Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Better with company

I'm a big fan of cookies. I love splitting all-American, big, honking, saucer-sized cookies, studded with chocolate chips, any variety of nuts, butterscotch, or held together with old-fashioned oats, ideally crisp on the outside and softer towards the middle. Since baking with Tuesdays With Dorie, I've grown fond of the slice-and-bake sable -- dainty, sandy, melt-in-your-mouth, buttery goodness where one is never enough. And, really -- I've grown up with Walker's all-butter shortbread with the familiar red plaid packaging.

But, these... These Sour Cream Chocolate Cake Cookies, Spike's choice for this weekend's assignment... I'm not so versed in the spongey cake cookie, and I don't know quite how I feel about them. The ingredients came together quite easily, though the actual scooping of the dough was a bit of a nuisance. Once baked, they were indeed as described in the book, so there wasn't a problem in execution. And though I can throw them back (at least three in one sitting), there is still something lacking for me. And my co-workers must agree, because I have never brought in anything that disappeared so slowly.

The thing is, I think the cakey nature of these cookies begs for one thing, and upon reading the feedback from other bakers, my instinct is correct -- these cookies are like the base for whoopie pies, and they need FILLING! So, this morning, I'm going to make peanut butter filling, and I'll report back! All is not yet lost...

...and they're nearly gone. Whew.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It all began in bulk...

My first biscotti was not enjoyed at the edge of a piazza in Italy, accompanied by a shot of dark espresso, nor did I have it at a cafe along Columbus in North Beach where the waiters get their kicks by showering patrons with compliments and exaggerated Italian charm. It wasn't made by a classmate's mother either, with technique taught by his/her nonna. My first biscotti was from the gourmet foods powerhouse that we all know and love -- Costco.

As a family of six, the only way to make anything last in the house was by buying in bulk, and we took full advantage of the super store. We bought pallets of Yoplait yogurt, boxes of pre-apportioned Quaker oatmeal pouches, jugs of orange juice, packs of contact lenses, and biscotti. They came in clear jars, individually wrapped but "Not to be resold." My mother loved them with International Foods Cafe Francais instant coffee, and so we bought these jumbo containers of cookies, sometimes dipped in chocolate, sometimes not.

I, on the other hand, was never a the biggest biscotti fan. I probably didn't like crunchy cookies at all when I was younger. Why work so hard for sweet little treat, when you could have a perfectly flaky croissant or melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate?? This recipe from Dorie for Chocolate Biscotti was inevitable, however, and I just decided to go for it this morning.

Jacque of Daisy Lane Cakes made this week's Tuesday's With Dorie selection and as with so many recipes of late, my initial ambivalence toward the key ingredient or type of pastry even, is replaced with genuine enthusiasm for the baked good. Crunchy, but not too crunchy; sweet, but nowhere near too sweet. These dipping cookies were so easy to demolish and then follow with another.

My dad arrives tomorrow from Taiwan for a little visit to check up on the kids. My mom isn't coming as the flight is a bit too long to bear for her, but with that canister of Cafe Francais, my dad will definitely be toting a bag of Dorie's biscotti.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A riff

It's been two-and-a-half years since my first Tuesday's With Dorie post, and after hell and high water -- or, work and too many social engagements -- keeping me from fulfilling my TWD obligations every now and again, I've been back on track and, finally, it is my turn to pick this week's recipe from Baking: From My Home to Yours.
Since I first read about an online baking group attempting a recipe from Dorie's tome of tried and true breads, cakes, pies, and puddings each week then writing about their results along with the rest of the group, I've wanted to be a part of it. I figured that it would encourage me to bake more often, and bake things that I wouldn't normally choose to bake myself for whatever reason. In these last couple of years, I've learned that the moment Swiss buttercream comes together is a wondrous event, crystallized ginger can be revived through steaming, rugelach may be my favorite pastry, and the freezer is every baker's friend -- all valuable lessons that will serve me well in this lifetime.
As a relative late-comer to the group, and not the most diligent blogger, there weren't too many recipes left to choose from, however, my pick of Oatmeal Nutmeg Scones could not be more appropriate. That this is a scone recipe already has my name all over it -- I've proclaimed my love for them. And my coworkers can attest that my preferred breakfast of champions is a bowl of doctored-up oatmeal. Nearly every weekday morning, I heat up a bowl of old-fashioned oats and water on medium power for five minutes, along with chopped dried apricot, cherry, and whatever nut I have on hand, then finish it off with a puddle of soy or almond milk and generous dashes of cinammon and nutmeg. Nutmeg, oh, nutmeg. Oatmeal just isn't the same with out you. I'm liberal with the spice anytime a Dorie recipe calls for it, and even when it doesn't. There's a reason why I love my Microplane so much, and it has a lot to do with grating whole nutmeg.
Another wonderful, ingredients straight-out-of-the-fridge quick bread recipe, these scones are perfect for mornings when you aim to please but are short on time. The dough was noticeably more wet than the Maple Cornmeal Biscuits from last week, so cutting them into triangles and transferring them to the baking sheet was a bit messy (flouring a dough-cutter before each cut helps), but the resulting product was tender, buttery, and aromatic. The oatmeal added some heft to the pastry, so a couple of these would definitely hold me over until lunchtime, and they were a satisfying vehicle for rich, Kerrygold butter and vibrant, apricot jam as well. Oatmeal, nutmeg, apricot jam? substitute the buttermilk for almond milk, throw a handful of nuts in the dough and I think I've got my new breakfast of champions...

Oatmeal Nutmeg Scones
from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

makes 12 scones

1 large egg
1/2 cup cold buttermilk
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons(10 tablespoons) cold unstaled butter, cut into small pieces

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a bking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Stir the egg and buttermilk together.

Whisk the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Drop in the butter and, using your fingers, toss to coat the pieces of butter with flour. Quickly, working with your fingertips (my favorite method) or a pastry blender, cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly. You'll have pea-size pieces, pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and pieces the size of everything in between -- and that's just right.

Pour the egg and buttermilk mixture over the dry ingredients and stir with a fork just until the dough, which will be wet and sticky, comes together. Don't overdo it.

Still in the bowl, gently knead the dough by hand, or turn it with a rubber spatula 8 to 10 times. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it in half. Working with one piece at a time, pat the dough into a rough circle that's about 5 inches in diameter, cut it into 6 wedges and place on the baking sheet. (At this point, the scones can be frozen on the baking sheet, then wrapped airtight. Don't defrost before baking -- just add about 2 minutes to the baking time.)

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, or until their tops are golden and firmish. Transfer them to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before serving, or wait for the scones to cool to room temperature.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In a crunch

When you've just barely gotten back from an 11-day trip to Asia...
When your internal clock is operating somewhere between Pacific and Taiwan/Hong Kong time...
When you've slept 12 hours and feel like you could sleep 12 more...
When you need a little not-too-sweet, buttery breakfast treat and are already late for work...

Then this is the thing to bake.

I've been running on fumes for the last 48 hours. 58 if you count the flight back to Los Angeles, and you should because getting a crick in your neck as you sleep upright really isn't sleep at all, and 82 if you count the minimal slumber from the night before as we tried to make our last night in Hong Kong count (and staying out until 5 or 6am is normal there). Surprisingly, I haven't been suffering from being wide awake at 4am like I would always be when I was younger. In fact, I've been sleeping way too much -- exhibit A being today's sudden realization that it was 9:17am, I should be at work at 9:45, but I still had to make this week's Tuesday's With Dorie pick by Lindsay of A Little Something...Sweet!

But these Maple Cornmeal Biscuits require none of the room-temperature eggs/milk/butter fuss that other baking recipes do. I simply rolled out of bed, preheated the oven, measured out the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and baking soda, waited for the oven to come to 425 degrees, and did that last minute cutting-in of the cold butter and incorporating of the milk and maple syrup before plopping the dough on a cookie sheet. It really was the simplest recipe.

By the time the biscuits emerged from the oven, I was ready to go, and threw them in towel-lined basket as Dorie suggested they be eaten hot anyway. I got to work with the craggy, golden mounds still warm to the touch. With a quarter cup of maple syrup being the only sweetener in the recipe, the biscuits went perfectly with a bit of jam, though not at all necessary either. The cornmeal provided a wonderful texture and was another kick in the head as to its amazing properties in baked goods. Those lingering grains in the finish of a bite get me every time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Butter love.

My family grew up with margarine. Imperial margarine to be specific. No -- there was one memory I have of Australian butter from a round, yellow, vintage-looking tin, but that was a very rare instance and more often than not it was a large, plastic tub with the crown emblem in the fridge. My parents were convinced that butter was devil spread (like so many other families in the 80s), so I adopted the same belief and was none the wiser probably until I started baking. Sure, there were pats of real butter wrapped in metallic foil when we went out to dinner, or at the continental breakfasts during our family trip to Europe in 4th grade, but still used sparingly lest we drop dead.

When I started this baking hobby, so many cookbooks and recipes would emphasize the importance of using real butter instead of margarine, and being such a new hand at baking, I had to get it right and pressured my parents into springing for the forbidden nectar of dairy cows. Having it around the house now, I would steal a swipe of butter for my toast instead of Imperial (and even Brummel & Brown for awhile) -- that was the beginning of the end.

Butter enthusiasm grew exponentially and arrived at its current level during my last trip to Paris. Of course, Paris, right?? There are few populations that take their butter more seriously than the French, and if we had Pascal Beillevaire or Bordier stateside, I'm sure we'd be fanatical too.

Shortbread has always been a favorite of mine because of the gloriously pronounced flavor of butter. There may be no better way to showcase a butter than with shortbread, in fact, and this recipe that Valerie of Une Gamine dans la Cuisine chose for this week's Tuesdays with Dorie assignment, did just that. Along with the zest of a lemon and especially with the addition of cornmeal, these cookies had an amazing texture and very addictive quality. I had included rosemary polenta cookies from Frances (one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco) in my holiday assortment so I was already familiar with the magic that ground corn can work and knew that though such a simple recipe, it had amazing possibilities. Incorporating just a handful of ingredients, make sure you use a good quality butter (I used Plugra) and it will effortlessly render the shortbread astounding -- you won't be disappointed

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Double my pleasure.

Strawberry and Rhubarb. A common pairing, seemingly age-old even, but not for me. Like so many other treats steeped in Americana, those of the strawberry-rhubarb variety never made it inside my home growing up. Our sandwiches were made with Oroweat Masters' Best seeded and nutty breads and always made a bee-line for the soda fountain when we stopped in to the family restaurant because we weren't allowed to keep it in the home. Instead, my mother encouraged the consumption of a new-fangled just-add-water-to-powder concoction at the time - Barleygreen, or a fermenting, yeasty drink whose curds would be recycled for the week until I don't even know when. On very rare occasions, Thrity Butter Pecan ice cream, Sara Lee cheesecake, or a Twinkie would appear, but as far as goods from an actual bakery went, unless it was a mango mousse cake from Sheng Kee (just sweet enough), I knew nothing of it.

Along comes my friend, or, rather, along goes my friend. My dear friend Liz decided a couple years ago to leave the sunny skies and congested streets of Los Angeles for green pastures (greener pastures being Sacramento), and as a farewell gesture, made her one of her favorites -- strawberry rhubarb pie. It was my first attempt with this flavor combination, not quite sure what it should taste like, and I never got to know it any better as off she went with the lattice-topped thing of beauty. Digging in to desserts before gifting them just isn't my thing, though time and time again, I wish it was.

This week's Tuesdays With Dorie pick by Sarah of teapots and cake stands could be considered my first official foray into strawberry-rhubarb desserts (because we all wonder, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, does it make a sound?), and having tasted it, I can vouch that it really did happen. And I loved it.

Crisps are magical things to begin with, and that this was a double crisp?? I'm going to have to change all my crisp recipes into double crisps now, because as much as I love naturally sweet, seasonal fruit, the oat-flour-butter-nut-spice amalgamation is my favorite part of a crisp, and I know I'm not alone. A top and bottom layer of crisp?! This may just be better than pie!! The crystallized ginger also added an unexpected perk that would go well with plums, pears, peach -- it has to be my new favorite dessert addition (and Dorie's trick of steaming aged, hardened ginger over simmering water is genius)!!

I'll see my incomparably hilarious, wonderfully self-deprecating, and now, amazingly happy friend soon, and when I do, this is the winner I'll be toting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A new spin.

When does one decide on their preferred type of brownie?? As with chocolate chip cookies, most everyone has a certain standard for the best brownie ever, but there are innumerable riffs on the basic brownie that have become almost standard in themselves over the years. Fudgey, cakey, dense, light-as-a-feather, chocolate chips, nuts, chipotle, cinnamon, peanut butter swirls, peppermint, toffee bits, butterscotch chips, espresso, brown sugar, browned butter, and now -- what's this?! -- honey?? With all these possibilities, people have their favorites, but I can't see anyone ever denying a brownie because, after all, isn't it really all about the strong hit of chocolate?

Suzy of Suzy Homemaker chose Honey Nut Brownies for this week's Tuesday's With Dorie recipe, and in all honestly, the name had no appeal to me initially. Is this going to be like chocolatey Honey Nut Cheerios?, I wondered. What's the deal with honey in a brownie?? I was proven wrong.

Though I'm more a fan of brownies on the dense side, I still cannot stay away from a cakey brownie, especially not a good one, and with the substitution of whole wheat pastry flour, I didn't have to. The flour switch may have made the brownies a little too cake-like, but the flavor was definitely marvelous. Anyone passing by the kitchen at work had to steal a sliver even after they had already polished off two pieces because the smell was so intoxicating. It must have been the honey (or Lyle's Golden Syrup as I didn't quite have enough honey so I made another little substitution) because I don't believe I've ever made a brownie whose smell permeated through rooms and minds like that one did.

Needless to say, that brownie had a pretty short lifespan. Most of the office couldn't resist its charms and they made quick work of it. Though the brownie didn't linger, I'll have to re-use the honey trick on another recipe and see what results that yields. A chewy, nut-studded, honey-scented chocolatey square...ohhh, the rapture!