Oct 15, 2009

POC Tips: A Sticky Wicket

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Whoever invented cooking spray, I would like to kiss you on the mouth. I find it to be one of the most useful items in the Piece of Cake kitchen. Cooking, baking, candy making, whatever, a quick little spritz is all that’s needed to give a dish a little a nonstick insurance and you don’t have to mess with getting butter all over your hands and what not. When I discover I’ve run out, I hear that little sound of a needle coming off a record. So I was giddy when I heard of another way to use cooking spray that makes prep work involving sticky ingredients a little easier.

A little spritz on the inside of your measuring cup or spoon before measuring makes notoriously tricky ingredients like molasses, corn syrup and honey slip right out. This was a revelation in the POC kitchen, where I have been found more than once trying to scrape every last bit of sticky stuff into my mixing bowl whilst simultaneously trying to keep it from traveling onto my hands and into my hair. Maybe I’m just spectacularly uncoordinated, but this slippery little tip is one of my favorites.

Oct 11, 2009

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf

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As you may have sensed from my last post, I was a bit lost after discovering that a recipe from my beloved Baked cookbook was less than a complete and total success. I didn’t know where to turn, what to believe in. But I am just way too tired lately to hold grudges. So I got right back on the Baked saddle with a different recipe, and now our relationship is one big love fest all over again. I have this amazing Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf to thank for that.

Hearty and irresistibly moist, this is the quickbread of dreams. Its subtle spice adds the perfect amount of dimension, and well, I don’t think there’s too many things in life that can’t be made better by a good studding of chocolate chips.

One of things that the Baked bakery boys seem to do so well is putting just the right amount of sugar in their recipes. I’ve yet to whip up anything from this book that turns out cloyingly sweet or gives you that feeling like if you take more than a couple bites, your molars will start to ache (including the marshmallows, believe it or not). This approach makes for completely craveworthy baked goods that have you crazily finding ways to incorporate them into your life all day long…until you’re left with crumbs. I suppose it could be considered a downside, that you might make an entire meal out of a dessert item and a side of protein. But I’ll tell you, this morning’s breakfast was a hunk of this pumpkin loaf and a few strips of bacon and I feel awesome.

All questionable dietetic choices aside, with the weather getting chillier and the days getting drearier, you need this recipe in your life. A thick slice of this pumpkin bread with a big mug of tea is early fall coffee break material of the highest order.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Note that the chocolate chips are folded into the wet ingredients here, not at the end, making for a beautifully even smattering of chips throughout the loaf. For the chocolate chips, use whatever makes your skirt fly up–the original recipe calls for semi-sweet chips, but I’ve been on a bittersweet kick lately, and found that I loved them in this recipe. Make it even more breakfast-worthy in the future by forgoing the chips and throwing in some toasted pecans, sunflower seeds and golden raisins. Substitute up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour if you wish. Double this recipe and freeze one loaf–you won’t regret it. Or better yet, gift it to a lucky friend–it would be a perfect hostess gift.

Makes 1 9x5x3-inch loaf

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons pumpkin puree (about half a 15-ounce can)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup room temperature water
3/4 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% cacao)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, baking soda and salt.

In another large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, oil and sugar until well-blended.
Whisk in the eggs and the vanilla until combined, then whisk in the water. Fold the chocolate chips into the wet ingredients.

Fold the dry ingredients into the wet, being careful not to overmix the batter. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, and gently knock the bottom of the pan onto the countertop to even out the batter. Use a spatula to smooth the top.

Bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean, about 75 to 90 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before inverting the loaf onto the rack to cool completely before serving. The loaf will keep for 3 days or more wrapped in plastic wrap or in an airtight container at room temperature.

Oct 5, 2009

Butterscotch Pudding

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Dilemma: I recently worked with a recipe that I wanted to love so much because I am obsessed with the book from which it came and consequently am also in pink-puffy-heart love with the authors of said book. Unfortunately, when I tried this recipe, I was underwhelmed and have debated sharing it with you. However, there was a part of this recipe that was truly spectacular and definitely needs your attention, like, today.

The dilemma is this: do I hack the recipe and just share the good part even though I have nothing but major admiration for the recipe writers? Or do I talk about the recipe as a whole and hope that the not-good part was just something I did wrong even though I followed the recipe to the letter and am still so bitter about it? Let me eat more of the delicious butterscotch filling out of this bland-ass tart shell and think about it for a minute.

When a book has photos as glorious as Baked, my expectations for a recipe are sky-high before I even preheat the oven. They’re the sort of images that pull you away from whatever else you’re doing and propel you to make a trip to the market at an ungodly hour to get that one ingredient you don’t have on hand. In this case, that was Butterfinger candy bars. I already had Scotch whiskey. Naturally.

My point is, I really, really wanted the exact Butterscotch Pudding Tarts that were in the photo. That was not to be. Now, I don’t know if the image in the book was heavily warmed and saturated in Photoshop or somesuch, but my tart seriously paled in comparison. Literally.

I still don’t get it. I am shaking my head as I type this, in fact. The golden, tweedy, oaty crust I could practically taste when I looked at the picture fell apart like lumpy sawdust while eating, even though I’d been so careful to only pulse the oats just a touch to keep their texture intact. I thought it may have been due to my halving the recipe to make one larger tart instead of eight individual ones, but when a small amount of leftover dough was baked in a tiny tart pan, I got the same beige result. I had double-checked my mise before starting, my ingredients were on point. And we can safely assume it was not a baking temperature issue, given my Type-A dedication to that. Wah-wuuuhhhhh.

But the Piece of Cake kitchen thrives on pulling itself up by its bootstraps and foraging ahead in the face of adversity and recipe-induced confusion. And the future involves making the luscious, just-boozy-enough butterscotch pudding all by itself and eating it out of a mixing bowl with a giant spoon. People, this stuff is manna from heaven. For real.

Even though my disappointment with the crust had me feeling a little like I’d gotten my hair pulled by my playground crush, I still love this cookbook and the concept of this dish–a lush, deeply caramelized filling with an earthy, not-too-sweet crust (that alluded me. Okay, that’s the last comment about the crust. I swear. I’m over it, okay?). Like many of the recipes in this book, this one runs on an innovative preparation, a lot of flavorful dark brown sugar and just the right amount of salt to make things interesting.

The crushed Butterfinger candy scattered on top of the pudding is kitschy, but oh man, it’s just the thing here. The touch of chocolate and the toothy crunch and the sweet-saltiness of the candy pairs like a fine port and…whatever goes really well with a fine port. This is late-night straight-from-the-fridge noshing at its finest.

So after much consideration, I think I’ll leave you with a recipe for only the good stuff–the awesomely delicious butterscotch pudding from the original tart recipe. My reasoning is that on its own, this pudding is a dish I will be making again and again and can add it with great confidence to the Piece of Cake Recipe Box.

But if you’re feeling adventurous, open up your copy of Baked (you do have one, don’t you?) and make this recipe as it was intended, crust and all. Make the whole thing perfectly delicious and beautiful, just like the photo in the book, and leave me a comment about it with a photo so I can sob and whine about my failure a little more. Sound good? Awesome, thanks.

Butterscotch Pudding
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Makes 8 servings

For this recipe, you will essentially making a caramel first, and then whisking that into a traditional pudding base. How dark you cook the caramel with determine the depth of color and flavor in the finished pudding.

Wait to garnish the pudding with the Butterfinger crumbles until just before serving, because the candy will begin to sort of dissolve and leak, er, Butterfinger juice (?) all over the surface of the pudding. Any leftovers will keep for about two days, refrigerated with plastic wrap pressed right onto the surface of the pudding. If you want to fill tart shells with this pudding, it will make 8 4-inch tarts. Halve this pudding recipe to fill one large 9-inch tart shell.

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons whiskey
1 Butterfinger candy bar, coarsely chopped

Put the egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the granulated sugar and 1/4 cup water and stir it gently with a heatproof spatula, being careful not to splash the sides of the pan. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then raise the heat to medium-high and boil the syrup until it begins to smoke and turns a deep amber color. Swirl the pan if necessary, but do not stir. Remove the pan from the heat, let stand for one minute, and then carefully stir in the cream–the mixture will bubble and may splatter. Transfer the caramel to a small bowl and set aside.

In another small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, cornstarch and salt. Whisk in the milk and vanilla until well-blended. Put the pan over medium-high heat and whisk occasionally, until the mixture comes up to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the caramel. Now whisk one third of of this hot milk/caramel mixture into the egg yolks until smooth. Scrape the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot milk/caramel mixture. Turn the heat back up to medium-high, and whisking constantly, boil the pudding until it is very thick, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the pudding from the heat and whisk in the butter and the whiskey. Whisk about one minute more to help the pudding cool down. Let the pudding rest for about 10 minutes before transferring it to a large measuring cup (or similar vessel with a pouring spout). Pour the pudding into 8 ramekins or custard cups. Place squares of plastic wrap directly on the surfaces of the puddings, and refrigerate them for about 2 hours before serving. Just before serving, sprinkle the top of each pudding with some of the crushed Butterfinger pieces.

Sep 29, 2009

Plum Crumble Tart

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Sometimes, when the thick blanket of San Francisco fog makes it impossible to tell what time of day it is all day long, and I’ve already had three cups of coffee by 9:00 am and they’re not making a dent in the feeling of blah, I know I have to spring into action to keep the day from being a total bust. So last week on One of Those Days, I sent out an SOS invitation to some friends who I was willing to bet were having the same kind of day we were: 3:00 pm, bring your babes, coffee, Oprah and One Really Good Plum Tart.

On the day of which I speak, this tart was in the oven by 10:00 am. The relentless mist and wind made the thought of a post-lunchtime outing less than appealing, and Baby C had slipped into an easy, albeit short, morning nap. I’d had my eye on this recipe for the better part of a week and just couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d gathered an armful of firm-ripe plums at the market the day before, when I’d had an inkling that the weather man was just being a big liar again, and this “massive heatwave” he’d been yammering about for days was never really going to come. I was so right. But I was wrong about Italian Prune Plum season–I’d hoped it might still be hanging on, but after searching three markets with an impatient toddler, I gave up and chose the deepest-hued regular plums I could find.

You’d think, with this being a plum tart and all, that the star would be the fruit. Well, you (meaning I) would be all wrong about that. Even if I’d been able to use the elusive Italian Prune Plums for this dish, I doubt they would have been as spectacular and noteworthy as the tweedy, nutty, crisp crust upon which they sat.

The crust for this tart is, in my opinion, the very best kind of crust, meaning the no-stress variety. It all comes together in mere minutes, patted into the pan, no precious rolling or messy flouring of workspace or blind baking involved. Buttery, brown sugared and studded with walnuts, I could happily munch a slice of the bare crust, no filling required.

Even better, the crust mixture pulls double duty here–some lines the tart pan, and the rest stays crumbly, sprinkled over the fanned-out fruit like a sandy blanket. It’s really more of a tart/crumble hybrid–so much more interesting than your standard fruit tart.

When baked, the crust crisps up in the most surprising way, maintaining a nice snap even under the luscious baked fruit. And that crumbly topping morphs into a nubbly, crunchy, edible crocheted afghan of sorts, with tips of ruby plums peeking out of the holes. It is a thing of beauty.

No really, I mean, it’s really pretty–I ended up with like 50 maddening-to-sort-through photos of the finished tart, I was so enamored with the whole thing.

Something else I love about this recipe is its springboard qualities–I will be making this again very soon with pears, and possibly swapping out the walnuts for almonds and a dash of cinnamon or cardamom in the crust. Or maybe an apple and pistachio pairing. Who knows?! The possibilities are endless! I’m telling you, sometimes I get so wild around here, people.

But not as wild as all the bombs that Mackenzie Phillips was dropping on Oprah that afternoon while we snacked on plum tart and coffee. Now that lady knows from tart.

Plum Crumble Tart
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties!

If you can find Italian prune plums, by all means, use them. They are smaller than regular plums, so quarter them instead of cutting them into sixths. Look for firm-ripe fruit, nothing soft. Avoid very large plums, as they won’t fit as easily or prettily into the tart pan. If you buy pre-chopped walnuts, give them a few once-overs with a knife–you want them very finely chopped, but not ground. If you find the tips of the baked fruit looking a bit lackluster, just brush them with a bit of melted jam or jelly to add some shine.

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, diced
1 egg yolk
2 pounds small plums, pitted and cut into sixths lengthwise (quartered if you can find Italian prune plums)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a 9 or 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom or springform pan ready, placed on a baking sheet.

In the bow of a standing mixer, combine the flour, walnuts and brown sugar on low speed. Add the butter and the egg yolk and mix on medium-low speed until the butter is well-incorporated and the mixture is crumbly (it will resemble moist brown sugar).

Put about 2 cups of the crust mixture into the pan and pat it evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the pan (a sturdy measuring cup is a helpful tool for the job). Arrange the plum slices skin side down in a flower pattern, working from the outside in. Scatter the rest of the crumbly crust mixture in an even layer over the top of the fruit.

Bake the tart for 40 to 50 minutes, until it the crust and topping are deeply golden and the fruit juices are bubbling. Cool for at least 10 minutes before transferring to a serving platter.

Sep 25, 2009

POC Tips: Get Yourself an Oven Thermometer

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When people first find out about Piece of Cake, I often become the Dear Abby of baking–regaled with elaborate stories of baking failures and questioned about the dark mysteries of baking. I, of course, love this because I could literally talk about these things all day long (which is kind of embarrassing and I really should keep that to myself). So from here on out, from time to time I’ll be sharing some of my favorite baking tips with you and we can all pretend that I know what I’m talking about. To start, here’s something I most definitely know: more than half of all baking problems can be solved by getting yourself an oven thermometer.

If there was a religion based around oven thermometers, I would be a Reverend. I can’t rave about their importance enough. Baking is a science, people. Sure, it’s about measuring your ingredients precisely and not mixing too much or too little and that sort of thing. But even the most perfectly measured and mixed batter will not bake up properly if the element of heat is all jacked up. And for most of us, our ovens are indeed jacked up to some degree. (Pun intended? You decide.)

In order to heat up to the exact temperature that the oven dial indicates, ovens need to be periodically calibrated and tuned up just like a car, and most home cooks will never get around to doing this. So over time, the actual oven temperature will creep farther and farther from what it’s telling you it is–sometimes even swinging as much as 100 degrees (!) cooler or hotter. If you are an apartment dweller, this is very likely the case–landlords don’t make a habit of calibrating ovens when a tenant moves out (or even get around to cleaning the carpets if we’re talking about my last apartment–grrrr). Obviously, you can imagine the difference 100 degrees would make, but even just a few degrees off the mark can greatly effect things like the rise, browning and texture of baked goods, and make all the difference between a “just okay” specimen and an exemplary one.

If you’re going to go through the trouble of baking from scratch, why not do something simple to improve your chances of success? An oven thermometer is cheap (around five bucks) and ensures that you are always baking at the right temperature. In an uncertain world, save yourself the guesswork and heartache. An oven thermometer is an essential in the Piece of Cake kitchen!

Sep 21, 2009

Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

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Okay people, I’ve been trying, really I have, but there really is no way to explain the surreal time warp that was my first year of parenting. So full of challenges and successes and failures and giddy celebration of the smallest things. Life has truly taken on a meaning I never knew existed. This, of course is not a revelation unique to me; millions and millions of other crazy people who have decided to become parents know exactly what I’m talking about. And to you, fellow crazy people, I offer you a cold beer held high and one of Baby C’s wholly delicious birthday cupcakes–a tender strawberry cake enlivened with a sassy strawberry coulis and white chocolate cream cheese frosting.

While I baked up a couple dozen of these heavenly cupcakes for a lively party to celebrate our sweet Baby C’s first year of life (and by extension, one year of parental survival), I really couldn’t help but marvel at the juxtaposition of the passage of time during Year One. For example, the months it took for our darling daughter to sleep through the night (nine of them, people–feel for me a little, won’t you?) made it seem like the first year would never, ever end, and some of those days seemed like such a bizarre blur of sameness that I felt (and let’s face it, looked) an awful lot like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

And yet, the leaps and bounds by which our daughter grew each day during this first year have created a staggering sense of jetting through time. Literally there were mornings where we picked her up out of her crib, looked her in the face and could have sworn that she had a completely different face from when we tucked her in the night before. That sort of thing is as astonishing as the insane amount of joy she brings us.

Oh, and the joy! A kind of spontaneous happiness that seems to flood me at the most unexpected moments; a feeling that puts me on maternal autopilot, so that no matter how frazzled I am, I can’t keep from dropping whatever I’m doing to smooch her chubby little cheeks and squeeze her tight, desperately hoping that she’ll somehow never grow out of my arms. Man, I wish someone could invent a way to bottle that feeling. Because that is what’s It’s really all about.

At one year old, it is also becoming clear what kind of child we have been given. I can’t mince words here, people. Girlfriend is basically a star. Her nickname in our weekly playgroup is Little Hollywood. This is not a joke. She would dramatically outstretch her arms and smile brightly on cue when someone would say “ta-daaa!” long before the whole “How big is baby? Soooo big!” act ever took hold.
She is endlessly curious, a true extrovert (when naps are a bust, we must go out–keeping my cranky child away from her public only exacerbates the situation), and a lover of music. She’s quite the dancer and a singer already too–eyes closed, chin jutting out, sustained falsetto notes, Mariah-esque hand movements–it’s fabulous.

Given her flair for the dramatic and the way she positively blossoms in a crowd, it was only fitting that we threw a big, loud party with all her little friends in attendance to celebrate her big day. I think she would’ve really let us have it otherwise.

There was a table of dips and chips and bacon-wrapped dates (!!–thanks, Aunt Lauren!) and slow-cooked pork with creamy slaw and a tangy homemade barbecue sauce. And of course, perfectly powder pink cupcakes fit for a first birthday girl. When the lights were dimmed and the birthday song was sung, Baby C lit up as bright as the flickering candles, and dutifully shoved an entire cupcake into her face in short order. It was, in short, an awesome day to celebrate one awesome little kid.

With one year of motherhood under my belt I can honestly say that I never thought I could learn so much, love so much, hope so much. And to my darling baby girl, thank you for making my life so, so sweet. I love you, Bubs.

Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes

Makes about 4 dozen frosted cupcakes

First, I’d like you to meet my new go-to cream cheese frosting. Perfection, I tell you. Also, for you party planners: the strawberry puree for the batter and the coulis can be made at the same time, several days in advance. The cupcakes can be baked a day before serving, kept at room temperature in airtight containers. The day of serving, whip up the frosting while you wait for the coulis to soak into the cakes a bit. There will be more spiced strawberry coulis than is needed to brush the cupcakes before icing them, but it thickens nicely in the fridge and is amazing on toast. You could also fill the cupcakes with the thickened coulis rather than brushing it on top, which would be both delicious and frugal of you.

For the strawberry puree and coulis:

1 1/2 pounds frozen unsweetened strawberries, thawed with their juices
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 star anise pod
1 one-inch piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise

For the strawberry cakes:

4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 cups sugar
5 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups strawberry puree
8 egg whites
2/3 cup milk

For the white chocolate cream cheese frosting:

1 pound cream cheese, chilled (do not use reduced fat cream cheese)
6 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy
6 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
White chocolate sprinkles, and various shades of pink Dum-Dum lollipops (sticks trimmed to about one inch long) for decorating (optional)

Begin by making the strawberry puree: Puree the thawed berries in a blender or food processor until smooth (do not strain the puree)–you should have about 2 3/4 cups. Set aside 1 1/4 cups puree for making the cake batter, and put the remainder into a small saucepan with the sugar. Add the cinnamon stick and the star anise, scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the pan, and add the vanilla pod as well. Bring the coulis to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened considerably and reduced by about half (about 3/4 cup). To ensure thickness, dab a teaspoon of the coulis onto a freezing cold plate and set it in the freezer for a minute or two–if you run your fingertip through the coulis, a track should remain. Discard the cinnamon stick, star anise pod and vanilla pod, and scrape the coulis into a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Next, make the strawberry cupcakes. Place the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt on low speed for a full 60 seconds. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is well-blended into the dry ingredients and it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the strawberry puree and mix on low to blend, then crank the speed to medium and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the batter is light and fluffy and resembles strawberry ice cream.

In a large bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the egg whites and milk until very well-blended. With the mixer running, add the liquid to the batter in 2 or 3 additions, stopping the mixer to scrape down the bowl as necessary. Divide half the batter among the muffin cups, filling the tins about 2/3 full. Bake for about 22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tins on wire racks for about five minutes, then remove the cupcakes to the racks to cool completely. When the tins have cooled, line them with more paper liners and bake the rest of the batter.

To make the white chocolate cream cheese frosting, place the very cold cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Start beating at low speed just to get the ingredients blending, then beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the melted white chocolate and the vanilla and beat on medium speed just to blend–don’t overbeat at this point, or the heat of the mixer will start to break down the cream cheese.

To assemble the cupcakes, thinly spread about half a teaspoon of coulis over the top of each cupcake (alternately, fill the cupcakes with the coulis using a squirt bottle or piping bag). When the coulis has soaked into the surfaces of the cupcakes a bit, frost them generously with the white chocolate cream cheese frosting and gently roll the frosted tops in a plate full of white chocolate sprinkles. Store the frosted and sprinkled cupcakes in airtight containers at a cool room temperature until ready to serve. Add an extra bit of flair with the lollipops just before serving, if desired.

Sep 10, 2009

Parmesan Thyme Crackers

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So what did you do over your Labor Day weekend?

Because I had a mini-vacation so blissfully divine, so Bucket List-level in greatness, that I now have a new happy place to which I can mentally escape. Let me begin by saying that it kicked off with two best girlfriends toasting with chilly glasses of prosecco and a pile of buttery parmesan thyme crackers. I know, right?!

If you’ve been a Piece of Cake reader for a while, you may remember that this little blog started more than two years ago when the husband and I lived mere blocks from the beach in Santa Monica (and I hadn’t figured out that I should REALLY not be using flash when taking photos). I also lived mere minutes away from my best girl Sara. We really lived it up back in the day–weekly lunches, pedicures, impromptu cocktails–the sort of glorious, childless kinds of activities that girls in their 20s are wont to do. It was, in short, The Life. And so, when the husband and I relocated to San Francisco a year and a half ago, despite our excitement about our new city, it was basically heartbreaking to leave my friend and all our good times.

Not that I’ve had time to sit and pine too much–I found out I was pregnant less than a month after moving to San Francisco and really, it is one of the most beautiful, exciting cities in the world. Still, when I’m elbow deep in oatmeal and mashed banana and limping between countertops with a fussy baby clinging to my jeans, I tend to wistfully mourn those days in Santa Monica, when my life was just My Life.

Well, this past weekend, we took a road trip down to LA and got to stay with Sara and her husband Nick in our old hometown. And for half a glorious day (while the boys hung out with Baby C) Sara and I got to pretend that we were right back in that relatively carefree place in our lives in the lovely city where I used to live.

The perfect prosecco and savory crackers were only the beginning of a fantastic weekend, people. There was Mexican food (the likes of which can only be found in Southern California–get with it, San Francisco!), a long run on my old beach route, salads at one of our favorite haunts, manis and pedis, shopping at Surfas (again, get WITH IT, San Francisco! I will totally help set up a franchise!), sunset bellinis on a beachside deck in a setting so perfect we felt like a Ralph Lauren ad, and cupcakes for the long drive back from a bakery that never ceases to inspire me. I’m pretty sure I had a single tear running down my cheek the entire time. I’m also sure that it all would never have been so awesome if I hadn’t moved away–you just forget the beauty in such small things when you have access to them everyday. But still, sigh…we’ll always have Santa Monica.

Sara and I agreed the weekend was, for us, the perfect Santa Monica experience. Now, I realize that even if you did exactly what we did and had the luck of some quintessentially perfect LA late summer weather, it probably wouldn’t be quite as emotionally fulfilling as it was for us. But I am very sure your soul will sing when you try the crackers that started the whole thing.

Of course this recipe comes from Ina Garten, a woman for whom my love grows more fervent with each recipe of hers that I try. Girlfriend’s recipes just work. I might go so far as to say that my love for Ina is on par with my adoration for/obsession with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, but that would just be crazy talk and I won’t let myself go there.

Back to the crackers: lip-smackingly good, crumbly with crisp edges, these crackers are basically a savory shortbread that scream for a cocktail to keep them company–just a ton of good, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh thyme leaves held together with a lot of butter and a little flour to give them some body. The perfect day with a cherished friend and a Santa Monica beach as a backdrop or not, you really can’t go wrong here.

Parmesan Thyme Crackers
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

Makes 2 to 3 dozen crackers, depending on thickness

This recipe is cocktail party perfection–it can be doubled, tripled (or more) easily. The dough can be made weeks in advance and stored in the freezer, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, until you’re ready to bake. The original recipe makes 2 dozen crackers, but I wanted mine a bit thinner and more crisp, so I sliced the rounds thinner and cut the baking time by a few minutes and watched them carefully. When grating the cheese, you want it really fine, almost ground, not shredded, so use the finest holes on your grater or your food processor.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces freshly finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (no stems)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it’s creamy. Add the cheese, thyme leaves, salt and pepper, and beat on low speed to combine. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough is smooth with no dry pockets. The dough will look crumbly, but should hold together when you squeeze some in your fist. Add a tablespoon of water if the dough seems too dry.

Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured board and shape it into a 9 inch long log. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 days, or freeze it for up to 6 months.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees with an oven rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and using a thin, sharp knife, slice it into rounds approximately 3/8ths of an inch thick to make 24 crackers (or slightly thinner if you prefer). Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the crackers are set and lightly golden, about 20-22 minutes (rotate the pan halfway through baking time). Cool completely on the baking sheet set on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.


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