Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reading Comprehension Fail

Alternate Title: How I thought I ruined two batches of baklava, but it turned out okay in the end.

For this month’s international dessert, I chose to make baklava.  This was actually the Hubster’s suggestion, since he loves the stuff, and so do I.  What’s not to love?  Super sweet, chewy nuttiness, and layers of phyllo dough.  Good stuff.

First of all, I know I have said many times that I don’t put nuts in baked goods, and that is still true.  But when the baked good basically IS nuts, I’m okay with it, like in baklava, or pecan pie.  I just don’t like them when they are mixed with other, non-nut ingredients. I know it’s a weird inconsistency on my part, but I don’t really care.

Like I mentioned in the alternate title, I made two batches of baklava.  The first one was a wreck:

You can’t really see it in the photo, but it wouldn’t stay in nice pieces when you took it out of the pan.  And then there’s the obviously over-cooked top layer.  I just put it in the oven for the recommended amount of time without bothering to check it towards the end, which is always a mistake.  Don’t do that.  Also, when I made the syrup, I wasn’t paying attention to it while it boiled, and it ended up boiling over the pan.  I lost quite a bit of the syrup that way (and had to clean up a huge mess on my stove), so maybe there wasn’t enough to stick the layers together.

So the first batch was a bust.  I set out to make the second batch (this is getting expensive at this point, buying all those nuts and the phyllo dough).  Making baklava isn’t that hard, once you get the hang of dealing with the thin, fragile sheets of dough.  Other than that, it’s just whizzing up some stuff in your food processor and assembling.  So, I made the second batch, thinking to myself “hey, this is pretty easy!!”. After I had assembled it, before it went in the oven, I thought to myself that the nut filling still seemed like it was missing something, even though I was sure I had followed the recipe.  But, just to make myself feel better, I checked out the recipe one more time. After I had put the whole thing together.  As I scanned down the list of ingredients, I saw it.  There it was, staring at me: ⅔ cup of sugar in the nut filling.  ⅔ of a cup of sugar that I had forgotten to include, both times.  At this point, there was nothing I could really do, other than swear at myself a little bit and stick the darn thing in the oven and hope for the best.  Or, barring that, at least I could tell you about my spectacular failure.  

Thankfully, the second batch came out pretty darn good.  The top layers are really crunchy, even after being drenched in syrup, and there is quite a bit of syrup that hangs out on the bottom of the pan, but it’s pretty tasty, if I do say so myself.  It’s very sweet, but I think that’s kind of the point, right?  You can really taste the cinnamon and allspice in there too, which I just love.

Now a few notes:

I could never find rose water, so I omitted it.  I looked at a lot of other recipes that didn’t include it, so I didn’t worry much about it.  I would have liked to have had it, but it wasn’t worth searching all over town for, and I didn’t have time for ordering it online. Maybe in the future.

You have to cut the sheets of phyllo dough to fit the bottom of your pan.  For me, this meant cutting the large sheets (as they come in the package) in half, and then trimming a little off of two edges.  I found this easiest to do with a pizza cutter.  It cuts smoothly, without dragging, like a knife sometimes can.  And I used a ruler to get a nice straight edge.  When working with the sheets of dough, it is important that they don’t dry out.  I kept a moist paper towel on top of the stack of sheets when I wasn’t using them.  When you brush on the butter, start at the middle and work your way out.  This reduces tearing and shifting.  And be patient.  Layering the phyllo dough isn’t a quick process.

Source: Alton Brown
Makes 28 pieces
For the filling:
1 (5-inch piece) cinnamon stick, broken in to 2 to 3 pieces, or 2 teaspoons ground
15 to 20 whole allspice berries
6 ounces blanched almonds
6 ounces raw or roasted walnuts
6 ounces raw or roasted pistachio (unsalted)
⅔ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon rose water
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed
8 ounces clarified unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1 ¼ cups honey
1 ¼ cups water
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 (2-inch) piece of fresh orange peel


Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the cinnamon stick and whole allspice into a spice grinder and grind. (fp note: i have a little coffee grinder that i use just for this. they are pretty cheap.)

Place the almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sugar and freshly ground spices into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pasty or powdery, approximately 15 quick pulses. Set aside.

Trim the sheets of phyllo to fit the bottom of a 13 by 9 by 2-inch metal pan. Brush the bottom and sides of the pan with butter; lay down a sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Repeat this step 9 more times for a total of 10 sheets of phyllo. Top with ⅓ of the nut mixture and spread thinly. Spritz thoroughly with rose water (or just water, like i did). Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by another third of the nuts and spritz with rose water. Repeat with another 6 sheets of phyllo, butter, remaining nuts, and rose water. Top with 8 sheets of phyllo brushing with butter in between each sheet. Brush the top generously with butter. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and cut into 28 squares (fp note: trying to cut 28 squares evenly was probably the most challenging part of this recipe for me, and i didn’t get it quite right). Return pan to the oven and continue to bake for another 30 minutes.  (fp note: as i said before, i overcooked my first batch. for the second batch, i did 20 minutes for the first cook, and then 25 for the second cook). Remove pan from the oven, place on a cooling rack, and cool for 2 hours before adding the syrup.

Make the syrup during the last 30 minutes of cooling. Combine the honey, water, sugar and cinnamon stick and orange peel in a 4-quart saucepan set over high heat. Stir occassionally until the sugar has dissolved. Once boiling, boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and discard the orange peel and cinnamon stick.

After the baklava has cooled for 2 hours, re-cut the entire pan following the same lines as before. Pour the hot syrup evenly oven the top of the baklava, allowing it to run into the cuts and around the edges of the pan. Allow the pan to sit, uncovered, until completely cool. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to overnight before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sometimes, simple is the best

I make all kinds of stuff that is full of lots of ingredients, different flavors, whatever.  And it's usually very good.  But sometimes, you need something simple.  Something like....white sandwich bread.

I have always bought sandwich bread.  It was just easier that way.  But last week, in an effort to avoid yet another trip to the store for one stupid thing that I ran out of, I decided to make my own sandwich bread.  I had a day off from work, with nowhere to go (and my car was in the shop, so I had no way to get anywhere anyway), and all of the ingredients I needed on hand.  Seemed like a no-brainer to me.

I have to say that one of the things I love about baking is the smell that fills my house when something is in the oven.  The smell of bread is just so amazingly homey.  It always makes me hungry.  It's especially torturous when you have to let the loaf cool before you can cut it and try a slice.  In addition to the smell, I find the waiting stressful, because you put in all this work, and hours of your day, and you have no way to tell if the loaf turned out okay. 

This bread was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.  Really.  I had to seriously restrain myself from eating the entire thing in one sitting.  As it was, it only lasted a few days, and I ate probably 90% of it.  About 6 days after I made it, the Hubster went looking for it, couldn't find it, and assumed I had frozen the rest of the loaf.  Um, yeah, no. It was all consumed.  And now, I have been ruined to all store bought breads.  I am back to my regular stuff from the store, and it tastes and feels like styrofoam.  No good.  I think I will be going back to making my own.  So worth it.

This recipe is pretty simple and easy to follow.  It's from America's Test Kitchen "Family Baking Book", which is sort of my baking bible.  I knew they wouldn't let me down. 

American Sandwich Bread
Source: America's Test Kitchen "Family Baking Book"
Makes one 9-inch loaf

Note: If you don't have bread flour, all-purpose flour can be substituted, but the resulting loaf will be a little shorter, which a slightly denser crumb. You will need about 1 tablespoon of melted butter to brush over the loaf before baking.

1 cup warm milk (110 degrees)
1/3 cup warm water (110 degrees)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus extra for brushing
3 tablespoons honey
3 1/2-4 cups bread flour
1 envelope instant or rapid-rise yeast
2 teaspoons salt

  1. Whisk the milk, water, butter, and honey together in a large liquid measuring cup. Combine 3 1/2 cups of the flour, yeast, and salt in a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the milk 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 (if the dough feels sticky), add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl but sticks to the bottom (fp note: i think i added about 1/4 cup of the 1/2 cup of extra flour.  just take it slowly and see what works for you).
  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. (fp note: my house is generally on the cold and breezy side, so when i need a warm place for bread, here is what i do: when i start mixing the dough, i turn the oven on to about 200.  when i put the dough into the bowl, i turn off the oven, and put the bowl in the oven.  keep the door closed as long as you can -- i check around 1 hour. that warmth lets the dough rise.)
  4. Grease a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and gently press it into a 9-inch square.  Roll the dough into a tight cylinder and pinch the seam closed. Place the loaf, seam side down, in the prepared pan. Mist the loaf with vegetable oil spray, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place (i put it back in the oven, but don't turn it on or anything) until nearly doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle, 45 to 75 minutes. (i got distracted and let mine rise for longer than it should have, so the dough had kind of blossomed over the side of the pan on one side. i just tucked it in and went on. made the top a little funny looking, but still tasted great.)
  5. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. (if you use my oven trick for letting the dough rise, make sure you take out the bread before you preheat the oven!!) Brush the loaf lightly with melted butter, then spray lightly with water. Bake until golden and the center of the bread registers 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 50 minutes, rotating the loaf halfway through baking (when i went to rotate the loaf after 20 minutes i thought it looked like it was going to get too brown. so i loosely covered it in aluminum foil. the loaf ended up coming out slightly pale, but i'm okay with that.). Cool the loaf in the pan for 15 minutes, then flip out onto a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.  Just try to wait that long. I dare you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The cookiest cookie of all

I am going to share with you a recipe that I didn’t think I would ever share.  These cookies are something that I make on a regular basis, and they also something that I have messed around with a lot, with varying degrees of success.  They are my favorite type of cookie to make for myself.  They are all of the things a good cookie should be – chewy, soft, sweet, and inviting.

We’re talking about Monster Cookies.

What’s a Monster Cookie?  Well, it’s basically a cookie that has all sorts of fun things added to it.  When I make these, I usually just open up my cupboard and see what I have in there.  There are certain things that I always add, things I really like to add, and things that I never add.  Usually the “never adds” are because I tried them once and was really unhappy with the results.  Here are my lists:

Always Add:
Old-fashioned oats – you can add whatever oats you want, but I like the chew and heft that the old-fashioned ones give the cookies.
Chocolate chips – whatever I have in the house, usually some mix of semi-sweet and milk chocolate.

Like to Add:
White chocolate chips
Peanut butter chips
Toffee chips
Fun chocolate-based candies (Peanut butter M&Ms are especially great)

Never Add:
Marshmallows – if you put them in the dough, they melt into the cookie by the time they are done baking, and you don’t get any marshmallow flavor or texture from them, so it’s kind of a waste.
Rice Krispies – these things turn into tiny rocks when you bake them.  No bueno.

The time I made these cookies for the ones you see in the photo, the cookies came out especially well, which is why I decided to share them.  I had friends coming over, and I whipped them up really quickly.  They were amazingly good.  I made them with the oats, a couple handfuls of semi-sweet chocolate chips, milk chocolate chips, toffee chips, and a  handful of peanut butter chips.  I went easy on the peanut butter chips, because the Hubster prefers them that way.  The things we do for love. Also, I doubled the recipe you see below, and just baked off about a dozen cookies and froze the rest.  I think I got a couple of dozen cookies out of it. Maybe more.

The dough, like most cookie dough, freezes well.  Unless I’m taking them somewhere where I know that all of the cookies will be eaten, I only bake what I need and then scoop and freeze the rest of the dough.  Also, the more stuff I add in, the bigger the scoop I use, so that I can get all of the goodness into each cookies.  The one I used for these was about an inch and a half in diameter.  When I use bigger scoops, I drop the oven temp a little and bake them a little longer.  For this size scoop, I went with 325, and about 18 minutes. 

Monster Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso coffee powder
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
Add-ins of your choice


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream the butter with the sugars using an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy (approximately 30 seconds)

Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract for another 30 seconds.

In a mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients and beat into the butter mixture at low speed for about 15 seconds. Stir in the espresso coffee powder. Mix in oats and other add-ins by hand, using a rubber spatula

Using a scoop (mine is about 1.5-inch in diameter), drop cookie dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown and delicious. Cool on the sheet pan for a few minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack to finish cooling completely before eating or storing.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Medium Hats?

When friends have celebrations, I almost always use it as an excuse to bake something, and it is usually something bigger and/or fancier than I would bake to say, take to work or a concert or something.  This is the time when I dig through the starred recipes on my googly reader or the things I’ve marked in cookbooks and make the things I’ve been saving “for a special occassion”.  

Friend J had a birthday party recently.  J is actually the Hubster’s best friend, so over the years we’ve become friends as well.  J has always been someone that would eat just about anything that I make, even the flops, or the ugly-but-tasties.  I wanted to make something special for his birthday, and there were these cupcakes that I had been wanting to make for a really long time -- Hi Hat Cupcakes.  And, because I saw one photo of it, I decided to bake the cupcakes in ice cream cones.  So cute, right?!!?  Actually, doing them this way brought back fond memories for me.  When I was a kid, my mom use to bake cupcakes in ice cream cones for my birthday, and I just thought they were so special.  And, with the frosting swirled as high as it should be, they remind me of Diary Queen dipped ice cream cones, which are a particular favorite of mine.  I added a few little sprinkles to the cuppies for a more festive touch.  

Hi Hat Cupcakes are definitely more labor intensive than most of what I make, and also time consuming.  They involve making a cupcake, topping it with a high swirl of fluffy frosting, and then dipping that frosting into melted chocolate, and letting it set.  I actually made them over two days. I baked the cupcakes the first day, and then made the frosting and dipped them in chocolate on the next day.  I did this because I was short on time on the day of the party, so if you have plenty of time, you could do this all in one day.  

As you can see from the photo, I had some trouble with these.  It’s possible that I didn’t whip the frosting to stiff enough peaks, but it didn’t swirl that high, and it kept wanting to slide off the cupcakes when I went to dip them in the chocolate.  The chocolate may have been slightly too warm, but honestly, I don’t think so.  I let it cool as long as I could, while making sure it was still liquid enough for dipping.  But anyway, they came out kind of ugly.  And, since the ice cream cones were not very sturdy on their own, I had issues with them tipping over.  I lost quite a few of them after they were frosted because they tipped over and fell on the floor, or the counter, or into each other.  It was not a pretty sight.

I was not all that impressed by the cake itself.  I thought it lacked a little in flavor, and it was a little too dry for me.  

I do have a note for you, if you decide to make these in ice cream cones.  Do not use any cones that have notches in the top edge.  When the cake rises while backing, it will spill over the side, and give you something that looks like this:

Also, I filled the cones up to about ½” from the top.  This gave me tops that were level with the top of the cone (more of less).  I baked them about 20 minutes, but you should check them every few minutes after the first 10. When a toothpick comes out clean, they are done.

Hi Hat Cupcakes

Source: Martha Stewart
Makes 12 regular cupcakes, or slightly more cone-cakes

For the Batter

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream

For the Frosting

1 3/4 cups sugar
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the Chocolate Coating

2 cups chopped (about 12 ounces) semisweet chocolate
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in center. Prepare the batter: Place chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl, and set it over a medium saucepan of barely simmering water; stir chocolate until melted and smooth. Remove bowl from heat, and set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed, scraping sides of bowl as needed, until light and fluffy. On low speed, mix in melted chocolate. Increase speed to medium, and add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla, and beat until mixture is creamy and color has lightened slightly, about 1 minute. Mix in sour cream. On low speed, add half of reserved flour mixture, beating until just incorporated. Mix in 1/2 cup water. Add remaining flour mixture, and mix until just incorporated.
  4. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners. Fill each liner with enough batter to come 1/8 inch from top, about 1/3 cup. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until tops are firm and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to cool in pan for 10 minutes.
  5. Use a small knife to loosen any tops stuck to the pan. Carefully invert cupcakes onto the wire rack. Turn cupcakes right side up, and let cool completely.
  6. Prepare the frosting: In a large heatproof bowl, combine sugar, 1/4 cup water, egg whites, and cream of tartar. Using a handheld electric mixer, beat on high speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Set bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Beat on high speed until frosting forms stiff peaks, about 12 minutes; frosting should register 160 degrees.on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla and almond extracts, and beat for 2 minutes more until frosting thickens.
  7. Transfer frosting to a large pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain pastry tip. Leaving a 1/8-inch border on each cupcake, pipe a spiral of frosting into a 2-inch-high cone shape, using about 1/2 cup of frosting per cupcake. Transfer cupcakes to a baking sheet, and refrigerate while preparing the chocolate coating.
  8. Prepare the chocolate coating: Combine chocolate and oil in a medium heat-proof bowl set over a medium saucepan of barely simmering water; stir until melted and smooth. Transfer to a small bowl, and let cool about 15 minutes.
  9. Holding each cupcake by its bottom, dip cupcake in the chocolate to coat frosting, allowing excess to drip off. Transfer to a baking sheet fitted with a wire rack. Spoon more coating around edge of cupcake and any exposed frosting; none of the frosting should show. Let cupcakes stand at room temperature 15 minutes.
  10. Carefully remove paper liners from cupcakes, and discard. Place cupcakes on a serving platter, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to let coating set. Cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours more. Serve cold. Cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.