Oct 23, 2009

POC Tips: A Better Butterer

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In the last POC tip, I professed my undying love for cooking spray. And that love will stand until the end of time. So imagine my disappointment when I come across a recipe and I can see that cooking spray just won’t fit the bill for pan greasing purposes. Quelle horreur!

Well, there are times when a pan really does benefit from being buttered instead of misted with oil, like when a batter or dough is so thick that it will just absorb the sprayed oil or push it all around the pan while its being spread or pressed into place. Or when greasing a pan with butter lends flavor and browning to the crust of the baked good, and that’s the recipe writer’s intention. Despite the fact that I knew these truths to be self-evident, I still would sigh at the thought of having to mush perfectly good butter all over the place. Until I discovered this little trick.

Look to your butter wrappers, people! They tend to have the perfect amount of butter for greasing still clinging to them after the butter sticks are unwrapped. Especially if the recipe calls for the butter to be at room temperature (which is so often the case). It’s a most frugal little trick that not only makes buttering pans easier and faster, it keeps hands clean, too. And I need clean hands to keep a firm grip on things like my beloved can of cooking spray.

Oct 19, 2009

Chewy Apple-Oat Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

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Aside from the occasional whimsical celebration cake or all-or-nothing recipe involving crazy things like corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk, most recipes that come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen are relatively simple, without a whole lot of complicated stuff going on. As much as I like a culinary challenge, my favorite treats are the kind that sit quietly on the counter and softly call to you all day long as you pass through the kitchen. You know–a sliver here, a nibble there, until all that’s left is crumbs and you wonder where the whole thing went. But some things don’t fit so neatly in to either category. Like a humble, chunky, apple-studded bar cookie made fancy with a slick of decadent icing.

When I first saw this recipe, I thought, Sweet Lord! That’s a whole lotta concepts going on. I mean, these bars are basically a chewy apple pie-oatmeal cookie-cheesecake hybrid. And if you can think of any more delicious things to cram into one sentence, please report to me. Because after I wrapped my brain around the recipe, I could not get it out of my head. With a few tweaks to the add-ins and more sophisticated icing than the original recipe called for, these bars emerged as one of the more addictive things to come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen in recent months.

If you’re looking for a great dessert for a tailgate or a pumpkin-carving get-together or just a little something to take over to a friend’s house for coffee and Oprah on a rainy day, look no further. The nubbly bar cookie base is crowd-pleasingly familiar, but the white chocolate and cream cheese frosting dresses it up just a bit and adds an amazing punch of flavor. Dusted with cinnamon and cut into two-bite-sized bars, they’re autumnal party perfection.

And a quick word about cinnamon: have you ever gotten your hands on some good Vietnamese cinnamon? Because it will completely Blow. Your. Mind. In fact, you may question what kind of lie you’ve been living using that drab, dusty brown powder from the supermarket all these years. Vietnamese cinnamon is like cinnamon on steroids. It smells and tastes exactly like Red Hots candy, people–hot and so intensely spiced and sweet that you’d think it couldn’t possibly come from nature. But it does! And if you’re me you trek regularly to a bulk foods emporium with a spectacular spice section to buy it by the cupful while people look at you suspiciously. And then once you get it home, you shove the filled spice tin under every nose that enters the house while being a Vietnamese cinnamon-raving lunatic. It’s really something. With high baking season upon us, there’s no better time to track some down.

Chewy Apple-Oat Bars with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing
Loosely adapted from the Land O’ Lakes website, of all places

Refrigerating the bars after icing them will set the icing as well as make for easy, clean cutting of the bars. Their taste and texture actually improve a day after baking, so make them a day ahead whenever possible. For a less decadent variation, skip the icing, and swap out the white chocolate chips for toasted walnuts.

Makes about 20 two-bize-sized bars

For the apple-oat bars:

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats (not quick cooking)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup diced apple (about one small apple, I like Fuji or Honeycrisp)
4 ounces white chocolate chips

For the white chocolate cream cheese icing:

2 ounces white chocolate chips
2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar (more or less, depending on your sweet tooth and how stiff you want the icing to be)
Ground cinnamon, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil (with a few inches of overhang on all sides) and spray the foil lightly with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and oats and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugars and beat until smooth and lightened in color. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat in the egg and vanilla until well-blended. On low speed, blend in the dry ingredients. On the lowest speed or by hand, stir in the apple chunks and white chocolate chips.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake just until a toothpick comes out clean, about 35-38 minutes. Do not overbake. Let the bars cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then use the foil “handles” to remove the slab from the pan. Let cool completely on the rack in the foil sleeve, at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the icing. In the microwave, melt 2 ounces of white chocolate chips in a small microwave-safe bowl in 30 second bursts at 50% power, stirring after each interval until smooth. In a small bowl, beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until smooth. Add the melted white chocolate and beat until smooth. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar until the icing is slightly thickened and sweetened to your liking.

When the bars are completely cool, spread the icing in an even layer over the bars, using the foil to create a dam of sorts that will keep the icing from dripping down the edges of the bars. Refrigerate the bars with the foil sleeve until the icing is firm, at least 1 hour.

Remove the slab from the foil to a cutting board and dust with cinnamon. With a large, sharp knife, cut into about 20 bars. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

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!


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