happy birthday to me!

In our house, summer is just like one continuous birthday party. First up is my birthday in May, followed my husband’s in June, then L.’s in July and C.’s in August. I’m not even mentioning all the other family members (and our dog!) whose birthdays also fall during the summer. So it’s kind of fun (and challenging) to come up with ideas for the different cakes we’ll be enjoying. I usually pick something chocolate on chocolate for my cake, because I know this is probably my only opportunity to have that — everyone else always chooses some sort of white frosting (vanilla buttercream, cream cheese, whipped cream, etc.) for their (chocolate) cakes.


A few weeks ago, I came across this post on Zoe Bakes. In it she describes the cakes she baked for her son’s Henri’s birthday. Her Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Malted Buttercream called to me, so that’s what I selected for my cake this year. I baked my own cake (because that’s what I do), with assistance from my baking apprentice — my 11-year-old son. The guys also made dinner for me — Soda Can Chicken (our favorite summer chicken preparation), broccoli salad with dried cranberries, and twice-baked potatoes, a specialty of C.’s., who piped the potatoes into the skins himself. And L. made Ro*Tel queso for a starter. With my meal, I had Sam Adams Blackberry Witbier. The meal was wonderful — thanks to my guys for treating me so well!

C.’s Twice-Baked Potatoes
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oatmeal raisin cookies

Oatmeal raisin cookies fall into a gray area for me. While I acknowledge that they are cookies, the fact that they also contain oats and raisins allows me to tell myself that they are more health food than guilt-inducing treat. I’ve even been known to let my kids eat oatmeal raisin cookies for breakfast. I understand that this smacks of bad parenting in some people’s eyes, but I stand firm.

Tomorrow L. and his compadres in his teen youth group are going on a hike at Blue Hills, so I decided to bake Oatmeal Raisin Cookies for their trek. I made a different recipe than my usual — this one was from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book (read Andrea’s Recipes‘ post about the same recipe here). I had misgivings initially because unlike the one I usually use, there is no molasses in America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe. Also the recipe does not contain that spice which screams oatmeal cookie to me — cinnamon (but I added some anyway, in addition to the nutmeg in the recipe). The resulting cookies are oversized, and crisp but chewy, very much like the America’s Test Kitchen’s chocolate chip cookies. L. can’t stop eating them — hopefully there will be some left for tomorrow!

pain d’epi

In the spirit of such Internet bake-alongs as Tuesdays with Dorie and The Daring Bakers, a group of ambitious baking bloggers recently started The BBA Challenge, in which they are baking every recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Such a challenge very much intrigued me because I am, at the core, a bread baking devotee, but I was reluctant to participate because I’ve been feeling kind of overwhelmed by my dwindling time as a full-time at-home parent, particularly with the kids’ summer vacation coming up. Then I remembered that I recently completed my very own “bake Peter Reinhart’s entire book” challenge, baking from his upcoming Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, for which I was a tester (one of 500 or so!) for 6 months.

During the course of the testing, I purchased Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, but never found a moment to bake from it before now. So earlier this week I baked the Pain d’Epi (Wheat Stalk Bread), which I selected because (a) I’ve never made Pain d’Epi before and (b) it was one of the recipes in the book that used bread flour (which was all I had in large quantities in the house at the time). Each recipe in the book makes enough dough for a few loaves — the idea being that you mix up a large batch and retard it in the fridge until you are ready to make some. You can then lop off a hunk and bake a loaf at a time, saving the remainder for another day.

As this was my first attempt at baking from the book, I haven’t yet gotten the technique down. It’s actually really simple… maybe too simple for me. I’m not used to being so carefree with my bread baking and I actually like fussing over and kneading the dough. Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day is relatively freewheeling in that regard. I like very precise instructions (which is why I love Peter Reinhart so much, I guess). I also live and die by my kitchen scale. Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day measures ingredients by volume rather than weight and refers to dough sizes as “a grapefruit-sized” or “cantaloupe-sized.” I suppose this makes it very beginner-friendly and low on intimidation, but it’s not a natural fit for me.

My Pain d’Epi (four separate loaves) varied a lot. Generally I would say the 30 minute final proofing was inadequate — my loaves barely rose. I should’ve gone with my gut and proofed them longer. Also — something odd — the bread was really salty. The recipe called for 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt for a 4-pound batch of dough. I didn’t question this but the resulting saltiness was overwhelming. My salt-loving 11-year-old even pronounced it “too salty to eat.” I noticed that another recipe in the book (the master recipe) calls for 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher or coarse salt, which would actually be less salt (if measured by weight) than 1 1/2 tablespoons of table salt. I’m wondering if that was a detail that got lost somewhere?

Anyway, next up from Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day — I’m going to go back to the beginning and make the master recipe. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

more fun with fondant

This week we covered cakes in fondant — judging from the wrinkles I have a lot of work ahead of me. We also practiced different decorating techniques using fondant and gumpaste — draping, a handkerchief overlay, a ribbon garland and a ribbon border.



Draping and handkerchief overlay

Ribbon border and ribbon garland

My instructor recommended we use a pound cake or a carrot cake for a base, since fondant tends to be too heavy for sponge cakes. To meet our household requirement that all cakes be chocolate, I made Deep Chocolate Sour Cream Pound Cake from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle (I found the recipe on Chubby Hubby’s blog here). The cake was very indulgent (3/4 of a pound of butter and a cup of sour cream will do that to a cake), but moist and scrumptious. It even made the Wilton (Crisco-laden) Class Buttercream seem tasty. At least I thought so. (L. said it was dry but mushy. Teenagers excel at tact.) I used natural cocoa rather than the Dutch-processed cocoa Boyle calls for. If you’re looking for an over-the-top chocolatey cake, I recommend making it with Dutch-processed cocoa as written. I baked the cake in two 8-inch rounds rather than in a loaf pan; if you do this the baking time is approximately 55 minutes. Baked this way, the recipe produces a 3 1/2-inch tall layer cake.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class — no cakes, just flower production!

tiramisu

Tiramisu is a popular Italian dessert, made with ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese, egg, sugar, espresso and cocoa. Some versions also include alcohol (such as brandy or Marsala wine). Whenever I see tiramisu on a dessert menu, it’s a must-order, but I had never attempted making it at home before now.

I found this recipe in my binder of ripped-out magazine pages and decided I would try to overcome my distrust of all things Rachael Ray and try it out (I know, if I was so distrustful of RR then why did I save the recipe in the first place? Chalk it up to my love of tiramisu.). I had already done exhaustive research on the Internet and had yet to find what I thought was The Definitive Tiramisu Recipe so it seemed as good as any. The Everyday with Rachael Ray recipe called for savoiardi, which are crisp ladyfingers; I’ve seen other versions which use soft cakey ladyfingers. After combing my local (usually well-stocked) supermarket and finding no savoiardi, I decided to make my own. Here’s the savoiardi recipe I used, found on Allrecipes.

First the savoiardi. The process itself wasn’t too tough, although I had trouble incorporating the flour into the mixture. I probably stirred some of the air out of the batter in the process, even though I deliberately tried not to do that. Sometimes with folding in ingredients, it’s better to be decisive than careful and slow. I also had a little difficulty piping the batter on the parchment-lined pans. I guess I’m just not adept at working with drippy stuff in pastry bags — the batter ran out the other end almost as fast as I could fill the bag! When I took the baked savoiardi out of the oven, though they were golden and firm as instructed, the surface felt a little sticky to the touch. I baked my second pan a little longer and they were browner than I would’ve liked but less tacky. I ended up flipping the first batch over and gave them a couple more minutes in the oven.

Now that I had my savoiardi, I made my tiramisu. Here’s the process in a nutshell. I mixed espresso, brown sugar and vanilla together (no booze, because I was making it to share with my kids) and set that aside. I whisked together egg yolks, sugar and heavy cream, first over heat in a double boiler, then over/in a bowl of ice water. As it cooled, the mixture thickened up and became more custard-like. I then whisked in the mascarpone. To assemble, I dipped the savoiardi in the reserved espresso and lined the bottom of an 8 x 8-inch pan with them. Then I spread a layer of the mascarpone mixture, followed by another layer of savoiardi, and a final layer of mascarpone. After chilling for a few hours, I topped the dessert with some homemade whipped cream, a sprinkling of cocoa powder and some dark chocolate curls.

P. and L. both really loved the tiramisu but I felt it was just too rich and heavy. (And believe me, I don’t say that often. I’m the girl who always finishes her dessert. And has seconds.) The cake to custard ratio was off; there wasn’t enough cake, and there was way too much creamy stuff. I actually felt sick after having just a half-portion. (I had another half piece the next day to be sure. Still ugh.) I’m just going have to keep hunting for The Definitive Tiramisu Recipe. And until I find it, I’m going to keep ordering tiramisu off the dessert menu.

three-chip cookies

Happy National Chocolate Chip Day! Wait, you didn’t know it was Chocolate Chip Day? To be honest, neither did I, and I probably never would have known had I not been desperately scouring the Internet for a cookie recipe that would use up all the odds and ends I have in my pantry. And so it was fitting that I ended up with the Jumbo 3-Chip Cookies on Nestlé’s website.

I halved the recipe as I didn’t have enough of the various chips or nuts to make a full batch and also opted to make smaller cookies to make the half batch go farther. The cookies are of the classic Toll House cookie model — very thin, almost crisp, buttery — except with three different kinds of chocolate chips (semi-sweet, milk and white chocolate). I have to confess that I think the charm is mostly in the name and the appearance of the cookies since I found it difficult to distinguish tastewise between the semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips, and the white chocolate flavor was completely overwhelmed by the other darker chips. One positive note: since I usually don’t add nuts to my chocolate chip cookies, I was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the hazelnuts I used complemented the other flavors. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to make these again, but they were just what I was looking for this afternoon.

the easiest whole-wheat bread ever?

I was really intrigued by this recipe from King Arthur Flour Whole Grains Baking. The dough isn’t kneaded; rather the ingredients are mixed into a batter which is proofed in a loaf pan for an hour and then baked. The instructions seemed so avant garde — when have I ever gone from mixing ingredients to oven-ready loaf in just an hour?! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that it turned out kind of… ummm… flat. I later found the recipe posted on King Arthur Flour’s site (renamed “No-Knead 100% Whole Wheat Bread“), now with more extensive proofing instructions. Apparently, I should have let if proof slightly longer, although I doubt another 30 minutes would have made much of a difference — my bread barely rose at all in 60 minutes (this was as expected, according to the book instructions). If only I had done a little more research — but sometimes I just want to bake without overthinking things, ya know?

Appearances aside, the bread is soft and moist, and the flavor of the molasses really shines. It toasts up beautifully too!

mother’s day and whoopie pies

Until yesterday, I had never eaten a whoopie pie. Apparently this is something I should be ashamed of. However, even without having eaten one, I had a firm idea of how a whoopie pie should taste. The exterior should be moist and chocolatey. The filling should be sweet, but not cloyingly so, and it should have some lightness to it — kind of like whipped cream, but not exactly. And most of all, it should not contain shortening. Apparently making whoopie pies without shortening is a deal breaker, but I was determined to find out how to make them sans Crisco for my Mother’s Day cookout.

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book‘s Whoopie Pie recipe calls for filling made with butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, Marshmallow Fluff (or Marshmallow Creme for you folks outside of Fluffland) and a pinch of salt. The recipe is super simple to make — I had a doozy of a cold this weekend and still managed to do a beautiful job if I do say so myself (indulge me, I’m sick). I premade the batter and filling and put them in the fridge overnight, and then scooped and baked the batter in the morning. After cooling them on a rack, I then filled them with the ooey gooey filling and served. The filling wasn’t quite what I expected — it was sweet and sticky and a little overwhelming with its sugary messiness. The pies were pretty big too — only my teenage son was able to eat a whole pie in one sitting and a few of us had trouble even finishing a half. Luckily we are an informal bunch and none of us minded wearing whoopie pie on our hands and faces. For a prettier (and tidier) presentation, I would try baking them in cupcake tins and then filling the centers. But what fun would that be?

a learning experience: double chocolate muffins

I’ve always been told that baking is a science and not an art (unlike other culinary endeavors). Proportions and chemistry are to be respected and not messed with. At the same time, some of the best bakers are the ones who push the envelope and experiment and tweak. The key is to remember that for every successful baking experiment, there are a hundred failures.

I recently checked out a handful of baking books from my local library, and once I got over my initial “I have to buy a copy of each of these books” impulse, I resolved that I would select and bake one recipe from each. My first selection was Chocolate Zucchini Muffins from The Only Bake Sale Cookbook You’ll Ever Need: 201 Mouthwatering, Kid-Pleasing Treats by Laurie Goldrich Wolf and Pam Abrams, adapting the recipe as I saw fit. With that, my current streak of making unproblematic baked goods came to a screeching halt.

Here are some of the ways I changed the recipe and what I learned:

(1) The recipe calls for 1 1/2 sticks of butter (or 3/4 cup), which way exceeds my personal “acceptable use of butter in a 12-muffin recipe” policy, so I substituted unsweetened apple sauce for (I thought) a third of the butter. As it turns out, I actually added 4 oz. (1/2 cup) of apple sauce to the 4 oz. (1 stick or 1/2 cup) of butter rather than 2 oz. (1/4 cup), which resulted in an additional 1/4 cup of liquid. This caused problems later down the road (see (4) below).

(2) I also cut a 1/2 cup of the sugar, since I thought a ratio of 2 cups of sugar to 2 1/2 cups of flour was a bit excessive. The finished muffins were perfectly fine in the sweetness department.

(3) I did not squeeze out the shredded zucchini. The recipe calls for 2 cups of shredded zucchini (“about 4 medium zucchini”) ; my 2 cups came from only 1 1/2 medium zucchini. Even though the recipe did not suggest squeezing out the excess liquid, doing so would have compacted the zucchini (likely to the tune of 4 zukes). So I was off on that measurement.

(4) When I filled the muffin pan, I had way too much batter, which completely stymied me at the time. I had enough to fill the cups to almost full, and enough leftover from that to make 6 mini muffins. The reasons why? See (1) and (3) above.

(5) When the recipe says to fill the muffin pan cups about two-thirds full, it’s best to fill them just that full. Not more. If you have too much batter, grab another pan.

(6) I’ve been on a bit of a paper wrapper-free muffin kick and greased the muffin pan lightly. Unfortunately these muffins stuck like, well, something really sticky. In hindsight, this was likely due to the reduction in fat in my version.

(7) My finished muffin tops merged together so I had to cut them apart (ugliness ensued). Furthermore, the muffins stuck to their cups and I had to jimmy them loose (more ugliness) and all of them tore apart to some degree in the progress (an extra helping of ugliness).

(8) It seems the extra liquid in the batter made the crumb finer and more cakelike than muffinlike. This didn’t hurt the taste, but it helped if you closed your eyes when you ate them.

They are actually fine-tasting muffins, just not presentable to anyone you want to impress. Since I made them fully planning to share with friends and coworkers, this was a bit of a blow. Because now I have to eat them all myself.

Many-Mistakes Double-Chocolate Muffins
(with corrections)
adaptation of Chocolate Zucchini Muffins
from The Only Bake Sale Cookbook You’ll Ever Need

301g unbleached all-purpose flour
40g natural cocoa powder, sifted
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
113g (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 oz. unsweetened apple sauce
3 large eggs
2 cups shredded zucchini, with liquid squeezed out
1/2 cup milk
112g semi-sweet chocolate chips (preferably mini chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line muffin pan with paper muffin wrappers. Whisk together the flour, sifted cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Cream butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and creamy. Add applesauce and mix until combined; mixture may look curdled — this is fine. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until combined. Add half the flour mixture, then half the zucchini, followed by half the milk, and repeat with the remainder of each, mixing each until combined before adding the next. Fold in the chocolate chips. Fill each muffin cup two-thirds of the way full. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the the tops spring back when lightly touched. Remove from oven and let rest for 3 minutes before removing muffins from the pan to dry on a cooling rack. Makes 12 muffins.

(You can also make mini muffins with the batter; bake at 375 degrees F for 15 minutes. Makes approximately 24 mini muffins.)