Friday, February 26, 2010

Killer Blondies

Earlier this month I saw some loaded blondie bars on Apartment Therapy's site the kitchn. They looked so enticing that I printed the recipe right away and baked the bars about a week later as one of my pre-Lenten treats.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- You can find the recipe here.

- The recipe calls for white chocolate bits in the blondie layer and in the topping. I find white chocolate to be cloyingly sweet, so I eliminated it in the bar but left a little bit in the topping because I thought it would look better in pictures. Yes, it's true: I compromised my taste preference for the sake of appearances (what was I thinking?) I used dark chocolate to replace the white chocolate in the blondie, which I thought was a great idea, seeing as the original recipe specified only milk chocolate in the blondie layer.

- I chopped up a Skor bar for toffee chips.

- In the topping I used a combination of white chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, and milk choc chips.

the verdict:

These blondies really are killer good. They have a very butterscotch/caramel flavor, and the stir-ins really add to the deliciousness. I think they'd work with any combination of chips/nuts or even coconut - whatever is your favorite ingredient. In fact, I'd bet that these would be delicious as just plain blondies without any nuts or chips at all.

The topping is very, very sweet (especially with the white chocolate). I found myself knocking the white chocolate off of the brownies as I ate them. The topping didn't stick to the base very well, but if it fell off I was just as happy. Actually, the blondies would be great without any topping, maybe better. They'd certainly be easier - and cheaper - to bake.

I will definitely bake these blondies again, experimenting a little bit next time. And maybe trying a different experiment the next time. And the time after...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

{TWD} Lemon Honey Wheat Cookies

The Honey Wheat cookies. selected for this week's Tuesday's With Dorie recipe, were a real bast from the past. Dorie Greenspan says that she clipped the recipe that was the basis for these cookies during the "back-to-the-earth movement of the 1970's." The cookie ingredients include honey and a generous measure of wheat germ; just reading the recipe transported me back in time. The first thing that came to mind was the Judy Collins song, "Cook With Honey" released in 1973, when I was in high school. (The lyrics, here, include such memorable lines as: "I always cook with honey…. Tell me how’s your appetite?”) Like Judy Collins (and Dorie, too, I suppose) I enjoy the taste of honey, and my honey supply is extensive and varied.

No child of the 60's and 70's would be without a supply of wheat germ, and I always have a large jar of wheat germ kicking around my fridge. It comes in handy for sprinkling over yogurt, or throwing in a batch of granola, bringing to mind another vintage song, Neil Diamond’s “Crunchy Granola Suite” from 1972. (“Drop your shrink and stop your drinkin'/ Crunchy granola's neat” - for all the lyrics, click here)

So armed with wheat germ and honey, and fortified by some inspirational music of the period, I baked these cookies in the appropriate nostalgic frame of mind.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- Michelle of the blog Flour Child chose this recipe, which you can find her blog post, along with some fun pictures of her children helping with the cookies - isn't it great when they get old enough to take over the heavy mixing?

- I baked 1/2 recipe, and got 12 cookies. My 1" dough balls were 1 oz, or 30g; I guess Dorie's were smaller, as it appears that a half recipe should have yielded 18 cookies.

the verdict:

These cookies were good: soft, but a little chewy, a bit of crunch from the wheat germ, lots of flavor, wonderful lemon notes. They were especially good with tea.

Thanks, Michelle, for the great cookie pick, and the trip down memory lane!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nanaimo Bars (Oh, Canada!)

In my teens and 20's I was the world's biggest Olympics junkie. I was glued to the TV, Winter or Summer, every sport, every minute of coverage. My enthusiasm has moderated a good deal in recent Olympics, but I can still get pretty fascinated by the competitions, including curling, my every-four-years indulgence, and short track speed skating, which has just as much strategy but a good deal more chaos.

In honor of the Vancouver Winter Olympics I baked Nanaimo Bars, no-bake layered chocolate bars which originated in Western Canada about 35 years ago. I've spent a lot of time over the years in the Canadian Rockies and Vancouver, and I was always happy to see Nanaimo bars on the table for afternoon tea or dessert.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- I found the recipe for Nanaimo Bars here. It is identical to the recipe on the City of Nanaimo website.

- Although there are three separate layers in these bars, and they generate a generous quantity of dirty pans and bowls, they seem easy to make because they are no-bake. Just melt, stir, layer, and chill, and in relatively short order you have completed bars ready to cut and serve.

- I used King Arthur double dutch cocoa powder.

- My toasted almonds were nowhere to be found the afternoon I baked these bars, so I used half almond meal and half chopped toasted pecans.

- The middle layer calls for vanilla custard powder (although apparently you can use powdered vanilla pudding). I was excited to use the Bird's Dessert Powder that I'd picked up on a whim several years ago, which I hoped was the correct ingredient or a close substitute. I gave the powder a little taste and didn't detect much vanilla flavor, so I added a teaspoon of vanilla paste.

the verdict:

The Nanaimo bars turned out to be rich and indulgent, and quite delicious. Although they were sweet, I didn't find them cloyingly so. I piled these on the dessert platter for book group. One of my tasters, JT, doesn't even like coconut and he tried and actually enjoyed these bars. The coconut adds a nice chewy element in my opinion, but it could probably be replaced with a different stir-in ingredient, such as toffee bits (but then they wouldn't be Nanaimo Bars...)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

{TWD} "Perfect" Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

For this week's Tuesday's With Dorie recipe, Kait of Kait's Plate chose a cookie Dorie calls "My Best Chocolate Chip Cookie" I made this recipe previously, back when my blog was just a few weeks old, and posted them here. At that point I had begun a quest in earnest to discover the best CCC recipe. My mission got pretty quickly derailed as I got caught up in lots of other baking for the weekly TWD recipes. I've managed to bake several other CCCs, and I've learned is that tastes really do vary in what constitutes the perfect CCC. Some people like cakey cookies, others prefer chewy, and thin and crispy cookies have their fans as well. I can safely say that Dorie's best CCCs weren't my best CCC, although plenty of people love them.

Seeing as I'd already tried Dorie's version of chocolate chip cookies, I figured that I might as well use this week to bake a new CCC contender. On this week's P&Q post for the Chocolate Chip Cookies a wonderfully helpful comment by Peggy the Baker mentioned a Cook's Illustrated chocolate chip cookie recipe that sounded very different and delicious. Bingo! I had the cookie to bake this for this week.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- You can find the CI recipe for "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" here or here. The recipe for Dorie's cookies is on Kait's post.

- The recipe has a very unusual method. About 2/3 of the butter is browned on the stovetop first, then the rest of the butter is added to the hot browned butter. Once the sugars - granulated sugar and dark brown sugar - are added, the mixture is whisked several times for 30 seconds at 3 minute intervals. Then the dry ingredients are stirred in, and finally, the chocolate.

- I did not want wimpy brown butter, so I kept it on the heat until the butter solids were quite dark, possibly too dark.

- The recipe for my old stand-by chocolate chip cookies (recipe on this post) has a little bit of lemon juice. I'm tired of saying to myself, "I like that new cookie recipe, but I miss the complexity that the lemon juice provides," so I added a teaspoon of lemon juice to my cookie dough. The flavor is undetectable as "lemon" and I've read that lemon juice makes cookies more tender.

- My baking buddy Leslie baked the cookies just before I did, and she gave me some tips. She suggested using a premium chocolate, and bittersweet (around 70% cocoa) rather than semi-sweet (usually in the 50-60% cocoa range, and added sweetness). I followed that suggestion. She loved the dough so much and mentioned that I might want to bake a cookie or two without any chocolate, so I did that, too. (By the way, go check out Leslie's wonderful CCC taste-off post which included her very own CCC recipe - it looks fantastic!)

- The recipe says to divide the dough into 16 pieces to bake. My dough weighed 888g, so I made several of the cookies 1/16 size, or 55.5g. Those cookies turned out to be pretty huge, so for the rest of the dough, I made 40 g balls of dough. They baked up to a more "normal" cookie size. I froze most of the balls for a future side-by-side comparison with some of my other favorite CCC recipes.

- I've got to note here that the raw dough, although a tiny bit greasy, had fantastic flavor.

the verdict:

I love the texture of this cookie, wonderfully chewy without being under-baked. I think I did over-brown my butter, so my cookies were ever so slightly bitter. The bittersweet chocolate was a good pairing with the flavors of the cookie, but I found myself wishing that I'd used a little more chocolate since bittersweet isn't as sweet as semisweet would have been. So these cookies were not perfect for me but they were very very good. I'd like to bake them again, making a few more adjustments.

Thanks, Kait, for choosing Dorie's chocolate chip cookies and giving me the opportunity to branch out this week.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Caramel Ice Cream

Ever since I tore the shrink wrap off of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook back in November, I've been steadily trying recipes. I've made more than a dozen things by now, both sweet and savory, but I had yet to try any of the ice creams. It was just a matter of time, given our high rate of ice cream consumption around here. But where to start? Many of the AHAH flavors sound good, but the Caramel Ice Cream seemed to call my name the loudest.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- You can find the recipe on the Wall Street Journal site, here.

- All of the Ad Hoc ice creams call for 10 egg yolks. Yes, 10! Most ice cream recipes call for 3 to 6 yolks, so at first Keller's yolk requirement seemed excessive. But a couple of factors helped me to realize that it really wasn't out of line after all. For one thing, the yield is two quarts, which is double the quantity of other recipes. Additionally, Keller explains that he assumes 15 g/yolk, and that East Coast yolks are bigger than West Coast ones (fascinating, right?), so what the recipe really called for was 150 g of yolk, which was 8 yolks in my case, producing a reasonable 4 yolks/quart ratio. I'm so excited to have Keller's yolk measurement, which I will use for future ice cream making (I usually assume 20 g/yolk).

- In some ways this ice cream was a measure of how far I've come as a baker. It required making caramel then using the caramel to make a custard. Besides fretting about the veritable mountain of dishes this recipe generated, I hardly batted an eye when making it.

- I made the caramel over medium heat and took it very slow, until it was a deep amber color.

- The caramel hardened/seized when I added
the milk and cream, but I just heated the whole thing and stirred until the caramel softened and dissolved. Because the custard is strained at at several points later on, it didn't need to be entirely smooth.

- As the ice cream churned, it filled my 2 quart ice cream maker to just above the brim. It didn't overflow, but was very close. If you have a smaller ice cream maker, I'd advise a half recipe. But if you have a 2 quart machine, it's worth making the full amount. This ice cream is a bit more trouble than the average ice cream because of the caramelization step, so it's nice to have a huge yield to show for the effort.

- When fully churned, this ice cream was a softer soft-serve consistency than most. Even in the freezer, it stayed fairly soft.

- Although the recipe says the ice cream is best the first day, I found that the flavor seemed to get deeper and better the longer it sat in the freezer. In fact, it was still delicious two weeks later.

the verdict:

If love had a taste, this might just be it. The flavor was sweet, deep, complex, mysterious, and I never got tired of it. Additionally, the ice cream was versatile. It was good paired with cut out spice cookies (as in the picture up top), with brownies, with gingerbread, with chopped chocolate sprinkled on top, but most of all, it was perfect all by itself! I'm pretty sure this is the best ice cream I've ever churned.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wild Mushroom and Green Peppercorn Meatloaf for Sputnik

I've been having such a good time trying out new recipes that I tend to forget about some of our longtime favorites. But forgetting about a recipe as fabulous as this Wild Mushroom and Green Peppercorn Meatloaf would be a huge mistake! It is - bar none - the best meatloaf that I've ever eaten, and is no more difficult to put together than the basic run-of-the-mill stuff. One taste and you will realize that it is in a completely different league from the standard ketchup-topped loaf. Even if you usually don't like meatloaf, I'll bet you'd love this one.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- This meatloaf has been part of my dinner repertory for so long that I've lost track of where I initially found the recipe. My hunch is the New York Times Magazine about 15 or so years ago, but it's really anybody's guess. For the recipe, scroll down to the end of this post.

- The original recipe called for ground beef. I've made it that way, and it is definitely tasty, but it's even better when made with a mixture of different ground meats. At various times I've used ground turkey, chicken, pork, veal, goat as well as beef. My usual blend is beef, pork and turkey (the regular not the white meat turkey), although I'm pretty sure I've made it with all turkey.

- Most often I make my own "fresh" breadcrumbs - stale bread pulsed in the food processor - but I've also used breadcrumbs that I toast and keep in the freezer.

- The dried green peppercorns are much better for this recipe than the ones that come in a jar of brine. They are the secret ingredient that makes this meatloaf so special.

- I usually buy a package of fresh mixed wild mushrooms in the produce department, but I've also chosen my own assortment of mushrooms. I've never tried reconstituted dried mushrooms, but I'm sure they would work. The mushrooms really boost the umami factor of this meatloaf.

- The recipe can be made in one large loaf pan, or in a few smaller ones. It freezers beautifully. I've served it to family and company alike.

Although this meatloaf is one of my top 5 favorite dinners, it was perhaps loved best by our Australian Shepherd, Sputnik, who was my first dog - first pet actually. We lost Sputnik in December, just a few days shy of his 13th birthday on Christmas. As a puppy, he was a feisty handful, but with a bit (well, a lot really) of hard work on the training front he turned into an amazing companion.

Sputnik's greatest joys in life were: bringing in the newspaper (for a treat), picking up things to hand to us when we dropped them (also for a reward), and licking any plate or cooking pot we were willing to give him. His favorite food was this peppercorn meatloaf; the first time my husband gave him a serving of it, he just closed his eyes and inhaled, smelling the fantastic aroma before he could bring himself to taste any.

I can think of no better tribute to Sputnik than that written by a former landlady of my husband's about her beloved English Bulldog, Winston:
"Born a dog, died a gentleman."
That, and remembering him every time we enjoy this meatloaf.

the recipe:

Wild Mushroom and Peppercorn Meatloaf

2 lbs ground meat (any combination of beef, veal, pork, turkey)
1 ½ c. seasoned bread crumbs
2 eggs
1 T. minced garlic
2 c. mixed wild mushrooms, chopped
1 ½ T olive oil
¾ c. yellow onions
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. pepper
1 ½ T. whole green peppercorns (the dry ones)

1. mix all ingredients, then press into loaf pan(s)
2. Bake at 350 degreed F for 1 hr 10 min

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

{TWD} Rick Katz/Bittersweet Hybrid Brownies

On any given day, following just about any recipe, there's a good chance that I'll make an error. Sometimes big, other times minor. There's never a guarantee that I can pull of a recipe in the way that it- or I - intend. When it happens in a Tuesdays With Dorie recipe, however, I have to admit my mistake right here on my blog. So, here's my confession: although I had my book open to page 91, "Rick Katz's Brownies for Julia" - this week's assignment for TWD - my eyes strayed to the brownie recipe on the facing page ("Bittersweet Brownies" on p. 90) and I followed that one part of the time. The result was a hybrid combination of the two recipes (quite tasty, I might add!)

n.o.e.'s notes:

- I'm not certain how much of the time I was following the page 90 recipe and how much the page 91 recipe. Luckily they have the same amount of flour, eggs, and butter. I do know that instead of the 4 oz unsweetened chocolate and 2 oz bittersweet chocolate of the Rick Katz recipe (6 oz chocolate total), I used 9 oz bittersweet chocolate, as specified on the facing page.

- I used the quantity of sugar from the Rick Katz recipe, so I'd guess that my hybrid brownies ended up a bit sweeter than either recipe would have been.

- I did use the correct method for Rick Katz brownies, and I'm glad because it was an interesting technique, even if it did take longer than the average brownie recipe and require me to get an inordinate amount of bowls and pans dirty.

- Half of the sugar is added to melted chocolate/butter mixture, and the other half is added to the recipe's eggs. Then half of the egg mixture is added to the chocolate mixture, and the other half of the egg mixture is beaten until doubled in volume before being added to the chocolate mixture. Finally the dry ingredients are gently incorporated.

- Since the early reports were of gooey, underbaked brownies, I decided to bake some of my brownie batter in a smallish loaf pan in addition to a 9x9 pan as specified in the recipe. Even though Dorie specified a Pyrex pan if possible I used metal pans because I never have great luck baking brownies in Pyrex - they seem to take much longer to bake completely. I lined both pans with a parchment sling, in case the brownies needed a bit of help releasing from the pan.

- My brownies baked for about 28 minutes. I used the King Arthur "divot test" to check for done-ness. I have to say, this test has made all the difference in brownie baking success for me. Previously I agonized about getting my brownies to the right stage, but no longer!

the verdict:

Although I didn't bake the assigned brownie recipe on page 91 or the brownie recipe on the facing page, the combination-of-the-two-recipes-brownies that I did bake were quite wonderful: fully baked yet fudgy and intense in chocolate flavor! My enjoyment of learning the technique of these brownies was not dimmed by the piles of dirty dishes in my kitchen by the time I finished baking. The Rick Katz brownies sound quite good, so I will go back at some point and bake them with the amount and type of chocolate actually specified in the recipe. But in the meantime, I have a bunch of my "hybrid" brownies in the freezer, to dole out as needed.

If you would like the recipe for the Rick Katz brownies, you can find it on page 91 (not page 90, mind you) of Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours or on Tanya's blog, Chocolatechic.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

English Onion Soup with Sage and Cheddar

February 4 is National Homemade Soup day, and I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a hot bowl of English Onion Soup with Sage and Cheddar.

n.o.e.'s notes:

- I found the recipe here on Jamie Oliver's website, and mentioned it to my cooking friends on Twitter. Before I knew it, half a dozen of us decided to make the soup. Leslie of Lethally Delicious made this soup first, and reported that hers was bland, so I worked extra hard to develop maximum flavor at every stage of the soup.

- It is very important to measure your onions by weight for this recipe; no volume measurements are provided, and the size of onions varies wildly. I used 1000g of a mixture of five different types of onions: white onions, red onions, shallots (regular), leeks, and baby Vidalias.

- Oliver stresses that the onions should be cooked on low temperature to bring out their sweetness. I chose med/low, and my onions took a lot longer to cook that the recipe recommends. I wanted to make sure that the liquid evaporated off and they got caramelized, so I think my onions cooked about 80 minutes or so.

- I made sure to season at every stage with salt and pepper.

- Oliver allows a choice of which type of stock to use for the soup's base. I had just prepared some turkey and chicken stock from Ruhlman's overnight method, so that's what I used.

- My bread was from a homemade loaf of Bread Baker's Apprentice Italian Bread.

- Some lovely sharp 10 year aged cheddar finished off the soup.

- I ended up with about 2.5 quarts of soup. One quart went directly into the freezer for a rainy day.

the verdict:

I absolutely loved this soup, and surprisingly, so did my husband. He has never liked French onion soup, so I served this to him with a bit of trepidation. It was different from French onion soup, which to me tends to be mostly about the beef broth and the melted gruyere. This soup was packed with onions, and there was a plethora of different onion flavors which were complemented by the woodsy sage and the sharp cheddar. I really liked the poultry stock as a base for this, and would definitely make it the same next time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

{TWD} Milk Chocolate Mini-ish Bundt-ish Cake

You've probably heard the saying that "close only counts in horseshoes." No matter how much wisdom might be contained in those words we can add something else to the list: Dorie Greenspan's Milk Chocolate Mini Bundt Cakes. I stayed close on this week's Tuesday's With Dorie assignment: close to a bundt, close to the specific mini-size, and close to the ingredients, and ended up with a cake that definitely counted as a winner!

n.o.e.'s notes:

- You can find the recipe for these mini-cakes by clicking over to Kristin's post on her blog I’m Right About Everything (can you think of a better name for a blog?) or you can find it on pages 188-189 of Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours.

- The recipe is written to be baked in a specialized mini-bundt pan, which resembles a large muffin pan, but with six little bundt-shaped indentations for 1 cup of batter each. I own my fair share of specialty pans, and have doubled or tripled my collection of baking pans since joining Tuesdays With Dorie back in 2008. But alas, that is one pan that I do not own, and I drew the line at purchasing it for this recipe. Instead, I used turned to some mini-angel food cake pans that I'd purchased on impulse and never used to date. My pans were larger than the mini bundts that Dorie contemplated but I decided the size and shape were close enough.

- I also drew the line at baking a partial recipe, since I was still busy fobbing off Cocoa-Nana Loaf onto unsuspecting relatives at the time I baked this next chocolate cake. As it turned out 1/3 recipe fit perfectly into one of my 1.5 cup mini-angel food cake pans.

- Early reports about this cake tended to contain the word "dry" which is never a good thing for a chocolate cake. To ensure that my cake was nice and moist, I replaced half the butter with oil and added generous dollop of full fat plain yogurt (1 T for my 1/3 recipe). Very close, wouldn't you say?

- The streusel-like swirl sounded delicious in this cake, and I thought adding cocoa nibs to the nut filling (pecan in my case) would taste even better. I also used dark cocoa powder to dust the nuts and nibs. Close, but just a bit crunchier, and chocolaty-er.

- One thing I've learned about putting a swirl layer in the middle of a cake is to stop the swirl before getting to the edges of the pan, if possible, which helps the cake to hold together when it is unmolded. The mini-ish pan that I was using had a removable bottom, which made it easy for the cake to release from the pan.

- I didn't want to make the (optional) glaze for such a small cake, and was going to dust the top with powdered sugar and heap it with whipped cream, but I found some random gananche in the fridge/freezer, which I warmed, thinned with cream, and dripped over the cake. Pretty close to the feel of the original glaze, in my opinion. I sprinkled some cocoa nibs over everything.

- The cake got even more compact and moist with a day or two in the fridge.

the verdict:

This was a lovely, dense, mild chocolate cake. I loved the crunch and the chocolate kick from the swirl of cocoa nibs and nuts. The ganache provided a nice interplay of dark chocolate to balance the milk chocolate in the cake and the unsweetened cocoa nibs. The next day the cake was like a mild chocolate pound cake with frosting. A glass of milk was the perfect complement to the flavors of the cake. My "close" cake counted as a winner here!