Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sweet Treat Yourself

February is always a difficult month. The excitement of Christmas is long gone and the weather settles into seemingly endless winter mode. To combat the winter blues, it's important to pay attention to your mental health and, when needed, give yourself a treat. For some women, this might be a new handbag or a new pair of shoes. For others it might be lunch with a girlfriend. Perhaps a massage or a pedicure is what you need to lift your spirits.

For my blues-be-gone treat, I bake. Preferably with chocolate. What better way to thumb my nose at the endlessly gray sky than to turn on my oven, throw delicious ingredients into the mixer, and bake fabulous treats that make my kitchen smell like rich, warm, melting chocolate.

For this baking session I turned to the queen of bittersweet chocolate, Alice Medrich. Her cookbook, Bittersweet, features wonderful recipes for just about anything you could think to put chocolate in - cakes, souffles, ice cream, and, of course, cookies.

Just the title of this recipe qualifies them as therapy baking - Bittersweet Decadence Cookies. And they are truly decadent, stuffed with chopped chocolate, nuts, butter, eggs, vanilla, and more chocolate. Just biting through the shiny, crackly exterior to the nut-studded brownie-like interior is therapy. You can close your eyes, visualize your own private happy place, and forget about the weather outside. Save this recipe. Spring's coming, but you might need a bit of help while you're waiting for it.

Bittersweet Decadence Cookies
- adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
8 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped*
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups walnuts or pecans, broken or chopped into large pieces
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into chunks

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F with 2 racks dividing the oven into thirds. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a small bowl , mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk to blend thoroughly and set it aside.

3-Place the 8 oz of chocolate and the butter in a large, heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir frequently just until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove the bowl and set it aside; leave the heat on under the pan.

4- In another large, heatproof bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together thoroughly. Set the bowl in the skillet and stir until the mixture is lukewarm to the touch. Stir the eggs into the warm (not hot) chocolate. Stir in the flour mixture, then the nuts and chocolate chunks.

5- Scoop slightly rounded tablespoons of batter 1-1/2 inches apart onto the cookie sheets. Bake until the surface of the cookies looks dry and and set, but the center is still gooey, 12 to 14 minutes. Carefully slide the parchment paper (with the cookies on it) onto cooing racks. Let cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed container.

* Use chocolate labeled as 50% to 60% cacao solids. The cookbook gives modifications to the recipe if you'd rather use a higher percentage chocolate.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cherries In Winter

I've often thought that a required class for high schoolers should be How To Be Poor. Not How to Get Poor - that's as simple as saying, "Charge it." How to be poor is about knowing how to economize, how to live within your means, even when your means are scanty, and how to be happy without spending money to do it. That's a life skill that everybody should have.

I recently met a kindred spirit on the topic. Suzan Colón, the author of Cherries in Winter, asked me if I't like to review her book. I began to set aside her request, but the book's subtitle, My Family's Recipe For Hope In Hard Times, caught my attention. Recipes? Yes. Hard times? All around us. Hope? Not a lot of that. What did she have to say on the subject?

After being laid off in 2008, Suzan needed to economize in a big way. Her mother suggested she look in her grandmother's recipe files for thrifty ways to put dinner on the table. The recipes are in the book, charmingly reproduced as she found them, handwritten on the back of an envelope, typewritten, and clipped from a newspaper column (her grandmother's recipe for Chicken Roman won $5!). But more than the recipes, she found stories of four generations of tough, funny, thrifty people who'd gone through incredibly hard times with smiles on their faces. In the stories she found hope.

Suzan's written a book that's combination family history and very personal memoir, with cooking as it's backbone. There's plenty to smile at. My favorite story is her stylish grandmother, transplanted from the Bronx to a farm, making a deal with the local farmer's wives - "You teach me how to cook, bake, and can, and I'll do your hair and makeup." There are also the tragedies and dramas that make up everyday life - death, unemployment, out of wedlock pregnancy (when that used to be a scandalous thing), and infertility. But the perspective which carried all these people through life was one of optimism, hope, and good cheer.

In a country that thinks times are tough when you can't afford cable, it's a good attitude adjuster to read real-life stories of how people survived the Great Depression and World War II. While this book is not a step-by-step how-to-survive-a-layoff manual, the optimism, courage, and attitude of gratitude will certainly point you in the right direction. I'd recommend getting this book, even if you haven't gotten a pink slip, because you'll find lessons for life. Plus you get recipes. Like these tasty cookies. 7 ingredients, nothing fancy, kind of homey, but so delicious you'll want to make them again and again.

Suzan's Favorite Butter Cookies
- adapted from Cherries in Winter - My Family's Recipe for Hope in Hard Times

1-1/2 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 cup light brown sugar
1-1/2 sticks of butter at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

1- Sift flour with baking soda and salt into a small bowl. Set aside.

2- In a mixing bowl, beat egg and sugar until light.

3- Add butter and vanilla to egg and sugar mixture. Beat till combined.

4- Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture. (If using walnuts, you can add at this point, or save them to roll the dough logs in.) The dough will be quite sticky at this point.

5- Divide the dough into two parts and roll in wax paper. Place dough logs in the freezer overnight.

6- If you want to roll the dough in nuts, do so when you remove the logs from the freezer.

7- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. with 2 racks dividing the oven into thirds.

8- Working with one log at a time, slice the dough into 1/4-inch disks. Place on an ungreased baking sheet, leaving room between the cookies, as they will spread in the oven.

9- Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, till the tops are set and the edges are lightly browned. Let cookies rest on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes before removing to a cooking rack.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bread Snails

Baking with the Bread Baking Babes is a virtual globe-trotting tour. This month, our kitchen hostess, Karen of Bake My Day, took us to Spain to try Ensaïmadas. These delightful rolls were soft, pillowy, and delicious. They're supposed to be rolled up into snail shapes. Mine were slacker underachievers and relaxed into semi-croissants, but that didn't stop my family from yumming them all up.

I made two variations. The original recipe called for soft pork lard. That's not something I have lying around my larder (ha, little joke there), but I do have butter and I do have bacon grease. My family was hard pressed to say which they preferred. My daughter opined that the bacon grease rolls would be even more amazing with bits of cooked bacon and chopped onion rolled up in it.

If you'd like to bake along with us and be a Baking Buddy, you have till the 25th to get a post up and send a link to Karen. Check out what the other Babes have done with this challenge! (the addresses are in the sidebar)

Thanks, Karen, for this delightful taste of Spain!

- from Delicious Days
Active time: about 45 minutes, rising: several hours, baking: about 15 minutes
Ingredients (yields about 10 Ensaimadas):
500g all-purpose flour (plus additional as needed )
75g sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
40g fresh yeast (= 1 cube)
200-250ml lukewarm milk
2 eggs (M)
2 tbsp olive oil
150g soft pork lard, bacon grease, or softened butter
powdered sugar for dusting

Add the flour together with sugar and salt into a large bowl (I used my KitchenAid bowl) and mix well. Make a hollow in the center, add the crumbled yeast as well as a decent pinch of sugar and pour over just enough of the lukewarm milk until the yeast is covered. Stir the yeast milk once or twice, then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let rest for about 15 minutes or until the surface of the yeast milk looks bubbly.

Add the other ingredients (the remaining milk, eggs,olive oil ) and knead well, either by hand or with your kitchen machine until the dough comes together nicely. I used less milk in the beginning (200 or 220 ml, while the original recipe suggests 250 ml) and my dough still turned out pretty sticky, I therefor added a tad more flour and let it knead at medium speed for 3 minutes (just for the record: my dough still felt really sticky). Let the covered bowl rest again in a warm place for at least 30 minutes or until the dough has doubled. (It took a long time for my dough to rise. Chilly kitchen, maybe.)

Punch it down softly, then flip the dough onto a well-floured surface and sprinkle with flour. Cut into about 10 equally sized portions and form into neat little balls, before letting them rest – sprinkled with flour, covered with a kitchen towel – once more for at least 30 minutes.

Shaping the Ensaimadas: Flatten one doughball, then roll out with a rolling pin (use flour as needed) until you get a pretty thin dough circle and brush it generously with the softened pork lard (or bacon grease or softened butter). Roll up cautiously, then let rest for a couple of minutes and continue with the other dough balls. (Meanwhile line the baking sheets with either parchment paper or silicone mats.)
Coil up each dough piece until it resembles the house of a snail (tuck the outer end under), ideally very loosely, because any spaces will fill up as the dough rises further. Place about five Ensaimadas on one baking sheet, making sure to leave enough space between them. Lightly brush with lard and cover up again.

The final rise is supposed to last overnight, yet I baked mine in three different batches (with rising times of 1 hour, 4 hours, 13 hours) and we preferred their look and taste with shorther rising times (1 and 4 hours). But do as you like.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (~390° Fahrenheit) and bake for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden brown. Take out and let them cool down on a wire rack for a couple of minutes, then generously dust with powdered sugar ( leave the bacon grease ones plain) and enjoy while still warm. Greasy fingers included!

Menu Planning

Today my first bit of writing for Simple Bites is up. I wrote about how I menu plan and gave ideas to help you do the same. Go check it out!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Checkerboard

I'm on a quest again. A friend asked me to make a bride & groom's cake for her wedding (with the very clear understanding that I don't do gorgeous cakes, but it will taste good). The bride likes vanilla, the groom likes chocolate. We discussed several alternatives for compromise, and they picked a checkerboard cake.

I'd never made a checkerboard cake before. I just knew you needed a special pan set for it. I ordered up the pan and started planning. My first trial run was a big learning experience. I learned checkerboard cakes are a pain.

After the trial run, I did a little internet searching I learned that the best method of getting the batter into the pan evenly is to use a pastry bag and pipe it in. Brilliant! That would be way better than the batter pouring/ cursing method I'd used.

I also found out that having different densities of cakes affects how evenly the cake rises. I'd used two boxed cake mixes, a yellow and a fudge, and the yellow rose way more than the fudge. And that it's important to pull the divider straight up, or you get interestingly warbly lines in your cake.

This time around I wanted to try making it all from scratch. Using Valentine's Day as an excuse, I got to finally make something I'd never made before - a red velvet cake. But I was worried about the density issue. Luckily, I found a light red velvet cake recipe in a Cooking Light cookbook, so I figure that paired with a silver cake would work.

Next issue - pans. Honestly, the pans that came in the checkerboard set were pitiful. Thin, shallow, and they rusted when breathed upon. I figured, "Hey, they're 9-inch pans. I own 9-inch pans. Why can't I use my nice ones? " Strangely, the cheapo pans were about an inch smaller than my nice pans, although both claimed to be 9-inches. This worked out well as the divider slipped inside my pans, rather than hooking over the edge like it did with the others.

The hardest part was getting up the courage to do it. I was really intimidated at the prospect of making two cake batters simultaneously. But just buckling down and getting organized got me through it. I had the two cookbooks open, side by side. Next to each recipe I gathered the ingredients for each. Then I started with the red velvet cake, and when that batter was transferred to a bowl, proceeded with the silver cake.

The silver cake batter went into my pastry bag and the red velvet, because it stains, went into a gallon zip-loc bag with the corner cut off. Using the pastry bags was much easier and gave me greater control in getting the batter evenly into the pans. There was extra batter which I piped into cupcake papers in a muffin tin and got 11 cupcakes.

After baking and cooling, I put it all together with a cream cheese buttercream frosting. I loved this frosting; it has the taste and creaminess of cream cheese frosting, but not the gut-busting heaviness. The cake was delightful. A delicious way to celebrate Valentine's day (or your favorite red & white sports team).

If you want to try this, be sure to read through all the recipes first, check that you have all the ingredients, and have everything mise en place (room temperature, measured, ready to go) before you start.

Red & White Checkerboard Cake

Light Red Velvet Cake
- adapted from Cooking Light

3 cups sifted cake flour (sift before measuring)
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp baking soda)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
4 large egg whites
2 cups fat-free buttermilk
1 (1 oz) bottle red food coloring
1 tsp vanilla extract

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F with racks dividing the oven into thirds. Prepare three 9-inch round cake pans by greasing them. Place parchment rounds in the bottom. Grease the parchment, then dust the entire pans with flour, tapping out the excess.

2- Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine thoroughly. Set aside.

3- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat granulated sugar and butter at medium speed 4 minutes or until well blended. Add egg whites to sugar mixture; beat at medium speed 5 minutes or until fluffy.

4- Combine buttermilk, food coloring, and vanilla in a small bowl. Stir well with a whisk.

5- With mixer on medium speed, alternate adding the flour mixture in three additions and the buttermilk mixture in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix just until moistened.

6- Gently spoon batter into a gallon-size zip-loc bag. Seal the bag. When you're ready to pipe the batter, cut off about 1/2-inch from one corner.

7- Wash your mixer bowl and beater.

Silver Cake
- adapted from Baking For All Occasions by Flo Braker

2-1/4 cups (250 gm) cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup (60 ml) whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup (120 ml) well-shaken buttermilk
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
7 oz (1-3/4 sticks/ 200 gm) unsalted butter at room temperature
1-1/2 cups (300 gm) granulated sugar
4 large egg whites, lightly beaten

1- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside.

2- In a small saucepan, heat the milk with the vanilla bean just until lukewarm. Set aside to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and set the pod aside to save for another use.

3- Pour the vanilla milk into a small bowl, add the buttermilk and lemon juice, and stir to blend; set aside.

4- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it is lighter in color, clings to the sides of the bowl, and has a satiny appearance, 30 to 45 seconds. Add the sugar in a steady stream, then top the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is very light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.

5- With the mixer on medium speed, add the egg whites, 1 to 2 Tbsp at a time, beating after each addition until incorporated before adding more. If the batter appears watery or shiny, stop adding egg whites, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the batter looks smooth again. Then return to medium speed and resume adding the egg whites. Continue to beat, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl once or twice, until all of the egg whites are added and the mixture is fluffy.

6- With the mixer on it's lowest speed, add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, mixing after each addition until incorporated. Stop the mixer after each addition to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

7 - Transfer enough batter to fill a pastry bag about halfway full.

8- In the first cake pan, pipe a layer with the red on the outside and in the middle ring, the silver in the one in between. Then carefully lift out the divider, put it (without washing) into the second pan and repeated the process. (So you have two layers that are identical.) Then, after carefully lifting the divider and washing it and drying it, place the divider in the third cake pan. This time, pipe the silver cake batter on the outside and middle and the red velvet into the one in between. The batter should be even, about 2/3 of the way up the side of the pan. After removing the divider, smooth the tops a bit with a rubber spatula. Any extra batter can be baked as cupcakes.

9 - Bake the layers for about 28 minutes, till a cake tester inserted near the middle comes out clean.

10 - Let the layers cool on a wire rack in their pans for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans to the cooling racks to cool completely before assembling the cake.

11- To assemble, place the bottom layer, one of the two identical layers, on your cake plate. (You may need to level the tops of the cake with a serrated knife, if they rose unevenly). Spread frosting over the cake layer. Place the middle layer on top of the base layer. The middle layer should have silver cake on the outside ring. Spread frosting over this layer. Place the third layer on top and frost the whole thing. Add whatever decorative touches you like, and serve to oohs and aahs. Store leftovers loosely covered in the refrigerator.

Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting
(makes ~ 5 cups)
- adapted from Sky High

12 oz. cream cheese, slightly chilled
1 stick plus 6 Tbsp (7 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
3 egg whites at room temperature

1- In a mixing bowl beat the cream cheese on medium speed until slightly fluffy and smooth. Add the butter 1 to 2 Tbsp at a time, mixing until smooth. Add the confectioners' sugar and vanilla and mix until fluffy. Set this aside at room temperature.

2- In a small, heavy saucepan combine the granulated sugar and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage, 238 deg. F on a candy thermometer.

3- Meanwhile, put the egg whites the mixing bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on. When the syrup reaches soft-ball stage, turn the mixer to medium-low and begin mixing the egg whites. Slowly add the hot syrup to the whites. When all of the syrup is incorporated, raise the speed to medium-high and beat until the egg white mixture has cooled to body temperature and a stiff meringue forms.

4- With the mixer on low speed, begin adding the cream cheese mixture by the spoonful. When all is incorporated, raise the speed to medium and whip until the frosting is smooth and fluffy.

Pass The Love

When I was a little girl I loved Valentine's Day. In elementary school we were assigned the project of making a valentine holder, either a shoe box with a slot in top, or a large paper pocket. These were decorated with tissue paper, paper doilies, and stickers, transforming them into works of art worthy of a home in the Louvre.

On Valentine's Day we brought our decorated valentine holders to school, along with a stack of valentine's to give. The teachers required that you give one to every student. That way Little Miss Popularity wouldn't receive a truckload and the unfortunate social outcast wouldn't go home with a broken heart and an empty box. This rule was also a way to insure that the boys gave valentines. Left to their own devices, the boys would punch each other on the arm and maybe daringly give a card to their favorite girl with a romantic theme of boogers and spiders.

One of the most popular decorating motifs for the valentine cards was the conversation heart. Those little candy hearts with printed sayings that taste like ant-acids were glued onto the paper doilies (Elmer's glue is edible, right?). I'm sure Mrs. Armstrong stood over little Bobby the night before, forcing him to make the valentine cards, and zero thought went into who got what card. But, oh what speculation there was the next day when a girl got a card with a heart bearing the message "QT PIE" or "MAYBE TONIGHT." "Wow, he must really like me!" her heart fluttered!

This year for Valentine's Day I got an early present from the nice people at POM Wonderful. (Thank you!) They sent me some of their heart-healthy POM Wonderful Pomegranate juice. I know they've spent oodles of money on researching proving the health benefits of their juice, but I just like it because it's delicious. And being sent some gave me an opportunity to play with my food. I've had marshmallows on my mind for a while and the thought of pomegranate marshmallows made me giddy with glee. But then I thought about using them to make rice crispy treats. And then cut them into hearts. And, of course, the idea of giant rice crispy conversation hearts wasn't far behind.

I adjusted the rice crispy treat recipe for the marshmallow recipe, and stirred in the butter and cereal as soon as the marshmallows were done. I'm not sure this is the best way to make them. On reflection, and lots of sampling, my husband and I decided the cereal wasn't as crisp as it should be. Perhaps the drying out period for the marshmallows was important to keep the cereal crisp. Either way, I'll give you the recipe as I made it, then you can decide to go with the traditional method, or the done-in-one way.

Happy Valentine's Day! Oh, and I don't recommend gluing these to anything. Just wrap in plastic wrap and hand them to your friends. And, please, don't leave out the dumpy girl in the corner; she'd be sad.

POMarshmallow Rice Crispy Treats

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup POM Wonderful Pomegranate juice, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
6-1/2 Tbsp butter, melted
10 cups Crispy Rice Cereal
Small amount of buttercream frosting, tinted pink

1- Generously butter a cookie sheet.

2 - Combine the gelatin with 1/2 cup of the POM Wonderful juice in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Allow this to sit and dissolve while you make the syrup.

3- In a small saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup of the POM Wonderful juice. Cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to high and cook until the syrup reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat.

4 - Withe the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Put the mixer on high speed and whip until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix thoroughly.

5- Stir in the melted butter. When it's incorporated, stir in the cereal by hand, using a spatula or wooden spoon. When all of the cereal is coated by the marshmallow, turn the mixture out onto the cookie sheet. Using a buttered spatula or buttered hands, press the mixture down firmly to make an even layer. Let it cool and set for several hours or overnight.

6- Using a heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the treats, spacing as closely together as possible. Set the hearts aside. Find a willing helper to clean up the leftover bits.

7- Using a pastry bag fitted with a very small tip, pipe the frosting around the hearts and then pipe messages onto the hearts. Allow to dry and then wrap in plastic wrap and put a pretty ribbon around it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Baking Land

We've had a really weird winter, weatherwise, thus far. Last year we saw more snow than we had in decades and this year, nothing. Not a flake. We're coasting along in the balmy mid-50's (F). It makes me feel just a little guilty when I read about the poor people on the other side of the country who are getting beaten up by storm after storm, dumping tons of snow, to the point that people can't leave their houses. Yikes!

I wish I could send along some of our warmer weather. But since that's not really a feasible plan, I'll turn my oven on in solidarity with my fellow frozen citizens. Warm up the kitchen and bring on the comfort.

There is something immeasurably comforting about warm, messy food. It's not meant to be pretty (and as you can see from my pictures, it's not!), but it is certainly delicious. And just a bit will fend off the horrors of the day and give you hope that everything's going to be OK. Even if you can't dig down deep enough to get to the snow shovel.

Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding
- adapted from Baking Kids Love

1/2 loaf bread (white, challah, or Italian), about 8.5 oz
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1-3/4 cups milk
1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup dried, sour cherries
Whipped cream, for topping

1- Preheat oven to 325 deg. F with a rack in the center of the oven. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan or pie pan with cooking spray.

2- Cut the crusts off the bread (you can discard or save to feed the birds or make into bread crumbs). Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

3- Measure 4 cups of the bread cubes. The remainder can be saved in a plastic bag in the cupboard or freezer for future use.

4- In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar and salt until completely blended. Whisk in the milk, cream, and vanilla and blend well. Add the toasted bread cubes to the bowl and stir them into the custard. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes, then remove the bowl from the refrigerator and stir the mixture to make sure the bread soaks up the custard evenly. Return to the refrigerator for another 10 to 20 minutes, or until the bread has soaked up most of the custard and looks very soft. (If you turned off the oven after toasting the bread, turn it back on now.)

5- Stir the chopped chocolate and cherries into the mixture. Scrape the mixture into the baking dish and press it into an even layer. Bake for 50 to 70 minutes, or until slightly puffed, golden brown, and set in the center.

6- Transfer to the cooling rack and let cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Serve with whipped cream. Leftovers (as if!) should be stored covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. REheat in a 325 deg. F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until warmed through.

Monday, February 8, 2010

New and Exciting

I'm really not good at keeping secrets. I say, in all earnestness, "Go ahead and tell me. I won't tell anyone." But if it's a great, big, fun, exciting secret, it fizzes away inside of me till I feel like I'll pop if I don't tell.

Well, I've got two red hot secrets that I've been sitting on and the time has finally come that I can announce them to the world.

Number one, and most important, is that my daughter is expecting. She and her husband bought a house last year and with the nest all set up, she's ready to bring a little one into it. So look for a lag in blogging later this summer. And then some outright brag posts with lots of photos.

Number two, and very cool, is that I've been asked to be a contributing writer to a new online blogazine (did I just make that word up? I like the sound of it. Magazine + blog = blogazine), Simple Bites. Go ahead and check it out. Aimée, of Under The High Chair, is the editor and she's got great vision for this adventure. Simple Food, simplified life.

While you're there, check out my glamour shot as one of the contributors and see the elite company I'll be keeping. (I still suspect I got asked to join by mistake, but I'm not telling them!)

And be sure to visit Tuesday Feb 9th, as there's going to be a big grand opening give away! Free stuff! Woo hoo!

I'll let y'all know when I've got a new article up, but you'll probably want to subscribe to the RSS feed, so you can catch all the great tips, news, and conversations over there.

And tune in some time in August for the other big announcement - boy or girl!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thinking of Dessert

Being a food blogger is terrific because it provides me with an excellent excuse to make tons of fabulous desserts. Any whim for cake, brownies, cookies, cupcakes can be indulged, because "I need something to post."

The drawback to this great system of rationale is that when I'm craving something I've already posted, I have no reason to make it again. It feels like a waste to make something that I can't blog.

So what was I to do when I started craving creme brulée? You know how it goes, you have a passing thought. "Hmm, Creme Brulée. I really like Creme Brulée." Then you move on. Then the thought comes back and gently nudges you. "Creme Brulée. Remember? Silky, creamy, sweet with the crunchy crust? Mmmm." But then rational part of the brain comes back and says, "You don't need it. It's not exactly diet food, plus, you've already made it before and (oh, no, trump card!) you've already blogged it, so there's no excuse to make it."

Defeated by my rational self the Thought limped into a corner. Defeated? Not at all. It just changed tactics and started a whisper campaign.

I look in the refrigerator to see what needs to go on my shopping list. "Oh, wow, I've got a lot of eggs." "Creme Brulée," whispers the Thought. "Hmm, I'd better use that heavy cream before it goes bad." Creme Brulée," murmurs the Thought. "Maybe I should make dessert tonight." "Creme Brulée," hints the Thought.

I slam the refrigerator door shut and shout, "Fine, I'll make Creme Brulée!" Startled, my husband looks up and says, "Uh, OK. I like Creme Brulée."

So I made the Creme Brulée, using a different recipe, although I knew I still wouldn't be able to blog it because it would look identical. Oh well, I'd be able to eat it and that's what counts.

But then, while the Creme Brulée was chilling, I leafed through a different cookbook and found, hold the horses, a double decker Creme Brulée! A regular layer and then a chocolate mousse layer. Holy moly - this was it! The pinnacle of creme brulée goodness. And bloggable, too.

It was amazing, of course. My family gobbled up their servings, licking the dishes for every last trace of creamy, dreamy custard. And you wouldn't believe how smug the Thought was. It was very annoying. So hopefully, by posting this, I've exorcised the Thought. But if it shows up in your head, don't blame me. Just make the creme brulée. Trust me, it's easier than listening to that nagging.

Twice As Nice Creme Brulée
- adapted from Baking and The Essence of Chocolate

Layer 1 (I liked that this recipe did away with the pesky water bath which gave me so much trouble last time)

1-1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1- Preheat the oven to 200 deg. F. with a rack in the center. Put six 4-inch gratin dishes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

2- In a small saucepan, bring the cream and milk just to a boil.

3- In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla together until well blended but not airy. Still whisking, slowly pour about a quarter of the hot cream into the egg yolk mixture to temper it. Whisking the whole time, slowly pour in the rest of the hot cream and milk.

4- Give the bowl a good rap against the counter to pop any bubbles,, then strain the custard into the baking dishes. Bake the custards for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the centers are set (when you tap the sides of the dishes, the custards should be firm, not jiggly). Remove the dishes to a cooling rack and let them cool to room temperature.

5- Cover each custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, preferably longer.

Layer 2

2-1/2 oz. 70% bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 cup dried, ground turbinado or demerra sugar
(see Note)

1- In a bowl set over gently simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from the heat and let sit in a warm spot until barely warm.

2- In a medium bowl, using a whisk, whisk the egg yolks with 1 tablespoon of sugar until a ribbon forms when the whisk is lifted. Fold in the tepid chocolate.

3- In a medium bowl, using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until barely stiff peaks form. Gently fold half of the whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remaining whites.

4- Spoon the chocolate mouse over the chilled custards, smoothing the tops with a small offset spatula. Wipe the rims of the dishes with a damp towel to remove any chocolate. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or, preferably, overnight.

5- Thirty minute before serving, remove the creme brulée from the refrigerator.

6- Just before serving, sprinkle the sugar in an even layer over the top of the mousse. Using a torch, work from one end of the dish to the other, adjusting the flame level as needed to caramelize the sugar. Serve immediately.

Note - The recipe calls for light brown sugar, baked in a 325 deg. F oven till dry, then ground until fine. I had a packet of Demerra sugar on my shelf (purchased a couple of years ago for a recipe I never made), which was quite hard. I ground it up in my mortar and pestle for the topping and it worked quite well.