cinnamon rolls

I had a tremendous amount of dough left over from the Gigantor loaf of challah bread, so I decided to make cinnamon rolls. I kind of winged it on the recipe by referring to others, primarily one from Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice, for the shaping, filling, timing and glaze recipe. I think they turned out great, but now I have a huge pan of cinnamon rolls to eat! Thankfully, I also have a teenage son.

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Hurrah For Challah!

Here’s my first attempt at challah bread. I’ve never made one before and I was quite pleased with how it turned out. I’m not sure if the picture quite captured it but the loaf was ENORMOUS. It was not my best attempt at a 3-strand braid, but I had tried the 4-strand braid unsuccessfully and was getting really frustrated. The good news is that I’ve finally figured out how to do the 4-strand braid. The crust was brushed with an egg wash (twice!) and sprinkled with sesame seeds and poppy seeds.

sourdough, here we go! (again)

I’m trying again to make a sourdough starter. Some of you may recall the disasters (thank you, C., for suggesting a word that was much less offensive than my original choice) that were my previous attempts. This time, I am following a modified version of the starter recipe in Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice. So far, so good, although I am more than a week into the starter, but really only on the 4th step. I am told that the winter (or rather the ambient temperature of my frigid house) as well as many other factors can slow down the process, so I’m just soldiering on, one foot in front of the other. So far, no catastrophes (fingers crossed), no mold, nice boozy (yeasty) smell… just not a lot of bubbles. In the meantime, I’ll… just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…

raspberry nut shortbread bars

Due to incredibly poor planning, I had to go to the local warehouse store and the grocery store on Monday, 2 days before Christmas Eve. This is not something I normally aim to do because it seems that on Christmas week, food stores are suddenly filled with the shopping-challenged — there are the people who have never been in a grocery store (“oh my goodness, Herb, look at all the different salad dressings!”), those who don’t know basic shopping carriage etiquette (they are not meant for plowing into fellow shoppers), and my favorite, the folks who believe that if I am looking at a shelf of food, this means that they should then step in between me and the shelf to consider the choices for themselves.

So after I returned home from nightmare that was food shopping on Monday, my very dear sister-in-law called me to request something desserty for Christmas dinner. I was torn between steeling myself to go back out into the throng (it IS Christmas, after all) or being practical (and hopefully not too Scroogish) and combing my cookbooks and the Internet until I found something festive I could make with what I had at home. To be fair, my kitchen is not exactly spartan — I had about 25 pounds of assorted types of flour, 10 pounds of different kinds of sugars, 5 pounds of different types of baking chocolate, all sorts of nuts and so on. In the end, I opted to make these raspberry shortbread bars, which I found in a community cookbook. I knew my SIL had made fudge and I figured that the shortbread would counterbalance the chocolate nicely (and to be honest, it’s been a chocolate-filled month for me, and (insert shock and horror here) I was getting pretty sick of all things chocolate.

Raspberry Nut Shortbread Bars

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup raspberry jam
2 eggs
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup chopped nuts (original recipe calls for walnuts, but I used hazelnuts)

To prepare the shortbread base, prepare the 1 1/4 cup of flour and 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl; cut in butter until the mixture is resembles fine bread crumbs. Press the mixture firmly into bottom of a lightly greased 9″ square baking pan to make an even layer (I used the bottom of a glass to pack it down tightly). Bake for 350 degrees for 20 minutes or just until the edges have become lightly browned. Remove pan from oven and spread the raspberry jam over the shortbread. Beat eggs with brown sugar and vanilla until well blended. Mix the 2 tablespoons of flour with the salt and baking soda and it all to the egg/brown sugar/vanilla. Add nuts. Spoon the mixture over the jam and spread lightly to the edges. Return pan to oven and bake for 25 minutes longer or until the top is set. Cool in pan and then cut into bars. Makes 24 bars.

The sprinkled confectioners’ sugar is to camoflage the overbrowning (I used half dark brown sugar when I ran out of light brown sugar halfway through measuring).

On a side note: I am so done with sweets. Thank goodness Christmas is here so I can go back to bread baking! Merry Christmas to all!

mexican wedding cakes/russian tea cakes

I discovered these goodies when working our church’s Holiday Fair this fall. They weren’t among the cookies that I had personally prepared, but my curiosity with piqued when a gentleman bought a whole pound of them (bear in mind we sell dozens and dozens of different varieties of cookies and almost everyone buys an assortment and not just one type). I’ve spent considerable time since researching these melt-in-your-mouth shortbread type cookies and thought they’d be the perfect gift for my husband’s aunt who’s a great lover of shortbread.

I found a lot of information and a great recipe at joyofbaking.com, one of my favorite websites, and a treasure trove of info on holiday baked goods. They are so easy to make and they are so pretty to look at, but the recipe doesn’t yield a lot of cookies (or is it that I eat them as fast as I can bake them?) so make a double batch if you are planning to give them to more than one person.

choco-nilla cake revisited

By request! Every Christmas Eve, our little family has the same dinner menu — a baked pasta dish (Baked Ziti with Ricotta — from the back of the Ronzoni box — for a few years running now), garlic bread, Caesar salad and something decadently chocolatey for dessert. C. suggested I make the Choco-nilla Cake from the Baker’s Banter that I made for his birthday back in August, but this time with the chocolate ganache and filling that the recipe originally called for.

It was definitely more chocolatey this time ’round (last time I commented on the lack of chocolateyness), and the issues I had with the differing consistencies of the two batters (and resulting cakes) persisted (although the chocolate cake cooked in the recommended 35 minutes this time). However, none of this interfered with our enjoyment (particularly C.’s). If you decide to make it, be forewarned: the finished cake weighs a ton.

biscotti anyone?

I’ve never made biscotti before. I had read that they were a great thing to make for holiday giving, plus I’m always up for a new challenge (at least if it’s a baking challenge). I found many promising recipes online but narrowed them down to two King Arthur recipes, the Butter-Pecan Biscotti and the Barista Biscotti (the recipe is named Barista Biscotti Bites but mine weren’t exactly bite-sized). Both were simple and straightforward to make using a stand mixer (I can’t say if they’d be back-breaking by hand or motor-killing for a hand mixer). Actually it was embarrassing how easy they were to make. I found the flavors just OK though. I was expecting something more from the Butter-Pecan… the butterscotch chips just didn’t do it for me. Maybe a little butter rum flavoring would help? And to be fair, I didn’t have the foresight to order the hazelnut flavoring or the espresso chips for the Barista Biscotti (the recipe suggests vanilla and chocolate chips as substitutes) which are said to be essential to the distinctiveness of the biscotti. Without those two ingredients, the Barista Biscotti come off as a chocolate-dipped chocolate chip biscotti (which are good in their own right, but hardly extraordinary). I’m dying to try them out on a biscotti connoisseur to see what they’d say about them, but my non-biscotti-savvy family really took to them.

christmas sugar cookies

Sugar cookies are perhaps the earliest baked good I ever remember making by myself. When I was about 8 or 9, armed with my mother’s (early 1970’s era) copy of Joy of Cooking, I would take over the kitchen and bake sugar cookies in our little countertop oven. I never really planned out what I would make in advance (and probably couldn’t have gotten a hold of many of the ingredients even if I had), so I’d often wind up making sugar cookies. I recall that the recipe I made called for cooking oil rather than butter or shortening (Or maybe it did call for butter or shortening, and being 8 and having neither of those things, I just substituted. I was an independent child.). Also, as I was using a small oven with a small baking sheet (about the size of a typical microwave), I was usually only good for one tray of conventional sized cookies. After that first batch, I would make pan-sized cookies (I was also an impatient child.).

These days, I don’t make sugar cookies all that often. It’s something I’d probably make if I had an extreme craving for sugar and had no other ingredients with which to make something more complicated. (I generally have other ingredients, so this scenario rarely occurs.) As a result, I don’t have a preferred recipe for sugar cookies. This year, I got my recipe from a wonderful site called joyofbaking.com.

C., who is 11, and well on his way to becoming a master baker himself, helped me roll and cut the dough. After a few less than stellar attempts at mixing royal icing (using a few different recipes) we ended up with an old recipe (after following the link, scroll down for the icing recipe) I had jotted down years ago from the Necco site — it’s the recipe for the mortar of my gingerbread houses. We added gel food coloring and used ziplock baggies with a corner snipped off to pipe the icing on. C. did such a wonderful job I think he should take over this particular baking project next year!

date nut bread

I am a big fan of dates. Apparently many people don’t care for them, but I find the inadulterated sugary sweetness of dates irresistable. And I find date nut bread to be pretty foolproof. I got my recipe from P.’s Auntie Norma many years ago — I’d had tasted some she had made and I was hooked. I never really questioned why the dates are soaked in boiling water before they go into the batter, but was told recently that it was because the recipe dates back to the Depression and soaking the dates and then adding them to the batter, water and all, was a way to make the bread moist without the need for a lot of butter. Whatever the reason, I love date nut bread, particularly toasted and with a little schmear of cream cheese!

chocolate scotcheroos

A lot of people prepare family favorites during the holidays, as a tradition, or even just as a way to connect with loved ones. I don’t have much in my holiday baking repetoire that fits that category. Living in Bangkok with my mother, we weren’t really in the practice of baking holiday goodies at Christmastime. And when I was with my father in the States, holiday baking was just not one of his traditions.

When I was a teenager, my father was married to a woman who loved all things peanut butter. At holiday time she’d make peanut brittle (and a few different kinds of fudges), but throughout the year she’d make this concoction called Scotcheroos. I actually thought she’d invented it, although I’ve since learned that it was actually a popular recipe. For potlucks she’d make the complete version of the recipe with the melted chocolate and butterscotch chips on top, but much more often she’d make an everyday version — just the peanut butter-cereal base — for a treat, or a snack, or even a pick-me-up after a bad day. Most often she’d make it with Wheaties, and on a really bad day, she’d eat it warm out of the bowl.

I always make my Scotcheroos with the melted chips — my teenage son demands it — and I use Rice Krispies rather than Wheaties. I haven’t lived with my stepmother in almost 25 years, but every time I make Scotcheroos I always think of her.

Chocolate Scotcheroos

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup white sugar
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup light corn syrup
6 cups Rice Krispies (or Wheaties)

Cook sugar and corn syrup in a large pot until mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat and add peanut butter; stir until smooth. Add the cereal and mix until all the cereal is coated. Press into a lightly greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Let harden. Melt butterscotch and chocolate chips together over hot water (or melt in microwave in glass bowl). Spread the melted chocolate/butterscotch chips over the cereal mixture. Cut into bars after top is firm.