Saturday, December 31, 2011

From tragedy to triumph

Or from cake disaster to delicious dessert, at any rate: bombe cake to the rescue!

My baby sister's birthday is New Year's Eve. She loves chocolate, but we were going to celebrate her birthday in the evening, and frankly, too much chocolate in the evenings makes for a really impossible bedtime for us. When I saw this new recipe for a moist yellow cake (better than a box!) with a fudgy frosting from KAF, I thought it might be just the thing.

Late the night before our party, I baked up the cake. I followed the recipe exactly, but when I opened the oven, I saw this:

My cake had completely fallen in the center. I'd never seen anything like it; I'm not sure the picture does it justice, but the sides were a full 2" high and the center had sunk to maybe 1/2". There was no way frosting could salvage this cake. I was really bummed; I definitely didn't have time to make another cake. What to do?

Suddenly I was hit with inspiration: what if I tore the cake apart and used it to create something like the ultra-successful devil's food bombe I made this summer? I knew it would need a thicker frosting than the fudge frosting that was posted with the cake recipe, so I browsed around some more on KAF's website and found this one: super-simple chocolate frosting, supposedly quick and easy, and should be thick enough to hold the cake together. With my plan in mind, I went to sleep.

The next morning, I got to work. I sliced the cake into layers (because of the sunken middle, most were missing a center) and used pieces to fill up the bottom of a small mixing bowl. I spread some frosting (which really was quick and easy...and delicious!), then more cake, more frosting, more cake, and on, until I reached the top of the bowl. I was able to get two slices that were big enough for the top of the bowl and actually had centers, so they covered the top of the bowl. After several hours in the fridge, I slipped the cake from the bowl and used the rest of the frosting to cover the cake.

The kiddos were very excited to decorate Auntie R's birthday cake.

It was a huge hit, and no one knew that this cake was not what was intended (until I told them, of course). :)

Happy birthday, little sister!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Merry Christmas to me!

Baking with Julia and some new plates for blog pictures from my hubby.
A well-loved and well-used hand-me-down from my dad:
his copy of Modern French Culinary Art.
The rest is from my first-ever cooking store shopping spree,
also courtesy of my awesome hubby.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What to get for the lady who has everything

My stepmom is one of those people who is impossible to shop for. She spent many years as an independent career woman, and when she wants something, she gets it for herself. Christmas becomes something of a trial then, because she can't think of anything that she wants.....usually, I end up buying her some jammies.

This year, though, just before Christmas, KAF posted this blog post about Pecan and Salted Caramel Candies, and I was inspired. My stepmom loves turtles...whenever we're looking for a special little thank you candy treat, I always pick her up a little box. What about homemade turtles?!

Part of the fun for me is making things as homemade as possible, so while I used the KAF post for inspiration, I didn't really want to settle for using store-bought blocks of caramel or wafers of chocolate.

I've made caramel sauce before, but never caramel candies. After some research, I finally settled on this recipe from David Lebovitz for salted butter caramels. I followed his recipe exactly, except that I'd calibrated by thermometers just before and adjusted the temperatures accordingly. (I say thermometers because, while I have a candy thermometer, I don't really trust I use it to give me an approximate sense of where we are and then pull out my thermapen for exact readings as I get close.)

I found this recipe by Emeril for homemade turtles, so while I used a different recipe for the caramel, I used Emeril's for technique. I toasted pecans for 10 minutes in a 350º oven, stirring half-way through. Then I arranged them (I couldn't quite achieve Emeril's star-shaped pattern) into eight piles on a buttered jelly roll pan.

I poured the caramel into a loaf pan (an 8" instead of a 9") and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Then I used an oiled tablespoon to pour a tablespoon of caramel over each pecan stack. The caramel definitely stayed in place better after the 10 minute rest (the caramel I tried to pour immediately just ran all over).

While the caramel was hardening, I cut up a 4 ounce bar of chocolate (60%) and melted it. Once it had cooled to 80º, I used a spoon to pour it over the turtles. (I skipped the shortening that Emeril called for.) Not knowing how she'd feel about salted caramels, I sprinkled sea salt over half of the turtles and left the other half plain.

Because I only made eight, hubby and I didn't actually get to try any of the turtles. But, and I am not normally a caramel person, the buttered salted caramels were amazing...especially sprinkled with a little sea salt and dipped into some of the leftover chocolate!

Thursday, December 22, 2011


When hubby told me that his work holiday party was going to be on Wednesday, I was thrilled....for the first time ever, our schools actually had parties on the same day! AND we both signed up for dessert. That meant I could make one dessert, split it in two, and call it a day. Hurray!

I wanted a show-stopping recipe, so I put out a call to my Twitter baking buddies for suggestions...and then spent hours and hours on my computer reading all of their suggested recipes and all of the associated comments for each recipe.....What? Doesn't everyone do that?? :) That's why I love having online baking friends...they understand things like that when most of my real-life friends say, "Why don't you just run to the store and pick up a couple of boxes of cookies?!"

Nancy and Di both gave two-thumbs up to this recipe from Dorie Greenspan, and when I gave hubby a few choices, it was the one he picked: Black forest torte, called cherry fudge brownie torte by the Tuesdays with Dorie crew.

The recipe was a process, including lighting dried cherries on fire! It was my first time ever trying to flambé anything, and it was quite exciting. :)

I made a full recipe of the brownie cake, but divided it between two six-inch pans. Because I don't have any mini springforms, I just used my two six-inch cake pans. I tipped out the brownies from the pans, and once they were cool enough, hubby built me a couple of parchment collars and then came up with the brilliant idea of using binder clips to hold the parchment together after we'd tried and failed with every kind of tape in the house.

The marscapone-cream cheese mousse layer was pretty easy to make, and we dumped half on each brownie with its collar, threw them in the fridge, and went to bed.

The next morning, I attempted to pipe some leftover preserves onto the top of my cake. It didn't go very well, so I just sprinkled hubby's with cocoa. And then we brought them to work.

To say this recipe is a show-stopper is an understatement! I walked into the lounge at the end of the day to witness people picking at the plate and having "just one more tiny nibble." Apparently there were huge debates going on in first lunch about whether the torte was homemade (everyone voted that it was purchased at a it just me, or is that the greatest compliment ever?). Today, a coworker said, "It was just so mind-blowingly good!" Apparently hubby's coworkers were still talking about it today, too.

Oh, and we all loved it, too. I'm not usually a cherry fan, but I really liked the chocolate-cherry combination in this brownie, and the addition of the chunks of chocolate. It was so fudgy and dense and delicious. And the mousse layer was just divine...I could've eaten a bowl of it! :) Hubby's email, after he first took a taste, read, "OMG, sooooooooo ridiculously good!!!!!!!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wordlessish Wednesday: Gift bags

Gift bags for preschool teachers and our co-workers.
Hot-chocolate-on-a-stick (to dissolve in milk or just eat plain):
idea, cocoa blocks, marshmallows, and
candy cane biscotti dipped in white and dark chocolate.
And many thanks to Di for gift bag inspiration. :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Twitter avatar fun: Jamie Oliver and a recap

About a year ago, Nancy suggested that a bunch of us Twitter pals liven up our avatars by choosing a chef-of-the-month, cooking one of his or her recipes, and using a picture of the dish as our avatar for the month. I have had such great fun exploring many new-to-me chefs and trying out different styles of meals!

Our December chef was Jamie Oliver, and he was actually chosen by a group vote. Although I've heard a bunch about JO, I'd never actually tried one of his recipes. I spent a bunch of time browsing on his site, and actually enjoyed reading the articles as much as perusing the recipes. I love his commitment to teaching kids about nutrition and how to prepare their own healthy foods ~ especially as someone who witnesses the nutritional habits of teens on a daily basis!

Life has been a bit hectic these days, so (as seems to be usual for me), I choose a recipe for a good dinner rather than picking something that would make a good avatar picture. Ever the practical one, that's me! :) I picked Jamie's chicken tikka masala (recipe here). The dish took about an hour and a half to prepare (which includes a 30 minute marinade of the chicken) and smelled absolutely delicious. It made a nice dinner, but I have to say that we much prefer a similar recipe that I've been making for the past couple of years: chicken with curried tomato almond sauce (found on the Daring Cooks website). That recipe contains cinnamon and peas, both of which lend the dish just a hint of sweetness that was missing tonight. Still, we all enjoyed dinner and I look forward to trying more JO recipes!

And now, the recap:

January: Thomas Keller's caramel corn
February: James Beard's snickerdoodle pear cake (a quick and easy favorite!)
March: Emeril's cheese crackers
April: Jaques Pepin's ricotta dumplings
May: David Chang's steak lettuce wraps
June: Eric Reipert's shrimp and rice pilaf
July: Ina's barbecue sauce and mashed potatoes (a big hit, especially on bbq pizza!)
August: Rick Bayless' shredded chicken with potatoes and tomatoes (we loved it!)
September: Nigella's pumpkin seafood curry
October: Mark Bittman's banana chocoalte-chip pancakes (now in the dinner rotation!)
November: Ghillie Basan's veggie tagine
December: Jamie Oliver's tikka masala

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sour cream brownies (Modern Baker)

My bookclub enjoyed the brownies paired with homemade marshmallows.

My fourth Nick Malgieri brownie recipe is another from the cookies & bars section of The Modern Baker. This one is made with technique similar to the others (truffle, Florida, and cocoa nib), but includes the addition of sour cream and walnuts. I knew that most of the people I was baking for (my kiddos and my debaters) wouldn't eat the nut version, so I actually made the recipe walnut-free and then stirred walnuts into the batter in one corner of the pan.

For all of the other brownie recipes, the 30 minute cooking time seemed perfect (even when I only made a half-recipe in an 8x8 pan), but for this one, I wondered if they might have been slightly over-baked. The toothpick test came out mostly clean. Nevertheless, these were a big hit with the kids, hubby, friends, and students. The one brownie I sampled okay; these were definitely my least favorite of his brownies...not that that's saying much, since the rest are so out-of-this-world fantastic!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Homemade marshmallows

Homemade marshmallows have been on my to-do list for a long time. I've bookmarked several recipes: one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, one from David Leibovitz, one from Alton Brown, and most recently, one from King Arthur Flour. Whenever I'm bored, I start reading the recipes and all of the comments and think, "I really have to try these soon!" And then I get too overwhelmed at the prospect of all that mess.

The AB and KAF ones simply use sugar, corn syrup, salt, cold water, and gelatine. The ones Deb and DL posted both use egg whites. All four have pretty terrific reviews. In the interest of ease (and because I was inspired to start the process when it was nearly bedtime), I decided to go the non-egg white route, although I ended up bouncing back and forth between the four sites, using tidbits of advice from each. I started the process at about 8:30 and the marshmallows were ready to dry in their pan by 9:15, so really, it was easier than I expected.

I started by pouring cold water over gelatine in my stand mixer bowl. Then I boiled sugar, corn syrup, salt, and water until the sugar dissolved, and left it to boil untouched until it reached 238º on my instant thermometer (I actually tested my thermometer for the first time, and learned that my water boils at 210º).

Then I started my mixer on low and slowly slowly slowly drizzled the hot sugar down the side of the bowl. I increased the mixer's speed to 8 and mixed until the marshmallow was lukewarm (about 8 minutes). Thanks to Deb's warning not to touch anything! I resisted the urge to scrape the bowl and, I believe, saved myself the headache of the marshmallows sticking to everything in sight.

Finally, I used an oil-coated rubber spatula to spread it into my prepared pan, a 9x13 pan coated with a little coconut oil and then dusted with a confectioner's sugar/cornstarch mixture. I sifted some more sugar/cornstarch over the top and left the pan to sit overnight.

Today, I pulled the marshmallow slab out of the pan and put it onto a cutting board, and then used oil-coated scissors to cut it into pieces. I tried using a mini-cookie cutter to make fun shapes, but it was way too sticky. So the kids each made heart-shaped marshmallow and then I went back to cutting with the scissors. After cutting, I threw the cubes into a bowl of confectioner's sugar, stirred them to coat, and then set them in a strainer to shake off the excess sugar.

I can't believe I waited so long! These were a huge hit with the kiddos and the hubby; I'm not a huge marshmallow fan like they are, but even I couldn't resist grabbing a fluffy bite every time I walked past the pan. Next up, the egg white version!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three-way gingersnaps (Modern Baker)

Several of my Twitter pals were baking together from The Modern Baker this past weekend. I really wanted to join in and make the three-way gingersnaps, but a debate tournament and a family trip to the science museum ate up my weekend and left me with no time for baking.

But those gingersnaps were calling my name, so last night, I quickly whipped up a half-batch. These are called three-way gingersnaps because they're made with three different forms of ginger: ground ginger, fresh ginger root, and chopped crystallized ginger. (I didn't find fresh ginger root when we were grocery shopping this weekend, so I used bottled minced ginger from the fridge.)

The gingersnaps also have honey instead of the traditional molasses, so they were a little lighter in color.

These were absolutely delicious. In fact, the half-batch (about 3 1/2 trays of cookies) is just about gone. My dad, who loves gingersnaps, said they may have been the best he's ever eaten. I am positive we'll be making these again...maybe even within the week! :)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Semolina bread (Mellow Bakers)

Even after all of this time, sometimes the miracle of bread baking just gets me. Tonight, sitting at the dinner table, eating yummy winter veggie soup and pillowy fresh semolina bread, I kind of couldn't believe that the idea to have bread and soup for dinner hadn't occurred to me until 9 a.m. this morning!

When the dinner idea occurred to me, I searched my final five! remaining Mellow Bakers for a nice one-day recipe; there was one left: semolina (duram) bread. There was also an option with a whole-grain soaker, but the kids aren't been fans of seeds, so I went with the simpler version.

I made the sponge out of duram flour, bread flour, warm water, yeast, and sugar. I let it rise for a little over an hour, and then combined it with the rest of the duram flour, bread flour, water, and some salt and olive oil. The dough was given one fold half-way through the bulk fermentation. Inspired by the BBA pane siciliano, I shaped this into a long baguette and then curled it into an S.

We loved it! The bread was soft and pillowy with an excellent flavor; it paired beautifully with the soup.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Peppernuts! (cookie exchange)

I did try to get a picture without my little assistant's hand in it,
but it was impossible, so I gave up. :)

I've been enjoying all of the virtual meals and exchanges going on lately; the round-ups are an excellent source of new cooking/baking ideas! So when Di invited me to participate in this year's virtual cookie exchange, it was a no-brainer...the only problem was deciding what to bake.

My mother-in-law is the queen of Christmas cookie baking. When we used to spend Christmas with my in-laws in Montana (before having kids negated the idea of driving the treacherous mountain passes in the winter), hubby and I would trip over each other to be the first to get to the treat shelf. The treat shelf includes tins, baggies, and boxes of heath bars, cinnamon candy, crescent cookies, fudge, beef jerky, peppernuts, pizzelles, chocolate chip cookies, peanut blossoms, sugar cookies...all homemade.

Hubby's favorite cookies in the world are his mom's crescent cookies, so I thought briefly of making those. But he looks forward to that package more than anything each year, and somehow it seems wrong to make them here. :) So then I thought of one of my favorites: peppernuts. I'd never had peppernuts before meeting my in-laws, but I was immediately drawn to the crunchy, spicy little cookies. Hubby and I always took a big baggie of them with us on the drive home, and when the curvy roads would make me a little sick, they were the only thing I could eat. Did you know that ginger is a great remedy for an upset tummy?

My mother-in-law is one of those "by feel" bakers, telling me to add stuff until it looks a certain way or "to taste" (which was so hard for me before I became more confident in the kitchen!). I'm including weights and measures for what I used, but for the flour, you really have to just keep adding it until the batter is stiff enough to roll/shape into ropes. The only other change I made to the recipe was to use unsalted butter in place of shortening.

Anita's Peppernuts
makes about 560 bite-sized cookies

2 c (400g) sugar
1 c (226g) unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs (100g)
2/3 c (160g) sour cream
2/3 c (160g) brown sugar
2 tsp (10g) anise extract
1 1/2 tsp (4g) ground cloves
1 T (6g) ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp (3g) ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp (3g) ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground pepper
2 2/3+ c (335g - 600g) all-purpose flour

1. Preheat the oven to 400º.

2. Cream the sugar and butter in a mixer.

3. Add the eggs, sour cream, brown sugar, and extract, and mix to combine.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and the spices.

5. Add the flour mix to the wet ingredients and stir to combine. You may need to adjust the flour to get a stiff dough. (My MIL's initial recipe called to start with 2 2/3 c flour, which weighed about 335g; I ended up using about 560g of flour, and my dough was still rather sticky.) Some recipes I saw called for chilling the dough before rolling it out. I tried it both ways (rolling right away and chilling for a while) and didn't notice a difference; then I chilled the dough overnight and they were much easier to roll the next day.

6. Take a small portion of dough and roll/pinch it into a rope about 1/2" thick. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut the rope into really small pieces (1/2" long). Fill up a baking pan; these don't rise, so feel free to stick them close together.

7. Bake the trays for 10-11 minutes or until cookies are lightly golden. (You have to experiment with the texture you like; 12 minutes will make a really crunchy cookie. Hubby and I both prefer them crunchy on the outside but a little soft on the inside, so 11 minutes was about perfect for us. The batch that chilled in the fridge overnight took closer to 13 minutes.)

8. Let cool for a couple of minutes on the tray, and then use a spatula to transfer them to a bowl.

These cookies will last for quite a while, stored in an airtight container. You can also freeze them.

Be sure to check out Di's site later this week for the round-up of all of the delicious cookies people baked!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Caramel crumb bars (Modern Baker)

I guess it says something that I'd already made three cookie/bar recipes from the Modern Baker Challenge by December 2nd, only two days into our first cookie month! There's just something about a good cookie recipe: quick and easy to whip up, fun to share, loved by everyone.

These caramel crumb bars were no exception, although this recipe does have a few more steps than your typical cookie or brownie recipe. Make a dough (softened butter, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and flour), press it into a pan, and let it chill. Make the filling (butter, corn syrup, dark brown sugar, and sweetened condensed milk), and let it cool.

Then assemble: spread the filling over the dough, sprinkle with the crumb topping (just extra dough with a little bit of extra flour added until it makes a crumble) and bake. Being the confirmed chocoholic that I am, I prefer the brownie recipes, but these were a big hit with the family and my students.