Friday, April 29, 2011

The Divas of the Baking World

Dear Friend K is staying with us for a little while, during which time she and I have plans to bake up a bit of a storm.  When I asked her what she wanted to make first, she said macarons.  Originally, these were supposed to be pink macarons with a chocolate ganache filling, but when we went to the store to buy the powdered food coloring, they were out of red. So we had to go a different route.  I already had these pretty pink and red (and orange too) sparkly sugar sprinkles, so we decided to use those.

During the process of making these, we decided that macarons are kind of the diva of the cookie world.  They are very picky about their demands, but if you provide for them properly, they produce a wonderful result.

We used the same recipe that I used for this post.  I figure, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  The ganache was 2/3 cup of cream, 8 ounces of chocolate and 2 tablespoons of butter, melted together in a double boiler, and then allowed to cool until it is thick enough to pipe.  Since we were a little crunched for time, we put the ganache in the fridge to cool quicker.  If you do that, just give it a stir every 15 minutes or so to help it stay smooth.  Speaking of time, I have a tip.  If you want the shells and the ganache to be done at the same time, make the ganache first, and stick it in the fridge before you start with the shells.  The shells need very little cooling time, so a few minutes after they come out of the oven you can start to use them.

We also tried to do something fun -- hearts!  My piping skills are not great, but K is very talented.  However, hearts were a new thing for both of us, and some of them were pretty funny:

If I remember correctly, the most successful technique that was used was to pipe and drag two blobs.  The top part of the heart doesn't have to touch, because as the shells sit before baking, they sort of ooze together. 

Aside from the obvious funny-shapedness, the other problem that hearts pose is that it gets difficult to pair them up.  Some of our "sandwiches" were a little wonky.  But, it didn't really matter because they tasted great!

So, I'm going to consider this another successful venture in the kitchen.  It was fun, and they tasted great. 

Now, where's that last one?.....

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Celebrations are in Order!

Some friends of the Hubster and mine recently got engaged (Hooray!), and they threw a party (Hooray again!).  For this party, I promised to bake something.  Since this was a celebration-type thing, I thought it would be really cute to make something that incorporated champagne, and, since the two go together so well, strawberries.  I had seen several recipes for champagne cupcakes pop up in my Google reader, and they fit the bill perfectly.  I decided I would make champagne cupcakes with strawberry frosting.  And, since they seem to go faster at a party, I made them mini (no one can resist the cuteness of tiny baked goods). 

I found the cupcake recipe here, by way of a recommendation from a friend.  When I was making the batter, I was very skeptical.  Even after folding in the egg whites, it was still much thicker than I was used to dealing with.  I was worried that it would bake up very dense.  But fear not!  I baked up a few tester cuppies, and they were great!  The champagne flavor really came through, and the cake was nice and light.  The recipe recommends using a sweet champagne, which I agree with.  I actually used Almond Champagne from Wilson Creek Winery, which is a local winery, and my favorite champagne.  And make sure it’s room temperature.  Since we don’t normally store our extra bottles of bubbly in the fridge, this wasn’t a problem. 

The frosting, which was a strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream, came from Annie’s Eats.  She has always been a rock-solid source for good recipes, and since frostings tend to be finicky for me, I knew I needed a recipe I could trust.  Here’s where I have a confession: I don’t like buttercream frosting.  Not even Swiss Meringue Buttercream, which is lighter than it’s regular buttercream cousin.  Believe me, I am no opponent of butter, but I just am not down with eating it when it’s all whipped up with sugar.  I just don’t like it.  Sorry.  I like other kinds of frosting, just not really anything that involves the word “buttercream”. 

Even though I didn’t get to go to the party, I was told that everyone loved the cuppies.  The fact that the Hubster didn’t bring home any leftovers is a good sign. 

And please don’t judge the quality of the cuppies by my lack of piping skills.  I’m working on it, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get the perfect swirls that other bakers get.  As long as they get eaten, I’m okay with that.

As a special treat for you, here is a photo of what happens when I try to take too many photos while holding one tiny cuppie:

Such a sad loss.

Champagne Cupcakes

2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup butter
1 ½ cups white sugar
¾ cup champagne, room temperature (the sweeter, the better)
6 egg whites

1.       Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare a cupcake pan with liners (this made me 48 mini cupcakes, and would probably make 20-24 regular-sized cupcakes)
2.       In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until very light and fluffy (fp note: this can take a while.  patience is needed).  Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together, and then blend into creamed mixture alternately with champagne. 
3.       In another large clean bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the whites into batter to lighten it, then fold in remaining egg whites.  Fill the cupcake liners about 2/3 full.
4.       Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes (20 for regular sized cuppies), or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Source:  Annie’s Eats

1 ½ cups fresh strawberries (8oz.), rinsed, hulled and coarsely chopped
4 large egg whites
1 ¼ cups sugar
3 sticks (1 ½ cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1.       Place the strawberries in a food processor or blender.  Puree until completely smooth. Set aside.
2.       Combine the egg whites and sugar in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water.  Heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F and the sugar has dissolved.
3.       Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature, about 8 minutes. (The bowl should be cool to the touch.)
4.       Reduce speed to medium and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. If the frosting looks soupy or curdled continue to beat on medium-high speed until thick and smooth again, about 3-5 minutes more.
5.       Blend in the strawberry puree until smooth and completely incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
6.       Fill a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip with the frosting.  (I used a star tip). Frost cooled cupcakes as desired.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A learning experience

(Sorry about the ugly strawberry top staring at you.  People wanted to eat the cheesecake, so I didn't have a lot of time for photos.)

When I started this blog, I promised to share with you my failures as well as my successes.  Today, I have something that is sort of a mixture of both – my first cheesecake.  It was one of those things that I took to a party, and I wasn’t completely happy with the results, but everyone that ate it said it was great.  And honestly, there were things about it that I really did like, and the mistakes were things that I can fix for next time.  Since it was my first attempt, I am going to try not to be too hard on myself and file this one as a learning experience.
The cheesecake was made for Dear Friend C’s birthday celebration.  The thing about C is that, as wonderful of a person as she is, she is a total weirdo that doesn’t like cake.  But she does like cheesecake.  For the surprise party that her sweet husband organized, I made this cheesecake.  I had this idea in my head to do a chocolate cookie crumb crust, with a strawberry swirl, and chocolate-dipped strawberries on the top.  It sounded like a great idea!!  So off I went.
Sometimes I get overly ambitious in the kitchen and it comes back to bite me. 
The successes in this endeavor were the crust and the chocolate-dipped strawberries.  Instead of a straight chocolate cookie crust, I actually did what I have dubbed “The Combo Crust of Wonder”.  It was a mix of graham crackers and chocolate cookies, and boy was it good.  It was exactly what I wanted.  That crust shall be duplicated.  And the strawberries were very easy and quite good.  Since they are so simple to do, if I had screwed them up, I would have been pretty upset.   
The part that needs work was the actual cheesecake.  Stupidly, I tried to swirl strawberry preserves into the cheesecake before I poured it into the pan.  Instead of making the swirl I was envisioning in my head, it all clumped together at the center of the bottom of the cheesecake.  Not pretty.  And, the top got very brown, and the edges were a little over-baked while the center was under-baked.  I followed the directions and baked it to the proper temperature, but it just didn’t work out.  I’m starting to think that I need to replace the thermometer I keep inside the oven, because other things are starting to overcook on the outside too.  Lessons learned: no more preserves and buy a new thermometer. Here’s an interior shot, so you can see what I’m talking about:

As for the actual process, I have some notes.  Making a cheesecake is somewhat time-consuming, but it can be made in advance, and in stages.  I made the crust on Thursday, and baked it on Friday for a party on Saturday.  I just kept it wrapped in plastic when it was hanging out, and once it was all baked and cooled, I kept it in the fridge. 
I will make another cheesecake.  I must figure out how to do this right, and I won’t give up until I do.  Lucky for you, I’ll let you know about my results.

New York Cheesecake
Source: America’s Test Kitchen “Family Baking Book”
8 whole graham crackers, broken into 1-inch pieces
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for brushing (about 1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons sugar
(fp note: for The Combo Crust of Wonder, use 7 graham crackers and about 9 chocolate sandwich cookies, with the cream filling scraped out.  Follow the rest of the instructions as printed below)

2 ½ pounds cream cheese, cut into chunks and softened
1 ½ cups sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
6 large eggs

1.       For the crust: Adjust and oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Process the graham cracker pieces in a food processor to fine, even crumbs, about 30 seconds. Sprinkle the melted butter and sugar over the crumbs and pulse to incorporate. Sprinkle the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan. Press the crumbs firmly into an even layer using the bottom of a measuring cup. Bake the crust until fragrant and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Let the crust cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. (fp note: if you want to do this in advance, once the crust is cooled, wrap it in plastic wrap and store at room temperature until you are ready to use it.)
2.       For the filling:  Meanwhile, increase the oven temperature to 500 degrees. Beat the cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until smooth, 1 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters as needed.
3.       Beat in half of the sugar and salt until incorporated, 1 to 30 minutes. Beat in the remaining sugar until incorporated, 1 to 3 minutes. Beat in the sour cream, lemon juice, and vanilla until incorporated, 1 to 3 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks and eggs, two at a time, until combined, 1 to 3 minutes.
4.       Being careful not to disturb the baked crust, brush the inside of the prepared springform pan with melted butter. Set the pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Carefully pour the filling into the pan. Bake the cheesecake for 10 minutes.
5.       Without opening the oven door, reduce the oven temperature to 200 degrees and continue to bake the cheesecake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the cake registers 150 degrees, about 1 ½ hours, rotating the pan halfway through baking.
6.       Transfer the cake to a wire rack and run a knife around the edge of the cake. Let the cheesecake cool until just barely warm, 2 ½ to 3 hours, running a knife around the edge of the cake every hour or so. Wrap the pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, about 3 hours.
7.       To unmold the cheesecake, wrap a wet, hot kitchen towel around the cake pan and let sit for 1 minute.  Remove the sides of the pan and carefully slide the cake onto a cake platter.  Let the cheesecake sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. (fp note: I didn’t do the hot towel part, and you can see in the photos where my knife slipped and scarred the edge of the cheesecake.  I also just served it on the bottom of the springform pan. We’re not fancy people.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A rose by any other name....

They may not be the prettiest girls at the party, but they will probably be the most popular.

I have heard these cookies called many things:  trashcan cookies, kitchen sink cookies, and, monster cookies, just to name a few.  I don't think it matters what they are called, these things are really really good, and fun to make!  They give you the opportunity to dump whatever the heck you want into the dough, and they pretty much come out great!  This particular blend had marshmallows, oats, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, and rice krispies, all rolled up in a peanut butter cookie dough. 

These cookies are excellent for pleasing a bunch of stagehands.  I know this for a fact, because I made them for a friend, who got us some tickets to a show.  The show was great, the cookies were well received, and all was good. 

I found the original recipe for these cookies here, but I made a few little changes.  First, I omitted some of the oats, and subbed in some rice krispies.  Honestly, I wouldn't do that again.  The oats were nice and chewy, but the rice krispies got kind of hard and I didn't really like the texture they added.  I also didn't add the chocolate drizzle on the top.  I thought about it, but the cookies were pretty rich on their own, and while the drizzle would have been pretty, they didn't need it.  You could easily add different ratios of the various chips, or different ones entirely.  The marshmallows are tasty, but they don't make or break the cookies.  I printed the original recipe below, with notes about my changes.

Marshmallow Monster Cookies
I made the cookies big, and I think this made about 30 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup peanut butter
2 cups quick-cooking oats (I used 1 cup oats and 1 cup rice krispies)
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup mini marshmallows

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and both sugars with a mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs one at a time on medium speed, then beat in the vanilla.  Add peanut butter and mix until smooth. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until combined.
  2. Stir the oats (and rice krispies), chips and marshmallows into the dough with a wooden spoon. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, about 3 inches apart (fp note: these suckers spread!). Bake the cookies until golden, 8-10 minutes. (fp note: if you make these bigger, like i did, they take about 12 minutes to bake)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Girls' Night Food

I have this friend, C (hi C!).  C LOVES artichokes.  Because of her love of artichokes, I have discovered my love of artichokes.  Don't get me wrong -- I always enjoyed them, but my experience with them was primarily related to the marinated kind that come in the teasingly small jars.  Since C loves them so much, I gave them more of a shot, and man, am I hooked.  I put them in anything I can get away with.  And I hoard recipes that contain artichokes. 

I originally saw this recipe for Goat Cheese Artichoke Strata in my googly reader.  The original can be found here.  I knew it would be a huge hit with C, so I was just waiting for an occasion to make it.  Well, we had a girls' movie night, where a few of us got together to make some dinner, and watch a movie (a violent, graphic, un-girly movie).  C made a delicious pork loin, and I brought this strata.  Since we did this on a work night, I assembled this the night before, and then it hung out in the fridge at work for the day, and we just tossed it in the oven the night we ate it. 

A few notes:  I used canned artichoke hearts, because I already had them.  And I doubled the amount, because I felt like it.  I just gave them a good drain and cut them into quarters.  Also, I used a little onion rather than shallot.  Again, I had onions (white) in the house, and I didn't feel like buying a shallot just for this. Worked out just fine.

It was sooooo good.  Totally worth the effort.  The bread gets all fluffy on the inside, with yummy crunchy bits on the outside.  This was my first time working with herbes de Provence, and I will use it much more now.  It's so floral smelling and wonderful.  If you look at the photo, you'll see that the goat cheese on the top browns a little, and so you get these yummy goat cheese nuggets.  Let me tell you about the nuggets: they will make you do crazy things.  C and I had been eyeing the same nugget, and when it came time to serve the dish, she janked the good nugget!!!  And then, she saved it until the very end.  There it sat, this perfect little nugget, all alone on her plate, begging to be eaten.  Before I knew what I was doing, I reached across the table, stole the nugget off her plate, and shoved it in my mouth!! Honestly, I have no idea where my brain or sense of decorum went.  But, boy was that nugget good.

So make this.  Enjoy it.  And, above all else, protect the nuggets!

Artichoke Goat Cheese Strata
This feeds an army.  No joke.

1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots (about 1 large)
12-ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed. (2 cans, if you are like me.)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence
1 3/4 cup 1% low-fat milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1/3 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
5 slices country-style white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 5 cups)
Cooking spray
5 ounces crumbled goat cheese, divided

  1. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Add olive oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add shallots, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in artichoke hearts and garlic; cook for 8 minutes or until artichoke hearts begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, and stir in herbes de Provence. Cool 10 minutes.
  2. Combine milk,  black pepper, salt, and eggs in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and bread; toss gently to combine. Stir in artichoke mixture, and let stand for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 375.
  3. Spoon half of bread mixture into an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with half of goat cheese, and top with remaining bread mixture. Sprinkle remaining half of goat cheese over top. (fp note: if you wanted to make this the day before, at this point you would cover the dish and let it hang out in the fridge. also, don't turn on the oven in step 2.)
  4. Bake at 375 for 50 minutes or until browned and bubbly. Garnish with parsley and serve with lemon wedges and hot sauce. (fp note: hmmmm, i just realized that i forgot about the parsley, lemon and hot sauce.  my bad.)