Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's all about the frosting

My bestest-friend-since-we-were-12 April came to town recently.  She asked me specifically to make red velvet cupcakes.  I had never made them, and not being one to turn down a challenge, I obliged.  And luckily, the day after I made them for her, the Hubster and I were going to a gathering where I could bring food, so I had some people to eat the remaining cupcakes (this also explains the red, green and white sprinkles -- it was a Christmas thing).

Here's the thing about these:  first, they have a lot of ingredients, and second, I don't think I really like them all that much.  As far as cake goes, I found it sort of unexciting.  But that frosting!  Now there's a reason to celebrate.  It was tangy, sweet, soft and super creamy.  It took a great deal of restraint not to eat the leftovers right out of the bowl (wait, why did I leave frosting in the bowl?  what was I thinking?!?!). 

I'm glad I made these, so at least I can said I did it.  They will probably be a special-request-only type of thing, but whatever.  The frosting, however, will be made at every chance.  Really.  It's THAT good.

Red Velvet Cupcakes
Source: America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

Note:  For the cake to have the proper rise and color, you must use natural cocoa powder; do not substitute Dutch-processed cocoa.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
Pinch salt
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 cups Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)

  1. Adjust two oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl.  In another medium bowl, whisk the buttermilk, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla together.  In a small bowl, mix the cocoa and red food coloring together to a smooth paste.
  3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 6 minutes.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the buttermilk mixture.  Repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture and the remaining buttermilk mixture.  Beat in the remaining flour mixture until just combined.  Beat in the cocoa mixture until the batter is uniform. 
  4. Give the batter a final stir with a rubber spatula to make sure it is thoroughly combined.  Use a greased 1/4 cup measure (or large scoop) to portion the batter into each cup. 
  5. Bake the cupcakes on the upper-middle and lower-middle racks until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached, 15 to 20 minutes, switching and rotating the tins halfway through baking.  Let the cupcakes cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.  Spread the frosting evenly over the cupcakes and serve. (or you can pipe on the frosting)
Cream Cheese Frosting
Source: America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

Note:  Do not use low-fat or nonfat cream cheese or the frosting will turn out too soupy to work with.  This frosting has a softer, looser texture than other frostings.  If the frosting becomes too soft to work with, let it chill in the refrigerator until firm.

Flourpile note: this recipe makes 4 cups of frosting, which will generously frost 24 cupcakes with some to spare.  if you were less generous, you could probably make a half batch of this, but where's the fun in that?

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks and softened
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups confectioners' sugar

  1. Beat the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until smooth, 2 to 4 minutes.
  2. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low, slowly add the confectioners' sugar, and beat until smooth, 4 to 6 minutes.  Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, 4 to 6 minutes.
To Make Ahead
The frosting can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.  Let the frosting stand at room temperature until slightly softened, about 1 hour, then whip with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.

Seriously, even if you never make the cakes, you should definitely try out the frosting.  It is amazingly good.  I got tons of compliments on it, and I just had to share the recipe. 

Also, I'm not that good at decorating things.  I took the easy way on this one and dumped the frosting into a pastry bag with a big round tip and squeezed it on, and then added some sprinkles.  They certainly weren't the prettiest cupcakes in the world, but the frosting made up for it. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gifts of Food

Since I enjoy cooking and baking, it makes sense that I enjoy giving food as gifts.  Recently my kitchen has been in nearly constant production mode, churning out breads, cookies, candies, and what not.  I will share my recipes with you, but only after the gifts have been given (read: I won't be giving you the majority of my recipes until after Christmas).  I don't want to ruin any surprises, since I know that at least some of the recipients are readers (yay!).

The first two things I can share with you have already been enjoyed: a challah for my boss (who celebrates Hanukkah), and a special treat to celebrate the birthday of a coworker. 

First, the challah:

I was immensely proud of this loaf of bread.  I had never made challah before, and this came out so pretty and shiny, and smelled AMAZING!  Fortunately, my boss was nice enough to bring me a chunk of it once she cut into it, since I obviously didn't get to taste it before gifting it.  Let me tell you, that bread was SOOOO good.  The egg and the butter in the bread make it so moist and flavorful.

I was a little intimidated by the whole braided loaf thing, but honestly, it was so bad, probably because I had good instructions (thank you, once again, America's Test Kitchen).  But, here's my dirty little secret about this bread:  this was the second batch I made.  The first time around, I thought I would make two mini loaves, one for giving, one for eating.  Well, I must have had some sort of short-circuit in my brain, because I didn't even think to reduce the cooking time, and I burned them.  So, I had to start over, and I decided not to try to make two loaves again, so I just made the one big one.  I'm really glad the second loaf came out so well, because it was about midnight when it finished, and I don't think I could have dealt with making another one without some sort of mental breakdown.

You really should try this, at least once in your life (once you taste it, you will want to make it more).  Leftover challah makes amazing french toast.  Just sayin'.


Source: America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
Makes 1 large loaf

*Note: save the egg white from the egg yolk that you need in the dough.  You will need it later for the glaze.

1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3-3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 envelope instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 large egg white
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

  1. For the dough:  Whisk the water, melted butter, eggs, and egg yolk together in a large liquid measuring cup.  Combine 3 cups of the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook.  With the mixer on low speed, add the water mixture and mix until the dough comes together, about 2 minutes.
  2. Increase the mixer speed to medium-low and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.  If after 4 minutes more flour is needed, add the remaining 1/2 cup flour, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl but sticks to the bottom.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball.  Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap.  Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and divide the dough into 2 pieces, one twice as large as the other. Divide each piece into 3 pieces and roll each piece out into a 16-inch long rope (3 ropes will be much thicker).
  5. For the glaze and to braid:  Beat the egg white and the water together in a small bowl.  Braid two loaves, once large and one small. Transfer the larger braid to the prepared baking sheet, brush with some of the egg white-water mixture, and secure the smaller braid on top.  Tuck both ends under the loaf.  Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle, 45 to 75 minutes.
  6. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Brush the loaf with the remaining egg white-water mixture, sprinkle with the seeds (if using), then spray lightly with water.  Bake until golden and the center of the loaf registers 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 30 to 40  minutes, rotating the loaf halfway through baking.  Cool the bread on the baking sheet for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.
To make ahead:
In step 3, do not let the dough rise, but refrigerate it overnight or up to 16 hours; let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then continue with step 4.

And, now the special treat:

That's Peter.  For his birthday, I made him chocolate covered bacon (some with toffee chips on top).  You see, the crew at one of my theatres has been asking me to make chocolate covered bacon for a long time, and I have always resisted.  I'm not a huge fan of the recent trend of sweet things with bacon in them.  Don't get me wrong-- I love bacon, and I love sweets, just not together.  But, since this wasn't for me, I went ahead and made it.

When I presented Peter with the bacon, he laughed, and the rest of the crew gave me looks of profound admiration (I do believe the words "I love you" were uttered).  It was a total hit.  I had let the hubster have a piece, and he loved it too. 

The guys insisted that I share the "recipe" for this, so here you go:

Cook up some bacon.  I did 8 slices of thick cut applewood smoked bacon, but whatever you have on hand will do.  I cook bacon on a sheet pan in the oven.  It keeps the bacon nice and flat, and I don't end up with grease splatter burns on my arms.  When the bacon is cooked, let it drain on paper towels, and make sure to dab off as much grease as you can.  The chocolate will stick better if the bacon is kind of dry. 

Melt some chocolate.  I used probably about 3/4 cup of good quality semisweet chocolate chips.  I always do this in a double boiler because I always burn the chocolate when I try to melt it in the microwave.

I poured the melted chocolate into a loaf pan, so that I could lay the strips of bacon flat on the chocolate.  Lay a piece of bacon on the chocolate, and then flip it over using a fork or two.  When it's all covered in chocolate, transfer the bacon to a sheet pan lined with wax paper.  If you want to put anything on top of the chocolate (I highly recommend toffee bits), sprinkle it on when the chocolate is still wet.  Otherwise, just let the bacon hang out on the pan until the chocolate has hardened.  You can stick it in the fridge to speed up the process.  Once hardened, store it in an air-tight contaner in the fridge. 

So that's it.  Not really a recipe, just a technique.  Honestly, this was probably the easiest chocolate-dipping experience for me so far.  No real mess, which there usually is.  That is, until I dropped the spatula that was covered in melted chocolate.  There will little bits of chocolate that got flung all over the kitchen.  It was like someone let off a chocolate confetti canon.  Joy.