Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Raspberry-Ginger Tart

Last February, Ellie and I shared a wonderful tart at Bottletree. It was a small raspberry-ginger tartlet, the perfect deep pinky-red for Valentine's Day. This tart, however, did not resemble any Valentine's dessert we'd ever tasted. Instead of being simply sweet, it left behind a strong heat, a gingery punch that stopped you in your tracks. I was left wondering if Bottletree had outdone itself in its metaphorical rendition of "love at first sight/bite." Sure, this post is starting to sound cheesy, but hey, it's almost Valentine's Day--when better to wear red and pink (ironically or not) and to write rhyming love poems about your first love, your only true love, your cat . . . whatever. 

Anyway, when her birthday rolled around and she asked for a fruit pie for dessert, I fudged a little and created this tart. We'd talked about the Bottletree tart for the last year and could never decide if the ginger was in the crust, the filling, or both, or if the filling was jam or a homemade conserve, and I still can't remember if there was a little pastry heart in the center. I'm kinda thinking there was, famous as this town can be for irony. But I consulted a few recipes and came up with this dessert. It's not exactly like the tart we had last year: I used a crumb crust made out of gingersnaps instead of short pastry or shortbread, and the punch of ginger was not as strong, though I will say that the day after the birthday party, the leftover tart had quite a kick. Let it sit a day, I learned. I also added some orange to the jam, which Dan loved and I am on the fence about. 

Note: To press tart dough or crust into the tart pan, use your hand to lightly press it down, then a flat-bottomed measuring cup to push it into the corners and create an even edge. (See below.)

Raspberry-Ginger Tart

6-7 oz. gingersnap cookies (about 3o cookies)
2 T granulated sugar
4 T room temperature butter

1 cup of raspberry preserves, seeded or seedless
1/4 tsp. orange zest (opt.)
1 T fresh squeezed orange juice (you can also use lemon juice and no zest) 
1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. sugar (to taste)

Topping: (optional)
1/8 cup sliced toasted almonds

To make the crust:
Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Pulse the gingersnaps and sugar in a food processor until finely ground. If any large pieces remain after pulsing, break them up with your fingers. Otherwise, they will prevent the crust from combining smoothly. Add the room temperature butter and pulse until everything is combined.

Dump the crust mixture into a 9-inch nonstick tart pan with a removable bottom, sprayed lightly with cooking spray. (Place this pan on a baking sheet to make it easier to lift in and out of the oven.) Press it down lightly with your fingers. Once it is distributed over the bottom of the pan, use a flat-bottomed measuring cup to smooth it out and press it into the edges. This way, you won't end up with thick crust in the corners of the pan.

Bake the crust for 12 minutes at 350 F. You should be able to smell the gingersnaps and the crust should be a few shades darker. Allow the crust to cool before pouring in the filling.

To make the filling:
Scrape the jam into a small saucepan over low heat and add the rest of the ingredients: orange zest and juice, fresh and ground ginger. Stir often. Taste the filling when it has heated--if it needs some sweetness, add some granulated sugar (some jams and oranges are more tart than others). Once the filling is steaming but not bubbling, turn the heat off. Continue to stir often as you allow the mixture to cool. Once it has cooled slightly, pour it into the cooled crust. Smooth it out with a rubber spatula until it is even, then place the tart in the refrigerator to chill until set. (Keep the tart on the baking sheet to avoid breaking the tart by accidentally pressing up on the removable bottom before it has chilled.) Sprinkle the top with almonds when it has cooled slightly, if desired. It is better served the next day--the ginger flavor develops more.

Note: I cannot decide on the best method for this dessert. You can also bake the tart in a 375 F oven instead of heating up the jam and then chilling the tart. If you choose this method, still prebake the tart crust (placing the tart pan on a baking sheet for the duration of both baking processes) and let it cool. Meanwhile, mix the jam in a small bowl with the fresh and ground ginger and orange. Spread this in the cooled tart crust and bake for 10-12 minutes. Allow the tart to cool on the baking sheet completely before trying to remove it from the pan. It will also hold together better if you chill it for 8 hours after baking and cooling. Try to remove the bottom of the tart pan by wedging a thin spatula between the tart and the bottom, keeping the tart close to the platter so you can simply slide it off without breaking it. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fudgy Mocha-Toffee Brownies (Mochaccino Brownies for short)

I did not receive an espresso machine for my wedding. I'm not entirely sure I even registered for one, though I think I remember that somewhere in the midst of the All-Clad, Henckels, Le Creuset, and KitchenAid talk, Dan and I decided that we could wait on that one. He probably used the line I grew to love during the wedding days: "Where are we gonna put that?" I imagine it was, in the end, a matter of counter space.

I still crave espresso drinks at home, usually in the late afternoon, while I'm sitting comfortably at my desk (the desk that stylishly solved the problem of "where to put" my computer and cookbooks). I bought a small stovetop espresso maker that actually works pretty well, and trust me, I put it to good use. I've mastered the Caramel Macchiato and the Americano, but mochas still elude me. I can never achieve the smooth, deep blend of dark chocolate, milk, and espresso that is my weakness at Port City Java. (I think they call it a Mochaccino.) Anyway, when I think I just can't stand it anymore and I'm ready to drive 12 hours to Wilmington just to get one, I make these brownies. I found the recipe in Cooking Light over a year ago, and they've become quick favorites. Don't be put off by the "light" in the description--one taste of these luscious brownies and you'd swear I was lying even if I showed you the recipe. Dark chocolate, a double shot of espresso, and the salty crunch of toffee on top--these are just as great for breakfast as they are late at night when you want the soothing warmth of coffee without the jolt of caffeine. 

A few things to note about these brownies: They are incredibly fudgy and gooey. This is wonderful for eating, not so great for cutting. It is difficult to slice them evenly and cleanly, as the knife tends to drag raggedly through even the coolest of brownies. Wipe off the knife after each cut, and try to drag the knife in a line in one smooth motion, rather than sawing up and down. A sharp knife is also a great option, but be careful not to scrape the bottom of your nonstick pan.

Also, the batter will be thick. Very thick. The first time I made them I was convinced something had gone terribly wrong. The final batter was the texture and thickness of a good exfoliating body scrub or face wash. Remember the St. Ives Apricot Scrub? While it's not the most appetizing analogy, if you've got that texture (but in chocolate) then you're on the right track. You literally have to scoop the batter into the pan and then pat it down with a spatula sprayed with cooking spray, coaxing it into the edges of the pan. It will not go gently, I promise you. It's like stretching pizza dough only to have it shrink back to size when your back is turned. Just be patient--in both cases--the final product is so worth it.

Mochaccino Brownies
(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2007)

Cooking spray
2 T instant coffee granules
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup (4 T) unsalted butter
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (I use a blend of regular and Dutch-Processed)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup toffee chips (not the milk chocolate-covered ones)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Coat the bottom of a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
3. Combine coffee granules with 1/4 cup hot water (really hot tap water is fine). Stir until the granules dissolve. (You can do this right in a measuring cup to save on dirty dishes.)
4. Combine butter (cut into chunks) and chocolate chips in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute or until butter melts; stir until smooth. 
5. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine the flour, sugar, unsweetened cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Combine coffee mixture, butter mixture, vanilla extract, and eggs in a medium bowl, whisking until smooth. Add the coffee mixture to the flour mixture and fold until just combined, being sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate all of the flour. The batter will be very thick.
6. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan, pushing it into the corners. Sprinkle with the toffee chips. 
7. Bake at 350 F for 22-24 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out mostly clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Enjoy this sweet coffee fix!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Booking It, Stephanie-Style

I enjoy reading Stephanie's Monday "Booking It" posts on her blog, Pointed Meanderings, and often feel compelled to respond to the same questions, but for one reason or another never seem to get around to it. Here are today's questions though--all about favorites--and, as my transition into working on my writing for the morning, here are my answers, many of them (of course) food-related.

1. Do you have a favorite author?

I have many. Had you asked me in college, I would have said Ernest Hemingway. A few years ago, the answer would have been Janet Evanovich for her Stephanie Plum novels. Currently I'd have to say Anne Tyler. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is phenomenal, and Back When We Were Grown-Ups is amazing. Breathing Lessons, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, is incredible, though not my favorite book of hers. I'm actually teaching Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in a comp class this spring; I hope my students like it, as I did when I first read it in college. I also love Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek, Caramelo--she's also at the top of my list. And Nigella Lawson, for her food writing--beautiful.

2. Have you read everything he or she has written?

No for all, though I probably come closest to having read everything for Hemingway and Cisneros. 

3. Did you like everything?

Yes for all. Woman Hollering Creek is my least favorite Cisneros text, as were, honestly, To Have or Have Not and The Old Man and the Sea. But there are none that I wouldn't read again to see what I think now.

4. How about a least favorite author?

Um, Faulkner. Sorry.

5. An author you wanted to like, but didn't?

Hmm. I'm sure there have been plenty, but I probably never finished the book and just don't remember right now. Maybe Cynthia Shearer (The Celestial Jukebox)?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Banana Bread: Back to Basics

"In life, there are cooks, and there are bakers." I heard someone say this recently, and I have to say I somewhat agree. My husband certainly would. Baking means measuring, waiting, leaving things alone to let them work on their own. Cooking means tossing, tasting, improvising. This is not to say that baking is less creative than cooking, but it is more, well, measured. My husband is a fabulous cook. He can go to the store and be inspired, then come home and make something wonderful. He created a dish of brussels sprouts and bacon that he makes for me on my birthday; it is truly better than cake. He is a genius with seasoning and anything pig. I can't remember the last time I saw him use a recipe, unless it was one he created and I forced him to write down. He can bake, but he hates it (the whole recipe-measuring thing). I, on the other hand, also love to cook, but I need a recipe to feel safe. But baking is my true passion. I love the serenity of baking, the patience it demands, how it just slows you down, requires you to be careful, thoughtful, but how all of the steps are laid out for you and all you need do is follow them to be successful. Nothing in life ever seems so clear and simple. It's Zen, with sugar.

Banana Bread is one of those dishes that rewards a small amount of patience with a delicious and comforting treat. This is my favorite version. It uses plain yogurt to tenderize and add moisture, and it is perfect made with frozen bananas, which I pretty much collect on a weekly basis as there's always that one banana in each bunch that no one ever eats. Keep in mind that you make quickbreads like banana bread using the same techniques you use for muffins: dry ingredients whisked together in a large bowl, wet ingredients in a medium bowl, add the wet to the dry, and gently fold together with a plastic spatula until just mixed. Do not overmix or whisk--this will make the bread dense and tough. (To fold: Press your spatula through the center of the mixture to the bottom of the bowl and gently scoop and lift the bottom ingredients to the top. Turn the bowl a quarter-turn; repeat. Do this until you do not see any large streaks of flour.)

A note on using frozen bananas: When you're baking, you want everything to be at the same temperature, in this case, room temperature. Give the bananas plenty of time to thaw--a few hours--and do not worry if they turn brown. They will be fine. Also, a lot of moisture will come out as they thaw. Be sure to drain most of this out over the sink before you add the other wet ingredients to the bowl or else the batter will be too thin and wet and the bread will not rise properly.

Banana Bread
(adapted from Baking Illustrated)

2 cups (10 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup pecans (toasted, opt.)
3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz.) sugar
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3 very ripe large bananas, mashed well
1/4 cup plain yogurt (low-fat is fine)
2 large eggs
6 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled (do this step first to give the butter time to cool)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Melt the butter in a small bowl; allow to cool.
2. Spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with cooking spray and set aside. Move an oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 350 F. (You can butter and flour the pan if you want, but cooking spray is easier and less messy.)
3. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and pecans in a large bowl (weigh all ingredients is possible); set aside.
4. Mix the mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla in a medium bowl until well-blended.
5. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the banana mixture. Gently fold in the banana mixture with a rubber spatula. Fold only you see no more large streaks of flour; be sure to scrape the bottom of the mixing bowl as well. The mixture will look very chunky.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Variations: You can add chocolate chips, any kind of nut, coconut, orange zest, dried fruit, basically anything you want to this batter. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Peppermint Bark

I apologize for what I'm sure will be a series of late "Christmas-Goodies" posts; life got so hectic pre-holidays with end-of-semester grading and Dan's job application process, packing for several trips over the break and trying to finish up last minute activities--I was just never able to post some of my new favorite treats. I even forgot to take pictures of a few, so I guess I'll just have to make them again!

This peppermint bark was inspired by--what else?--a Williams-Sonoma catalog. Dan was leafing through it one day and brought it to my desk, page folded back to reveal a photo of their signature bark, and said to me, "I want you to try to make this." Anything for the stressed but proud newly-minted Ph.D. in our house; I set to work finding a recipe. It was not hard--plenty of similar recipes exist online. I found a few, but the one that caught my eye used peppermint extract in the white chocolate layer, which not only adds to the overall freshening effect, but also cuts the sweetness of the white chocolate. I prefer a mixture of semi-sweet and milk chocolate for the bottom layer, but do what you like best. And as for chopping the peppermint candies, well, you can crush candy canes in a plastic bag with a rolling pin, but since I happened to have individually wrapped peppermints, I just chopped them with a knife, realizing too late that I had not one but two (!) perfectly good food processors that could have done the job. 

This certainly looks like the holidays, but it would be a wonderful after-dinner treat or hostess gift at any dinner party, any time of year. And the possible variations are endless. You could use this same concept and instead of peppermint extract and peppermint candies, sprinkle dried fruits and nuts over the top and mix orange extract in the white chocolate layer. Dried cherries or cranberries and pistachios would be wonderful, or perhaps even dried pineapple and toasted coconut with macadamia nuts. You don't have to layer them either--white or dark chocolate alone would still be delicious. Have fun, and use your imagination! This could be your new signature: The Girl With the Chocolate Bark. (Any Confessions of a Shopaholic fans out there?)

Peppermint Bark (like Williams-Sonoma's)

12 oz. chocolate chips (I used 10 oz. semi-sweet and 2 oz. milk chocolate)
14 oz. white chocolate chips
1/2 tsp. peppermint extract
1/2 cup chopped peppermint candies (use a sharp knife or a food processor)

1. Line a 13 x 9-inch pan with foil, leaving some hanging over the sides. Smooth it out on sides and bottom. Spray with cooking spray.
2. Melt semi-sweet chocolate chips in a double boiler or microwave until almost melted. Pour into prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Chill for 30 minutes or until set.
3. Melt white chocolate chips in a double boiler; whisk and scrape bottom of bowl periodically. When the chips are mostly melted, stir in the peppermint extract. Take off the double boiler and allow to cool for several minutes, stirring a bit, before pouring onto the chilled chocolate layer. 
4. Working quickly, pour onto the chilled chocolate layer, smoothing with a spatula. Pour the chopped peppermint candies evenly over the top and chill a few hours until set.
5. To cut, either allow to come closer to room temperature and slice with a knife, or, to make it look more rustic, cut it straight out of the refrigerator using a knife tip as a chisel and just sort of break it apart into uneven pieces. I prefer this effect.

Something Incredible

One of my favorite lines from The Incredibles occurs when Mr. Incredible, exhausted from another long day of being asked to trick people out of their well-deserved money at an insurance company, returns home to see a neighbor child sitting on his Big Wheel at the end of the driveway. In a tired voice, Mr. Incredible asks him, "What are you waiting for?" The child replies, candidly, innocently, "I don't know, something amazing I guess." Aren't we all? I love that he asks not what the child is looking at, the obvious question, almost a cliche in our somewhat cynical and paranoid society: "What're you looking at?" No, he asks him what he is waiting for. Why sit and wait for events out of your control to amaze you? Why have faith that you will be amazed? I don't have an answer for that. But I know that child wanted to be amazed and knew that something out there could make it happen. So he waited, hoping, as we all do, that it might happen today. 

Another day, sitting at the end of the driveway, waiting for something to amaze him. And in the end, it did: The fake superhero's cape becomes trapped in the plane as the mutating super-baby changes form, causes the plane to explode, and the family drops slowly to safety thanks to stretchy Elasti-Girl. Not my dream, but perhaps it is yours. It was that step that allowed superheroes to once again be a part of society, to promote optimism and humanity instead of cynicism and greed. That's more like it. What recipe inspired this musing? None in particular. I was thinking about doughnuts and this is what I came up with. You can make the connections. I'll go make some doughnuts.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Simple Orange Rolls

I love a good cinnamon roll in the morning, but they tend to make me want to curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee, a good book, and a blanket, rather than waking me up and preparing me for a long busy day. These orange rolls are an excellent middle ground: still warm, gooey, and sweet, but not so reminiscent of the weekend that they are inappropriate (and even somewhat depressing) on a Monday. What makes these rolls even more weekday-appropriate is their simplicity: a tube of french bread dough, a block of cream cheese, an orange, some sugar, and you're done. Start them before you get in the shower and they'll be ready when you're done--and your house will smell bright and amazing, the best way to start your day.

Here's the recipe, adapted from the December 2008 issue of Southern Living:

Simple Orange Rolls

You'll need 1 orange, a roll of Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf (in a tube next to the biscuits on the refrigerated aisle), a package of block-style cream cheese, butter, light brown sugar, granulated sugar, and powdered sugar.

Set a 4-oz. block of cream cheese (half of a regular 8-0z. package) in a bowl on the counter to soften. You can absolutely use a low-fat cream cheese--I did and the rolls were great. Preheat the oven to 375 F. (You can set the cream cheese on top of the stove to speed up the softening process.) Spray an 8 or 9-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. When the cream cheese is done softening, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of orange zest (about one medium to large orange) and 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar, and beat with a hand mixer until smooth and uniform in color. Unroll the tube of bread dough on a floured surface and spread with the cream cheese mixture, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edges. Sprinkle this with 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Roll the dough, beginning with the long edge. Try to make the roll tight, but not so tight the filling squeezes out. Also, try to keep the width of the roll even. Once you have finished rolling, place the roll seam side down and cut it in half. Cut each of those halves in half, and each of those into three pieces, to make a total of twelve. To cut, saw the sharp knife back and forth; don't just push straight down. Don't worry if the dough smashes down as you cut it--work quickly and reshape the rolls if necessary once they're in the pan. Keep in mind that they will rise and expand as they cook. Place the rolls in the pan, brush the tops with one tablespoon of melted butter, and bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned on top. When the rolls are done, whisk together 1/2 cup of powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon of orange juice (from the orange you zested earlier). Drizzle this over the hot rolls and serve immediately.
This recipe is so simple, but it uses several techniques that are very important to baking. Here are a few.

Zesting: When you zest the orange, be sure to take off only the zest, none of the bitter white pith. What remains should still be a pale orange, not white. Think about those orange wedges or citrus rings your mother used to put on your plate with breakfast (or at least my mother did). Only the thinnest outer layer is really orange--that's what you want. Remember when you accidentally bit into the tougher white part of the wedge when you were trying to get that last bit of sweet orange flesh? That's what you don't want. (Check out the orange ring in the photo at the top of this post--that orange has been zested already. See how it's still a pale orange? You shouldn't see white when you zest.) You can use a Microplane (my favorite tool), a hand grater (just use the finest holes; you don't want wide strips of orange), or even that strange-looking little zester that came with your bar tools set--you know, the one with the four tiny little holes at the end? That's meant to take off thin strips of citrus zest; just be sure to chop them before you put them in the cream cheese mixture. Though you may love citrus, remember that you only need 1 1/2 teaspoons of orange zest (about one medium orange). As Sabrina tells Linus in the remake of the Hepburn classic, "More isn't always better Linus; sometimes it's just more." In this case, more orange zest just makes the rolls too bright, almost bitter, even if you were careful not to grate into the white pith. And finally, if a recipe calls for both the zest and juice of a fruit, zest it first--the grater needs the firmness of the uncut fruit to zest easily. You can save the fruit if the recipe calls only for zest--just wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge. The skin may turn kind of dingy, but the fruit will be fine for awhile.

Softening: Temperature is very important when baking. Cakes and cupcakes usually call for softened butter. This means that the butter (or cream cheese, in this case) should give gentle resistance when you press a fingertip into it--it should yield to the pressure, but your finger should not slip right through the stick. The time it takes for butter or cream cheese to soften depends on the temperature of your room. Or you can try my method: Place the butter on a plate and stick it in an oven that is turned off for about an hour. Or, in a pinch, place the plate in the microwave for about 10 seconds. Remember, you do not want the butter to melt--it should still hold its shape. Properly softened butter will take in plenty of air when you cream it with sugar, and this intake of air is part of what helps cakes to rise and be light and fluffy. The softening in this orange roll recipe is only to help the cream cheese mixture be more spreadable, but it is the same technique you will need when making plenty of other desserts. (Keep in mind also that butter in pastry--pie crusts, for example--must be cold in order to create air pockets when it melts in the oven; this is how pastry becomes flaky. Softened butter in this application would make the pastry chewy, not flaky.)

Measuring dry ingredients: Brown sugar measurements are almost always "packed," meaning you pack the sugar in as you go and it will probably hold its shape when you dump it into the bowl, like making towers of a sand castle in buckets. Granulated sugar is measured by scooping and shaking or leveling off the excess with a knife. Flour is not meant to be packed or scooped. It is best to weigh it using a kitchen scale, but if you don't have a scale or the recipe you're using doesn't give weight measurements, then either spoon the flour lightly into the cup and level it with a knife or scoop the flour out and drop it back into the container several times to lighten it, then scoop and level. You want the flour to be fluffy, not packed. Too much flour will make a recipe dry and dense.