Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Crackled" Snickerdoodles

Decadence. Pure decadence. While in these tough economic times "decadent" should perhaps not be the slogan for the holidays, what if we were able to combine it with resourcefulness to approach something special enough for the holidays but "green-inspired" all the same? I give you these cookies. While they may not look decadent on the surface, haven't we learned to look a bit deeper?
There. Yes. That's decadence. Only during the holidays might I muse over the utter gluttony of stuffing one cookie with, yes, another cookie, and then turn these musings into reality. But only during these particular holidays might this action seem not like gluttony at all, but instead like traditional resourcefulness, like the frugality on which much of our nation's food culture is based. The Midnight Crackles I made last week produced 52 cookies--52!--and while they were wonderful, there are only two people in my household, and we've had colds and thus have not had a lot of company. That amounts to 26 cookies (and a stick of butter) per person. Of course, I froze some to take to North Carolina, as my mother-in-law and sister-in-law requested, but even then, 52 cookies! Many failed cakes-turned-trifles have taught me the pleasure (or perhaps, the habit) of turning one baked good into another, which got the wheels turning. I then remembered a recipe in a recent Bon Appetit (September 2008) for Brownie-Chunk Cookies, which used chilled brownie pieces instead of chocolate chips in a basic butter cookie recipe. Well, I thought, since my Midnight Crackles were flavored with cinnamon, why not use them in another holiday favorite of mine: Snickerdoodles. I love the crunch of the cinnamon-sugar when you bite into them, the characteristic lightness of the dough, and even, like the Midnight Crackles, the invitingly cracked tops, giving you just a hint of what's inside. They remind me of that present under the tree that the dog chewed the corner of--thanks to her, if you look closely enough, you can almost guess what's beneath the shiny wrapping.

Because they were both frozen and dense to begin with, the Crackles cut beautifully with a sharp knife. I just chopped them into small squares and tossed the crumbs so the Snickerdoodles would maintain their traditional look without being dotted with dark crumbs. I chilled the squares while I prepared the batter. I knew I needed to look for a Snickerdoodle recipe that was not too light so it would stand up to the Crackles. I found just the one in the September 2007 issue of Cooking Light: Puffy (not flat) cookies with a dark smattering of cinnamon-sugar on top. And since many of the reviewers said that it wasn't "that light," I didn't feel too bad adding a non-light cookie to the mix. Suffice it to say, though, I won't be winning any Cooking Light recipe contests with this one. Once the dough was finished, I folded in the chilled Crackle pieces using my hands after the rubber spatula failed and then I chilled the dough for about 30 minutes. This step was key, otherwise the butter would have been too soft and the Snickerdoodles would have flattened out in the oven, leaving mini chocolate boulders on their dusty surface instead of cleverly hiding them beneath their mounded surface. I wanted the necessary amount of holiday deception; that perfect hiding place for gifts, rather than stuffing them under the bed where anyone can find them.
I considered, for a second, not rolling the cookies in cinnamon-sugar; I was afraid it would be overkill. Absolutely not--this is what makes them festive. I love the crunch of the sugary crust, like the top of an oversized bakery muffin.
Because the Crackles were already baked, they did not melt like chocolate chips would and thus created some odd cookies shapes. Which one does not belong? (Here's the Holiday Baking version of good old "Where's Waldo?")
Thank goodness for friends, or my house would be covered with plates of cookies. Merry Christmas!

"Crackled" Snickerdoodles
(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2007, and from Bon Appetit, November 2006 and September 2008)

8-10 baked Midnight Crackles, chilled or frozen (see previous blog post)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lg. egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. Cut Midnight Crackles into 1/4-inch squares with a sharp knife. Discard crumbs (use a sifter or your fingers) and chill the pieces.
2. Combine 1/2 cup sugar, brown sugar, and butter in the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer; cream until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla; beat until creamy and well-blended.
3. Combine flour, baking powder, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, and salt; whisk. Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually; beat until just combined. Fold in the Midnight Crackle pieces, and you may need to use your hands, as the dough will be stiff. Try not to overwork it or get it too soft. You can always redistribute the pieces while you are rolling the cookies into balls later.
4. Chill for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 F.
5. Combine the 1/3 cup sugar and 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon in a shallow bowl with a whisk. Shape the chilled dough into 30 balls (each about the width of a quarter or slightly larger) and roll them in the cinnamon-sugar. Place them 2 inches apart on a nonstick baking sheet sprayed lightly with cooking spray. 
6. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until tops just crack. Cool on sheets for 1-2 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. 
7. Enjoy!

In order to just make the Snickerdoodles, simply leave out the Midnight Crackles. No other steps need be changed. You could even bake half the dough then add in some Crackles and bake the other half. Or you could use any other dense cookie in place of the Crackles--use your imagination!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Banana-Butterscotch Muffins

In The Joy of Muffins, Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher include a chapter called "Between-Meal Muffins," which consists of a miscellany of muffin recipes that are too sweet or spicy or savory to be breakfast muffins or dessert muffins, muffins that have the complexity to be enjoyed alone, when the tastebuds are fully awake and are not distracted by other flavors. These are the muffins I prefer. While blueberries certainly have their place in my summer morning repertoire, I usually prefer a subtle mixture of orange zest and cinnamon sugar, or pine nuts and lemon. These are to be savored on their own, resting crumbly on a napkin next to your computer or, better yet, a good novel and a warm blanket. Some muffins transcend even this "between-meal" status and achieve something, if not greater, then altogether different. These Banana-Butterscotch Muffins heartily resist categorization. They are too sweet for morning, though the banana is reminiscent of a good smoothie, making them too much like breakfast for dessert. "Well, serve them for brunch, then," you might say--depending on your menu, this could be a good choice. If you are serving wintery Christmas-morning foods such as spiced sausage and potatoes, these muffins would be an excellent addition. But if you are planning a lemony, citrusy bridesmaids brunch, well, try blueberry. I tend to crave them late at night, with a steaming cup of tea--the strength of the butterscotch is a perfect stand-in for a hot toddy or other cold weather nightcap. Let others fight shopping crowds; I'd rather be reminded of the holidays with the sultry whisper of butterscotch.

I made this recipe into 36 mini muffins, though I am told it easily makes 12 regular-sized muffins. If you make minis, I recommend chopping your butterscotch chips into roughly smaller pieces or, if you are so lucky, finding mini butterscotch chips to round out the theme. You could also certainly use chocolate chips, of course, but that would be an entirely different experience.

Banana-Butterscotch Muffins
(adapted from Nigella Express)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (though I imagine these could stand up to whole wheat or white whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch salt
2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed (slightly over a cup)
1 cup butterscotch chips

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and either spray a muffin pan (or two minis) well with cooking spray or line with paper liners. The butterscotch chips do not melt like chocolate--instead, they tend to caramelize and stick to the pan. 
2. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt in a large bowl with a whisk. 
3. Pour the oil into a medium bowl. Beat in the eggs, then add the mashed bananas. (Be sure to mash them before mixing them in with the eggs and oil to avoid overbeating the eggs.)
4. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and gently fold them in. Stir only until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. When there are a few streaks of flour left, add the butterscotch chips and continue folding to distribute them. 
5. Using an ice cream scoop or disher, place the batter in the pans, filling each cup about 3/4 full. Bake regular muffins for 20 minutes and minis for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Cool in pan 5-10 minutes and serve warm.

I have yet to try this, but I imagine these would be excellent with a sweet whiskey glaze. Hmm--what visions of sugar plums might this induce?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Midnight Crackles

I was always one of those weird kids who twisted her Oreos apart, scraped out the white filling, and ate the chocolate cookies. I never understood the kids who acted like the chocolate cookies were just a vehicle for the filling; it always seemed gritty and overly sweet. Don't even get me started on Double Stuf Oreos. I only ate the filling when the cookie had been soaked in cold milk long enough that the components blurred together into melty goodness. I have spent much of my adult life searching for a cookie recipe that was a softer version--like an Oreo dipped in milk--of the outside of the Oreos.

I've found something better: Dorie Greenspan's Midnight Crackles. I had marked them in an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine (November 2006) but somehow, had never gotten around to baking them. I found them again when I was recently creating an index of magazine recipes; they seemed like the perfect after-Thanksgiving sweet. Small, chocolatey (I needed a bit of a break from pumpkin) and spicy--the perfect transition into the Christmas season. And the larger-than-life magazine photo made them look perfectly seductive, cracked and crisp on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside--like those Oreos of old. And the best part: they did not require creaming butter and sugar, a process that always seems to result in too-soft cookies, at least in my oven. Instead, the butter is melted with the chocolate and brown sugar in a  saucepan--the stove does the work for you. Just chill the completed dough, roll pieces into balls, press them onto a cookie sheet, and bake. While they hold up well for about a week, they are best warm right out of the oven, with, of course, the requisite glass of cold milk. 

Press them lightly to flatten, and bake on either a Silpat or a nonstick sheet sprayed with cooking spray (or a parchment-lined baking sheet). 

I love how these cookies look like truffles before you bake them. It is like watching one glorious treat morph into another, like magic.

Midnight Crackles
(adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2006)

10 T unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces to help it melt
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar (the molasses in dark sugar will be too strong)
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used 8 oz. bittersweet and 2 oz. semisweet--because that's what I had)

2 1/2 cups AP flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process--again, too strong)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon (heaping is fine)
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
(At this point, spices such as ginger, allspice, and coriander can be added or substituted--you could even add some cayenne for a bit of heat.)
2 large eggs, room temperature (since you'll be adding them to a warm mixture)

1. Melt the butter, brown sugar, and chocolate (not the cocoa powder) in a saucepan over low heat, whisking frequently. When the mixture is smooth, pour it into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a large bowl to use with a hand mixer.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time, to the butter-chocolate mixture, and beat until well incorporated. 
4. Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until they are all incorporated and the dough has pulled away from the sides of the mixing bowl to form a ball.
5. Cut the dough in half, flatten each slightly onto a piece of plastic wrap, wrap tightly, and chill for at least an hour and up to three days. If you chill it for longer than one hour, leave it on the counter for 15-30 minutes before you plan to work with it. The cookies will not only be easier to work with but they will crack--as the title suggests--perfectly if they are not too cold.
6. Place the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 350 F. Prepare your baking sheets. 
7. Working with about 1 T of dough at a time, squeeze and roll it into a ball between your palms, place on the baking sheet 1 inch apart, and press down lightly with your fingertips (like you are making crisscross marks on peanut butter cookies with a fork).
8. Place a cookie sheet on each oven shelf and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets  between shelves and front to back halfway through. Bake just until the tops are slightly firm--if you lightly tap it, it should not sink, but it should feel very delicate.
9. Cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Allow sheets to cool completely before using them to bake another batch.

Makes about 50 cookies. They will keep up to a week and can be frozen, wrapped airtight, for 2 months.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Giving Thanks

I realize this post title (with some variation, of course) is quite common around this time of year--in fact, I'm slightly late posting on this topic as my friends' blogs indicate--but I am so thankful for the best week I can remember. I just woke up from my recovery nap and I am smiling for reasons quite apparent. Dan and I prepared our first Thanksgiving dinner for all of our parents at our house in Oxford. It was a resounding success. The food all turned out well, but even better, everyone got along brilliantly. I am so grateful for this--that I could happily tell others that my in-laws were coming for Thanksgiving. I love them all dearly and this was the best holiday I could have imagined.

It was made even better by the fact that this year my birthday fell on Thanksgiving. I was born on Thanksgiving and always love celebrating my birthday on a holiday of thanks. This year, my husband, knowing that I would be cooking a full holiday feast on the actual day, gave me a birthday week. I am so thankful to have married someone who not only loves to cook but loves to challenge himself in the kitchen. Now that he has turned in his dissertation, he has decided to teach himself the art of French cooking. Not having a butcher in town has been difficult, but he began Monday with Steak au Poivre and my birthday favorite, Brussels Sprouts with Shallots and Bacon. I must be the only person I know who looks more forward to brussels sprouts than cake on her birthday. But when Dan makes them, they are magnificent and incredibly luxurious.

Tuesday night he took me out for my other favorite meal: Mexican food and a pitcher of beer. Ever since my college days in Texas, there is nothing more comforting or festive than enchiladas smothered in red sauce, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream, a basket of hot chips, and a dish of queso with traces of salsa running through it. And of course, a cold mug of Dos Equis XX. Thank you, Dan, for knowing that this meal out would make me happier than any expensive dinner--though that was to come.

Thank you to our mothers for volunteering for dish duty, especially since the first few years of wedding china means nothing can go in the dishwasher (no matter what the back of the plate says). Thank you to Dad for bringing the hit of the party--a two-and-a-half pound bag of peanuts. Football and peanut shells can always bring a family together. Thank you to Deak for football tickets for "guy time" and to Donna and Mom for a wonderful girls shopping day, even on Black Friday. Thank you to everyone for understanding that the noise at 208 on the evening of the Egg Bowl was worth it when you tasted the Shrimp and Crabmeat Wontons, the wedge salads, and the Lobster Mac and Cheese. And thanks to Dan for making me try new things, getting me out of my familiar ruts, and as a result, I am even thankful for my new favorite wine, the Goats Do Roam Pinotage. And for the extra dessert from our harried but lovely waiter.

Thank you all for a wonderful holiday, for making it the best it could be (and the best it could taste). From Dan's grilled turkey to Donna's smoky gravy to Mom's bread dressing, it was such a success; thank you for the stories I'll be able to tell for years.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pain au Chocolat

With the promise of a long, lazy Sunday afternoon ahead of me, I decided that today would be the day. Today, I would make my own croissant dough. Today I would make Pain au Chocolat. I pulled out Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible that Dan had given me for Christmas last year and found not only her recipe for croissant dough but a beautiful photograph of her Pains au Chocolat--deep golden brown and flaky, you could see all of the layers of pastry and the chocolate peeking out from the ends. If I could even get close to that, I thought, I would count the day a success.

As we often must do with an undertaking such as this, I told a friend what I was planning to do and offered her some if the pastry turned out well--this committed me to actually going through with it. I learned very quickly that this dough is not at all difficult; it gets its reputation, as so many baked goods do, from the amount of time and patience required, not from any needed degree of skill. It saddens me that as a society we've chosen the phrase "it's too hard" to denote anything time-consuming, anything from which we cannot obtain instant gratification but must instead take pleasure in the process. I'm not saying that I will make my own croissants every weekend--it did take about 10-12 hours, start to finish, but that first bite was heaven. Crusty, flaky, tender, warm, sweet and salty--imagine a French bakery and a crowd of tourists smiling to the strains of Edith Piaf's sultry "La Vie en Rose" and you've got the feeling just about right. Comforting and familiar, if not entirely authentic.

I'm not going to type out the recipe, as I did not use only one and I think talking through the process, as Beranbaum does in her books, is the most approachable way to begin. In case you're wondering, I also used The King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking Book, as it contained diagrams of the rolling and folding process and I am somewhat spacially deficient.

So first you make a dough using about 10 ounces of flour--you can use entirely all-purpose flour, a mix of all-purpose and bread flour, all-purpose and whole wheat flour, or all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. Warm up 3/4 cup of milk, place a couple tablespoons with a packet of active dry yeast and a 1/2 tsp. of sugar in a small bowl and allow it to sit for 20 minutes to get bubbly and foamy. Meanwhile, in a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, fluff up the flour, 1 tsp. salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Switch to the dough hook and add the yeast mixture and slowly pour in the rest of the milk. Let them mix for about 4-5 minutes--the dough should be smooth and silky and should not stick to the bowl. It may look like there won't be enough liquid to soak up all the flour--there will be. Resist the urge to add more milk. In the time it took me to go the fridge and pour more milk in my measuring cup, the dough hook had worked all of the flour into the mixture and I ended up pouring the milk right back into the carton. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat, and let it rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Using a spatula, fold it over on itself, recover, and place in the fridge for at least 2 hours and at most overnight.

Meanwhile, knead 2 sticks of butter--cold but softened--with 1 tablespoon of flour (it's easiest to do this with the butter and flour in a ziplock bag) and form it into a 5-inch square. Chill for 30 minutes. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into an 8 or 9-inch square and place the butter square diagonally in the center. Fold the flaps of dough to cover and moisten the edges with water if they need help sticking. Chill for 30 minutes.
Next, roll the dough into a long rectangle, three times as long as wide (20 x 7, 18 x 6), the shortest part facing you. Fold it like a business letter--bottom third up, top third down. Make sure the edges are even--moisten to seal if necessary. This is one turn. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes. 
Complete three more turns, rolling, folding, and chilling. After the last turn, chill the dough for a couple of hours. After letting it rest at room temperature for a few minutes, roll it into a long rectangle as before, but a little longer and wider. Cut it in half lengthwise so you have two very long strips. Cut each of those in half, and then each of those halves into thirds. You should have 12 rectangles. Place 1/2 ounce of good chocolate at the end of each rectangle and roll it so the chocolate is covered and the edges of dough overlap--moisten to seal. Place the roll seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving a few inches between each. Cover in plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray and let rise for 2 hours. Before baking, brush the tops with an egg wash. You can refrigerate the rolls at this point and bake in the morning, or for up to two days. You can also freeze them, unbaked, for a few months, but be sure to use more yeast in the beginning as freezing tends to kill some of the yeast.

To bake, preheat the oven to 400 F. Five minutes before baking, place a glass dish filled with an inch of hot water in the oven. Bake the pains for 20-22 minutes or until golden brown on top. Remove and allow to cool for at least ten minutes before eating. You can reheat them later for 5 minutes in a 300 F oven, or you can freeze them and reheat for 8 minutes.

I find they fit best if you place them diagonally on the baking sheets.

How pretty is that?
I baked one batch immediately and refrigerated one to bake in the morning. I think the batch that got a night's rest in the fridge actually tasted better. While they did not rise as much, the layers separated better and they were more tender. This may have been my imagination, as a cup of coffee and a lazy morning make everything better, but don't be afraid to put off baking these. They work anytime. And as I said, they're not hard--lots of repetition and my palms are a but sore from rolling the dough, but it's an accomplished sort of pain. The kind that builds callouses and character.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cranberry-Apple Crumble

Because it is early in the season, I was allowed to make dessert to eat during the Carolina game. Yes, "allowed." The language certainly sounds patriarchal, and my use of it perhaps suggests that I am not as liberated a woman as I may claim to be. Believe me when I say that this is absolutely not the case. In this context, the person doing the "allowing" is me. Despite my love of baking and Friday night desserts, I would happily give that up for a Carolina win. And eating on the couch during a conference game is akin to streaking across the Dean Dome every time Hansbrough prepares to shoot a free throw: Distracting and potentially disastrous for the outcome of the game. Which is why it is wonderful that tonight is not a conference game.

You have to understand, my husband is a devoted UNC basketball fan. His rules for games used to fascinate me, then they frustrated me, and now, well, they frighten me because they are beginning to make sense. I learned that you must drink the same drink for the entire game--a new beer is fine, but you cannot switch from Sam Adams to Coors, for example, and I've seen the resulting changes in the players' performances. I realized that taking a bite of a Zapp's Cajun Crawdaddy chip ensured a hit free throw; if I slacked in my snacking, the team suffered. Dan's still convinced that Carolina won a 2005 playoff game because he retrieved a Hershey's kiss wrapper I'd thrown away mid-game from the trash and placed it, dirty and crumpled, back on the coffee table where it had been for the entire first half. And then they won the National Championship. So yes, I was allowed to make dessert last night because it was early in the season and it was not a conference game. But do not expect many more Friday Night Dessert posts until April.

I chose to make a Cranberry-Apple Crumble. I'd made it before using sweetened dried cranberries, but as I still had a few bags of fresh cranberries I'd frozen left over from last season, I decided to see if fresh could be used in this recipe.  I learned that not only can you use them, but I would absolutely recommend it--it was wonderful, festive, tart, and the feeling of those bright red cranberries popping in your mouth is incomparable. The dried version has nothing on this one. What I especially love about this recipe is that it can be made ahead--even the apples. Just squeeze some lemon juice over them and place them in the fridge and it will hold for hours, giving the cranberries time to thaw and the sugar time to macerate the mixture. And the crumble topping can be made even weeks in advance and frozen, and can even be baked from frozen. What a great thing to have on hand--just make a batch or two and you're always ready for a baked apple or pear or a crumble like this one. In other words, this recipe can serve one to eight, depending on your needs. I can't think of a better idea at the end of a long day than cutting up an apple, tossing it with cranberries, sugar, and lemon juice in an oven-safe bowl, tossing a handful of the crumble on top, and baking for 30 minutes. Your very own bowl of bubbly sweet-tart goodness--what a luxury. Try this, even if you're on your own. I doubt there's anything a bowl of warm dessert and a few hours of Colin Firth (just a suggestion) can't fix.

Cranberry-Apple Crumble
(adapted from Cooking Light, November 2007)

1/4 cup (or a couple of handfuls) of fresh or frozen cranberries (dried cranberries are also good)
1 T fresh lemon juice
4 apples, peeled and chopped into chunks (at least two should be sweet--Braeburns or Galas--to offset the tartness of the cranberries; I like 3 Braeburns and 1 Granny Smith)
1/8 cup sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour (oat flour is also lovely if you want to make this even healthier)
6 T brown sugar
6 T old-fashioned rolled oats
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg (freshly ground is best)
3 T chilled butter, cut into small pieces

Serve with light vanilla ice cream (I like Hagen-Daaz light vanilla bean ice cream).

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. The prepare the filling, toss all ingredients into a large bowl. Cover and place in fridge if not baking right away. Or coat an 11 x 7 baking dish with cooking spray and place mixture in dish.
3. To prepare topping, combine flour, sugar, oats, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl with a whisk. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle butter mixture over apple mixture and bake at 350 F for 35 minutes or until crust is browned and filling is bubbly. 
4. Serve with vanilla ice cream. The great part about using fresh cranberries is that they begin to burst and create a thick sauce at the bottom of the crumble. Use a spoon and drizzle some of this over the ice cream--don't let it go to waste!--and your dish will really look fancy. 

This should serve 8, but if you want to indulge in more, go right ahead. Enjoy the holidays!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fighting the Spice Cake

The title says it all. I have, for several weeks now, been fighting with a new spice cake recipe. On the surface, everything seems fine: no instructions are left out, as was the case with the Spanish Omelette we made for dinner last night (if what makes it Spanish, according the the recipe blurb, are the potatoes and onions, why leave the potatoes in the ingredient list but out of the directions? Nigella, I love you, but oops). All of the ingredients appear to be in correct proportion. The method suggested for mixing the batter--beating rather than folding--seems appropriate for a cake, even a loaf cake. So why, after several attempts, does my cake continue to fall to a depth of at least an inch right down the center of the loaf??? The sides and bottom are certainly done after 50 minutes at 350 F, and would burn if I left it in longer. I'm afraid to raise the oven temperature to 375 F in hopes that the middle would rise faster for fear that the other parts of the cake really would burn. I've adjusted ingredients, consulted a Science of Baking book, all to no avail. The  middle will not rise.

Why all the fuss you might ask? Why not just abandon the recipe for one of the thousands of other spice cake recipes in the world? It's the best damn spice cake ever . . . flavor-wise. It has just the right proportion of ginger to allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, it has a dark, dusky flavor from the addition of a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, and the crumb is light--not too dry or moist--and relatively consistent (except, of course, for the fallen cake ceiling). It is an amazing cake, both for a light dessert or toasted with cream cheese for breakfast. I am determined, this holiday season, to perfect the spice cake. Whatever it takes--a change in the pan, ingredients, even the addition of a few pounds to my friends' waistlines (yes, I will ask this sacrifice of you)--I will prevail.

Tomorrow . . . the bundt version. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cinnamon Apple Scones

This picture does not do these scones justice. Look at them in relation to the large blue coffee mug. They are huge. I mean it--they are bigger-than-my-hand bites of buttery goodness. And butter they have--three sticks to be exact. If you're still reading, you understand butter the same way I do: as something to be revered, not to be avoided. Butter is also a privilege not to be abused. So many old recipes, especially old Southern recipes, use obscene amounts of butter to saute vegetables and enrich sauces, to make icings (frostings?) and various other baked goods. It's not always necessary. Sometimes, as we've been learning as a nation in the last few decades, a good olive oil is best for both the vegetables and our hearts. Sometimes a lemon-and-powdered sugar glaze is just as good as a frosting, and less-saturated-fat vegetable oil can produce fluffy cakes and muffins. Sometimes we can improve upon past generations' butter intake. And it makes it all the better when it's front and center in pie crusts, pastries, and yes, these scones. Use good butter and you will bask in simple luxury.

Dan's friends were visiting us a few weekends ago for a 30th birthday reunion. His friend's wife had arranged the entire trip as a surprise for her husband, and we did our best to introduce them to Oxford, Mississippi. We took them to Taylor Grocery, the Grove, and the Auburn game (we won!). We'd planned on a Halloween outing to the Square, but, as we were all close to entering a new decade in our lives, we fell asleep. (I just hope that my Sarah Palin costume will not be as relevant next year.) Which leads me to my next point. He's a lawyer; she's a doctor. He works days at a firm in North Carolina; she works nights as an ER resident. It seemed like we all needed a little home-baked comfort food, and she had brought me The Foster's Market Cookbook as a hostess gift. Enter these scones. I had all of the ingredients in my pantry and they turned out to be the perfect grab-and-go food that still filled the house with that nostalgic aroma of warm baked apples, spicy cinnamon, and, of course, creamy, luscious butter.

The recipe uses a pastry/biscuit method, cutting cold butter into flour and moistening with milk or water. It's remarkably easy to do by hand, with knives, or with a pastry cutter that you can pick up at the supermarket for under ten dollars. Leave the butter in irregularly-sized chunks--this is one thing a food processor does not do well. In the oven, the cold butter bursts and melts, leaving air pockets that make the dough, like a pie crust, nice and flaky and moist. The buttermilk tenderizes the scones, keeping them so soft. And you can really taste the butter, which is why I suggest using a good one. Check out the cheese counter at your grocery store--they often keep some specialty butters like Plugra and Kerrygold (which would be excellent in this recipe) there. 

These only take a little over an hour to make, but if you want to prepare them ahead of time, freeze the wedges before baking. Then you can bake from frozen. Or you can refrigerate the unbaked scones up to 2 hours, covered with plastic wrap. Any longer and they get tough and do not rise properly. 

This is a great hands-on activity. It's a soft dough and because you have to work quickly to keep the ingredients cold, you don't feel like you are rushing without purpose.

I would actually put six wedges on each baking sheet, rather than the nine I have here. Give them room to spread out a bit. The soft, warm, buttery inside with the crunch from the sugar on top is pure heaven.

Cinnamon Apple Scones
(adapted from The Foster's Market Cookbook)

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 T ground cinnamon
3/4 lb. (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 cups peeled and chopped Granny Smith apples (1 large)
1 1/4 cups plus 2 T buttermilk (or 1 1/4 cup milk mixed with heaping T of white vinegar--let sit 5 mins.)
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 2 T milk
Cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup sugar with 2 T cinnamon)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets and set aside (if they are good nonstick sheets, you may not need to grease them). 
3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the butter and cut it in--using a pastry cutter or two knives moving in a crisscross motion--until the mixture resembles course meal. (Or use your fingers if they are cold, or a food processor if you have a large one, but be sure not to get the butter too small. Transfer it to a large bowl to finish the dough.) Add the apples and lightly mix.
5. Add 1 1/4 cups buttermilk and mix until just combined and the dough begins to stick together. Add any remaining buttermilk one tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry.
6. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, divide in half, and pat each half into two six-inch rounds about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut each round in half, then cut each half into 3 wedges. Be sure to work as quickly as possible to keep the ingredients cold; otherwise, the scones will spread too much on the oven and will not hold their shape.
7. Place the wedges on the baking sheets and brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
8. Bake 30-35 mins., until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. 

If you have leftovers, store in an airtight container up to two days and reheat before eating.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dark-Chocolate Dipped Anise Biscotti

Today, I saw the first Christmas decorations of the year, in the most unlikely of places: the windows of an open-air sports bar on the Square. No matter. That first Christmas display always means the same thing: time to start holiday baking! I'm trying this year to expand my winter spice repertoire beyond the usual cinnamon and nutmeg to include spices with more complexity and heat, such as mace and cardamom. For these biscotti, I chose anise seed. I didn't even have it in my pantry. (Yes, this is my idea of an adventure--buying a new spice.) It had such a strong scent that I did reconsider these biscotti, but something about this recipe had a hold on me. I faintly remembered that scent from cookies at my parents' parties when I was young. I love the idea of a simple dessert or on-the-go breakfast with coffee, and I wanted to try something unusual yet strangely familiar. I also wanted to try biscotti again. The last time I made them, I didn't bake them long enough and they had an odd texture--tough and chewy in the middle, though with a great flavor due to oats and honey. I wanted a second chance.

Thankfully, they turned out beautifully. Crispy and spicy, with a slight sweetness on the top from the chocolate. The anise is both warming and refreshing, a perfect after-dinner treat. They take a little while to bake--devote an afternoon to the project--but they are minimalist perfection. They'll add sophistication to your palate and your vocabulary--just remember that "biscotti" is plural; if you offer someone one cookie, it is a "biscotto."

Since you don't temper the chocolate, it does turn a bit gray. No one will mind if you don't. If you do, dip them the same day you serve them (you can bake them up to a week ahead). You can even bake and freeze them for up to one month--thaw, then dip in chocolate. This is an excellent option for those more organized than I. These are also light--under 100 calories each, and only about 2 grams of fat. How many Christmas goodies can you say this about?

Dark-Chocolate Dipped Anise Biscotti
(adapted from Cooking Light, November 2007)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. anise seed
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 T softened butter
2 large eggs
3 oz. premium dark chocolate (chips or coarsely chopped)

1. Preheat over to 350 F.
2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Whisk flour, anise seed, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Place sugar and softened butter in the bowl of a standing mixer or large bowl. Beat at medium speed until blended, about 2 mins. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add flour mixture to sugar mixture, beating until just blended. You will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times to incorporate all of the flour.
4. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly 7-8 times. Shape the dough into a 12-inch long log. Place log on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or cooking spray, pat into 1-inch thickness. Bake at 350 F for 40 mins. Remove roll from baking sheet and cool on wire rack for 10 mins.
5. Reduce over temperature to 300 F.
6. Cut roll crosswise into 20 (or so) 1/2-inch thick slices. Lay slices flat on baking sheet; bake for 10 mins. Flip slices; bake for another 10 mins. Cool cookies completely on a wire rack. At this point, you can refrigerate or freeze the cookies to dip later.
7. Heat chocolate over a double boiler until melted. Using a small spatula (1-inch across), hold each cookie over the double boiler and spread with chocolate, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Be generous, but try not to let it drip down the sides of the cookies. Place cookies, chocolate sides up, on a baking sheet to cool. Let stand 1 hour or until set.

Yield: approximately 20 biscotti

Friday, October 31, 2008

Chocolate-Dipped Honey-Apricot Nougat

When I was young, my mother and I decided to try to make candy. To be more exact, we decided to pull taffy. I was reading the Little House on the Prairie books at the time and Laura and her mother made molasses taffy, so I thought that would be a great Saturday activity. I'll admit, I probably should have made sure I liked molasses before I ended up with cookie tins full of the stuff, but as I've learned from my time in the kitchen, it's not really about the final product. When you screw up, no one cares. It's about the process--the satisfaction of trying something new, taking a risk and spending time with your loved ones. (At least this is what I'll be telling my in-laws when I make my first-ever Thanksgiving dinner this year.) 

My most recent risk-taking endeavor was making this candy. I pulled out my trusty candy thermometer and prepared to caramelize some sugar. I then whipped egg whites, mixed everything, added dried fruit, and realized, slowly, that this process was nothing to be afraid of. Yes, there are lots of steps and yes, it's a bit time-consuming up front, but it's also quite simple. Follow the instructions and you'll be rewarded with a unique hostess gift or holiday treat. It's  great way to make yourself slow down, to allow yourself a few moments of peace at an otherwise hectic time. Write a few cards while the sugar's caramelizing, or wrap a few gifts while the mixture is chilling. When you're finished, when every last piece of candy has been dipped in chocolate, make yourself a cup of tea, grab a good book and your homemade treats, curl up in a corner armchair, and think about what you've done. And smile.
Bring the sugar, water, and honey mixture to a boil with a candy thermometer. This is how it should look after a few minutes.
When the thermometer reaches 300 F, this is how it will look: light amber in color.
Slowly pour the caramel into the whipped egg whites and beat on high until the mixture thickens. It might look slightly chunky--that's okay. It won't stay that way. And rest assured, this cleans up easily. Let the bowl and whisk sit in soapy water for a few minutes and the mess--as cliche as it sounds--just melts away.
Chill for at least four hours, or overnight.
Assemble your ingredients and materials for the dipping stage. If you don't have a silpat, use parchment paper.
Chill in the fridge, then wrap in squares of parchment for a beautiful and nostalgic presentation.

Chocolate-Dipped Honey-Apricot Nougat
(adapted from Giada at Home, recipes on

Cooking spray
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/8-1/4 cup honey (or leave it out--it is strong)
2 eggs whites, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted 

Equipment needed: a candy thermometer (you can make this recipe without one, but it's much easier to know the temperature this way)

1. In a 2 qt. saucepan over low heat, combine the sugar, honey (if using), and water. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring mixture to a simmer until the syrup is a medium amber color and registers 300 F-315 F, about 15-20 minutes.
2. In the meantime, spray a 9 x 5-in. loaf pan with cooking spray and line it with parchment or waxed paper, allowing at least a 2-inch overhang on each side. Lightly spray the paper with cooking spray.
3. About 5 minutes before the syrup is ready, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks (2-4 minutes).
4. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the finished syrup into the egg whites. Increase speed and beat until the mixture is very thick, 6-7 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract and add half of the chopped apricots. 
5. Using a spatula sprayed with cooking spray, scrape the mixture into a prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the rest of the apricots on top. Fold the overhanging pieces of parchment over the surface of the mixture and press to flatten evenly. Refrigerate at least four hours.
6. Melt chocolate over a double boiler.
7. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper or a silpat. Remove the nougat from the loaf pan and discard the parchment. Using a knife sprayed with cooking spray, cut the nougat into thirds lengthwise, and each third into 10 pieces, making 30 pieces total.
8. Dip one end of each piece of nougat into the melted chocolate and place on the prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. 
9. For presentation, wrap each cooled piece in a 5 x 5-inch piece of parchment. 

Variations: dried cranberries, cherries, or maybe roll the chocolate ends in crushed pistachios or pecans. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Grilled Pizza: Smoked Mozzarella, Peppadews, and Assorted Olive Bar Curiousities

I still can't believe that I have not yet posted my recipe for homemade pizza dough. Like muffins, pizza is a staple baked good in my house--we make it every few weeks and I always make my own dough. It is the simplest bread dough--really, if you haven't worked with yeast dough before, start here--and the elasticity of it, as with the steamed pork buns of a few posts ago, is amazing. I remember a Top Chef night last spring when our potluck theme was pizza; every guest was greeted with me barking, "Feel my dough!" They were then required to give a Buddha's belly-esque rub to my little balls of dough before pouring themselves the then-needed glass of wine. But I think they understood when they ran their hands over the floured dough that it was something to behold. Not my dough specifically but the smoothness and strength and care of dough itself. We played with stretching it and shaping it, trying to gently shake it off the pizza peel without covering the bottom of the oven in cornmeal, and I do believe there's something to be said about getting all of your friends in the kitchen for a process like this. There were at least ten of us, but it didn't seem crowded. We were just drinking wine and tossing dough. Two of life's simple pleasures, shared with friends. There's something very right about that.

Tonight the pizza was just Dan's and mine, but we had another meal-induced revelation: In some forms, on some days, Dan will eat olives. Olives and mushrooms were almost the deal-breaker in my marriage, but after this pizza creation, we'll only have to look out for the common ones: money, kids, etc. While considering potential toppings, I began longingly checking out the olive bar at the grocery store. I figured I'd just buy a few olives, you know, for my half. It couldn't hurt, right? I filled a plastic container with peppadews (small red spicy-sweet peppers, perfect for an antipasto platter), which Dan does like, and some small green and black olives that, I learned later, were not pitted. But boy, were they good. I looked up from the olive bar to see the cheese counter, beckoning me with its silky Havarti and tangy feta. But I looked a bit deeper, as we must often do, and found the smoked mozzarella. I'd never tried it before, but something told me that this would be perfect for our grilled pizzas. After grabbing some regular mozzarella and turkey pepperoni, I headed home to make the dough.

Dan lit the grill--medium heat, coals even throughout (if you want to know more, I'll have him post the method on his blog)--and we got the dough ready. I made a garlic oil--heat sliced garlic, red pepper flakes, dried basil, thyme, and oregano, in a skillet until garlic is toasted but not burned--and chopped the olives and peppadews, and sliced the cheese. We placed everything on a tray so it would be ready when needed since the grilling goes fast. We placed the pizzas on the grill, brushed them with the garlic oil, then let them go for a few minutes. Then Dan moved them to the top rack, put on the toppings, and closed the lid. In order to brown the cheese, we did finish them off in the broiler, but you could do this entire process in a 450 or 500 degree oven. Just put all the toppings on and slide it in on a baking sheet or pizza stone.

So the recipes ended up being garlic oil on both, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then peppadews, olives, and smoked mozzarella on one, and shredded pizza cheese blend and pepperoni on the other. Surprisingly, I think I may have to fight Dan for the olive pizza leftovers--it tasted like a muffaletta. We both agreed that if The Blind Pig, one of our favorite bars in Oxford, served pizza, this would be it. It was salty and briny and the smoked cheese was the perfect complement. Too harsh on its own, it mellowed when in melted and was absolutely perfect. I will be making this again, and I hope you do as well.

Homemade Pizza Dough
(adapted from Baking Illustrated)

Makes 3 pizzas.

1/2 cup warm water
1 envelope rapid-rise yeast
1 1/4 cups room temperature water
2 T extra virgin oplive oil
4 cups (22 oz.) bread flour or all-purpose flour (if you're grilling the pizza, go for AP flour--it has more structure)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
You can also add a squirt of honey if you like.

1. Gently mix the 1/2 cup warm water and yeast in a 2-cup mixing cup; let stand for five minutes until it gets slightly foamy.
2. Mix dry ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer.
3. Add the room temperature water and olive oil to the yeast mixture; pour slowly into mixer with teh dry ingredients while the paddle in on low.
4. When a cohesive mass forms, switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth and elastic, probably five minutes. If the dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl, add flour by tablespoons until it doesn't stick or sticks less.
5. When you're done kneading, transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl and make sure it's covered in oil (so it won't stick) and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set in a warm place to rise until doubled in sixe, probably 1 1/2 hours. (I like to put mine next to, or even on top of, the oven.)
6. When it has risen, roll it out onto a well-floured surface (don't punch it down no matter how cathartic that might seem) and knead it lightly into a ball. Divide into three even pieces and shape each of those into a ball.
7. Cover the two dough balls you're not using with a cloth so they won't dry out, and press one into a sort of circle. You can use your knuckles to stretch the dough. Don't be too gentle--it's an elastic dough so it probably won't tear, and if it does, piece it back together and keep pressing and stretching it. When it's the shape you want, brush it with oil, put on your toppings (cheese last so the toppings won't burn) and put it in a preheated 450 F oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on your oven. Let cool for a minute then slice and serve!

Stephanie's Book Questions

On her blog, Pointed Meanderings, Stephanie posted a list of questions from the blog, Booking Through Thursday. Here are my answers--let's see how many of them are food-related.

The last book I bought: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (for Dan). The last book I bought for myself? Hmm. Maybe The Tuscan Year by Elizabeth Romer?

A book I have read more than once: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. I've also taught it in writing classes twice.

A book that changed the way I see life: Same as above--Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver has a knack for that kind of thing.

How do I choose a book? By reviews, usually, though the cover draws me to it. I really have trouble buying anything, especially cookbooks, without reading amazon and critics' reviews.

Fiction or nonfiction? Umm, recipes? Food writing?

What's more important in a novel? Beautiful writing or a gripping plot? Gripping plot--sorry, know that's a horribly non-doctoral student thing to say, but what is a story without a plot?

Most loved/memorable character: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. And, by extension, Mr. Darcy. And Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. And Mark Darcy. Basically anything that fits 7 degrees of Pride and Prejudice.

Books on my nightstand: Julie and Julia, and The Sonnet Lover.

The last book I read: And finished--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when I was at the beach in August. I absolutely loved it and I really want to read it again. And just before that I read Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups, which is in my top five favorites.

Have you ever given up on a book halfway in? Not intentionally--I usually just stop fifty pages or so from the end. I have problems with closure.

So all, I guess the lesson here is that I do have a life outside of food--for two weeks in the summer on vacation. Better than nothing, right?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake Bars

Along with working through the various baking books on my shelves, I am also trying out magazine recipes, like the Carrot Cake and the Chocolate-Cherry brownies. This one comes from an issue of Everyday Food that I bought in 2006. I only have one issue of this magazine, which means one thing: I must have bought it in an airport. I am convinced it is my inalienable right to buy at least three magazines whenever I fly anywhere--no matter how short the flight. If I fly around the holidays, all the better--November and December are hands-down the best months for food magazines. Dan and I figured out that I must have bought this one when we flew to Waco, Texas, for a Baylor Homecoming reunion. How much fun that was--sleeping bags on the floor of the condo I lived in my senior year of college, the condo my friend owned but which, since it was not being rented at the time, had no working power or water. If you think it's bad having 8 people sharing one bathroom, imagine 8 people and no bathroom--it was a weekend to remember. But of course, like all college reunions, it was the best--like no time had passed.

So I bought this magazine, but I never used it until last week when I was cleaning. A friend had asked me to bring a dessert to a potluck, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind I remembered him saying he liked pumpkin pie. This seemed like a natural choice, and it gave me a chance to use the big food processor I bought to make pie crust but never use since it turns out I make pie crust better by hand. Call me frugal.

This turned out to be such an easy cheesecake--no water bath or foil-wrapped springform pan--and yet it was so beautiful and pleasurable to make. Something about the marbling just makes me feel so competent and skilled, even though it's just dragging a butter knife through batter. It's like getting compliments from your rich cousins on the sweater you bought at Target--a satisfying feeling of tricking the world.

First, crush up chocolate graham crackers or wafers in the food processor (you get to use it twice in this recipe!) then drizzle in some melted butter. Press the crust into the pan and try to use the sides and heel of your hand to make it level, especially against the sides. I'm hyper aware of this. I'll never forget my first-ever homemade cheesecake. The edges of the crust were so thick you could barely bite through them. God bless him, Louis was so kind about it.

While the crust is baking, make the filling. You don't need to even soften the cream cheese--just be sure to scrape down the sides of the processor if you don't. Once everything's in, the filling should look like this.
Once you've melted the chocolate and mixed in some of the pumpkin mixture, you pour the rest of the pumpkin onto the slightly cooled crust, then dollop on the chocolate. Then you play--sweep a butter knife up and down the pan, then side to side, until it looks perfect to you. Don't overdo it or it will get all mixed and the marbling will be ill-defined. Not that this is the worst thing in the world, but it will detract from your sense of smug satisfaction. 

Looks like stationery.
To cut the bars--once they have cooled and are completely chilled in the fridge--fill a glass with warm water and get a large knife and a clean dishtowel or paper towel. Lift the parchment out of the pan and place it on a cutting board. Dip the knife in the water, cut lengthwise in as few strokes as possible, and wipe off the knife. Dip it in the water again, and repeat this process until all of the bars are cut.
Arrange them on a plate, admire, and enjoy.

umpkin Chocolate Cheesecake Bars
(adapted from Everyday Food, November 2006)

For the crust:
1 sleeve chocolate graham crackers (8 full crackers)
2 T sugar
4 T unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line bottom and sides of an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. Spritz with cooking spray and set aside.
2. In a food processor, blend crackers with sugar until finely ground. Add butter and pulse until moistened.
3. Pour crumb mixture into prepared pan and press gently into the bottom, working the crumbs into an even thickness. Bake until fragrant and slightly firm, 12-15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
4. Wipe out food processor to use for filling.

For the filling:
2 packages (8-oz. each) cream cheese (not fat free)
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin puree
2 large eggs
3 T all purpose flour
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp. salt
3 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped

1. Place the cream cheese in food processor; blend until smooth (it helps to let is soften at room temp. a bit first). Add sugar, pumpkin puree, eggs, flour, spice, and salt. Process until combined, scraping down the sides with a spatula if necessary. Set aside.
2. Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl; microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between each, until melted. (It took me three rounds. The residual heat will help melt a few small pieces if it's not totally smooth). Add 1/2-3/4 cup pumpkin mixture; stir to combine.
3. Pour remaining pumpkin mixture into prepared pan (with cooled crust). Drop dollops of chocolate mixture onto pumpkin mixture. Swirl using a butter knife (a spatula is too thick and the marbling will not be as pretty). Bake at 350 until cheesecake is set but jiggles slightly in the middle, 40-45 minutes.
4. Cool in pan. Cover, chill until firm, at least 2 hours (and up to 2 days). Using overhang, transfer cake to work surface. With a knife dipped in warm water, cut into 20 squares. Serve, or cover and chill up to 2 days.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beignets, In Honor of Katie

One of my best friends is coming to visit me this weekend. I am, quite frankly, ecstatic. She's one of the best cooks and bakers I know, and in honor of her, I'm posting the recipe for beignets we made the last time she was here. I will admit, I have never been to New Orleans and, though I hear that the beignets at Cafe du Monde are rectangular (not, well, globular) these are pretty amazing--melt-in-your-mouth, sweet and crispy, buttery, and so southern. I do recommend two gadgets for this project: a mini-disher and an oil/candy thermometer. Like any terrible southern cook, I'm afraid of frying. I have recently become much more confident, thanks to my digital candy thermometer I received for my birthday courtesy of my wonderful father-in-law. It has guided me through many a perilous frying endeavor. Well, the candy thermometer and Katie. My next attempt at frying post-beignets led Dan to tell people that his birthday dinner "involved hot oil and disappointment." Nice.

But if you watch the thermometer and the beignets and remove them when they are just beginning to brown, you will have a stellar breakfast. Add a light dusting of powdered sugar and some hot coffee with chicory and you can "laissez le bons temps rouler."

New Orleans Beignets
(adapted from The Glory of Southern Cooking by James Villas)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 T baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk (the recipe calls for whole, but I used 1% and it was fine)
1 cup water
1 lg. egg, beaten
1 bottle vegetable oil, for frying (peanut oil would overpower the light taste of the beignets)
1/2 cup powdered sugar (for dusting)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt into a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine the milk, water, and egg and whisk until well blended. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until the batter is well blended and very smooth.

In a deep, heavy skillet, heat 2 inches of oil over medium heat until it reaches 325 F (this is where that thermometer really comes in handy). Drop the batter using a disher, wiping off excess batter so it won't drip, into the fat, 6-10 at a time depending on the width of your pan. Fry until golden brown, 6-7 minutes, ad drain on paper towels. Do not stack them until they've cooled. Once they've cooled slightly, put the powdered sugar into a fine sieve and sprinkle over the beignets. I don't remember how many this recipe makes, but the book says it should make six servings, and there were four of us eating them. We did have some leftovers, so maybe four per person?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Favorite Cake

In my very first post to this blog (titled "Welcome") I gave the recipe for "My Mother-In-Law's Madeira Cake," by Nigella Lawson. At the time I had no pictures of the cake, but I promised to post them as soon as I could. I made this, my favorite cake, again this weekend, and just barely remembered to photograph it before I devoured it. With only a few ingredients, this proves that life's best pleasures are the simple ones. It tastes of butter and lemon, a perfect balance of sweet, salty, and creamy. The top, covered in turbinado sugar (a new addition of mine since I first posted the recipe) has a lovely crunch. This is one of those loaves that is perfect for breakfast, dessert, or any time you need it. It is indulgent, but not in the guilty sense we often assign to cakes or cookies. It just allows you to indulge in yourself, in your senses, for a few moments before returning to your day with a smile.

On Blogging 2

I realized that my last post could have been slightly offensive, or at least slightly vague. What I meant is that what I love about blogs is the way people write about how they worked through a complex topic. I love to read about their lives as long as it doesn't read as a daily play-by-play. I love to watch as you think through the sensory details of a food, or work through the complex relationship you have to people or places or music. I love when you include lists that I can add to or questions that make me think. Basically, I love anything that acknowledges an audience, one that includes me as well as many others. I often thought of blogging the way my youth minister used to talk about prayer: Talking into the air and wondering if anyone's listening. I guess I like to know someone's listening. And I like to know you want me to listen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Jam and Nut Tea Muffins

I think it's funny that I haven't published a post about muffins on my blog yet (at least I don't think I have). Muffins are, by far, my favorite baked good. When I'm bored, I think about muffins. When I can't think of anything to do on a Saturday morning, I bake muffins. My freezer is usually full of muffins for a microwave-and-go breakfast any morning of the week. I've even been known to bake a batch of mini-muffins for conferences or long car trips to ensure sweet goodness wherever I go. So yes, it's odd that I have yet to post anything about this centerpiece of my existence. But here it goes--the first of many.

When I want muffins, the first place I turn is this little cookbook that looks like it comes from one of those "publish your own family cookbook"-type places. The Joy of Muffins is paperback, spiral-bound, black-and-white print with no pictures except of the clip art typical of community cookbooks. And it's amazing--hundreds of muffin recipes arranged by breakfast, afternoon, dessert, main-course, etc. And they're my taste--in other words, not too sweet. Some of them, like a Colonial Pumpkin Muffin I made, were almost more suited for a dinner roll than a breakfast muffin. Which I thought was awesome! I first heard about this cookbook in a Nigella Lawson cookbook. The one day, while browsing in Barnes & Noble in Wilmington, there it was. On a high shelf, almost out of site amongst other tall, glossy, colorful baking books, it perched unassumingly, waiting. I use it all the time, but even more often, I just flip through it to put me in a good mood. Mmm, muffins.

These muffins are a bit of a departure from the recipe I was using, which was for Swedish Strawberry Muffins. I did not happen to have any Scandinavian Strawberry Preserves, or any strawberry preserves for that matter. But berries are berries when it comes to muffins. I had some cherry preserves left over from the Chocolate-Cherry Brownies (the recipe is posted on this blog) and some raspberry and blackberry preserves. The recipe also called for sliced almonds, but I had pecans, which I have decided are the most versatile nut on the planet. I used them instead of pine nuts in a pesto this week, and it was rich and amazing. I am actually out of pecans now, and I do feel like a little something is missing from my life. But these are the jelly-doughnuts of muffins. You fill each muffin cup halfway full then dollop a little jam in the middle, then fill it up. It gets all warm and gooey and when you break it open, it's a (very hot) beautiful thing.

These muffins also use oat bran, and if you're like me and get confused by all the whole grains in the grocery store (bran v. bran cereal v. oats v. oat bran v. wheat bran and so on) here's what I use. I found it at Wal-Mart, I think, so it's readily available, and I also use it in The Best Ever Bran Muffins. Another post.

Jam and Nut Tea Muffins
(adapted from The Joy of Muffins, "Swedish Strawberry Muffins")

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup oat bran
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup preserves, any flavor (raspberry, strawberry, and cherry are excellent)
1/4 cup nuts (chopped pecans or sliced almonds)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spray a muffin tin well with cooking spray.
2. Mix together the dry ingredients (flour, oat bran, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar) in w large bowl with a whisk.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the wet ingredients (beat the eggs and add the buttermilk and butter). 
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet--stir just enough to moisten.
5. Fill greased muffin tins one-half full. Add a heaping teaspoon of preserves to the center of each, then cover with batter. Sprinkle nuts on top of each muffin, and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Allow muffins to cool in pan for 5 minutes, then carefully take them out and place them on a cooling rack. Serve warm.

Makes 12 muffins.