Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Cookie Blowout!


This year, I decided to go a bit crazy with the holiday cookies. In addition to usual suspects like lemon gingerbread trees, jam-filled cookies, and homemade girl scout thin mints, I wanted to try a few new recipes like red velvet whoopie pies (the season's big hit with my friends) or banana bars (my personal favorite).

When you're making this many cookies, a good game plan is key. It begins right after Thanksgiving, when I go through cookbooks, magazines, and clippings I've been saving, and even websites to find the right mix of cookies. I'm going for different colors, flavors, and textures.

Beginning in early December, I make the doughs, two a day, and freeze them until I'm ready to begin baking. I start with cookies like girl scout thin mints that freeze really well and finish with more fragile cookies, like spritz cookies, that don't. The day before I plan to serve, I do all the glazing, frosting, filling, and decorating, so that when I'm ready to serve, all I have to do is arrange them on plates, which is the fun part.

Here's the full list of what I did this year.  A few of these recipes are already on my blog.  I'll update others in the future:

Girl Scout Thin Mints 
Chocolate pistachio checkerboards
Vienna almond cookies with royal icing
Frosted banana bars
Lemon tea cookie sandwiches
Lemon cookies with candied ginger
Cinnamon log slices 
Colored dough sugar cookies
Red velvet whoopie pies 
Lime tassies 
Cranberry-cherry swirl biscotti 
Butter spritz cookies
Coconut macaroon trees


Friday, July 26, 2013

Chocolate Blackout Cake

I recently made this New York classic for my nephew's birthday. It's a variation on a variation.

Chocolate Blackout Cake usually consists of a chocolate cake, split, with pudding between the layers as well as on the outside of the cake, and then covered in the cake's crumbs as a decoration.

This version, which I found on the Food Network website, replaces the outer layer of pudding with two layers of ganache. Not bad.

For the cake, I used my go-to chocolate cake recipe, One-Bowl Chocolate Cake, from Martha's Cooking School, which couldn't be easier or tastier. Also I doubled the filling recipe, just to be sure I had enough.

A serving tip:  store this in the fridge, but serve it at room temperature.




Chocolate Blackout Cake
Adapted from Food Network Magazine

For the filling:
2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the ganache:
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream

For the cake:
One-Bowl Chocolate Cake, baked and cooled (recipe follows)

Directions:

1.  Make One-Bowl Chocolate Cake as directed.  It’s best to do this in advance and chill the cooled cake in the fridge, as cold cake is easier to work with.  (You can even freeze the cake.)

2.  Make the filling: Bring the milk to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, vanilla and egg in a medium heatproof bowl until smooth. Gradually whisk half of the hot milk into the sugar mixture, then return to the pan with the remaining milk. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture boils and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl (strain through a fine-mesh sieve if it looks lumpy), then stir in the chocolate until melted. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface and refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour.

3.  Meanwhile, make the ganache: Put the chocolate and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Bring 1 1/2 cups heavy cream to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat; pour over the chocolate and let sit 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Pour 3/4 cup of the ganache into a liquid measuring cup and set aside at room temperature. Refrigerate the remaining ganache in the bowl until thick but not set, about 1 hour.

4.  Assemble the cake: Put 1 cake layer on a platter; spread the filling on top, stopping about 1/2 inch from the edge. Top with the second cake layer and press down gently.

5.  Add the remaining 2 tablespoons heavy cream to the chilled ganache and beat with a mixer on medium speed until just fluffy, about 1 minute (do not overbeat). Frost the whole cake with the whipped ganache. Pour the room-temperature ganache on top, letting it drip down the sides. Let set before slicing, about 30 minutes.

One-Bowl Chocolate Cake
(adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cooking School)

Yield: 8-inch 2-layer cake

You can’t get much easier than this luscious cake, in which all the ingredients are thrown into a large mixing bowl and mixed by hand.  

1 ¼ cups unsweetened cocoa powder (if you can find black cocoa, use a ¼ cup of it here plus 1 cup of regular)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 ¼ teaspoons table salt
2 large whole eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 ¼ cups warm water
1 ¼ cups buttermilk or sour cream (I prefer sour cream)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 ¼ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1.     Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two standard muffin tins with cupcake liners or for cakes, coat two 8 x 2-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray.  Line bottoms with parchment paper rounds, then spray parchment.

2.     Whisk together all dry ingredients in a LARGE bowl.  Then whisk in all wet ingredients until smooth and combined, about 3 minutes.

3.     Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out just clean, about 35 minutes.  Transfer pans to wire rack to cool 10 minutes.  Invert cakes onto rack, peel off parchment, then reinvert cakes and cool completely.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cinnabons at home

If there's one mass market food I love, it is the Cinnabon.

Walking through an airport or shopping mall, I get hit with that sweet smell of cinnamon and cream cheese frosting and it's all I can do to keep moving, avoid giving into the temptation of stuffing my face with sticky, syrupy dough. With an extra shot of frosting.

If you troll the Internet, you can find various recipes that claim to have cracked the code of Cinnabon's top secret recipe. I'm not sure this one has it exactly, but it comes close.

Give yourself a good bit of time and lots of room on your countertop to make these. Also, I find that creating a "hot box" in your oven (meaning setting it to 400 degrees for  a minute, then shutting it off) to proof your dough makes it rise faster.

Here's the recipe I used, adapted from Lauren's Latest:

Homemade Cinnabons

INGREDIENTS:

For dough:
3/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast {use the fast acting kind!}
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 egg
1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil
4 1/2-5 cups all purpose unbleached flour

For filling:
1/2 cup softened butter
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons cornstarch

For frosting:
2 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup softened margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

DIRECTIONS:

1.  Make the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, pour in water, yeast and 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar. Stir and proof 5 minutes. Once mixture looks bubbly and frothy, pour in remaining sugar and salt. Stir on low for 15-20 seconds. In a small bowl, measure buttermilk, oil and egg. Whisk ingredients together until egg is incorporated to other two ingredients. Pour contents into the water and yeast mixture. Stir another 20 seconds in the mixer. Pour 2 cups of flour into mixer and stir on low until incorporated. Sprinkle flour in by 1/4 cup increments until dough cleans the sides and bottom of the bowl. Dough should be sticky but not sticky enough to stick to your hands when touched. Once it has reached this stage, turn mixer on and knead for 5 minutes. Remove dough from bowl, grease and replace back into same mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel. Let rise 1-2 hours or until dough has doubled in size.  (This will go faster with a hot box.)

2.  Fill and cut rolls.  In a medium size bowl, stir brown sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch together until combined. Set aside. Punch down dough. Flour a large clean table liberally with flour. Lightly flour dough as well. Roll dough out to be a 20x30 rectangle {or as close to that as possible} while moving dough around to ensure it's not sticking to your work surface. If it's a little short or uneven, feel free to cut off the edges to even it all out. {FYI-I cut off some dough on one side and filled in a spot that needed more dough on the other side to make a more even rectangle.} Spread softened butter over dough, being sure to go right to the edges leaving a 1-inch strip untouched on one of the longer sides of dough. Dump brown sugar mixture onto the middle of the dough and spread with your hands, creating an even layer over top of the margarine, still leaving that 1-inch strip of dough untouched. If you have any filling that falls off the sides of the dough, use a bench scraper to replace. Lightly press the sugar mixture into the margarine using a rolling pin. Roll the dough up into a tight log, finishing with the plain dough on the bottom to seal the entire thing together. Cut off the uneven ends to even out the log. Score log every 2 inches and then slice your rolls using those marks. Place into parchment paper lined, margarine greased pans. 12 into a 9x13, 3 remaining into a loaf pan, or 8x8 with the small ends. Cover pans with plastic wrap and dish towels. Let rolls rise another 1-2 hours or until they are touching and have risen almost double. My rolls always spread out more than up, so just be aware that they will most likely spread out more than up. Bake in a preheated 350 degree for 17 minutes, or until tops start to brown. Watch them carefully!!

3. Make frosting.  While the rolls are baking, whip cream cheese and margarine together. Stir in vanilla, corn syrup and lemon juice. Scrape sides and mix again. Pour in powdered sugar and stir slowly until it starts to incorporate. Then mix on high for 5 minutes or until frosting starts to lighten in color. Scrape sides and mix again briefly. Once rolls have been removed from the oven, frost using half the amount made. Then after they have cooled a few more minutes, frost again with remaining frosting. The first frosting will melt down into the rolls and the second layer should stay put. Serve warm.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Summer Flavors in a Cookie

These cookies have a lot going on in each bite. There's lemon zest, candied ginger, chopped mint, not to mention butter and sugar inside. On the outside, a light coating of crunchy turbinado and vanilla sugar mixed.

If your taste buds aren't as inclined to the sweet side of things as mine are, you could omit the sugar on top, though I would miss the satisfying crunch it provides.

The recipe itself was submitted by reader Debra Satterthwaite of Carmel, Indiana to Everyday Food, and is a great way to use up that runaway mint growing in your garden. (I've just planted my first herb garden and am learning how quickly and copiously mint spreads!)

It's also very, very simple to put together, and the perfect mix of flavors for a summertime tea.

Lemon Ginger Cookies with Mint
(adapted from Everyday Food)

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves (about 20 large), finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger (about 1 ounce)
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 egg yolk, room temperature
1/4 cup coarse sugar, for rolling (can be a mix of half coarse, half vanilla sugar)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, mint, ginger, lemon zest, and baking soda. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter, granulated and brown sugars, vanilla, and egg yolk on medium until fluffy, about 8 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture and beat just until combined.
2. Place coarse sugar in a small bowl. Roll rounded teaspoons of dough into balls and gently roll in sugar to coat. Place, 2 inches apart, on two parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets. Bake until edges are slightly brown, 14 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Yield:  36 cookies

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cookies and Wine


I've been eyeing this recipe for Mexican wine cookies for a while.  Cookies with port wine in the dough?  How bad could those be?

The dough is fairly simple, as with most cookie doughs. It's a bit sticky, so it needs to be refrigerated before rolling it out, but I've worked with worse. And the flavor of the raw cookie dough is wonderfully rich with the crunch of ground almonds, spiky hints of cinnamon, and the delicious port wine. It reminded me of the Jewish Passover dessert charoset.

Baked, the cookies mellowed out in flavor. They were like a pleasant shortbread, but they were missing something, so I sprinkled on some colored sanding sugar. I went for purple, to suggest the port wine. The sanding sugar gave them a nice crunch.

I'd make these again as part of a cookie tray, or as a novelty item for a wine-themed party, but the recipe didn't quite live up to their name, or their dough.

Mexican Wine Cookies
(adapted from Joyce White)

3 1/2 cups all-purpose four
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 large egg
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds, blanched or with skins
4 to 6 tbsp sweet sherry or port

1.  Whisk together flour and salt and set aside.  In a stand mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and cinnamon until light and fluffy.  Stir in the egg and beat again until well blended, then add the almonds and mix well again.
2.  Stir in half the dry ingredients and mix well.  Then add the port and the rest of the dry ingredients.  Continue mixing and then form dough into a disc, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
3.  Preheat the oven to 350 and line two cookie sheets with parchment. Divide the dough into four quarters and leave three in the fridge. On a floured work surface, roll out dough to about 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch cookie cutter, cur the dough in circles and place an inch apart on the cookie sheets.
4.  Bake one sheet at a time for about 10 minutes, or until lightly tinged with brown. When done, remove sheet and let cool for a few minutes, then remove cookies onto another rack to finish cooking.

Yield:  about four dozen cookies

Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston Cream Pie at Home

"No, it's not because of the marathon," I told a friend who asked why I'd selected last weekend to make this recipe that I've been meaning to try out for a while. The reason I made it last weekend was that my husband's been away for a week and will be away for another one and I needed some distraction, in this case a delicious distraction.

For those who've never had it, Boston Cream Pie is actually two layers of a spongy vanilla cake sandwiching one layer of vanilla pastry cream and topped off with a puddle of chocolate glaze.  Why is this cake called a pie?  According to urban legend, New England kitchens were more likely to have pie tins than cake pans in the 1800s, when the dessert was developed.

This recipe, for "Wicked Good Boston Cream Pie" comes partly from Cook's Illustrated, a magazine I enjoy though I don't find it quite as reliable as its fans often claim.  The cake and glaze portions were wonderful, appropriately spongy and rich.  But the filling they suggest, a vanilla pastry cream with flour as a thickener, was not only a pain to make (requiring several minutes of stirring over a low flame) but also a flop in terms of its thickening properties. The damned filling never set up properly.

Cursing Cook's Illustrated and all-purpose flour, I ran to the corner store to buy some more milk and whipped up a new batch of pastry cream from a Martha Stewart recipe that uses cornstarch. It came together in a minute.  This despite the recipe's claim that cornstarch is far more unreliable thickener than flour for custards. (The opposite has been true in my experience.)

So here's my recipe, half Cook's, half Martha, and all delicious.  It didn't last very long in my house.

Boston Cream Pie
(adapted from Cook's Illustrated with a helping hand from Martha Stewart's Cooking School)

Filling

Pastry Cream

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise and scraped
pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
3 Tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Cake 
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar

Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine


INSTRUCTIONS

1. For the Pastry Cream: Bring milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla seeds, and salt to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to disperse seeds.

2.  Whisk the egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk in the cornstarch, 1 tablespoon at a time. Ladle a 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly to temper the eggs. Add the remaining milk mixture 1/2 cup at a time whisking constantly. When the milk and eggs are completely incorporated return all of the mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and is thick enough to hold its shape when lifted with a spoon, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter.

3.  Transfer the mixture to a bowl and place plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold. Pastry cream will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

4. For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl. Heat milk and butter in small saucepan over low heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and cover to keep warm.

5. In stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip eggs and sugar at high speed until light and airy, about 5 minutes. Remove mixer bowl from stand. Add hot milk mixture and whisk by hand until incorporated. Add dry ingredients and whisk until incorporated.

6. Working quickly, divide batter evenly between prepared pans. Bake until tops are light brown and toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes.

7. Transfer cakes to wire rack and cool -completely in pan, about 2 hours. Run small plastic knife around edge of pans, then invert cakes onto wire rack. Carefully remove parchment, then reinvert cakes.

8. To Assemble: Place one cake round on large plate. Whisk pastry cream briefly, then spoon onto center of cake. Using offset spatula, spread evenly to cake edge. Place second layer on pastry cream, bottom side up, making sure layers line up properly. Press lightly on top of cake to level. Refrigerate cake while preparing glaze.

9. For the Glaze: Bring cream and corn syrup to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk gently until smooth, 30 seconds. Let stand, whisking occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.

10. Pour glaze onto center of cake. Use offset spatula to spread glaze to edge of cake, letting excess drip decoratively down sides. Chill finished cake 3 hours before slicing. Cake may be made up to 24 hours before serving.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cupcakes and Fiction--What's the Connection?

This week, I'd like to share a link to my new article in Poets and Writers about the connection between fiction writing and food writing.  It also features an original recipe for limoncello cupcakes, which I've been developing for a while, as you may have read many many moons ago.

Enjoy!  And here's the direct link to the recipe:


Friday, April 12, 2013

A Cloud of Lemon

I have to confess:  I'd never tasted lemon chiffon pie before making this recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

Under what rock was I living?

Biting into this pie... no, biting is too physical an action to describe the cool, melting sensation of this light, pillowy burst of lemon melting on your tongue... tasting this pie is like floating on an airy cloud. As you can see from the picture, most of the pie is a light lemon mousse, which tops a thin layer of tart and sweet lemon curd, all nestled in a thin, crunchy graham cracker crust.

Making this recipe wasn't too difficult, though it required several steps and resulted in a sink full of dirty bowls, saucepans, and spatulas. This isn't an everyday go-to kind of pie, but you don't need a culinary degree to put it together. And since it needs time to chill, you can definitely make it in advance. Think of it as something to top off a special dinner with friends. Otherwise, if it's just for you, you might end up polishing off the whole thing in one night.

Lemon Chiffon Pie

INGREDIENTS

CRUST
9 whole graham crackers
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FILLING
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
4 tablespoons water
5 large eggs (2 whole, 3 separated)
1 1/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest plus 3/4 cup juice (4 lemons)
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, softened

INSTRUCTIONS


1. FOR THE CRUST: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Process graham crackers in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds (you should have about 1¼ cups crumbs). Add sugar and salt and pulse to combine. Add melted butter and pulse until mixture resembles wet sand.


2. Transfer crumbs to 9-inch pie plate. Press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides of plate. Bake until crust is lightly browned, 15 to 18 minutes. Allow crust to cool completely.


3. FOR THE FILLING: Sprinkle ½ teaspoon gelatin over 2 tablespoons water in small bowl and let sit until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes. Repeat with second small bowl, remaining ½ teaspoon gelatin, and remaining 2 tablespoons water.


4. Whisk 2 eggs and 3 yolks together in medium saucepan until thoroughly combined. Whisk in 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt until well combined. Whisk in lemon zest and juice and heavy cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and slightly translucent, 4 to 5 minutes (mixture should register 170 degrees). Stir in 1 water-gelatin mixture until dissolved. Remove pan from heat and let stand for 2 minutes.


5. Remove 1¼ cups curd from pan and pour through fine-mesh strainer set in bowl. Transfer strained curd to prepared pie shell (do not wash out strainer or bowl). Place filled pie shell in freezer. Add remaining water-gelatin mixture and cream cheese to remaining curd in pan and whisk to combine. (If cream cheese does not melt, briefly return pan to low heat.) Pour through strainer into now-empty bowl.


6. Using stand mixer, whip 3 egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and slowly add remaining ¼ cup sugar. Continue whipping until whites are stiff and glossy, about 4 minutes. Add curd–cream cheese mixture and whip on medium speed until few streaks remain, about 30 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer and, using spatula, scrape sides of bowl and stir mixture until no streaks remain. Remove pie shell from freezer and carefully pour chiffon over curd, allowing chiffon to mound slightly in center. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days before serving.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Desserts of New Zealand


Recently I flew via Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand, where I spent a week researching the life of Kiwi author Janet Frame. In my downtime, I also did some research into another of my passions:  desserts. Specifically, I wanted to find out about local desserts that I might try to make back home.

Even before I boarded my flight to Auckland, I heard from locals about something called a "Lamington." I loved the formality of the name, which inspired images in my head of colonial armies marching in neat rows, with bagpipes in the background. In fact, the Lamington is a typical homemade dessert that parents would make for and with their kids, but which, I unluckily, could only find at the supermarket.

The version you see here, which I bought at Countdown, a New Zealand chain of grocery super stores, consists of cubes of sponge cake coated in either a berry or chocolate glaze and then sprinkled with coconut. The cakes are sometimes split in half and filled with cream or jam. 

The dessert, which combines European and tropical influences, intrigued me, but I'm sorry to report that these were a bit dry, and I wasn't a fan of the coconut either.

Another New Zealand/Australian dessert classic (and there's a debate raging over which country is responsible for its origin) is the Pavlova, which is basically a large meringue circle filled with whipped cream and topped with berries. While browsing through some cookbooks at a bookstore, I found a few devoted entirely to this subject. Pavlovas streaked with lemon curd. Pavlovas flavored with chocolate, or coffee, or pistachios. I didn't get to actually try one, but you can find a recipe for them via the Barefoot Contessa.

However, the dessert that really got me excited was something called, simply, "Slice." 

"Slice" is a kind of softer shortbread crust that gets topped with a filling, and then another piece of shortbread, and then is finally coated with a thin layer of icing to match the filling. (Though sometimes they are only one layer, without the filling.) You can find them all over New Zealand, north, south, in bakeries, cafes, supermarkets, and in a variety of flavors. Of course, if you know me, you'll know my favorite was lemon, but they also had caramel, apple, chocolate chip, berry, coffee, even Mars Bar. Again, having done no research on the subject, my sense is that the name comes from the fact that you slice this large piece of shortbread into tiny bars, like brownies, in order to serve.

Whatever the reason for its name, I intend to experiment at home to see if I can come up with my own version. Here's a recipe I found at allrecipes.com.au by Samantha King, which I've tried to convert to an American version:

Lemon Slice

Ingredients:

2 lemons
1 package shortbread cookies, like Walkers
1 cup dried coconut
1/2 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar

Directions:

1. Crush the cookies until they are very fine, either with a roling pin or in the food processor.

2. Grate the rind of one lemon, and juice both of them (set aside half the juice).
3. Heat the condensed milk in a saucepan. When warm, add lemon juice, rind and coconut.  The milk will curdle but thats ok.
4. Add the warm mixture to the crushed biscuits and mix through until it is well coated.
5. Pour biscuit mix into an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 pan - the size depends on how thick you want the base.
6. Refrigerate for 40 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, make icing with the confectioner's sugar and the other half of the lemon juice.
8. Spread the icing over the top of the slice, and refrigerate for a further twenty minutes to allow the icing to set.
9. Cut into small pieces and then serve, chilled.

This post was made possible in part by Hawaiian Airlines and Tourism New Zealand.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Passover Cookies that Don't Taste Like Passover

Every Passover, Jews around the world are faced with the challenge of making dessert that doesn't taste like matzo. Most of us resort to the usual:  macaroons, sponge cake, and chocolate covered matzo.

Last year, however, my mom hit upon a new recipe for chocolate chip cookies that would be good enough to eat any time of year. The cookies have a soft, cakey texture, warm and sweet with brown sugar, and then punctuated with a nice hit of chocolate. I think the key to the recipe is the use of potato starch, which has a softening effect on baked goods, but that's just my theory.

In any case, here's the recipe. You'll find them really easy to make and hard to resist.


Kosher for Passover Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yield:  4 dozen

1 cup butter/margarine
¾ cup sugar
¾ brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 ¾ cup cake meal
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup potato starch
1 tsp salt
2 cups chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 375.  Cream butter, sugars, and vanilla, then add eggs to incorporate.  Whisk together dry ingredients and slowly stir into the mixture.  Finally, fold in chocolate chips.

2. Spoon heaping teaspoons of batter onto parchment-lined or greased baking sheets.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until very light golden brown at the edges.  Remove onto racks and cool on baking sheets.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chocolate Hamantaschen--Who Knew?

I've been making hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies filled with jam and served during the Jewish holiday of Purim, for years now. The dough is simple to make, and fun to stuff with your favorite fillings.

Traditionally, the cookies are filled with poppy seeds or apricot jam, though a few heretics have added cherry filling as well. My mom preferred cinnamon-flecked apples or chocolate chips. As for me, my innovation was to mix mini-chocolate chips throughout the dough, so that you get a bit of chocolate in every bite.  (You can find the recipe here.)

This year, however, I thought, why not go for broke and make the dough chocolate as well? I found the following recipe created by Victoria Sutton for My Jewish Learning, which super-gilded the lily by creating a chocolate ganache filling to go inside. Since I had some filling left over, I made a batch of my regular hamantaschen and used the ganache with that as well. I also experimented with various fillings I had on hand, jams, a lemon curd (great!), and a banana curd (I won't go there again).

Just be careful not to overbake these hamantaschen or let them linger too long on hot baking sheets while they're cooling. Also, don't overstuff the hamantaschen or the shapes will warp in the oven.

Too bad I have to wait another year for the next Purim!

Chocolate Hamantaschen
adapted from Victoria Sutton

Ingredients:

Chocolate Dough:

3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 oz butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional, but you're crazy not to use it)
1 egg
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 Tablespoons heavy cream 

1 egg for egg wash

Chocolate Ganache Filling:

8 1/2 oz dark chocolate, chopped
8 oz heavy cream
dash of salt
liqueur to taste (the original recipe called for rum, but I used
Grand Marnier, about 1 tsp)

(optional) dried cranberries or cherries

Directions

For dough:
1.  Cream butter, sugar, salt, and almond extract until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix until incorporated. Combine flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder. Add to butter mixture in two stages, alternating with the heavy cream. Turn dough out onto plastic wrap, and form a flattened disc. Chill for at least one hour.

For Ganache
1.  In a small saucepan, bring cream to a simmer, then pour over chopped chocolate and let sit for two minutes. Lightly whisk until ganache is smooth and shiny. Whisk in rum and salt. Chill for several hours.

To form hamantaschen: 
1.  Preheat oven to 350.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2.  Roll chilled chocolate dough to slightly more than 1/8 inch thick. Using a round cutter or glass rim dipped in flour, cut circles of about 3 inches in diameter. If adding dried fruit or nuts, sprinkle a small amount in the center of the cut discs.

3.  Beat one egg with a tablespoon of water to make an egg wash.  Remove ganache from fridge, and using either a small ice-cream scoop or by hand, form about 1 inch round balls and place in center of sucree circles. LIGHTLY brush edges of circle with egg wash.  Then carefully fold in the edges to form a triangular shape, and pinch the corners to seal. Ensure there are no gaps or tears in the dough, to prevent filling from oozing out during baking. (My advice is to let as little of the filling show as possible to preserve the triangular shape.)

4.  Bake hamantaschen for about 15 minutes, until crust is baked through. Ganache will liquify during baking, but will set as hamantaschen cool. Let hamantaschen cool on sheets for a few minutes, then remove cookies onto metal racks and let them continue to cool.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lemony Creme Brulee

The only thing I don't like about creme brulee is that it's a little boring. It's also incredibly easy to make at home, so much so, that I'm always surprised to see it on menus at fine restaurants, particularly ones that take such care with the rest of their menus, dishes like shaved brussels sprouts drizzled in truffle oil or homemade tagliatelle in a wild boar ragu.

These days, I'm only tempted to make creme brulee when I can make it special or unique in some way, like this lemon-flavored creme brulee I made for Valentine's Day yesterday. Again, really no magic here at all. Just shave a healthy amount of lemon zest into your cream and bring it to a simmer.

The original recipe called for dressing up the dessert with some raspberries soaked in liqueur, but I couldn't find any raspberries, so I just served my lemon creme brulee naked, which was just fine by us. The addition of lemon adds a high, clean note of freshness that also cuts against the sometimes cloying sweetness of the custard.

My modifications:  I divided the recipe in half, which worked out just fine. And I didn't follow the directions about brown sugar and the broiler, though you can try that if you wanted to. Instead I covered the brulee with white sugar right before serving, then heated it up with a blowtorch. In a minute, the sugar crust had formed.

I could eat this for hours.

Lemon Creme Brulee
(from Bon Appetit)

3 cups whipping cream
5 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3/4 cup sugar
6 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

8 teaspoons golden brown sugar

2 1/2-pint containers fresh raspberries
1/4 cup Chambord (black-raspberry liqueur) or crème de cassis (black-currant liqueur)

Directions

Preheat oven to 325°F. Arrange eight 3/4-cup custard cups or ramekins in 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Combine cream and lemon peel in heavy small saucepan and bring to simmer. Whisk sugar and yolks in large bowl until thick, about 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in hot cream mixture, then vanilla and salt. Let stand 10 minutes. Strain custard, then divide among cups. Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of cups.

Bake custards until just set in center, about 55 minutes. Remove custards from water bath; chill uncovered until firm, at least 3 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

Preheat broiler. Place custard cups on baking sheet. Strain brown sugar through small sieve onto custards, dividing equally. Broil until sugar melts and browns, about 2 minutes. Chill until topping is hard and crisp, at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.

Combine raspberries and liqueur in bowl. Let stand at room temperature at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour. Spoon berry mixture atop custards.





Friday, February 8, 2013

Cookie Sticks

I'd heard good things about the Taste of Home series, so when I saw their Cookie book on sale while doing an errand at K-mart, I couldn't resist. Maybe this makes me low-class, but I'm the kind of guy who likes a photo accompaniment to each recipe, so if you're like me, this is the book for you.

The whole idea of these books and magazines is that they're collections of recipes by home chefs, which are then tested by professionals. Each recipe comes with a homey-sounding note from the bakers, whom I imagine toting their wares to church suppers (an impression that probably stems from the fact that when I entered "Taste of Home" on Google, the first you link I got was Christianbook.com).

My first attempt from this book were these cookie sticks, which are basically a chocolate chip cookie baked in two rectangular slabs and then cut into breadstick-like fingers. The ingredients are wonderfully basic--all stuff you'd have in your pantry--and since the fat here is vegetable oil instead of butter, it's pretty easy to put together. You don't even need to wait for the butter to come to room temp.

I know what you're thinking because it's what I was thinking--vegetable oil instead of butter? Heresy, I guess, and the batter has that funky oily taste to it. But when these guys bake, the cookie remains extremely moist and the flavor is rich and addictive. I mean, like crack addictive. Like, get these out of my house now before I consume the whole batch.

NOTE:  Don't forget to divide the dough in half!

Cookie Sticks
(adapted from Taste of Home Cookies)
Yield:  3 dozen

Ingredients:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I used half dark and half light)
1 egg
1 tsp vanila
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
about 1 cup (6 oz) semisweet chocolate chips

In a large bowl, combine oil, sugars, egg, and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt, then gradually add into sugar mixture.

Divide dough in half. Line a large baking sheet with parchment, and shape the two dough halves into two 15-inch x 3-inch rectangles, about 3 inches apart. Sprinkle chocolate chips over dough and press lightly.

Bake at 375 for 6-7 minutes or a few minutes longer for crisper cookies. Cool for 5 minutes. Cut with a serrated knife into 1-inch strips and remove to racks to cool completely.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Coconut Plus Chocolate Pie

Question:  What do you do with a leftover bag of sweetened shredded coconut.

Answer:  Make a coconut cream pie with a chocolate bottom crust!

Typically, I'm not much of a coconut fan when it comes to desserts, but the combo of coconut and chocolate in this one appealed to me. Especially when I had a huge bag of shredded coconut in the fridge left over from my Lane Cake, which I made a while back. (Don't you hate when a recipe calls for two tablespoons of an ingredient that's only available in one-pound bags!)

Not only did I get to use up the coconut, but also I had some chocolate wafers, which I crushed up along with some butter and a bit of the coconut to make the crust. The filling was a fairly straightforward process: a stovetop custard that once cooked gets poured into the cooled pie shell.

The topping is simply whipped cream and some toasted coconut. Light, creamy, rich with a chocolate base. It's easy to eat several pieces...

Coconut Cream Pie
(from Martha Stewart's Pies and Tarts)

Ingredients:

For The Crust

30 chocolate wafer cookies, broken into pieces
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut

For The Topping And Filling

1 3/4 cups sweetened shredded coconut
2 3/4 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Directions

Make crust: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, combine cookies and salt; process until fine crumbs form. With machine running, slowly pour butter through feed tube and process until mixture resembles wet sand. Stir in coconut. Press crumbs in bottom and up side of a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Bake until crust is set, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely in pie plate on a wire rack.

Make topping: Increase heat to 350. Spread 1/2 cup coconut on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, tossing occasionally.

Make filling: In a small saucepan, whisk together milk, egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla, and salt. Cook over medium-high, whisking constantly, until bubbles form at the edge and mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl and stir in 1 1/4 cups coconut. Pour filling into cooled crust and smooth top. Refrigerate until filling is chilled and completely set, about 2 hours (or wrap tightly with plastic and refrigerate, up to 2 days).

To serve, whip cream until soft peaks form. Top pie with whipped cream and toasted coconut.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Desserts and Dieting

Usually this time of year I get requests for low-fat, low-calorie dessert recipes.

I suppose there are a few out there that aren't completely awful, but that strategy does not work for me. What happens is that the low-fat version of the dessert I want is so unsatisfying that I go out looking for the real thing, which I crave all the more.

Over the last year, I've lost about thirty pounds by taking control of my eating habits (with some help from Weight Watchers!) In my experience, the key to eating dessert and not gaining weight (and even losing weight) is as follows:

1.  Have a small portion of a rich dessert. When you bake, always do so with a plan in mind of how you are going to get rid of most of what you make. Give most of the dessert to friends, co-workers, doormen, homeless people. Spread the love and the calories around.

2.  Eat less of other things or eat more nutritious things around the time you plan on consuming said dessert. I tend to put on the pounds when I'm eating unplanned sweets. If you're trying ton control your intake, spontaneity is your biggest danger. Conversely, if you know a rich dessert is coming up, like this caramel cake, then eat smaller meals all day leading up to it or on the next day. Try to eat meals with more vegetables and fruit and lean protein, and fewer carbohydrates.

3.  Exercise. I've found that exercise alone doesn't reduce weight in my experience, but exercising regularly with the steps above definitely helps in controlling weight and even losing a pound or two.

So plan to eat a small sliver of this so-called easy caramel cake, recipe from America's Test Kitchen. In fact, this cake is so rich, you probably wouldn't want more than a bit of it anyway!

"Easy" Caramel Cake
(from America's Test Kitchen)

Note: the frosting is a real pain, but people love it

Cake:
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temp
4 large eggs, room temp
2 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup a-p flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons and softened

Frosting:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons and softened
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted

Directions:
1.  Make the cake:  Preheat oven to 350.  Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.  In large measuring cup, whisk buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla.  In a stand mixer on low speed, mix all dry ingredients to combine, then beat in butter, 1 piece at a time, until only pea-sized pieces remain. Pour in half the wet mixture and beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Slowly add the remaining wet mixture and beat to incorporate, about 15 seconds.

2.  Divide batter equally among two pans and bake until golden and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Cool completely.

3. Now for the hard part, the frosting. In a large saucepan, heat 1 stick of butter (8 tbsp) brown sugar, and salt over medium until small bubbles appear around perimeter of pan, 4 to 8 minutes. Whisk in cream and cook until ring of bubbles reappears, about 1 minute. Off heat, whisk in vanilla.

4. Transfer hot frosting mixture to stand mixer bowl, and on low speed, gradually mix in confectioners sugar to incorporate. Increase speed to medium and beat until frosting is pale brown and just warm, about 5 minutes. Add remaining butter, 1 piece at a time, and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Don't overdo this step.

5.  The race is on to quickly frost the cake before the frosting turns into clay. You can always heat the frosting up in the microwave for 10 seconds or so to make it moldable if it seizes up. Place 1 cake round on serving plate. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over cake, then top with second cake round. (At this point, you might want to heat up the frosting again to make sure it's spreadable.) Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Don't fuss too much because as soon as this frosting cools, it hardens.

Good luck!