Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Chocoatnut Bars": Chocolate-Coconut-Oat Bar Cookies

I'm sure you all remember those gooey, chewy, and deliciously sweet Hello Dolly Bars, also referred to as 7-Layer Bars. (Your family may have had their own name for them as well--my husband asks for these bar cookies by the ingredient list, but doesn't know them by any name I am familiar with.) This recipe has a similar flavor, but instead of layering the ingredients, they are simply all mixed together and baked into a dense cookie that could almost--almost--pass as an energy bar (note: I am not making any claims to their nutritional value, though they are hearty and well-balanced). This is another small-batch recipe: Depending on the size of your sweet tooth, this makes between 4 and 6 bars. I still haven't come up with a great name for them--I'm working on it. The recipe I used calls them "Triple Threat Bars." While this might be catchy, I don't like thinking of any food as a threat. They are more like "Survival Bars," or better yet, "Triple Treat Bars." That's more like it. These are amazing to pack in lunches--yours or someone else's--or as a small treat after dinner. They can even pass as breakfast! Give these a try, and feel free to double or triple the recipe to make them for a crowd. Enjoy!

Survival Bars ("Chocoatnut" Bars)
(adapted from Small-Batch Baking)

Equipment: small baking dish (5 x 3 inches or so), foil, cooking spray
1/4 cup plus 2 T old-fashioned rolled oats
3 T all-purpose flour
3 T packed dark brown sugar (light would be fine, though it would not have as deep a molasses flavor)
3 T sweetened flaked coconut (the kind found near the chocolate chips on the baking aisle)
2 T chopped pecans (any nuts would be fine--cashews or macadamia nuts would be great)
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips (or a combination of different chips)
1/8 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1 1/2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled (melt this first to give it time to cool)
2 tsp. well-beaten egg or egg substitute
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 F. Line the bottom of the pan with foil--enough to extend over the edges by 1-2 inches. Smooth it out into the corners and spray with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Toss the oats, flour, brown sugar, coconut, pecans, chocolate chips, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Pour the melted butter, beaten egg, and vanilla in a small bowl and beat with a fork or small whisk to blend. Add egg mixture to oats mixture and stir until blended.
4. Spoon batter into prepared baking dish and smooth the top, making sure it is an even layer. Bake until it is set and pulls away from the edges slightly--about 22 minutes.
5. Cool on a wire rack in the pan for 10-20 minutes. Then gently pull the foil out of the pan and allow it to cool completely on the rack. When it is completely cool, cut into bars.

Nutritional Info.: (for 4 bars) 200 calories, 11.5 grams of fat (sat. 5.7), 30.8 g protein

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When nothing but chocolate will do... The Ultimate Brownie

Sometimes you just need chocolate. We've all been there. Maybe you've had a bad day or a rotten week, maybe you're stretched so thin that even a little indulgence seems like complete and unattainable luxury. Perhaps you're in a terrible mood with no explanation. You realize, as Ishmael does in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, that something needs to change: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off..." Whenever he finds himself in such a state, Ishmael goes to sea. I, on the other hand, make brownies. It seems far less dangerous, though every bit as deliberate. And while it instantly gratifies, the effect lasts far longer than one might expect. The more hats I feel like knocking off, the more chocolate I add, until the sea of white chocolate chips somewhat resembles the eponymous white whale of College English fame. These brownies offer a perfect escape from the Ahabs of the world, and despite my numerous literary references, they are so simple and indulgent that you will not feel an ounce of guilt eating half the pan while curled up watching Glee. Remember: all will be well with the world again. As Ishmael said, "The drama's done," and for more comfort, "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." Take a moment for yourself. Have a brownie. This too shall pass.

The Ultimate Brownie
(adapted from One Smart Cookie by Julie Van Rosendaal)

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 tsp. instant coffee granules, dissolved in 1 1/2 tsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla (a little more never hurt)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

I prefer a few handfuls of white chocolate chips, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and mini chocolate chips (I sprinkle the minis on top of the batter before baking). You could also add any kind of baking chip, toffee chips, nuts, etc. Have fun here--the more you need chocolate, the more kinds you can add. You can even press crushed cookies or candies into the top of the batter before baking.

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9x9 pan liberally with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add the sugar and cocoa powder. Mix until well-blended--it will resemble wet sand.
3. In a large bowl, whisk egg, egg whites, coffee, and vanilla. Add the chocolate mixture and whisk until well-blended--this may take a minute and some upper-body strength :-)
4. In the empty saucepan (so you don't have to dirty another bowl, though you can if you wish) mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add these to the chocolate mixture and stir until there are a few streaks of flour left. At this point, and in your mix-ins and fold until well-distributed.
5. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth into the corners. Bake at 350 F for 25 minutes, or until the edges just begin to pull away from the sides. (It is better to underbake brownies--these in particular are supposed to be fudgy.)
6. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cut into squares--16-25, depending on the size you want your brownies.

Basic Nutritional Information, pre-mix-ins (per serving for 16 servings):
Calories: 151
Fat: 4.4 grams

Monday, November 9, 2009


For your viewing pleasure: I finally conquered the pancake. If my life were a superhero movie, pancakes would be my nemesis. I am perpetually drawn to them, but they always win. They are too floppy, too mushy, too thin, too dense, they don't brown properly or they burn, they are too sweet or too get the idea. I'd just about given up on pancakes until--viola!--the perfect recipe. Unfortunately, as life is never so perfect, I cannot remember what that recipe was. So, like a good superhero flick, I will leave you awaiting the sequel, in which you will learn, once and for all, how I conquered the pancake. Until then, enjoy this buttery golden image of contentment and satisfaction. I will complete the picture with a recipe soon. And if you have any pancake adventures you would like to share (and foolproof techniques I should try) send them my way!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cherry-Oat-Cardamom Muffins

It has been almost two months since my last blog post. Since that post, I have finished my reading list and successfully completed my oral comprehensive exam. I can honestly say that I don't think I've worked harder for something in my life. It is almost overwhelming to think of the hours of reading, the pages and pages of notes, the brainstorming and mock exams and cups upon cups upon cups of coffee. I should write a sincere note of thanks to Seattle's Best, really. I couldn't have done it without you. In that time, especially the last 1 1/2 months, I have barely cooked or baked a thing. Thank goodness for husbands who can shop, cook, and pour a great glass of wine, but who also know when a margarita is the must-have for the seriously stressful moment. I've made a few standbys--my Spiced Pumpkin Bread, for example, traveled to a birthday celebration, and I polished off a few pans of brownies during football games. But as far as my favorite morning baked goods, nothing. I work best in the morning and did not want to disturb my schedule by breaking for muffins. (Sounds like a great bumper sticker.) But when I woke up this morning not to the sound of a 6 am alarm but instead to the sound of Dan making coffee (then fell back asleep and woke up again an hour later), I knew the time for muffins had returned. I felt a bit creative, and here are the results: lusciously spicy, ever-so-slightly sweet Cherry-Oat Muffins with Cardamom. The smell that fills the house as they bake is almost as pleasing as the muffins themselves. Cardamom, to me, always has that perfect balance of exotic and sophisticated; its strong yet delicate flavor is always a surprise.

I found inspiration for these muffins in my Small-Batch Baking book, but as I didn't have any of the ingredients for the Cranberry Walnut muffins, and figured I'd use the same batter and revise the fillings and spices. I thawed a handful of frozen sweet cherries, then chopped them for better distribution. I added cinnamon to the cardamom-sugar topping for depth of flavor, and to keep the cardamom from overpowering the cherries. And I added quick-cooking oats, rather than walnuts or pecans, because the thin batter (thanks to the cherry juice) looked like it needed more structure, and because I'm not the biggest fan of nuts in baked goods, especially muffins. They always seem texturally out-of-place. I wanted a creamy, sweet, spicy muffin, with crunch from the sugar-topping only--and that is exactly what I got. They were brilliant.

If you like cardamom, give these a try. These are not your typical overly sweet coffee shop muffins, and the melt-in-your-mouth texture and aroma will transport you, for a moment, from your familiar kitchen to a small European cafe, where you sit contentedly sipping your coffee and watching the city go by. Life's simple pleasures, in muffin-form. Enjoy.

Cherry-Oat Cardamom Muffins
(adapted from Small-Batch Baking)

Muffin liners or cooking spray
1/2 cup AP flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom (you can use cinnamon but it changes the flavor completely)
yolk of one egg
3 T sugar
2 T milk (1% is fine)
2 T vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup fresh or frozen cherries, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup quick-cooking oats

3/4 tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. each cardamom and cinnamon

Pan: Standard Muffin Pan

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line four muffin cups with liners (or spray four cups, including the top edges surrounding the cups; do not spray more cups, as this will cause them to scorch--only spray what you will use).
2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom.
3. In a small bowl, whisk sugar, egg yolk, milk, oil, vanilla. Add these wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and fold gently with a spatula until dry ingredients are just moistened. Add cherries and oats, fold until just combined.
4. Dollop batter into cups until 3/4 full. Fill unused cups 1/3 full with water to prevent scorching. Place in oven; bake for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
5. PLace on wire rack. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then carefully remove muffins (this is easier if you use muffin cups). Let muffins cool 10 minutes more on rack. Serve warm, or cool completely and freeze. Heat individual muffins wrapped in a napkin for 20 seconds in the microwave.

Nutrition Information: Approximately 200 calories and 8 grams of fat. (I got used to recording calories while I studied since I had less time for the gym, just so I wouldn't overeat and become sluggish. There are some excellent recipe calorie calculators out there. Sparkpeople has my favorite, and it helps me keep track of what I'm eating.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rhubarb Snack Cake with Pecan Streusel

I have recently been introduced to the concept of a snack cake. I don't mean Little Debbie snack cakes, although Star Crunch and those delectable chocolate cupcakes with the squiggly line should have a place in every balanced diet. No, I mean a cake one bakes purely for snacking. Not as rich as a coffee cake, nor sugary enough for dessert, but a light, moist, fruit-studded, streusel-topped snack cake. A cake that is both healthy and indulgent. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

So what makes a good snack cake? Well, it needs to contain a quick burst of sugar to give you some immediate energy, then have something lasting, some protein and fiber, to keep you alert and satisfied so you're not hungry again in an hour or so. This cake absolutely fits the bill. The recipe obviously contains sugar, as does the fruit, in this case either rhubarb or apple. But then you get lasting energy from the protein in the pecans, and the filling sensation from the whole wheat flour. It's really perfection in a slice. I highly recommend you try it. When you hit those afternoon hunger pangs at 3 o'clock and pull out a hearty chunk of homemade cake saved solely for that particular purpose, you'll know what I mean by indulgence. Contrary to most of my recent posts, it doesn't need to be chocolate. It's all about the snack cake.

Rhubarb (or Apple) Snack Cake with Pecan Streusel
(adapted from Cooking Light, May 2008)

2-3 cups finely chopped rhubarb (if frozen, thaw) or tart apple, such as Granny Smith
2 T all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
5 T unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1/4 of a Granny Smith apple, grated with a microplane (omit if using apple instead of rhubarb)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (a little more is fine, especially if using apple instead of rhubarb)
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (opt.)
1/2 tsp. salt
Cooking Spray

1/4 cup turbinado sugar (or sugar in the raw)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 T chilled butter, cubed
1/4 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray a 9x9-inch pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Combine rhubarb or apple in a small bowl with 2 T of flour. Toss; set aside. (This step, coating the fruit with flour, is an excellent idea for any baked good in which fruit needs to be evenly distributed, such as blueberry muffins. The flour provides traction so the fruit does not settle on the bottom of the pan.)
3. Place the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer. Cream them at medium speed until light and fluffy--it will look like wet sand. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sour cream, grated apple (if using), and vanilla. Beat until well-combined.
4. Whisk flours, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg (if using), and salt in a medium bowl. Gradually add them (in three batches) to the butter mixture; beat on low speed until just combined.
5. Fold in the fruit. Pour into prepared pan.
6. To prepare the streusel: Combine the turbinado sugar with the cinnamon. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, two forks, or your fingers. Add the pecans; toss well. Sprinkle over the top of the cake.
7. Bake at 375 F for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (check after 40 minutes). Cool completely on a cooling rack.

Yield: 12 pieces.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chocolate Peanut Butter No-Bake Cookies

You probably know these cookies. This is one of those Fourth-of-July-picnic recipes, a true taste of Americana. They have almost as many names and variations as there are families who make them. (Many of those names, such as Cowplop Cookies or worse, don't sound terribly appetizing, though are aesthetically quite accurate.) I remember always wanting to eat the warm batter with a spoon, rather than waiting for it to be dished into cookies and cool. I probably ate half the batch, you know, "just to check." In my defense, though, so did my mother--we're both impatient chocolate lovers. It's amazing there were any cookies left the next day. When I finished my busiest teaching day this week, I came home almost too tired to bake, but really needing the process to relax and reward me after so many hours of having to be "on," so to speak. Suddenly, out of nowhere, these cookies popped into my head. I hadn't made or eaten them in years, but I just knew that the combination of nostalgia and ease of preparation made them the perfect treat for an early start to my weekend.

As you know, I have posted many recipes with healthy eating habits in mind: lower-fat cookies and muffins, small-batch recipes, etc. This is not one of those recipes. Between the peanut butter and the actual butter, these are relatively high in fat and calories. They are also, though, quite rich--you don't need many to get your fix. And they are full of good protein and fiber, thanks to the peanut butter and oats. I attempted a lower fat version a few days later, cutting the amount of butter in half. The Verdict: Not worth it. They're fine, but somewhat crumbly and chalky-feeling. And I am not one to sacrifice flavor and texture for anything. Make the recipe below, and if you're really worried, eat fewer or take an after-dessert stroll. It's all about balance, right?

These are wonderful, simple, and quick--10 minutes plus cooling time (about 30 minutes). No baking required, which also makes them perfect summer cookies, since the oven won't heat up the whole house when it's already 90 degrees outside. For those of you who, like me, live in the South, we have a few more good months of no-bake cookie weather. So give these a try if you need a quick bite of chocolate. Or some seriously decadent oatmeal ;-).

Chocolate Peanut Butter No-Bake Cookies

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 tsp. vanilla

In a saucepan over medium heat, add butter, sugar, cocoa, and milk. Whisk until butter is melted and small bubbles appear around the outer edges. Remove from heat. Stir in peanut butter, oats, and vanilla. Drop on mounded tablespoonfuls on parchment paper, waxed paper, or a Silpat. Allow to cool. Chill to help them stay together, and store in the fridge. That's it--enjoy!

Yields: 16-20 cookies

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mocha Lava Cake

I have been craving chocolate recently. Perhaps this is my reaction to the onslaught of summer fruit desserts like cobblers, crumbles, pies, and pastries. I do think of chocolate as more of a fall/winter flavor, and since the weather here in Oxford has been uncharacteristically cool and breezy, I imagine my desire for chocolate has kicked in early. This recipe not only satisfies my flavor cravings, but also my attraction to bizarre foods (or bizarre methods for making foods). I was talking to a friend on the phone this morning about using 7-Up and Mountain Dew as leaveners in baked goods, something I tried for a lemon cake and worked beautifully. I also love my blackberry cobbler recipe, how the batter rises from the bottom of the pan to the top while baking--it's like magic every time, even though I know it's a typical cobbler recipe. Small pleasures. This Mocha Lava Cake (note the cute play on words: Java/Lava? Eh?) follows a similar method: A thin batter poured into the bottom of a pan, wet stuff poured on top, then they switch places while baking. It is, in fact, much like Southern chocolate cobblers. And, possibly the best part of this recipe: You can serve this cake right away. No cooling, waiting, pacing, salivating--when it comes out of the oven, it's done. All you need is some ice cream.

But really, the method does seem almost ridiculous. The batter is not only thin in consistency, it is also thin in the pan--it only comes about a half-inch up the sides. Then you sprinkle a sugar-and-cocoa mixture over the batter, then you pour on a cup of coffee. Just pour it on--no stirring. Stick the whole thing in the oven and, 35 minutes later, you have a crisp chocolate "crust" on top of what amounts to mocha pudding. Unbelievable. I had to try this recipe out of sheer curiosity! It is so simple as well. It uses ingredients you most likely always have in your house (if you don't already, you should), and is an excellent last-minute dessert for a chocolate craving or unexpected guests--or both. As you can tell, the method is easy, and it only takes about 15 minutes to put together. You could easily bake this for guests after dinner while they chat and sip their wine--they'll barely miss you! Put the batter together while you brew the after-dinner coffee, then just steal a cup of that coffee for the cake before serving your guests. Simple, simple! You have to try it.

My only note on the recipe: I thought it would be easier to use my stovetop espresso maker to brew the coffee for the cake. It works, but the coffee flavor is quite strong. My husband loved it; I thought it was a little overpowering. I recommend strong coffee, but not espresso, for great balance.

Oh, one more note: Serve it with ice cream. I used Butter Pecan, but a good French Vanilla would be amazing. That buttery flavor really adds something. You could use coffee ice cream, but then I would top it with chocolate chips to bring out the chocolate a little more. Crazy? Perhaps. But it's never good to only go halfway on your cravings. Indulge a little.

Mocha Lava Cake
(adapted from the indomitable Paula Deen)

3/4 cup granulated sugar (for the batter)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (for the topping)
1 cup AP flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 1-oz. square semisweet baking chocolate (chocolate chips will work in a pinch)
2 T unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 T cocoa powder
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup coffee (liquid)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9x9-inch pan liberally with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Whisk together the 3/4 cup granulated sugar, flour, and baking powder, and pinch of salt. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan (or in a microwave). Add chocolate mixture to the flour mixture; mix well. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
3. Whisk the 1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, and cocoa in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on top of batter.
4. Pour coffee on top of batter and sugar; do not stir. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until top looks moist but no longer too wet. The center will look like there are pools of chocolate syrup. The base will be a chocolate syrup. Cool for 5-10 minutes.
5. Cut into 9 squares. Invert them when serving, so the syrup is on top. Add ice cream.

Definitely serve warm. Enjoy!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Chocolate Toffee Cookies

There is a battle raging in my home. It's not about how high to keep the thermostat, about putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead of on the counter, or why socks really do belong in (rather than on top of, or next to) the hamper. No, this is a battle of epic proportions. Cookies: Cakey or Chewy? Should they be soft and fluffy like muffins, or should they be dense and crisp, stick-to-your-teeth sweet treats? The recipe I am posting today is the latter, and Dan loves them. I'll admit, they are excellent dipped in a glass of cold milk--they don't dissolve or fall apart, and the milk gives them just the right amount of chewy softness. They are essentially dippable brownies, in cookie form.

What causes these textural differences? First, baking times: Overbaking will always cause cookies to be crisper. This is not necessarily a problem--you can use the timer to your advantage. If you want softer cookies, pull them out a minute or two before they are done. Do the opposite if you prefer a crunchier cookie. Granted, the texture also depends on the recipe, but the amount of time it spends in the oven is one of the simplest ways to determine the consistency of any cookie. However, there are ways to tell the texture of the cookie simply by reading the recipe.

For example, the amount of dry ingredients to wet should give you an idea of the density of the cookie. If the recipe has more dry than wet, it will be fluffier. More wet than dry (like this one, which only has two tablespoons of flour!) and it will be denser.

Look also at the technique: Do you cream butter and sugar, then add in dry ingredients? It will be fluffy, as this is the method most cakes use. Is everything beaten with a mixer or by hand? Hand mixing tends to be gentler, yielding a softer cookie, as there is less chance for overmixing. (This is not necessarily true if one of the primary leaveners is egg whites that must have air whipped into them, like chiffon cake. However, since you then fold egg whites into the batter, the hand mixing rule holds somewhat.) Do you chill the batter before shaping the cookies? This will almost always yield a fluffier cookie, as the butter chills and hardens and is less likely to spread and flatten. Again, you can use this to your advantage. If someone in your house, say, your husband, likes flatter cookies, and the recipe calls for you to chill the dough, just skip that step. At least for half the dough; chill your half while his is baking--best of both worlds, the truce version of home baking.

Give these cookies a try, regardless of preference. If you have a sweet tooth at all, these will hit the spot. Because it has toffee chips, it also has that sweet-salty thing going on. This is a small batch recipe, so it only makes 6-8 cookies--feel free to double or triple it if you need more. It takes no time--I whipped these up before dinner, as I was craving chocolate but didn't want a house full of it.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies
(adapted from Small-Batch Baking)

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tsp. (about 2/3 of a tablespoon) unsalted butter
2 T all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 plus 3 T sugar
1 lg. egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup toffee bits
1/4 cup mini chocolate chips (or chopped up Heath bars, or chocolate-covered toffee bits)
Parchment paper

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
2. Combine chocolate and butter in small microwave-safe bowl. Melt, stirring every 30 seconds (should take 1 minute total). Let cool slightly.
3. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl.
4. Place sugar and egg in medium mixing bowl. Beat on high with a hand mixer until pale and think, about two minutes. (It will seem blended immediately, but keep going--this is where the texture comes from.)
5. Add chocolate and vanilla; beat well. Reduce speed to low and beat in flour mixture until just incorporated. Fold in toffee bits and chocolate chips. Cover and chill for 20 minutes.
6. Dish out 6-8 cookies using a 1/8 cup measuring cup or disher. Flatten to 3/4" with a spatula sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 16-18 minutes, or until tops begin to crack but are still soft to the touch.
7. Slide parchment onto a cooling rack and allow cookies to cool. Serve with a glass of cold milk.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Chipotle-Peanut Brittle

I've been enjoying a lazy Saturday afternoon, windows open, uncharacteristic August breeze rustling the papers that I should be cleaning off of my desk, looking through old food magazines while listening to Prairie Home Companion on NPR. Could I be any more content? I suppose I could add a glass of wine, but I also have a whole night to myself to watch chick flicks, drink wine, and eat ice cream. I must pace myself. I'll stick with my iced green tea with honey--a recent successful kitchen experiment.

In one of these magazines, I ran across this recipe for Chipotle Peanut Brittle. I made this a few months ago and it was addictive. I don't know why I never wrote a post about it, but I mean to remedy that right now. If you like the southern classic combo of sweet and salty, with a modern and unusual smoky-spicy twist, you will love these. Take these to any party, cookout, potluck, etc., and I promise you, you will be the most popular person there. Everyone will think you are a genius--even if they say they don't like peanuts, peanut brittle, or chipotle. Put them together, and it's magic. When the baking soda hits the pan and the whole mixture bubbles up like a cauldron--that's when it happens. The magic.

So give these a try--I hope they'll quickly become a kitchen classic for you. You do need a candy thermometer, but these are inexpensive and you can pick one up the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Chipotle Peanut Brittle
(adapted from Cooking Light, May 2009)

Cooking spray
Parchment paper (usually found with the foil in the grocery store, or it might be in the baking section)
1 cup sugar
1 cup light-colored corn syrup
1 T butter
1 (11.5 oz.) container salted, dry-roasted peanuts
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. chipotle chile powder

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; spray well with cooking spray. Set aside anther sheet of equal size, sprayed with cooking spray.
2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, and butter in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook 18 minutes or until a candy thermometer registers 275 F, stirring frequently. Add peanuts; cook 3 minutes or until the thermometer registers 295 F, stirring constantly.
3. Remove from heat; add baking soda and chile powder. The mixture will bubble up and become opaque.
4. Working quickly, pour the mixture onto the sprayed parchment and cover with the second sheet, sprayed side on the brittle. Using a rolling pin, quickly roll mixture to an even thickness. (After I rolled it, I also smoothed it by hand with an oven mitt on.) Remove top parchment sheet.
5. Cool completely. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Yields approximately 28 servings (1 oz. each).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies

After muffins, brownies are probably my favorite treat. I can find a million different things to do with them. Rocky Road brownies with marshmallows, peanuts, and chocolate drizzle; S'More brownies with graham cracker crumbles; Caramel brownies; Chocolate Cherry brownies; Mochaccino brownies; even the classic Cocoa brownies. My mother would certainly add brownies with pecans to this list as well. Or brownies with almonds, maybe even some coconut. A few years ago, Taste of Home did a whole recipe contest devoted to brownies; just thinking about those 16 recipe cards makes me smile. But I digress.

These brownies are the result of a Sunday afternoon in need of filling, while also remembering my impending trip to the beach. Of course I searched out One Smart Cookie, a book of absolutely amazing low fat cookie recipes. My favorite brownies (that taste just like a Duncan Hines mix) are from a recipe in this book, so I figured I couldn't go wrong. I've been craving peanut butter lately and knew, just knew, that if there was a good peanut butter brownie recipe to be found, it would be here. (I will say, Ina Garten also has a great one on, but I only had a few sticks of butter in the fridge--not even close to enough to complete this recipe). These brownies, while not health food per se, are lower in fat than typical brownies and the peanut butter has protein, right? I'll just keep telling myself that. One thing I do love about this recipe is that instead of simply swirling peanut butter through the top, which can work well but creates sticky, sometimes soggy brownies, this recipe combines the peanut butter with some flour and egg white so that it actually puffs up and creates a crust, making the brownies look even richer and they are still stackable, for that "platter of plenty" look. If you love Reese's as much as I do, give these a try!

Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies
(adapted from One Smart Cookie)

Brownie Batter:
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. instant coffee granules, dissolved in 1 tsp. water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (light peanut butter if you like)
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg white
2 T milk
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1 T flour

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9x9 inch square baking pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together melted butter and sugar until well-combined. Add egg, egg white, coffee, and vanilla. Whisk well.
3. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Add to the egg mixture, and stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until just combined. (The mixture will be very thick.) Spread the batter into the prepared pan. You may need to spray the spatula with cooking spray to spread the thick batter.
4. In the same medium bowl you used for the flour (to avoid more dirty dishes), combine peanut butter, brown sugar, egg white, milk, vanilla, and flour. Stir well with a whisk. Dollop in large spoonfuls over the top of the batter, then swirl or drag through both batters with the tip of a knife to create a marbled effect.
5. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes, or until the brownies begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Do not overbake. (If you are using an 8x8 inch pan, it will probably take 40-45 minutes.)
6. Cool completely on pan in wire rack.

Makes 16 brownies. GREAT with a tall glass of milk.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Small-Batch Lemon Squares

Dan loves lemon squares. I'll just throw that out there. After a few baking episodes that resulted in, "But you know I don't like fluffy cookies," I decided to go with a sure thing. And it worked: I realized that, as much as I love to experiment in the kitchen, to challenge myself with new recipes, sometimes it says even more to make an old favorite for a favorite person.

What I love about this recipe is that it is a small batch recipe, from a great cookbook called Small-Batch Baking, by Debby Maugans Nakos. I highly recommend picking up a copy. The premise of the book is that we don't always need 4 dozen chocolate chip cookies; sometimes we just need one good one. Nakos has worked many baking favorites to bare minimum yields: 2-3 cookies, 3-4 brownies, 2 muffins, etc. She even explains how to make small layer cakes by reusing old cans! My friend Katie told me about this book a few years ago and when I ran across it in a bookstore recently, I snapped it up. I discovered something else--it's a great diet book! No, the recipes are not in any way low-fat, but think about it: when you bake, most of the calories come from grabbing a cookie from the plate as you walk by, whether or not you actually want one. You wouldn't want those sweets to go to waste, right? Well, this way, you get the goods when you want them, but you're not saddled with leftovers that add to your waistline, and you're not tempted to eat when you aren't hungry. If you have a friend with a sweet tooth who is also trying to eat healthier, give this as a gift. She'll look at you like you've lost your mind at first, but explain. She'll thank you a million times over (and you'll probably get some cookies out of the deal!).

The baking times will vary depending on the type of baking dish you are using, as this will affect the thickness of the layers. My dish, a small Le Creuset baking dish measuring 6.5 x 4.5, was wider and shallower than the mini loaf pan (5 x 3) that this recipe recommends. If you don't have a small loaf pan, you can pick up a disposable aluminum one at the grocery store--they have plenty of minis, especially around the holidays when people bake small amounts of favorite treats as gifts. Just remember: the larger the pan, the shorter the baking times.

Small-Batch Lemon Squares

(adapted from Small-Batch Baking, "Lemon Shortbread Squares")

Cooking spray or butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 T confectioners' sugar
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt
2 T chilled unsalted butter, diced

1 lg. egg, at room temperature (set it out when you begin)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 T all-purpose flour
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt

1 tsp.-1 T of confectioners' sugar to sift over top of the cooled bars

1 small loaf pan (5 x 3=3 squares, 6 x 4=6 squares)

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 F.
2. Line a small loaf pan with foil: press tight to sides of pan and leave 1-inch flaps hanging over the sides to lift the cooled bars out later for ease of cutting. Spray with cooking spray.
3. Place flour, confectioners' sugar, salt, lemon zest, and butter in a medium bowl; cut butter in with a fork or pastry blender until the mixture resembles small peas. Press the mixture in an even layer in the pan (use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to help) and bake for 15 minutes, or until crust begins to brown. When done, set aside to cool to room temperature.
4. While crust is cooling, make the filling: place all filling ingredients in the same bowl you made the crust in--no need to wipe it out--and whisk until smooth. Pour over cooled crust, and bake at 350 until set, about 15-17 minutes.
5. Cool completely--about 1 1/2 hours. If you are not serving them immediately, chill in fridge.
6. Before serving, sift powdered sugar over the top. Lift out of the pan and cut using a sharp knife.

Note: If you do not cool the crust and instead, pour the filling into a hot crust (as the actual recipe directs you to) the crust will not remain flaky and keep its shortbread texture; instead, it becomes dense. I prefer the shortbread texture, but Dan liked the denser, compact texture. It works either way, but if you want a more traditional bar, cool the crust.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Banana-Oatmeal-Chocolate Cookies

As if we all need another chocolate chip cookie recipe... Wait, what am I saying? What is a variation on a classic but another classic waiting to happen?

I've realized something about myself recently: Not only must I always be doing several activities at once (watching a favorite TV show, planning the week's meals and making my shopping list, painting my toenails, and baking a loaf of bread), but I become severely annoyed with those who cannot multitask. Perhaps this is Dan's influence, but I am a huge fan of what Rachael Ray refers to as "pockets of time." Most chores or activities have a bit of wait time--why not knock out a few emails, fold some laundry, load the dishwasher, etc.? People ask me how I find the time to bake bread or make homemade pizza dough; this is how I do it.

While I am not typically a fan of banana and chocolate, for some reason I was drawn to this recipe. This morning (while making my shopping list and watching television, nonetheless) I realized why: It is the ultimate multitasking cookie recipe. It is at once an oatmeal cookie, a chocolate chip cookie, and a slice of banana bread. They wind up looking like fat little oatmeal muffin tops, and due to their resemblance to the breakfast classic, oatmeal with sliced bananas and brown sugar, they are just as appropriate to grab when you are rushing out the door in the morning as a granola bar. Talk about multitasking--I think these may be able to do my taxes as well, who knows? These are from the most recent issue of Cooking Light, and are low in calories and fat and even have some protein and fiber--as much as many granola bars. They're not overly sweet and have a pillowy softness--perfect for a moment of calm in an otherwise busy day.

Give them a try, with your coffee in the morning, alone or with ice cream as dessert, or just as a snack in the middle of the day when you need a break from your multitasking life. Let me know what you think!

Banana-Oatmeal-Chocolate Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light, July 2009)

1 medium ripe banana, mashed (if frozen, thaw)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lg. egg
5.6-5.8 oz. all-purpose flour, depending on size of banana and amount of juice it gave off, if frozen and thawed (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I prefer 1/4 cup--or slightly more--of the mini-chips)
Cooking spray or parchment paper

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or spray with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Combine banana, sugars, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl; beat with a mixer (at medium speed) until smooth. Add egg; beat until well-incorporated.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, oats, baking soda, and salt. Add to the wet ingredients gradually; beat each addition until just incorporated. Fold in chocolate chips with a spatula. (If the dough seems too loose to hold its shape, place it in the fridge for 30 minutes.)
4. Place heaping tablespoonfuls of dough 1 1/2-2 inches apart on the baking sheet; bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely (although they are great warm, too).

Yield: 2 dozen.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cinnamon-Nutmeg Breakfast Cakes

While these are essentially muffins, there is something much richer and eggier, almost custard-like, about their texture that causes me to label them "cakes" instead. If you are one of those people who is scared of making a cake from anything other than a box, I understand, and believe me, these couldn't be simpler to make. You make them via the muffin method--folding wet ingredients into dry ingredients--so there no need for an electric or stand mixer, no softening butter, just plain and simple stirring and folding. The whole thing can be done by hand, and if it's early in the morning and there are still sleeping people in your household, no fear--it's so quiet it won't wake anyone up. They'll just be left to contend with the coffee grinder!

I've been attracted to this recipe since I found it in a Cottage Living magazine years ago. I subscribed to it because my friend, Sarah, was an intern there, and soon discovered that it had great recipes! And no wonder--Sarah Foster (of Foster's Market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) is the food editor. These muffins looked so ethereal, with their fairy-dust of cinnamon-sugar on top, and I could practically smell the warm, nutty nutmeg. I've been holding on to this recipe for awhile now, and it seemed like time to give it a try.

It smells lovely, and the cinnamon-sugar is everything I'd hoped it would be--sweet, crunchy, practically dreamy. The next time I make these muffins, I might add a teaspoon of orange zest to the batter. These had the flavor of a lightly spiced brioche, but if you want something a bit brighter in the morning, I think orange would be absolutely perfect. Especially if you make them during the holidays!

Cinnamon-Nutmeg Breakfast Cakes
(adapted from a recipe for Cinnamon Puffs in Cottage Living, November 2005)

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (or ground, if you don't have whole nutmegs, but add a pinch more)
3/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, room temperature (sit them out when you begin the recipe)
1 1/4 cups milk
5 T butter, melted and cooled
1/2-1 tsp. of vanilla extract
1 tsp. orange zest

3 T butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

For the muffins:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. These muffins are very sticky--be sure to use liners, and you may even want to spray these with cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Add orange zest, if using.
3. In a small bowl, whisk milk, eggs, and melted butter (drizzle is gradually, while whisking; this way, it will not clump up when it hits cool ingredients if it is too warm). Add vanilla, if using.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and fold it gently using a spatula. Fold only until no clumps of flour remain.
5. Fill muffin cups almost full, a little more than 3/4 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to cooling rack while you prepare the topping ingredients.

My little muffin army :-)

To top the muffins:
1. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl.
2. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a shallow dish.
3. When the muffins are cool enough to handle (cool for 5-10 minutes), grab one by the base and dip it in the butter, allowing the excess to drip off. Next, hold it over the bowl of cinnamon-sugar and sprinkle the sugar mixture on, allowing excess to drop back into the bowl. Some butter will drip off as well--just break up clumps with your fingers. When you have a good coating on the muffin, place it back on the cooling rack and proceed with the rest of the muffins.
4. Serve warm.

Note: You may be tempted to dip the buttered muffins into the cinnamon-sugar. This is actually what the recipe says to do. Trust me--resist the urge. Yes, it's faster, but the sugar mixture gets all clumpy and the muffin tops look wet and pasty, not dusted with a topping. It's not pretty.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things

I began writing this post over a month ago, and somehow never got around to finishing it. Here's the initial intro.; I'll let you know how that May trip went in a bit:

In the two weeks following my resolution (made in March rather than January, but better late than never) to bake only on the weekends, leaving the weekdays to write, I have actually done quite well in keeping it. During the week I've baked only when dinner required it--a supper strata or potato and greens tart--no desserts or sweet treats for breakfast. Incidentally, this resolution also coincides with my new amped-up workout plan for May's trip to Mexico; I am thus learning to pace myself on the sweets, to let brownies be a pleasant thought rather than an ever-present reality. I am convinced future generations of bikinis will thank me.

Well, the Cancun trip has come and gone and while I did fit into my bikini--I even allowed myself to be photographed in it!--but I am trying to take this physical fitness thing to another level. I've begun running--not long distances, but I'm getting there. I'm working on my Michelle Obama-arms for the months of sleeveless we have here in Mississippi, and I've actually begun to miss the gym or the park on days when I can't make it. Most mornings, though, now that I've begun reading for my comprehensive exams, I need that break, and it's the perfect way to avoid all the sitting that comes with a summer dedicated to reading. I tried downloading the audio version of some of my books so that I could "read" while exercising, but after hearing one too many readers who sounded like they attended the Keanu Reeves Voice Coaching Institute, I decided to let myself have that hour off.

What does all of this have to do with this recipe? Nothing much--except that I just feel like I can eat more now :-) And I still rarely bake during the week--thankfully, this resolution has stuck. I made these bars again a few weekends ago for a picnic in the park--the third Grove concert of the summer, which also happened to be on Father's Day. My parents came and we enjoyed a lovely, breezy evening, listening to blues and gospel music, fanning ourselves in good southern style, and enjoying this excellent mix of chocolate and caramel. My Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things are the crowning glory of my weekend sugar-fests, and the only dessert Dan specifically asks me not to make--because it's the only one that can overcome even his iron-willpower. So I pace myself, but it's a great treat to have in my arsenal. This recipe doubles easily; just use a 9x13 pan or two 8x8 pans.

Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things

(adapted from a recipe for Millionaire's Shortbread on

Shortbread Crust:
8 T (1 stick) of cold butter (7 for the crust, reserve the other 1 T for later)
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt

1 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (fat-free works fine)
1 T butter

Chocolate Layer:
6-oz. milk chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line an 8x8-inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil so that there are 2-inch flaps on each side. (This is a necessary step in order to lift the bars out of the pan and cut them later.) Spray the parchment or foil with cooking spray; set aside.
2. Place the sugar, flour, and salt in food processor; pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter, cold and cut into small cubes; pulse until the mixture resembles small peas.
3. Dump the flour mixture into the pan and press down to form a dense, even layer. Use the bottom of a measuring cup sprayed with cooking spray to help flatten the crust. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the crust gets slightly golden brown around the edges--not too brown. Cool on a rack.
4. To make the filling, add the condensed milk and butter to a shallow saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring pretty much constantly (don't walk away, at least), and continue to boil and stir the mixture until it turns a medium caramel color, about 12-15 minutes. Pour onto the cooled crust and spread quickly with a spatula. It will harden fast. Allow to cool to room temperature.
5. For the chocolate layer, melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl in 30 second intervals, stirring between each, until the chocolate is just melted. Pour over the cooled caramel layer and spread quickly. Allow to cool and set in the refrigerator for several hours before cutting and serving.
6. To cut, lift bars from pan using the flaps of parchment or foil and place on a cutting board. (If the bars are really cold, allow them to sit for 10-15 minutes at room temperature before cutting so they don't crack.) Using a sharp knife, cut into 25 bars--5 rows by 5 columns.

I prefer to keep the leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge to get that frozen candy bar-type snack.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Quick Blueberry Jam

This recipe is, as Paula Deen would say, almost "stupid easy." Three ingredients, boil, stir, cool, serve. You can make a homemade berry jam in less than half an hour. When I needed a quick break from Moby-Dick this morning, and I remembered the two pints of fresh blueberries sitting in my fridge, this seemed like the obvious solution. And since the actual canning process terrifies me, a quick refrigerator jam is really my speed. Plus, I can't go to Big Bad Breakfast every time I crave blueberry jam, right?

Quick Blueberry Jam
(adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison--simply the best farmer's market cookbook ever)

So the process is really quite simple. Rinse two pints of blueberries, regular or wild, fresh or frozen (thawed), and place in a big wide pot. Toss in 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar (taste your blueberries before adding sugar--the sweeter they are, the less sugar you'll need). Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon (or 1 lime). Stir, and bring to a boil. Once it hits a rapid boil, set a timer for 5 minutes and stir occasionally so that the sugar doesn't burn.

After 5 minutes, turn off the heat and spoon a little of the juice onto a plate and put that plate in the fridge for 7-8 minutes or until cool. Run a finger through it to see if it holds together. As long as its not still runny, your jam is done. (If it is runny, then return the pot to a boil for two more minutes and try this process again). Allow the jam to cool in the pot then ladle into Mason jars and place in the fridge. This jam will keep up to one month (if it lasts that long!).

Here are some ways to use this jam:
  • on toast or a fresh, warm biscuit
  • on cream cheese with whole wheat bread
  • on a block of cream cheese with crackers for a quick southern appetizer
  • as a salsa for fruit quesadillas (spread quesadillas with a mixture of softened cream cheese and grated parmesan; add some berries or peaches; toast on a griddle; spoon this jam--warmed--over top)
  • warm and use as a topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt
  • thin with a little maple syrup and warm up to use as a pancake topping
Let me know if you come up with any others, or if you adapt this method for other berries. I'm going blackberry-picking this afternoon, so I'll let you know how the jam turns out with blackberries, or a combination of blackberries and blueberries.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Morning Strawberry Muffins

We celebrated Dan's 30th birthday last night with a huge Cuban-themed blowout: Cuban pork roast with a garlicky mojo sauce, creamy red beans and rice, bright lime-and-honey coleslaw, key lime bars (I'll post the recipe for these soon), and pitcher after pitcher of mojitos. Needless to say, we were both a little slow getting up this morning. The sink full of dishes was certainly not a welcome sight either. But there is something about post-party euphoria that still inspires me to make a little something to celebrate a wonderful night spent with friends, to commemorate the morning after the party with something to help us bask in the calm. The carton of nearly overripe strawberries in the back of the fridge led me to these muffins. Since I could not face large bowls of batter and more dishes, I made a small batch in bowls that would fill in the last remaining empty spaces in the dishwasher. Ah, the simple luxury of a strawberry muffin, the scent of tart sweetness and nutmeg, with little splashes of eye-opening red and pink--these really were a welcome treat on a sunny but groggy morning.

Thanks to all of you who came and made Dan's birthday memorable, and for those of you who couldn't make it, know we were thinking of you. Have a wonderful morning.

These muffins will be slightly tart; Dan says they taste like a muffin version of a Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie. If you'd like more sweetness, macerate your strawberries after you chop them (place them in a bowl with a few tablespoons of sugar and let them sit for 15 minutes). Drain them (or the extra juice will prevent the muffins from rising properly) then add them to the batter. Save the juice and stir it into softened butter or cream cheese for a sweet topping!

Strawberry Muffins
(Small Batch: Makes 6 regular muffins, 4 jumbo muffins)

2 T canola oil
1/4 cup milk
1/2 egg (beat the egg well, then pour in half)
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup AP flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2-3/4 cup chopped fresh strawberries

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line 6 cups of a muffin tin (or 4 of a jumbo) with muffin liners, or spray with cooking spray. (Do not spray more muffin cups than you use, or you will discolor your pan. If you're not sure how many muffins cups your batter will need, spray as you fill).
2. Whisk wet ingredients (oil, milk, egg, vanilla) in a small bowl.
3. Whisk dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices) in a medium bowl.
4. Add chopped strawberries to the flour mixture; toss gently to coat each one. (Coating them in flour before adding the wet ingredients helps them to be evenly distributed and rise with the batter instead of sinking to the bottom of the muffin.)
5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix gently with a spatula just until the flour is incorporated.
6. Fill each muffin tin to the top. Bake at 375 F for 15-17 minutes for regular muffins (or 23-25 minutes for jumbos), or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
7. Cool in pan for a minutes or two, then place on a cooling rack to cool for 10-15 minutes. Serve warm. Some strawberry butter would be fabulous here.

Pour yourself a hot cup of coffee (or cold glass of milk) and enjoy!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Simple Focaccia

Two words: No kneading. If I don't have your attention, you've either never experienced the gorgeous yeasty scent of a bakery first thing in the morning and wished for that same sense of calm in your own busy home, or you're a bread purist with all the time in the world who can't believe that proper kneading might not be necessary to achieve a perfectly risen, puffed loaf. It's not. There are entire books on the subject, such as Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois (an excellent book), but the recipe I am posting today comes from Nick Malgieri's IACP Award-nominated The Modern Baker. He provides some quick methods for making traditional baked goods, such as croissant dough in the food processor instead of the usual time-consuming fold, roll, chill, repeat 4x method. This one, the focaccia, required no kneading, just a few turns in the bowl with a spatula. (The side benefit: fewer dishes!) I love it as a treat to take to the Grove for a summer concert, as a side to sop up dressing in a great salad, or just dipped in some good olive oil and balsamic vinegar--try raspberry balsamic for a fun change! Or dip in marinara for a corner pizza place treat. The photo above shows it as a side for a simple Greek Salad, a Jamie Oliver recipe. Great summer meal.

So here's the recipe (it also works as pizza dough):

Simple Focaccia (adapted from The Modern Baker)

4 cups AP flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt (a little less is you plan to sprinkle some on top as well)
1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1 2/3 cup warm water
Pinch of sugar
3 T olive oil
Any dried herbs (rosemary, oregano, etc.) you'd like to include in the dough

1. In a mixing bowl or 2-cup measuring cup, combine the water, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Gently whisk in oil, and allow to sit until slightly foamy.
2. Whisk flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add any dried herbs--up to 3 T total.
3. Using a large rubber spatula, make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Pour in the yeast mixture and slowly stir to incorporate, from the middle of the bowl gradually moving outward, incorporating more flour as you go. Once the flour is mostly incorporated, start to fold the dough over on itself: Starting at the side of the bowl, dig down to bottom and flop (gently) half of the dough over. Repeat until no dry streaks of flour remain.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rise is a warm place until doubled in size, from 1-2 hours. (I prefer to place it inside my gas oven when it's off, or on top of the pilot light--as long as the light's covered in your model--grilled bread is great, but not in the bowl!)
5. When the dough has doubled, prepare a 12x18-inch jelly roll pan: Lightly brush with oil.
6. Scrape dough out of bowl onto pan, being careful not to allow to to double over on itself. Press the dough out so that it fills the pan (lightly oil or cooking spray your hands if necessary). If the dough stretches and then springs back, cover it and let it sit for a few minutes, then try again.
7. Cover the dough with oiled or cooking sprayed plastic wrap and allow to sit and rise for an hour, until doubled in bulk. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 F.
8. Once the dough has risen, brush with Olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, if your prefer (this step is optional).
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is golden brown (may take less time, depending on your oven). Allow to cool on a rack, then cut or tear and enjoy!

Focaccia is easy to make your own: add olives or chopped cured meat to the dough, top with olives, sliced ripe tomatoes, even grapes and nuts! With a recipe this simple, play around with it! Have fun--it's easy to forget that step in all the measuring, but I'm convinced you can taste an anxious baker in the final result. Pour yourself some wine and relax, knowing that you'll have a refined but simple treat in a matter of hours. (Just save some of the wine for when it's finished!)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Malt Shop Chocolate Chip Cookies

You may notice a pattern in all of my cookie photos: all on a large cooling rack, in front of a window in the late afternoon sunlight. I'd never noticed this, but I do tend to bake cookies late on Sunday afternoons. You know that nostalgic notion of a pie cooling on a window sill? I guess cookies are my pie.

I'm preparing for one of my favorite Oxford events: the Summer Concert Series in the Grove. Dan and I love it. Every Sunday night in June we pack a picnic basket with a light dinner, a bottle of wine, and some dessert, we grab a blanket and the dog, and we head out for an evening in the park with music. It really seems like something out of a movie. Small children wander over and ask to pet our dog--they usually love when he licks them, though they are startled at first--friends meet us, and we all watch the sun set over the outdoor stage. It's quite perfect, really.

Tonight, we're taking a vegetable popover (basically a really thin frittata), some strawberries, a bottle of Pinot Noir, and these cookies: Malt Shop Chocolate Chip Cookies. I am the only person I know in this town who loves chocolate malts, so I'd hoped these cookies would only be for me *wink*. The dough tastes like a really thick old-fashioned malt like you'd find at the ice cream shop, Beaches & Cream, at Disney's Beach Club Resort (that's for y'all, Waldens). However, the malt flavor mellows as they bake and you end up with chewy, salty, chocolatey cookies that are begging to be taken on a picnic or dunked in ice-cold milk late at night. And I cannot even begin to describe what amazing ice cream sandwiches these would make: chocolate ice cream would take these over the top.

Give them a try; they're simple, low in fat and calories, and really rich and satisfying. Even if you're not a malt lover like me, I promise you'll love these cookies.

Malt Shop Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light, May 2005)

1 cup packed brown sugar (I used light, but any would work)
6 T malted milk powder (such as Carnation, find it in the hot chocolate section)
5 T butter, room temperature
3 T chocolate syrup
1 T vanilla
1 large egg
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
1/3 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Beat first six ingredients (through the egg) in a large bowl with a standing or handheld mixture until well-blended and fluffy.
3. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl; add in batches to the wet mixture, beating each batch on low speed until just incorporated.
4. Fold in the chocolate chips. At this point, taste the batter--if it is stiff, go ahead and start dishing out the cookies. If it is really soft, stick it in the fridge for 30 minutes. If the butter is too soft, the cookies will spread too much and flatten out instead of puffing up.
5. Place cookies by heaping teaspoonfuls onto an ungreased nonstick baking sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake for 10 minutes, or until puffed. They will not look browned, although the edges might be slightly golden. Let cool on baking sheet for 2-3 minutes, then remove and let cool completely on a wire rack.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Homemade Granola

It's a beautiful morning here in Mississippi: the sun is shining, the sky is clear, and I woke up to a gorgeous dew on the ground. Not so gorgeous when Mercer came in the house with soaking wet feet, but on a Saturday like this, much is forgivable. I have a long day of work ahead of me. I'm trying to meet a Monday deadline to turn in my Written Comprehensive Exam, the first of my exams that will lead to the dissertation and, finally, the degree. I only have a small amount left to go, but isn't it always toughest to finish a large project when the end is in sight? I keep stalling, making the grocery list or going to get coffee, hoping (subconsciously) that when I get home, the final paragraphs will have written themselves and I can proudly hand it in, for once in my graduate career, on time. Macs are supposed to be awesome, right? Why can't mine finish my exam when I'm not in the room?

Anyway, this exam, along with many other school concerns, is the reason I have been absent for so long. I have not stopped baking, of course, but when I made my pact to bake only on weekends, it never occurred to me that this would leave little time for blogging, especially when all midweek typing was somewhat goal-oriented. (What this goal might be is still up for debate.) I will try in the coming weeks to catch up, but I've also considered simply posting pictures of my last few months in the kitchen and taking requests. See a photo you like? I'll post the recipe. Let me know if this sounds good to you, since as always, I am a bit overwhelmed.

Today, however, I am feeling like anything is possible, which is why I've chosen to post for you my breakfast of champions, my Homemade Granola. It requires little more than the ability to measure (eyeball, really) and toss. Add heat, and you've got yourself a great breakfast dish (or snack) that will make you feel disproportionately proud of yourself (disproportionate to the amount of work you'll put in, I mean). And I especially love that this recipe is infinitely adaptable. Once you learn the method, although it's almost laughable to call it that, as it's really just separating dry, wet, and dried fruit, you can switch out any ingredients you like. I love to add in lots of whole grains like flax, oat bran, etc. to up the nutritional ante. In the past few years, granola's gotten a bad rap for being one of those foods that sounds healthy but isn't. And it's true--most brands in the grocery stores are more fat and corn syrup than health food. But as someone who has committed to baking healthy and eating less white flour, I can tell you that whole grains are expensive! The first time I made bran muffins (last summer), I had to buy boxes of flax seed, oat bran, wheat germ, etc.; twenty dollars later and I wished I'd just gone to the bakery. Don't despair, though--you use them in such small amounts that if you keep them in your fridge or freezer, most will last you a year or more, and you can toss them in various recipes. Even after multiple batches of whole-grain muffins, breads, and this granola, I still have those original boxes, beckoning me from the back of the fridge. I use them whenever possible.

So here's your basic method: Mix together dry ingredients (minus fruit) and spices in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, whisk wet ingredients. Add wet to dry, toss well (breaking up large pieces) and pour onto a foil-lined, cooking-sprayed baking sheet. Bake, toss, bake, toss, cool, add fruit. Done. Keep it in an airtight container in your fridge for a few weeks and add to yogurt (any flavor), frozen yogurt, even the top of cobblers: You can make a quick cobbler by sauteing fruit, pouring it on top of ice cream, and adding this granola. I've even seen granola bread recipes. Have fun and use your imagination.

A note on yogurt: I prefer vanilla, but I'm always having to buy plain low-fat yogurt for baking, particularly my banana bread. I don't know about you, but in my town, plain yogurt does not come in anything smaller than a 32-ounce container. I always ending throwing some (okay, a lot) away. However, I've recently realized that you can flavor plain yogurt with anything! I prefer to squeeze in some honey and add a 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract (to a 1/2 cup of yogurt). You can also add jams or preserves for fruit-flavored yogurt. You'll never get bored or waste yogurt. It's kind of like making your own vinaigrettes instead of buying big bottles from the store--you can change out the flavors whenever the desire hits you.

Homemade Granola
(adapted from A Real American Breakfast by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison)

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup oat bran
1/4 cup milled flax seed
4-5 T brown sugar (any kind)
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
(Feel free to add any other spices you like.)
(You can certainly add chopped nuts as well.)

1/4 cup juice (apple, apple cider, OJ, cranberry--it all works)
3 T honey
1 T vanilla extract
2 T vegetable oil (or unsalted butter)

Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, currants, blueberries, cherries, dates, mango, apricots--whatever you prefer, just chop any large pieces)
Chocolate chips, hunks, or M&Ms (to make it more like trail mix)

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a large baking sheet with foil and spray liberally with cooking spray. Stir the dry ingredients well in a large bowl. Whisk the wet ingredients. Add wet to dry and toss until well-incorporated, breaking up large pieces. Pour the mixture on the baking sheet and bake for 15 mins., toss, bake another 15 minutes, toss, let cool. You want the granola to be about a shade darker than when you started, but really, let your nose do the work. You want it to smell strong and sweet, but not bitter or burnt. It will not be crunchy when you remove it from the oven--it will dry and harden as it cools. Once it has cooled, add in fruit and store in an airtight container.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sweet and Salty Pleasures: Peanut Chocolate Chip Cookies

There is something I just love about this picture. I love the way the late-afternoon light from my kitchen window streaks across the cooling cookies. I love the way it harkens back to pie-cooling-on-the-windowsill simpler times, whether or not they actually existed. There's something very Mayberry about both the photo and the luxury of an afternoon of baking, and I think that feeling is exactly what I needed today. Tomorrow--Monday--Spring Break officially ends, and while I've been working during almost the entire break, I've been working at my own pace, on my own research, giving little thought to grading, teaching, or really anything that might distract me from the joy of writing about food, including food itself. 

I thought I would wake up every morning during break and bake a wonderful new treat for breakfast--cinnamon rolls one morning, muffins another, doughnuts still another, and perhaps I'd even try my hand at bagels or brioche over the weekend. I did make the cinnamon rolls and we've breakfasted and snacked on them all week long, but in my effort to buckle down and write, I forgot to bake. And perhaps this is my non-Spring Break problem. I often wonder where my time goes during the week, and I think about this as I wake up, bake a breakfast goody, eat, clean up, shower, dress, and finally turn on my computer at noon. Anyone in the real world couldn't hold down a job this way! Not to mention the urge for cookies or brownies that usually hits around 3 pm, when I could be spending a few more hours reading. "But they need time to cool before dinner," the angel on one shoulder tells me. "True, but you have a degree to finish, and catering department events will not earn you a Ph.D.," the other angel (named Dan) replies. "Nor are you learning anything about food history by baking everything Nigella tells you to," he continues. "And ..." "Okay, okay," I interject, "Will you please both be quiet if I resolve to bake only on weekends, to make friends with my freezer so that brownie-satisfaction will be at my fingertips anytime I please, and to not equate practical with theoretical food knowledge?" The angels, for once, are silent. And I guess this is what I resolve to do--be a baking maniac on Saturday and Sunday, stock my freezer (and my friends' freezers) and spend the week, like any normal person who does not own and operate a bakery, working. And this is why you find me, Sunday afternoon, baking cookies and discussing Mayberry. If I can't live there everyday, at least I can spend my weekends inhaling the aroma of freshly-baked anything.

Today I was exploring the two essential elements of true indulgence: sweet and salty flavors. These cookies are perfect when you don't want a peanut butter cookie but you're just not in the mood for a chocolate chip cookie either. I often wonder why we don't use peanuts in more baked goods. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts--all are fair game, but poor peanut, the forgotten nut. I love them in brownies, and in these cookies, they are right over the top. And for anyone gearing up for bikini season, they're from Cooking Light, only 2-3 grams of fat a piece, depending on how big you make your cookies. They do spread out a lot, so don't worry that your teaspoon-sized dollops look really small before baking. You're not going to end up with mini-cookies, I promise. And while the recipe doesn't call for it, I think a little sprinkling of sea salt over the tops before they go in the oven would be lovely. I'm my mother's daughter--there's no such thing as too much salt in my mind, especially good coarse salt.

Peanut Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light, March 2007)

1/3 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted peanuts (the recipe says unsalted--I disagree)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (I prefer dark, but either, or a mixture, works well)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature (just sit in out when you begin baking)
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt (you can substitute kosher salt)
(Cooking spray)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Place nuts on a small baking pan and toast in the oven for 5-8 minutes (until you can smell them); let cool.
3. Spoon flour into a dry measuring cup and level. Combine the flour, baking soda, and baking powder with a whisk. Set aside.
4. With a standing mixer or electric mixer, combine butter and sugars. Mix until well combined, 2-3 minutes. Add vanilla and egg; beat until smooth. 
5. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture gradually, in several additions, beating on low speed. Fully incorporate flour, scraping down sides of bowl, before adding more of the flour mixture.
6. Stir in chocolate chips, peanuts, and salt.
7. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls (2 inches apart) on nonstick baking sheet of baking sheet covered with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 9-10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool on pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

I made my cookies bigger, so the recipe yielded 28 cookies. The magazine says it should yield 38. Oops. 

Note: I usually don't like warm cookies. I love these warm. Really, really.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lemon-Almond Biscotti with White Chocolate

I've always been intrigued by biscotti--I love the idea of a crunchy cookie that you can dip in a cup of espresso with a sort of nonchalant sophistication that I can only dream of possessing. The reality, however, often disappoints me. Biscotti usually tastes bland or stale, or it is not crunchy enough and winds up tough and chewy. It looks beautiful, swiped with chocolate or studded with dried berries, but all too often it has that superficial "wedding cake" effect: taste never exceeds (or even matches) the levels of anticipation. 

This cookie is the first I've found that is truly everything I want from biscotti. It has a marvelous texture: crunchy and light, thanks to the addition of cornmeal (southern Italian recipe, perhaps?). Almonds and lemon are a perfect match for a light morning or after-dinner treat. And white chocolate complements the other flavors, adding just enough sweetness. When dipped in coffee, it becomes perfectly creamy. And that's the best part: These biscotti are meant to be dipped. They hold together and have just the right bite, whereas some other cookies fall apart and get those unappetizing crumbles in your coffee.

If you're going to try biscotti, start here. It's an easy recipe, and the texture is wonderful. They're also incredibly versatile: as appropriate for a Christmas party as for a May bridesmaid's brunch. Three easy steps: Make the dough and shape the logs (don't be afraid to use a ruler to check the size, and make sure both logs are the same size or they won't cook evenly). Bake once (until lightly browned), and cool. Cut, bake again, and cool. Simple, simple. 

Pre-chocolate biscotti:

I love this recipe for its simplicity. How many baking recipes use only eight ingredients? I'm sure you could do so many variations: orange zest and pecans, maybe with some cinnamon sugar sprinkle on top, any dried fruit and nut, toasted pine nuts instead of almonds with the lemon zest, or, ooh, maybe some hazelnuts and cocoa nibs. More biscotti posts to follow.

Lemon-Almond Biscotti
(adapted from Everyday Italian)

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 lg. eggs
1 cup sugar
3 T lemon zest (from about 3 large lemons)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped whole almonds
12 oz. white chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat. This is a very important step, as the dough will be very dry and sticky. 
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl with a good electric hand mixer) cream the eggs and sugar until they are a pale yellow, about 1 minute for the standing mixer or 2-3 for a hand mixer. Add the lemon zest, then the flour mixture, gradually, in about three batches. If the dough looks crumbly and does not pull together, add 1/4 cup water and the juice from one of the zested lemons. Add only enough liquid to help the dough mostly come together--you can knead in some loose flour as you form the logs. Allow the dough to sit for a few minutes.
4. Wet your hands lightly so they don't stick to the dough. Divide the dough in half and form each into a log on the baking sheet, 9 inches long, 3 inches wide, and about 1 inch high. 
5. Bake at 325 F for 35 minutes or until logs have risen slightly and are lightly browned around the edges.
6. After 35 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and allow the logs to cool for 5-10 minutes. Then remove them from the pan carefully and, using a serrated knife, slice into 1/2-3/4 inch slices and place these slices back onto the pan. 
7. Bake at 325 F for 25 minutes more.
8. Remove and allow to cool completely.
9. Once they have cooled, heat one bag of white chocolate chips in a double boiler over very low heat. White chocolate burns easily, so stir it frequently, and any steam that gets in the bowl can cause it to seize. (Basically, keep an extra bag on hand just in case--white chocolate is far less forgiving than other types of chocolate.)
10. Once the chocolate has melted, use a narrow spatula and spread it along the tops of the biscotti. Variation: Hold the biscotti in the middle and swipe the top through the white chocolate. This creates a pretty ridge along the top. Place the biscotti back on the baking sheet and allow the chocolate to cool and set.
11. Brew a pot of strong coffee and enjoy--these are amazing dipped in coffee.