Mar 1, 2010

Lemon-White Chocolate Butter Cookies

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I just don’t know how to act, you guys. Because seriously, the good recipe karma that has been flowing through the Piece of Cake kitchen lately is almost getting creepy. We’ve had a lot of hits around here lately, some of which I’ve yet to share with you. At this rate, I’m due for a real kitchen disaster that involves overflowing cake batter or burning the place down, but for now, I’ll take it. These lemon white chocolate chip cookies are now firmly planted in my Top 5 cookie recipes of all time and that’s juuuust fine by me.


This recipe comes from Bakewise, a book that I refer to again and again, not just for recipes, but for insane amounts of information on the science of baking. Are you familiar with Shirley Corriher, food scientist extraordinaire? You might recognize her as the jolly and very Southern woman with cropped silver hair who often appears on Good Eats with Alton Brown. Or as I like to think of her, the person who sits to my right at the table in my favorite daydream, wherein I have a loud, long lunch with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Ina Garten, Christopher Kimball and Nick Malgieri. Come to think of it, these cookies would be the most perfect little button on my imaginary menu for said lunch.


Shirley’s recipes (or Shirlz, as I’d call her if we were real, actual friends) are among some of the most foolproof you’ll ever find in any baking cookbook. She simply will not let you make a mistake–her unique voice is positively all over every single page. It’s fantastic. And oh, that Shirlz, is she ever gabby–some of the recipes do run sort of long, and if you’re a more experienced baker, you may be able to pick out the steps from the paragraphs without actually reading the entire recipe, and what you’ll find with these cookies is that they are really sablés, the slice and bake, buttery French shortbread cookies that are dead simple to make and come together in minutes.

The Shirlz-y magical twist on this classic cookie that take it over the edge into oh em gee territory is a combination of sharp, bright lemon and sweet, dreamy white chocolate chips. It’s an absolutely heavenly, remarkably balanced and ultimately craveworthy cookie. Oh, that Shirley. She’ll getcha, I’m telling you.


This cookie dough is the kind that you’ll want to make an entire batch of, even if you’re not the type to want several dozen cookies in your house at any given time (though if you are one of these people, you are dead to me. I kid!). Once you get the dough together and form it into logs and wrap them tightly, it will keep for several months, and since these are of the slice-and-bake variety, you could even just slice off a few cookies at a time and bake them whenever the urge hits. You know those domestic queens who always talk about just “having things on hand” to serve to guests? Well, this is the way to do it. And if I drop by your place and these little buttery, crisp, lemony gems are what you serve me, well, I hope you don’t mind sleepovers.


Lemon-White Chocolate Butter Cookies
Adapted from Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise

Note the flour here is spooned and leveled–it does make a difference in how much ends up in the cup. Like many slice-and-bake butter cookie recipes, this dough freezes beautifully for several months. Don’t worry about making perfectly circular logs out of the dough–I actually made mine into square-shaped logs because I think it makes them easier to slice and a round log usually ends up getting a little flat on a couple sides anyway. Once you taste these, looks are irrelevant.

Makes 4 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 large egg yolks
2 cups spooned and leveled all-purpose flour
1 cup white chocolate chips

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, corn syrup, lemon extract, and lemon zest until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the yolks, one at a time, and beat with each addition, just to blend in thoroughly. On the lowest speed, beat in the flour, scraping down the sides of the bowl and across the bottom once. Stir in the white chocolate chips.

Pat the dough into a disc and divide it into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each roll individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper sprayed lightly with cooking spray or silicone baking mats. Slice cookies into about 3/8-inch slices (you should get 12 per log) and arrange about 1 inch apart on the sheets (I put about 20 on a sheet). Refrigerate one sheet while you bake the other–you want the dough as cold as possible when it goes into the oven to prevent spreading. Bake one sheet at a time until the edges just begin to brown, about 15 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Allow to cool on the sheet for 2 minutes, and then remove to a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

Feb 25, 2010

Totally Perfect Vanilla Marshmallows

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In a glorious, orderly manner that is all too unfamiliar in my day-to-day life with a lively toddler, this post involving my favorite marshmallow recipe has organically appeared on my to-do list, right after the most fan-flippin’-tastic hot fudge and some really outstanding homemade graham crackers. If you decide to put them all together and make what would certainly be the world’s most orgasmic s’mores, I simply cannot be held responsible for what might occur.


I sort of can’t believe that I haven’t shared a marshmallow recipe with you before, as I’m pretty much in love with homemade marshmallows of all sorts. They have an ethereal quality, and tasting one gives you that feeling that I’d mentioned in my last post, the sense that maybe you’ve never actually had a real marshmallow in the first place. They’re really something. And always so impressive–people always seem to say something like, “You made marshmallows?! How do you even make marshmallows?!” And I’m torn between feeling bizarrely dorky and completely awesome.

 

 

 

 
Case in point: A couple years back, I had a project that I was working on, and as a thank-you gift to the team, a made a whole mess of marshmallows. The catch was I had fly to my destination, and didn’t want the marshmallows to get smooshed in my luggage, so carried them on. As I passed through security, naturally I was stopped and questioned about the contents of my Tupperware. As I informed the burly TSA agent that they were homemade marshmallows, I got some odd looks from several agents at once. A nervous flurry of questions filled my mind–Did I miss the news? Are they not allowing food through security this week? Do marshmallows count as gels? Oh, sweet Jesus, please don’t make me toss my lovely sweet pillows from heaven! I was sure I was screwed.

 

 
But instead of scolding me for not knowing the rules, one of the agents said, “What? That’s crazy! You can’t make marshmallows!” Relieved, I said, in a very Pollyanna tone, “Oh yes, sir, oh, yes you can!”, and I even offered him a sample. He enthusiastically waved me through the x-ray machine (did you know TSA agents can smile?), and murmured to his coworkers about my culinary prowess. True story.


Now, I’ve tried lots of marshmallow recipes. The most popular ones you’ll find online and on most blogs are most likely Martha’s or Thomas Keller’s (the ones that wowed the TSA were a hybrid of these two recipes). Most recipes are basically just sugar, corn syrup, water and gelatin, but they vary in their proportions of each ingredient. There’s also ones like Dorie Greenspan‘s that involve egg whites, and they are delightfully fluffy and great for eating straight up, but not the best for shelf life or applications where you might want to warm them, like in hot cocoa or s’mores, as they dissolve rather quickly. Needless to say, finding my personal marshmallow nirvana has been a long time coming.

 

 
I’d decided a while ago that a key element of my perfect marshmallows would involve gelatin sheets instead of supermarket powdered gelatin. This way, you can use a good amount of gelatin to get the firmer set on the finished candy that makes them sturdy and versatile without the unappetizing “Hi, meet your new friend COLLAGEN!” smell and flavor that can come from using a lot of powdered gelatin. Also, different packets of gelatin can have an unnerving discrepancy of powder in them, even when using the same brand, and sheets are more consistent. You can buy the sheets online cheaply from a number of places, and they’re usually found at kitchen stores and specialty markets, too. Highly recommended.


So I’m happy to say that my search for the perfect homemade marshmallow has ended with the gem of a recipe in the Baked cookbook. Sweetly scented with vanilla, springy but yielding, irresistible. After yet another manna-producing recipe from this book, I’m thinking of rewriting the lyrics to “You Made Me Love You” to include the Baked boys. And then maybe I’ll make a video of me singing it, wearing nothing but a vest made of marshmallows and post it on YouTube in the hopes that it will go viral and then they’ll invite me to visit the bakery and let me sous chef for the day. I’ve got big dreams, people. Big dreams.


Perfect Vanilla Marshmallows
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

This recipe calls for gelatin sheets, and I strongly recommend them for best results, but you can use unflavored powdered gelatin instead. Great resources for converting the gelatin amounts from sheets to powder in recipes can be found here and here.

The original recipe doubles these amounts and spreads the marshmallow into a 9×13-inch pan. But since I don’t have an army in my midst demanding homemade marshmallows, I halved it and it worked out great, so I’m offering that version here. I find a pizza cutter is the best tool for easy marshmallow cutting.

Makes 2-3 dozen marshmallows (depending on how you cut them)

6 sheets gelatin
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting

Grease an 8×8-inch pan with shortening, using a paper towel to rub it lightly and evenly onto the bottom, sides and edges of the pan. Set aside.

Put the gelatin sheets into a medium microwave-safe bowl and fill it with very cold water to cover by several inches, adding a few ice cubes to keep it cold. While they soak for about 10 minutes, move on to the rest of the recipe.

Place the sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan and stir gently. Clip a candy thermometer onto the pan, and place it over medium-high heat. Bring it to a boil, checking it occasionally–you are looking for it to eventually hit a temperature of 235-240 degrees (soft ball stage).

Meanwhile, pour the remaining 1/4 cup corn syrup into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. By this point, the gelatin sheets should be very soft–drain them well and give them a quick wringing out, and place them back in the microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high until the gelatin is completely melted, about 30 seconds. Turn the mixer on low, and very slowly pour the melted gelatin into the corn syrup. Keep the mixer running while you check the sugar syrup.

Once the syrup reaches 235-240 degrees, pull it from the heat. Carefully transfer the syrup to a large, heatproof measuring cup or a similar vessel with a spout for easy pouring. Turn the mixer up to medium speed and slowly pour the sugar syrup into the gelatin mixture. When all the syrup has been added, crank the speed up to medium-high and let it go for about 6 to 7 minutes–the candy will turn white and fluffy during this time. Add the vanilla and salt and increase the speed to its highest setting for 1 more minute.

Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan and use an offset spatula spritzed with a bit of cooking spray to nudge it into the corners and smooth the top. Sift confectioners’ sugar evenly and generously over the top. Let sit for about 6 hours.

Use a knife to loosen the marshmallow from the edges of the pan and invert it onto a confectioners’ sugar-dusted work surface. Dust the marshmallow slab with more confectioner’s sugar and cut into whatever size pieces you wish (a pizza cutter works great here). Dip the sticky edges of the marshmallows in more confectioners’ sugar, patting off the excess. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Feb 22, 2010

Homemade Graham Crackers

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Well. I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided that few things are more frustrating than spending exorbitant amounts of time and dirty dishes making something from scratch and then realizing that, all things considered, you actually prefer the stuff from the can (I’m looking at you, enchilada sauce). But despite the possibility of such a situation, I always get an unnatural charge out of making typically store-bought things from scratch. There’s just something nerdily satisfying about finding a way to take familiar things to some other-worldly level that makes you think that perhaps you’ve never really had the real thing at all (see also: marshmallows, ice cream). Such was the case with these homemade graham crackers.


I started thinking about homemade graham crackers forever ago, and bookmarked it in my mind at a time when my brain was supple and unfettered enough to be trusted to hold long-term thoughts. And then I had a baby, and forgot all about doing something as crazy as making homemade graham crackers. But then toddlerhood came along, and graham crackers became akin to currency, and I suddenly thought to shake the dust off that old idea to try making them from scratch. Also, my latest trip to Miette Patisserie here in San Francisco left me completely unable to shake them.


Have I mentioned how obsessed I am with Miette? Stepping into one of their shops is like being enveloped with design inspiration, everything from the cupcakes to the wallpaper, much in the way that going into an Anthropologie store renders me hypnotized and despising every home furnishing I own, and overcome with the need to replace them exclusively with items from that place. Kitschy lamps! Vintage fabric drapes! Delicate tea cups on display!


And then I remember that I have a tiny bull living in my personal china shop and I’ve found it pointless to even hang drapes at all and that all potentially breakable items in the entire house live crowded on our fireplace mantle at an un-Little C-friendly height and I cry a little. At least when I go to Miette I can come home with something that is still inspiring, but edible, as to not need precious placement in our house. And one of my recent purchases were their utterly addictive graham crackers.


At seven bucks a pop for a short stack, naturally you’d hope Miette’s graham crackers far surpass the store-bought variety that comes in those brown wax-papery sleeves. And lo, they do. The thing is, they’re not really like any graham cracker I’ve ever tried–these are intensely buttery with the most incredible snap, and not at all crumbly or dry. The flavor here is complex with earthy whole wheat flour, dark brown sugar and a touch of honey and cinnamon that reminds you that, oh yes, this is supposed to be a graham cracker.


What’s more, I can’t think of anything more versatile that’s come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen as of late. I wholeheartedly recommend them for ice cream sandwiches and s’mores–they’re even more sturdy than the kind you’d buy at the store and hold up well to freezing and long-term storage, a total workhorse cookie, if you will. Of course, they’re also perfect for just plain eating with a glass of cold milk or some tea from a pretty little mug, like my single Anthropologie-esque teacup that I keep on lockdown when not in use. Just an idea there for you.


Homemade Graham Crackers
Adapted from Miette Patisserie, San Francisco

The key to getting the crispiest cookies with an awesome “snap” is to roll the dough very thin–try for as close to 1/8 of an inch as you can. This is a very buttery, soft dough–be sure to chill it completely before rolling and then again chilling the cut cookies well before baking them, otherwise they will be maddeningly difficult to work with and will spread during baking.

Makes about 4 dozen 2 1/2-inch cookies

2 cups flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I like stone-ground organic flour)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I like the punch of Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat it to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Whisk together flour, wheat flour, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together the butter and brown sugar, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, and beat in the honey. Stir in dry ingredients on low speed. Scrape the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and pat it into a disc, wrap well. Refrigerate until firm but still pliable, about one hour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out very thin, about an 1/8-inch thick (you can gather the dough scraps and reroll as necessary). Cut out cookies with a 2 to 3-inch cookie cutter and place on the prepared baking sheets, a dozen per sheet. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar if desired. Chill the cut cookies on the sheets for at least 15 minutes before baking. Bake 14 to 16 minutes until golden. Let the cookies set for a minute before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for a week or more.

Feb 18, 2010

Bittersweet Hot Fudge

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Motherhood has smacked me upside the head in so many ways. Some of them involve being surprisingly close to institutionalizing myself. Others, however, are actually really lovely in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t just mean those moments where I’m suddenly so overcome with love for my child that I want to smooch her and squeeze her until she pops. I’m talking about a new appreciation for the little things, the simpler the better. Like how Little C has started patting my back while hugging me. A glass of wine after she goes to bed and the house is straightened. Time to shave and wash my hair in the shower. And a dish of vanilla ice cream drowned in the most flippin’ fantastic bittersweet hot fudge that comes together in mere minutes. Ahhh…it’s the little things.


Although to be fair, this hot fudge sauce is not a small thing. No, it is pretty major. It’s sort of unassuming in the preparation, though the nearly three-quarters of a pound of chocolate that go into making one batch (I first mistyped that as “bath”… hello, subconscience) of the stuff might tip you off that you’re doing something epic.

All that needs to happen to enter into this chocolate sauce nirvana is to melt said chocolate together with a knob of butter while you warm some cream and corn syrup on the stovetop, and then whisk it all together and BAM!


Hot fudge as it is meant to be: Thick and rich, and deeply, darkly chocolatey, becoming almost chewy on contact with cold ice cream. With the one-two punch of phenomenal flavor and hearty texture, it’s almost a misnomer to call this a hot fudge “sauce”–melted chocolate truffles is more like it. And the bittersweet edge makes a pairing with vanilla ice cream so perfectly balanced, you may never want to have another dessert again. As Oprah might say, “Life chaaaaang-iiiing!! Life changing, life changing. Life. Changing.”



Bittersweet Hot Fudge
Adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

For the bittersweet chocolate, I use 60% Ghiradelli chips rather than bar chocolate because it’s more economical and have been perfectly happy, but whether you go with bars or chips, go for a premium brand–you’ll get a much more moan-inducing final product.

This hot fudge sets up firm when cold, like a refrigerated truffle, so you need to rewarm leftovers to make it pourable or spoonable again after chilling. The original recipe says to rewarm it gently over simmering water, but I’ve thrown the whole jar into the microwave for a 15 second zap and with a quick stir it comes back to life beautifully.

Makes about 2 cups

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use 60% Ghiradelli chips and am perfectly happy with them)
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup heavy cream, plus 2 tablespoons extra if needed
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Combine the chocolates and the butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Melt them in the microwave on medium power for about 3 minutes, stopping to stir the mixture often. When it is fully melted, set it aside.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, whisk together 1/2 cup of cream, the corn syrup and the vanilla. Bring them to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. As soon as it comes to a simmer, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 2 minutes. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until the hot fudge is smooth. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream if needed to thin it out a bit.

Serve warm immediately, or pour it into jars for storing in the refrigerator for about 10 days.

Feb 12, 2010

Blood Orange Panna Cotta

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In relation to my number of years on Earth, I have probably worked more jobs than anyone else you know. I’ll provide just a few examples. Upscale stationary shop girl. Nanny. Celebrity interviewer. Envelope stuffer. Makeup artist. Lecturer on random topics. Law office helper girl. Movie and TV extra and stand-in. Newsroom intern. Workout place counter girl. Proofreader of office supply catalogs. The list is insane and endless. Now, to be clear, this does not mean that I am a workaholic–no, far from it. My wacky patchwork of a resume absolutely comes from the sometimes practically negative length of time spent at each place. Apparently, for quite some time I reversed the old adage to say, “Winners always quit”.


In truth, I didn’t quit every single job flippantly. No, each quitting would have me all wound up with ulcer-level angst in the days leading up to it. As much as I may have wanted to leave each job, I never really wanted to let anyone down. Except for the time I left a job in the fashion of asking to be fired. I’d been trying to let them down for months.


They’d even issued me a corporate “Back on Track” plan, a document which encouraged me to stop letting them down by a certain date lest I be fired, which only made me try to let them down harder. And at the expiry date of the “Back on Track” plan, they still didn’t fire me, so I was forced to point out the calendar date to my manager and inform her that it was clearly time to fire me. Which she did, after a very, very long and befuddled pause. True story.




There was also the time I was fired without my knowing. This was in college, a part-time job that had me calling up a recurring list of delightfully chatty old people and asking them to donate their blood for their platelets. I actually really liked that job, so much so that I was there right up until Spring Break. My boss, a no B.S. type named Judy, asked when my school break was, I told her. Done annnnd done, right? Um, not quite.


I left town for a week for vacation, blissfully unaware that she’d scheduled me for extra hours since I wouldn’t have classes that week. Apparently they had a rule that if you didn’t show up for work for three days without calling, you were automatically fired. Which I found out when I showed up all tanned and ready to work the Monday after Spring Break and was informed that I’d been fired three days earlier. Further evidence that college students don’t actually live in the Real World, even if they have a part-time job in it. I was all, “Hel-lo, Judy! It was my Spring Break!” Ha. That one still makes me laugh.


But there was one job that will always hold a special place in my heart and on my demented resume. And no, I’m not talking about motherhood (a job that’s schooled my quitter behind in reality–there’s no way I can get outta this gig). Several months before moving to San Francisco, with my pre-motherhood pluck and a whole lot of emphasis on my food and recipe obsession and writing background, I landed the most amazing opportunity to write recipes for Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California. Had my ambitious, brilliant and almost annoyingly successful husband not gotten a job that moved us up to San Francisco later that year, I’m sure I’d still be there at Joe’s in the late afternoons, all scrappy for hours so I could experience the energy and artistry of the place, learning volumes about food, wine and the amazing dishes they turn out of that tiny, Michelin-starred kitchen.


When I left Joe’s, I made sure to take note of a few recipes that I’d bookmarked among the hundreds of splattered, crinkled pages in the restaurant’s archives. I could prattle on all day about the fabulous savory dishes at Joe’s, but some of the desserts would probably make you cry with joy. I’ve been wanting to tell you about this Blood Orange Panna Cotta recipe for ages, and with my citrus obsession in full swing, it’s the perfect time to finally get to it. That, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and this would be the absolutely perfect button on a romantic meal a deux, or even just pour un, because you’re worth it.


Panna cotta is one of my very favorite desserts, even though it amounts to little more than gelled cream. So simple, so right. The addition of the bright, sweet-tart juice of blood oranges really makes the dish here. And the color, people! The color! So beautiful. I served mine with a little extra dollop of unsweetened whipped cream because, you know, more is more, and could not have felt better about the whole experience. Oh Blood Orange Panna Cotta, I wish I knew how to quit you.



Blood Orange Panna Cotta
Loosely adapted from Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California

Serves 4

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder
3 tablespoons cold water
1 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl and let soften for five minutes.

Pour the blood orange juice into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce by half, about five minutes. Pour the reduction into a small bowl and set aside to cool slightly.

Give the saucepan a quick rinse and dry and set it back on the stove. In it, place the cream and sugar and warm it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it begins to simmer–do not boil. Meanwhile, heat the softened gelatin in the microwave on high heat until it’s melted, about 15 seconds. When the cream is ready, whisk in the melted gelatin and vanilla until the mixture is smooth. Pour the cream mixture into a metal bowl set over an ice bath. Stir until cool to the touch. Whisk in the buttermilk and the reduced blood orange juice. Pour into four custard cups or ramekins set in a large shallow dish. Chill until set, at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours.

When the panna cotta is set, unmold by dipping each dish in a pan of warm water, nudging the edges of the panna cotta from the dish with a thin knife if necessary, and invert them onto serving plates.

Feb 9, 2010

Caramel Cupcakes

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Woo-hoo! Thanks for all the well wishes and shout-outs about that half marathon business I told you about the other day. The race itself was a success. I had wanted to finish in under 2:15, and made it in 2:05, so I’m really happy with that. For once, I didn’t hurt anything, and I only cried three times (from joy, not misery)–at the start, crossing the finishing line, at the halfway point when I saw my friends, mom and husband cheering like crazy people as I passed, with my Little Coach C perched high up on her daddy’s shoulders. Waaahhhhh. It was a great experience all around. I highly recommend running more miles than is really necessary with several thousand other insane people before lunchtime.

And then shoving caramel cupcakes into your face when you’re done.


This combination is nothing short of dynamite, people. Now, I like a chocolate something as much as the next guy–when the chocolate craving hits, don’t get in my way because I will cut you. But at any other time, whether my sweet tooth is already awake or not, I am a sucker for all things vanilla and/or caramel. At a cupcakery, I will always go for the vanilla cake/vanilla frosting combination first. I feel like you can always tell how good a bakery really is by their vanilla cake and icing–with such a pure, uncomplicated flavoring, the quality of the ingredients and technique can’t hide. I’ve been forever searching for the magical recipe that would become my go-to vanilla cake in the Piece of Cake kitchen. And guys, my epiphany has arrived in the form of this completely perfect Vanilla Buttermilk Cake.

It’s just so lovely and balanced, all things considered. Perfectly tender. Moist but not sticky. Light but not preciously so. A velvety, tight crumb, but not at all dense. And thanks to the buttermilk, the level of sweetness is so right on and the notes of the vanilla are heightened.

The not-too-sweet cake also creates the perfect canvas for toppings of all sorts, from traditional buttercreams to more sugar-heavy icings that might cause your molars to ache on a sweeter cake, like my great grandmother Ruth Enzenbacher’s other-worldly caramel icing. All hail the dark brown sugar gods, this whole thing just got real.


Now, my memories of my great grandmother, who passed away when I was about 7, are fuzzy at best. I do remember her halo of silver white hair, soft cheeks and totally impressive salt and pepper shaker collection. But if this icing recipe of hers is any indication of who she really was, then I can also add to the list of character traits no-nonsense and the ability to turn out something showstopping out of the most humble ingredients. This icing comes together in less than five minutes on the stove top with a wooden spoon, just butter, sugar and a touch of milk and salt–it’s a beautiful thing.


But don’t let the easy prep fool you here–this caramel icing waits for no one (I am not sure if this was also true of my great grandmother). It may come together in minutes, but you have seconds to work with it before it sets up. Which is why I have no photo of the icing technique for you, which involved forgoing a spatula and instead dipping the tops of the cakes in the hot icing with a quick swirl before flipping them upright. I sort of felt like I was rescuing children from a burning building while icing these cupcakes–“Go, go, go!”–but the faster you can work, the more evenly glossy and gorgeous the icing sets up.


However, the fury of icing the cupcakes was totally worth it in the end. I cannot tell you how delicious the results were. Just like the madness of working up to the half marathon and then rocking it so hard. And can I just say how much I love it when I’m writing and a dorky metaphor just sort of falls in my lap like that?



Caramel Cupcakes
(Vanilla Buttermilk Cake with Caramel Icing)
Cake recipe adapted from Sky High

Make sure the cupcakes are completely cooled, cold even, before icing them. If they are the slightest bit warm, they will tear when you turn them over to dip them in the hot icing. If the icing begins to harden while you are working with it, just set it over a medium flame and stir it for 30 seconds or so until it loosens up again.

Makes about 18 iced cupcakes

For the cupcakes:

2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, at room temperature

For the caramel icing:

1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into a few chunks
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Place an oven rack to the center position and preheat the it to 350 degrees. Line 18 cups of 2 muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together, the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and buttermilk and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and turn the mixer on low. With the mixer running, gradually drop in the butter pieces and mix until the texture is uniform and the bits of butter aren’t discernable, about 2 minutes. With the mixer still on low, begin slowly pouring in the wet ingredients. When all the wet ingredients have been added, crank the speed up to medium and mix until the batter is light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Portion the batter into the muffin tins and bake until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops spring back when lightly touched, 20-25 minutes. Let cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then transfer them to a a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cupcakes have cooled, make the icing. Put the dark brown sugar, butter and salt in a medium saucepan, and melt them together over medium heat, stirring often. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the milk and vanilla. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Dump in the confectioners’ sugar all at once and beat with a wooden spoon until the icing is thickened and smooth. Quickly ice the cupcakes by holding each by the base and dipping the tops in the hot icing, rolling them slightly to coat evenly. Turn them quickly upright so the icing will even out while it’s still warm and will set smoothly. Store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Feb 6, 2010

No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread

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So what are you guys doing this weekend?

Because I’m running 13.1 miles on Sunday. On purpose. With several thousand other crazy people. Send drugs now.

In preparation, I am doing what is probably the best part about running a race–carbo-loading via copious amounts of perfectly crusty, homemade whole wheat bread with lots of butter. What, butter isn’t a carb, you say? And carbo-loading is so 80’s? Oh, you just hush. I’m running a flippin’ half marathon this weekend.


You may remember me mentioning something about this half marathon business a few months back, when I said that you may end up hearing more about the whole thing than you really wanted to know. I figured that with all the training being such a big part of my life, some of the details would eek into this space. But that hasn’t really happened. I’ve saved all the complaining about the whole thing for other lucky friends and family members. And I’ve done a lot of complaining. It’s been hard, harder than I thought.


Since the weekday “short runs” became as long as the weekend “long runs” were in the early weeks of training, it’s been tough. Not because my endurance wasn’t there–it’s amazing how quickly the body adapts to such crazy activities; I’ve had many a tearful “Rocky” moment throughout this whole experience–but because I’ve had to do all those weekday runs with a busy toddler who really doesn’t want to be in a stroller that long anymore. Pushing that behemoth of a running stroller full of whining, restless kid on a drizzly, windy San Francisco day when your running legs have seemingly abandoned you is the sort of thing that makes you unable to think of nothing but every other thing you’d rather be doing at that moment. Ugh.


On the plus side, I am fitter than ever and fit comfortably back in my pre-baby pants. I have also acquired new talents such as handing off sippy cups and snacks and fetching teddy bears that get violently chucked off the side of that aforementioned stroller without breaking stride or slowing my pace. Valuable life skills, people. Clearly, bread-baking is a much more practical skill. I think I will switch to bread baking after Sunday. So much for those pants.


Not that making this particular bread requires much skill at all. It’s one of Jim Lahey’s fabulous recipes, the guy who has incredible, actual bread-baking skills and has made his amazingly simple No-Knead method accessible to all of us who have none. I stirred together the dough in seconds one evening and had fresh, crackly, crusty whole wheat bread all set for the gorging less than 24 hours later. I barely had to do a dang thing to achieve such carb zenith. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to get such big results with no effort. It’s a beautiful thing.



No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey’s My Bread:The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method

Back when I made the original, all-white-flour version of this bread, I found it desperately needed more salt, so I added it here. Also, I followed the ratio of bread flour to whole-wheat flour that Lahey suggests–increasing the whole wheat flour will result in a denser loaf, but experiment and see if you like it. I also needed to add more water then the 1 1/3 cups listed (about 1/4 cup more) to get the dough to the right consistency–you want it to be quite wet and sticky before the first rise.

2 1/4 cups bread flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon instant or other active dry yeast
1 1/3 cups cool (55 to 65 degrees) water
Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour for dusting

In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and yeast. Add the water. Using a wooden spoon or your hands, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, adding a bit more water if necessary. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, at least 12 to 18 hours.

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Using lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

Place a tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. Dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour if it’s sticky. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise again for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled and when you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression–if it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, position a rack so that the pot will be centered in the oven, and preheat it to 475 degrees. Place a covered 4 1/2-to-5 1/2-quart cast-iron pot (such as a dutch oven) in the center of the rack.

Use pot holders to carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. Be careful!–The pot is very hot. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue baking the whole wheat bread until the loaf is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly before slicing.

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