Nov 23, 2007

How To Make Vanilla Sugar

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There are a few tips that really help to make baking projects successful, and most of them are all about precision–the exact measuring, the perfect oven temperature, mixing things just so. As I’ve said before, these parts of baking appeal to my Martha-like tendencies. But I have to say, a girl can’t operate like that all the time. There has to be a little wiggle room, a risk-free way to add some pizazz to a recipe without throwing everything off. When I want to add a little oomph to my recipes without drastically changing the formula, vanilla sugar is where it’s at.

I used to think that making vanilla sugar was the epitome of having way too much time on one’s hands, but it really takes no effort at all. The creation of a certain cake lead to the ownership of a few more vanilla beans than I knew what to do with. Rather than tossing the seedless pods into the trash, I threw them into a jar of granulated sugar, and after a few days, began using the fantastically fragrant and flavorful results in everything from my morning coffee to iced tea (in moderation, of course) to cakes, cookies and candymaking. Just about anywhere you would use granulated sugar in sweets, vanilla sugar adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished product. It’s not as assertive as extract, which makes it great for things like pumpkin pie or citrus-based desserts that wouldn’t list extract as an ingredient. And all you have to do is just keep topping the jar off with more sugar–the infusing power of the vanilla beans lasts for years. Seriously!

It’s the perfect time to get a jar of vanilla sugar going, just in time for all those holiday baking projects. Plus, it makes a cheery little hostess gift–just pack sugar and a few vanilla bean halves into a quart-sized jar, tie a sweet little ribbon around the lid and label the jar with a small card.

Vanilla Sugar

2 whole vanilla beans
Granulated sugar
a large jar or other airtight container

Split the vanilla beans, and scrape out the seeds if desired. Place the pods into the container, and fill the jar with granulated sugar, leaving a bit room at the top. Give the jar a good shake, and set it in a cool, dry place to rest for a few days, shaking every so often to help the vanilla essence permeate the sugar. Use in place of granulated sugar for a little extra something special.

Nov 21, 2007

Pumpkin Tart

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This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for transition. More specifically, I’m giving thanks for the growth that’s allowed me to not fear it. It wasn’t always this way. If I had been handed all of the experiences that have come about in the past six months, and the big ones that are just around the corner (more on that in coming weeks) a year ago, I’m pretty sure I would have dug myself a hole somewhere and never come out. But these days, I’m embracing the big changes, the challenges that stare me in the face with huge, fiery, unfamiliar eyes, with the faint sounds of the “Rocky” theme playing somewhere in the distance. I’m now looking at them as opportunities to learn more, be better, fail better.

This is not to say that I’ve become a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person who can forgo routine altogether. My beautiful sister got that gene. I still love my daily rituals and the preferences that make my life most comfortable in schedule, clothing, meals, that sort of thing. Though I have to say, my palate has absolutely been changing to include food and drink that I wouldn’t have touched before. Let’s not get crazy here–my infamous hatred of eggs that goes back to babyhood still stands, in any finished dish where eggs are identifiable, in mostly breakfast-related items (obviously, eggs in baked goods don’t creep me out). But I have ended up loving foods that I once would not even consider–like pumpkin pie.

All together, now–“How can you not like PUMPKIN PIE”?! I know, I know. But I love it now, see? I love it so much that I made a whole big one to bring to Thanksgiving dinner, with pastry from scratch and everything. It really was a smash, a marriage of several different recipes. The all-butter crust was crisp and flaky, sturdy even in the center of the pie. Baking it in a tart pan added a bit of visual interest, with the shiny, flat, deep orange custard sailing right up to the golden, uniformly crimped crust. The pumpkin filling was smooth and creamy and tasted of fall spice, not the least bit vegetal in flavor. When wedges of the pie were passed along with coffee, there was indeed a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy. Thankfully, some things never change.

Pumpkin Tart

Serves 8

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (one stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups solid-pack pumpkin (not pie filling)
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

To make the crust, mix the flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into eighths and drop the butter pieces into the flour. With your fingertips (or in a food processor), begin blending the butter into the flour, until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pieces the size of small peas. Sprinkle three tablespoons of ice water over the mixture, and use a fork to gently stir in the water until just incorporated. Test the dough by squeezing a small handful of it. If it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until it comes together. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, and divide it into 4 portions. To ensure the butter is evenly distributed throughout the dough, smear each portion in a forward motion, then roll it back on itself twice with the heel of your hand. Gather all of the kneaded potions into a ball and flatten the ball into a five-inch disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to a diameter of about 14 inches across. Fit the dough into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and trim the edges to create a 1/2 inch overhang. Fold the excess dough inward to create an edge that comes up just slightly from the tart pan. Prick the crust lightly with a fork, cover the crust with foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the crust has pale golden edges. Cool completely on a wire rack, about 30 minutes.

For the pumpkin filling, whisk together the pumpkin, cream, brown sugar, vanilla sugar, eggs, spices and salt until well-blended. Pour the mixture into the blind-baked tart shell and bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is golden and the first few inches from the edges are set, and the center jiggles ever-so-slightly. The tart will set further as it cools. Cool completely on a wire rack and remove from the tart pan for serving. Serve with generous dollops of lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Nov 15, 2007

Afternoon Peanut Butter Cookies

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Darling Reader, if we have never met, there are a few questions that can help me understand if we’ll really get along. One is: do you appreciate the great works of Journey, Fleetwood Mac and Hall and Oates (it’s sort of okay if a drink or two helps you to do so)? Another is: do you often take pause at furry animals and smiling babies, if only for a moment to think of how great it is that they exist? And lastly, and possibly most importantly (don’t tell Steve Perry): do you believe in the power of the Afternoon Cookie?

Few things define “simple pleasure” as much as a detour in one’s busy day to chow down on a very necessary cookie at 4:00 p.m. . No matter what all those lady health and fitness magazines tell you, a handful of nuts and dried fruit or an apple and a piece of string cheese are clearly only for the 10 a.m. munchies when you are still feeling virtuous and may very well be oblivious to how the rest of your day will unfold. Call me six hours later, when your lunch has started losing its satiating abilities, life has gotten REAL and you Just. Need. A. Cookie. And don’t feel bad about it. Because I will totally be on board and bring you a really great peanut butter cookie like this one. Especially if you answered “yes” to the first two questions in the above paragraph.

I love the humble peanut butter cookie. It’s an American classic, and its ideal, to me, is delightfully different from the fat, chewy Oatmeal Raisin and Chocolate Chip and the elegantly crisp Butter and Sugar. I think a great peanut butter cookie does have a tiny bit of chew, but only when you get towards the very center. Otherwise, a sandy texture is what I’m after with a crunch that comes not just from chopped peanuts, but from the sugars basking in a long baking time. And no peanut butter cookie worth its weight in Jif would dream of entering the oven without dressing up in a kicky crosshatch pattern provided by a dinner fork. Its ingredients are all staples in the traditional American home, making it one of the few recipes that doesn’t require a special trip to the store. It’s simple, earthy and undemanding, just the thing for the part of the day when things can start to get a little hairy.

Afternoon Peanut Butter Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen

2 sticks butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F and set an oven rack to the middle position.

In a bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar and peanut butter together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating to combine. Mix in the flour and baking soda. Roll generous spoonfuls of the dough into golf-ball size balls and place onto the prepared cookie sheets. Use a fork to flatten and create a crosshatch pattern on the top of each cookie. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cookies are just begin to brown at the edges. Cool on the cookie sheet for two minutes, then transfer them onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Nov 12, 2007

Cocoa No-Bake Treats

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No secret I can get serious about my baking projects. I channel Martha, giddy at the sight of mise resting at the ready in the most perfect Type-A way, in matching bowls from my 10-piece set. I find it a fabulous challenge to constantly improve my technique, and marvel at how small tweaks in the process can drastically change the efficiency and outcome of a recipe. It’s really no different than the husband’s golf obsession. Baking as sport, if you will. But sometimes, after a dinner that took some doing, a girl needs her sweets in a way that requires nothing more than scooping, stirring, and a little heat. Something that she can practically throw together with her eyes closed. For such moments when the sweet tooth rules and the KitchenAid looks just so involved, I love to break out the kinds of kitschy recipes that are usually found in Xeroxed, plastic-spiral-bound church bake sale cookbooks or on the packaging of some baking ingredient.

Few things in life offer more instant gratification than the decades-old “no-bake treats” from the label of the Hershey’s Cocoa can. All of the ingredients are probably in your cupboards right this second. You are moments away from having your house smell amazing and your belly sing with the sugary, chocolately goodness that only a Cold War era treat can bring. Trade your paddle attachment for a wooden spoon and enjoy this Awesomely Quick Treat Flash. Hooray!

Hershey’s Cocoa No-Bake Treats

Makes 2-3 dozen

2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup crunchy peanut butter
3 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped peanuts (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Place a sheet of parchment or foil on a cookie sheet.

Combine sugar, butter, milk and cocoa and salt in medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a steady, rolling boil, like chocolately lava. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for 1 minute.

Stir in the peanut butter until well-blended. Add the oats, peanuts (if using) and vanilla extract, mixing thoroughly. Quickly drop the mixture by heaping tablespoons onto wax paper or foil. Makes about 2-3 dozen, depending on how generous your spoonfuls are, of course.

Nov 10, 2007

Ultimate Chocolate Cake

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Of all the great benefits of marriage, I think one of my favorites is creating a brand new set of traditions based on a newly formed family. Even though the husband and I have yet to produce offspring, it’s nice to know we’ve already created a few of our own little family traditions that are just waiting to include little ones when they come. The husband’s Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake is a much-anticipated event that we look forward to all year.

The first year I made this cake in Los Angeles more than four years ago, it was HOT. The summer heat had extended into a healthy portion of what should have easily been sweater weather (or long-sleeved t-shirt weather by L.A. standards). In fact, it was so hot in our non-air conditioned apartment that the stacked cake layers split into fourths soon after the buttercream was applied. I tried in vain to pin the cake together with toothpicks and solder the droopy layers in the freezer, but to no avail. The birthday “cake” was really more of a birthday “pile” that year, with candles lamely and haphazardly stuck in it. We laughed. After I cried. But it was still insanely delicious. And that is a testament to how extraordinary this cake really is.

With half a pound of chocolate between the cake and frosting, you might worry that it would all just be too much. But the genius of this recipe is the amazing balance that is struck between the tender, delicate crumb of the cake and the smooth, rich buttercream. With every bite, you will alternate marveling at the flavors and mouthfeel of both, and both components win in the end. The cake is extraordinarily moist (it keeps for days in perfect condition in a cake dome), and the frosting champions the chocolate, not the butter. The added touch of chipped chocolate folded into the buttercream lends a great, unexpected crunch.

Making this cake is so much fun when you’re a mise en place kind of person like me, carefully pre-measuring and setting out all of the ingredients before you begin. With this recipe, it really helps the process along. Take the time to sift your cake flour well, even more than once if you’ve got the patience–it’s worth it in the end. And the butter seriously needs to be at room temperature (since I always know the date I’ll be making this cake, I even set out the butter the night before). You really will never find a more beautiful batter than with this recipe, like luscious chocolate clouds being scooped into the cake pans. Drool.

Since I only make this cake for one occasion, I really like to go for it and use fantastic chocolate, such as Valrhona 56% Dark. For both the cake and the frosting, be sure your chocolate is cool to the touch before adding it to the mixtures. I rarely mess with double boilers–I find that quickly microwaving it until it’s about half melted (about 30 seconds) and then stirring, letting the residual gentle heat of the bowl melt the rest is a good way to get the job done without heating the chocolate so hot that it takes forever to cool down. And take special care when greasing the cake pans and lining them with parchment to make them truly non-stick; this is a delicate cake that can tear easily if you have to struggle too much getting it out of the pan.

Even though it’s so fabulous it deserves to be paraded out for every dinner party, picnic, bake sale and other random people’s birthdays, I save the creation of this chocolate behemoth for just once a year, in honor of my favorite husband. It’s tradition, after all.

Ultimate Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Tyler Florence

Makes one awesome, 9-inch, two-layer cake

For the Cake:

2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups cold water

For the Chocolate Chip Buttercream:

3 cups powdered sugar
7 tablespoons hot water
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup semisweet or dark chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack in the middle position. Coat two 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray, line the bottoms of the pans with circles of parchment paper, and then spray again for extra non-stick insurance.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt and together and aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cooled chocolate and beat for three minutes to incorporate. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat for three more minutes.

Gradually mix in the dry ingredients in three batches, alternating with the cold water. Beat for one minute after each addition to incorporate. When all of the flour mixture and water has been added, scrape the bowl once more and then mix until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans until about 2/3 full, and smooth the surfaces with a spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the cakes spring back when touched and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack in the pans for at least 40 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the buttercream.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the whip attachment, dissolve the sugar and water at low speed. Beat in the chocolate and the vanilla. Add the butter in small bits, mixing until everything is incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips with a spatula, giving the frosting a nice final mix.

Turn out one of the cooled cake layers upside down onto a cake stand or serving platter, remove the parchment circle and then place strips of clean parchment just under the cake’s edges to protect the serving dish from frosting smudges. Spread about half the frosting on this layer, starting in the center and working your way out. Place the second layer on top, remove the parchment, and frost top and sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream. Sprinkle with additional chocolate shavings if desired.

Nov 1, 2007

Apple Butter

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So as promised, this will be the last of the apple recipes for now and then the month of all things apple is coming to a close here at Piece of Cake. And although I have loved sharing some new recipes with you and celebrating the humble fruit, I’ve literally reached the bottom of the bushel and it’s time to move on. I wish all things could be so obviously finite.

We’ve talked about modest crisps and big showy pancakes, reinvented the apple muffin and seen me be proven seriously wrong by a wonderfully unique cake. But despite those recipes and then some, I was still left with four pounds of a fragrant mixture of Fujis, Romes, Red Delicious and Winesaps. Since it’s been a while since I’ve used my amateur preserving know-how, I thought it was high time to pull out the jars that once held July’s strawberry jam, and fill them with thick, spicy-sweet apple butter. What could be more autumnal than that?

Like most jams, the recipe for and process of making apple butter is really simple. Although I will say that apple butter is decidedly messier than most jams. Have your trusty pot-screen-cover-thing very close by, as well as a candy thermometer for insuring the apple butter reaches and stays at the right temperature for setting properly. If you choose not to preserve your apple butter, it will keep for 2-3 weeks in the fridge, maybe longer. If you want to preserve the jars for enjoying in the dead of winter when you want to taste the best part of fall, or give them as cheery little gifts, canning is easy once you get the hang of it. Remember my first preserving adventure? See, even I figured it out.

Apple Butter

Makes 4-5 8-oz. jars

4 pounds of apples (I used a mixture of Fuji, Rome, Red Delicious and Winesap)
2 cups of sugar (I used one cup regular granulated and one cup vanilla sugar)
1/2 gallon apple cider
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

Peel, core and cut the apples into large chunks. You should have about 2 1/2 pounds of fruit after preparing the apples. Put the fruit into a wide, deep, heavy bottomed pot and pour the apple cider over the apples to cover. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer, cooking for 20-30 minutes until the apples are very tender.

In batches in a blender (or using an immersion blender–I have got to get one of these. Maybe if I say it to myself 1,000 more times, it will appear in my cabinet?), puree the hot apples and cider to make a thin applesauce. Pour all the puree back into the pot and bring to a slow simmer over medium-high heat, until the puree reaches 220 degrees, stirring occasionally. Once the temperature is reached (you may have to crank the heat a bit higher to make that happen), stir in the sugar, spices and lemon juice. Cook the apple butter for anywhere from 1-2 hours, until it has thickened significantly and turn dark in color (you know, like the color of apple butter). Try and keep the temperature at 220 degrees as best as your can during that time, and stir often to prevent a crust forming on the bottom of the pot. When you think the color and consistency is right, test the apple butter on a freezing cold plate and let it cool for a moment. It should set up thick and smooth and not move on the plate when its ready.

Ladle the hot apple butter into hot, sterilized jars, and screw on the lids. Store in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, or for preserves, process the jars for 10 minutes in boiling water.

Oct 18, 2007

Cider Pudding Cake

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Every girl has a dear old friend whom she treasures like a sister. Maybe the first meeting was back in grammar school, high school or college, during years that brought awkward growth and tremendous shared experiences. A chainsaw can’t break this kind of bond between old girlfriends. Then one day, after say, a few cocktails, someone decides to play the “what did you think of me when we first met?” card. And then you hear the needle squealing off a record somewhere in the distance as a response tries to form itself. In this pause I will say that I’m not using men in this example because no man would be crazy enough to ask such a question of an old friend. Inevitably, liquid courage will help someone say something rather unexpected, yet honest, like, “I thought you were obnoxious/mute/bitchy/weird.” And then there will either be lots of pouting and shunning in the following minutes OR there will be much laughter and celebration of the fact that your love and friendship grew to far outweigh first impressions. The latter, thankfully, is my experience with Apple Cider Pudding Cake.

During my first meeting with this recipe, I thought this cake was a liar. An insane, highly suspicious liar. I mean, I get bread pudding, but hot liquid poured onto a batter before baking? Whazzat? This cake had to be just showing off and telling tall tales to cover insecurities. Don’t ask me why I guessed that. But as you know, I’ve been making a solid effort to try some new recipes to dig into fall’s bounty. And as the husband so wittily pointed out, with its usage of apples in multiple forms, it was kind of like the Tres Leches Cake of fruit–Tres Manzanas Cake, if you will. So I soldiered on, with doubts in mind and peeler in hand. And you what? I ended up having to apologize and everything, by making this cake twice in one week and giving some to all my neighbors.

Despite its very questionable appearance before it enters the oven (is the boiling liquid actually cooking the batter on contact?), it emerges as a fragrant, rustic pillow, covered in pebbly streusel. With so little butter in this recipe, it’s the liberal use of brown sugar and cider that save the day here: when sliced and served warm, you can admire how the sticky cider has waded its way to the bottom of the pan during baking, with a perfectly moist, apple-packed cake above. It’s like this recipe uses the concept of making an apple cider reduction on the stove–there are concentrated notes of heady molasses, autumn spices and vanilla left behind–but the moisture has been trapped inside the cake rather than just evaporating altogether. Add to all that crispy edges and the buttery crunch of streusel (which the original recipe stated was optional, but it is so not), and you have yourself a dynamic new friend of a recipe that you’ll want to have around all the time, first impressions aside.

Apple Cider Pudding Cake

For the Cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 large egg
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups chopped apple (about 2 large, I chose a Fuji and a Winesap)

For the Cider:

1 cup apple cider
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar


1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Grease an 8×8 inch baking dish.

To make the cake batter, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice (or ginger) and nutmeg. In another, larger bowl, whisk together the egg, 1 cup brown sugar, milk, melted butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated and then fold in the apples until the batter is well-blended. Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

To make the cider, in a small saucepan, combine the cider, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 cup brown sugar and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, and pour the cider carefully over the batter. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. To add the streusel, mix the flour, sugar and knob of unsalted butter together with a fork until well- combined and pebbly, but not homogeneous, and sprinkle it over the cake during the last 10 minutes of baking. If necessary, give the streusel a boost under the broiler during the last minute or so. Cool the cake on a wire rack, and serve while the cake is still warm.

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