Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cookie Kisses

Whenever I meet someone here, one of the first questions I get is some version of "How are you coping with this big change in your life?" I never know how to answer that question. Sure, there are a ton of big changes: we live in an apartment, I don't drive, everything takes a lot longer, I need to interact with my environment in French. Sometimes these things make me cranky but mostly I'm fine with it. In a way, I've been training for living in France for a long time: reading about France; observing life here on visits; thinking about, preparing, and eating French food.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with a peanut butter cookie recipe? Well, that's the other side of the coin. I would have to say that my kitchen is my home. No matter where I live, I can pull out a knife and a skillet and make dinner. I can get out a mixer and a pound of butter and make a lot of people happy. And that's what I did with these cookies.

Peanut butter, as I'm sure I've pointed out before, is an (expensive) oddity rather than a staple food here. On the other hand, really good chocolate is more a staple than a luxury. So I dug into the PB stash for these, but didn't give a second thought to the "problem" that there are no Hershey's Kisses in France. To me, that's a plus.

What more perfect Franco-American union than butter and peanut butter? Oh, right--peanut butter and French chocolate.

Some technical notes on these cookies: they are really, really easy to make. The dough comes together in about 10 minutes (including gathering ingredients) and doesn't need to chill.

However, it spreads a lot. I was thinking that these would be closer to thumbprint cookies, but they turned out flat and crispy. A good thing, but if you used Kisses, they might not nestle in the way you might wish. Another good reason to try the ganache option.

Here's the recipe. Make these when you want that warm, home-y feeling.

Cookie Kisses

1-3/4 c. (7 oz.) sifted flour
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
scant 1/2 c. (3.25 oz.) sugar
scant 1/2/ c. (3.25 oz.) brown sugar
1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter, cut into about 8 pieces
1/2 c. (4.5 oz.) smooth (not natural) peanut butter
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla
2 T. (1 oz.) milk
More sugar--about 1/2 cup
48 Hershey Kisses, unwrapped (or use ganache recipe below)

Heat the oven to 375; line a few cookie sheets with parchment or foil. Get out your food processor (metal blade) and put the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, and brown sugar in it. Process for a few seconds to blend. Put in the butter and peanut butter and pulse a few times to distribute the butter. Add the egg, vanilla, and milk and process just until smooth.
Scrape the dough from the processor to a silicone mat or waxed paper or similar surface and roll into a long cylinder. Do your best to cut the dough into 48 even pieces--I used a bench scraper for this purpose. Put the additional sugar in a smallish bowl. Roll the pieces of dough into balls and roll in the sugar. Put the balls on the lined baking sheets, 12 each. Bake for 12-13 minutes or until barely golden. If you're using the Kisses, put them on top of the cookies as soon as they come out of the oven. If not, wait until the cookies have cooled to apply the ganache. Cool and enjoy that home-baked goodness.

Ganache "Kisses"
(Adapted from Rose's Christmas Cookies)

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, broken into small squares
2 oz. butter
4 oz. milk chocolate, broken into small squares

Put the semisweet chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for about a minute, stopping to stir after 30 seconds. Add the milk chocolate and stir well. Microwave for another 30 seconds if necessary, just to melt the milk chocolate. This mixture will be at the perfect consistency as soon as the chocolate is melted. Spoon it into a pastry or Zip-loc bag, use the tip you like (I used a star tip) and pipe onto your cookies. If you have leftover ganache and you don't feel like just eating it, you could melt it into hot milk for some decadent hot chocolate.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ginger Carrot Cake

Life has been a bit crazy lately, and it seems I haven't baked. Which is odd, because when the going gets tough, I get into the kitchen. But after I make it into the kitchen and bake, the next question becomes, "Who's going to eat this?" So finding an excuse to bake, especially after the December excesses, becomes a bit of a challenge.

But finally, after househunting and editing and running around town trying to get my paperwork in order, I decided that I would make a cake to serve as part of a little drinks party we had with our neighbor. I made a kind of grown-up pigs in blankets, and these and these, and there was cheese and nuts and this cake. And Champagne. And there were just 5 of us! But I think we all enjoyed it.

There are two main characteristics of this cake: the very intense ginger taste and its moisture and sweetness. The ginger--2 ounces is a lot of fresh ginger!--almost took the cake over to the savory side. And the amount of oil and milk and eggs really made the cake dense and moist. A bit too much for my taste...

Maybe I didn't bake it enough--though usually overbaking is my forte. But this cake is definitely in the like but not love camp. Claire, my Number One Ginger Fan, loved it, however--and she's not much of a dessert person. So there's definitely an audience for this.

So I'm going to recommend this for people who enjoy ginger a lot and who like a really moist, dense cake. Here's the recipe.

Ginger Carrot Cake

2/3 c. (2.25 oz.) walnuts
2 oz. preserved or candied ginger (who can find preserved ginger any more?)
2 oz. (a piece about 3 by 1.5 inches) fresh ginger
3/4 lb. carrots
2 c. (8 oz.) sifted flour
1 c. (4.5 oz.) sifted whole wheat flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
5 large eggs
1 t. vanilla
scant 2 c. (11 oz.) sugar
1 c. (8 oz.) tasteless salad oil (I used grapeseed and a bit of hazelnut)
1 c. (8 oz.) milk

Heat the oven to 350. Get out a Bundt or other tube pan and grease it. Chop the walnuts fine in a food processor. Put them in the pan and tap them around to coat the pan. Tap the extra nuts out onto a piece of paper or something and save them for the top of the cake.
For the carrots and ginger, you can use a food processor or a box grater. If you use a food processor, I would use the metal blade to mince it (turn on the machine and drop small pieces through the feed tube) and then put in the grating disc for the carrots. I used a box grater and used the big holes for the carrots, the small holes for the fresh ginger, and the slicer for the candied ginger. In summary, you want the carrots and fresh ginger grated and the candied ginger sliced thin. OK, the hard work is done now. The rest is a piece of cake.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and salt. In the large bowl of a mixer (or just a large bowl--you can do this by hand with a whisk), beat the eggs at high speed for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat until well mixed. Then add the oil and milk and beat that until well mixed. Add the dry ingredients and beat only until incorporated. If you're using a mixer, take the bowl out of the mixer and add the carrots and gingers. Mix that well, making sure there are no giant clumps of anything. This is a thin batter; pour it into the prepared pan and sprinkle on the remaining walnuts.
Bake for 1 hour and 5 to 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and the top springs back when gently pressed. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then unmold and let cool completely. Enjoy a slice for breakfast, as an afternoon snack, or as a bit of dessert. I bet it would be fabulous with cream cheese.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Raspberry Brownies

There's a TV show here called "I hate Sundays". The idea is that Sundays are boring: nothing is open, there's nothing to do, the weekend is almost over. I've never seen the show, but I'm guessing that it suggests distractions for Sunday haters.
Personally, I kind of like Sundays here. I get up at first light, which is around 8:00 in the winter, get myself ready, and head out to the Sunday market, which is always lively and fun. I visit my favorite stands, asking for advice and joking with the salespeople, and end with a trip to my favorite bakery for baguette and croissants. Since the market ritual can take a while, I may not have my breakfast until well after 10. And sometimes the apartment is still dark and quiet when I get home.

This Sunday I didn't have a lot of time to relax with my coffee and croissant because I had a meal to prepare for guests who were coming in two hours. The only thing I had prepped ahead of time was some cheese straw dough and the batter for these brownies. Half of the batter was in the freezer, and the other half was on the counter. Big mistake: the girls assumed it was leftover batter and proceeded to snack on it. Would there be enough for the top layer?

Turns out that there was. So I cooked a lovely meal involving salad and pasta with shrimp and a delightful cheese that you heat with wine and serve with a spoon. There were several bottles of wine involved. The conversation was delightful. And then there were these brownies.
Apparently I had baked a chocolate cake for one of the guests many years ago, and he still remembered it. So I was a bit concerned that these brownies would uphold my reputation. I needn't have feared--Maida's brownies always come through. For once, I didn't bake these quite enough, so they were gooey, and the jam added to that rich quality. I passed around the box of Maison du Chocolat goodies that the guests had brought (excellent guests!!), but they preferred the brownies. High praise indeed.
When the guests had left, it was after 4, and there was nothing left to do but put a few dishes in the dishwasher and stretch out on the couch to read. I hate Sundays--ha! Pass me another brownie.

Here's the recipe. Make these part of your lazy Sunday.

Raspberry Brownies

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. vanilla
1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 c. (1.25 oz.) unsifted flour
1 c. (4 oz.) walnuts, in medium-sized pieces
1/3 c. (3.7 oz.) raspberry jam (Maida says seedless, but I didn't mind the seeds)

Line an 8-inch square pan with foil or parchment; butter the foil (parchment doesn't need buttering in this case, but foil fits into the pan better. Your choice.). In a large, microwave-safe bowl, or in a saucepan, melt the chocolate and sugar together. Take off the heat if you're using the stove and mix in the salt, vanilla, and sugar. Now beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in the flour and then the walnuts. Pour half the batter into the prepared pan and put that in the freezer. Hide the leftover brownie batter from marauding snackers.
After at least half an hour, take the brownie batter out of the freezer and spread it with the jam. Dollop the remaining batter over the jam and spread it carefully into an even layer. Now heat the oven to 325 while the brownie batter comes to room temperature. Once the oven is preheated, put the brownies in and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out barely clean. Cool to room temperature, then freeze. Take brownies out, peel off the foil or parchment, and cut the brownies into neat little squares or rectangles. You can see that I didn't carry out this particular step. Enjoy cold or room temperature, with ice cream or not.

Vermont Maple Syrup "Cupcakes"

I have to admit, sometimes baking for this blog doesn't seem like the best idea in the world. Especially when I'm up at 7:30, after a night out in Paris with girlfriends, baking muffins before the girls head out for soccer. Especially when the recipe calls for 1 cup of maple syrup. Precious maple syrup. Which I'll now have to pay high import prices for...
Oh, and while I'm being cranky, why are these called cupcakes? Cupcakes are sweet and light and involve frosting. These, while sweet, are humble little breakfast pastries.

Fortunately, this muffin recipe is really easy, and fortunately I was able to cut down the amount of maple syrup (I only had about 2/3 cup) and replace it with milk--I don't really think the additional syrup would have benefited the muffins. They were pretty sweet.
(Oh, and this King Arthur dough whisk? It's awesome for mixing muffins and yeast dough and even polenta. Highly recommended)

It was way too early to take process photos of these muffins--by the time I got my camera out, there was one muffin left. Most went to Julia's soccer game, and she says they got eaten quickly.

This is a nice, plain, sweet muffin with a toasty pecan crunch. I'm sure I would have really enjoyed them had I not been recovering from a night out on the town. But I would still say that if you don't have a steady source of reasonably priced maple syrup, there are many, many other delicious muffin recipes out there.

Here's the recipe. Enjoy these when you're well rested.

Vermont Maple Syrup Cupcakes

1-3/4 c. (8.75 oz.) flour (part whole wheat is fine)
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 egg
1/4 c. (2 oz.) milk (I used 1/2 cup)
1/4 t. almond extract
1 c. maple syrup (I used about 2/3 cup)
4 T. (2 oz.) melted butter
3/4 c. (2.5 oz.) toasted pecan pieces
(Muffin toppings, if you're up for it: wheat germ, oatmeal, chopped pecans, sliced almonds)

Heat the oven to 350; line 12 muffin cups with paper liners or butter them. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix together the egg, milk, almond extract, syrup, and melted butter; mix into the dry ingredients. Add the pecans. Scoop/pour into the muffin cups and sprinkle with one of the toppings.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the tops spring back when they are gently pressed. Remove from the pan and serve warm. Enjoy the rest of your morning.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Chocolate-Brownie Cheesecake

Some recipe titles just speak for themselves.

This New Year's Eve was a series of changed plans. At first, we had invited friends to come over for dinner and to watch fireworks from our balcony. Then the plan was for us to have dinner at their place and then come over to ours for dessert, Champagne, and fireworks. But finally we had the whole party at their house, since they had invited more people than could fit into our small apartment. No matter--especially since the Eiffel Tower fireworks had been cancelled due to austerity or security or both.

It was quite the lively international gathering--at least six nationalities and four languages going on simultaneously. We shared stories and ate delicious food and drank delicious wine. The kids and many of the adults set off illegal fireworks at midnight, and the rest of us watched the countdown on TV--in France, instead of the ball dropping at Times Square, you get half-dressed showgirls. To each his own.

And there was this cheesecake. In my usual disorganized rush, I had brought the cheesecake still in the pan, still somewhat warm, and put it out on our friends' balcony to chill. Much later in the evening, someone came in from the balcony--where she had probably been smoking--with the cake. "Are we going to eat this?"

Um, yes. The cake was nicely chilled by that time and was unmolded to oohs and ahhs. "What kind of cheesecake is that? Is it American or German?"

"Chocolate Brownie Cheesecake," I replied. Stunned silence, followed by a rush to get a piece.

My friend Gabrielle, who was at the party, calls the Maida recipes "Disney desserts". She has the feeling that birds twitter around the kitchen while I randomly throw ingredients around to create a miraculous dessert. And certainly some of the desserts have elements that can seem random and unexpected to the French palate. But let me just say that a brownie cheesecake brings together the best of American desserts in the best of ways, and this was a great dessert to end 2010 with.

Here's the recipe. Make it when you have a lot of people to impress.

Chocolate-Brownie Cheesecake

1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter
3 T. (0.6 oz.) cocoa powder
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 t. instant coffee or espresso
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. almond extract
Pinch salt
1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) sugar
2 large eggs
1 c. (4 oz.) sifted flour
1 c. (3.5 oz.) walnuts, in large pieces

Heat the oven to 350. Line an 8-inch square pan with foil or parchment and butter the foil. In a saucepan or the microwave, melt the butter with the cocoa and chocolate. Stir in the coffee, vanilla, almond, and salt. Add the sugar and then the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the flour and then the walnuts. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out just barely dry. Cool and then freeze or chill--you could and probably should make these the day before you make the cheesecake. When you are ready to make the cheesecake, cut the brownies into 1/2 inch dice. You will only need 3/4 of the brownies for the cheesecake, which gives you a nice "cook's bonus". Put the diced brownies back in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to mix them into the cheesecake.

2 lbs. cream cheese, room temperature
1 t. vanilla
1-1/2 scant cups (9.5 oz.) sugar
4 large eggs
1/3 c. (1.3 oz.) graham cracker crumbs, optional

Heat the oven to 350. Get out a deep round cake pan--a 9-inch springform wrapped in aluminum would probably work--and butter it well. Also get out a baking dish large enough to hold your cake pan--probably a jelly roll pan will work here.
Beat the cream cheese with an electric mixer until nice and smooth; scrape the bowl often to be sure you don't have any lumps. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat some more. Then add the eggs one at a time and beat just until mixed. Pour enough of the mixture into the prepared pan that you have about a 1/2-inch layer. Now carefully mix the brownies into the rest of the cheesecake batter and pour that in the pan. Put the cheesecake pan into the larger baking dish and put all that in the oven. Pour enough hot water into the baking dish that it goes up 1-1/2 inches (I just poured in as much as I could--my baking dish wasn't that deep) and then let the cheesecake bake for 1 hour 30 minutes. The cake will be a lovely shade of brown (see first picture) and if you want to be picky, its temperature should be 170-175. Let cool a few hours.
If you are organized and love crust, unmold the cake upside down, sprinkle the bottom with the graham cracker crumbs, and then turn it right-side-up for a fabulous presentation. If you just want to dig in, unmold, chill, and slice at will.
Maida says this serves 10; the 16 of us were all completely satisfied.

Savannah Banana Pie

Julia has definitely been following this journey through American Desserts with a great deal of interest. She has been reading through the cookbook, helping me with my photography, asking with regularity what the next recipe might be, and, of course, taste-testing enthusiastically but critically.

So when her birthday rolled around next week, she knew exactly what she wanted her "cake" to be: Savannah Banana Pie. And strangely enough, that pie turned out to be on my baking schedule. Funny how that works...

This pie is quite the concoction. It involves bananas and caramel and whipped cream and toffee. It's sweet and rich and creamy and crunchy. Perfect for the swarm of teenaged girls who came over for pizza and birthday pie before heading out to Paris for a day of laser tag.

I cheated a bit on this pie--instead of cooking condensed milk, I bought a jar of "confiture de lait", which is basically dulce de leche. If you can find dulce de leche, you can do the same.

But I also had to do some extra cooking: I couldn't find Almond Roca or an equivalent at the store. Sometimes I can find Daim's, a Scandinavian toffee candy, at the store, but not that day. So I made the Mahogany Toffee from Rose's Christmas Cookies. Kind of a pain, but very yummy.

This pie disappeared within minutes of serving. I didn't actually even get a piece of it--just a bite and then a few tastes while cleaning up. It does offer a nice contrast of textures, but it is quite sweet. I was busy and/or lazy and impatient and so the pie did not get its proper chilling time. It therefore was quite soupy. Don't be like me if you make this pie.

Here's the recipe. Make it for someone sweet (or someone who loves sweets!) on a festive occasion.

Savannah Banana Pie

8 oz. Amaretti or any other almond macaroon-type cookies
6 T. (3 oz.) butter, melted

Heat the oven to 375. Line a 9-inch pie plate with aluminum foil. Pound or process the amaretti into crumbs; stir in the butter. Dump into the pie plate and use a measuring cup to press the crumbs on the bottom and part way up the sides of the pie plate. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool, then freeze for at least an hour until completely firm. Take the crust out by the foil, peel off the foil, and then return the crust to the pan.

1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk (or dulce de leche)
3-4 ripe bananas--I used about 3-1/2

If you have dulce de leche, you can relax. If not, consider doing this step even before you make the crust. Heat the oven to 425. Get out a Pyrex pie plate and a large baking dish that can contain it--probably a jelly roll pan. Pour the milk into the pan and cover it tightly with foil. Put the pie pan in the larger pan and put in the oven. Pour water in the larger pan so that it comes about 1/2 inch up the sides. Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes, adding more water if necessary. The milk should caramelize. Take the pie plate out of the oven and let it cool completely.
Slice the bananas into the crust and make them into a smooth layer. Drizzle or dab on the dulce de leche to cover the bananas. Let chill for 4-8 hours.

3 oz. Almond Roca or other toffee candy
1-1/2 c. (12 0z.) whipping cream (I think 1 cup would be plenty)
2 T. powdered sugar
1/2 t. vanilla

Chop the toffee into fairly small pieces--Maida says thin slices--and set aside. Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla. Mound the cream around the banana filling, leaving the center exposed. Sprinkle the toffee on top of the cream. Refrigerate and serve cold. Burn off with a brisk game of laser tag.

Brandied Butterscotch Sauce

Well, it's the new year, and if you're like me, you've resolved to eat less, spend less, exercise more, yada yada. We'll see how long this lasts. My resolutions stem mostly from the stacks of cookies we made in December and the three Maida Heatter desserts I made within three days.

This first one was for a dinner party we had with some high school friends of Sami. I made Indian for the main course--a nice break from all the rich holiday food--but American for the appetizer and dessert. The dessert was vanilla-roasted pears with purchased gingerbread, vanilla ice cream, and this sauce. Although the pears were everyone's favorite part, this sauce is not bad at all.

It's a pretty easy sauce that involves caramelizing sugar and then adding yummy stuff like cream and butter and brandy.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I find caramelizing sugar stressful. The sugar often makes these horrible clumps, and I'm sure it'll never become a smooth and lovely sauce. But I keep stirring...

...and eventually it usually becomes a nice, smooth sauce. You see that there are still lumps of sugar on the spoon--I ended up straining this sauce because some sugar lumps didn't want to dissolve and I frankly didn't have the patience to wait for them. But as long as you pay attention that the sugar doesn't burn, making a sauce with caramel shouldn't be too stressful.

Here's the recipe. Serve it, once you feel you can have dessert again, with fruit and/or ice cream, or with yogurt, or rice pudding...

Brandied Butterscotch Sauce

1 c. (8 oz.) cream
1 c. (7 oz.) sugar
3 T. (1.5 oz.) butter (I bet salted would be good here)
(Maida doesn't call for it, but a generous pinch of salt is nice)
1 t. vanilla
3 T. (1.5 oz.) Cognac

Heat the cream in a saucepan or in the microwave until just boiling. In a large frying pan or saucepan, heat the sugar, stirring constantly with a heat-proof utensil, over high heat until it starts to melt and caramelize. Turn down the heat to medium and keep stirring until the sugar is smooth and deep brown. Take the pan off the heat and carefully add the cream to the sugar. The mixture will bubble like crazy and the sugar will probably clump up. Never fear--keep stirring it cautiously. Once it calms down, put the mixture back over medium heat and cook and stir until the sugar has dissolved again. Take the pan back off the heat and add the butter, salt, vanilla, and Cognac; stir until the butter has melted. Pour into a serving container and chill until you're ready for dessert.