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!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sacrifice and substitutions.

I'm by no means a religious person, but befriending and surrounding myself with primarily Catholics in high school, and having required instruction in Catholic traditions too, I know my way around Lent a little bit. I'm fairly certain that when my friends were giving up Diet Coke or red meat during the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, I was happily enjoying both, but in recent years, I've come to adopt a sacrifice or two just for the sake of seeing if I have the will power and follow through for it. I don't care to deprive myself ever (which is not to say I have fried chicken and doughnuts everyday), but every now and again, it's nice to have a heightened mindfulness about what I'm putting into my body.

This year I'm giving up white carbs and cheese. As a member of Tuesdays With Dorie, I am a pastry and baked goods fiend as I'm confident most everyone else is the group is. Fresh baguettes, pie crusts, layer cakes, tea cakes, flaky croissants, rich rugelach, not to mention cheesy, whites pies, Chinese boiled dumplings, and spaghetti carbonara -- I love it all, and I'm going to miss them for the 41 remaining days. Luckily, I love whole wheat products. A whole wheat bagel with peanut butter is something I crave as much as buttered rye toast, so I'm not completely deprived, but I'm not going to gorge on whole wheat carbohydrates either.

This week's TWD assignment of Citrus-Currant Sunshine Muffins by Lauren of Bella Baker was an easy job for a whole wheat pastry flour substitution -- that, and I ran out of all-purpose flour (what luck!), so the temptation wasn't even there. I also didn't have as much orange juice as the recipe called for, but buttermilk was readily available to step in. The batter came together in no time at all and what yielded probably did not have the tender crumb that all-purpose flour would have made, but the muffin was nevertheless delicious. It really did taste like Spring in your mouth. I'd love to try adding a topping of streusel next time to make it an orange coffee cake muffin, but the possibilities are endless to this muffin base.

Ahhh, with whole wheat pastry flour, these next 40 days will be a lot easier to handle.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Morning perfection.

Scones are just about my favorite breakfast pastry. I would maybe say a flaky, buttery, warm croissant, but if I'm looking for something to really tide me over until lunch and not just a singular perfect bite (that is rarely all that perfect anyway), I'll pick the scone. And then for afternoon tea!! If a scone-only tea is offered, I will happily just order that, as good as the sandwiches and petit fours may be. With a smear of raspberry jam and a dollop of clotted cream, I am in heaven.

And there are so many kinds of scones! There are the dense, craggy ones, tender, biscuit-like ones that break off into layers, the crumbly store-bought variety that are best bitten straight into rather than broken off into pieces (lest you enjoy sweeping crumbs in your mouth), glazed, dried or fresh fruit-embedded, enhanced with chocolate. My idea of perfection is the biscuity kind with a firm shell that behooves breaking the scone off into pieces, pieces that break off almost layer-like, and that go from hand to mouth with ease. Butteriness is a given. This week's Tuesday's With Dorie pick by Mike of Living Out West was it.

Another super simple recipe, I was excited to whip these together before work yesterday morning. Perhaps freshly ground almonds would have been more fragrant, but I decided to give my roommates a break and didn't run the food processor at 7am when I had Trader Joe's almond meal on hand. For anything not particularly refined, I love using their almond meal for the flecks of skin and not-too-fine grind that I prefer against the tongue. Whisk together the dry ingredients, cut in the cold butter with your hands, toss together with the wet ingredients, shape, and off into the oven they went. These were the perfect size, too. They puffed up beautifully, held their form nicely, had a lovely golden tan, and just seeing the almond flecks throughout made me smile. Paired with Tiptree strawberry jam they were so good, and with sharp cheddar cheese, even better!

Scones allow for endless variations so walnuts, pecans, pistachios, along with dried apricots, figs, sour cherries, and spices might all be experimented with soon! As long as the texture maintains, I can do no wrong.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To each their own.

Caroline and Claire of Bake With Us chose this week's Tuesday's With Dorie selection of Chocolate Oatmeal Drops. This was one of those no-appliance-necessary recipes that we can all appreciate, and minimal bowl usage used too! It brought me back to those early baking days when the only recipes I would attempt required a bowl and a wooden spoon or whisk, sometimes they were from a box, and they more often than not turned out well! Techniques have gotten a little more complicated since then, and bowls, spatulas, measuring cups, sieves, cutting boards, and serrated knives really add to the dish load, so every once in awhile it's a breath of fresh air to throw everything in a bowl and stir.

This recipe was so simple and straightforward, and Dorie's warning that the butter would separate from the other melted ingredients when the mixture got too hot was absolutely necessary. I simply took the bowl off the heat for a little bit, continued stirring, and the parts became one once more.

The final batter was quite soft after just being mixed, but when scooping each subsequent batch, the batter got firmer and firmer. I feel like the firmer batter made for a cookie that held its shape better in the oven even if the actual composition of the cookie was no different from the softer batter. My drops didn't spread in the oven like those of other bakers in the P&Q link, and though delicate, the individual cookies were actually pretty easy to transfer to a rack straight out of the oven. I can only assume this was due to having the batter sit out longer before baking.

The finished product was not as thrilling as I had hoped. Normally, I love the addition of rolled oats to cookies, but the oats just seemed to make for an undesirable texture this time. Too much chewing for a crumbly, brownie-type cookie. I enjoyed the deep chocolate flavor and hint of cinnamon though. The cookies do taste better with age. It's been two days and I think it's a tastier cookie than when I first took it out of the oven (which is often the case with chocolate desserts, don't you think??) Other people are loving this cookie, so I'm not quite sure why it doesn't have the same allure for me, but to each their own. I'll go hang out with Dorie's rugelach!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A breakthrough.

Bundt cakes were among the very first things I attempted when I was still testing the waters with baking. My cousin, seven years my senior, had joined a sorority when she started at UCLA -- one that had reputation for always offering good food at their events and, appropriately enough, had their own sorority cookbook, economically bound with those black plastic spirals. This was their arsenal, the recipes that would make beer-guzzling men weak in the knees. Some time into her first year, my sister tried the leftovers of one of the Kahlua cakes from an event and could not stop gushing about how much she loved that cake. Turns out, at its heart was a box of yellow cake mix, but with a few bells and whistles (i.e. the addition of vanilla pudding mix, a generous cup of Kahlua, etc.), it became a pretty special and crowd-pleasing bundt cake (as can be expected with a sufficiently boozy pastries). You'd get a kick just from sniffing the finished product. This recipe made the rounds to my own events countless times while I was in high school, and eventually, we outgrew that cake and started making cakes without boxed mixes!

No one really turns down a bundt cake, but this style of cake just doesn't excite me like it used to. They're almost always universally appealing, which isn't at all a bad thing to be, but it has been starting to feel like if I've made one bundt cake, then I've made them all. It was with this attitude that I baked this week's Tuesdays With Dorie choice of Nutty, Chocolaty, Swirly Sour Cream Bundt Cake by Jennifer of Cooking for Comfort, and expected to have a perfectly decent bite for dessert. I was completely, and pleasantly, surprised.

Rugelach are among my favorite baked goods in the world (and one of my favorite Dorie recipes) and this cake, predictably buttery like a pound cake, also has a tang from sour cream, creating this base with a taste that is completely reminiscent to rugelach dough. I left out the orange zest and raisins because I knew the other people helping me eat the cake would object, but the cinnamon, chocolate, and walnut ribbon throughout the batter re-created all the flavors I love about rugelach. (The addition of orange zest and raisins would still conjure up the same sentiment, I'm sure.) Warmed up in the toaster oven, the crust of the cake becomes a crisp, wafer like shell, and irresistible. Sour cream bundt cakes may not ever be en vogue again, and they rarely disappoint, but, everyone, I have found my new favorite bundt cake/coffee cake, and I know it as Rugelach Cake.


Monday, January 17, 2011

An honest muffin.

Growing up in a household of four children, shopping trips to Costco were a given and an occasion to which my siblings and I always anticipated with excitement. My dad wouldn't always let us tag along, for fear we'd load the cart up with cookies, candy, and pastries galore, I'm sure, but the opportunities arose every once in awhile, and usually with only one kid at a time. We stocked up on such quality products as Kirkland Signature toilet paper, Nature's Valley granola bars, pallets of Yoplait yogurt, gallons of Minute Maid orange juice, and, of course, mens' briefs. Sometimes a tray of croissants would show up on the kitchen table when we came home from school (Costco croissants -- my, how far we've come...), but other times, it would be an assortment of mini-muffins. You know the ones -- chocolate chip, double chocolate, bran, blueberry, and my favorite, lemon poppy seed, packaged in fives with clear cellophane. They were perfect for throwing in our sack lunches, and we did. I can only hope I didn't devour them all myself, or in one sitting, though I wouldn't put it past my fifth grade self (kids must burn a lot of calories in P.E., right??)

I can't recall having been as big a fan of lemon poppy seed than when they came five to a pack. Given today's normal varieties of muffins, I feel a magnetic pull towards sour cream coffee cake muffins or the spiced options and lemon poppy seed is often shafted. This week, however, our Tuesdays With Dorie assignment was for my beloved mini variety, only in full size form and with the optional additional of jam that I took full advantage of, as chosen by Betsy of A Cup Of Sweetness.

Despite my early fondness for the lightly scented lemon muffin with poppy seeds suspended throughout, this was my first attempt at baking them. The two-bowl wonder of a recipe really could not be any more simple. I threw the dry ingredients together, then the wet, combined, and off into the oven they went in less than ten minutes. Half of them got the star treatment with a belly of raspberry jam, but that additional dimension wasn't all that necessary. It's an honest muffin. Straight-forward. Despite the raspberry jam and lemon glaze, you know that at its heart, it's just a lemony muffin with the perfect proportion of poppy seeds. And I love Bonne Maman raspberry jam, but I don't need to search for it in every bite -- the cake is just so good alone. With or without the bells and whistles, if I were to wake up to it every morning, life couldn't possibly be so bad.