Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rx - Chocolate

I feel like a bear. I've been hibernating. My friends and family probably wonder where I've been because I've been so silent. The truth is, I feel like hiding from the world. Every time I look at the news it's frightening. My stomach churns when I glance at the headlines in the newspaper. Even the comics page has references to the decimation of our kids' college savings and our retirement fund. Where to go to in stressful times like these?

There is always the old reliable - chocolate. Times like these call for more than just a Snickers bar, though. They call for chocolate with chocolate on top. Deep, rich, luscious chocolate that wraps you in comfort and soothes you, saying, "It's going to be all right" with each delicious bite.

If you're stressing out, might I recommend this cake to you? It doesn't mess around with distracting flavors or fluffy fillings. You get a serious hit of chocolate in each and every forkful. And if you want to wash it down with a tall glass of chocolate milk, I won't tell. Just pass me the carton when you're done with it.

Chocolate Prescription Cake
adapted from Williams-Sonoma Desserts

2-1/3 cups (220 g) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup (90 g) unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup (185 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (500 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) buttermilk, at room temperature

For the frosting:

12 oz (375 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1-3/4 cups (430 ml) heavy cream
1/2 cup (125 g) sour cream
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F (180 deg. C). Lightly grease theo bottoms of two 9 x 2-inch round cake pans and line with parchment paper. Grease the paper and the sides of the pan and dust with flour.

2- Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl.

3- In another large bowl, using a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter until smooth. Gradually add the brown sugar and continue beating until fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in 3 batches alternating with the buttermilk in 2 batches, mixing on low speed after each addition.

4-Divide the batter between the two prepared pans and spread it out evenly. Tap the pans gently on the counter to get rid of any air pockets. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto the rack, lift off the pan, and carefully peel off the parchment paper. Cool completely before frosting.

5- To make the frosting combine the chocolate and heavy cream in a heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water until the chocolate melts, then remove from the heat and whisk until well blended. Let cool slightly. Add the sour cream and salt and stir just until blended. Set aside, stirring occasionally, until room temperature. Whisk in the powdered sugar, stirring until the frosting is thick enough to spread.

6- Place about 1/3 of the frosting on the bottom layer, place the other layer, top side down on the first layer. Spread a thin layer of frosting over the entire cake to seal in any crumbs, then thickly coat the cake with the remaining frosting. Serve at once or keep covered at room temperature until ready to serve.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Predictable Peppermint

When I was a small child, one of the biggest treats we would receive was being taken out for an ice cream cone. I loved to press my nose against the glass display case at the ice cream shop, peering into the variously hued tubs, weighing the advantage of chocolate chocolate chip against strawberry, or raspberry sorbet versus vanilla bean. My sister was not one to get bogged down in the decision making process. As far as I remember, every time it was available, she'd pick peppermint.

Just before Christmas this past year we were discussing plans for Christmas Eve and she told me that her family has a tradition of inviting a big group over for a pot of soup and homemade peppermint ice cream with hot fudge sauce. Some people just don't change much.

Having that discussion lodged the idea of peppermint ice cream in my brain and when Christmas was done and it was time to clean up, I found myself with several candy canes on hand. I could have let my kids eat them, I suppose. But all that sugar, right after the holidays....that wouldn't be good parenting, would it? No, it would be much better parenting to put the candy canes into ice cream and give us something we could all enjoy!

Peppermint Ice Cream
- adapted from Williams-Sonoma Ice Cream & Sorbets

3 cups (750 ml) half-and-half
1/4 cup (60 ml) light corn syrup
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup (155 g) sugar
1/2 cup (60 g) lightly crushed candy canes

1- In a medium-sized, heavy saucepan bring 2 cups (500 ml) of the half-and-half and the corn syrup to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat.

2- In a metal bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until blended. Place the bowl on a rubber glove to keep it from skittering around . Gradually pour the hot half-and-half mixture into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly.

3- Return the mixture to the same saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring slowly and continuously with a rubber spatula, until the custard thickens and drawing a finger across it leaves a trail, about 5 minutes. Do not allow it to boil!

4-Set a sieve over a clean bowl. Pour the custard through the sieve. Add half of the crushed candy canes and stir until melted. Add the remaining 1 cup (250 ml) half-and-half and stir to combine. Chill thoroughly, 4 hours, or overnight.

5- Pour the custard into your ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer's instructions. Add the remaining crushed candy cane during the final minutes of processing. Transfer the ice cream to a container; cover and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.

Makes about 4-1/2 cups (1.1 l)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Glorious Granola

I've often thought that a really useful class to teach in high school would be "How to Be Poor." Not how to become poor. Any fool with a credit card or drug problem can do that. Rather, how to survive and thrive, regardless of the size of your income.

When I was first married my husband was still in college and I only had a job on the weekends. My husband got a job at the campus bookstore, but it wasn't until after he graduated and our first son was born that he got a "real" job with a big company and perks. His salary was at the very tail end of the pay scale, but we were euphoric because our income tripled!

The saving grace for us was that my husband is by nature frugal and he's really good at budgeting. He'd give me grocery money and when it was gone, that was it till the next payday. For a while he told me that any that was leftover was mine to spend, until he found out that meant eating a lot of rice and beans. When he got a raise he gave me my own allowance. $10 to spend on myself, however I wanted. Every two weeks. Imagine the thrill of having money of my own in my purse! That stopped as soon as I got pregnant with my second child, but it was a heady period of feeling rich.

During those first years of marriage I learned a lot about being frugal. I also learned that it can be fun, rather than a hardship. There is a thrill to discovering a pair of designer jeans in a thrift shop for $8, rather than the $80 retail. It's satisfying to splurge and spend $4 for a rental movie and pop your own popcorn, rather than spending close to $50 to take the family to the theater. And it's gratifying to learn how to make something for yourself instead of paying retail prices at the grocery store.

Lately I've been playing with granola. I was stopped in my tracks at the grocery store when I spied a small, plastic tub of "organic" granola for $8. $8!! I mean, come on, I can do better than that.

I played with various recipes and came up with my own that my family really enjoys. Granola is a super easy thing to make and the great thing is that there is no "right" way to make it. You can play around till you find whatever way makes you happy. Once you find out how simple it is to fill a container with your own, delicious, nutritious, additive-free granola, there will be no going back to the dark side of paying retail again!

Note: My granola has almonds, which can be spendy. I buy the big bag at Costco and keep them in my freezer. They are the most nutritious nut available, so they give health benefits, as well as texture and great taste to the granola.

Another note: This makes a rather small batch of granola, perfect for a single or couple. It's also good to start small when you're first playing with it, so that you don't end up with a huge batch of something no one will eat. Once you've got it down, feel free to double the recipe, but be sure to use two sheets to bake it on. You may also need to increase the baking time 5-10 minutes.

Almond Vanilla Granola

2-1/2 cups rolled oats (not quick or instant oats)
1/3 cup flax seed (you can run them through a spice mill, or leave plain if you like the crunchy little bits)
3/4 cup chopped almonds
1 tsp. cinnamon
1-1/2 Tbsp vanilla sugar*
1/2 spent vanilla bean pod, ground (optional)
2 Tbsp canola oil
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp rice bran syrup**
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup dried fruit (my favorite is Craisins)

1- Preheat oven to 300 deg. F. Set rack in the center of the oven for a single batch, or racks in the upper and lower thirds for a double batch.

2-In a large bowl combine the oats, flax seed, almonds, cinnamon, vanilla sugar, and ground vanilla bean pod.

3- In a small bowl combine the oil, honey, rice bran syrup, and vanilla. Stir till well mixed.

4- Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir till their well combined.

5- Spread the oat mixture into a rimmed baking sheet.

6- Bake for 40-45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until the oats are golden. Remove the pan to a cooling rack. The granola will crisp up as it cools. (This is the most dangerous time. Lots of snacking occurs while it cools.)

7- You can add and stir in your dried fruit now. My husband prefers variety, so I don't add in any fruit. He selects raisins, dried cherries, cranberries, or blueberries and stirs them in as he pours his cereal. Store the granola airtight at room temperature.

*Vanilla sugar is made by covering your used and rinsed vanilla bean pods in sugar in an airtight jar.

**I bought rice bran syrup for another granola recipe and wanted to use it up. It's quite nice, but if you don't have it, just use honey in it's place. For a vegan alternative, use rice bran syrup in place of the honey as well.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Crazy for Croissants

There are things in life that I secretly long to do, but I'm just not bold enough to do on my own. But I'll do them if I have a friend call me up and say, "I'm longing to do this. Will you do it with me?" All I need is a little hand-holding and encouragement and I can pretend to be fearless.

That's how this month's Bread Baking Babes assignment felt to me. Croissant! Me make croissant? Are you crazy? That's something that you go buy. You can't really make croissant.....can you?

Katie, of Thyme for Cooking, our fearless host kitchen of the month gave us this assignment. With the encouragement of the other Babes (and the looming posting deadline), I put on my apron, got my unsalted butter out of the freezer, and gave it a go. I chose to divide the task into two days and that made it easier. The only truly tricky part is leaving yourself a day in which you babysit the dough - refrigerate, take out and roll, turn, repeat. Three times. But other than that, it's just baby steps.

I also made a couple of them as Pain au Chocolate. They were so good they disappeared before they could even have their pictures taken! (Trader Joe's carries chocolate batons, in case you want to try them.)

My family got so excited that I'd made croissants that I felt like a kitchen super-hero for the day. Now I want to try different recipes to see if I can nail down the perfect croissant. Hmmm, any volunteers for taste testers nearby?

The recipe for the croissants is on Katie's site. Be sure and check out the tasty creations from the other Babes (addresses in the sidebar). And if you'd like to try your hand at croissant making and post about it by Feb. 2, 2009, send the link to Katie and she'll send you the highly coveted Baking Buddy badge to proudly display on your site.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

MacGyver Brulee

My husband is an engineer. I have heard engineers described as possibility thinkers. When presented with a challenge, instead of saying, "It can't be done," an engineer will muse, "Hmmm, I wonder how that could be made to work."

One of my husband's favorite websites is all about taking that approach to everyday problems. One day he got terribly excited because someone had posted how they brought a Mac iBook back from the dead. We happened to have just one of those machines lurking in the crypt of deceased computers. It was particularly exciting because that was the only machine in the house which ran the old operating system - if he could resurrect it, our little kids could play the old favorite computer games like Freddie Fish and Putt Putt!

My husband went to the hardware store for supplies and came back with, among other things, a blowtorch. He was thinking "computer repair." I looked at that baby and thought, "Creme brulee!"

My own personal MacGyver went to work with aluminum foil, blowtorch, and a clamp and brought the iBook back to life. Doesn't that deserve a reward? Something special that says, "You're awesome!" Something like creme brulee? I think so.

Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee
- adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard

3 cups heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
6 large egg yolks, chilled

1- Preheat the oven to 300 deg. F with a rack in the center of the oven. Place six 6-ounce ramekins in a larger baking pan, making sure the larger pan is at least 1/2-inch deeper than the ramekins. I used a roasting pan.

2- Bring the cream, 1/2 cup of the sugar, and the vanilla bean and scraped seeds to a simmer in a large nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and set aside to steep for 15 minutes.

3- While the cream is steeping, gently whisk the egg yolks in a large bowl.

4- After steeping, the cream mixture should be at 165 deg. F. Gently whisk it into the egg yolks. When the cream is incorporated into the egg yolks, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl. This is the custard base.

5- Fill each ramekin to the rim with custard. Fill the larger baking pan with hot water until the water rises two thirds of the way up the ramekins. I used shallow ramekins; to prevent the hot water from splashing into the custard, I poured the hot water out of a tea kettle slowly into a funnel I placed in the pan. Cover the baking pan loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. The custards are done when they are set but have a uniform jiggle. They should not be brown or have risen.

6- Chill the custard for at lest 2 hours before caramelizing and serving. Creme brulee will keep tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

7- To serve, coat the top of the custards with some of the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a thin, even layer. Wipe off any sugar the sticks to the rim of the ramekin. Melt the sugar by moving the flame of your torch back and forth across the top of the custard from a height of not less than 8 inches. As soon as it melts and starts to color, dust lightly with a second coating of sugar and continue to melt and caramelize the sugar. Keep moving the torch for even coloring. The sugar will begin to melt, bubble, and then turn into golden caramel. Remove the torch when the sugar is a dark golden color (before it burns). Allow the caramel to cool and harden for 2 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cookies For Frances

When I was in college my sister talked me into joining a book club (she got free books for suckering me into it). I loved the book club but not because I was kept abreast of the latest must-read bodice rippers or thrillers. What I mainly bought from the club was children's books. I am a total pushover for a good, nostalgic picture book. My roommates thought I was strange, but I didn't care as I assembled my collection of books for my someday kids: Madeleine, The Snowy Day, and Goodnight Moon.

One of my favorite characters in kid books is Frances. I've never been sure what she is. A badger maybe? But I totally relate to her view of the world and love the funny songs she sings. And now that I've actually got children, I see how truthful the books are. Especially Bread and Jam for Frances. Ah, yes, the eating jag where only one food will do, much to the frustration of the parents.

All Francis will eat is bread and jam. Despite the best efforts of her parents to lure her into other food groups, she stalwartly stays with bread and jam. But I know I could have swayed her choice. Who would stick to bread and jam when you could have Vanilla Butter cookies with jam? And not just any jam, but Huckleberry /Raspberry jam.

These delightful cookies are the latest in my effort to bake my way through Cookies from Fine Cooking. My husband selected them and a sweet friend gifted me with the jam for Christmas. I used up almost the whole jar, and it was totally worth it. Tender, buttery cookies with delicious, fruity jam sandwiched in between. Heaven for any jam lover, even without the bread.

Vanilla Butter and Jam Sandwich Cookies
adapted from Cookies by Fine Cooking

6-3/4 oz (1-1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
6 oz (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
Your favorite jam

1- Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 375 deg. F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder until well blended.

3- In another medium bowl beat the butter on medium-high with a hand-held electric mixer until the butter is smooth. Add the sugar and vanilla bean seeds or extract and continue beating about 2 minutes until the butter and sugar and well combined.

4- Add the eggs and beat for 1 minute longer, until well blended. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until blended, about 30 seconds.

5- Using a 1 Tbsp cookie scoop, arrange heaping tablespoonfuls of the dough in mounds about 3 inches apart on the cookie sheets. The dough will spread as it bakes. Bake two sheets at a time for 10 to 14 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and turning front to back halfway through baking. The edges should be golden brown.

6- Set the sheets on cooling racks and let cool for 5 minutes before transferring the cookies to the racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough on cooled cookie sheets.

7- When the cookies are completely cooled, pair them up according to size. Place approximately 1 tsp of jam in the center of the bottom cookie on the bottom side, spreading it almost to the edges. Top with the matching cookie, bottom sides together.

As the cookies sit, the jam seeps into the cookie, so if they are prepared more than a day in advance, the cookie becomes moister and jammier. Not a bad thing, in my book.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

End of The Quest

I have a character flaw. Well, to be honest, I have many. But the one I'm addressing today is my tendency to say, "Close enough."

Back when I used to try to sew clothes for myself, everything I made looked homemade because once the garment was complete, I couldn't muster up the energy to go back and pick off the stray threads, remove basting seams, and finish up the raw edges. I used up all my energy to get the stupid blouse, dress, or nightgown done, so I'd look at the pathetic, ugly thing and say, "Close enough."

I'm the same way with housecleaning. I feel I've scored major points just by getting the vacuum out of hibernation and running it around the floor. Is it really necessary to get the hose attachments and suck the dust blanket out of the corners? Who notices that? Close enough!

And, unfortunately, I'm the same way in baking. I love gorgeous "feast for the eyes" cakes and cookies, but I just don't take the time to make my baked goods look perfect. I love the look of intricately iced cookies or lavishly decorated cakes, but honestly, it's just food. If it tastes good, isn't that enough? I don't have the time or patience to spend 2 hours decorating cookies that will be eaten in about 2 minutes.

So, how does this impact my quest to recreate the cookies that I ate over 10 years ago? I've procrastinated, tried several recipes, learned a few things and came up with something that tastes like what I remember. Moist, chocolatey outside with smooth, coconut inside. Not as cloying as a Mounds bar, but still addictive.

What's wrong with that? Nothing, except it doesn't look right. My cookies started out as nice balls, but in the oven they squashed out a bit. It would take a lot more experimenting to figure out how to make the cookies come out round. Lots of chilling of the dough, maybe a stiffer dough, cooking in a mold, ..... oh, well, I'm done. Close enough.

I think theses cookies kind of look like mountain peaks so I named them Coconut Matterhorns. You could opt for the summertime version and leave them plain brown, or go for the snow-capped version and roll them in powdered sugar. Either way they make substantial, delicious cookies. If you try them, let me know if you think they were worth the effort.

Coconut Matterhorns

1 batch of these macaroons, slightly underbaked (about 18 minutes)


1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup dark corn syrup
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp baking sod

1- Beat butter and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl until well blended.

2- Add corn syrup, egg and vanilla, blending well.

3- In a small bowl combine the flour, cocoa, and baking soda. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, blending well.

4- Cover the dough and chill for at least 1 hour, or until firm.

5- Heat oven to 350 deg. F and position rack in the center of the oven. Spray a cookie sheet with baking spray.

6- Using your hands, mold the dough around the macaroons. I used about 1 Tbsp of dough to cover the top and a little less than that, to cover the bottom. Make sure the macaroon is entirely enclosed, and pinch off any excess dough, shaping into as round a shape as possible.

7- Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the dough looses its gloss and just looks set. Remove the sheet from the oven and let the cookies sit on the sheet for an additional 5 minutes.

8- Remove to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

9- If desired, roll the cooled cookies in powdered sugar.

The cookies will keep well for a week stored airtight at room temperature.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wreath Round-Up

After the Bread Baking Babes posted their wreaths last month we were pleased to see how many people chose to bake a wreath and earn a Baking Buddy badge. What amazing, creative, and wonderful bakers there are out there! Here is the list (as I know it), of those who baked along with us. Check out their creations and be inspired. I certainly was. I made the wreath again for New Year's Eve with a savory filling of salami, swiss cheese, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. What a way to bring in the New Year!

Judy of Judy's Gross Eats

Natashya at Living in the Kitchen with puppies

Astrid of Paulchen's Food Blog

Gretchen of Canela And Comino

Mary of One Perfect Bite


My sister, Diane, is not a food blogger, but wanted that swanky badge really badly.

Navita of Zaayeka

If I missed anyone, please let me know and I'll add your name to the list.

Happy New Year!