Mar 23, 2010

Triple Chocolate-Pecan Biscotti

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I ask you, can one be OWNED by biscotti? Because this past weekend, I became captivated by a recipe for them, with motivation to do little else than bake them and get them in my belly. I was twinkly-eyed, distracted, lovelorn for this biscotti.

So as of today, my refrigerator is still badly in need of a clean-out. Laundry is sitting in heaps, mocking me. And I’m not entirely certain I still have a living room rug under all those flippin’ wooden puzzle pieces that are constantly stabbing me in the metatarsals. But you know what I am sure of? Domestic failures don’t seem nearly as depressing when you survey them while munching these completely addictive Triple Chocolate-Pecan biscotti. So make a batch, and you, too, might be able to put off mopping those floors for one more week! You’re welcome.

Full disclosure: I’ve not had great luck with biscotti recipes in the past. I know, I know, I can hear your cries of “ohhh, but they’re so fun to make and so eeeeeaaasy!”. Well, I know they’re supposed to be fun and easy, and maybe it was my lack of a biscotti thumb or whatever, but until now, I’d never turned out a batch that I would consider to be transcendent, and besides that, they’d get all crumbly during slicing before the final bake, or they’d be weirdly coarse or so hard you could crack a veneer or just generally uninteresting. But lo, we have a winner now, people. And it comes from the cookbook I’m currently keeping under my pillow at night, Karen DeMasco’s totally lovely The Craft of Baking.

These glorious chocolate biscotti (actually triple-chocolate, if you’re counting–in powdered, chipped and dipped forms) actually had me thinking I was headed for another failure at first, because the dough is so crazy soft and sticky, it’s really more like a thick brownie batter, and I was all, “WTF, Karen?”. But with my beloved bench scraper (which I hope you have and if not, please save yourself and get one) and a generous dusting of flour on my work surface (and I do mean generous–like a 1/3 cup or more), I was able to cajole the soft dough into planks for the first bake.

Turns out, I think the super wet dough is what makes these biscotti so amazing–light, fine-textured, delicate and crisp, not jaw-achingly cronch-y like so many coffee shop specimens that give biscotti a bad name. It also makes for an easy slicing before the final bake, which this biscotti-wary baker was very grateful for.

Also, I need to tell you that the chocolate flavor here is so bold, it’s almost surprising. As I am wont to do, I used Valrhona cocoa, which I’m sure didn’t hurt, but the real secret here is a sort of homemade coffee extract that DeMasco uses often in her recipes, and like the way a great vanilla extract boosts all those dreamy notes of sweet butter and sugar in other recipes, the bright flavor of coffee adds a roundness to chocolate that is so next-level, I simply don’t have the adjectives on me to explain it. It’s like a chocolatey punch in the face. But in a good way. See, I told you I didn’t have the adjectives to spare.

After the last bake, even just bare and plucked straight off the baking sheet, these biscotti had me at hello. In fact, I immediately scarfed down a second one, you know, just to be sure. Yep, I was definitely in a relationship with this biscotti. But that wasn’t enough for me. I needed to make this understanding official, and take things to the next level. And so, I did the only logical thing.

And that, my friends, is how you get OWNED by biscotti. Let me know how it goes when it meets your parents.

Triple Chocolate-Pecan Biscotti
Adapted from The Craft of Baking

This dough is extremely sticky, so have lots of extra flour standing by before you begin working with it. If pecans aren’t your thing, walnuts, almonds and pistachios would all be nice here too. I am suggesting a half-and-half blend of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips for dipping, because for me, it’s the perfect balance, but if you’d like to use just one kind of chips, go for semi-sweet.

Makes about 3 dozen

For the cookies:

1 cup pecan pieces, roughly chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon hot water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (regular size is fine)

For dipping:

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% cacao)
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Position an oven rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Place the pecan pieces in a small baking pan. Toast for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

Stir together the instant espresso powder and hot water in a small bowl to make a coffee extract. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, cocoa powder, brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter, baking soda and salt. Beat on low speed until the butter is no longer visible and the mixture resembles hot cocoa powder, about 4 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla and coffee extract. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture until well-blended. Stir in the cooled pecans and mini chocolate chips.

Generously cover a work surface with flour. Scrape the dough out onto the work surface, and flour your hands well, too–the dough will be very soft and sticky. Using a bench scraper, divide the dough in half, and shape each portion into a plank, about 16 inches long by 2 inches wide (don’t fear having too much flour on the outside of the planks–you can dust off the excess later). Carefully transfer them to a baking sheet about 3 inches apart.

Bake until the planks are firm to the touch, 20-25 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Transfer the planks, still on the parchment or baking mat, to a cooling rack, and let cool for about 5 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees.

Transfer the planks to a cutting board, and use a pastry brush to dust off any excess flour. With a large serrated knife, cut the planks on the diagonal into about 1/3-inch slices. Arrange the slices on the baking sheet and return them to the oven until they are dry and firm, about 1 hour. Let cool completely on the baking sheet set on a wire rack.

Combine the bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Quick-temper the chocolate by removing half the chips to another bowl, and microwaving the remainder in 30 second bursts on high power until completely melted, stirring after each 30 second interval. Add the rest of the chips to the melted chocolate and stir until all the chips are totally melted. Dip one end of each cookie in the melted chocolate and set on a parchment-lined baking sheet to set at room temperature.

The biscotti can be kept in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Mar 19, 2010

My Favorite Cheesecake

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In the spirit of busting through more deep, life-altering questions (such as “Is a brownie made without melted chocolate really a brownie?” and “Are baked doughnuts really doughnuts?“), I bring you two more doozies. First, is a cheesecake without a graham cracker crust actually a cheesecake? And second, will you all brutally force me into solitary confinement to a terrifying windowless cell festooned with Sandra Lee-designed tablescapes if I tell you that my very favorite cheesecake is not only crustless, but contains Bisquick?

Well, dear readers, I have answers to these new questions. To the first I say unto you, abso-flippin’-lutely, it is EVER a cheesecake!, and about the Bisquick, don’t hate–participate!

Like I recently said about my beloved homemade marshmallows, I sort of can’t believe I’ve never told you about this cheesecake before. This cheesecake has been with me for my entire life. As in, it is my earliest memory of dessert. So since babyhood, this cheesecake and I have known each other. And while others may track their personal timelines in terms of annual family vacations or grades in school, I tend to remember flavors of birthday cakes and what kind of cookies I made for Christmas in a given year. This cheesecake is my Book of Genesis, people. I am very serious about this cheesecake.

It is also an important recipe because it is one of the very few things my mother ever baked. Which is not to say that my mother is no longer with us–she is very much still with us and I have to fight her off with a stick ever since giving birth to her first grandchild. My mom is an excellent cook, the intuitive type that rarely cooks with recipes, and can make a meal out of any random combination of items that you may have in your pantry right this minute. But my mom has never been much of a baker–it’s just not her thing. However, there are two things that I remember her baking when I was little, and one of them was this cheesecake.

Back in the late 70s/early 80s, General Mills released a gloriously kitschy slew of sweet and savory pie recipes called “Impossible Pies” that were all the rage. And my mom, being on the cutting edge of all things trendy, like Jazzercising, shoulder pads and hair perming, fully embraced the Impossible Pie. The basic idea was that a master list of ingredients (including milk and Bisquick) plus a few various additions could all be thrown into a blender and poured into a bare baking dish, and during baking a sort of thin “crust” would magically form on the top, bottom and sides of the pie, no pre-formed crust required. Impossible, you say? Exactly. Except it’s true! Magic!

My mom confirms her famous cheesecake recipe is a riff on Bisquick’s “Impossible Cheesecake”, but she eliminated the milk and cut down significantly on the Bisquick, which really makes the cream cheese the star, and added a punch of lemon that truly makes the whole thing shine. She also always used an electric hand mixer instead of a blender, which incorporates a bit more air into the batter. The whole thing takes less than 10 minutes to get into the oven. No fussy water bath or springform pannery involved. It’s a beautiful thing.

Even if you are a die-hard cheesecake fanatic who scoffs at anything without a graham cracker crust being called a cheesecake, I don’t think you can deny that this particular cheesecake is absolutely delicious–tangy, creamy, not too sweet, a perfect balance of richness and light. The killer is the slick of sour cream topping. Oh mah gah. It’s a two-slicer situation. Get excited.

Mom’s Cheesecake

Use Philadelphia brand cream cheese, for this recipe and all other recipes calling for cream cheese. It’s actually the standard brand that most recipes use in testing because it’s the creamiest and has the least water content of any brand out there. Spend the extra buck for the good stuff–it absolutely makes a difference. And yes, you can use light cream cheese and light sour cream and it will still be completely edible, but don’t do fat-free anything, please, I beg of you.

Serves 8-10

For the cake:

2 8-ounce packages Philadelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Bisquick baking mix

For the sour cream topping:

8 ounces sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch ceramic or glass pie plate with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, place the cream cheese, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice, sugar and Bisquick. Start mixing on low speed with an electric mixer until everything is incorporated, then raise the speed to medium-high and beat for 3 minutes, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. Pour into the prepared baking dish and bake until the cheesecake is slightly puffed and golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Set on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes (it will deflate a bit during this time).

Meanwhile, make the topping: stir together the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well-blended. Pour over the warm cheesecake and smooth with a small spatula. Refrigerate until chilled and set, at least 2 hours, before serving. Cover any leftovers tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Mar 16, 2010

Millionaire’s Shortbread

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On the same day that I finally took a long overdue trip to the dentist and thought that it might be a nice idea to go on a little diet for a few days, I put together a totally addictive batch of Millionaire’s Shortbread. Is this what psychologists mean by “self-sabotage”? Please advise.

I suppose I could also be getting myself into a bit of hot water by posting about a traditional Scottish recipe in time for St. Patrick’s Day. But since a little Googling shows that one can find a version of Millionaire’s Shortbread in Ireland, too, and because I am now so out of touch with the world that I tend to think of everything “over there” as one big country, let’s just go with it, okay? Annnddd….there goes half my readership. Excellent.

Speaking of national holidays like St. Patrick’s Day that are so awesome that other countries get in on the action, why don’t we all celebrate one for Scotland, too? Because I think we should, based solely on Millionaire’s Shortbread. I mean, c’mon, people. Buttery, crumbly shortbread. Thick, chewy caramel. A slick of chocolate capping the whole thing off. Shouldn’t this dessert have its own FLAG?

Now, I’ve never been to Scotland. I hear it’s a beautiful place. I came very close to going to Scotland once for my sister-in-law’s wedding, but ended up birthing a baby six weeks before and was way too consumed with lactating and keeping my fragile newborn in a bubble to make the trip. My husband, however, bravely left his kin to attend the wedding. And he acted all sad about having to leave us, and at the time I think I believed him. But looking back now, I’m not so sure.

Because boyfriend got to get the heck outta Dodge, and in this case, the Mayor of Dodge was a hormonal, post-partum train wreck with a colicky, sleep-fighting infant. He left Dodge for a lush, green countryside full of golf, beer, the green light to wear a man skirt with no underpants, and incredible access to Millionaire’s Shortbread. Is 18 months after the fact too late to nag your husband about something?

Millionaire’s Shortbread

You can speed up the cooling process of the layers by popping the pan into the freezer for about five minutes or so between steps. For the chocolate layer, I like to use a half-and-half mix of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate chips because I think the balance is so right on, but all semi-sweet works too. I made my caramel in the microwave, but if you prefer, you can cook the condensed milk on the stovetop, in a double boiler over low heat, for 1 1/2 hours.

Makes about 20 pieces

For the crust:

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten

For the caramel layer:

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or a generous 1/8 teaspoon of regular salt)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the chocolate layer:

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips (see note)
3/4 teaspoon vegetable oil

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8-inch square baking pan with an 8-inch wide “sleeve” of aluminum foil, long enough to create a couple inches of overhang on two sides. Butter or lightly spray the entire pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on medium speed just until creamy and blended, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low, and stir in 1 cup of the flour until well-blended, then stir in the egg yolk until the dough is smooth, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary to make sure everything is well-incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Dust your hands with flour and pat the dough into a disc. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup flour over the dough and knead it gently just until the flour is worked in–the dough should be soft and smooth and not too sticky. Pat the dough into a square almost as big as the pan, then transfer the dough to the pan and pat it neatly and evenly across the bottom of the pan. Prick the crust all over with a fork. Bake it for about 22-25 minutes, or until a light golden brown. Let it cool completely on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, make the caramel: Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a medium microwave-safe bowl. Cook on medium power (about 50%) for 4 minutes, stirring well halfway through. Continue to cook on medium-low power (about 30-40%) for another 12-20 minutes, until the milk has turned into a thick, smooth, golden caramel, stopping to stir about every 2-3 minutes. There won’t be a lot of change in the caramel until the last few minutes, and the total time will depend on your microwave–keep on stirring and adding time until you’ve clearly cooked the milk to a irresistibly golden caramel. Stir in the salt and vanilla.

When the shortbread has cooled, pour the caramel over it and nudge it into an even layer with a small spatula. Let it the caramel firm up for about an hour in the refrigerator, or less than 10 minutes in the freezer.

Melt the chocolate chips and vegetable oil together in a small microwave-safe bowl on 50% power, stopping to stir every 40 seconds or so, until the chocolate is melted, glossy and perfectly smooth. Drizzle the chocolate in an even layer over the caramel, and use a spatula to smooth it. Chill until the chocolate is set, refrigerated for about 30 minutes or about five minutes in the freezer. Remove the bars from the pan using the handles of the foil sleeve to lift the slab, and then transfer it to a cutting board. Cut into aout 20 bars, using a large chef’s knife and wiping the blade clean after each cut. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Mar 12, 2010

Baked Doughnuts

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Ahhhh…weekends. Otherwise known as the time I can work it OUT in the kitchen while my sweet Little C gets down with some Daddy time–preferably somewhere not all up in my area. So by, oh, say, Thursday, I get to thinking about what recipes I’m going to tackle over the weekend, what with all my wild, impending freedom and all. If you feel me here, then I hope you’ll make this awesome recipe for baked doughnuts your weekend project, too. If this scenario is completely foreign to you, and your weekend plans usually involve things like imbibing in a place that’s not your living room and then having a childless brunch the next day, well, a) tell me what that’s like, and b) these will be just the thing for you, too.

Now, I was a little wary of the concept of a baked doughnut at first. I mean, really, people, if you’re going to have a doughnut, just go for it, fried, glazey goodness and all, AMIRITE? Well, I was craving doughnuts something fierce on a recent weekend, and wanted to try making some from scratch. But the more I thought about dealing with hot oil and the greasy aftermath and that heavy, fatty air that was sure to hang around the house for days afterward, the less appealing a traditional doughnut recipe seemed. Can one make baked doughnuts?, I wondered, and if I made some and told you about them, would you all think I was going all Susan Powter on you? Risky.

But thanks to half a pot of coffee and a couple hours to myself to putter about a gloriously quiet house, I had all sorts of moxie on that particular day, and a quick Google search landed me on one of my favorite blogs and a recipe for baked doughnuts that looked especially promising.

Despite my recurring fear of yeast doughs that we’ve gone over before, I found this recipe to be fabulously simple. It’s a lot like a pizza dough or white bread dough, but there’s a little extra butter and egg worked in to deliver a bit of richness and keep the finished product moist. So maybe like a Brioche Light for Dummies. Just my thing.

It’s a cinch to work with–a lovely, pillowy dough–and dare I say I actually had an awesomely fun, anxiety-free experience with this yeast dough? Yes, yes I did. And here is where you might suggest I get out a little more and I cover my ears and shake my head. Because–oh-ho!–the fun doesn’t stop there, people!

After you roll and cut all those cute little doughtnuts and bake them until they are just golden on the bottom, then you dip them quickly in melted butter and love them all up even more with a coating of cinnamon sugar. See? Don’t you go telling me I don’t know from fun. Awww, yeeaaahh.

All unbridled, fanciful ways aside, I was pleasantly surprised at the results of this recipe and didn’t at all feel like I was being gypped, from a doughnut-craving standpoint. Tender, flavorful, a wonderful hit of yeast and nutmeg to give you that actual doughnut satisfaction. I mean, Krispy Kremes they are not, but they are very, very good and hey, you can have two without that OHMAHGAHIJUSTATETWODOUGHNUTS feeling. It’s a new sensation for me, and I have to say, I rather enjoy it.

Baked Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts
Adapted from Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks

These are awesome rolled in a blend of granulated and light brown sugars, as I’ve done here, but I’m thinking they’d also be delicious glazed (skip the melted butter-dipping step) or dusted with confectioners’ sugar instead. Whatever you do, plan on eating these ASAP after baking for the best flavor and texture, and revive the leftovers with a quick zap in the microwave. The dough can be made a day ahead–just prepare it up through the cutting stage, wrap the baking sheet with plastic wrap, and let the doughnuts rise in a warm place an hour before baking. If in doubt about how long to bake these, err on the side of underbaking so the interior is tender and moist.

Makes about 1 dozen

For the dough:

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons warm milk, divided, 95 to 105 degrees (take its temperature–too hot and it will kill the yeast)
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast (about half a packet)
1 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup sugar
1 eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

For the cinnamon-sugar coating:

1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Place 3 tablespoons of the warm milk in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir in the yeast and set aside for at least five minutes. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of warm milk in a small bowl, stir in the butter and sugar, and add it to the yeast mixture. On low speed, stir in the egg, flour, nutmeg, and salt – just until the flour is incorporated. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough for a few minutes at medium speed. At this point, make a few adjustments – if your dough is seriously sticky, add flour a few tablespoons at a time. Too dry? Add a little bit of milk. Eventually, you want the dough to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl and become soft and smooth. Turn out the dough onto a floured work surface, knead it a few times by hand, and shape it into a smooth ball.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl (cooking spray works great here), cover with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place. Let the dough rise until its doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough and roll it out 1/2-inch thick on a floured work surface. Using a 2-3 inch cookie cutter, stamp out circles. Transfer the circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet and cut holes in the centers with a smaller cutter, about half the diameter of the first–remember the hole will close up on the second rising if it’s too small, so make it a little bigger than what a finished doughnuts would look like (alternatively, use a doughnut cutter, if you actually own one). Cover the baking sheet with a clean cloth and let the doughnuts rise for another 45 minutes.

Bake in a 375 degree oven until the bottoms are just golden, 8 to 10 minutes – start checking around 8. Better to underbake then overbake here–pull them early if in doubt. While the doughnuts are baking, melt the 1/4 cup of butter in a medium bowl. Place the sugars and cinnamon in a separate bowl (or large ziploc bag), stirring to blend evenly.

Remove the doughnuts from the oven and let cool for just a minute or two. Dip each one in the melted butter and a quick toss in the sugars. Serve immediately.

Mar 8, 2010

Best Cocoa Brownies

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Remember in back in, say, early grade school when you first learned about the elusive concept of “Opposite Day”? Like yes meant no and stop meant go and basically it was just a ripe opportunity for little kids to act like they were way smarter than their parents because no matter what kind of discipline parents tried to instill on their children, the child could deflect the power by simply proclaiming it Opposite Day? Yeah. I was really into the concept of Opposite Day. How did my mother not lock me up for life by defying her with nonsense?

Anyway, I’ve since gotten over the idea of Opposite Day in a big way. I like order. Predictability. I like to know that when a brownie recipe contains only cocoa and no solid chocolate that it will probably turn out dull, dry and lifeless and be a complete waste of calories. Well. Let it be known that the ever-inspiring pastry phenom Alice Medrich is a saucy minx who is apparently a huge advocate of Opposite Day.

A few weeks back, I exposed myself as a Team Fudgy brownie lover and shared a recipe that I’d had high hopes for, but had turned out too much on the cakey side to be something I’d call a real brownie. And oh, the irony! It had all sorts of melted chocolate in the batter, an element that nearly every legendary brownie recipe incorporates. This latest brownie recipe I’m bringing to you has 100% cocoa as its backbone, not a speck of bar chocolate to speak of and get this–it’s as moist and fudgy and amazing as all get out.

It’s almost a little like the box mix brownies that even this scratch baking enthusiast can’t resist, and to me, that’s high praise. What? I don’t care if it makes you think I have a dirty, secret Sandra Lee underbelly, I plowed my way through three boxes of brownie mix in as many weeks during the last trimester of my pregnancy, and if you’d scoffed at me then, I would’ve cut you. I love me a box mix brownie. Fact.

But truthfully, after making a batch of Alice Medrich’s Cocoa Brownies, I really don’t see a reason to go down that box mix route again. Well, except for a 10-for-10-bucks sale at Safeway, but c’mon, who can resist THAT? Communists, that’s who. Anyway, this recipe involves barely more steps or dirty dishes than making box mix brownies, and there’s no way my sister Betty Crocker could turn out a batter so midnight dark and deeply chocolaty, courtesy of copious amounts of Valrhona cocoa, because when I go all out, I go big.

And really, if you’re going to make a recipe with an ingredient in the title, I think it’s a good indication that you should pull out the big guns, in this case a rich premium cocoa powder such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger or the like. It’s so worth it, if for no other reason than to have your mind blown by the idea that something can taste more like chocolate than chocolate itself but with no solid chocolate actually in it. No, I meant that. I know I may look crazy with these fudgy brownie crumbs in my teeth, but I know what I’m talking about.

Best Cocoa Brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

I am typically a brownie purist and like them plain, but if you’re a nutty brownie person, Medrich recommends pecans or walnuts. Note that the eggs need to be cold in this recipe, as opposed to the room temperature eggs that are called for in so many other baking recipes.

Makes 16 brownies

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides. Spray the pan and lining with cooking spray.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth, though it will appear somewhat gritty. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not at all hot.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well-blended, add the flour and stir until all the streaks of flour disappear, then beat vigorously for 40 more strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Set the pan in the freezer for 10 minutes (it will make for clean cutting of the brownies).

Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

Mar 3, 2010

Where I Shop for Baking Supplies

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A while back, I got a comment from a sweet POC reader named Ann asking about some of my recommendations for local places to buy great baking ingredients and supplies in the Bay Area and beyond. Well, as I am wont to do on the subject of baking supplies and anything that allows me to make a list of things I like, I wrote a response so verbose that I decided it might be a post-worthy topic. So here are some of my favorite resources, sponsored by no one other than myself and my baking-related shopping compulsion. Thanks for the inspiration, Ann! And if anyone else wants to add onto this list for places you love to shop in your area (great websites for online shopping also welcome!), leave your recs in the comments section!

Spun Sugar, Berkeley. Oh sweet Lord, is this place ever a baker’s paradise. Everything you could possibly want and more, from fancy cupcake liners to decorating supplies, tools and bakeware, flavorings and bakery boxes. Their online store is growing–as of now they offer an insane selection of premium chocolates that can be hard to find. Really fair prices. Very clean and well-organized. The people behind the counter can give you wonderful advice on just about anything baking-related. They also teach classes here that get great reviews and there’s always something amazing-smelling baking in the back room.

Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco. I buy nuts, spices, high-quality chocolate chips and other spendy items here in bulk and stock my freezer. Wonderful quality ingredients here at a fair price. A decent selection of kitchenware in the back corner. On a non-baking note, this place makes eating organic completely doable on a budget. Well worth the trip.

Sur La Table, Ferry Building, San Francisco. Goes without saying. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of bakeware here make me shed a tear–it’s a thing of beauty. You might pay a pretty penny for certain items at Sur La Table, but it’s a dream to shop here. I have a crush on the one in the Ferry Building.

Omnivore Books, San Francisco. Okay, so it’s not baking supplies, per se, but you can’t bake without great recipes, right? At this dreamy cookbook Mecca, you can’t leave without being inspired to head into the kitchen. Their collection of baking-specific cookbooks is so impressive, it makes me feel all tingly and warm inside just thinking about it. Omnivore’s author signings and events are terrific and the staff is wonderfully helpful.

Mollie Stone’s, multiple Bay Area locations. Excellent for high quality baking ingredients, and some stores actually have a nice selection of high-end decorative items as well. Pricey but good if you have one nearby for those last-minute specialty items.

Sugar and Spice, Daly City–Geared towards professional cake decorators so they have all sorts of things here, even pre-made frostings and fillings. Good for decorative items like jimmies, dragees, sugar flowers, etc. and they also sell some high quality chocolates and other ingredients. Not the most organized shopping experience, but they do pack a lot into their space. I visit here when I need something for a project, but don’t have the time to get over the bridge to Spun Sugar.

Surfas, Culver City. So this place is actually in Los Angeles, but go with it. It’s one of the places that tugs at my heartstrings when I think about things I miss about LA, and I have to mention it because I still stock up here like a crazy person when I visit. Aisles and aisles of everything you could possibly want as a home baker and beyond, since Surfas is actually a restaurant supply store. Callebaut and Valrhona in bulk, people! If you’re ever in the Los Angeles area, this place is pilgrimage worthy. The cafe menu is to die for–make a half day trip of it!

What are your favorite local places for baking supplies, great ingredients and inspiration where you live?

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.


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