Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Quest Continues

One of my sisters lives in another state. On the all-too-rare occasions when we get together, we do goofy things. Do we go out for dinner? Go out for drinks? Go out to a movie? No, we bake together, go to thrift stores, and maybe a restaurant supply store. On my last visit she took me to her top secret chocolate supplier, where she buys bricks of chocolate. I didn't have a pressing need for chocolate, so I toured the aisles, chuckling at the cake toppers, wondering what those curlycue gadgets were for, and ending up with a bag of lollipop sticks and a 5 lb bag of macaroon coconut.

Macaroon coconut is much finer than regular shredded coconut, the kind you buy at the grocery store. With my dream macaroon cookie in mind, this seemed like a sensible purchase. 5 lbs to experiment with.

I received many helpful suggestions after my previous macaroon post (thank you so much, all who wrote!), but I found a recipe that looked just right in my new Cookies by Fine Cooking magazine. Beautiful little domes, slightly crunchy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, and using the finer coconut gave them a better texture. I know the "chewing woodpulp" sensation is one of the big reasons that a lot of people avoid coconut. With the finer coconut, that's not an issue.

The macaroons were also less cloyingly sweet than most coconut macaroons. Even my non-coconut loving husband said they were pretty good. And, trust me, that is quite an endorsement from him for something with coconut in it.

This post is going to have to be a two-parter. Today you get the macaroons with a variation, and next time you get....well, you'll just have to wait and see. Yes, I'm a tease, but it'll be worth the wait, I promise. To take the cookies up a notch, you can drizzle them with chocolate ganache. I had some leftover chocolate filling from these cookies , so I warmed it up and poured it over the top. Plain or chocolate? Tough call. I think....both.

Coconut Macaroons
- adapted from Cookies by Fine Cooking magazine

3/4 cup egg whites (about 5 large eggs)
1-1/2 cups plus 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
12 oz. unsweetened finely shredded coconut

1- Position racks in the center and upper portions of the oven and heat the oven to 350 deg F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk the egg whites and sugar. Work the coconut into the egg mixture with a wooden spoon until it is completely incorporated.

3- Using a small cookie scoop (about a level Tbsp of dough), scoop the coconut mixture onto the baking sheets. The cookies don't spread much so they can be spaced fairly close together. To retain the round shape, bake them right away.

5- Bake until the cookies are an even golden color and look dry (not at all sticky or wet looking), about 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through baking, switch the pans from top to bottom and rotate them from back to front for even baking.

6- Let the cookies sit on the baking pan for 2 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack. They will keep well stored airtight at room temperature.

Makes about 4 dozen macaroons.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wreathed In Bread

This month I have the honor and privilege of being the host kitchen for this month's bread baking adventure with the intrepid Bread Baking Babes. When I found out I was assigned to December I knew immediately what I wanted to do - a wreath. The recipe I chose has a sweet, almond filling, but I know that not everyone tilts toward sweet on the sweet/ savory scale, so I gave the Babes free reign to do whatever they wanted in terms of dough and filling, so long as it was in the shape of a wreath. I made the recipe as I found it in the cookbook, but be sure to check out what all the other fabulous Babes have made (their websites are on the side bar). Their creativity knows no bounds!

And if you are inspired to make a wreath for your own celebration, make one, post it and send me a link by the 31st (as lynncraigATcomcastDOTnet) and I will send you a Baking Buddy badge to proudly display on your website.

Yule Wreath
- adapted from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 deg. F)
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
3-1/4 to 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Almond Filling (below)*
Glaze (also below)

1-Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, sugar, butter, egg, cardamom, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.

2-Turn dough onto lightly floured surface: knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; trun greased side up. Cover and let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

3-Prepare Almond Filling-

Mix together until smooth:
1/2 cup almond paste
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup softened butter

4- Punch down the dough. Roll into rectangle, 15 x 9-inches, on a lightly floured surface. Spread with the filling to within 1/4-inch of the edges. (I don't think my butter was soft enough as my filling didn't spread. I took bits of it, flattened it between my fingers and pressed that onto the dough.) Roll up tightly, beginning at the wide side. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well. Stretch roll to make even. With sealed edge down, shape into ring on lightly greased cookie sheet. Pinch ends together.

5- With scissors or kitchen shears, make cuts 2/3 of the way through the ring at 1-inch intervals. Turn each section on it's side (90 degree turn), to show off the pretty swirled filling. Cover loosely with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray. Let rise until double, about 40 to 50 minutes.

6- Heat oven to 350 deg. F. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. (If it browns too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)

7 - Make Glaze-
Mix until smooth:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla
(add additional water 1/2 tsp at a time, if necessary)

8- Spread Glaze over the wreath. You can decorate your wreath with nuts, dried fruit, marzipan fruit, or whatever strikes your fancy.

* If almond paste is not available, or if you fall down in the aisle at the grocery store when you see the price, you can make your own. In a food processor finely grind 8 oz blanched almonds. Process in 8 oz powdered sugar. Then knead in 1 egg white. Store in the refrigerator.

So, there you have it. A lovely, tasty, festive wreath!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let It Snow, My Oven Is Warm

Sometimes people just don't get me. Am I that different? Is it that abnormal to plan your day around what you bake? Am I the only one who thinks, "It's cold and snowing. What can I bake to warm up the kitchen?" I may be abnormal, but that's the way I am and my family is OK with that.

My latest excuse to turn on the oven is another addition to my embarrassingly long list of peanut butter and chocolate combinations. When I saw these in the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking I knew they were going to be in top five of cookies baked from the magazine. Surprisingly easy to put together, they have a delicate texture and adult flavor that would fool any lucky recipient into thinking you put major effort into these cookies.

So, if you're buried in a snow drift and still have power, embrace the excuse and turn on the oven. So many cookies to bake, so little time!

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Sandwiches
- adapted from Cookies from Fine Cooking

for the cookies:
2-1/2 cups smooth peanut butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
All-purpose flour for shaping

for the filling:
10 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1/4 lb (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

1- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 deg. F. Line four cookies sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick liner.

2- In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the peanut butter, brown sugar, and baking soda on medium speed until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on low speed until just blended, about 25 seconds.

3- Shape level Tbsp of the dough into 1-inch balls. Arrange the balls 1-1/2 inches apart on a prepared baking sheet.

4- Using a lightly floured glass or measuring cup, press down lightly on the balls. (I forgot this step and my cookies ended up with a crackly rather than smooth surface. Not much difference other than that, though.)

5- Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are puffed and crackled but still moist looking, about 11 minutes. Transfer the sheet to a rack to cool about 10 minutes. Using a spatula, move the cookies to the rack and let cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookies.

6- Melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave in bursts of 30 seconds, stirring in between till chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside and cool, stirring occasionally, until cool and slightly thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.

7- To assemble the sandwiches, turn half of the cooled cookies over so they're flat side up. Spoon 2 tsp of the chocolate filling onto the center of each cookie. Top with the remaining cookies, flat side down. Press gently on each cookie to spread the filling almost to the edge. Set on the rack until the filling is firm, 20 to 30 minutes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cherries To The Rescue

Sometimes I think I should change the name of this blog from Cookie Baker Lynn to Rescue Baker Lynn. It seems like three quarters of my posts are about how I manage to pull a flaming disaster out of the fire, never mind that I'm the one that set it on fire in the first place.

Yet another instance of this took place this week. When cranberries first hit the stores I snagged a bag, knowing that I'd find a perfect use for them. I put them in my fridge and was rewarded when my husband brought home the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking. There is a gorgeous looking recipe for cranberry bars in there. Yesssss!

But, as so often happens, life got in the way of my best laid baking plans. First Thanksgiving took over my kitchen, then the fridge was so stuffed with leftovers that I wasn't allowed to bake anything new, then the cookie exchange...... So, when a snow flurry brought on a baking day, I was more than ready to make the cranberry bars. But, the cranberries had gotten tired of waiting for me. As I picked through them I realized that only about half of them were useable, the rest were sad, withered, blackened and mushy. Rats! And the crust was already in the oven. What to do, what to do?

What flavor goes well with cranberries? One of my standards for Thanksgiving is a cran-cherry salad, so I grabbed my bag of dried cherries and threw in a couple of handfuls with the cranberries that were still useable. Did it work? Oh, yeah. The cherry flavored mellowed the tartness of the cranberries and gave it an interesting complexity and the streusel topping and shortbread crust rounded out the combination to make them irresistible. Really. After the third (or was it fourth?) bar, my husband begged me to take them away. "I can't stop eating them!" he moaned.

If you have a bag of cranberries lurking in the fridge, haul it out now and make these. You'll be so glad you did. It's better they go to waist than to waste.

Crancherry Streusel Bars
- adapted from Cookies by Fine Cooking

Crust & Streusel:
10-1/2 oz. (1 cup plus 5 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 tsp kosher salt
2 large egg yolks*
14-1/2 oz. (3 cups plus 3 Tbsp) unbleached all-purpose flour

Crancherry topping:
1/2 bag (6 oz) fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over, rinsed, and drained
about 1-1/4 cups dried cherries
1 cup granulated sugar

1- Line a straight-sided metal 9x13-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhanging edge.

2- In a medium bowl, stir the butter, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Whisk in the egg yolks. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Transfer about 2 cups of the dough to the prepared pan, and press the mixture evenly into the bottom. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes) until the dough is firm.

3- Position a rack in the center of the oven and another near the top. Heat the oven to 325 deg. F.

4- Bake the dough on the center rack until the crust begins to set but does not brown at all on the edges (the center will not be firm yet), about 20 minutes.

5- While the crust bakes prepare the filling and topping. With your fingers, combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the reserved dough until crumbly. The mixture should hold together when pressed, but readily break into smaller pieces.

6- In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries, cherries, sugar and 1/4 cup water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium high and continue to boil until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 5 to 10 minutes - the syrup will continue to thicken as the mixture cools.

7 - Spread the crancherry mixture evenly over the hot crust. Scatter the streusel over the cranberries. Increase the oven temperature to 350 deg. F and bake the bars near the top of the oven until the streusel is golden and set, about 25-30 minutes.

8- Set the pan on a cooling rack. Cool at least 1 hour, until the crust is completely firm. (If it's chilly outside, you can set the bars outside to speed cooling.)

9- When the bottom of the pan is cool, carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sides and transfer them to a cutting board. Slide a spatula between the foil and the bars to separate them and slide the bars off the foil. Cut the bars into 1-3/4-inch squares. They will keep at room temperature for one week. (As if they'd last that long!)

* This leaves you with two egg whites, perfect for making divinity, if your humidity is below 60%.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Cookies, Just For Fun

I once read a magazine article about a huge annual cookie exchange that featured prizes and fiercely competitive baking. That is my nightmare. What I have, that makes me smile every year, is a small group of friends who use our cookie exchange as an excuse to get together, hang out, eat cookies, and maybe, if we're feeling especially energized and organized, we'll work on addressing our Christmas cards.

This year, as the exchange was approaching, my wonderful husband picked up the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking magazine for me. Oh, drool! I wanted to cancel everything and just bake my way through the magazine. It all looked so good! It was tough picking which to make for our low-stress, non-competitive event. So many delectable choices! But with the help of a friend, I settled on the Caramel Turtle Bars. It was a good choice. Caramel is always good, but you throw in pecans, shortbread, and a hint of chocolate, and it's out of this world.

I'd recommend making these for gifting, exchanging, or just for treating your family if they've been really good this year. If you have someone special who deserves a care package, be sure to read the shipping tips that follow the recipe.

This is also my submission for Eat Christmas Cookies 2, the showcase of Christmas cookies from around the world. Check out the round-up to get inspiration for your cookie exchange!

Caramel Turtle Bars

- adapted from Cookies - Fine Cooking

Shortbread Crust:
7 oz (14 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp table salt
9 oz (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

Caramel Topping:
2 cups pecan halves, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 lb (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 oz good-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
6 Tbsp heavy cream

1- Line a 9 x 13-inch metal pan with foil. To do this easily, form the foil over the bottom of the pan, then turn the pan right side up and press the foil in place. Be sure the ends hang over the edges to make handles for easy removal. Lightly coat the sides, but not the bottom, of the foil with cooking spray or melted butter to prevent the caramel from sticking.

2- In a medium bowl, stir the butter, brown sugar, and salt. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes, or if you're rushed for time, pop it in the freezer for 5 to 7 minutes, until the dough is firm.

3- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 deg. F.

4- Bake the dough for 20 minutes, decrease the oven temp to 300 deg. F, and bake until the crust is golden all over and completely set, about another 15 minutes.

5- Sprinkle the pecans evenly over the crust.

6- In a heavy medium saucepan, bring the brown sugar, cream, butter, corn syrup, and salt to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all the ingredients are melted and smooth. Let the mixture continue to boil, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240 deg. F, about 6 more minutes. Turn off the heat and immediately (and carefully) pour the caramel evenly over the prepared crust. Let the bars cool completely, about 2 hours before garnishing with the ganache.

7- When the bars are cooled, put the chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 3 minutes. Stir gently with a rubber spatula until combined and smooth.

8- Fill a zip-lock plastic bag with the ganache, snip a tiny piece off a corner, and drizzle the ganache decoratively over the caramel bars. You don't have to use all the ganache and can store the extra in the fridge for up to five days.

9- Let the ganache set for 30 minutes to an hour. Carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sidea and transfer them to a cutting board. Separate the foil from the bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut the bars into 1-1/2-inch squares. They will keep at room temperature for 1 week, if they're not devoured right away.

Shipping tips from FedEx:

Directions for a Crumble-Free Sweet Treat
  • Place the baked goods in a sturdy container and layer wax paper between the baked goods, using crumpled paper to fill in any void spaces
  • Secure the lid of the container to the body with tape, to keep it from accidentally popping off
  • Place the container in a sturdy corrugated cardboard box and use newspaper or plastic grocery bags to cushion the container tightly in place
  • Shake the box – if you can feel or hear any movement, add more cushioning!
  • Ship before Dec. 16, 2008 and use FedEx Ground and FedEx Home Delivery Services for the most cost effective delivery in time for Christmas
  • For a last-minute gift idea, you can send your homemade treats as late as Dec. 23, 2008 for overnight delivery in time for Christmas

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Peck of Pears - Part 3

My first Thanksgiving away from home was when I was at college. My sister, who lived in the area, invited me to come over and break turkey with her. For the two of us we had an enormous turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and two pumpkin pies. We got so hungry waiting for the turkey to cook, that before it was out of the oven we'd eaten one whole pumpkin pie.

When we sat down to our plates of turkey and fixings I decided what it needed was gravy. My sister said that she didn't know how to make gravy, but I said, no problem, I'd make it, gravy is easy. Well, not so much if you've never actually made gravy and don't have a recipe to follow. What I ended up with was a glutinous white sauce. Not really tasty as a gravy substitute. It was years before my sister stopped teasing me about my mad, hot gravy-making skills.

In the intervening years I've learned how to make gravy and also learned how to time the prep work of all the dishes so you don't have rolls, pies, and a 20 lb turnkey all jockeying for position in the oven. This year, though, things changed. My newly married daughter, her husband, and her in-laws would be joining us for Thanksgiving. She offered to bring the rolls and 2 other dishes, so that cleared a big space on my Thanksgiving day to-do list.

So when I walked into the kitchen Thursday morning and saw the last of the bag of pears sitting on the counter, I had a risky thought. Should I try something new? Very risky, indeed. But I had possibly enough leftover pie dough in the refrigerator and all the ingredients for a new pie recipe that I'd been eyeing for two weeks. Putting aside common sense, I went for it.

With my helper peeling pears, it went together quickly and easily. I didn't have enough crust to make a lattice top and I put on a crumbly streusel topping instead. It went perfectly with the flavors of the pie - sweet, tangy, gently spicy, and altogether wonderful. The only thing I'd do differently next time would be to add a bit of instant tapioca to the fruit mixture to keep it from turning into pie soup.

Cranberry-Pecan-Pear Streusel Pie

1 unbaked pie shell
4 cups sliced, peeled fresh pears (about 5 medium)
1/2 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup butter, melted
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp grated lemon peel
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Instant tapioca - 1 to 2 Tbsp (optional)

Streusel topping:

1/2 cup quick oats
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold

1- Preheat oven to 400 deg. F.

2- In a bowl, combine the pears, cranberries, pecans, honey, butter, cornstarch, lemon peel and cinnamon; pour into crust. If mixture looks very juicy, stir in 1 to 2 Tbsp of instant tapioca.

3- Mix streusel ingredients in a small bowl and cut butter into dry ingredients until it’s crumbly. Sprinkle streusel over the pie.

4- Bake at 400 deg. F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 deg. F and bake for an additional 40 to 50 minutes or until the filling is bubbly. Cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Selfless Spread

I love making chocolate chip cookies. I love eating chocolate chip cookies. My husband knows this, so it's hard to win good wifey points by saying, "Look, honey, I made you cookies!" Especially when I've eaten five of them before he sees them. He might suspect that it was my greedy tummy more than my selfless love which prompted the cookie baking.

There are some things which I make just for him, though, that he knows without a doubt that it's an act of love for me to make. Marmalade is one of those. I think it's nasty. I'd rather have my toast plain than have to eat marmalade. There are a lot of things I'd rather do than have to eat marmalade. But for some reason, my husband appreciates the bitter taste of orange peel and marmalade is like ambrosia to him. Each to his own. But because I love him, I made marmalade.

I'm not very accomplished at making jams. I'm terrified of ending up with syrup, so I usually cook a bit too long, to be on the safe side, and end up with chunky jam. With marmalade, since it's all chunks anyway, that didn't matter. This recipe was easy and made quite a bit of jam - enough to make my husband happy and even give a few jars away as gifts. Plus, even if I don't want to eat it, I always get a little burst of pride when I look in the pantry and see homemade jam jars lined up.

Orange Marmalade
- adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten

If you have it available to you, I'd say splurge on organic produce here. Since you're using the whole peel, you'd probably prefer to not have pesticides in your marmalade.

4 large seedless oranges
2 lemons
8 cups water
8 cups of sugar

Cut the oranges and lemons in half crosswise, then into very thin half-moon slices. Discard any seeds. Place the fruit and their juices into a large, stainless steel pot. Add the water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar till it is dissolved. Cover and allow the mixture to stand overnight at room temperature.

The next day, put the pot back over heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 2 hours. Turn the heat up to medium and boil gently, stirring often, for another 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the top. Cook the marmalade until it reaches 220 degrees. The marmalade will be golden orange.

Pour the marmalade into clean, hot jam jars. Wipe the rims thoroughly to remove any jam overflow and seal with clean, hot lids. Label and store in the pantry for up to a year.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Morning Muffins

I have a quick and easy way to check the temperature. When I get up in the morning, I look at my neighbor's roof. The amount of frost tells me how thick of a sweater I need to put on; recently it's been fairly frosty. When it's chilly out I'm always looking for excuses to warm up my kitchen by turning on the oven. The bag of pears on my counter and my Nigella cookbook gave me just the excuse - Ginger Pear Muffins.

I loved these muffins warm out of the oven. The chunks of pear are so soft that they almost merge with the surrounding muffin and the ginger adds a warm spiciness that makes them perfect breakfast fare for a chilly fall day.

I wanted to try adding candied ginger to them, but was unsure whether or not that would work, so I stirred it into 1/2 the batter. I think it worked best when the muffins were warm, as all the ingredients blended together beautifully then. Once cold the bits of ginger were much more distinct, and unless you are a huge ginger fan, they might be a bit off-putting.

Nigella suggest that in the evening you can combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and the wet ingredients in a large measuring cup, cover both with plastic wrap, and put the wet ingredients in the refrigerator overnight. Then in the morning all you have to do is peel and chunk the pears, stir it all together and bake. Does breakfast get any easier than that?

Pear and Ginger Muffins
- adapted from Nigella Express

1-3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup plus 6 tsp packed light brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
2/3 cup sour cream*
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp honey
2 eggs
1-1/2 cups peeled and diced pears,
1/4 cup candied ginger, diced (optional)

1- Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F. and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper muffin cups.

2- Measure into a bowl the flour, granulated sugar, the 1/2 cup of brown sugar, baking powder, and ground ginger.

3- In a large bowl, whisk together the sour cream, oil, honey, and eggs, Add all at once to the dry ingredients and gently fold in.

4- Mix in the diced pear and candied ginger (if using) and divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

5- Sprinkle each one with 1/2 tsp brown sugar and bake for 20 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack. Best when eaten while still a bit warm.

* You can substitute non-fat plain yogurt for the sour cream, if you'd like to reduce the fat and calories a bit.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Crunch Time & Munch Time

A question that my daughter and I frequently get asked, especially from people who read this blog, is "Why do you not weigh 300 pounds?" (It's always 300 pounds. Is that a magic number?) Well, for one thing I try not to hork down all the food I make and am always on the lookout for friends and neighbors to share with. For another thing, we exercise. A lot. We're kind of workout junkies.

We are addicted to the FIRM workouts (pre-2000) and buy anything that has Tracie Long or Susan Harris in it. 5 to 6 days a week we cajole, boss, and encourage each other to put on our workout clothes and go lift weights, stretch and sweat. It feels good in a strange, painful kind of way.

While we workout my 6 year old sits on the couch and practices for his future career as a personal trainer. He'll point out if I'm doing the wrong leg and gets truly distressed if I'm holding my weights at my side if the ladies on the tape have theirs on their shoulders.

When we're all done, he gets his reward for being such a helper. We watch a segment of Everyday Baking. He loves "the baker guy" (John Barricelli) and as John measures out his ingredients my son says, "Do we have that, Mommy? Let's make this!" With such a winsome request, how could I resist?

We made carrot cake cupcakes. They have carrots, so they're pretty much health food. Plus, I just burned all those calories working out, so I can feel positively righteous eating one of these moist, delicious cupcakes. Eating 3 or 5 is another matter, though.

Perhaps some day Sarah and I will get to Charleston, South Carolina to work out at Tracie's health club, V. But in the meantime, if anyone can score me a copy of Tracie's Yorktown workout, I'll trade you a cookbook for it!

Carrot Cupackes
- adapted from Everyday Baking

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons plain low-fat yogurt
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups grated carrots (from about 4 medium carrots)


1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1-Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 12 cup standard muffin tin with paper liners.

2-In a large bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg; set aside.

3-In another large bowl, whisk together melted butter, brown sugar, egg, yogurt, and vanilla. Stir in carrots. Gradually add dry ingredients to butter mixture mixing until well combined. Spoon the batter into the lined muffin cups. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

4-Remove from pan to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

5-To make the frosting: Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter, and confectioners' sugar together till creamy. Add the vanilla and orange zest, beating till smooth and creamy. Using a knife or small offset spatula, swirl the frosting over the cooled cupcakes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Perfect Pearing

I am inexperienced with pears. I'm fairly clueless about how to tell when they're ripe, so I've had some hard, crunchy pears and some squishy mealy pears, neither of which is an incentive to buy more pears. But I persist because a pear that is perfect, juicy, yielding, and smooth, is beyond compare.

With my chirpy optimism firmly in place I bought a bag of pears at Costco. If you shop at Costco you know that's a serious amount of pears. When I was unloading my Costco haul my family looked curiously at the bag and asked, "What are you going to do with that?" Well, duh. Bake!

I have several recipes lined up to try and I'll bake till the pears run out or go runny.

At first I thought I'd make an apple, pear pie that sounded scrumptious. It still sounds scrumptious and depending on how the supply holds out, I might still make it, but this crumble sounded waaaay easier to make. And it, too is scrumptious. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the predominant flavor is orange. If you like orange and cranberry together, you will adore this. If you don't like orange flavor, I'd suggest leaving out the orange zest and swapping out the orange juice for apple or pear juice.

Pear, Apple, & Cranberry Crisp
- adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten

2 lbs ripe Bosc pears (I used Bartlett), about 4 pears
2 lbs firm Macoun apples (I used Fuji), about 4-6 apples
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. with a rack centered in the oven.

2- Peel and core the pears and apples and cut them into large chunks. Place the fruit in a large bowl with the dried cranberries and the zests. In a small bowl combine the sugar, flour and spices. Sprinkle the fruit juices over the fruits, then toss the fruit with sugar mixture. Pour into a 9 x 12-inch baking dish. (If you don't have one, a 9x 13-inch would be fine.)

3- For the topping, combine all the dry ingredients in either a mixer bowl or a food processor bowl. Add the butter and either stir with paddle attachment on low for 1 to 2 minutes, or process with several pulses until the mixture is in large crumbles. Sprinkle the crumbles evenly over the fruit, covering it completely.

4- Place the baking dish on a sheet pan (lined with parchment paper if you like, for easier clean up). Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbly. Serve warm. A drizzle of cream or a dollop of good vanilla ice cream would pair nicely with it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fabulous Fruitcake

My husband is an oddity. He is the only person I've ever heard of who likes fruitcake. That means that all the tons of fruitcake that are given annually, reused as doorstops, and regifted at white elephant exchanges throughout the world, were actually intended for him. I refuse to give out our address here in case the resultant flood of fruitcakes landing on our doorstep would throw the earth off its axis, resulting in worldwide famine, such that even fruitcake might look appealing.

My husband is a great guy, though, weird food preferences aside, and when I got a new cookbook with a fruitcake recipe in it, I promised to make it for him. It called for actual dried fruit, rather than the molded paraffin "fruit" peddled in the grocery store in little plastic tubs. This looked like something I could handle.

But here's the embarrassing part - I got that cook book over ten years ago, and I didn't get around to making the fruitcake for him until last year. (Hangs head in shame.) But my husband forgave me and said it was worth the wait.

I decided that fruitcake is like split pea soup. When you make it yourself and see all the yummy things you've put in it, you're much more likely to try it, even if the end product looks a bit suspicious. I grew quite fond of my little brown babies, swaddled in their little boozy blankets, lined up on my pantry shelf. And when we finally sampled one, it was a delightful realization that fruitcake isn't inherently nasty. It all depends on what you put into it. Put in good stuff and lots of it and you'll be amazed and pleased when your fruitcake is actually eaten. But if you want to have fruitcake for Christmas, you need to start now as it needs a month to marinate.

Fabulous Fruitcake
- adapted from Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too by Susan Purdy

Fruit: (you can adapt the fruit and the amounts according to your preferences and what you have available to you. I couldn't find dried apples or peaches, but added dried blueberries and dried cherries)

1/2 cup (3 oz) cut-up dried pears, packed
1/2 cup (3 oz) cut-up dried peaches, packed
1/2 cup (3 oz) cut-up dried apricots, packed
1/2 cup (3 oz) cut-up dried pitted prunes, packed
1/2 cup (3 oz) cut-up dried pitted dates, packed
1 cup (3-1/4 oz) cut-up dried apple slices, packed
1/2 cup ( 2-1/2 oz) seedless raisins, packed
1/2 cup ( 2-1/2 oz) golden raisins, packed
1/4 cup (1-1/4) dried currants
1/4 cup (2 oz) candied pineapple, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup dark rum or brandy


Solid Shortening
Butter-flavor cooking spray
2 large egg whites
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup canola or safflower oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup apple or orange juice
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp grated orange zest or 1/2 tsp orange oil or orange zest
1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsifted whole wheat pastry flour (or use a total of 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Dark rum or brandy for soaking cakes (optional)

1- The day before baking the cakes, or as early as possible on the baking day, assemble all the fruit in a large bowl. Stir in the dark rum or brandy; cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.

2-Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F, with 2 racks dividing the oven into thirds. Lightly grease 4 loaf pans with shortening. Cut parchment paper to fit inside and press the papers against the pan bottom and sides. Lightly coat the paper with cooking spray.

3- In a large bowl, combine the egg whites, brown sugar, oil, honey, juice, applesauce, vanilla, and grated zest or flavoring. Whisk, or beat on low with an electric mixer, to blend well. Set a large strainer over the bowl and add the dry ingredients, flour through cloves. Stir and sift the dry ingredients onto the wet. Add the wheat germ and pecans. Mix just until blended; do not overblend.

4- Stir the boozy fruit into the batter and blend well. Divide the batter among the prepared pans, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cakes are risen and golden brown on top, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

5- Cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks for about 10 minutes. Then tip them gently from the pans, peel off the paper, and set them right side up on wire racks to cool completely.

6- When the cakes are completely cool, if you like, wrap them in rum- or brandy-soaked cloths, place in heavy-duty zip-lock bags and set in a cool dark place to age for about 1 month. Renew the spirits when they dry out. (Don't substitute fruit juice for spirits; only alchohol will preserve the cakes.)

7- Glazing the cakes: (I didn't get pictures of this. By the time I'd finished basting the babies in booze, I totally forgot they were supposed to be glazed! Too much rum fumes, I think.) Set the cakes on racks over wax paper. Drizzle some of the glaze on top of each cake, letting it run down the sides. Place a few pecan halves in the glaze before it dries. Let sit until the glaze is dried and set, about 30 minutes. When the glaze is hard, you can wrap the cakes in plastic wrap and freeze them, or give them as gifts, or slice and serve.


1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1-1/2 to 2 Tbsp rum or brandy
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1- Whisk together the sugar, 1-1/2 Tbsp rum or brandy, and the extract. Add a few more drops of liquid if needed to make the glaze soft enough to drip from a spoon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Quest

I'm on a quest. Is it a heroic quest involving dragons and magical weasels? Alas, nothing that exciting. It's a search for a recipe. Or rather, a quest to recreate a recipe.

About ten years ago our church hosted a Passover Seder and I volunteered to be one of the servers. I missed the presentation of the Seder, but I had fun hanging out in the other room with the caterers and other servers, staging the meal, making sure everyone got hot plates at approximately the same time. We got to eat our dinner after everyone had been served and then hustle to plate up the dessert.

Part of the dessert, the part that has stayed in my memory all these years, was a cookie. I know that coconut macaroons are traditional for Passover, but these were above and beyond mere macaroons. They were about the size of tangerine, although memory might have inflated the size. The outside was a chocolate cookie, like a thick chocolate peel covering up a middle of moist, delicious coconut macaroon. A cookie wrapped around a cookie. They were heavenly and I'm embarrassed to admit that I ate more than one. I won't confess to an exact number, though.

At the time I didn't even think to ask for the recipe, assuming it was just a cookie, but the cookie has niggled into my brain and assumed mythic proportions so that I must recreate it.

If any of you are reading this, nodding your head as you know exactly what cookie I'm talking about, please email me the recipe. I can't offer you my first-born child (he'd be irritated), but I can offer my unending gratitude and a batch of cookies. I do best on quests if I have a roadmap. If not, I'll just have to set off across the hills, taking whatever bend in the road looks best at the time, and see where it leads me.

The first step in my journey is to try different macaroon recipes to get a feel for the consistency. This one isn't right. It's a very good macaroon, but it's not right for a filling. It's a bit soupy and drippy, which makes the part that I enjoy "trimming" from the baked cookies. It is ridiculously easy, though, and if you like a simple, tasty coconut macaroon, you can't go wrong with this recipe from Ina Garten. It's almost foolproof.

Coconut Macaroons
- adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten

14 oz sweetened shredded coconut
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 tsp kosher salt

1- Preheat the oven the 325 deg. F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- Combine the coconut, condensed milk, and vanilla in a large bowl and set aside.

3- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and salt on high speed until they make medium-firm peaks. Carefully fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.

4- Drop the batter onto the prepared baking sheets using a 1-3/4 inch scoop (about 2 tsp). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool and serve.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fun Size Brownies

After Halloween is over, the costumes are put away, the makeup is wiped off, and the kids are roused out of their sugar comas, two questions remain. What to do with the pumpkins, and what to do with the candy.

This year I was super lazy and didn't even buy a pumpkin to carve (my kids will eventually get over it, possibly with years of therapy), so I don't have my usual pumpkin-colored compost heap next to my front door. I generally don't have the heart to toss their carefully carved creations. Then, when they get gooey and slippery, I don't have the nerve. I wait till the first good freeze, then I can scoop it up with a snow shovel and drop it directly into the garbage.

One year I was feeling super thrifty so I bought sugar pumpkins and we just painted cute faces on them so I could then cook down the pumpkin to use later. I put the cooked goop into plastic freezer containers and put it in the freezer. I think it was about 2 years before I finally tossed it.

Leftover candy is not nearly as much of a challenge for me. I can either stick it in the treat basket, from which we pull snacks for movie time or outings, or I can bake with it. Ideally, all the candy is handed out to the darling urchins who ring the doorbell in their sweet angel / super hero costumes. And if not to them, then the teens who just can't get over the idea of free candy and who think a hooded sweatshirt qualifies as a costume.

This year it poured rain on Halloween day and I think everyone scrambled to plan B, which did not include trick-or-treating, so I was left with a big bag of leftover candy. Fortunately, it was all ingredients. You know, the kind you can chop up and put into baked goods that make it even better than the original.

First out of the oven - peppermint pattie brownies. Those frosty little morsels of peppermint goodness go really well in a dark, fudgy brownie. And if you're just too sugared out right now to even think about making these, put all your peppermint patties in a zip-loc bag and put them in the freezer. They'll be ready and waiting whenever the mood for these amazing brownies strikes. Which, really, shouldn't be too long, now that I've planted the idea in your brain.

Fudgy Peppermint Pattie Brownies
- adapted from a King Arthur recipe

1-1/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup (8 oz) butter
2-1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups (6-1/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 bag mini peppermint patties

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F with a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch pan.

In a small bowl combine the cocoa, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Unwrap the patties and place them in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter then add the sugar and stir to combine. Return the mixture to the heat briefly, just till it's hot but not bubbling. It will become shiny looking as you stir it. This will dissolve more of the sugar and give a shinier top crust to your brownies. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl.

Add the cocoa mixture and the vanilla and stir. Add the eggs, beating till smooth; then add the flour, beating till well combined.

Spoon half the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it to cover the whole bottom of the pan. Place the peppermint patties over the surface of the batter, close together, but leaving 1/4-inch uncovered around the edge. Carefully spoon and spread the rest of the batter over the peppermint pattie layer, smoothing the top.

Bake the brownies for 28 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out dry, with maybe a few crumbs clinging to it. The brownies should feel set both on the edges and in the center. Remove from the oven, and after 5 minutes loosen the edges with a table knife; this helps prevent the brownies from sinking in the center as they cool. Cool completely before cutting and serving. Makes 2 dozen brownies.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Fun With Forks

When I was 8 years old my family took a trip to Switzerland. My grandparents traveled with us in a VW van as we motored over the Alps. Slowly. Our VW van didn't have much power and everyone passed us.

One of our destinations was the town of Zermatt. Nestled snugly next to the Matterhorn, it's a charming little town that is accessible only by train. The entire town is car-free, so all travel within the town is done on foot, by cart, or, in the wintertime, on skiis.

We were delighted with the cobblestone streets, the quaint shops, and the breathtaking view of the Matterhorn. After spending the day happily touristing, we chose an intimate restaurant that was down a flight of stairs, so that the view out the window from our table was of the feet ambling by.

We ordered cheese fondue. My mother raved about how wonderful cheese fondue was and what a treat it was to be able to have it in the country that made it famous. After the build-up my mother had given it, I was disappointed. It had Swiss cheese in it! And it tasted of alchohol. Euww.

(I must take a moment here to congratulate my parents on their forbearance. They put up with this whiny, picky eater (me) and didn't kill me. I am not sure how they managed it. I know if I had young me as a child, prescription medications would be in order. Thanks, Mom and Dad. And for the record, I really like Swiss cheese fondue now.

But to cap the story off, when we'd finished wining and dining (and whining), we emerged from the restaurant into the now-darkened town square and found we'd missed the last train off the mountain. We were stuck. 8 people with nowhere to go. So we started inquiring at hotels. All full. The last hotel we checked, the largest and fanciest, had one room available. The bridal suite. We took it. I know that for my frugal father this must have given him actual, physical pain. But it was the nicest hotel room I've ever stayed in, even if it was a bit crowded.

With this memory in my background, it should have come as no surprise to me that when I first attempted cheese fondue my children thought it was peuuwy. (The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) But I was able to find a recipe that uses cheddar cheese and no alcohol and it won them over to the joys of fondue.

I made a couple of baguettes to go with the fondue, but it's also fun to have an assortment of dunkers. Ham chunks, crabmeat, shrimp, little sausages, broccoli, cauliflower, apple chunks, mushrooms, and asparagus spears are also good.

Cheddar Cheese Fondue
- adapted from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated

2 cups half-and-half
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
2 tsp dry mustard
1 garlic clove, halved
1-1/2 pounds mild or sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 6 cups)
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
Assorted dunkers

1- In a medium saucepan over low heat, heat half-and-half, Worcestershire, mustard and garlic, stirring until hot but not boiling. Discard garlic.

2- In a medium bowl, toss the cheese with the flour until well mixed.

3- Gradually stir the cheese into the hot mixture, whisking constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until cheese is melted and mixture is smooth and bubbling. Add salt to taste. Pour into a warmed fondue pot and keep over low heat on fondue stand.

4- Spear dunkers on fondue forks, dip in cheese sauce, and try not to drip!

Any leftover cheese can be gently reheated and poured over vegetables or baked potatoes.


And now, what you really tuned in for, the winners of the Confetti Cakes for Kids cookbook giveaway! (drumroll, please)

1- My Kitchen In Half Cups

2- Kim in AZ

3- Patio

4- Melinda

5- Aimee

You have 4 days to get your mailing address to me. Email me at lynncraigATcomcastDOTnet so that I can get your books on their way to you. Congratulations, winners!

And for all of you that took the time to leave comments to enter, I wish I could have had a copy to send each of you. Thank you so much for you nice comments! And to Ms Anorexic, I'm sorry that I offended you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Slacker Cupcakes

"Grown up" is such an interesting concept. We hope and expect that somehow the days ticking over like numbers on the odometer magically confer on us wisdom, maturity, and self-restraint. But age and maturity don't necessarily go hand in hand.

My sister and I have sons the same age and one day when we were commiserating over our boys' childish ways and wondering whether or not they'd ever grow up, I came up with a list of characteristics that I thought are essential elements of maturity.

1) Impulse Control - Resisting the temptation to do something at the moment the idea occurs, just because it seems like a good idea.

2) Delayed Gratification - Realizing that "wanting" and "deserving" are two different things, and that sometimes you have to put off pleasure until work happens first.

3) Goal Setting - Planning long term for a desired outcome and breaking that outcome into achievable steps.

4) Initiative - The ability to see something that needs doing, and doing it without being asked.

When I saw this post by Peabody, I was smitten by her pictures and swooned over her description of the cake. I wanted it. Now. But I knew I had other things which were on my baking list, and I had no reason to bake cupcakes, and if I made them I'd just eat them, which wouldn't help my waistline at all.

The following day in the grocery store I saw strawberries. They jumped into my cart. I couldn't help it. They practically shouted out, "If you buy us, you can make Peabody's cake!" I'm surprised the other shoppers didn't turn around and stare.

I know I could have frozen the strawberries and used them later at a better time when I had an excuse for making cupcakes or when I fit into my jeans better. But I didn't. I baked the cupcakes, frosted them, and ate them (with some help from my family).

So viewed with an eye toward maturity, I'd say I'm a failure. No self-control, delayed gratification, or goal setting. At least not where cupcakes are concerned. But, I must say, I did take the initiative on baking those cupcakes. Points for that?

I guess I'll just go slouch off to the couch and watch Better Off Dead
again. Should I eat sugared cereal straight from the box? Nah, I've got some leftover frosting, so I could make more cupcakes....


Don't forget to leave a comment here if you'd like to enter to win a free copy of Confetti Cakes for Kids. You have till Nov. 1st.