Aug 26, 2009

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

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Somewhere in the back of my increasingly feeble, mother-to-an-almost-toddler mind, I seem to remember learning in school about the hierarchy of basic human needs. I’m pretty sure they included food, water, shelter, chocolate and an aunt and uncle set who are significantly cooler than your parents. Baby C scored on that last bit. A prime example being that her awesome Uncle Pat recently rolled through town on a tour with his band, while her totally boring mother baked cookies for said band. But as it turns out, it’s a tall order, baking for rockstars.

Although homemade cookies of all sorts would probably be welcomed by a van full of boys, you certainly don’t want to send them off with a container full of anything too delicate that might shatter into crumbs while getting rattled around among their gear and various gaming platforms. No, surely a lady cookie wouldn’t do. You need something sturdy. Dude Cookies. Road Biscuits. Like chewy nuggets of midnight dark chocolate, nubbly with tart dried cherries, bittersweet chocolate and toasty pecans.

This recipe comes from Alice Medrich’s great Pure Dessert, a book brimming with the kinds of recipes that turn out flavorful, earthy desserts that are never too sweet and always completely satisying. The recipes are familiar enough to create an instant craving, but there’s always a few ingredients that are off my everyday baking radar tossed into the mix that get me all excited to forage aisles in the market that I might not normally visit. And if that kind of spontaneity isn’t rockstar, well then I don’t know what is. How about staying out until midnight on a weeknight to go see a show in a bar AND paying someone to watch our kid for the first time?! THAT’S rock n’ flippin’ ROLL, people! Hard core!

Yeah. So…
This chocolate cookie recipe is going to be bookmarked for the long haul in the Piece of Cake kitchen. Not only can you turn out these rustic cookies that are perfect for gifting or keeping out on the counter for weekday snacking, you can also make a few tweaks during the prep and baking of them to create the kind of perfectly chocolately, thin, crisp, wafer-like cookies that are the ultimate building blocks for creating different desserts altogether and are getting increasingly harder to find in your typical supermarket (more on that in coming weeks). But for some awesomely talented guys several weeks into a non-stop national tour, it had to be a manned-up version of this recipe, the kind of brawny, chunky chocolate cookie that screams for a glass of milk. Or a handle of Jack. Or whatever those crazy kids are into these days.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

Makes about 4 dozen

The original recipe calls for the dough to come together in a food processor. I’ve never acquired one myself, so I used a standing mixer and have rewritten the recipe as such. The beauty of a food processor is that it doesn’t incorporate a lot of air into the dough, making for a decadent, dense cookie, so if you use a mixer like I did, just keep the speed as low as possible.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into 12 chunks
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 ounces (1 cup) bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips
6 ounces (1 cup) dried tart cherries
1 1/3 cups chopped toasted pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.

Combine the flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, and baking soda in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to blend the dry ingredients thoroughly. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter chunks to the bowl until the butter is incorporated and the mixture looks lumpy and sandy. Increase the speed slightly until the dough begins to clump up around the paddle. Combine the milk and vanilla in a small cup. With the mixer running, add the milk mixture and mix until the dough is smooth and creamy in appearance, like a thick frosting. Fold in the chocolate chips, dried cherries and toasted pecans.

Drop by level tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until the cookies look drier and set–the centers won’t be firm at all, but shouldn’t be too squishy. Cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in airtight containers in single layers separated by waxed paper or parchment.

Aug 19, 2009

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet

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It’s 7:00 am. A mother stands with her wiggly baby on her hip, looking out a picture window, still sleepy, willing her cup of coffee to kick in. The ever-present fog of a San Francisco summer is rolling down the street. It’s been a week since they’ve seen the sun, and it’s beginning to get depressing. Suddenly, a bright ball of light begins to burn through the thick cloud cover above. The mother first squints at the almost-unfamiliar light, then incredulously stares, her eyes as big as her baby’s lush, open mouth. The fog burns off before their very eyes, revealing patches of blue that grow together to form an expanse of clear sunny sky. Could it really be? A sunny San Francisco day in the summer? A fire sparks within the weary mother, burning as bright as the sunlight that is now searing through the window. Sweet Georgia Brown! Go, go, go!!

The mother leaps away from the window, quickly drops to her knees and busies her offspring. “Here, baby, take my Blackberry! Your favorite! Ooh, shiny!! Shiny, right?! And look at this pretty TV remote with all the buttons and mommy’s jingly keys and all these other things that transfix you that we never let you have. Super fun, right baby?! Okay, you sit here now. Mama’s makin’ sorbet!!

It may sound all dramatic, but it’s true, people. Though the stretch of cool, dreary days around here certainly made for excellent baking weather, there haven’t been many opportunities to enjoy summery frozen desserts in the manner in which nature intended–in full sun, on a deck, with peak-of-season fruit melting across the tongue. You’ll notice there’s only been two ice creams showcased here this season–tragic! I had to suck the marrow out of that sudden sunny day and get a batch of fresh strawberry sorbet churning first thing. There would surely be a dinner grilled outside later that day, and a sorbet would cap it off fabulously. Luckily, there was a basket of strawberries sitting in the fridge that were just edging past their prime.

I’d had such high hopes for eating those berries for breakfast, but the relentless cloudy weather had been more of the oatmeal variety, and even in their ruby-red glory, I just kept passing over those berries while skimming the refrigerator shelves in the morning. But I am a strong proponent of No Berry Left Behind. So into the blender went that still-promising fruit with a touch of sugar. I added about 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice just to bring the amount of fruit puree to two cups for a full pint of sorbet (and because I love the flavor combination). I’m thinking other fruit nectars, like peach, would also be lovely here.

I had a sorbet recipe bookmarked in my copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook that called for balsamic vinegar, so I glugged some of that into the blending puree. Anyone who’s had a syrupy balsamic reduction drizzled over berries will tell you that the intense fruity, winey taste of balsamic and strawberries is a match from the gods. It’s not that you actually taste vinegar–you use just a touch–rather you taste the strawberries in a much more profound way. Like strawberries on steroids. Much like my recent pairing of strawberries and Lillet, the vinegar just opens up the whole thing and renders it completely delicious. Coincidentally, I found that sunshine has a similar effect on the flavors of this sorbet–it just tastes that much better on a sunny summer day. Especially if you happen to have been the sun-starved type as of late.

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Makes 1 pint

Many sorbet recipes, including the one from the Zuni book, call for straining the puree. I skipped that step altogether–I like the body that the berry pulp gives the finished dessert and strawberry seeds are so tiny that you don’t even know they’re there. Plus you get twice the amount of finished sorbet without straining the puree. If you want a more refined finished product or have a skeevy relationship with seeds, by all means strain away, but double the recipe so you end up with a full pint of sorbet (one pound of berries yields about a cup of strained puree).

1 pound fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh orange juice or other unsweetened, complimentary fruit juice
4-6 tablespoons of sugar, to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon good balsamic vinegar, to taste

Puree the berries in a blender until smooth. Check to see how much puree you have at this point, and add orange juice to bring the amount up to two cups. Blend to combine. Add the sugar, starting with 4 tablespoons, and blend again. Taste the puree, adding more sugar to taste. You want the puree to be almost too sweet–the sweetness will dull considerably when the sorbet is frozen. Finally, add the balsamic vinegar to taste, beginning with 1/2 teaspoon. Stop adding vinegar when the strawberry flavor is noticeably more pronounced, but you can’t taste the vinegar outright. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Scrape into an airtight container and freeze until firm.

Aug 14, 2009

Three Dozen Cookies, One Stick of Butter (!)

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I realize that with my all-desserts-all-the-time blog that I’m not exactly the poster child for low-fat eats. I’ve said before that I’d much rather make my regular meals lean and mean than give up a good dessert made with real ingredients. I just don’t see the point of making a low-fat cake. But let it be known that when I work out a recipe that cranks out three dozen generously-sized, utterly satisfying cookies with just one stick of butter, I am going to make a Big Deal out of it.

These Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger are the love child of one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes and a banana bread recipe that I’ve had bookmarked for months. Those who are slaves to the low-fat baking movement (or those who read the ubiquitous “healthy treats” articles in womens’ magazines that tell you to do ridiculous things like putting only salsa on your baked potatoes and call fruit dipped in a teaspoon of chocolate syrup “dessert”) will tell you that fruit purees can make a decent substitute for fat in baked goods.

In my opinion, in order for the fruit puree technique to produce truly great results, conditions must be perfect. Those conditions include recipes that call for oil and/or melted butter (think quickbreads and muffins) and also include ingredients that naturally work with the flavor of the fruit puree, should any of it sneak out into the baked good. And I don’t know about you, but banana+chocolate+ginger+cookies=pretty great-sounding to me. I pulled out my ever-present bag of frozen-before-they-could-completely-decay bananas from the freezer and got to work.

It just so happens that one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes is made just like a quickbread, via the muffin method with melted butter–there’s that other aforementioned condition for fruit purees successfully acting as a stand-in for fats. But let’s not get ridiculous, okay? I have no interest in going all Susan Powter on my baking projects, so I only swapped out half the weight of the butter for mashed banana. The sweetness of the fruit also allowed for a third of the sugar to be slashed out too–bonus! All that was left to do was to add a little sparkle with minced candied ginger to the dough, and dish it out in delightfully non-dietetic portions.

I’ve decided that there is only one fragrance that can best the smells of banana bread or chocolate chip cookies wafting through the house and that is the smell of a banana bread/chocolate chip cookie hybrid. Oh. Em. Gee. And thankfully, the taste matched the olfactory delight. These cookies came out fabulously moist and chewy with crisp edges and were so flavorful that I really, honestly didn’t miss the extra butter at all. Even better, they were more delicious the next day. That is to say the two that were left over were more delicious.

I was so overjoyed by the results of this recipe, I had to work out the math. And by my calculations, there are about 3 grams of fat per cookie, half the fat of an average chocolate chip cookie. In the Piece of Cake kitchen, that means you can shove them in your mouth two at a time. Hooray!

Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger

Makes about 3 dozen

Keep an eye on the cookies during the last few minutes of baking–you don’t want them overbaked. Cooling the cookies completely on the sheet will make for a chewier cookie. If you want them more crisp, just transfer them to a wire rack to cool after a minute or so. After portioning the cookies, the dough balls can be frozen and stored in a zip-top freezer bag for up to three months.

2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces mashed banana (about 1/2 cup, or 1 medium)
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% cacao, semi-sweet chips work too)
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, minced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with an oven rack set to the center position. Have ungreased baking sheets ready (I like to line mine with parchment or Silpat, but it’s not necessary).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl by hand, mix together the sugars, melted butter, egg yolks and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in the mashed banana. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until nearly incorporated, then fold in the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger.

Portion tablespoons of dough out onto the baking sheets, 12 per sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 14-16 minutes, or just until golden brown. Don’t overbake. Cool completely on the baking sheets on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Aug 9, 2009

Lovely Lemon Layer Cake

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On my favorite running route, there is an old house that has a huge, neglected lemon tree. It is an absolute crime, I tell you. The branches are always heavy with fruit–the kind of bright, fragrant, thin-skinned lemons that bakers covet. One of these days I am going to break my stride, pound on their door and–panting and flailing my arms in the direction of their insane lemon tree–shout, “What the @#*! is wrong with you?!”. I will also threaten to call the Department of Citrus Protection if they don’t step up and take care of their bounty. I will even encourage them by sharing my favorite lemon dessert recipes, like this lovely lemon layer cake.

From the moment I first saw the recipe, I was on this cake. Delicate white cake, a tart lemon filling and a billowy, marshmallow-like topping? Yes, please. It pretty much dominated my thoughts until I could find the time to work on it. Because in all honesty, this cake is a bit of a Project. That’s not to say the steps are difficult–the cake, filling and frosting are all simple standbys–but each element does take some time. But it had been a while since I’d made a real Wondercake, and it’s easy to plan out your prep for this recipe even if you’ve got obstacles. Like, say, a tiny person who really likes to hang on to your legs as you limp from the stove to the sink. Taking your time putting it together also makes for some delicious antici…pation.

First up is the vibrant lemon curd filling. I am completely enamored with lemon curd as a cake filling. It’s always a great surprise for the eater and basically tastes like sunshine–what’s not to love? Instead of just using the lemon juice and sugar that this recipe called for, I added an extra punch of flavor by working the zest of one of the lemons into the sugar with a mortar and pestle. Incidentally, they need to make a scratch-n-sniff sticker that smells like a kitchen in which someone is making lemon sugar.
After the sugar is sufficiently lemon-nized, it’s blended with fresh lemon juice, egg yolks and butter until it gets so gorgeous and thick and glossy, you can trace a path through it with a spatula. Oh, my. Sieve it and chill it for a few hours, a perfect window to bake and cool the cake (it can also be made a couple days ahead).
And then there’s the cake. The white cake that hugs the luscious lemon filling is the ultimate cake dichotomy–a sweet, delicate vanilla flavor and a light, tender crumb, yet incredibly sturdy for layering. This is thanks to a batter with a two-stage mixing method, which I love because once you get the hang of this method, the results are fabulously consistent. Unlike cakes that start with creaming the butter and sugar together, a two-stage cake starts by mixing the butter right into the dry ingredients, until it resembles fine crumbs.

After the butter is so well-incorporated you can hardly discern any bits of it, a whisked-together mixture of the eggs and milk and vanilla gets drizzled into the spinning batter. The batter for this cake is so velvety, it’s hard not to sigh at the beauty of it all. Oh, I do so love a vanilla cake batter. It is the very definition of dreamy.

When the cake layers have baked and cooled completely and the filling has chilled for a few hours, the real fun begins. I always love assembling a layer cake. I like to pretend I’m a Real Live Pastry Chef, with a charming little bake shop decorated in pink and white and bits of damask, with a big copper espresso machine behind the counter and acres of stainless steel workspace in the back room…what, huh? Oh, yeah, no I’m here. Sorry. Um, anyway.Start by slicing each layer in half. Admire the beautiful crumb and snowy white interior of this cake.

Give your lemon filling a good stir. It will be much firmer than a regular lemon curd–the addition of a bit of gelatin gives it excellent structure and helps it sit prettily between the cake layers and not ooze all over and into the frosting.

Now we get to some layering action. Place one cake layer (golden side down) on a serving platter. Tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges to keep the plate nice and clean while you pretend to be a Real Live Pastry Chef. Spread a third of the filling evenly over the layer, leaving the outer edge of the cake bare.

Repeat with another cake layer (again, golden side down), applying just a bit of pressure so the layers adhere, and then spread on another third of the filling.

I’m pretty sure you know what to do next. You are quick!
Now for the final layer, place it golden side UP. Pulled a fast one on ya, didn’t I? I like to use the bottom half of one of the layers for this step, so that the top of the cake is nice and even.

Some might call this next step optional, but I don’t think so. Use your impeccably clean index finger to swipe up any wayward lemon curd. I think you can guess what the next natural step is after that. Slurp.

And now comes my favorite part of cake making–the prettifying via a gorgeous frosting. Those that follow the goings-on of the Piece of Cake kitchen know there was a recent victory that involved a smackdown with Seven-Minute Frosting. And this cake was the impetus for said victory. Let’s revel in that sweet success one more time, shall we? Ahhhh.

I don’t really see any other way to use a heavenly, cloud-like frosting than en masse. So just go on ahead and pile it on, sister.
I am so glad that my relationship with Seven-Minute Frosting has completely turned a corner because a) I hate being belittled by icing b) it is really delicious and c) it is a dream to work with. You can giddily swoop and swirl this frosting for hours and the only thing that will snap you out of your fanciful ways is your husband demanding to know if that crazy cake is ready yet.

“Um, yeah, almost!” Swoop, swirl, giggle, giggle, swirl.

And here she is. A debutante of the cake world. The kind of cake that everyone should have in their repertoire. Light, whimisical, ooh and ahh-inspiring, it is the ultimate cake for celebrations of all kinds. Even if you’re just celebrating something like making it through another week with an 11-month-old. Or successfully stealing armfuls of contraband lemons from your neighbor’s totally neglected lemon tree.

I kid! But I totally should.

Lemon Layer Cake


Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen


Makes 1 9-inch, 4-layer cake


With the cake and lemon filling recipes cut in half, this recipe makes one adorable 6-inch cake, perfect for serving 4 to 6. If you opt to make a smaller version of this cake, still make the full frosting recipe–you’ll have a generously frosted cake with a bit left over, but the frosting just doesn’t whip as well with smaller proportions. Trust me on this. The filling can be prepared two days ahead, and the cake can be made a day ahead of assembly–just cool the layers completely, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Make the frosting just before putting the cake together.


For the filling:
Zest from two lemons
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 6 lemons)
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (reserve whites for the cake)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and frozen


For the cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened but still cool



Begin by preparing the filling: Measure 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top to soften. With a mortar and pestle or with your fingertips in a small bowl, work the lemon zest into the sugar until the sugar is fragrant and evenly moistened with the oils from the zest.Heat the rest of the lemon juice, the lemon sugar, and salt in a medium non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot but not bubbling. Whisk the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large, non-reactive bowl. Slowly whisk the lemon syrup into the eggs, then return the mixture to the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the curd, stirring constantly, until it reaches 170 degrees and it’s thick enough to draw a trail through it with a spatula. Stir in the softened gelatin until completely dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the frozen butter until the butter has melted and the curd is smooth. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a non-reactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least four hours or up to two days.

To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg whites and vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter pieces one at a time until the mixture resembles fine, even crumbs. Stop the mixer and add all but about 1/2 cup of the wet ingredients. Beat the batter at medium speed until it is pale and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the rest of the wet ingredients, then crank the speed back up to medium and beat for 30 seconds more. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 30 more seconds.

Divide the batter equally among the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean–do not overbake. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans, peel off the parchment and cool completely, right side up.

When the filling has chilled and the cake layers are cool, begin assembling the cake. Slice the cake layers in half horizontally. Place one layer golden side down on a serving platter, and tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges of the cake to protect the platter. Spread a third of the lemon filling on the cake layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the edge of the cake. Repeat twice more with cake layers and filling. Place the top layer of the cake golden side up. Frost with Fluffy White Icing. This cake is best served as soon as possible, but the finished cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated up to one day before serving.

Aug 4, 2009

Caramel Crumb Bars

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I have had quite enough of the fresh ‘n fruity summer desserts around here. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

Mmm-hmm. Those there are Caramel Crumb Bars, and they have easily moved into a position on the Piece of Cake Top 10 List. Buttery and sweet-salty with a creamy caramel filling, they are the stuff of bar cookie dreams. I will be honest with you–this recipe is not about doing anything in moderation. But if you are feeling particularly ridiculous and want to experience the very best that the pairing of sweet cream butter and pure cane sugar has to offer, then please enthusiastically proceed.

It all starts with a simple, simple shortbread crust–just butter, sugar and flour mixed together and pressed into an even layer in a 9×13-inch pan. And don’t even think you can save yourself by halving this recipe–because you’ll just end up making the other half the next day. So just go for it. Trust.

Most of the shortbread dough gets pressed into the pan (a sheet of plastic wrap makes quick work of getting the sticky dough to cooperate) and then popped into the fridge to chill, but some of the dough gets reserved and mixed with a little extra flour to make a crumb topping. Again, just use your hands–nature’s best baking tools.

Now comes the huminuh, huminuh part of this equation. There is no other way to say this, people, so I will just come out with it. More butter, more sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk. I told you this recipe was ridiculous. Cook them together quickly so they morph into a smooth, dreamy caramel so beautiful that it will make you forget all about the insane amount of calories in this recipe. Almost.

When the dough has chilled and the caramel has had a chance to cool a bit, take a deep breath and prepare to enter a hypnotic state. Oh, man.

All that’s left to do is sprinkle on the crumb topping and bake the bars until they become bubbly and golden on the edges (a see-through glass pan will make it easier to check the bottom of the crust for doneness).

After the baking time is up, hang tight for about 20 more minutes to let things set up a bit, then remove the bars from the pan and cut them while they’re still warm–warm and chewy with a buttery, sandy shortbread crust. And although it will be difficult, if you can let them cool completely, the texture and flavor will get even better.

With the exception of Communists, everyone is a sucker for sweet and buttery with a hint of salty. It’s the magical mild salty finish that keeps you heading back for another, and another…don’t say I didn’t warn you in the first place.

Caramel Crumb Bars
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker

Makes 2 dozen bars

Save the wrappers from the softened butter sticks–it’s the perfect amount with which to grease the parchment. Note that the flour measurement calls for it to be spooned into the cup and leveled off–this will give you a different amount of flour in the cup than the dip and sweep method and noticeably effect the texture of the crust.

For the crust:

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour (spooned and leveled)

For the filling:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13-inch pan with parchment paper or foil and lightly grease it.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Turn the mixer down to low and gradually mix in 2 1/4 cups of the flour until the dough is smooth, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary to ensure there are no dry pockets.

Place 1/4 of the dough into a small bowl and set aside. Lightly press the rest of the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan with your palms (a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough will prevent it from sticking to your hands). Chill the pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the topping and filling.

Make the crumb topping by working the remaining 1/4 cup of flour into the reserved dough with your fingertips until large crumbs form. Set aside at room temperature.

To make the filling, place the 4 tablespoons of butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, allowing the mixture to bubble gently for about 10 minutes–it will thicken and darken in color slightly. Scrape the caramel into an aluminum bowl and allow it to cool for about five minutes.

Pour the filling over the chilled dough and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the filling. Bake until the crust browns and the filling darkens in color and bubbles, about 30 minutes. Allow the bars to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing the slab from the pan to a cutting board. Cut into 24 bars and cool completely before serving. The bars can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature if serving within a day, and wrapped tightly and frozen for up to two months after that (thaw the bars at room temperature).

Jul 30, 2009

Nectarine Ice Cream

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Holler if you hear me, dear readers: do we really need one more food blogger waxing poetic about the vibrant bounty of summer fruits that’s out there right now? I didn’t think so. Therefore I will save you the adjectives and get to the point. Get to the market. Scoop up an armful of yellow nectarines that are just so perfect right now. Make this ice cream ASAP.

There really is nothing more delightfully “olde tymey summer” in feeling than a home-churned ice cream teeming with chunks of stone fruits at their peak. It’s a porch swings-lemonade stands-checkered tablecloths kind of greatness. And the way the cream plays off of the juicy, candy-sweet flesh of the fruit…oh, man…quintessential summer flavors, I tell you. Most of us would probably think of peaches as the classic pairing with ice cream, but when you use tender-skinned nectarines instead, you get the same sunny flavor while skipping the step of having to skin the fruit. And with the summer flying by as it is, who would argue with a cut down on prep time?

After you hunk up a bunch of farm fresh nectarines, simply cook them in water for a few minutes, add a bit of sugar, and blitz it into a chunky puree with a dreamy base of heavy and sour creams. The tang of the sour cream cuts the sweetness ever-so-slightly, and adds brilliant dimension and a clean finish to a classic flavor profile, making the frozen ice cream fantasically refreshing.

And the whole thing is really that easy, people. No egg custard making involved. Just fruit, sugar and cream, all churnin’ together and lovin’ on each other. Sound sexy? Oh, well, that’s because it is.

It’s no secret we’ve been enjoying our fair share of summer fruit desserts around here. And in this downright dreary San Francisco summer weather, it’s rarely too hot to turn on the oven to do a baked fruit dessert. But for those of you who actually see the sun and feel its rays on a regular basis all summer long like normal people, this ice cream is one of the very best ways to eat the season. It’s the perfect little button to an outdoor summer meal on a hot day. Or to help remind those of us who are perpetually fogged in that it is indeed late July.

Nectarine Ice Cream
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop

Makes about 1 quart

This recipe is a great way to use “dead-ripe” fruit, the super-sweet specimens full of soft spots that make eating them out of hand too messy. Resist the temptation to cut the sugar in this recipe, even if your fruit is very sweet. Though the unfrozen ice cream batter will taste almost cloyingly sweet, it will dull once the ice cream is frozen. Leaving the skins on the nectarines not only cuts down on prep time, but lends a pretty, rosy hue.

1 1/3 pounds ripe nectarines (about 4 large), pitted and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

In a medium, non-reactive saucepan over medium heat, cook the nectarines with the water until soft throughout, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sugar, and cool to room temperature.

Place the sour cream, heavy cream, vanilla and lemon juice in a blender or food processor. Add the fruit mixture and blend until the ice cream batter is smooth but still slightly chunky.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, or speed-chill it by pouring it into in an aluminum bowl set over a larger bowl full of ice and cold water, stirring often until the ice cream batter is very cold. Freeze the ice cream in your ice cream maker according to the manfacturer’s instructions.

Jul 28, 2009

Seven Minute Frosting

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There are a few things that give me a fair amount of anxiety in life. One is air travel. And not just the flying in the airplane part of it. It’s the whole thing–the lines, the crowds, the sweating while trying to beat the clock and lugging bags and tripping over myself. Ugh. Another personal stressor–wholly embarrassing to admit since I keep a baking blog–is Seven-Minute Frosting.

Seven minutes?! Schaa! Try seven years. Until very recently, I’ve had nothing but tragic, inexplicable failures with this frosting that is supposedly the simplest of them all. Regardless of the recipes I would try or how carefully I would follow them, no amount of whip-whip-whipping would ever make that frothy syrup spin into the billowy, glossy frosting that was promised to me. Cut to me in tears, chucking the offending liquid into the disposal and settling for a much more reliable American buttercream. Until now. I have emerged victorious over Seven-Minute Frosting, people. Boo ya!

I don’t know what happened–I didn’t do anything differently than I had in the past. But for some reason the planets recently aligned in such a way that a batch of Seven-Minute Frosting finally came together in the quick and easy way everyone always says it should. It started with an awesome cake recipe on America’s Test Kitchen (Christopher Kimball–Be Mine?) that featured my icing nemesis perched on a lovely, lemony layer cake. I scoffed. But still, I was inspired. And so into the kitchen I went, whisk attachment held high, ready to take on the flippin’ frosting that had always flippin’ alluded me. And you know what? The first batch flippin’ failed. AS PER USUAL! Gah!

BUT! The second try was a blazing success, and I stared in amazement as I watched the sugary syrup magically billow up the whisk before my very eyes. Eureka!

All of this dramatic prose to say this: it really shouldn’t be this hard for you, dear readers. Millions of bakers swear by this frosting. And unlike me, I’m sureyou won’t be ridden with a freakish inability to make this frosting happen from the get-go. I believe in you. Just bang all the ingredients into the bowl of your standing mixer (or another aluminum bowl) and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until the temperature hits 160 degrees.

Then simply put the bowl onto your mixer (or get your electric hand mixer set up), and let ‘er rip. And watch the magic happen. When it starts to look gorgeous and thick and glossy, almost like shaving cream, stop the mixer and give it a check–it should be room temperature and have a nice firm peak.

Now the world of Seven-Minute Frosting has been opened to you. If you can keep yourself and your family from eating the whole lot of it straight from the bowl with a soup spoon, the possibilities are endless. I like the modern twist of adding a bit of lemon juice when putting it on white cakes to cut the sweetness just a touch and keep the cake from being a flat, endless sea of sugar, but I’d stick to the traditional addition of vanilla extract for a nice balance with dark chocolate cakes. And glory of glories, you can torch (yessss!) the finished frosting for a genius toasted marshmallow effect on cakes of all kinds and on pies in lieu of traditional meringue.

So whip yourself up some of this heavenly stuff in celebration of the fact that my Seven-Minute Frosting curse has finally been broken. Hooray!

And since I’ve put one of my (now former…for the moment, anyway) kitchen failures out there, let’s all clear the air: with what culinary demons do you wrestle? You know, those sticky wicket recipes that you can never seem to get just right. Be honest, and then we’ll do a big group hug.

Fluffy White Icing (Seven-Minute Frosting)
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

Makes enough to frost a 9-inch layer cake

I love including lemon juice to add a bit of dimension to this very sweet frosting–the flavor works fabulously on white or yellow cakes, especially those layered with fruit fillings. If you’re making a cake where the extra tang won’t work as well–a deep chocolate cake, for instance–simply swap out the lemon juice for an extra tablespoon of water and add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. In either case, use and serve this frosting as soon as possible–it does not hold well.

2 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt

In the bowl of a standing mixer or another aluminum bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Place the bowl over a medium saucepan with about an inch of gently simmering water, making sure the water level doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir the mixture constantly and check the temperature often with an instant-read thermometer until it reaches 160 degrees.

Dry off the bottom of the bowl and place it on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or set up an electric hand mixer). Whip the frosting on medium speed until it becomes opaque and soft peaks form, about five minutes. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and whip until the frosting is glossy, billowy and reaches a stiff peak and cools down to room temperature, about five minutes more. Use immediately and serve as soon as possible.


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