Sunday, February 5, 2012

One last post

This is just to say so long and it's been fun. Two and a half years, give or take, and 195 recipes. I've made all the recipes you see here, and none of them looked as good. Six different kitchens, not counting "guest star" kitchens. Forty-three pounds of butter--yes, I counted. A few dismal failures, a few recipes that were on the "meh" side, and a lot of really delicious recipes.
I learned a lot about baking and about myself as I went through this blog experience:
  • I could bake twice a week and not gain weight. However, it took iron will in terms of portion control, not eating dough, and moving baked goods out the door. Also, moving to France and walking everywhere probably didn't hurt.
  • Baking made me a more social person.  Let's just say I'll never be an extrovert. I think I'm introverted and shy. But sharing all these baked goods helped me tell people I liked them without having to tell them. And I probably attended and created more food-sharing events because of the blog.
  • I will never win a photography award. See below for the overwhelming evidence. I use a better camera now, and I've done some messing around with the "food" setting and photo editing, but I'm a bit too impatient to fiddle with lights and settings. 
  • Baking for this blog has made me stretch and learn as a baker. There were some recipes that I would not otherwise have made because they were too fussy or sounded disgusting or involved a pound of butter. But I gritted my teeth and made them, and generally I was glad I did.
  • Baking for this blog has shown me that I don't know it all. I like to think I know better than Maida because I have done a lot of baking and reading about baking. And sometimes I'm able to get away with some tweaks in method or ingredients. But often the recipes I've deemed "failures" are ones in which I've made changes or not followed the directions. If I were a real food blogging professional, I'd make several versions to test whether Maida was really right. But then I'd have even more baked goods sitting around staring me in the face. No, thank you.
  • Baking on this blog has, on balance, been good for my sanity. These last 2.5 years have had their share of upheaval, what with our many moves and changes and culture shock. Telling myself and my family that I "need" to bake twice a week has given me that calming space in the kitchen, where the butter and sugar and flour do their thing no matter where the kitchen is.
My daughter Julia suggested I throw a party to celebrate the end of the blog and bake all our family favorites from the cookbook. I'm not sure that's in the cards, but if I could invite all of you and my friends who have supported me in this endeavor, these are some of the recipes I'd make for you, by section of the book:

Pies: Date Pecan Pie. It's sweet and chewy and nutty, topped with boozy whipped cream. And it's one of Julia's very favorite things to eat.

Cakes with Fruits and Vegetables: Prune and Apricot Pound Cake. Buttery cake, sweet-tart fruit, crunchy nuts. Easy and good.

Chocolate Cakes: Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake. This is one of the top five recipes on the blog in terms of hits, and there's a good reason why: it's everything a plain (moist, chocolaty, rich) chocolate cake should be.

Other Cakes: Miami Beach Sour Cream Cake. A classic pound cake with an almond twist. The first cake I baked in France. I still want to try it again with my Kitchenaid.

All the yeast pastries in the book, but especially the Cream Cheese Coffee Cake (Claire's favorite) and Carol's Crescents. But really, all of them. Maida has a particular genius for yeast-based goodies--she even mentions that this cookbook was originally conceived as a "yeast book". Her doughs are always so easy to work with, and always succeeded for me, whether in my giant Mississippi kitchen or in the tiniest, most rickety kitchen in Pontlevoy. 

Muffins, Cupcakes, and Tassies: The Pecan Tassies, hands down. I wish I had a plate of these right now. Like the yeast pastry chapter, this was a really strong chapter.  

Shortcake, Cobbler, etc: This was hard to choose: I liked but didn't love all of these recipes. But I'm going to give it to the Blueberry Crumble because I love streusel.

 Mousse, Flan, Puddings, etc: This was a chapter I struggled with, from overly rich chocolate pudding to overcooked flan. However, the Apricot Bread Pudding was an unqualified success. The Bread Pudding with Peaches, not surprisingly, was equally popular.

Cheesecakes: I loved all the cheesecakes, but my favorite was the Chocolate-Brownie Cheesecake. Of all the American desserts I made from the book, this one seemed the most deliciously over-the-top American.

Brownies: Again, I loved every single recipe, but I'm going to narrow it down to two: Cristina's Brownies (top) (giant, thick cocoa brownies) and Hershey's Brownies (bottom) (triple-chocolate icing. Need I say more?).

Chocolate Cookies: Another tough call, but I'm going to say Chocolate Whoppers, or the Cookies that Made me Famous at Work.

Other Cookies: the Eight-Layer Cookies. Never before have I made something that looked that professional and tasted that fabulous at the same time.

Fresh Fruit: Not my favorite chapter. Lots of fruit coated in raspberry sauce, which is fine in its way, but... We all really loved the Blueberries and Cream, though.

Ice Cream: This was before I had the picture-taking thing down (don't laugh), so no photo, but I loved the Spago Caramel Ice Cream.

Candy: The Texas Truffles were awfully popular, but I preferred the Brownie Truffles. Brownies, dried apricots, more chocolate, nuts. Wow.

And finally, Sauces: we all loved the Goldrush Sauce. I know at least two family members who ate it with a spoon, by itself.

Of course, if my blog readers came to the party, I'd want to bake a few of their favorites. Thanks to Google Analytics, I could easily determine the top five recipes people have looked at, and some ideas why:

#5: Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake (see above) This is a great cake, and I'm hoping that's why so many people have found their way to it. I think it's also possible that Google throws this one up when people type in "Heatter" and "chocolate cake"

#4: Emilio's Cheesecake. This is just a popular recipe. Not a week goes by when someone doesn't come looking for this recipe. It is a really great cheesecake that feeds a crowd.

#3: Kentucky Cake. This is also a great recipe, but the reason most people seem to look at this post is for the above picture: "cake one candle". Not sure why, but people are out there looking for (better) pictures like this.

#2: Cowtown Chocolate Cake. This is another one that pops up in the search terms a lot (also, see Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake). It's a really good chocolate cake (and even better frosting). Maybe someday I'll actually make it as a layer cake.

#1 Chocolate Sponge Cake. The Internet can't seem to get enough of my failed attempt at rigging a tube pan. While this is some very good cake, the fact that this recipe gets twice as many hits as any other can only be explained by my very lame engineering. You're welcome, people out there.

So now I shelve my Maida Heatter book. I'll miss seeing her smiling face every week, but I'm looking forward to baking from a variety of sources and moving back into the 21st century in terms of baking trends and technology. And I have a new cookbook blogging project, once again to force myself to stretch a bit and maybe also, by some miracle, improve my photography. A group of friends and friends-of-friends is cooking through Cook This Now! by Melissa Clark, so my butter consumption may be going down, and it looks as if I'll be eating a lot of greens, which is probably a good thing. So goodbye, enjoy the recipes, and hope to see you at the new place. It's been fun.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cinnamon Crisps

 Here it is: the last recipe in the Maida Heatter book. Sniff, sigh. It's kind of a strange recipe, too, but at least the outcome was good, unlike the last recipe. As you see, it's kind of a cinnamon-raisin snail and reminds me of the little pie crust cookies my mother used to make whenever she made pie. However, these are much more work and involve some rather unusual ingredients and techniques.

The unusual ingredient is vanilla ice cream, which I suppose is there to provide liquid and sweetener and even some egg. It's mixed with butter and flour to make a kind of pâte à choux or cream puff dough, but it then gets rolled out and rolled up and baked. 

The recipe, while fairly simple, takes a long time: there's a lot of chilling involved: make dough and chill a bit. Wrap dough and chill quite a while longer. Roll out and wrap up dough and chill a few hours more. It really could spread out over a few days. However, I was impatient and used my freezer to get same-day results.
The result is a crisp but not flaky, slightly sweet pastry with cinnamon, walnut, and raisin highlights. I enjoyed the sample cookie I had, but it didn't send me into spasms of ecstasy either. It's a good cookie. In a way, it encapsulated many of my Maida experiences over the past few years: "What?? Why?? No!! Oh, OK...Hey, this is not bad!"
I'll do a summary post of the cookbook blog experience later: for now, let me give you this one last recipe to enjoy.

Cinnamon Crisps

1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter
1/2 c. (4 oz.) vanilla ice cream (I would try to do this by weight as volume/weight will vary drastically according to the ice cream brand you use)
Pinch of salt
1 c. (5 oz.) unsifted flour

Put the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until it is melted (this is not a good time for the microwave). Remove from the heat and add the ice cream; stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Add the flour and salt and stir briskly until the dough forms a ball that comes away from the sides of the pan.

It will look a bit like this. Put it in a bowl and then refrigerate it for 20 minutes or freeze it for 10 minutes. Give it a bit of a stir--some of the butter may have separated out--and divide the dough in two. Put each piece of dough on a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper and press into a square. Wrap up and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. I gave mine about 4 hours in the fridge, and I had no problems rolling it out.
When you're ready to roll, get your filling ingredients ready:

2 T. (1 oz.) butter, melted (you probably won't use it all: I didn't)
1/4 c. (1.75 oz.) sugar
2 t. cinnamon
Scant 1/2 c. (1.5 oz.) currants or chopped raisins
1 c. (4 oz.) walnuts, chopped fine

Mix the cinnamon and sugar together in a small bowl and have the other ingredients handy. Now get one package of dough out of the fridge. Put it on a lightly floured surface and start rolling. Your goal is to get the dough into a paper-thin 12-inch square.

 Well, I almost succeeded. I could see the pattern on the surface beneath, and I had about a 10-inch "square". It took a lot of rolling and patching: the dough likes to crack. I would say I spent at least 10-15 minutes rolling each piece of dough out. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but it is good exercise.

 Now brush the dough with half the butter, leaving a 1/2-inch margin around the edges. Sprinkle with half the cinnamon sugar, half the raisins, and half the walnuts. Roll up the dough into a tight cylinder (again, the dough will probably do some cracking, but at the end it should hold together). Wrap up the cylinder and refrigerate a few more hours or freeze for an hour or so. Repeat with the other package of dough.

 When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 (I went below that a bit--175C--because Maida says these burn easily) and get out your dough cylinders. Slice each into 1/2-inch slices. I'm starting to enjoy using my ruler for this purpose!

Place the dough slices on "unbuttered" cookie sheets (you can line them as you wish; these don't stick, but the sugar may run and caramelize a bit) and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Maida emphasizes that these need to be crisp all the way through, so I let mine go to a darker shade of golden. Cool on racks and devour. I imagine they'd be good with a bowl of the remaining ice cream.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bow Ties's not so great to come across a recipe like this when I'm almost at the end of the book. But here we are, one cookie recipe from the end, with a clunker like these Bow Ties.

 Why am I so down on these cookies? Well, here's Exhibit A: the ammonium carbonate (Hirschhornsalz) that I had to import at great expense from Germany (thank you, Amazon!). It made everything smell terrible--a public restroom is probably the best metaphor--and the off taste never went away, to my mind. At the same time, maybe the failure is all my fault: Maida wanted me to treat this just like baking powder, adding with the dry ingredients, but the package told me I should dissolve the carbonate in water, which I did. That might have contributed to the texture, which was not "airy, crisp...especially light", as Maida promises.

 Another factor that made me (rightfully) suspicious: oil instead of butter. This is perhaps in the interest of making the recipe kosher, since Maida says these were a speciality of Jewish bakeries. But I don't like the texture of oil-based baked goods. And the anise: normally I like it, but here it was awfully strong. Whine, whine.

Anyway, here's the recipe. If you happen to have some ammonium carbonate in the house (according to Wikipedia, you can also use it as smelling salts if anyone's feeling faint), give it a try--you may be luckier than I.

Bow Ties

1 t. anise seeds
2-1/2 c. (10 oz.) sifted flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. powdered ammonium carbonate
2 T. sugar (plus extra for rolling the dough in)
4-5 large eggs
1/2 c. (4 oz.) tasteless oil (grape seed, canola)
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. almond extract

Use a mortar and pestle or a spice/coffee grinder to grind the anise seeds. Whisk them together with the flour, salt, ammonium carbonate, and sugar and set aside.

 Break 3-4 eggs into a glass measuring cup and see how much you have. Separate another egg and add the yolk. If you need to, top up with some of the white. What you see here is 3 "medium" French eggs plus a yolk; I added a bit of white to it after the picture was taken.
Put the eggs in a mixing bowl, beat to mix a bit, then add the oil, vanilla, and almond extracts and beat again to mix. Gradually, on low speed, mix in about half the dry ingredients.

 Beat at high speed for 5 minutes. Maida says the mixture will crawl up the beaters, but mine just sat there, as you see. Maybe that indicates a problem. In any case, stir in the remaining dry ingredients, for a "thick, sticky, and gooey" dough.

 Flour a large piece of foil or parchment, pour out the dough onto the flour, then sprinkle the top with more flour. I was probably more generous than I needed to be. Let this sit for 30 minutes.

 When the 30 minutes is up, heat the oven to 350 and line two cookie sheets with parchment, foil, or silicon liners. Heavily sugar a surface (clean counter, pastry cloth...) and carefully transfer the dough to it, shaking off as much flour as possible. Sugar the top of the dough. Roll or pat the dough out to an oblong about 12x6. I found that patting was the best I could do--the dough had settled to just about that size anyway.

 Using a bench scraper or long, sharp knife (but be careful with knives and silicon!) cut the dough crosswise into 3/4-inch strips, and then cut each strip in half.

 Grab each strip with both hands and give it a few twists. It won't be easy because the dough will still be quite sticky. Place the twists on your lined cookie sheets--they can go fairly close together.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (check after 20), until just pale golden (looks like mine went a bit beyond the pale). Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool, and then store air-tight. Hope for better luck next time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Apple-Cranberry Pudding

I'm not sure why this dessert is called a "pudding" and put in the pudding section of Maida's book. To me, it's a cobbler pure and simple. But hey, who am I to complain? This section of the book has had its share of brilliant successes and dismal failures, so it was nice to end it with something everyone liked.

This is a great recipe for a midwinter, mid-week dessert. You start by digging a bag of precious cranberries out of the freezer and supplementing them with chopped apples, equally precious chopped pecans, and sugar.

Then you take 5 minutes to mix together some melted butter (I bet that if you took an extra 5 minutes to brown the butter, that would taste dynamite), eggs, sugar, and flour and pour that on top.

Finally, you give this concoction some time in the oven while you tend to dinner. By the time you've finished dinner, dessert is ready!

The cranberries put the dessert over into the tart side, even though the topping is as sweet and buttery as you could ask, so you'll want to serve this with something sweet and creamy: I chose sweetened crème fraîche, but vanilla ice cream would also be a very good choice.
According to the rest of my family, this also made a very good breakfast the next morning ("It's fruit! It's healthy!"). Maybe with a scoop of Greek yogurt to feel virtuous about the whole thing?

Here's the recipe.

Apple-Cranberry Pudding

1 bag (12 oz.) fresh or frozen cranberries
2 large cooking apples--Maida recommends Granny Smith or Jonathan. I used 4 small Elstar apples.
1/2 c. (2 oz.) chopped toasted pecans
1/2 c. (3/5 oz.) sugar--raw sugar might be a good choice here

Heat the oven to 325. Butter a shallow casserole or baking dish--Maida suggests an 11x8-inch dish if you have one. Rinse and pick over the cranberries. Peel, core, and cut the apples into chunks. Mix the cranberries, apples, pecans, and sugar in the casserole dish. Set aside while you make the topping.

3/4 c. (6 oz.) butter
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar
1/2 t. vanilla--not in the original recipe, but I like vanilla in batters like this
2 large eggs
1 c. (5 oz.) flour--I used about 2 oz. whole wheat pastry flour (110)

In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter (or melt/brown it in a small saucepan over medium heat). Add the sugar, then the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time, and finally the flour. It's like making blondies!
Spread this mixture over the cranberries and apples. Bake for 50 minutes, or until the top is golden and the  filling is bubbling at the edges. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or your favorite sweet creamy topping. This should serve about 8.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bonus recipe: All-American Brownies

As I finish up the last few recipes in the American Desserts book, I have found myself instead making Maida's All-American Brownies for successive parties. This recipe comes from her Book of Chocolate Desserts, my first dessert cookbook. I got a reputation from this book, making cakes and cookies and Coffee-Toffee Pie. But it's the All-American Brownies and the World's Best Hot Fudge Sauce that I always go back to.

The recipe for All-American Brownies is not so different from the one you might find on the back of the orange packet of unsweetened chocolate: melt chocolate and butter, add vanilla, sugar, eggs, flour, and nuts, bake. One bowl, 10 minutes max.

I also find that this recipe is one of my favorite reasons to have a microwave, though it also comes together quite nicely in a saucepan.

What else can I say? The recipe is simple and yet makes friends wherever you take it. I brought some to my friend Gabrielle's birthday party (thus the fancy presentation), and they were inhaled. "These are not brownies!" one guest proclaimed. "This is a fondant (that warm cake with the soft center)!" We discussed the recipe for a while, and it was determined that it was the proportion of butter that made it so good. Who knew that French people liked to skimp on butter? But of course it is all-American to go nuts with the butter...

In any case, you can't have a site about Maida Heatter's American desserts without this recipe. I read somewhere that American chocolate dessert recipes didn't go into the super-chocolatey realm until Maida Heatter's books came along. With that inspiration in mind, the recipe I present you is even more chocolate than the original, thanks to some additional cocoa and chocolate chips or pieces.

Here's the recipe. Make your friends happy.

Amped-up All-American Brownies

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate (100% chocolate), chopped
1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter
1 heaping tablespoon (0.5 oz.) unsweetened cocoa powder
Large pinch salt
1 t. vanilla
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c. (2 oz.) flour
1/2 c. (2 oz.) coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 c. (3 oz.) chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350. Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment or foil; if you're using foil, butter or grease it. In a medium microwave-safe bowl (a 4-cup measure is perfect) put the chocolate, butter, cocoa, and salt. Microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring well after each, until the chocolate and butter are melted (you can also melt this together in a small heavy saucepan over low heat). Stir in the vanilla, then the sugar, then the eggs (one at a time, stirring well after each), then the flour, and finally the nuts and chocolate. Pour into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until just barely set--I find these are best when they're still a bit gooey. Cool in the pan and cut into squares: it's probably easiest to cut them if they've been chilled or even frozen, but I think these taste best room temperature or even slightly warm. It's your call. Enjoy the brownies--and the praise.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kansas Cookies

It's January. The days are short and often gray, but I don't have classes to teach for a few weeks. Normally that would be a good thing (time to read! bake! go to Paris!), but I end up frittering away my time on the Web and/or working on what I'll be teaching next semester. 

Good thing I made a baking date for myself this week, giving me permission to spend time puttering around the kitchen. And this recipe is a splendid way to putter around.

 It seems like many or most of Maida's "other" cookies, at least towards the end, are the project kind. Last week I had the stack of eight layers, and this week I had the roll, fill, and cut recipe.

 It's an interesting recipe, one which, like so many of these recipes, I was skeptical of. Cinnamon-molasses dough around a lemon-coconut curd? Lots of flavors going on.

 But as with most of these recipes, I'm glad I soldiered on and tried it. There's a reason this recipe won a prize at the Kansas State Fair--they have a great moist, chewy texture, and the lemon flavor really takes over and shines. I don't think I've ever had a cookie quite like this one, and that's really kind of a shame.

They're not the prettiest cookies ever, but they're fun to make and delicious to eat. Here's the recipe with some process photos to make it easier to understand.

Kansas Cookies

1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter, room temperature
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon (I used a bit less)
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar (I went down to 6.5 oz. and these were still quite sweet. 6 oz. is probably plenty)
1 large egg
1/4 c. (2.8 oz.) light molasses
2-1/4 c. (9 oz.) flour (I used about 3 oz. whole wheat)

Cream the butter with the baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add the sugar and beat a minute or two longer. Add the egg, beat until well incorporated, and then the molasses. Finally, stir in the flour. You'll end up with a sticky dough as you'll see in the unattractive picture near the top of the page. Scoop the dough out onto a long piece of waxed or parchment paper and form into a log about one foot long. Wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight, or if you're impatient like me, freeze for about 15 minutes and then refrigerate for at least an hour. While the dough is chilling, make the lemon curd:

2 large eggs
1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) sugar
1/4 t. salt
Grated rind of 2 (organic) lemons
1/4 c. (2 oz.) lemon juice
1 c. (3.5 oz.) coconut--I used the very fine unsweetened stuff that seems to be standard here

In a small, heavy pot, whisk the eggs until well mixed. Gradually beat in the sugar and then the salt, lemon rind, and lemon juice. Put the coconut in a medium bowl and put a fine sieve over that bowl.
Place the pot with the lemon mixture over very low heat and cook, whisking and scraping the bottom and sides almost constantly, until the mixture thickens "to the consistency of a soft mayonnaise". This will take 5-10 minutes. Note: Before cooking, my mixture looked nasty and curdled, but it smoothed out nicely while cooking.
When the curd is cooked, pour it into the strainer above the coconut and use a rubber spatula to force most of the curd through, leaving behind any congealed egg and lemon rind (Maida doesn't include this step, but I like to strain my custards). Mix the curd well with the coconut--this will be a thick mixture--and set aside to cool and even chill. You can use this mixture room temperature or cold.
OK, now it's time to shape the cookies. Preheat the oven to 350. Have ready a floured surface, rolling pin, ruler, and probably a bench scraper. You'll also want some cookie sheets--Maida says unbuttered, but I used silicone liners.
Cut the log into four equal pieces (you could use the ruler to measure out 3-inch lengths). Take one for right now and put the rest back into the refrigerator.

 On your well-floured surface, roll the dough out into a 15-inch snake. It'll be pretty thin, as you see.

Carefully roll out the dough to make it wider (3 inches wide) but no longer. Use your bench scraper to make sure the dough isn't sticking to the surface.

Divide the lemon mixture into quarters. Use a small spoon to distribute a narrow strip of filling down the middle of the dough. (By the way, this is a lot like making the Apricot Strip.) Fold each side of the dough over the filling. It may meet, it may barely meet, it may even overlap a bit. It's all good.

 Now use your ruler to measure out 1-1/2-inch lengths of the dough. If you measured correctly, you should get 10 cookies per log of dough.

Place the cookies on your cookie sheets: Maida says 1-1/2 inches apart, but these don't spread much, so you can crowd them a bit more if you like. I baked 3 sheets for the 40 cookies.

Bake the cookies, two sheets at a time, for 15 minutes (check after 10). They'll be a bit darker around the edges, and any gaps on top will have filled in. The dough may crack on top if there isn't a gap.
When the cookies are baked, transfer to a rack to cool. They are at their best when they're warm (not hot) or at room temperature. They seem to keep well--we're on day 2 and they're still delicious. We'll see how many we have left over by tomorrow.