Friday, October 29, 2010

Apple Crisp

photo by Anthony Palatta

As I was showing this blog to my mom, who doesn't "do" the Internet, she asked me, "Do you have any apple recipes?"

Apple & cinnamon are probably my mother's favorite flavors. She makes apple cake, apple pie, but above all, she makes apple crisp.

She's so famous in our family for her apple crisp that one year my brother got her a special apple peeler, a red metal device with a crank that you turn and it peels and slices the whole apple for you.

I don't have one of these gizmos, so when I make apple crisp, I run my hand peeler across the top and the bottom of the apple, clearing it of skin.  I then work my way down from the top, then flip the apple and work my way down the other way until I meet in the middle. Finally, I slice the apple into 1/2 inch cubes.

At that point, I put the apples in an 8 x 8 baking pan and sprinkle them with sugar and a little apple cider or water, then cover them with cinnamon. My mom uses a round glass baking dish. She also adds 1/4 cup of water, no sugar, and also covers them with a healthy dusting of cinnamon.

There are two theories of topping that come into play at this point. My mother uses 1 cup of sugar and 3/4 cup of flour with about 5 or 6 tablespoons of soft butter, that she cuts into the sugar and flour with a pastry blender. I use 1 1/4 cup of flour to 3/4 cup of sugar with about the same amount of butter, melted, which I stir into the mixture with a fork until it holds together when you press it between your fingers. Either way, you may have to adjust the butter a bit until you get the right consistency.

My topping is doughier and less sweet. Hers has a candy-like crunch. (In the picture above, I've made hers.)

You could also adulterate your topping with brown sugar, oats, crushed nuts, crushed breakfast cereal, or crushed cookies, I suppose. And you could add blueberries or a mix of fruit underneath too.

Bake at 350 until the top is golden brown and the apples are bubbling, 40 to 50 minutes.

The results are delicious cold or warm, but not hot.  It's best to bake this beforehand and let it sit a little, rather than serve it right out of the oven.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Man Vs. Chocolate Cake

photo by Anthony Palatta

For a while now, I've been trying to find a go-to chocolate cake recipe.  Most of my attempts have come out like the one I tried a couple of weeks ago, from a recipe in The Joy of Cooking:  burnt edges, mushy middle, and dry spongy cake in between.

Maybe these disasters have been my fault, for paying close enough attention to the cake while it was in the oven. Then again,  the oven I've got currently is little better than an open-pit fire. There's a temperature dial, but I trust the readings on it about as much as I do the experts cited by George Bush in who claimed there were WMD's in Iraq. In short, not the ideal tool to bake something as sensitive as a cake.

Another culprit might be the recipes I've chosen. The directions in the Joy of Cooking can be rather complex as well as vague. For example, in their chocolate cake, they use "2-4 ounces" of chocolate cake. Does that mean 2, 3, or 4? After all, this is a difference of 50%! And how do I choose?

I finally decided that I needed to go back to school, which is to say, Martha Stewart's Cooking School Cookbook. I figured that if anyone had developed a foolproof recipe, it had to be Martha.

(By the way, there's a great blog about a guy who did the entire cookbook and has notes about the recipes. It's called Jeff and Martha, and he has an entry about this recipe, if you're interested.)

What I love about this chocolate cake recipe is that not only is it delicious but also even an idiot like me can make it. You simply take all the ingredients, throw them all in a very big bowl, and whisk them together to combine. No need to cream butter and sugar, since the butter is melted.

I was a bit suspicious, but the results were inarguable: a moist fluffy cake with a rich chocolate flavor. I tried it both as cupcakes and as a layer cake, and had success both ways.

I did make a couple of modifications. The recipe called for buttermilk, but I substituted sour cream, as I once took a class where the instructor swore by sour cream rather than buttermilk for chocolate cakes. Also, sour cream's easier to find.

I also tried a couple of tricks, which I found online, to solve the problem of unreliable ovens. First, I preheated the oven to the temperature called for in the recipe. Then, before putting in my cake, I turned the oven down by 25 degrees. Better to bake low and slow than burn a cake in too high a fire.

The other thing I did was after I poured my cake batter into an 8-inch round pan, I then placed the pan inside an empty 9-inch round pan, to create an extra layer of insulation. I'm  not sure whether it was the sour cream, the lower fire, or double panning technique that did it, but I'm sticking with all three from now on when it comes to chocolate cake.

In the battle of Man Vs. Chocolate Cake, this Man has finally won.

P.S.  I'm teaching another cooking class at Whole Foods:  Holiday Cookies Made Easy. On the Menu: Lemon, Lime, & Pink Grapefruit Mini-Tarts; Chocolate Snowfall Cookies; Jam-Filled Cookie Windows; Mom’s Iced Sugar Cookies. Click here to register.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Homemade Pepperidge Farm Cookies

When I was a kid, one of my favorite treats was a box of assorted cookies from the Pepperidge Farm "Distinctive" Collection. There were buttery chessman cookies, thin cookies straws, pecan cookies (which I avoided), and then Milanos, two butter cookies sandwiched with semisweet chocolate.

Recently I found a Recipe (click here for the exact instructions) to make a homemade version of the Milanos, and while visiting my mother in Michigan, we decided to try them out.

The cookies themselves couldn't be easier. Cream butter, sugar, add vanilla and an egg, then flour and salt.  Fill a pastry bag or a plastic bag with the tip cut off, and then pipe out 2-inch worms onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Yes, that's what they look like, worms of dough. Be sure to leave at least a 1/2 inch of space, maybe even a bit more, between each worm. These suckers spread.

Refrigerate the cookie sheets about 20 minutes, until the dough firms up, and then bake in a 325 oven for about 15 minutes. You're looking for golden brown edges. I tried baking two cookie sheets at a time and found that one sheet got done much faster than the other. In the end, it probably would have been just as easy to bake them one at a time.

When the cookies are cool, frost one side with melted chocolate and the other with a white glaze made out of confectioner's sugar and mint extract. Proceed to make sandwiches.

My mom happened to have some Milanos on hand, so we did a taste test. Frankly, there was no contest. The boxed cookies, while good, tasted dry compared with the buttery homemade ones. And the nicely subtle hint of mint added an interesting depth of flavor to the chocolate without overpowering it.

Thanks for the inspiration, Pepperidge Farm, but with all due respect, I'm afraid I'll have to go with homemade Milanos from now on.  But don't worry, you've still got those sinfully rich buttery chessmen cookies to fall back on.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chocolate Lemon Cheesecakes

photo by Anthony Palatta

I've heard it said that there are two types of dessert lovers out there:  those who love chocolate and those who love lemon.  I'm more of a lemon lover myself, though I also love a good chocolate cake.  So when I ran across this recipe for chocolate lemon cheesecakes (provided below), I thought it would give me the opportunity to try to combine the two flavors.

This recipe comes from a fun series of cookbooks (now out of print, though they still turn up at used booksellers) called, The Book of... put out by a publisher called HP.  This one is The Book of Chocolates and Petits Fours by Beverly Sutherland Smith.

(Avid followers of my blog may recall an easy and delicious chocolate cookie from the same series.)

I love the illustrations in these books and the rectangular format.  Many of the recipes are great, though some are a bit old-fashioned and a few are so intricate I think even Martha Stewart might have some trouble with them.

The recipe is pretty simple.  You make a chocolate batter, fluff it up by folding in beaten egg whites, fill mini-tart pans, and then dot each serving of cake batter with a dollop of lemon cream cheese filling.  After they're done, ice them with melted chocolate, which hardens, so you get a wonderful contrast of textures (the crunch of the chocolate and the spongy, moist cake) as well as flavors (the soft richness of chocolate plus the surprising spritely kick of sour citrus from the lemon cheese filling).

One thing that confused me about this recipe is that in the book, the lemon filling makes its way to the bottom of the cupcake, which you then invert and coat with chocolate so it looks like a piece of candy.  I think the people who staged the photo must have cheated and put the lemon filling on the bottom of the pan and then covered it with chocolate batter.

Also, the recipe calls for decorating the cakes with a candied violet. I just used purple sprinkles.

Finally, the cakes are very delicate and hard to extract from the mini tart pans, which are also a pain to clean up afterward.  In future, I'd just use mini-cupcake liners.

Chocolate Lemon Cheesecakes


1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
1 egg
2 tbsp sugar
zest of one lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar (maybe more?)
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites

To coat:  2 oz semisweet chocolate

Bake at 350

instead of superfine, used reg sugar

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chocolate Pudding from Scratch

photo by Anthony Palatta

When I told Anthony my dessert for this week would be chocolate pudding from scratch, he said, "You can do that?"

Oh, yes you can.  One warning:  when you taste the rich results, you may feel cheated by all those years of eating the Jell-O instant version.

I found this recipe for Milk Chocolate Pudding with Bananas in the New York Times.  I suppose you could use bittersweet, semisweet, or white chocolate too (though you might want to adjust the sugar) but I like the homey taste of milk chocolate for this one.

Begin by whisking egg yolks and milk with various dried ingredients, including cornstarch as your thickening agent. On the stove, you heat milk and cream to a simmer, then pour it over chopped milk chocolate to create a ganache that is then whisked into your egg and cornstarch mixture. The resulting combination is then cooked on the stove while stirring for about ten minutes, until it thickens. Try to keep your fire low so the pudding cooks slowly and thoroughly, and keep stirring so it doesn't scorch. If the pudding steams, take it off the fire for a little while.

After pouring it through a fine sieve, layer the pudding with banana slices, chocolate wafer cookies, and then more pudding. (You can do this in individual servings or one big bowl.) Top it off with whipped cream and crushed chocolate cookies and you'll be in rich, creamy, chocolatey dessert heaven.