beans. It wasn't until I got an email from a blog reader requesting a vanilla bean scone recipe that I finally got off my behind and put together a recipe that is a vanilla winner.

Jo, the blog reader, said that Starbucks' vanilla bean scones were her favorite study aid, but a poor student could get rapidly more so, paying Starbucks prices. Those suckers are 75 cents each for teeny bite-sized scones! Flinging my budget to the wind, I bought three of them, so that I and my staff of taste-testers could have a standard to measure against.

I came up with a recipe that I think is close. It's not a clone, but it's quite good. Mine turned out bigger than the mini Starbucks scones, but smaller than the scone-as-a-meal size. Just right. It's got a nice crumb and is moist without feeling heavy or oily. And with three different uses of vanilla, it's sweetly satisfying.

You might notice that I use one vanilla bean to make 16 scones. "Well, where's the cost savings in that? Do you know how much those babies cost?" you ask. I do; that's why I was so giddy to win the contest and get 1/2 pound of vanilla beans for free. But you don't have to enter a contest to score big. Just go to You can buy a pound (a whole ginormous pound!) of vanilla beans (that's about 100 beans!!) for only $20. And they're really nice beans, too. I know because I've been baking with them since October. Seriously good beans, people.

(I wasn't paid for that shameless plug, I just wanted to say thank you for the awesome haul of vanilla beans and to let you, my readers, in on the secret of where to get vanilla beans without taking out a second mortgage on your house or selling a kidney.)

So, thank you, Jaden, for the contest. Thank you,, for the wonderful vanilla beans. And thank you, Jo, for motivating me to make these lovely scones!

Triple Vanilla Scones - makes 16 scones

4 cups flour
1/2 cup vanilla sugar*
1 tsp lemon zest
1 vanilla bean
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
10 Tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cut into small chunks
2 eggs
1 cup cream
1 tsp vanilla


1 cup powdered sugar
2-4 Tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F. Place the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

Cut the vanilla bean into 2 pieces, approximately 2/3 and 1/3.

In a food processor combine the flour, sugar, zest, baking powder and salt. Scrape the seeds from the larger vanilla bean piece into the processor, reserving the empty bean for making vanilla sugar. Pulse until it’s all combined.

Add the butter to the food processor and pulse until the butter is in pea-sized and smaller pieces.

In a large bowl combine the cream, vanilla, and eggs. Beat to combine thoroughly. Dump the flour mixture into the bowl and stir, just until the flour is incorporated. Stirring too much will result in tough scones.

Divide dough in half. Pat each half into a 6-inch circle. Cut each circle into 8 equal pieces (triangles). Place the pieces on two ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 15 - 18 minutes, rotating the racks midway through baking. The scones should be light brown on top.

Let the scones cool on the sheets for 30 minutes, then paint with the glaze. A silicone basting brush is ideal for this job.

To make the glaze, combine the powdered sugar, milk, and the seeds scraped out of the smaller piece of vanilla bean. You can adjust the consistency of the glaze to your liking. A watery glaze will give just a shimmer of sugar to the outside. If you like a more substantial glaze (like the Bigbuck’s scones), make it as thick as white glue.

This recipe can easily be halved, or, when you’ve gotten your scones cut and onto the baking sheets, put one in the oven and one in the freezer. Let the unbaked scones freeze for about 30 minutes, then wrap them in plastic wrap and put them into a ziploc bag. To bake, unwrap them and place on a baking sheet, increasing the baking time slightly.

* If you don't have vanilla sugar on hand, make these with plain granulated sugar. Then save the scraped out bean seeds. Put them in a jar and cover them with granulated sugar. Let this sit for a week or so and you'll have lovely, fragrant vanilla sugar to stir into your coffee, sprinkle on your muffins, or to make more Triple Vanilla Scones!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Holy Guacamole Batman!

Today on Cookie Baker Lynn's blog you have a guest blogger. Believe it or not, Lynn doesn't do all the cooking in the house, just most of it. Like a lot of husbands, I do the barbecueing and the occasional boxed macaroni and cheese but I also am the designated gaucamole chef. Since this is Cinco de Mayo, Lynn asked me to share my guacamole recipe.

When I was dating Lynn, one of our favorite places to eat was a Mexican resturant that served "Super Nachos." It was a huge plate of Nachos with lots of cheese, salsa and great guacamole. After we were married and had a couple of kids and our fun money was nonexistent, our dining out experiences were few and far between. To compensate, we searched for a guacamole recipe to duplicate the experience of "Super Nachos" at home. Surprisingly it was a during the low fat cooking phase of the 1990's when I finally found the perfect recipe. Plain non-fat yogurt, a mainstay of low-fat cooking, also works well in guacamole. Over the years I have tweaked it and really made it my own. It's my family's favorite and I'm always asked to bring it to family gatherings.

The trick to perfect guacamole is using good, ripe avocados. When you pick out your advocados at the grociery store make sure to check for ripeness by gently pressing the outside of the avocado. If there is no give, the avocado is not ripe yet. If there is a little give, the avocado is ripe. If there is a lot of give, the avocado may be past its prime.

It may sound odd, and even heretical to guacamole purists, but the addition of non-fat yogurt extends the guacamole and adds a slightly sour overtone that balances the garlic. Make sure to use plain yogurt and get the firm variety if you can. You don't want the guacamole to become soupy.

The secret ingredients in my recipe are the coriander and the garlic. The coriander gives the guacamole a lemony citrus flavor that blends well with the avocado and the large amount of garlic really makes this recipe outstanding.

In our family we love garlic and the more garlic the better. Over time the recipe has changed a bit but the garlic amount has stayed the same. You may be tempted to cut back on the garlic but at least once try the recipe as written. I think you'll like it.

Extraordinary Guacamole

4 Advocados
12 cloves garlic
2 1/2 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 of one lime jucied
2 green onions sliced

1) Cut advocados in half, remove pit and peel off the skin.

2) Place 6 advocado halfs in a mixing bowl and reserve one whole advacado for later use.

3) Using a fork, mash the avocado until smooth but leave a little texture.

4) Using a garlic press, add the garlic. My family loves garlic and one of the things that makes this guacamole wonderful is the amount of garlic used. If you're shy about garlic, start with 1/2 this amount and work your way up.

5) Using a mortar and pestle, grind the coriander and add it to the mixture. The freshly ground coriander flavor is intense and adds a wonderful zing to the guac.

6) Add the celery salt and yogurt. Mix until the color of the mixture is uniform. It's also important to realize that the size of avocado's varies. Make sure to add the yogurt in small batches and stop adding yogurt if the dip is looking to wet and soupy.

7) Slice the remaining advocado into small cubes and add to the mixture with the green onion. This adds texture to the mix so don't over mix.

8) Add the lime juice but don't mix it in. Just let it sit on top of the mixture. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and place in the refridgerator. Make sure the plastic wrap is in contact with the mix so oxygen doesn't turn the guacamole brown. The ingrediants will percolate through the guacamole and really come alive after about an hour.

When it's time to serve the guacamole, remove the plastic wrap and mix in any lime juice still sitting on top of the mixture.

Serves 6-8