Monday, September 28, 2009

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat

Or "you win some you lose some." I'm still trying to catch up to Maria. If people have been following Maria's blog posts, you would know that I still need to make the Chocolate Festival Cake, the Gingerbread Muffins, and the Tea Cakes. I did make two out of the three -- the Chocolate Festival Cake and the Gingerbread Muffins. And if you were following Maria's blog posts, you would think to yourself: "Well, we know that the victory was the muffins and the defeat was the cake." Well, you would be wrong.
I DID make the cake on Thursday night/Friday morning. What an undertaking that was. I got home on Thursday night around 7:45 and immediately jumped into the kitchen to make the cake. This was not an easy cake to throw together, because it had lots of ingredients, and all of the ingredients were BIG. You had to melt chocolate, smash bananas, do lots of sifting (for some reason, Maida didn't want the cocoa sifted in with the flour etc. -- why???) My large KitchenAid bowl could hardly take the huge amount of batter. And I was never able to find a tube pan, so I baked this cake in an Angel Food Cake pan. Once I got the cake into the oven (probably around 8:30), I made a truly late dinner. And although I really wanted to just go to bed, the cake baked for an hour. Then you had to cover it and bake it another 25 minutes. I believe, based on a chat I had with Maria, that Maria and Claire left out this step, which is why her cake had a tunnel in it. And then you had to let it cool for some huge amount of time before unmolding it onto the rack. But I can tell you that when I did unmold it onto the rack, it looked pretty special. And pretty impressive. I would show you with a picture, but I was too tired to find the camera, so I didn't take one. I figured I would take one in the morning.
But I didn't. When I got up in the morning, I realized that in addition to needing to make frosting for the cake (and frost the cake), I also needed to get everything ready for the time period between 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning (when I left for work) and around 1:00 p.m. on Saturday (when I would be done with my golf lesson), because I would not be returning home during that time period. That involved a great deal of mental fortitude and concentration. I threw the chocolate in the top of the "double boiler" -- and realized that I was one block shy of the amount of unsweetened chocolate I needed. Oh well -- I had more than enough milk chocolate. While that melted, I realized that I probably didn't have enough peanut butter either. I didn't have time to care. I just threw all the ingredients together (well, I didn't throw them together -- I did it as instructed) and hoped for the best.
After the first mixing, the best wasn't looking so good. The frosting looked quite nasty in fact. But Maida said that it would get better when it cooled, so I stuck the bowl in the fridge while I finished getting ready for work.
When I got back to the frosting, and beat it again, it did look a little better, but still pretty thin for swirly thick frosting. I made do. Using my super-helpful cake decorating turntable and new icing spatula, I was able to frost the cake in about 2 minutes, including swirls. I only used about 2/3 of the frosting because it was pretty thin and I think if I had used more, it would have fallen off in gloppy lumps. I put the cake into my new grab-n-go cake thingy (I'm also very enamored of this item) and set off to work.
I forgot that the fridge at work doesn't work. Oh well. The cake got to sit at room temperature -- which in my office is about refrigerator temperature -- at least during the summer. The cake got to go all over San Diego last Friday, but finally came to rest at Paradise Point Resort, where Maddy's birthday festivities were being held. And it finally got to go into a refrigerator.
The girls (and one boy) played in the pool for a bit and then came back to the rooms to get dressed for dinner. For some reason, although they knew we had 7:00 p.m. dinner reservations, they were all ready at 6:00 p.m. So I suggested that we have cake BEFORE dinner. That suggestion was met by enthusiasm from all except Katie, who had apparently eaten a chocolate lava cake only an hour or so before. So I stuck the candles in the cake, we sang Happy Birthday, and I cut nice small slices of the cake for everybody. Forgetting to take a picture before. Darn it.
Everybody loved the cake. Katie mentioned that it was a bit dry. It was a little bit dry, but not like the Chocolate Layer Cake. I think that some of the girls came over and sliced off some other pieces of the cake while we were waiting to go to dinner. I thought the cake was quite tasty. I especially loved the frosting, and was glad that I didn't use all of it. I liked the banana-chocolate taste of the cake. It is a very dark chocolate cake, so the milk chocolatey nature of the frosting was a nice counterpoint. I couldn't taste the PB in the cake at all.
And even though we all ate waaaay too much for dinner, the cake continued to disappear during the night -- little slice by little slice. This continued the next morning. I was only able to take one picture of the cake -- and it was pretty done by that time. I have to admit there is a little cake left, but this is a HUGE cake, and there are probably only about 3 pieces left (Maida said that it serves about 20-25 people).
My goal was to make both the gingerbread muffins and the tea cakes by the end of the weekend. But with Maddy's birthday celebration continuing on Saturday morning (with some unexpected shopping thrown in), the golf lesson, and just general Saturday afternoon puttering around, I never got around to doing any baking on Saturday. Sunday morning came and almost went without baking either -- early morning hike followed by taking Maddy to Zoo Corps - and our plan was to go to Adams Avenue Street Fair for a bit. But between the driving and the Street Fair, I managed to squeak in the muffin baking.
Now Maida said that these were to be baked in regular cupcake tins. I don't have those. What I do have are some silicone muffin pans that bake 6 per pan. I used those. The batter was incredibly thin -- I kept wondering if this was because I didn't measure the oil and molasses. And while the recipe said that it makes 16 muffins (and I had buttered and carefully crumbed 16 muffin cups), when I poured the muffin molds 2/3 full, there were only 11.
I put them in the oven and ran off to get ready for the Street Fair. I followed Maida's instructions and pulled the pans out and reversed them halfway. They looked and smelled pretty delicious at that 10 minute interval. I left again to finish getting ready.
I heard the timer go off. And then I heard Pete yell "Are they supposed to have giant dents in the top?" Hmmm. I'm kind of doubting that. So I went to investigate. And found just this horrible looking sunken muffin -- the top of the muffin was practically hitting the bottom of the pan. Nothing could be uglier. I was so disappointed. I rarely have abject failures like this. It took me back to my High School "Single Experience" class -- the only high school class in which I ever received less than an A -- and my burnt, paper thin biscuits. I had failed to make Gingerbread Muffins -- a recipe which Maida declared to be very easy.
Well, we went off to the Street Fair for a bit, then to lunch. And when we got home, I asked Natalie if she would make the Gingerbread Muffins. I figured that it didn't hurt to make them twice. So Natalie made the muffins. I suggested to her that she actually measure the oil and molasses, which she did. And I suggested that she only fill the muffin molds 1/2 way. And that she not open and close the oven halfway through the baking.
Following my instructions, the muffins came out quite perfectly. Natalie and I were analyzing why mine came out so badly. I was telling her that baking really is all about chemistry and physics, and that I suspect the failure of my muffins had a lot to do with my failure to measure some of the key ingredients, and that there was too much batter in each mold to support the thin muffin mixture, so that I possibly under or over-baked the muffins. She asked "Did you put in the baking powder?" I said that I did not put in baking powder because the recipe didn't call for it -- it called for baking soda. A quick check of the recipe revealed that I was correct -- but Natalie used baking powder. I don't know if that made a difference, but something sure did.
And truth be told, I was very disappointed with these muffins. I love gingerbread -- it is honestly one of my favorite desserts. These had an off taste that I didn't like. And the texture was kind of weird (especially in my horrible muffins). They were light, which is a change for muffins. But I would not make them again. Or, I would not have Natalie make them again.
Is that cheating, having Natalie make the recipe?
Now I just need to get those Tea Cakes done. . . . And then we have another group of recipes to start on. I gave them to Maria. I'm sure she's already made something . . .

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tea Cakes/Snickerdoodles

(left: snickerdoodle; right: tea cake)
I actually made the tea cakes a couple of weeks ago, hoping Claire and I could bring them on the plane to DC. I've noticed that a lot of food bloggers have it together enough to make food to bring on the plane. I actually had something put together this go-round (tomatoes, mozzarella, and black-eyed peas: Southern-fried caprese), but the Tupperware would make my backpack too bulky to fit anywhere. So airport food it was. Never a good thing.
So why didn't we bring cookies? Well, ahem, they were gone before we left. Not all of them, actually, because I had made the tea cakes dough as a slice-and-bake roll and just baked off a dozen. Then I had to taste one fresh from the oven, and Claire and Sami had to, too. Quality control is something we do as a family. Then, for the sake of comparison, we needed to taste them at room temperature. Then somehow when it was time to leave for the airport the next morning, there were two cookies, which somehow got eaten in the car. Oh, well.
Did I mention we liked these cookies? They definitely exceeded my expectations. First of all, Maida begins the recipe with a cringe-worthy story of the poor hapless domestic servant whom she taught to cook using a recipe for tea cakes like the servant's grandmother used to bake. Something like that. And then she goes on to explain how wonderfully plain these tea cakes are. That set off alarm bells for me, having experienced the "wonderfully bland" Top Secret sauce. Also these cookies are rolled and cut out, which is something I really do not enjoy. The dough also requires overnight chilling, which to me means sticky dough to roll out and cut, which I doubly do not enjoy. So since I get to make modifications, I went for it. I added about 1/4 t. each of salt and vanilla to the dough to add some taste interest. Maybe it was 1/2 t. vanilla. I also subbed in a cup of white whole wheat flour because it makes me feel better about myself. And I made a giant roll of dough (this makes a *lot* of dough) to be sliced and baked after chilling. I still have about half a roll in my freezer waiting for a time I might want cookies.
What we liked about the cookies was the buttery flavor and the cakey texture. The latter was a pleasant suprise. They're almost like madeleines in texture. I could see these served with a nice cup of linden tea. But I can also see Jem and Scout enjoying them on the front porch with tall, cold glasses of sweet tea.
The second time I baked a dozen of these, I'd just seen a post on snickerdoodles and how they might be used to bribe labor/delivery nurses (apparently an excellent tactic). It occurred to me that the tea cake dough would make a fabulous snickerdoodle, and it did: I just rolled some of the dough into balls, rolled them in cinnamon sugar, and flattened them with the bottom of a glass. Comparing the snickerdoodle with the plain tea cake required much concentrated taste testing, but I believe the snickerdoodle edged out for me. Claire liked the plain version. Sami would like another taste.

Here's the recipe I made. Be warned: these spread. If you don't like spreading, bake these 9 to a cookie sheet.

Tea Cakes

2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, softened (I bet the fancy cultured kind would be extra good here)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. vanilla
3 c. (19 oz.) sugar
3 large eggs
5-1/4 c. (21 0z.) sifted flour
1 c. cream

Beat together the butter, baking soda, salt, and vanilla until it's soft. Then gradually add the sugar and beat for 1-2 minutes. Scrape the bowl, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Now add 1-1/4 c. flour (whole wheat if you feel like it) and beat on low just until incorporated. Then add 1/4 c. cream, followed by 1 cup of flour, and so on until all the flour and all the cream is gone. You'll have a pretty soft, sticky dough on your hands. Get out two long pieces of waxed paper and put half of the dough on each. Shape them into the nicest cylinders you can (for the record, my cylinders all end up rectangular, but whatever) and put them in the freezer. Let them chill overnight. I actually sliced my first batch after just a couple of hours, and while they came out fine, it was a sticky mess cutting them. Just be patient.
Heat the oven to 400. Slice the cookies with a long, sharp knife into 1/4-inch slices and put them far apart from each other (2 inches apart, Maida says) on a foil- or parchment-lined cookie sheet. For the snickerdoodle version, mix up some cinnamon sugar--maybe 2 T. sugar and 1 t. cinnamon. Then take your cookie slices and roll them into balls. Roll the balls in the cinnamon sugar, put them on the cookie sheet, and flatten them out with the bottom of a glass. In either case, bake them for 13-15 minutes until they are light golden. I like them a little darker golden, myself. Cool on a rack and try to control yourself.
I have no idea how many very large cookies this makes because I've only gotten through 2 dozen and I still have a large amount of dough in the freezer. Maybe 5 dozen? Her 3 dozen must be extremely large cookies!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I've been baking! Really! I have!

I wish I had time to blog about it though. Let's see. It's been so long since I made the coffee cake and the ice cream that I don't remember doing it. And I made the baked apples yesterday. I cheated and made the Honey Ricotta Cream to go with them (I figured it was only 3 recipes in advance of Top Secret, and was the recommended accompaniment to the apples). And tonight I'll be making the Chocolate Festival Cake to bring to Maddy's birthday party at the beach. Hopefully the 17 year olds attending won't have the same reservations as Maria's party goers . . .

So why haven't I written about any of this? Several reasons. 1) I've been really busy at work. I shouldn't be doing this right now, actually. 2) We only have one computer at home. Still waiting for the insurance money from the computer thefts. That computer is in high demand. Blogging does not seem to be the most important use for the computer when there are papers to be written. 3) I'm never home, and when I am, I'm exhausted. Here, for everybody to see, is my typical Tu/Th: Get up at 5:45; put on running clothes; wake up Maddy; pack lunches; wake up Natalie; eat breakfast; clean SOMETHING; wake up Cassandra; throw a load of laundry in; leave at 6:40; drop off Maddy and Natalie at school; drop off Cassandra with Stuart; go try to run (sometimes I'm successful); take a shower; go to work; try to work 8 hours; leave to pick up Cassandra for 6:00 p.m. Karate; then Natalie to 6:30 driver's ed; then back to pick up Cassandra from Karate; then drive home. Usually I don't get home until 7:30. Throw laundry in dryer; make dinner; eat dinner; clean up from dinner; fold and hang up clothes; try to keep my eyes open for a few more minutes; collapse into bed. Argh. And that's just Tu/Th.

I'll quit my whining and write about the goods.

So the Cream Cheese Coffee Cake. Let's see. This was one of those adventures in baking -- how do you make something that has to rise twice when you have way too many commitments. I got up early on Saturday morning and made the dough. I made it in the food processor, which I think was a mistake. My food processor, which I've had since I think Cuisinart was invented, is showing its age in a rather horrible way. Whenever I try to process anything doughy, it emits a burning engine smell and a rather nasty gray liquid leaks out around the bowl. The contents of the bowl become incredibly hot and usually very nasty. So while I was in a giant hurry, I had to deal with this hot mucky mess, get it out of the processor (which wasn't easy) onto some flour (oh yeah -- I had run out of flour and so had to use my only available substitute which was cake flour) and make it look like dough. I threw it into the bowl to rise and Natalie and I left for our golf lesson.
Seems like Natalie and I did something else after the golf lesson, and when I arrived back home over two hours later, the dough had really not risen very much. Now Maida had written that no matter what flour she used, the dough always doubled in volume in 2 hours. Apparently her food processor had never made a hot mucky mess of the dough. I was about to enter despair, but realized that the dough had risen a little bit, so I should just let it sit a little longer. While it sat, I made the filling. And yes, I used raisins.
The dough did rise (although I'm not sure it had doubled in volume when I punched it down). And it was really really fun to roll out. I love rolling stuff out into rectangular shapes. It is an art and a science. You have to pull things one way and roll another way and keep bringing it back into line. When I had it in a perfect rectangle, measuring EXACTLY what it was supposed to measure, I applied the filling. It looked like a lot of filling. Natalie, who hates cream cheese, was very upset about the abundance of filling. I carefully cut the slits at one-inch intervals on the side, and braided the dough. It looked perfect - just like something you would see at a bakery. But I still think there is too much filling.

Now we had about 19 errands to run, and there was NO WAY I could wait for that beautiful coffee cake to rise. So I covered it, shoved it in the refrigerator, and we took off on our multitude of errands. We were volunteering at the MS Walk the next day, and needed to pick up a bunch of stuff to make our water station special. Red vines, hula skirts, leis, rented the giant hula girl/ surfer dude cutout which I had to pick up at 8:30 that night. I thought there was a Brazilian festival in PB, so we drove over there, parked, and walked around looking for it. It was on Sunday. Bummer. Ate lunch (at 3:00). Drove over to SDSU to pick up Blue Books (bookstore was closed.) My errands were not going very well.

Honestly, I don't even remember when I baked the coffee cake. I know that I did, and it was gorgeous. Although the over-abundant filling did leak out. We took half of the cake to feed the volunteers at the water station. Everybody seemed to like it -- well, it was all eaten. Maddy took the other half to school with her. I never heard if it actually was eaten there. It was pretty tasty. But I'm pretty sure I'd never make it again. It did have too much filling in it. Plus, it was a PITA to make.

Now for Spago's Caramel Ice Cream. I don't really like ice cream all that much, but I was excited about making this because I had a brand new ice cream maker to try out. Realizing that I didn't have an ice cream maker anymore, I went onto Amazon to look at the options, and found that KitchenAid makes an ice cream maker for its mixer! And it was inexpensive. So I bought one right away. It's super cool. The bowl looks just like the KitchenAid mixing bowl, but with an outer shell and some kind of coolant in the middle. You lodge it in your freezer so that anytime you want to make ice cream, you can just pull it out and install it on your mixer and make it. There is a dasher just like with a traditional ice cream maker, and the dasher fits onto a little piece where you usually put the beater. It was so awesome.
I wasn't in a very good mood on Sunday -- tired and worn out and emotionally drained. And the ice cream "batter" wasn't helping me. It took FOREVER for the cream/egg yolk/sugar mixture to thicken. I'm talking a good 45 minutes of constant stirring. I was very annoyed. And when it finally did thicken, it looked curdled and yucky. I strained it, Maddy tasted and declared it DE-licious. The caramel was easy to make and turned out perfectly. But when I stirred it into the custard, the custard now looked hideously curdled and yucky. Plus it became an ugly color. But Maddy tasted it and declared it even more delicious. I put it in the fridge to cool, making a mental note to remember to put the vanilla in before I started the ice cream maker (but knowing full well I would forget the vanilla).
A couple hours later, I poured the cold hideous looking custard into the freezer bowl, and, forgetting the vanilla, started mixing it. Man was that cool. KitchenAid just standing there like always -- but this time it was making ICE CREAM. It took about 15 minutes and it was soft-serve consistency. I scooped it out and put it in the freezer to cure.
It was OK. I'm convinced that it didn't taste that good because I forgot the vanilla. I think Maddy and Natalie liked it -- but obviously not that much because there is still about a quart left in the freezer. Sam said it tasted like carrots. But I think Sam was mad because I told her that her doughy creation she had made that day tasted like playdoh with cinnamon in it. Pete said "Can't you still add the vanilla?" which makes me think that he wasn't all that thrilled with it. Since I don't really like ice cream very much, I'm a bad judge. But I would declare this ice cream OK, not great. I would declare my new ice cream maker FANTABULOUS!

And then, almost two weeks later, come the baked apples and honey ricotta cream. Everybody has been asking me when I'm going to bake again. Sharmyn questioned me before leaving on the Trans-Canada Rail Odyssey. Maria e-mailed me to ask if I was sick. Deb was "just wondering" when I was going to bake again. And my girls asked me a lot. I had bought the ingredients a while ago. I just didn't have the time or energy to make them. But I promised my girls, and Deb, that I would make the baked apples Wednesday night. Wednesday night -- Girl Scout night. We get home around 8 most Wednesday nights -- and there is still homework to do. Wednesday nights are bad nights for anything.
With promises from the girls that they would help, we got home and I got the stuff out for the apples, and for dinner. Then Cassandra had to take a shower (in fairness to Cassandra, she did pit the dates and laboriously cut them up before she jumped into the shower.) Natalie had to send out an e-mail about the Girl Scout meeting (nice job Natalie). And Maddy had to read the Food Section of the newspaper (where there was a recipe for baked apples stuffed with dates and pecans, hmmm). So I threw together a pot of spaghetti sauce. Mixed the filling (with the dates cut by Cassandra). Maddy made the crumb mixture for the apples. I peeled and cored the apples. When I was done and ready to assemble the dish, there were only 5 apples sitting on the cutting board. I counted the cores -- there were six. So we went on a hunt for the missing apple. Not in the freezer, or the fridge, or the trash, or any of the drawers, or the microwave, or the dishwasher. We were thorough. But apparently not very observant. For Pete had wandered into the kitchen earlier, saw the nicely peeled and cored apples sitting there, and grabbed one as a pre-dinner snack. I took out a red delicous apple (not a good baking apple), peeled and cored that one, and then assembled the dish.
Because I was also making spaghetti squash, washing dishes, boiling water for spaghetti, trying to get Maddy and Cassandra to work on homework while the waited, etc., I forgot to baste the apples. So when it was all done, the sauce was all stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bummer. It looked like it would have been yummy. I really didn't feel like making the Honey Ricotta Cream either. Most of the reason I didn't want to make it was because of my last food processor experience. I was picturing flaming hot Ricotta Cream with gray oily streaks running through it. But since it was only 3 ingredients, I pulled out the food processor, which worked like a champion on the Honey Ricotta Cream. Which is, I must say, completely tasteless.
The apples were quite tasty. Only Cassandra and I ate them hot because Natalie had gone to bed and I had yelled at Maddy so much about not doing her homework that she was punishing me the only way she knew how -- by not eating my food. And Pete doesn't usually eat any of the desserts. He doesn't like desserts.
Maddy and Natalie took apples to school with them. Maybe they will give them to their teachers. I gave an apple to Deb. She liked it and said the Honey Ricotta Cream, while tasteless, goes very nicely with the apple. And I can tell you, the cat thought the Honey Ricotta Cream was just about the best thing he had ever tasted. I've never seen him beg for anything the way he begged for that.
I'm making that cake tonight -- even if it means I'm up until midnight. And I will catch up. I'll make the muffins and cookies this weekend. And I WON't give Maria the next recipes, so she can't get too far ahead of me. I'm utilizing the only power I have.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vermont Baked Apples/Gingerbread Muffins/Top Secret: A Maida Heatter trifecta!

I feel somewhat guilty about this because Alicia must be seriously out of commission not to keep up with the baking. But I made three recipes yesterday and we had them for breakfast! And they were mostly yummy. I love it when we do easy and easily eaten recipes!
The three recipes were Vermont Baked Apples, Gingerbread Muffins, and Top Secret (made into Honey Ricotta Cream). Why did I decide to do them together? It was basically Maida's suggestion. She said that the apples would be good with the cream and that the muffins could be passed with baked apples. Thus was born what Sami called a "spectacular breakfast."
As I may have mentioned before, Saturday morning is Fancy Breakfast time. It's not Saturday unless Scott Simon is on the radio and I'm in the kitchen whipping up something sweet. Sometimes it's pancakes or French toast, sometimes it's a ridiculously complicated (for 7 in the morning) coffee cake, and sometimes it's muffins or scones. So this trio of recipes was a natural. I got up at about 7 and we ate at 9, which was good considering that I had to go to the store for a few things. Claire helped me with the apples, which hurried things a bit.
I didn't make a lot of changes to the recipes. I halved the apple recipe since I had just 3 Ginger Gold apples in the fridge (and figured one per person would be plenty) and used a combo of dates, raisins, and golden cherries since I could find only one large date in the fridge. I found a couple more today. Oops. For the muffins I used half white wheat flour and also 6 T melted butter and 2 T. grapeseed oil. What can I say--I love butter! The Top Secret was pretty much as written.
The verdict: The muffins were my favorite. They're super light and have a great gingerbread flavor. I guess that's because there's only 1 cup of flour to 1-1/2 cups liquid. It's a very liquidy batter indeed--you pour it into the muffin cups instead of scooping. The apples were Claire's favorite. They might have stayed in the oven just 5 minutes longer because they were a bit crisp still, but the flavor from the lemon peel and nuts and spices was fabulous. The Top Secret--meh. I know this is probably an attempt to replicate what the French call fromage blanc and the Germans call quark, and I've actually used it successfully in French and German recipes, but on its own, I find it too cheesy and salty. When you make this, try to find a low-sodium cottage cheese, if such an animal exists. And maybe up the honey and add some grated lemon peel. (Update: Jessica at cookbookhabit explains that cottage cheese varies by region. Maybe that's my problem...)
So here's what I made, in the order I made it. Have at it!

Vermont Baked Apples

About 3 dates, cut into small pieces with scissors. For heaven's sake, don't use the pre-chopped ones!
2 T. honey
2 T. chopped pecans (those TJ's pecans, again, are perfect here)
Grated rind of half a lemon (organic if you can get it)
2 T. graham cracker crumbs (I used a small handful of graham bunnies. This would probably be a half-square of a graham cracker.)
1/2 t. cinnamon
Generous pinch nutmeg
Generous pinch ginger
6 large baking apples (Maida says Rome Beauty, I used Ginger Gold. Just don't use Gala, Fuji, or Red Delicious)
2 T. (1 oz.) melted unsalted butter
1/3 c. maple syrup
2-1/2 T. boiling water

Heat the oven to 400; get out a shallow baking dish that will fit the apples fairly snugly. In a small bowl, mix together the dates, nuts, honey, and lemon rind. It will make a sticky mass--they honey should glue together the nuts and fruit. In another small bowl, mix the graham cracker crumbs with the spices. In yet another small bowl (make these dishwasher safe bowls!!), melt the butter in the microwave on high. Now comes the hard part. Peel the apples about one third the way down. If you have an apple corer, no problem. Core the apples, but not all the way through, and then maybe use a spoon to scoop out a bigger hole. If you don't have a corer, use a paring knife to cut out the top of the core, and then use a spoon to scoop the rest out. Then take each apple and either bathe or brush them in butter and then roll them in crumbs. Then fill each one with the sticky fruit and nuts. When they're all buttered and crumbed and filled, put them in the baking dish. You'll probably have leftover crumbs and butter. Sprinkle the crumbs over the apples and pour over the butter. Then mix together the maple syrup and the water and pour that around the apples. Put that in the oven for about 30 minutes. If you think about it, baste the apples with the maple syrup when you put the muffins in the oven. I only thought about it once and it was fine. The apples should be barely tender when they're done. Maida says they're good cold and at room temperature, but they're quite good hot as well.
Now that your apples are in the oven, you can make your

Gingerbread Muffins

1 c. (4 oz.) sifted flour (can be half whole wheat)
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. finely ground (really finely!) black pepper
1 t. ginger
1/2 t. cloves
1/t t. cinnamon
1/4 t. dry mustard (!)
1 egg and 1 egg yolk (I used one small and one large egg)
Scant 1/2 c. (3.3 oz.) sugar
1/2 c. (6.5 oz.) molasses (I used cane syrup, a fine Southern product)
1/2 c. tasteless oil (or melted butter, or a combination)
1 T. instant coffee dissolved in 1/2 c. boiling water (or 1/2 c. hot coffee, if you have some to spare)

Your oven is already heated to 400, so you're good there. Spray or line with papers about 10 muffin cups. I only got 8 from this recipe and Maida says 16, but I have a silicone muffin pan with very large cups. There must be an innuendo there somewhere...Anyway, sift together the flour and all the spices and set that aside. Then get out a bowl with a pouring spout and whisk together your egg and egg yolk (Maida wants you to use your electric mixer here, but it's really not necessary.). Whisk in the sugar, molasses, and oil. Then mix in the flour mixture, and finally the coffee. Pour the mixture into your prepared muffin cups, put the muffin pans in the oven and bake about 18 minutes or until the muffins spring back when gently touched. I found that these do a volcanic eruption halfway through baking (that's when I took the apples out), which is very entertaining. I guess that's the baking soda and coffee interacting. Anyway, when they're done, let them cool on a rack a bit while you get the Top Secret ready, should you choose to...

Top Secret with Honey

1 c. cottage cheese (4%; low sodium if you've got it)
2 T. plain yogurt
about 2 T. honey
Possible add-ins: about 1/2 t. vanilla extract; the other half of the lemon rind, grated

OK, this is easy. Put the cottage cheese in your food processor and turn it on. Leave it on for a full minute. That's longer than you might think! It will be really smooth and creamy. Then add the yogurt and honey and process a bit. Taste and see what you think. Maybe it needs more honey or one of the add-ins I mentioned, or maybe it's perfect as is. Serve that alongside the baked apples and the muffins. Maida says it's also good with berries, but since it's past berry season, I haven't tried that yet. I'm going to have to figure out what to do with it, in any case, since it wasn't as popular as Maida had predicted.

But anyway--this is a highly recommended breakfast. You've pretty much got all the food groups, and it's not *that* much work. And it makes Saturday special.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chocolate Festival/Overkill Cake

Baking a lot is really not a problem for me--the bigger problems are the movement of the baked goods out of the house, getting photos taken before the goods have become (even more) unattractive, and especially finding time to blog about them! I made the Chocolate Festival Cake on Sunday, and here it is Friday, with half of it sitting untouched on the counter waiting for the trash can, I'm afraid.
I was very excited to make the Chocolate Festival Cake because it was a big All-American kind of cake, "as American as a Hershey bar," and Sami and I had been invited to a big All-American potluck. Well, actually, it was a party for arts faculty, which means our kind of people, which means not necessarily All-American. But I digress.
I made this cake rather in a rush, I admit. I had a big church meeting in the morning, for which I was responsible for making chili and for which I also made a sour cream coffee cake (yum!). So that was already three things going on in the kitchen between when we arrived back from the airport at 7:30 Saturday evening and when I needed to leave for church at 9:25. Somewhat tight, yes. Thanks to a helpful husband and a Crock-Pot, no problem with the chili. The coffee cake is not that difficult and made it into the oven by 7 or so. But with all the getting ready to go and packing up chili so that it wouldn't spill all over my trunk, the chocolate cake had just made it in the oven when I left. Claire was responsible for testing it and taking it out of the oven, which she did, but I neglected to tell her to unmold the cake after a certain amount of time. So I returned at 2 to a cake that had a hollow tunnel on the top. No problem, it would be inverted and frosted anyway. But I was a bit dismayed at how the cake fell apart upon unmolding--more of a tunnel.
No problem--frosting time. This was basically a peanut butter ganache. That was the best part of this cake. Two great tastes that taste great together, indeed!
I was hoping this would get devoured at the potluck, but there were at least 15 desserts and a lot of other delicious food, so my chances weren't so good. So I did my best to "sell" the cake. I got lots of takers, but no-one said anything to me. That should have told me something. I just know that the next day they were telling each other, "Bless her heart (you always preface a negative comment in the South with this), she just made a really nasty cake." And when I finally sat down at home the next day to have a slice, I couldn't help but agree.
So what went wrong? I see I've made this cake before, for "Alicia's shower (wedding? baby?). A bit much," were my cryptic comments. And I think that's part of the problem. Peanut butter and chocolate, yummy. Peanut butter and banana, also classic. Chocolate and banana, OK. Chocolate, banana, and peanut butter? Maybe too much. Also too much going on for a good cake texture, I believe.
I think salt was also an issue. Now you can see from my last post that I have no fear of salt in desserts, but this was too much. But this recipe called for a full teaspoon of salt as well as a cup of peanut butter, which in the processed form I used was also quite salty. So there was a preponderance of salty flavor going on here. If you make this cake (and I guess you have to, Alicia!), consider either using a natural peanut butter without added salt or just dialing the salt way back. I think that the cake was probably also underbaked. Claire says that the toothpick was clean, but this big behemoth of a cake was just probably too much for one tiny toothpick. But really, I think this is maybe just too much for one cake. I'm looking forward to reading your take on this.
Here's the recipe I made, if you're curious. But really, if you want to make an over-the-top chocolate/peanut butter extravaganza, this will probably fill the bill more deliciously.

Chocolate Festival Cake

4 oz. semisweet chocolate (I used a bar of Ghiradelli 60%)
3 cups (12 oz.) sifted flour
1 c. (3 oz.) Dutch-process cocoa
1 T. baking powder
2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt (but really, be careful here)
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp.
1 c. (9.25 oz.) peanut butter (recommend natural, unsalted rather than Jif)
1 T. vanilla
2 c. (14 oz.) brown sugar
1 c. (8 oz., about 2) ripe mashed bananas
6 large eggs
1-1/4 c. milk

Heat the oven to 350; spray a tube pan or angel food cake pan with Pam. This batter is probably too fragile for a Bundt pan. Line the bottom with parchment (Trace a circle of the outside and cut, fold the circle in half, and cut a small x in the middle of the circle. Should fit right in there.) and spray again. Break the chocolate into pieces, put it into a small microwave-safe bowl, and melt it on high for a minute, stopping to stir after 30 seconds. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set that aside. Now cream the butter, then add the peanut butter and vanilla, then the sugar, and give it a good long beating until it's smooth--I would say at least 2 minutes. Then add the chocolate, and then the bananas, and then the eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition. Add the flour in 3 batches alternating with the milk in 2 batches. There's so much batter at this point that it splattered all over the place and I did the last few additions by hand. Now put the batter into the pan, tap or rotate it to smooth it out, and put it in the oven. Check the cake after an hour with a really long skewer. The cake might need another 10-15 minutes for a total of 1 hour 15 minutes. But check from time to time. Maida suggests covering the cake with foil after an hour to keep it from getting burned. I didn't have that problem. When the cake is really done, let it cool on a rack for 20 minutes (not 5 hours) and then unmold it. Let it cool completely and then frost it with the following:

10 oz. milk chocolate (Trader Joe's Pound Plus, oh yeah)
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/3 c. (5 T.) butter
1 c. (9 oz.) peanut butter
(Maida calls for an egg, but I can't see why I would want to put a raw egg in a ganache. I'm curious about that as well, Alicia)

Get out a big microwave-safe bowl and break up the chocolate into it. You'll probably need to chop the unsweetened chocolate with a knife if it's the Baker's kind. Put the butter in there as well. Then microwave on High for 30 seconds, stir and microwave for another 30 seconds. After much stirring, I had to give mine another 10 seconds. Then add the peanut butter and beat it with an electric mixer until it's really smooth. Put the ganache in the freezer for a bit while you enjoy licking the beaters. Then when you're already half an hour for the party, get the frosting out of the freezer and ask your husband to frost the cake. Maida recommends making peaks and swirls, but he went for the smooth look, which was good because the frosting was still a bit on the runny side.
It says this serves 24, which may be true. All I know is that I don't even want to look at it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Finally: A moment of peace

I will never catch up. Between Maria's frantic baking to: 1) escape the silence of a house temporarily without Julia; and 2) to "get ahead" while she went to Washington D.C., and my apparent inability to do any baking due to: 1) college visits; and 2) an inordinate number of errands, I have fallen tragically behind. I also like long sentences. I don't even know if that last sentence is gramatically or puncuationally (is that a word) correct.

I made the Chocolate Chewy Cookies. I made them last Sunday, in the brief moment I had between doing errands and picking up Natalie and Rachel from the water park. I even brought extremely fresh cookies with me to the water park pickup so Natalie and Rachel could eat them on the way home. They both declared them delicious.

Unlike my furiously baking sister, I love meringues in every incarnation except when they are crunchy all the way through. I especially like meringues which are hard and crunch on the outside and nice and chewy and soft and melty in the middle. That is exactly what these cookies are.

I didn't make any changes to the recipe -- and I did use the TJ's pecans recommended so highly by Maria. If I had not used those pecans, I do not believe my time on Sunday would have allowed me to make these cookies, because using pre-chopped pecans cut at least 10 minutes off my cooking time. I was a little upset with Maida because she says "I find these are best when baked one sheet at a time." Hmmph. That meant 30 minutes of baking rather than 15. Also, I measured by tablespoon-full as she said, but I came out with 18 cookies rather than 12. And my cookies were very puffy and lumpy and unattractive looking, whereas the line drawing which accompanied the recipe showed flattish attractive looking cookies. Thus the beauty of line drawings. . . Maybe the next recipe which comes out unattractive looking will be adorned by my own line drawing.

I did like these cookies very much. Even though I made them on Sunday, they still are quite tasty, sealed in a Ziploc bag. I have eaten almost one a day since Sunday, and the girls have taken them for lunch.

We're coming up on the weekend. What with golf lessons, soccer games, and volunteering for the MS Challenge Walk, I think I will need to get up at 4:00 a.m. to make that coffee cake. But I intend to catch up to that sister of mine! I already have the ice cream maker chilling in the freezer . . .

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mmmmwwaaahhhhchchhhhh....caramel ice cream

OK, I don't know how to spell this. This is the sound Homer Simpson makes when he thinks of pancakes and donuts and sacred waffles ("I know I should not eat Thee...mmmmm....sacrilicious"). And that's the sound I make when I eat this caramel ice cream. It's enough to turn me into a drooling pile of hopeless gluttony.
Homemade ice cream is one of those things that I rarely do and then wonder why I rarely do it. It's so easy and fun, and the payoff is usually much greater than the effort put into it. I guess one reason I don't do it so often is that I would then eat it, and even Häagen-Däzs doesn't put as much butterfat into their ice cream as this recipe does. Also it involves thinking ahead. Because I have a Donvier, I have to remember to put the canister in the freezer the day before. And then the custard also needs to chill ahead of time. But still...not that hard.
I had to smile when I read the title of this recipe: Spago's Sensational Caramel Ice Cream. Does anything say 80s food more than Spago? (Well, The Silver Palate. RIP Shiela Lukins.) It's such a cliché now, but Spago was hot stuff back in 1985, and Nancy Silverton, who developed this recipe, is still a force in the dessert world. Deservedly so, I would say!
David Lebovitz, the ice cream god, has a recipe for caramelized white chocolate ice cream in which he suggests that you sprinkle smoked salt on top. When I served this last night to our French guest, I was afraid of scarring her for life, so I didn't try it. I'm going to as soon as I finish posting here. (20 minutes later: OMG, that is the Right Thing To Do. Just a tiny pinch--but the crunch and the hit of salt with the rich caramel...mmmwhaahhcchh...) I believe salt and caramel go together. That's why I highly recommend you add a good pinch of salt to this recipe, even though Maida leaves it out. It cuts the sweetness and balances the flavor, I think. I also used half a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract. I had one, and I'm running out of vanilla and can't decide whether or not to order more from Penzey's. All this baking takes a toll on the baking supplies. Good thing I'll be able to stock up at Trader Joe's in DC! (Yes, that's on my tourism list: Lincoln Memorial, National Gallery, Smithsonian, Trader Joe's. I have my priorities...)
So here's the recipe I made. I cut Maida's recipe down by a third because my Donvier only does a quart of ice cream. That's probably a good thing..

Spago's Sensational Caramel Ice Cream
Should serve about 4 people with a certain amount of self-restraint.

1-1/3 c. milk
1-1/3 c. cream
half a vanilla bean, scraped
pinch salt
5 egg yolks
scant 1/2 c. (3 oz.) sugar

Put the milk, cream, vanilla bean (and scrapings), and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and scald over medium heat. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and sugar with an electric mixer (I think a handheld one is best here) for 2 minutes--until they're very pale and thick. Take the vanilla bean out of the milk (rinse and dry it and grind it with your coffee beans--yum!) and gradually add the milk to the egg yolks, mixing at low speed. The mixture will be pretty frothy. Then pour the whole thing back into the saucepan and heat it carefully at medium heat, stirring and scraping with a silicon "rubber scraper" until the mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon or registers 168-170 on a thermometer. I just waited until I could see a good bit of steam. Remove from the heat and strain into a large bowl. Now, get the caramel ready:

Scant 1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) cream
2/3 c. sugar

Put the cream in a glass measuring cup and microwave on high for about 45 seconds, until really hot. In the meantime, in a small pot or frying pan, heat and stir the sugar over medium heat until it's melted, then continue to heat and stir until it's caramelized. This happens pretty suddenly, so keep your eye on it. Take the caramel off the heat, then VERY CAREFULLY and from as much distance as possible, pour in the cream and stir. It will bubble ferociously, but keep trying to stir. A long-handled spoon is a good thing here. If you still have unmelted caramel after the bubbles have subsided, you can put it back on the heat for a bit until it's all smooth, but I didn't have that problem. Now mix the caramel gradually into the custard and then cover and chill it. At the same time, consider freezing your ice cream canister, if you need to. Then, probably the next day, freeze the ice cream however you're supposed to, scoop it out, and serve in smallish portions. And prepare to become a puddle of drooling gluttony. But in a good way.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Don't judge a cake . . .

. . . by its ingredients. by its appearance. by its description by your little sister.

The Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake. Since we picked Maida's All American Desserts book, I have been dreading making this cake. I actually like cabbage. I like it raw, I like it in coleslaw, I love it sauteed in olive oil with salt and pepper. Not a huge fan of Sauerkraut, but I will eat it. The thought of putting it into a cake is pretty repulsive, actually. Much more so than the thought of putting something like beets in a cake. Heck -- carrot cake and zucchini bread are delicious. But this is like making a pickle pie or something truly hideous like that.

Maria made this weeks ago. Her post about it was not inspiring. Although she described the cake as edible, there were other points in the post that made it sound like it was only vaguely so. Maybe I was just reading between the lines with my Sauerkraut Cake prejudice firmly in place.

But Saturday was the day to make that cake. I put it off on Saturday. Lots of excuses. It's too hot to bake. I don't have time (ha! I had tons of time.) I don't feel like getting the pans out of the shed (remember -- small kitchen. All my baking supplies are kept outside in a shed). It's too late (hmm -- going to bed at 8:00 p.m. to avoid making a cake).

Alright. Sunday was the day to make the cake. I opened that can of sauerkraut, and soon the entire house smelled like circus folk -- small hands, smell like cabbage. Natalie was sitting with her shirt over her nose because the smell was so pungent. Cake was easy to throw together after chopping the sauerkraut. Because I didn't feel like getting the food processor out of the shed, I chopped it by hand. I chopped like there was no tomorrow, because I didn't want chunks of cabbage hiding in the cake. Yuck. Other than the chopping, it was just the usual sifting of the dry ingredients, creaming the butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and adding the dry ingredients alternating with coffee. And then stirring in chopped sauerkraut. Yeah that's it -- just like a normal cake . . .
Pretty soon, the house stopped smelling like sauerkraut and smelled nice and chocolatey. That was a big improvement.
When I removed the layers from the oven, I could already tell something about this cake. It was going to be a lot more delicate than you would think. I can tell how delicate a cake is just by eyeing it as it comes out of the oven. I could not describe how I know this, I just do.
Maida warns you that the cake might stick to the rack. This warning I heeded. Despite the warning, and despite my heeding of the warning, one of the layers STILL stuck to the rack. Make that one the bottom layer . . .
Once the layers were nicely cooled, and I threw the milk chocolate/sour cream (2 ingredients!) frosting together, I was ready to assemble the cake. That ugly bottom layer was patched together with frosting and looked fine. The cake looked quite perfect after I had it all put together. Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of it then, because the wax paper strips were still sticking out all of the place.
That cake that stuck to the rack? Well, it turns out it also sticks to wax paper. I should have sprayed the wax paper, because when I tried to pull the strips out from under the cake, big chunks of the bottom layer came out with them. Try as I might to repair the damage, it was a disaster. From a really beautiful cake, it looked more like a 5-year-old's first cake. Very very ugly.
Next step -- the step which Maria left out -- refrigerate the cake. I stuck the ugly Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake in the fridge. Once PVLL had WON THE LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES, we left to celebrate. We told the waitress at Gio's -- "oh, we don't need dessert. We have chocolate cake waiting at home for us."
But when we got home, I really didn't want to have any. Apparently nobody else did either because nobody asked. And so the cake continued to languish in the fridge.
Last night, after dinner, I pulled the cake out of the refrigerator and announced that we were going to eat cake. Natalie's friend Wendy was over, and we didn't tell her the secret. I cut relatively thin slices so we wouldn't have to eat very much.
Oh, let me tell you, this cake is GOOD! It is beyond good. It is fudgy without being the slightest bit dry. Yet despite its fudgy quality, it isn't rich. It was one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever eaten. I would make this again if somebody asked me to make an all chocolate cake for a party. It was a little difficult to cut, and didn't come out in really nice shapely pieces, but that didn't matter. We all scraped our plates clean. Usually big chunks of cake end up in the trash. Not with this cake.
YUM. I have discovered yet another way that I like to eat cabbage. Although not sure that I could substitute eating a slice of this cake for a serving of cruciferous vegetables, I may do that a few times this week. Glad I'm back into the groove of working out.