Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oreos: Make Them Yourself!

photo by Anthony Palatta

I've been staring hungrily at this recipe from Martha's Everyday Food Magazine for a while: homemade Oreos! Though she calls them Chocolate 'n' Cream Sandwich Cookies, we know just which sandwich cookies she's referring to.

Martha seems to be a fan of sandwich cookies. They're regularly featured in her magazines and she has several recipes for them in her Baking Handbook, which I treasure. Before I made this recipe, I thought I'd compare the Everyday Food version with a similar cookie sandwich from the Handbook. The one difference that struck me as important was that in the Handbook, she added a teaspoon of vanilla to the cookie dough. I decided to add that to my recipe as well.

The dough for the cookies is extremely tacky and has to be chilled before you can cut it. I used a flower-shaped cookie cutter that was slightly smaller than the one in the recipe, and so I had a higher yield of cookies (24 sandwiches instead of 15, as promised by the recipe). I also experimented with sprinkling the cookies with sugar, definitely a good move, as the cookies are intensely chocolatey, but not very sweet, like a chocolate wafer. In my next attempt, I might also go half and half with light brown and white sugar, rather than all light brown sugar, to sweeten the cookies up a bit.

When blending the filling as directed in the recipe, I ended up with a bowl full of butter crumbs. However, when I pressed it together with my hands, it came together easily. The texture turned out to be more of a paste than a cream, like Play-doh. Luckily, it tasted nothing like Play-doh! In fact, a friend of mine, after sampling the result, told me, "Like an Oreo, but much, much better..."

An apt description. This recipe's a keeper.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Goin' Bananas

picture by Anthony Palatta

There's just something about banana bread that makes it such a sweet, soft, and sticky comfort. For that reason, when I first started baking, I knew it was a dish I'd have to master.

One thing I learned from my early trials: If you see a recipe for banana bread that calls for butter, be very afraid. Though it's classified as a "quick bread" in cookbooks, banana bread bakes for a long time, almost an hour, and all that time in the oven means that butter will dry out your cake. (The "quick" means quick to prepare in comparison with regular bread, which you have to let rise over hours.) Better to use a flavorless oil like canola as your fat.

I came across my favorite banana bread recipe in a USA Weekend Magazine insert in the New York Daily News one weekend. It's written by Pam Anderson (not that Pamela Anderson) and is actually a recipe for pumpkin bread that can be modified for bananas. with a few changes. Some, like substituting bananas for pumpkin, or lowering the water and sugar content, make sense. Bananas are plenty wet and sweet.

One change, however, I could not agree with: omitting the spices used to flavor the pumpkin bread (cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg). In fact, I've found a lot of banana bread recipes call for using no spices. Why? Cinnamon and bananas go wonderfully together, and the cloves and nutmeg add an interesting undertone.

I put them in anyway, and added a bit of ginger to boot. The results are pretty great, if I do say so myself. (A friend of mine told me she knows a guy from Morocco who adds a pinch of saffron to his banana bread. Hmm...)

I also found that the 70 minutes of cooking time called for in the recipe didn't work for me. 55 to 60 were plenty.

If you want to find more recipes by Pam Anderson, check out one of her four cookbooks, like Perfect Recipes for Having People Over. In the meantime, here's my riff on her banana bread recipe.

Banana Bread (adapted from Pam Anderson's CookSmart Column in USA Weekend)

TIP: Don't be afraid to go for mushy bananas with lots of brown spots. Bananas that aren't ripe enough won't work well.

3 very ripe bananas
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.
Mash the bananas; whisk in 1/2 cup water, then brown sugar, then oil, then eggs until smooth.
In a separate bowl, whisk together spices and remaining dry ingredients, then fold into the banana mixture until just combined. Scrape batter into a 9-inch loaf pan. Bake until sides of cake pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted into the banana bread comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 55 minutes.
Let bread stand for a few minutes. Turn onto a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Slice and serve. Recipe doubles easily and freezes well.
Serving suggestion: Serve with whipped cream and/or a strawberry sauce made from frozen strawberries, 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice, and sugar to taste mixed in the food processor.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Coco Loco

(Photo by Anthony Palatta)

A friend invited us for dinner, and naturally, I volunteered to bring dessert. (Any excuse to bake...!) First, I consulted with Anthony as to what to make.

"What's she serving?" he asked.

"Shrimp," I said.

"How about something coconut? Coconut goes with shrimp," he said.

I looked through my cookbooks and found something in a book called Cupcakes that looked appealing: coconut cupcakes with a lime filling.

A word about me and cake. I've done a fair share of cake baking in my time, and I have to say, whenever I make a cake I feel on unsafe ground. Give me pies, cookies, puddings, even quick breads. But with cake, there's always the potential to overbake, and I have the garbage bags full of dried-out well-done cupcakes to prove it. Therefore, with these cupcakes, I was determined to get it right.

First, the ingredients. I stupidly thought that to find coconut, the best place to go would be Whole Foods. Unfortunately, Whole Foods only carried raw, unsweetened coconut, natural and pure. My recipe called for the pre-sweetened adulterated kind. Off to my local chain supermarket, where I found just what I was looking for. The other ingredient that caused me some grief was coconut extract. Again, Whole Foods came up short, carrying something called "imitation coconut flavor," which when I looked at the ingredients, resembled the contents of a chemistry set.

Excuse me, isn't the name of the store "Whole" Foods?

After tracking down coconut extract, I came home and began baking. I decided to experiment with the book's recipe for lime curd, for the filling, instead of my tried and true Martha Stewart Everyday Food curd. (I can't find the recipe online, but this one is similar, just add lemon zest...) The big difference here was that Martha makes curd with the whole egg, while this recipe only called for yolks. In the end, I prefer the whole egg version, which tastes softer, warmer, maybe even subtler. Using just the yolk gives a thicker, meatier taste and also a stickier consistency I didn't quite like.

Next, the cupcake, which was easy enough: creamed butter and sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Then a mix of dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, chopped coconut) alternated with wet (coconut milk). Unfortunately, I filled my cupcake holders a bit too full and when they were done, I ended up with "muffin tops" hanging over the side of the paper liners, which I definitely did not want, so I trimmed them off. (Confession: I also sampled a few and found them crunchy, sweet, and delicious!)

Luckily, these cupcakes are filled and frosted, so the surface appearance doesn't matter too much. After the cakes cooled, I scooped out cone-shaped cavities in their centers, filled them with lime curd, then covered them up with homemade coconut-infused buttercream. A final dusting of shredded coconut and green sprinkles (to hint at the lime inside) and the dessert was done.

The cake turned out fluffy and moist, so moist in fact, they stuck to the paper a bit. I recommend scooping them out with a spoon. I asked Anthony to be my taster, and he said, "I don't really like coconut, but okay." I reminded him that he had suggested making the cupcakes in the first place. "You asked me what would go good with shrimp, not what I like," he said. Still, he found the cupcake was a hit. He would have preferred the curd to be a bit limier, and for me to have tinted it green with food coloring. Frankly, I agreed. Somehow when something looks like lime, it tastes more like lime.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Brownies

from top: my mom's Betty Crocker brownie; the Williams-Sonoma brownie; both brownies side by side

all photos by Anthony Palatta

My mother, who's famous for her brownies, always keeps a batch in her freezer, just in case a grandkid happens to drop by. She's made them so many times that when I recently asked her for the recipe (from the Betty Crocker Cookbook she received as a wedding present over fifty years ago), she was able to recite it over the phone by heart.

Which was why I was shocked to learn in my first cooking class that my mother was making two crucial "mistakes" with her brownies. First, her brownies had Crisco rather than butter as a shortening. Second, my mother used Baker's Chocolate rather than a higher rated brand like Ghirardelli or the highly esteemed Callebaut or Valrhona.

"But my mother always uses Baker's for her brownies!" I blurted out.

"Let me ask you something," said my teacher. "Do you like your mother's brownies?"

"They're great," I told him.

"Then they're great," he said.

Still, I became curious to explore other brownie horizons, and so I began experimenting with various recipes until I hit on one that's become my go-to: the Classic Dark Chocolate Brownie from Williams-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking, an oversized cookbook with color illustrations that could sit proudly on my coffee table if it weren't covered in crumbs and food stains.

Both my mom's Betty Crocker brownies and the Williams-Sonoma variety are based on unsweetened rather than semisweet or bittersweet chocolate. However, the Williams-Sonoma packs a much more intense chocolate punch, probably because it uses THREE TIMES AS MUCH CHOCOLATE as Betty Crocker, not to mention two teaspoons of vanilla for added kick. The Williams-Sonoma brownie is intensely fudgy, thick, rich, moist, more like a chocolate truffle than a brownie. By contrast, my mother's brownies are slimmer, cakier, and more sugary than chocolatey.

Recently I made both recipes and brought them to one of my classes at NYU to taste test. The verdict? Most people preferred the taste of the Williams-Sonoma fudgy brownies, but couldn't finish them. On the other hand, by the end of the class period, all of my mother's brownies were gone.

In a perfect world, I would go for the Williams-Sonoma brownies baked in a larger pan than the typical 8 x 8, so they come out thinner, with a nice crunch on top and bottom as well as a dense and chocolatey center.

One of my students (who preferred my mom's brownie) suggested that one's brownie preference could be used as a kind of personality test. Are you cakey or fudgey? Chocolatey or sweet?

Try them for yourself, and see how you come out. The Williams-Sonoma recipe is copyrighted, but if you go on their Amazon page, you can "look inside" and see the directions. My mom's recipe is below:

Brownies by Mom (via Betty Crocker)

2 squares of Baker’s Chocolate (2 oz total)
1/3 cup of shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
¾ cup flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350. Grease an 8 x 8 light metal brownie pan. Melt the chocolate and shortening in a double boiler. Remove from heat and beat in sugar and eggs with electric mixer. Mix in dry ingredients with spatula. Spread and bake 23 minutes in Mom’s oven and mine (or until toothpick in the middle comes out clean or pretty clean, about 20-25 minutes). Cool in the pan.