Sep 24, 2007

Fairy Cakes

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I’ve never fallen more in love with a city at first sight than when I touched down in London. It’s been a long time since I visited, but I still cackle with delight when I come across my favorite UK goodies in specialty stores (Cadbury Snaps, anyone?). In all honesty, my time in England fell right in that “I’m much more interested in drinking than eating” phase of life, and really, there’s not a better place to be in the world when you’re in that phase. As a result, there wasn’t much fine dining or bakery visiting done during my stay. But I did recently remember a certain British cake that I thought would be perfect to recreate for this blog.


Fairy cakes are Britain’s answer to America’s huge, hyper, cloyingly sweet cupcakes. They are traditionally smaller, slightly denser cakes topped with a modest layer of thick, sweet-tart fondant icing, which is often made simply by blending confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar, as the Brits call it) with citrus juice, traditionally lemon. These cakes are so easy to make, I dare you to not run off to the kitchen upon reading this post.

Just the thing for your afternoon coffee break (or tea, if we’re going to keep it real), fairy cakes are the ultimate pick-me-up–a simple confection that is adorable to look at: the pastel fondant icing lies pretty and polished on each cake, creating a perfect platform for a precisely placed dragee or candy flower.

Fairy Cakes
Makes 12

For the Cakes:

4 1/2 ounces unsalted butter, softened
4 1/2 ounces superfine sugar (I take granulated for a quick spin in my clean coffee grinder)
2 eggs, at room temperature
4 1/2 ounces self-rising flour
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set the rack to the middle position. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners or generously butter the tin.

Begin by creaming the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition, then add the vanilla, beating to combine.

Sift in half of the flour and fold to combine. Add the milk and the rest of the flour, and stir until fully incorporated.

Divide the batter equally into the muffin tins, and bake until the cakes are golden on top and puffed, about 12 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the tins on a rack for ten minutes, then remove the cakes from the tins and cool completely before icing.

For the Icing:

4 ounces powdered sugar
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice
Food coloring
Edible baubles for decorating (dragees, candied or sugar flowers, etc.)

In a small bowl, beat the sugar and the fruit juice, a little at a time, until a thick fondant forms. It should be a thick paste with a bit of shine, not a drizzling glaze. Add a bit of food coloring at this point, pastels are best to keep this treat traditional.

Drop a dollop of the icing on each cake, and give it a minute to spread to the cakes’ edges. For a more finished look, you can smooth the icing on the cakes with a knife dipped in hot water. Top each cake with some kind of cutesy edible bauble. The flavor of the icing improves even further as it sets.

Sep 22, 2007

Kettle Corn

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It’s fall! Hooray! And really, what is better for a fall evening than kettle corn, a warm drink and your favorite huge sweater? Actually, I guess kettle corn is more of a summer fair kind of food for most, but carnivals frighten me, people. So kettle corn is fall food for me. And if you’ve never made it at home, you really should. It all comes together in less than five minutes and will make you instantly, maniacally happy.

I know you’re used to seeing some rather time-consuming recipes with occasionally verbose, albeit related, prose around here, but some treats are just so fantastically delicious in their simplicity, there’s not much to say, other than…

It’s fall. There’s corn. In a kettle. Sweet and salty. Hooray!

Kettle Corn
Adapted from Everyday with Rachael Ray

Makes about 10 cups

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup popping corn
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt

In a dutch oven or another large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn and when it starts to sizzle, sprinkle the sugar over the kernels. Place the lid on the pot and as soon as you hear a pop, begin shaking the pot over the heat until the popping slows down, about three minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and when the popping stops completely, lift the lid and sprinkle with the salt, tossing until the corn just begins to cool, leaving a delicious, crisp, sweet and salty coating on the popcorn.

Sep 19, 2007

Cheese Cake from Denmark

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(Update! You can also find a Triple Berry version of this glorious recipe here, and check out a little video with the story behind it here.)

I love baking for many reasons. It’s therapeutic, creative, cerebral. Chemistry meets artistry. And then there’s the sharing and eating of the results, and well, that just makes you feel good all over. A great recipe is more than just a formula, it’s like a character in a great story. Sometimes you stumble across a new recipe that helps you create your own stories and memories with people you love, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to be given a recipe that you just know has made memories for people you’ll probably never meet. I love that most of all. I guess you could call them heirloom recipes.

I was recently given such a recipe by a friend of mine named Malene. Malene is from Denmark and when she and her boyfriend Mark learned of this blog and what a baking fool I am, she e-mailed me this recipe from her home country and I couldn’t wait to try it. She sent it to me with the title of “Cheese Cake with Raspberries from Denmark”, and I soon discovered that the separation of the words cheese and cake wasn’t a typo.

This cake is definitely not like any cheesecake I’ve had before. After parbaking a buttery cake layer, fruit is layered on and then a sweetened cream cheese mixture is poured on top. When completely baked, the tender, moist butter cake mingles with the blond, custard-like cream cheese layer, the fruit playing halfsies in between. It was delicious for dessert the first night and a perfect breakfast with coffee in the morning (did I say that?).


I am a sucker for other people’s favorite recipes, and it becomes a mission of sorts for me to do it right. In this case, I did something a little unorthodox and exchanged the raspberries in Malene’s recipe for a few of the sweet, crisp Fuji apples that have just begun ruling the fall markets. I couldn’t resist. With this great recipe as my guide, the result was wonderful–cakey, creamy, lightly swirled with cinnamon, al dente slices of the season’s first apples buried within. Nyde!

 

Cheese Cake from Denmark
Adapted from Malene Nielsen

Cake Layer:

150 grams granulated sugar
75 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla sugar or vanilla extract
150 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pinch of salt
100 ml milk, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and set the oven rack to the middle position. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment before locking it into place and lightly grease the pan.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitter with a paddle attachment, cream the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and fully incorporate it, then add the vanilla sugar (or extract). At low speed or by hand, mix in the flour mixture, followed by the milk, until fully incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and parbake the cake for just 10 minutes. While the cake is baking, prepare the next layer.

Cheese Layer:

2 eggs
100 grams granulated sugar
200 grams (I used a full 8 ounce package) cream cheese, at room temperature
250 grams fresh or frozen raspberries (I used 2 medium Fuji apples, sliced thin)
1 teaspoon of lemon zest (if using berries)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar (brown sugar if using apples, and also add 1/2 tsp. cinnamon)

Whip the cream cheese and sugar until light and fluffy, and then beat in the egg. Stir in the lemon zest if using berries. Set aside.

Toss the fruit with the teaspoons of cornstarch and sugar. Layer the fruit onto the parbaked cake and then pour the cream cheese mixture evenly over the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 more minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If the cake begins to get too dark during baking, cover the cake with foil.

Cool completely on a wire rack before serving, perhaps with a light dusting of powdered sugar.

Sep 13, 2007

Watermelon-Lime Granita

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It seems like every food blogger I read regularly is writing a post reluctantly celebrating the last edible remnants of summer–one last fat, juicy heirloom tomato here, a tragic ode to lobster over there. We’re gobbling up the last of these goodies with careful relish just because we know we won’t enjoy them at their succulent best again, until next year. Insert pouty cry here. Me? Well, I had an enormous watermelon in the fridge, that I just knew was ruby red inside and seeping with juice, but was saving it for something special.

It’s just not appropriate to say goodbye to our summer loves by preparing them the same old way we’ve been doing all season. It took a while to think of how to use this mammoth of a melon occupying most of the bottom of my refrigerator. How to celebrate this last bit of summer? And then it came to me.


Watermelon granita just looks like a party. When piled in a chilled glass with an elegant stem, the glittering flakes of sweet, ambrosial ice are immediately ready for their close-up. Light, fruity granitas like this one are delicious as dessert, alone or with delicate crispy cookies, and are lovely as a palate cleanser between courses, if that’s how you like to roll.

As far as granita flavors go, you are only limited by your imagination. There are recipes out there made from the sweet and traditional, like fruit and espresso flavors, and the just plain nose-wrinkling wacky, like vegetables and herbs. Whatever the flavor, all granitas contain some sugar, and I find that I like the texture of granitas made with simple syrup (a two to one ratio of sugar to water, boiled until clear) better than just stirring granulated sugar straight into the mix. For fruit flavors that are naturally sweet, like a perfect late summer watermelon, depending on the sweetness of the melon you’ve got your hands on (now, that sounds fantastically naughty in a summer love kind of way, doesn’t it?), the amount of simple syrup may vary. I usually find that 1/2 cup of prepared simple syrup works well in most cases.


I also like to add some alcohol to the granita liquid for two reasons. First, candy is dandy but liquor is quicker, and second, it slows the freezing of the liquid so you get nice, fluffy flakes, not sharp, flat shards. I love to use infused vodkas for this, like a lovely herb-infused vodka I’d been saving for special things, much like the watermelon that inspired this post. As for the amount of alcohol to add, well, you can’t get all college with granita. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to alcohol in a granita recipe–it won’t freeze well if there’s too much in the mix. Sorry.


Watermelon-Lime Granita
Makes about 1 Gallon

6 cups of watermelon juice (made from about 4 pounds of ripe, seedless watermelon)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1/4 cup of your favorite vodka

Start by making the watermelon juice: Remove the rind from a ripe watermelon and cut the fruit into chunks. In batches, puree the watermelon in a blender until smooth and pour the resulting puree through a fine-mesh sieve over a large mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to stir the puree in the sieve and encourage the juice to flow into the bowl. Discard any pulp and seeds and repeat the process until you have about 6 cups of watermelon juice in the bowl. Set aside.

Next, make a simple syrup by placing the sugar and water in a small saucepan and boiling it over medium-high heat until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear and just beginning to take on a golden cast. Pour the syrup into another container and set aside to cool.

Pour the lime juice and vodka into the watermelon juice and stir to combine. Begin adding the simple syrup, sweetening to taste. Pour the granita mixture equally into two 9×13 baking pans and put in the freezer (or use one big roasting pan if you are lucky enough to have the freezer space). After about an hour, begin breaking up any ice crystals that are forming with a fork, and return the pans to the freezer. Repeat this process of scraping and fluffing the granita every hour until the mixture is completely crystallized, but not frozen solid, about 4-5 hours.

Serve in chilled glasses. Frozen granita keeps well covered in an airtight container in the freezer for at least a month, but I really don’t think you’ll have any leftovers. Everyone wants just one more taste of summer.

Sep 10, 2007

No Knead to Freak Out–Part Two

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As promised, I have pulled out the gloves (oven mitts, in this case) for a second round of No Knead Bread. When we last talked about my adventures with this bread, I left you with the thoughts that I had fallen in love with the overall appearance, crust, interior and crumb of this bread, but that the flavor left much to be desired. So I played a bit with the original recipe (which I have moved to a permanent position in this post) and was really pleased with the results. A single bare bite of this second attempt, with not even the slightest drizzle of olive oil pooling in its crevices, confirmed that this bread is definitely worth the hype. The added salt (an extra 1/2 teaspoon) this time around clearly gave the bread a new life and dimension and made for an even tastier crust.


More importantly, while the first loaf tasted of not much at all, this loaf was full of flavor, almost a Sourdough Lite, if you will–certainly the result of an extra eight hours tacked onto the first rise (for a total of 24 hours as opposed to 16 in the first attempt). I knew there would be some improvement this time around when I lifted the plastic wrap from the bowl after the first long rise and the vigorous bouquet of yeasty alcohol smacked me on the nose. Hooray!


After catching onto the smell wafting through the apartment during the baking of this loaf, my No Knead confidence was restored, and I quickly devised a dinner menu that would rely on what would surely be great bread to make it complete, lest you think I never eat anything other than baked goods. And so it had to be: a mountain of fresh, tender black Pacific mussels, steamed in a luscious broth of sauvignon blanc, butter, shallots and garlic, with a spritely green salad on the side. There really was just no other way around it.


So for me and my palate (and the husband’s too, though he seemed to like the first loaf just fine as well…he is steadfast and true that way) this is the recipe for No Knead Bread that I will be using again and again.

No Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC and Chocolate and Zucchini

470 grams of all-purpose or bread flour (I used King Arthur Bread Flour)
2 1/2 teaspoons of salt (I used my favorite fleur de sel)
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
350 grams water at room temperature
Extra flour or cornmeal for dusting

Whisk the flour, salt and yeast together in a large bowl. Stir in the water with a wooden spoon or your hands, until fully incorporated. The dough will feel stickier and wetter than other bread doughs and will come together in a shaggy-looking ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for 24 hours at room temperature (ideally about 70 degrees).

After this first rise, the dough will be doubled in volume and covered in little bubbles. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface (it will still seem wetter and looser than other bread doughs). For this step, I like to take my favorite huge cutting board, cover it in parchment, securing it with tape, and then flour the parchment like mad. Gently pull at the sides of the dough for a rectangle shape, and then fold it into the thirds, with the two sides pulled towards the center. Give the dough a quarter turn and then fold into thirds again. Turn the dough over and shape into a ball. Cover the ball with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes. In the meantime, clean the bowl and lightly grease it. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic and let it rise a second time, for 2 hours.

30 minutes before the second rise is complete, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with the dutch oven inside of it. When the second rise is complete, CAREFULLY remove the screaming hot pot from the oven and remove the lid. Sprinkle the inside of the pot generously with flour or cornmeal. Place the dough inside the hot pot, sprinkle with more flour or cornmeal, and replace the cover.

Bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes with the lid, then remove the lid and bake for 15 minutes more, until the crust is so beautiful you almost begin to weep. Carefully remove the hot pot and turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. Let the bread cool for AT LEAST 45 minutes before slicing. The water needs to redistribute itself throughout the bread, so if you don’t wait to cut it, the crumb will be rubbery, and after all that work, you don’t want to risk that, do you?

Read “No Knead to Freak Out–Part One”

Sep 7, 2007

Meringue Cookies

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After being in the grip of an intense Southern California heatwave for the better part of a week, the hellish beast has released us from his gnarly fists into the kind of weather that Santa Monicans usually take for granted: a high of 71 degrees, 65% humidity, ultramarine skies that kiss the horizon of a glittering navy ocean with the mountains of Malibu in the distance. Sound dramatic? It is. That’s how bad the heat was, people. It makes it tragically hard to bake, for one thing. Not that it stopped me. Anyway, with this recent return to the lovely weather that makes life worth living out here, I decided to celebrate by making meringue.


Meringue in all its forms has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family of chocoholics, but occasionally, usually during the holidays, these delicious and unusual treats would appear among the goodies on my Gramma’s kitchen table. Small and light in color, crisp sweet domes of I didn’t know what, sometimes with tiny chocolate chips mixed in, sometimes flavored with peppermint. They were a sweet mystery, and I gobbled them up. I also remember begging for a towering slice of a lofty lemon meringue pie from a rotating case at a Greek restaurant, neglecting the shimmying yellow curd altogether and devouring only the sugary pillow on top. I had no idea that what I was in love with was called meringue, and would probably have abandoned it forever if I had been told what it was made of (my lifelong egg phobia is a thing of legend in my family–now it’s mostly the yolks that freak me out, and just in certain circumstances. I’m all growed up!).

Meringue, in short, is egg whites whipped with sugar. How the whites and sugar are whipped together determines the kind of meringue it is and how it can be used. There’s Swiss meringue, a “cooked” meringue, made by dissolving sugar in egg whites in a double boiler, then whipping them. Italian meringue is made by streaming hot sugar syrup into the whites while they are being whipped, and is also considered to be a cooked meringue. French (aka “classic”) meringue, which I make most often, is uncooked, just egg whites and sugar whipped together (I take granulated sugar for a spin in my clean coffee grinder first for a smoother texture). The more sugar added to any meringue, the stiffer the end result will be. These meringues are the base for thousands of recipes, everything from buttercream frostings to the aforementioned lofty pie toppings, dessert shells, macaroons, macarons, and more. And let’s not forget meringue cookies.

Because they are so neutral in flavor, meringue cookies can be flavored with just about any extract or powdered flavoring imaginable, and little jaunty bits of chocolate or nuts or somesuch can be nice too. But I like them in traditional vanilla (with the best extract, please), maybe with a bit of cocoa, with tea on a nice, breezy, sunny day like today. When I mentioned that it’s perfect meringue cookie-making weather here in Santa Monica, that mainly has to do with the relatively low humidity. Making baked meringue in humid or wet weather is a guaranteed failure–the meringue will flatten and burn and generally just be very sad.

But not today! Today we make meringues.

Meringue Cookies
Makes about 20, depending on size

4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup superfine sugar

Preheat oven to 225 degrees and set the rack to the lower-middle position. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In an immaculately clean metal or glass bowl (any trace of grease will ruin your efforts), begin whipping the egg whites in standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or with an electric mixer, on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and the salt, and whip at high speed until the whites are voluminous, glossy and sexy-looking, with the look and consistency of shaving cream.

With the mixer running, begin raining in the sugar, taking a short break about halfway to insure the sugar is well incorporated. When all the sugar has been added, add the vanilla.

At this point, you can add other flavorings or accoutrements (like finely chopped nuts or chips) as well. I opted to make half the meringue cookies vanilla, and gently folded in a tablespoon of Valrhona cocoa to the remaining batter to make chocolate meringues. These added elements will make the whites deflate ever-so-slightly, but they will still be delicious.

Shape the batter into cookies by using two spoons, dropping them onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 225 for 1 1/2 hours, until the exteriors are firm and dry. If they begin to brown, turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Turn off the oven and let the meringues dry out overnight. These can be stored in an airtight container, but are best eaten ASAP, as they will start to become soft and tackier over time. But that’s not all bad either, really.

Sep 4, 2007

No Knead to Freak Out–Part One

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I have a confession that may put my baking prowess in question: Bread Scares Me. Not in the carb-phobic L.A. kind of way (Sister, please! I blog about baking!), but in a “I-am-just-so-very-frightened-that-I’ll-never-
get-it-to-turn-out-right” kind of way. All the kneading, the rising, the importance of gluten–it’s all just been too much. Up until this point, I was so happy to leave the art of bread making to the pros and purchase crusty artisanal loaves from my favorite boulangeries. And then my latest kitchen purchase came along:
After barely justifying the hefty (literally and financially) purchase to myself and the husband, I had no other choice but to work my new Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart dutch oven. And going off of the sales pitch from my friendly Williams-Sonoma clerk (“You can roast in it, braise in it! Soups! Stews! It slices, it dices!”) I decided to research what kinds of recipes I could bake in my new buddy. A simple Google search later, and I was met with roughly one bazillion websites and blogs discussing a phenomenon known as No Knead Bread, which, as legend would have it, gets the best results when baked in a Le Creuset dutch oven. Hooray!

“Wait, what do you mean Southern California has been in the grip of a treacherous heat wave? I’m baking BREAD, everyone!” I cried.

Nothing was going to hold me back. Not even the fact that I am nearly a year late on the No Knead trend. I’ve been called many lovely things in my lifetime–avant-garde is not one of them.

The pioneer in this case is Jim Leahy, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. He developed this recipe and has lost a bit of the credit for it, because it was a New York Times article by Mark Bittman that really threw the recipe into the mainstream. Bittman, I salute you, you are a fine writer. But Jim Leahy, you sir deserve the Noble Prize for Carb Support for coming up with this one, and helping even yeast-skeered little old me make a loaf of gorgeous crusty bread that I believe made my husband forget the $200 Williams-Sonoma charge on the credit card. Well done, Mr. Leahy.

Since this recipe has been all the rage with foodies for quite some time, I was able to do a lot of research before beginning my No Knead adventure. Given the insanely warm weather, how temperamental this recipe can be and and what I already know about measuring ingredients in baking, I decided to seek out a recipe that gave measurements in weight (grams) not volume (cups). A cup of flour can contain up to 20 grams more or less than you think it does, depending on humidity, how you measure it, and how it was stored. Measuring by weight seemed to be the most foolproof method.

I was also careful to seek out photos of what the dough should look like when properly risen after the first rise (doubled in volume and covered in bubbles, indicating prime yeast action) and how long that should take (a broad window of 12-24 hours, depending on who you listen to). As I mentioned before, we were having quite the heat wave here in Southern California, even at the beach, so “room temperature” in my non-air-conditioned apartment was about 80 degrees, more than the recommended room temperature of 70 degrees. For this attempt, I decided to let the first rise go 16 hours, since the recipe I followed suggested 12-18 hours and it would be rising in a slightly warmer space. I also decided to forgo what would surely be a messy second rise in a kitchen towel in exchange for a lightly greased bowl, with no ill effect on the final result.


As for the ingredients, I used King Arthur Bread Flour, to which my current baking Bible, Baking Illustrated, gave rave reviews. I used Brita-filtered water, my favorite fleur de sel, and Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise Yeast in the foil packets. and then later saw some No Kneaders warning against using this kind of yeast, and that it’s better to use the kind for bread machines that comes in a jar. Well, my first loaf of this bread made with foil-packet instant yeast rose well and had a phenomenal crust, so next time I will try the kind in the jar which I’m assuming will take this bread to some new level none of us can comprehend. Probably.

This loaf of bread was, in short, almost really good. The texture is what was most impressive here: a crackly, thick, substantial crust, an interior littered with delightful holes, and a crumb that is chubby and chewy and simply divine.


So we have a great foundation here. But as for its flavor, ehhhh…well, given its beautiful appearance and the way shards of crisp crust spat about the kitchen upon slicing, I was longing for a more sourdough flavor, and just didn’t get it this time. The husband was impressed though. At any rate, it was perfectly lovely with our dinner that night when it accompanied foods with big, bold flavors: a buttery brie, a sharp aged cheddar and a dippably juicy and garlicky tomato, white bean and basil salad over mixed greens.


I am going to play with this recipe a bit more and report back. I am very confident that a few adjustments will really make this bread live up to its grand reputation. Stay tuned…

No Knead to Freak Out–Part Two

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