Dec 2, 2008

Gifting Toffee

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It may be totally impossible to say that phrase and not positively sing it whilst clapping your hands and maybe bouncing a little on your heels. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been doing a lot of all three of those actions lately for reasons other than holiday confections. I know it’s been quite a while since my last post, but I have a really good reason this time…

Baby C was born late August, a full two weeks early, and the surprises have not stopped since. She just turned three months the other day, and we are just hitting the sweet spot now (like all the books predicted, my baby is quite punctual and definitely didn’t get that from me) where she greets mommy and daddy with big silly smiles and is falling into an excellent eating, playing and sleeping routine. Of course, these are all recent developments–the first two months were mainly a crash course in parental survival that no book or message board could ever have prepared me for. I wondered if I would ever be able to have any sort of hobby again that didn’t involve a Baby Bjorn.

With the exception of a carrot cake deliriously baked at two weeks post-partum (and it was delicious), there hasn’t been much activity on the baking front around here. And even if I’d had the brain power to blog, I couldn’t bear to attempt to justify to you why the husband and I have eaten our way through no less than three boxes of Betty Crocker’s Triple Chunk Brownie Mix since Baby C’s arrival. I thought my KitchenAid mixer might need therapy, its sobs were so heavy. We don’t believe in crying it out, so you can understand how heartbreaking it was to leave its gears so cold for so long.

Anyway, my point is that after a couple months of stumbling through the days with a newborn, things are getting back to normal around here. Well, it’s our new normal, actually, and it’s really pretty great. We’re getting ready for Baby C’s first Christmas, and she’s even showing interest in what goes on the kitchen, kicking and chirping from her bouncer seat while I tell her about what’s going into the pot or the mixing bowl. It’s sort of like doing a live cooking show for an audience of one and I love it. She’s entertained and I’m feeling more like myself again by working on some new recipes that just might become part of this year’s Christmas treat tins.

Excuses to bake and candymake are plentiful right now, people–I hope you’re taking advantage of that. If I can churn out some perfectly buttery, salty-sweet toffee (embellished with chocolate and almonds, no less) between changes and feedings and lollygagging on a Gymini play mat that plays Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Major” overandoverandoverandover, then anyone can. Except for babies, they really should be kept away from cooking candy.

This toffee is a mashup of a few different recipes, and after a few tries (one that ended up splattered in a burnt, smoking mess all over my kitchen counter; do pay attention to your heat settings and try to minimize distractions, i.e. babies that wake up suddenly and very cranky from an afternoon nap) I arrived at this recipe that delivers the kind of toffee I love. It has a high butter to sugar ratio, and a good amount of salt that cuts through the sweetness of the candy and the chocolate coating. The snowy layer of almost-ground almonds dusted over the chocolate rather than in the toffee layer offer extra interest in terms of flavor, texture and an elegant appearance (although you can totally stir in chopped nuts later if you prefer). And it also saves you the embarrassment of having to lick your fingers clean of melty candy, since it will be bad enough that you’ll be eating a quarter of the batch all by yourself as soon as it’s cooled.

Gifting Toffee
Makes about 2 pounds

This recipe makes enough for two nice-sized gift tins of toffee. If you don’t have fleur del sel, kosher salt can be used, but avoid using plain table salt as it can give a bitter, tinny flavor to the salty-sweet candy. The impressive amount of butter in this recipe makes refrigeration or even freezing a good idea if it will be stored for longer than a few days. This recipe can easily be doubled with great results, but try working with these smaller amounts, or maybe even halving this recipe as a practice run before making a bigger batch.

1 cup whole raw almonds
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 generous teaspoon fleur de sel (a level teaspoon of kosher salt also works, see note)
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
6 ounces high quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)

Before you begin cooking the toffee, have at the ready a large cookie sheet (or two if you are doubling the recipe). I like to line mine with silicone liners, as it makes flipping the toffee while coating it much easier. Place half the almonds in a blender, food processor or clean coffee grinder and take them for a spin until they are chopped so fine they are almost like a powder with the occasional hunk of almond in the mix and set aside. Roughly chop the other half of the almonds by hand (for stirring into the candy later) and set aside.

In a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan, begin melting the butter over medium-high heat with the salt. Once the butter is about three-quarters melted, add the sugar all at once, followed by the corn syrup, and begin stirring immediately. Continue stirring, gently in a figure-eight motion, until the butter is completely melted and the sugar has begun to dissolve, about 5-7 minutes–the mixture will turn from looking like a separated mess into something much more smooth and homogenous. It will also just begin to bubble at this point and take on a lovely blond shade. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir the candy occasionally. Think low and slow–the bubbling will be sort of groovy and dreamy-looking, not a full, rapid boil.

Once you notice a change in the color of the candy–about 10-15 minutes later–clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan. Continue stirring occasionally. You are looking for the candy to take on a beautiful, creamy toffee color and have the slightest scent of burnt sugar. The candy should ultimately reach a temperature of 290 degrees (soft crack stage), but once it hits about 280, take it off the heat, as it will continue cooking further and it can burn quickly. As soon as you remove it from the heat, stir in the almonds you’ve chopped by hand. Immediately (and very carefully) pour the toffee onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a heatproof spatula to pop any bubbles that rise to the surface of the candy while it’s still hot. Set the toffee aside to cool for about 30 minutes.

When the toffee is cooled, melt half of the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring after each one. Spread the chocolate in a thin, even layer over the toffee and sprinkle generously with the ground almonds. Pop the sheet pan in the freezer for about five minutes, or until the chocolate is completely set underneath the almonds. While the candy sets, melt the second half of the chocolate chips. Carefully flip the candy slab over and repeat the chocolate and ground almond embellishment process, putting the sheet back into the freezer for a final set. When the chocolate is completely hardened, break the toffee into charmingly irregular pieces and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Recipe edited 12/14/09

Jul 4, 2008

Lighter Banana Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

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The further along I get in my pregnancy, the more my sweet tooth seems to change. Or, rather, the more the part of my brain that knows I should be eating more nutrient-dense foods wins out over the part of me that really just wants frosting out of a can. I mean, let’s not get crazy, I still indulge in a good frothy-looking cupcake or a shiny glazed donut here and there, and some days only a hunk of chocolate will cut it (though those days are pretty much long gone since I realized that for this pregnant lady, chocolate is a one-way ticket to all-night heartburn agony,

sniffle, cry

). But when it comes to my own baking projects, I’ve been pulled towards “earthier” items that have at least a modicum of nutrition (think whole grains, fruits, etc.). I know! I can’t believe it either. It’s really something crazy.

Take what happened the other day–I wanted the aforementioned frothy-looking cupcake something fierce, piled high with buttercream, which unfortunately they make no mention of in “The Pregnancy Diet” section of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. But after a few minutes of hemming and hawing, I decided I really should bake something slightly more virtuous, and I settled on a banana cupcake with a glazey, lightened up cream cheese icing. And so it began, using the brilliant Rose Levy Beranbaum‘s Banana Cake recipe as my starting point, and doctoring up a classic cream cheese frosting to cut the fat and the amount of icing that could be dolloped on each cupcake.

The finished cakes taste of a bold, flavorful banana bread, peppered with those mysterious black speckles that always appear inside after baking (can someone enlighten me as to what these speckles are? Seeds, random fiber, what?), and have a wonderfully springy, toothsome quality that contrasts in the most interesting way with the tender, delicate, cake-like crumb. And technically, this cake is a quick bread given its mixing method (wet ingredients all combined at once and mixed into the dries, no creaming of butter or sugar involved) but the use of cake flour instead of all-purpose changes the texture entirely.

The use of light cream cheese instead of full-fat yielded a topping with a thinner consistency (“light” versions of dairy products almost always contain more water than their full-fat counterparts), but retained all the flavor. A glorious, fluffy buttercream it is not, but that was kind of my point–I wanted a little to go a long way, making the whole thing less sugary while still getting that suggestion of a tangy-sweet cream cheese frosting. So now would be a good time to mention that if you want something fluffier, make the frosting recipe with full-fat cream cheese and sour cream. But give the lighter version a try if you happen to be going through a more virtuous baking phase like myself–you won’t be disappointed.

Banana Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing
Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum and Baking Illustrated

Makes about 18 cupcakes

As is the case with banana bread, use your sad, brown, way overripe bananas that you bought in too large of a bunch to eat before they all went bad here. I keep a stash of these in my freezer–they thaw quickly on the countertop, but make sure they are room temperature (a quick zap in the microwave will warm them quickly) before incorporating them into batters.

For the cakes:

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large ripe bananas, peeled
2 tablespoons light sour cream
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
10 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into cubes

For the icing:

4 ounces light cream cheese, softened but still cool
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1/2 tablespoon light sour cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch salt
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 12-cup muffin tins or line them with paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.

In a separate bowl using an electric hand mixer (or in a food processor or blender if you don’t mind the extra dirty dishes) combine the bananas and sour cream, blending until smooth (a few tiny banana chunks may remain). Add the eggs and vanilla and blend again until well combined. Add half the banana mixture to the dry ingredients along with the butter and beat on low speed until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Scrape down the bowl and increase the speed to medium, beating for about 1-2 minutes. Add the rest of the banana mixture in two batches, beating after each addition until well blended. Portion the batter into the prepared muffin tins and bake until the tops spring back when touched and a toothpick comes out clean, about 15-17 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks before icing.

To make the icing, beat together the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, vanilla and salt until smooth. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar until well-combined. When the cupcakes are completely cooled, top them generously with the cream cheese icing. Refrigerate any leftover icing.

Jun 25, 2008

Tartine’s Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

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I’m back! And I brought cookies! See?

Oh, so…you want an explanantion? Okay, so I guess there’s a few things we should talk about. I realize, dear readers, that I haven’t posted in two months, but I really can’t believe it–the time seems to have flown by. And it’s funny, because the individual days seem oh-so-long as the husband and I count down the days to our first baby’s Birth Day. That’s right, people, Piece of Cake has a Bun in the Oven. And I have for quite a while now, more than six months to be honest. So you can look back at the break I took at the beginning of the year and sort of attribute that to not wanting to eat or really do much at all, let alone bake something. And then the resurgence of my appetite, sweet tooth and creativity with my last barrage of posts before I disappeared for a while again. Sigh. I’m afraid life is not going to get any more predictable than that anytime soon. Like for the next 18 years at least. But we are excited and happier than ever around here. I am feeling great and hopeful and full of wonder and worried and all the things I hear a first time mother-to-be should be feeling.

I’ve found the most common question from people who find out we’re expecting is “What have you been craving?”. Well, it’s more like what haven’t I been craving. It changes everyday, really. I hear of women having to have a certain thing at a certain time everyday just to be able to function, but I haven’t found that to be the case. It’s totally unpredictable–some days I can’t get enough milk or fruit (virtuous!) and other days I will plow through half a dozen cookies and wonder where they all went. Then I look down at the crumbs that have fallen all over my growing belly and know the answer. There was the evening early on in my pregnancy where I shoved an entire can of black olives into my face at an alarming rate (upon telling a nurse at my doctor’s office this story, she asked all cute-like if I’d put them all on my fingers before eating them and I responded, “Lady, I didn’t have that kind if time!”). I try to not give in to every whim, though. I still haven’t had any Little Debbie Star Crunches or Zebra Cakes–huminuh, huminuh. I do feel a twinge of guilt at eating such processed and plasticky (though delicious) items when I’m reminded with nudges, kicks, rubs and rolls that there is a little person inside me who is trying to grow on whatever I put into my mouth.

So I’ve been trying to be a good mommy to this baby whom I already love so much I am certain my heart will explode when we finally meet face to face. I am still exercising regularly and drinking loads of water, getting my fruits and vegetables in everyday and have cut my caffeine down so much I am sure I deserve a major award. And of course, no more Moonshine for me. Plus, when I do all those things, I feel a lot less guilty about indulging in made-from-scratch desserts (or store-bought ice cream, whatever). Often. It is a miracle I passed my recent glucose tolerance test with flying colors. For those of you who don’t know, this is something every pregnant lady has to do to check for gestational diabetes. It involves slamming a sugary beverage that tastes like orange soda that’s been sitting out on the curb for about a week and then sitting in starving anticipation for an hour before having one’s blood drawn. Worst!

Anyway, I am relieved I passed the test because if I failed that would mean going on a no-sugar diet and that would just be bonkers. Because like I said, I haven’t suddenly lost my sweet tooth the way I’ve inexplicably lost my ability to eat chicken (ugh, gag, shudder). Although I haven’t been saying so, I have indeed been baking during this last blogging hiatus. It’s just that none of it has been terribly interesting. I’ve been revisiting many of my old, comfortable favorites from this blog, in addition to recipes that everyone knows and loves from the side panels of various baking ingredients. And there were a few failures that my weepy days just couldn’t handle–Tartine’s Almond Rochers, for one (though I found out I wasn’t the only one that had sucky results with this recipe) and a banana tea cake that was delicious and cooked through but had a bizarre tunnel running through the center of it (I will be retooling this recipe and trying again in the near future as the bold banana flavor and chewy crumb was just too fabulous to abandon it on account of aesthetics).

But I thought today’s baking adventure was successful and blog-worthy, and so here I am to share another recipe from the Tartine cookbook. I feel like I’ve worked my way through enough recipes in this book to give my honest final opinion of it, and to be perfectly honest, it is far from foolproof. The recipes are just not forgiving or sometimes, it seems, terribly accurate. I’m not sure why–perhaps many of the recipes are scaled-down versions of the bakery’s recipes that just didn’t translate well to smaller batches or maybe there just wasn’t enough recipe testing going on by people who hadn’t worked with the recipes hundreds of times before. But I’ve heard I’m not alone in having a few unexplained, really disappointing results from recipes in this book. It seems like most problems are related to the baking times and/or the baking temperatures of the recipes or how many portions you can expect out of a batter or dough. Our oven is barely seven months old and I always double-check the temperature with an oven thermometer when baking, so I know that’s not the problem, and I follow the portioning instructions to the letter, even using my digital scale for accuracy. So I just scratch my head and pout a little and am thankful that the husband will eat nearly everything sweet and baked, even if it looks nothing like it’s supposed to.

The Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal-Walnut Cookies from the Tartine cookbook, however, worked out beautifully. Again, I take issue with the suggested baking time because these cookies go from nowhere near done to a smidge too browned in a nanosecond, but the extra browning didn’t result in a dry, overbaked or disappointing final product. I opted to leave the walnuts out of this recipe, and it worked out just fine–the lacy, delicate landscape of these cookies is just texturized enough with oats and chocolate and the crisp edges offer plenty of crunch, making the nuts truly optional. And beware–although you have to pat these monster cookies into shape a bit, they spread even further while baking, so don’t attempt more than, say, six per baking sheet. You could always portion them much smaller and trim the baking time in half, which I think I’ll do next time. I halved the original recipe with fine results, making one dozen with-child-sized cookies.

Chocolate Chip-Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Tartine

Makes 1 dozen monster-sized cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons molasses
1 large egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

6 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips

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

Stir together the flour, oats, baking powder and baking soda and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy. Slowly rain in the sugar and beat until the mixture is lighter in color and fluffy and then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the molasses until well-combined. Add the egg and beat until everything is incorporated. Scrape down the bowl once more, and then beat in the vanilla, milk and salt. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the dry ingredients until well-mixed. Fold in the chocolate chips by hand.

Portion the dough onto the prepared baking sheets (about 75 grams per cookie if you are a sucker for uniform cookies) using two spoons, leaving plenty of space between each cookie, six per sheet. Moisten your fingertips slightly with water and flatten each cookie evenly, to a diameter of about three inches. Bake for 10-12 minutes, one sheet at a time, rotating halfway through baking, until the cookies have spread considerably and the edges are well-browned and paler towards the centers. Let cool for a few minutes on the baking sheets to allow the cookies to set up a bit before transferring them to wire racks to cool completely.

Apr 27, 2008

Malted Milk Ice Cream

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Way back this past Christmas, I got so many great sweet-treat-making-related gifts, it was just all too much. I don’t even think I told you about any of them. For shame!

Sidebar: On a very selfish note, if you want to avoid being given more crazy looking socks or self-help books or handbags made of seatbelts or things of this nature and instead get things you’d really want for holidays or your birthday, well, my advice to you is to start a blog about something specific that you love and make sure everyone you know knows about it.

If I had to pick a few favorites out of my holiday gift bunch, they would have to be a totally adorable and Midwestern gift of a crisp, white apron with the name of this blog embroidered on it from my aunt, the Tartine cookbook plus a sparkly, hot pink Le Creuset silicone spatula from my sister, and the long-coveted ice cream attachment for my KitchenAid mixer from my mom and dad. I’ve broken in the first three gifts several times over by now, but had yet to even take the poor ice cream maker out of the box until very recently. And thankfully, when I did finally get the ice cream maker whirring I did it the right way and chose a recipe from David Lebovitz’s practically-perfect-in-every-way ice cream cookbook The Perfect Scoop before I even figured out what a dasher is.

For my first ice cream experiment, I finally settled on the Malted Milk Ice Cream. Now, I hadn’t had malted milk anything in, oh, I don’t know how long, but just reading the recipe had my eyes wide and mouth watering for it and all things malted and milky. I couldn’t wait to whip up a batch of this ice cream; I needed it at that very moment. Unfortunately, ice cream making doesn’t offer instant gratification, and certainly not if you haven’t actually read the ice cream maker’s instructions and tuned into the “freeze the bowl for at least 15 hours before using” part of the equation. Shake fists here.

But I gathered my patience. And I froze bowls and shopped for ingredients (three stores alone just to find malted milk powder, people!) and chilled custard and busted up malted milk balls and waited for the soft, baby ice cream to freeze and firm up into its final delicious form. And all told, it was worth the wait. I mean, I know the unbelievable joy of fresh, house-made ice cream, but when it’s actually made in one’s own house, it really is something else altogether. Like making homemade marshmallows, there is something to be said for making something decadent with one’s own hands (albeit with the aid of kitchen gadgetry) that could be much more easily and quickly obtained from the corner store.

Like I’d heard about all of Lebovitz’s brilliant recipes, the ice cream itself was dense, had a gorgeous texture and indeed seemed like it would live up to the “one perfect scoop” concept (make an ice cream so rich and delicious that one small, perfect scoop is all anyone would ever need). On the flip side, maybe I found this particular ice cream to be a bit too much for even one perfect scoop; it was so full of heavy cream and yolks and sugar and candy that one perfect bite was all I needed at one time.

The sweetness of the ice cream base along with the addition of two cups of crushed candy was a serious sugar rush and approaching cloying territory. I kept musing aloud that I wish it had some salted nuts or something swirled through it to break up the sea of sweet (and even stirred some natural crunchy peanut butter into a small cup of the ice cream at one point–despite the added fat to an already rich situation, it really helped make it more balanced and crave-worthy). As you can tell from this blog’s subject, I don’t fear sugar and so of course I found the ice cream from this recipe to be tasty, but it’s always going to be more of a sweet-salty balance that has me bonkers for a recipe. If I unleashed this ice cream at, say, a birthday party full of six-year-olds, they would make me President of Everything. It’s all a matter of where the taster is at with this level of sweetness.

But the way the recipe steps came together like a symphony and the ice cream itself set up perfectly has me marking several of the book’s recipes for my ice cream making to-do list. For my personal tastes, I might be seeking out the recipes that use whole milk or half and half instead of mostly heavy cream and less egg yolks and sugar from here on out, but I am excited to try more recipes from this book. Even though I wasn’t dying over this recipe, I want to pass it along to you because the ice cream base itself is really delicious and the unique malted milk flavor would pair well with a variety of fruits and other, less sugary add-ins (like I said, it was really dynamite with crunchy, unsweetened natural peanut butter), and will eventually give it another go, maybe using one of Lebovitz’s own add-in recipes in the back of his book instead of the crushed candy.

Malted Milk Ice Cream
From David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

Instead of chasing bits of malted milk balls around your countertops while trying to chop them with a knife, place the candy in a large zip top bag and give it a good bashing with the end of a rolling pin.

1 cup half-and-half
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup malt powder
6 large egg yolks
2 cups malted milk balls, coarsely chopped

In a medium saucepan, warm the half-and-half, sugar, and salt. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the heavy cream, vanilla, and malt powder and set a mesh strainer on top.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and whisk it into the malted milk mixture. Stir until cool over an ice bath.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. As you remove the ice cream from the machine, fold in the chopped malted milk balls. Scrape the ice cream into a freezer-safe container (big enough to hold about 1 1/2 quarts), cover and freeze until firm.

Apr 24, 2008

Chocolate Whoppers

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Oh, man. I’m sorry, I’m blogging with my mouth full right now. Anyway, I know I just told you about a recipe that you just have to try, and here I am, pushing another one on you. But trust me, again. This recipe is really, really something. And! It’s from one of my favorite food-world people, the fantastically classy Sara Foster. I’ve never been to her famed market of all things delicious in Durham, North Carolina, but her great cookbooks of Foster’s Market’s favorites certainly make it seem pilgramage-worthy. And one of the most sought-after goodies at her market is the sigh-while-you-chew-them Chocolate Whoppers. If the name isn’t enough to send you running to the kitchen, arms flailing, then there’s something wrong with your soul that you might want to get checked out.

I was reminded of this recipe by a fabulous couple that invited the husband and I over for a delicious dinner this past weekend. They lived in North Carolina for quite some time so they have had the Real Deal Chocolate Whoppers straight from the market, in addition to making them at home using a recipe from one of Sara Foster’s cookbooks. When someone makes a point of telling me about a certain sweet after hearing about this blog, I am always intrigued. Especially when the words chocolate, chewy and gooey are involved. Cut to just a few days later, and I tracked down the recipe and tucked into the kitchen to find out what this Chocolate Whopper business was all about. And boy am I (as is the husband) glad I did.

These gems are the ultimate celebration of big chocolate flavor, chewy midpoint and gooey bullseye, with just enough of a crispness to the edges to give the cookie an incredible sense of varying textures and dimensions as you savor your way through it–like Saturn’s rings for the sweet tooth.

Chocolate Whoppers
Adapted from Foster’s Market in Durham, North Carolina

Makes one dozen whopper-sized cookies

The original recipe calls for two ounces of chopped unsweetened chocolate instead of making a chocolate “paste” of cocoa powder and vegetable oil, but I happened to have a great quality cocoa powder in my cupboard, so I opted to use the classic substitute for solid unsweetened baking chocolate with great results.

6 ounces good quality semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons good quality cocoa powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or lightly grease them.

Place the chopped semi-sweet chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at 20-30 second intervals, stirring well between each, until a few small chunks of chocolate remain–the residual heat from the bowl will melt the chocolate the rest of the way, and it’s important to not overheat the chocolate. In another small dish, combine the cocoa powder and vegetable oil until a smooth paste forms. Add the chocolate paste and melted butter to the melted semi-sweet chocolate and blend until smooth. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer or a strong, energetic arm and a whisk, beat together the eggs and vanilla. Add the sugar and beat until thick, paler in color and creamy-looking. Add the chocolate mixture and stir until well-blended.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring just until everything is incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips. The finished batter will look much more like a brownie batter than a cookie dough.

Drop heaping tablespoons of the batter onto the prepared baking sheet using a 2 ounce ice cream scoop or two tablespoons, about three inches apart (half a dozen cookies per sheet). Try to be as precise as possible in portioning the batter so the finished cookies are consistent. Bake for 10-12 minutes and do not overbake–the cookies will be very gooey in the center. Cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes and then transfer them onto wire racks to cool completely.

Apr 15, 2008

Crunchy Almond Cake

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Dear Reader, I don’t often implore you to try a specific recipe. When I get inspiration from other fabulous bakers and bloggers or magazines or whatever, it’s usually not about feeling the urge to make a certain cake or cookie, but rather just feeling the pull to get into the kitchen and create something. Well, this post is different because I am asking you, nay, begging you to give this recipe a shot. Barring any severe almond allergy, I think you’ll agree that this cake is one of the most delicious things that will ever come out of your kitchen. And, happily, one of the simplest ever to throw together.

The Almond Cake from Alice Medrich’s fantastic Pure Dessert is a perfect example of what her book is all about–this simple, rustic cake is a true celebration of the earthy flavor of almonds. In trying to figure out how to describe it to you, I’ve decided that the Almond Cake is basically the most excellent Mad Lib of anyone’s dessert dreams–buttery, rich, nutty, incredibly moist, crunchy, crispy, chewy, tender, melt-in-your-mouth–you name it, it’s in there. A slice of this cake works with your 10 a.m. coffee, after dinner, as a sudden sweet bite from the countertop while passing through the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon.

And the flavor–oh, the flavor! Absolutely drunk with almonds. To start, imagine a pumped up, cake version of those crispy, perfectly sweet almond cookies you might get from your favorite Chinese take out place. One of the most interesting things about this cake is that its sweetness comes not just from the sugar in the batter and the smattering of it in the prepared baking pan, but also a different kind of sweetness altogether–a fragrance, really–that is provided by a dose of heady almond extract and the almonds themselves in different forms (ground into flour for the batter and layered in the pan to create a gorgeous crust).

If the promise of amazing flavor and texture isn’t enough, let me tell you that after a bit of mise, this cake comes together in minutes in a blender or food processor. No creaming, folding or alternating wets and dries required, people! You now have no excuse to miss the opportunity to make yourself and loved ones deliriously happy by trying this recipe. Like, now.

Crunchy Almond Cake
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

For the crust:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft
Generous 1/3 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the cake:

4 ounces whole almonds
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
3 large eggs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, slightly softened
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack to the lower third of the oven. Generously butter a 9 inch cake pan with 1 tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter–it seems like an insane amount of butter, but you are also creating a crust for the cake here. After the pan is buttered, sprinkle the sliced almonds in a single, even layer over the bottom of the pan and work some of the slices up the sides of the pan as well. Sprinkle two tablespoons of granulated sugar over the butter and almonds and set the prepared pan aside.

To make the cake batter, throw the almonds, sugar, salt and almond extract into a blender or food processor and blend until the nuts are finely ground. Add the eggs and butter, blending throughly. Add the flour and baking powder and blend just until everything is incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is a deep golden brown and a tester comes out clean, about 32-35 minutes. Cool cake completely in the pan on a wire rack before sliding a thin knife around the sides of the pan to release it. Turn the cake out onto a serving platter so that the sliced almond-covered bottom becomes the top of the cake. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

Apr 10, 2008

Individual Strawberry Shortcakes

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It all started with a five pound flat of strawberries at my local supermarket. A five pound flat of shining, ruby red strawberries that cost just five dollars, people! Impending summer singing in my ears, I snatched up one and held myself back from taking two. Lord knows what I would do with ten pounds of strawberries if I did buy two, but it’s kind of like the phenomenon of always buying way more than the Target shopping list indicates, because everything there is just so cheap and great. I’m a sucker for a good deal that way.

Anyway, even though I showed great restraint and just brought home the one flat of berries, panic set in the next morning after I finished my cereal piled high with fresh strawberry slices–there were still a whole heck of a lotta strawberries in that box. And with every hour that passed, they were expiring. I simply did not have the time nor the inclination to get into jam-making–even though living in California allows us to have gorgeous summer fruits months before what is fair, it just seems wrong to make strawberry jam in April. Unless I wanted waaay too much fiber in my diet over the next couple of days and enough vitamin C to retroactively prevent scurvy for the entire planet, I was going to have to get creative.

So here’s where I get honest with you guys. There was a recipe I worked on that used a lot of strawberries. It was indeed creative, a riff on another recipe that called for the juice of another fruit. And boy, did I have good intentions for it. I mean, swapping out most fruit juices in recipes is usually pretty foolproof. I should say that I will be trying my hand at a Strawberry Chiffon Cake with Strawberry Glaze again sometime in the future, because the experiment wasn’t altogether unfortunate–the cake was a solid chiffon effort, risen beautifully, tender and light and not too sweet, a good balance with the fruity, very sweet glaze.

But because I didn’t want to use any colorings or fruit extracts in the batter, the cake tasted more of the teeny bit of lemon zest that was in it than the heap of strawberries that went into it, and even though the berries were bleeding the most gorgeous shade of red and the puree swirled into the batter looked promising, there was no rosy punch in the finished cake–it had the strangest reddish-gray cast you’ve ever seen. Adding onto that the jammy cooked glaze that was not the firm icing glaze that I was after (although the strawberry flavor was excellent here), and I was bummed–so close, yet so far. And still so many berries left in the box! Punch-kick-sigh.

After that half-hearted result, I wanted a sure thing. Can you blame me? So I did the remaining berries up right, simply slicing them and letting them do their thing, macerating with some fragrant vanilla sugar. And then piling them onto tender sour cream shortcake biscuits with a crown of whipped cream. Heaven. And so yet another lesson learned: when life gives you beautiful strawberries at an insanely good price, let them be themselves and don’t jack up your good fortune by trying to get smart.

Individual Strawberry Shortcakes
Adapted from Nancy Baggett’s All-American Dessert Cookbook

Makes 6-8 individual servings

The amount of sugar tossed with the berries really depends on how sweet they are to begin with. Here, I use the minimum amount suggested by the original recipe. Be careful not to be too stingy with sugaring the berries, though, because the juice they release while macerating will moisten, sweeten and flavor the shortcake.

For the berries:

5 1/2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/2 cup vanilla sugar or granulated sugar

For the shortcakes:

2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for shaping the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 1/2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Toss the berries with the sugar and and set aside to macerate for at least an hour while preparing the shortcakes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and set a rack to the middle position. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the dry ingredients, and using your fingertips (or a pastry cutter or dump everything into a food processor, but I like using my hands) work the butter and flour mixture together until the butter is incorporated and in very fine bits, like coarse meal.

Add the sour cream to the flour-butter mixture and stir gently, just until the dough comes together. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons flour evenly over the dough and give it 5-6 good kneads to make a smooth dough. Let stand for 1 minute, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, pat the dough into about an 8 inch round. Using a 3 to 3 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, punching straight down into the dough without twisting for the most tender biscuits. When you’ve cut out as many as you can from the first round, keep gathering the dough scraps together and recutting biscuits until you’re out of dough.

Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, brush them with a bit of heavy cream and sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. Bake for 10-14 minutes, until the shortcakes are risen and golden brown on the tops and bottoms. Cool completely on a wire rack.

To serve the strawberry shortcakes, slice the biscuits across with a serrated knife and place the bottoms on individual serving plates. Pile the berries onto each biscuit bottom, making sure to get a few spoonfuls of the sweet juice soaked into each biscuit. Place the biscuit tops on, and garnish each shortcake with lightly sweetened whipped cream and more berries and juice.

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