Saturday, December 27, 2008

A busy December

Last year, I decided to start a tradition that many of you in the blogosphere participate in, and one that I will hopefully continue for many, many years to come -- holiday cookie gifts. The decision was a result of a limited budget, the desire to offer something that someone else might not, and an itch to bake, and after many, many hours of labor in the kitchen, a pretty impressive assortment was created. I could not have predicted the enthusiasm with which these cookie jars/bags/baskets were received, but it was clear that they were much appreciated and I have every intention of doing them year after year now.

The varieties from last year included both crispy and chewy chocolate chip cookies, cocoa chocolate chip cookies, World Peace Korovas, shortbread, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, rugelach, molasses spice, brownie bites, Mexican wedding, pecan squares, and I think I'm missing two others. Although, I was happy with most of them (save for the crispy chocolate chips -- too strong a taste of olive oil), I tried to improve the mix this year with mostly new recipes. The final list included: The Cook's Illustrated Best Recipe molasses spice, the beloved NY Times chocolate chip recipe, snickerdoodles and mini black-bottom brownie cups from The All-American Cookie Book, The Frog Comissary oatmeal chocolate chip, Vanilla Garlic's lemon mascarpone blondies, pecan tassies, cut-out sugar cookies, and a whole slew of Dorie recipes including peanut butter crisscrosses, rugelach (apricot pecan and chocolate walnut), Korovas (again), Punitions, pecan powder puffs, and Linzer sables. These were the Tuesdays with Dorie recipe hosted by Dennis of Living the Life earlier this month, and though that was a hectic week and I wasn't able to complete the recipe then, I thought it would definitely be a starlet in a holiday line-up.

The dough came together so easily (again, I pray at the altar of the Cuisinart), was amazingly easy to roll out and cut out, and baked up beautifully as well. I'm a huge fan of the D'arbo strawberry jam ever since having a tiny jar of it with my toast at Comme Ca, so I searched out their raspberry jam for this recipe and I have no doubt that it was the perfect filling to the cookie.

Spiced sandwich cookies with fruit filling don't immediately make my mouth water, and I didn't even love it at first bite, but the next day, perhaps once the flavors mellowed, or melded together, I was a fan. A British-by-way-of-Germany-but-born-American friend (and lucky cookie tin recipient) said it"tasted German" (not sure if that's a positive or negative statement), but I also sent a giant round tin to my sisters and the older of the two commented on its tastiness out of all the other varieties, so I'm taking it as a good thing. She described it as "the Pepperidge Farm looking one", but it tastes far better than anything prepackaged, in my opinion, and, clearly, was the visual standout in the sea of different shades of brown (yet delicious) cookies.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Simple deliciousness

My sister loves sugar cookies, and while they aren't my favorite cookie, there is something to be said for an unadulterated sugar cookie -- chock full of butter and sugar, of course; pale, pale yellow, seemingly void of any flavor, but it's usually the recipes made of the simplest of ingredients that resonate in one's memory and stand the test of time. This week's Tuesday's with Dorie recipe is hosted my Ulrike of Kuchenlatein and is Grandma's All-Occasion Sugar Cookies and I was pretty excited to test it out to find a go-to sugar cookie recipe that my sister will approve of. It's been a busy week, so I wasn't able to employ any amazing variation to the recipe (although the measure of a great sugar cookie should be judged at its essence, I think -- just like a cupcakery should be evaluated by their vanilla-vanilla first and foremost). Roll-out cookies haven't had much of a presence in my baking as the nuisance of dough sticking on my counter was (as with the aforementioned bane of my existence -- pie dough) quite a deterrent. I didn't even have cookie cutters, so over the weekend I stopped by Surfas for some great, classic shapes. Fleur de lys? I know my friend would love them already!

The dough was manageable, but did soften up rather quick, leading to a slightly deformed snowflake during transfer to the baking sheet. Most of them made it to the oven, although there was a mishap involving the floor, and I sprinkled a bit of sanding sugar over the tops. Next time I'll surely involve some colored icing.

All in all, it was quite a tasty recipe. The cookie baked up firm, but after a bit of time, they did definitely soften up. I may prefer a sugar cookie with more bite to it, but we'll see what the verdict is with my sugar cookie afficionado sister.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving deliciousness.

I'm so excited for my inaugural entry for Tuesdays with Dorie. It's been on my radar for many months, then I finally started a blog and have been trying to fill it with enough content before venturing into this baking group. I have sung my praises of Dorie's recipes before, and now, every Tuesday, I will be doing it with regularity (given the success of each week's recipe, of course).

Appropriately enough, this week's pick by Vibi of La Casserole Carree was Thanksgiving Twofer Pie. Some people are pumpkin pie devotees, others worship in the church of pecan -- why not kill two birds with one stone? I have to admit, I used to look forward to the seasonal pumpkin-pecan cheesecake at one well-known cheesecake-centric restaurant all year, so something with the same flavors, and made with a little more love was right up my alley.

I had previously committed to baking a pie for my good friend, Tin, and was thinking of Dorie's Sour Cream Pumpkin Pie, but this was another case of killing two birds with one stone. Maybe I shouldn't test recipes out on friends, especially on a dessert that people have very strong feelings about, but it didn't turn out half bad. I decorated the pie with maple leaves, and though it was a lot of work, I think it was worth it. I can't say I would do it every time because of the tediousness of carving in the veins, but it does make for a lovely visual.

I was told that the pie didn't slice so well, and the proof is in the pie, but it was still darn delicious. I even kept it in the oven for at least 10 minutes longer than the recipe stated. I'll have to try it for myself sometime -- Christmas maybe?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Black & White Unite! - Baking for Barack

So, it's a little late of a post, but it's never too late to celebrate the amazing feat of having elected such an inspirational leader for our country right? Back in October, I read about this baking event to raise money for the campaign in swing states on EatingLA and while some awesome folks went to Nevada and drew attention to the cause by making human pyramids at intersections and going door-to-door, I contributed by spending a day baking. Not a far reach for a Saturday afternoon/evening, but I like to think I was responsible for a tiny bit of the over $7000 that this sale raised in one morning.

While sometimes it's nice to make something unique with a little bit of ingenuity, I feel that at bake sales, there's a certain expectation of what the treats should be, and one shouldn't stray too far from that. Cookies, bars, muffins, cupcakes, and coffee cakes are all pretty standard as they're such portable crowd-pleasers and who has ever met a homemade cookie that they didn't like?

Okay. I have, but usually they're pretty good.

It was a tough decision, but I settled on David Lebovitz' Black-bottomed Cupcakes, a classic sour cream coffee cake, The Cheeseboard's currant scones,and the image on smittenkitchen was just too tempting, so peanut butter brownies.

I was a little late getting there, but was floored by what I saw once I arrived. It was a huge sale with so many volunteers -- children manning the lemonade stand and adults holding fort behind the baked goods. It really speaks to the involvement of the community as so many families were holding up signs for the bake sale, cheering on either side of the street, and those that weren't working the sale were strolling up with their loved ones and making their contribution by purchasing the goods. There were long tables packed with cupcakes, coffee cakes, all sorts of cookies, loaves, and there were still more things that couldn't fit on the spread yet. I had never seen anything like it and got that warm, fuzzy feeling witnessing such a vision of community.

I couldn't leave without buying a couple things, and what did I end up with? A currant scone from Clementine and a slice of streuseled sour cream coffee cake. "Wait...isn't that what you made?" Yes, it is. Those are a couple of my favorite things that clearly I love to make, and eat. Given the option, and even with dozens of other tantalizing temptations like pumpkin cookies and sticky buns, I cannot resist the simple pleasures of a scone or coffee cake. With the addition of a latte from Lamill, it was a rewarding, inspirational, lovely morning indeed.

This bake sale obviously wasn't what tipped the presidential race over the edge, and I know even all the bake sales around the country weren't responsible for the victory, but looking at the incredible involvement of the neighborhood for this cause, the call for change was deafening. And if this showing existed all over the US, it's no wonder we can now look toward the near future with even more hope.

Friday, November 7, 2008

As American as apple pie

I can't say apple pie has ever been a favorite of mine. Maybe it's my experience with primarily too-mushy supermarket pies or overly-sweet Marie Callendar's pies, but the filling usually doesn't call my name the way banana cream or pecan pies do. Give me one of those and I won't be able to help myself.

Pie, in general, I have never really forayed into, save for the S'more Pie I made for Tin's Summer party this year (which was crazy good, albeit a lot of work), but it had a graham cracker crust and it's high time I tried making a classic pie with crust made from scratch, rolled out, and carefully lifted into the pie plate. As is characteristic of myself (and with the harrowing experience of rolling out dough for Cornish pasties on my counter), I wasn't about to take on this task unprepared so I waited until I acquired a silicone pastry mat to facilitate the challenge that is pie dough. And of course there's my trusty Cuisinart that I finally sprung for when taking on the Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake in July for a dear, dear friend's birthday. Don't know how I ever lived without it.

As we enter into fall with an abundance of crisp, sweet, and slightly tart organic apples at the farmer's market, this seemed like the most logical choice for a first-time pie-maker, not to mention its ubiquity and reflection of Americana. The purveyor recommended Tsugaru and Mutsu apples for baking, and I already had some humongous Fuji apples at home. I decided to go with Dorie to hold my hand in this process and, as usual, it was a stunning recipe.

It might be plain as day to a lot of people, but I had no idea how important apple variety was to the outcome of the pie until I made it for myself. Maybe because I've only had store-bought apple pie that I haven't cared much for it, but I found the filling equally as delicious as the crust this time around -- and I'm a crust MONSTER. {Sidenote: Always keep your crust scraps, roll it out, cut out designs for decoration, or just rip up shards (if you can't be bothered to make it look pretty) and bake it up until its golden brown for pure deliciousness.} The apple choice had a lot to do with the pie's success as the Tsugarus and Mutsus really had a brightness to them that apple pie mush normally lacks. And a varied apple choice also lends itself to a contrast in textures so each bite alternates between soft fruit and more toothsome chunks.

The crust was, of course, pure deliciousness. Tender and flaky, buttery with just the right amount of sweetness. It's no wonder that Dorie calls it the good-for-everything pie crust. It was the perfect envelope with which to deliver the filling and now I'm definitely an apple pie convert. Seriously -- it's on par with Ikeda's, and probably even better. I can't wait to perfect the execution now!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Southern classic

I have nothing against coconut, and actually quite like coconut creme brulee, curries with coconut, and those gelatinous coconut flavored squares at dim sum, but coconut cake has never appealed to me. I've never even tried it actually, because there has never been any desire to. It doesn't appear that anyone else does usually either, because I'm sure had anyone in my company ordered it, I would have had a taste. Maybe it's the appearance of the cake that is unappealing. Showered with a flurry of sweetened coconut, you would seemingly have to gnaw at it like a horse does with hay -- too much work. Or maybe it's the uniform color that most coconut cakes have.



How can it possibly be good?

Then again, I don't understand the appeal of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting either. A dark brown cocoa-enhanced cake with a tender crumb swathed in cream cheese frosting? Totally get it. The same cake with salted caramel frosting? Yes, please. Put chocolate frosting on it and I just think, "Boring. What's the point?"

Anyhow, it wasn't until a friend of Alix' mentioned this as one of his favorite cakes did I ever hear of someone having an affinity for this dessert, and, because I'm all for trying new things, I decided I would have to make it at least once.

Again, since most people don't seem to love coconut cake as much as, say, red velvet, or strawberry country cake, I finally remembered to make it when said friend of a friend's birthday came around. It was then that I learned that it's more of a Southern treat, and one that people definitely have strong feelings about. Some recipes call for a meringue frosting, some for buttercream, and some even for cream cheese frosting which, of course, became my choice. The coconut flavor is attributed to either coconut milk in the cake, or cream of coconut. I had never even heard of cream of coconut, but it can be found in the mixer aisle of the supermarket as it's the base for pina coladas. I'll have to try another recipe that relies on coconut milk another time as I'm not sure the coconut flavor was distinct enough for my liking using the cream of coconut.

With my luck, it ended up that after making this gorgeous three layer cake, I find out that the birthday boy was in London and not returning for well over a week. That was a slight disappointment, because he completely deserves a nice gesture, but it was definitely a good excuse to finally try to make -- and eat -- this kind of cake. (Obviously, we weren't going to let all my hard work go to waste.) Now, it still isn't a favorite of mine (and we all know I do love cake), but it's not a bad concoction at all -- some people were actually extremely fond of it, including people who don't normally like coconut cake at all. Cream cheese frosting -- it unites us all.

Coconut Layer Cake
from Shubox Cafe via Epicurious

2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup canned sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco Lépez)*
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar, butter and sweetened cream of coconut in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla extract. On low speed, beat in dry ingredients and then buttermilk, each just until blended.

Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites with pinch of salt in another large bowl until stiff but not dry. Fold beaten egg whites into batter.

Divide cake batter between prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on rack 10 minutes. Run small sharp knife around pan sides to loosen cakes. Turn cakes out onto racks and cool completely.

Place 1 cake layer on cake plate. Spread 1 cup Cream Cheese Frosting over cake layer. Sprinkle 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut over. Top with second cake layer. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle remaining coconut over cake, gently pressing into sides to adhere. (Coconut Layer Cake can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours before serving.)

Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from recipe accompanying Tropical Carrot Cake via Epicurious

3 8-ounce packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup canned sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco López)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in powdered sugar, then cream of coconut and both extracts. Chill until firm enough to spread, about 30 minutes.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hurrah for no cake-cutting fees!!

Let's all give a round of applause for restaurants (usually small, independently owned establishments) that don't charge cake-cutting fees!!! It's such a convenience for people like myself who love celebrating friends' birthdays with homemade cakes, but enjoy having birthday dessert and the hoopla surrounding it dining out.
It was Cassie's birthday this past week and the entire gang came down to LA in honor of the bithday girl -- not that they don't try to find any excuse to come visit. Clearly I bake regularly, but I also try to stick to a pretty healthy diet: lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That all gets thrown out the window when these girls come into town though. When we get together, we eat, and we eat A LOT. They need to get their fix of whatever they can't find in the Bay Area, and I get to enjoy everything I don't normally allow myself.
This particular trip included Honey's Kettle fried chicken and soft, buttery biscuits, Japanese fusion izakaya, an Italian breakfast sandwich and pear pancakes at The Kitchen, a quick Intelligentsia stop, pad see ew and crispy pork with green beans at Ord Noodle, crostinis and salami from Joan's on Third, the oozy goodness of the chicken mushroom panini at Il Tramezzino, dinner at Palate Food + Wine in Glendale, a light breakfast of soft scrambled vegetarian hen eggs with wild mushrooms at LA Mill, the Cuban Reuben for brunch at The Foundry, mussels and garlic mops and cornbread at Village Idiot, the bo ssam and seafood pancake at Kowaboo, and, of course,
After an exhausting week and too little free time, I managed to whip up a banana cake that has been a crowd pleaser in the past. It's unfailingly moist and infused with delicious banana flavor. Not too much adornment, but cream cheese frosting, and maybe some toasted pecans are all you need. It's so simple to whip together and the biggest issue is just planning ahead so that your bananas will be good to go when it comes time to bake. And by good to go, I mean black. To the point where your better judgment would have you throw them out instead of attracting fruit flies. Another alternative is to troll different markets, asking for really ripe bananas and quite frequently, they'll have them in the back, quarantined from "blemish-free" bananas. Waiting until this stage makes ALL the difference.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pecan Pie Cupcakes

August flew by with all sorts of goings-on. People moving out, moving in, 24 hour trips to Vegas, more people moving out, moving in, hosting 4 people with only 4 semi-comfortable areas to sleep in, including my own bed...and, still, birthdays must be celebrated. Sigh.
I do love to bake for friends' birthdays, but sometimes there's just so much going on that it's the last thing I want to do. Lucky for them, I still pull myself up by my boot straps and try to whip up something that would appeal to his/her tastes. For Rodney's birthday, I wasn't quite sure what he would prefer because he's such a fan of everything. Oatmeal raising cookies, cakes, chocolate chip cookies, NUTS (I think it's great that he's not adverse to nuts like so many people these days!) and given too many choices, I can never make a decision. I ended up settling on Pecan Pie Cupcakes from the wonderful Bake or Break blog.
Because the reviews had described the cake as more muffin-like, I tried to employ some normal cupcake techniques to lighten up the cake a bit (although judging from the end result, I should modified the recipe even more!) I creamed softened butter and the brown sugar instead of using melted butter. I was also making full-sized cupcakes so I doubled the quantities from the recipe.
I haven't made the original recipe, so I'm not quite certain how similar or different they are, but I feel it was still a pretty dense cake. Maybe it was because it's chock full of pecans?
I tried a new salted caramel frosting because I didn't want to fuss with the entire caramel making process this time as I did for cousin Lib's birthday -- time was of the essence!! This recipe was quite easy to make, but a little more buttery than I would like. The mouthfeel of the last salted caramel frosting was definitely more agreeable. Alas, these sacrifices are what you make in the lurch! Thankfully, the combination of the cake and the frosting was a hit. Some people quite enjoyed the buttery quality of both the cake and frosting, so I lucked out. I probably won't be making this exact recipe again, but it is definitely a solid flavor combination that one should try.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Daj!

There are certain foods that we associate with certain people, and aside from Thrifty's Butter Pecan ice cream, Sara Lee pound cake is what I associate most with my mother. We were never a household with too much junk food -- and my siblings and I usually weren't bratty children who screamed at the top of our lungs for Oreos or sour straws anyway for fear of our parents' wrath -- but every once in awhile, there would be a frozen pound cake, nestled in that tell-tale foil pan. It was a delight that in our family of six would never last long. Still, it is a fond memory of childhood that with a slowing metabolism and a more discerning eye for ingredients I no longer partake in, but tasting Ina Garten's Strawberry Country Cake brought me back.

Strawberries were already growing aplenty back in May and there were some crazy deals at the farmers market -- a half flat for $6! You can't beat the price, but can you eat all that?? I ended up trying this recipe after trolling the internet for something to make with my plenitude of berries and several people touted its deliciousness on Serious Eats. I brought it to a last minute informal dinner and it was so simple, yet so satisfying. Like a strawberry shortcake without the hard biscuit, it incorporates lightly sweetened whipped cream with juicy strawberries and a rich cake. Just three components, but the sum is far greater than its parts. And the cake! Ohhhh, I could eat it for days! The cake is lightly hinted with lemon and orange zest which I think gives the cake some added dimension.

The recipe actually yields two cakes as it recommends you halve the contents of one 8" cake pan to build your cake. I used a 9" pan the first time, which turned out quite well, but I would have liked some more height to the cake, especially because I left the sides unfrosted though everyone was still delighted with the results. For my sister's birthday, she requested this wonderfully fragrant cake and because it also keeps well in the freezer (unfrosted of course), I was able to assemble it right before her birthday dinner to culminate a weekend trip to San Diego. Because it was a special occasion, I thought a taller cake would be more appropriate so instead of halving each cake, I used both cakes. I did use more whipped cream and more strawberries, yet there was probably still too much cake per bite. I didn't think that could possibly happen, and it was definitely tasty enough, but Ina got it right the first time. I think I'll stick to the halved cake and just keep the other cake in the freezer for a rainy day, and so it's perfect when an occasion comes up out of the blue. Definitely a solid recipe to keep in your arsenal.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

It's a warm summer's morning. I'm relaxed with a large iced decaf coffee from Groundwork in hand, savoring the smell of freshly popped kettle corn and lovingly gazing at stone fruit, but still walking purposefully toward him. I see him, but does he see me? The sea of visor-clad shoppers towing baskets of perfect peaches and beautiful leafy greens part, and we make eye contact.

He smiles and my heart skips a beat.

I know what he means--he's got what I want.

Yes, I am a lucky girl. Today I get my pick of four, count 'em FOUR, cartons of white, brown, and blue-green egss of varying sizes, still speckled with chicken waste. This doesn't deter me from purchasing them at all. In fact, I'm kind of excited by it. I mean, how much fresher can you get?

At any given time, you will find at least two cartons of eggs in my refrigerator. At this moment, there are actually three -- one of cage-free, large store bought eggs, and two from the farmers market. My cholesterol levels must be through the roof, right? Actually, I think it's pretty under control. I'm partial to pastured eggs which have been reported to have considerably less cholesterol than the normal eggs you find at the supermarket, and considerably more deliciousness, in my opinion. The organic, cage-free, or free-range eggs that are at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and the like are an improvement from other factory farmed eggs, but that terminology has pretty much been rendered useless. Organic simply means that the chickens are fed organic feed. Cage-free means that the little peckers may not be in cages, but they could be kept in very confined quarters with thousands of others, mutilating each other or contracting diseases. Free-range means that the chickens have access to the outdoors, but that could just be a tiny door to the yard that the chickens don't even know to go through.
I'm not saying my way is the right way, but with this knowledge, I prefer not to even deal with misleading USDA jargon and get my eggs from the farmers market. I've purchased eggs from every supplier there, and have definitely picked my favorite. There's no way I'm going to reveal its identity either, because they only have a few dozen each week and I get there before 8:30 just to increase the odds that there'll be any when I get there -- I have been disappointed MANY a time. Some days, he is all sold out by the time I get there (which is always before 9am). Other days, the chickens just haven't laid enough eggs and he has to save a couple dozen for other farmer's market vendors (See! The eggs are that good!) When I do score a dozen, my heart soars and I break out into a grin that cannot be wiped away.
Because these eggs are completely and utterly delicious by themselves, they are so suited to being prepared my favorite style -- pan fried over medium. And isn't everything better with a little oozing yolk on top? Croque madames, pastas, hash dishes... As soon as the egg lands in the heated pan, I am in awe. The slight spread of the egg white. The height and deep orange hue of the yolk. It is a sight to behold and so unlike a regular egg. And the taste? Incomparably rich. I don't need a vegetarian fed hen -- the little bugs and insects that the chickens feast on make all the difference in the color and taste of the yolk.
I still keep the standard large eggs around for baking as the volume of the pastured eggs can vary so much, but these oblong orbs of heaven are the apple of my eye (especially the blue-green Araucana variety!). Instead of standing at the kitchen counter, wolfing down a bowl of cold cereal, I create a more well-rounded meal with the egg being the highlight. I savor it at the table and sop up the smooth and creamy yolk with pita or brioche leaving nothing to waste. The ritual makes all the difference in my morning.
I'm sure an ode to such a basic food sounds excessive, but I truly love it, and for those that live to eat, shouldn't every dish spark such enthusiasm?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pistachio Cupcakes

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, what with moving someone out, and then moving someone new in. And it’s always an adjustment taking on a new roommate no matter how easy-going one is. What is their bathroom routine like? How anal is she about dishes in the sink? What’s the best way to communicate with him? And there’s always the lingering suspicion that they may not as they seem and sooner or later they will flip out and show their true colors.
Then there is the huge task of incorporating their belongings in with one’s own. With a pretty stocked kitchen already, this process is daunting. My cousin didn’t take anything with him to New York, so the kitchen is still stocked with the belongings of 3 persons, and there wasn’t even enough storage space to begin with!
Amid the moving headache, a friend had requested pistachio cupcakes like the ones at Crumbs for her upcoming birthday. It’s been awhile since I had brought those to the office so I wasn’t entirely sure what they were like anymore. Cream cheese frosting? Buttercream? Nuts in the cake? Almond flavor? Well the online menu says vanilla sponge cake filled and frosted with pistachio buttercream, but I was quite certain I tasted a hint of almond in the cake before. I ended up taking the Billy’s Vanilla Cupcake recipe and adding a bit of almond extract and frosting it with the pistachio buttercream from Epicurious.
As always is the case with the Billy’s recipe, I was bracing myself for exploding cupcakes. I’m not sure it it’s because the butter hadn’t distributed itself evenly usually, or if the soufflé cups were too full, but there have been a few trials were 75% of the cupcakes were disgusting messes. This time I was careful to barely fill the cups halfway and I took great care in incorporating the butter without overbeating. Only a few casualties!
This was actually my first time making buttercream, but though the reviews were mixed, the recipe still sounded solid. It’s a fussy and time-consuming process, but I recommend starting the buttercream just before the cupcakes (if you’re planning on making it the same day) so that the half-and-half, pistachio mixture can cool, and then the cupcakes can cool while the pastry cream is also being brought to room temperature.
The cupcakes turned out wonderfully and everyone adored them, however next time I might try to incorporate pistachios into the actual cake. Maybe fill them with some kind of cream or fruit filling? Pistachio and chocolate is such a great combination so maybe a chocolate cream filling or frosting? The possibilities are endless so stay tuned.

Almond Cupcakes
adapted from Billy's Vanilla, Vanilla Cupcakes via Martha Stewart

about 24 cupcakes (although the recipe says 30, I've never had it yield so many)

1 3/4 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
1 1/4 unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; set aside. (I used souffle cups baked on a baking sheet.) In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt; mix on low speed until combined. Add butter, mixing until just coated with flour.

2. In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together eggs, milk, and vanilla. With mixer on medium speed, add wet ingredients in 3 parts, scraping down sides of bowl before each addition; beat until ingredients are incorporated but do not overbeat.

3. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling about 2/3 full. If using 4 3/4" souffle cups, fill slightly over half full. Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 17 to 20 minutes.

4. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat process with remaining batter. An advantage of using temperamental souffle cups is being able to fit more cupcakes (and maybe even all) at one time, allowing all the cupcakes to rise similarly instead of the normal not-quite-as-tall second batch. Frost with Pistachio Buttercream.

Pistachio Buttercream Frosting

1 1/4 cups half-and-half
3/4 cup unsalted pistachio nuts
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1. Bring half and half and pistachios to boil in heavy small saucepan. Remove from heat; cover and let stand 1 hour. Whisk sugar, yolks and flour in medium bowl to blend. Bring half and half mixture to simmer; gradually whisk into yolk mixture.Return to same saucepan; stir over medium heat until mixture bubbles thickly, about 5 minutes. Mix in vanilla. Transfer to processor; blend until nuts are very finely chopped. Transfer pistachio pastry cream to bowl. Cover and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours.

2. Using electric mixer, beat unsalted butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add pastry cream by 1/4 cupfuls, beating well after each addition. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Second time not such a charm

Argh! First big failure since my overflowing Billy's Vanilla Cupcakes. And this was for something I’ve made before, and was so simple! Chocolate Idiot Cake (also known as a better Flourless Chocolate Cake than they have at Sweet Lady Jane, if that even means anything anymore). C’mon. The name says it all. Even an idiot can make it!

Apparently not.

Well I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from making this, because it really is the simplest of simple desserts featuring only 4 ingredients that even people who don’t care for flourless chocolate cake enjoy, and I know that my error lies in the unfortunate seeping of water into my springform pan. So you hear that kids? Double – or even triple – wrap your foil around the bottom of the pan to make sure water does not mix with your possibly not-air-tight springform pan. It's not pudding, it's cake! Sigh. Number two is in the oven right now.

Okay. So water got into the pan the second time too. What is going on? Why was my first attempt so successful, and subsequent tries have been failures? The recipient of the cake was actually quite fanatical about this cake ("I don't want to eat another flourless chocolate cake again, unless it's this one") so perhaps it wasn't a complete failure, but when you have a certain idea of how something is supposed to turn out, yielding a different result is simply disheartening. How skilled is one as a baker if they cannot produce a consistent product?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The best chocolate chip cookies that have ever come from my kitchen

I take pride in disseminating information that I think the recipient will find interesting or useful. I think sometimes people mistake it as favoritism – special treatment with a wink – and maybe it is, to an extent (I mean, I don’t bother with people I don’t like), but the truth of the matter is I just want to be helpful. I have a very reliable circle of friends and family who do the same for me, so when I was linked to David Leite’s article in the New York Times for the best-ever chocolate chip cookies a couple Wednesdays ago, I immediately perked up and mentally shelved this recipe for near-future use. (I would have found this article on my own later that day, but there’s a certain satisfaction when someone knows you well enough to recognize information that you will find fascinating.) I’ve enjoyed the City Bakery chocolate chip cookie on both coasts, witnessed the glory of a Levain Bakery cookie on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and became enlightened about the powers of a little extra salt in or on a cookie from Dorie Greenspan with those addictive little Korovas, so a recipe taking bits and pieces from all those solid creations was completely enticing. What occasion can I make these for??? Lucky for him (and me), the friend that sent me the link also had the birthday coming up soonest so what better way to salute such a generous friend than with such amazing-sounding treats?
I decided I would try to follow the recipe to a T, if just once, to accurately evaluate the recipe. I bought the bread flour and knew where to get the feves, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get them. Time was counting down as I had to send the cookies by a certain day in order for the cookies not to arrive ridiculously late so I ended up making the dough early enough for it to rest for 36 hours. After a looooong internal dilemma about whether or not to just chop up good bittersweet chocolate, I said “NO! I am going to do this right!” and proceeded to call the stores in West Hollywood that could potentially carry couverture quality chocolate. Bristol Farms only had White and Milk Chocolate discs, Cost Plus World Market had no idea what I was talking about (although I saw that they do, indeed, carry Guittard 61% couverture a few days later), and I didn’t even think of Sur La Table at the time (you can get it there as well).
On baking morning on my way to work, I was able to stop by Surfas where I knew they had what I was looking for, and was even overwhelmed with their selection. Valrhona 62%? 74%? 87%? Cacao-Barry 66%? 72? Mahogany flavors or vanilla notes? Madagascar or the Dominican Republic?? In the end I settled on Cacao-Barry from Africa for $17 for 2 lbs. Eeek. My main concern though, was that the chocolate flavors hadn’t also been flavoring the dough for the last 36 hours. I wasn’t able to mix the couverture in until right before baking, so I hope that didn’t affect the overall taste of the product. I really don’t think it did, because it was absolutely the best chocolate chip cookie I have ever made. This variety isn’t really my favorite kind, but certain self-proclaimed chocolate chip cookie connoisseurs have declared this the best they’ve had as well. The recipe yielded a gorgeous caramel brown specimen with crispy edges that had the most delicious buttery quality to them and I found myself craving those edge pieces, though I usually prefer soft chocolate chip cookies. The 36 hour respite in the fridge definitely produced a more flavorful dough and this practice is soooooo worth it.
Could it be that any dough's awesomeness would increase exponentially when refrigerated? I'll have to try it with other recipes, but for now, this is IT.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hi, my name is Patricia

For my 16th birthday, I was given some baking sheets, a sifter, a pastry cutter, and some other baking paraphernalia that eludes me right now. It was just about the most exciting gift I had received up to that point and it was simply because I was in the middle of my teenage baking kick and my life’s pleasure at that point was trying out new recipes. I remember making fantastic “healthy” nectarine yogurt muffins, and failing miserably at bread-making (which still plagues me). The baking urge died off, and fast forward 9 years later – I receive baking tools yet again. I am in the throws of passionate love with baking yet again and I was elated with this thoughtful present once more. The difference is I don’t think this enthusiasm is going to die soon. Armed with dozens of recipes from blogs, funds for better ingredients and baking equipment, and the support of so many friends, the flames are just being fanned and the new goal is to make something of this hobby.
Growing up, as is typical with many Chinese households, our oven served as more storage space for pots and pans (not baking pans of course). My grandmother didn’t bake, my mother didn’t bake, so my baking idol was probably Debbie Fields when the Food Network was still the TV Food Network. And when I finally did feel compelled to try recipes out on my own, I was faced with the reality that we had no baking supplies! No mixer, no measuring cups or spoons!
Somehow, probably through the cooking prowess of my older sisters, we eventually acquired the bare necessities for baking (a muffin pan, a wooden spoon, measuring devices) and debuted onto the baking scene with Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines. You have to start somewhere, right? And without any household guidance in that department, boxed mixes were excitement enough.
Luckily, my repertoire has moved beyond stirring eggs and oil into an artificially colored powdery substance (although even those were a great lesson in the importance of accurate oven temperatures), and I have no intentions of going back. I roam the blogosphere these days and so many recipes from Deb at smittenkitchen or Molly at Orangette are such revelations – I want to try them all!!! One day – and hopefully not too far in the future I will bake my sisters’ wedding cakes (although with our record, who knows!). And that will still only be the beginning.