Friday, December 11, 2009

Flourless Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake

If you're furiously clicking on recipe links in search of the perfect elegant party cake, you can stop right here. I was in your shoes last week, and I know how it is. You want something that will look fancy (and so tempting that not a single guest will refuse a slice) and taste as fantastic as it looks.

If you're of the opinion that a surefire way to delight everyone is by lavishing them with chocolate, this is the dessert you want. I love a traditional layer cake with all the bells and whistles, but as a dinner party dessert it seems a little too much. Not that this is healthy or restrained--it just feels right.

While I toyed with the idea of a homey pear crisp or an overtly seasonal cranberry upside down cake for my party, I finally came to the should-have-been-obvious conclusion that a non-chocolate dessert runs the risk of being just a wee bit disappointing.

You're probably expecting me to launch into the "this cake is so rich you only need a few bites" spiel, but I'm not. After having light appetizers, boeuf bourgignon, mashed potatoes and golden beet salad, I polished off my whole (admittedly not huge) slice. It's simply that good, but I also think it's because this particular cake isn't just a slab of chocolate. A cup of hazelnuts, roasted and finely ground, add texture, complexity and a bit of contrast to the semisweet chocolate. Love, love, love.

Oh, by the way, there's also 1/4 cup of Frangelico (the hazelnut liqueur that looks like Friar Tuck), and the topping is fresh whipped cream flavored with nothing more than another hit of the liqueur. I advise not skipping the cream--it offsets the rich chocolate just perfectly.


Flourless Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake
Adapted from this recipe at epicurious.com.

This recipe (from Bon Appetit, January '08) worked beautifully as written. However, I have a couple notes to offer: Please roast, peel and cool the hazelnuts before grinding them for the cake! Cook on a baking sheet at 350 for about 10 minutes (shaking once) or until lightly browned and fragrant. Immediately wrap in a dish towel and let steam for 5 minutes. Then rub them around in the towel to remove as much of the skins as you can. You may have to fiddle around and pick through many of them, and you can't expect to get every bit of skin (here's an even better little guide). You'll want to do this because the skin can be bitter. If you can't find chocolate labeled 60% cocoa, combine different percentages--I used about 2/3 54% and 1/3 70%. Use high quality chocolate. One of the best things about this cake is that you can make it up to 3 days ahead. It needs several hours to chill, and some say the chocolate flavor magically improves overnight.

Serves 12

12 ounces 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup Frangelico or other hazelnut liqueur, divided
1 cup finely ground roasted (see headnote) hazelnuts (ground in processor; about 5 ounces)
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
Chopped toasted hazelnuts for garnish

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper round. Wrap outside of pan tightly with 3 layers of heavy-duty foil. Combine chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 45 seconds and stir. Repeat. Microwave for 20 second intervals, stirring after each one, until smooth. Watch carefully to avoid burning (or reduce the microwave's power if it's particularly aggressive). Set aside and cool slightly.

Whisk eggs, golden brown sugar, and 1/4 cup Frangelico in large bowl to blend. Add chocolate mixture and whisk until smooth. Stir in ground hazelnuts and 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Place springform pan in large roasting pan and place in the preheated oven. Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of springform pan. Tent springform pan loosely with foil. Bake until cake is set in center and top is not quite dry to the touch, about 1 1/2 hours (top of cake will remain shiny and sides will have pulled away from the springform pan; a cake tester won't come out clean--it will have moist crumbs). Remove cake from roasting pan; remove foil from top and and place on a rack. When cool enough to handle, remove foil from outside of pan and cool completely. Cover with foil and refrigerate cake at least 3 hours, preferably overnight. You can make the cake up to 3 days ahead.

Using electric mixer, beat whipping cream and remaining 1/4 cup Frangelico in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Release pan sides. Keep the cake on the pan base and transfer to a larger platter if you want to bring the whole cake to the table. Cut cake into wedges. Transfer to plates. Top with whipped cream; sprinkle with chopped toasted hazelnuts. Serve cake chilled, directly from refrigerator.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Classic (but better) Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies: deceptively simple, utterly ubiquitous--yet loaded with mystery. I love reading recipes for these cookie jar favorites, but I rarely come across a version that's truly new or different. With these treats, its the little things that count. You may have been making the same chocolate chip cookies for years with good results, but then you use a different technique, try out one new tip or somehow alter an ingredient and suddenly your cookies go from good (let's face it, even mediocre chocolate chip cookies--especially hot from the oven--are still pretty good) to WOW.

These cookies are descended from the classic Tollhouse style--not too big, not too cakey, and not too crisp. As intriguing as other gussied-up recipes might be, I didn't want to stray too far from this basic DNA. What I did want were cookies that did not spread out flat, stayed very soft in the center (to achieve this, don't overbake; and actually, underbake) and had superior flavor.

Last year, the New York Times published a long and intricate exploration of chocolate chip cookies in which the author, David Leite, determined that resting the dough in the refrigerator for 36 hours creates complex, toffee-like flavors and nice-looking, even browning. Another key point in the article was that a smidge of sea salt sprinkled onto the scoops of dough right before baking was a very good idea. I had no doubts about the salt, but I was dubious about the waiting period.

I did not make the exact NYT cookie, mostly because it's for an enormous, commercial-style cookie rather than the modest homey type. I also disagree with their preference for shards of chopped chocolate versus chips (I love biting into a melting pocket of chocolate--I don't want it marbled throughout the dough). After making my dough as written below, I baked a sheet of cookies immediately, after 24 hours and after 36+ hours.

This is a good cookie anytime, but we did indeed notice a difference. Compared to the cookies baked immediately, the 36 hour batch had better browning and deeper "cookie dough" flavor, whereas that initial cookie was pale and slightly one-note. The 24 hour batch was only a little better than the initial batch, so I'd advise waiting the full 36. For the science lovers in the room, to paraphrase Shirley O. Corriher in the article, this long resting period allows the dry ingredients to fully soak up the wet ingredients, resulting in a firmer dough and better consistency when baked. It also seems that 36 hours of "stewing time," as I like to think of it, brings out maximum flavor from the simple ingredients.

Does this matter? I don't know, but it's a fun experiment to try. Bake a dozen for instant gratification, then wait and see what happens after a day or two. Here's the other thing about chilling your dough: you should do it all the time (speed it up with the freezer if you must). I think it prevents the cookies from spreading, so do it even if you want to bake a batch without a long resting period.

There is no perfect chocolate chip cookie because everyone has his or her unique ideal. I like nuts, but only if they're chopped very small. As I said, I dislike crisp or flat cookies, and I don't want mine to turn into hard little hockey pucks once cool. So, if my current favorite appeals to you, give it a try! If not, tell me about your ideal chocolate chip cookie in the comments. I wonder how many of us are CCC soulmates...?

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet

The original recipe has one quirk that (for me) led to good results: it calls for 1/2 stick of butter less than most Tollhouse-style recipes. Perhaps this helps prevent the cookies from spreading. It also calls for a mix of dark and milk chocolate. In most cases, I consider milk chocolate to be a waste of time (yeah, I said it), so I used all dark, specifically a bag of Ghirardelli 60% cocao bittersweet chips, which aren't particularly bitter at 60%, so they're nice for cookies. Cutting up a good chocolate bar works too (you'll need about 2 cups). I know you hear this a lot, but the quality of the chocolate really makes a difference. Ghirardelli is affordable and easy to find, but it's leagues better than supermarket staples, Nestle and Hershey's. The chocolate aficionado's out there will have their own favorites, I'm sure:)

Makes about 40 cookies

1 1/2 sticks (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (6 oz) firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups (11 1/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
12 oz dark chocolate chips, such as Ghirardelli bittersweet (see headnote)
3/4 cup (3 1/4 oz) chopped, toasted walnuts
Sea salt, for sprinkling

Equipment Note: To prevent the bottoms of cookies from over-browning, I LOVE insulated cookie sheets. If you like a soft center and cookies that don't harden as they cool, they're a must. Check them out here and here.

1) In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

2) Beat the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until smooth and blended, about 2 minutes (longer for handheld mixers). Add one of the eggs and beat just until blended; add the other egg and vanilla and beat until blended.

3) Turn mixer on lowest speed and add the flour mixture. Beat until no patches of flour remain, scraping down the bowl as needed.

4) With mixer off, add the chocolate chips and nuts. Turn the mixer to lowest speed and beat until just combined.

5) Chill the dough for 1 to 2 hours minimum (30 minutes in the freezer), and up to 36 hours.

6) When you're ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop out rounded tablespoon-sized balls of dough and place on parchment about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle a few grains of sea salt (or to taste) over each ball of dough. Bake one sheet at a time (to promote more precise, even baking) in the center of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Quickly open the oven and rotate baking sheet halfway through. Cookies are done when just lightly browned at the edges and still a bit soft in the center; the bottoms should be light golden brown. Let cookies rest on the baking sheet for 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool. Parchment paper may be reused for several batches. If reusing baking sheet, allow to cool to room temperature before scooping dough.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Carrot Cake Cupcakes from Gourmet, Dec. 2007

This post is my contribution to the food blogging event I came up with to celebrate Gourmet magazine. If you haven't heard about it yet, you have plenty of time to participate! Just read my announcement post and get cooking! You've got until Friday, October 16 (yes, I extended the deadline by a day!) to send in your link and jpeg. If you're planning to participate, have you already made your dish? Did you choose new or oldie? I can't wait to read about it!

When I moved from Florida to Chicago in June, I cleared out a lot of stuff. That's the beauty of moving right? Well, among the many material possessions I shed were quite a few issues of Gourmet. I saved a select few, which I imagined I simply couldn't give up. As for the rest, I thought, the website will always be there. And even more so, that there would always be new, wonderful recipes, ideas and inspiration arriving in my mailbox every month. I sure hope Ruth Reichl doesn't leave for at least a few more years, I thought.

Little did I know. I'm still surprised and sad that this harbinger of American culinary creativity and critic of food politics and policies is no more. After hearing this news, I quickly determined there's nothing left to do but appreciate Gourmet for what it was: my favorite food magazine. I loved to cook from it (and did so many times on this blog--see below). I also loved to linger over the glossy photos and then go back through and read the articles and recipes that caught my eye. It was good bedtime reading...sweet dreams, for sure.

I felt the need to make a new-to-me recipe for the event, rather than an old favorite. I went through the few remaining issue I do have and couldn't make up my mind. In the end, simplicity was the answer. Mike and I LOVE carrot cake and were long over due to make it. Searching gourmet.com, I found these cupcakes from December '07. Made with vegetable oil and 3 eggs, they deliver the moist texture you love in good carrot cake.

There are very few recipes I follow to the letter, and this one is no exception. That's just my style--I don't think the Gourmet recipe developers would mind. I added raisins, coconut and ground cloves, as well as a bit more cinnamon and ginger than the original calls for. I also replaced the orange glaze suggested in the magazine for classic cream cheese frosting. They are delicious. Thank you, Gourmet, for making me a better cook, a more creative thinker and a smarter consumer.


Carrot Cake Cupcakes
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2007
You can grate the carrots in a flash in a food processor, or use the large holes of a box grater. Don't buy pre-shredded from the supermarket--they'll lack flavor. I always wished gourmet would give weight measurements, especially for baked goods. Since they do not, I'll advise you to measure the flour by lightly spooning it into the measuring cups (do not shake the cup!) and leveling with the dull edge of a knife. If you love nuts, I think 1/3 to 1/2 cup of toasted chopped walnuts or pecans would be great here.

Makes 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups shredded carrots (3 to 4 carrots)
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup shredded sweetened coconut (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 and line a muffin pan with paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the first 8 ingredients (through cloves). In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the oil, brown sugar and vanilla and whisk to combine. Stir in the carrots, raisins and coconut if using. Add the flour mixture and stir until combined.

Pour batter into muffin cups and bake in the center of the oven for 20 to 24 minutes (mine took exactly 22), rotating pan halfway through to ensure even cooking. Cupcakes are done when a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then place cupcakes on a wire rack to cool completely.

Classic Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes enough for 12 cupcakes with a bit leftover.

4 ounces cream cheese (lowfat or regular)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar

Cut the cream cheese and butter into 1-inch chunks and bring to room temperature (should be very soft). With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the powdered sugar in 3 additions, beating on medium speed, until sugar is incorporated and frosting is lightly and fluffy. Immediately frost cupcakes, or refrigerate for up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature to make spreading easier.

More recipes from Gourmet magazine on A Mingling of Tastes:

Cornbread-Chorizo Stuffing Make it for Thanksgiving--you won't be sorry!

Pear-Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake Easy, yummy and not too sweet.

Cardamom Waffles Great if you love cardamom, and if you're not sure, try it!

Toasted Pasta with Duck Luck Guazzetto This Lydia Bastianich dish is DIVINE.

Ribeye Steak with Pomegranate Glaze An easy sauce to dress up steak.

Roasted Beet Risotto Easy, beautiful, so good.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fig and Goat Cheese Squares


I've said before that figs are my one of my very favorite foods. Fresh ones send me to culinary nirvana, but they're only in available for a few short weeks every season. So, during the rest of the year, I made do with dried figs to get my fix. If I manage to block out my memory of late summer's juicy, succulent, sweet fresh figs, the dried variety are awfully tasty in their own right.

These fig bars are the perfect way to enjoy dried figs while you're waiting for fresh one's to come into season. Figs and creamy goat cheese (or blue cheese or Feta cheese, for that matter) are a perfect sweet and savory match. The cheese, along with chopped walnuts stirred into the pureed figs, makes these squares straddle the line between dessert and nutritious snack. Luckily, a buttery brown sugar base guarantees you won't confuse them with health food.

These squares were served at the food conference I attended just over a week ago. Besides the meals served by hotel catering staff, a nearly constant array of snacks were provided by organizations that sponsored the conference...like the Valley Fig Growers. I'm pretty good about only eating when I'm actually hungry, but when I saw these fig squares about 90 minutes after breakfast, I chowed down and loved every bite.

The recipe for Fig and Goat Cheese Squares is conveniently located on their website. I'm in no way affiliated with the Valley Fig association, but I personally think I should be, considering that I could eat figs 3 meals a day...I wonder if they're looking for a spokesperson:)

Here's more evidence of my fig fixation:

Perfection is a Fresh Fig. Essay and recipes on npr.org.
Quick Refrigerator Fig Jam
Fig Gelato. I used fresh, but dried figs soaked in juice or liquor would work too.
Herb-Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Spiced Fig Compote

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Baklava Small Batch Recipe


Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a chance to cook some great food for the holidays. If you want a traditional and healthy meal to celebrate New Year's Day, you have plenty of time to make Hoppin' John, the easy stew made with black-eyed peas. The peas will bring you luck all year.

You don't have to soak them overnight--just bring to a boil for 3 minutes, remove from heat, cover and soak 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and go on with the recipe. This is called the quick-soak method and may be used for any kind of bean. If you can't find ham hocks for the stew, you can always add bacon or chunks of cooked ham at the end.

If you're still in party mode, then make baklava (all those nuts are good for you, by the way). I did it for the first time last week, and it was so much easier than I imagined when I thought about making it all those times. Phyllo is easy to work with, and everything else is a snap. It looks really impressive and tastes incredible--I love the crunch of phyllo dough. I made a small batch and decided to post it that way because I couldn't find a small recipe anywhere.

You can use any combination of walnuts, almonds and pistachios (others would be okay, I think, but those 3 are the traditional choices). You can also use just one. I used walnuts and almonds, which Mike loved, but I think I'd like it with just walnuts.

Did you guys cook anything special for New Year's Eve? We took a little trip to Chicago where much eating and drinking was done, so we had a very low-key night. Do you typically cook a special dish for New Year's Day? I'm looking forward to my black-eyed peas.

And finally, thank you to everyone who has read and commented on this blog throughout the year. I really appreciate every one of you, even if I don't say it all the time! I hope the year brings great things to you and your families!


Baklava
This recipe makes a small batch of this sweet, nut-filled phyllo pastry. If you would like to use a 9 x 13 pan, double the recipe and do not cut the raw phyllo dough in half. You will need a pastry brush to butter the delicate phyllo sheets.
For filling:
8 oz. raw, whole almonds
8 oz. raw walnut halves
3 Tbs. sugar
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cardamom
1/8 tsp. cloves
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
8 oz. phyllo dough (such as Athens brand), at room temperature

For syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2-inch strip orange peel
1-inch strip lemon peel
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread almonds on a baking sheet and roast until nuts are lightly browned in the center, tossing once, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and pulse until chopped. Be careful to avoid grinding nuts to a paste. Transfer to a large bowl.

Spread walnuts on the same baking sheet you used for the almonds and roast until lightly browned, turning once, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to food processor and chop. Add to bowl with almonds. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, salt, cardamom and cloves. Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Add butter to a small bowl and melt in the microwave. Unroll the phyllo and place on a cutting board. Cut crosswise through the rectangular phyllo to form two smaller rectangles; cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel. Phyllo dough dries out quick when exposed to air. With a pastry brush, butter the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 inch square baking dish.

Lift towel and add one piece of phyllo to dish; replace towel (keep the phyllo covered in this manner as you work). Lightly coat phyllo sheet with butter. Top with another piece of phyllo, turning it 90 degrees so the sheets are overlapping; coat with butter. Repeat until you’ve layered 8 sheets of phyllo, coating each one with butter. Top with one-third of the nut mixture. Cover with 8 more sheets of phyllo and one-third of the nuts. Repeat with 8 more sheets of phyllo and the remaining nuts. Finish with 8 more sheets of phyllo (you’ll have some left over). It goes like this:

1) 8 sheets phyllo
2) nuts
3) 8 sheets phyllo
4) nuts
5) 8 sheets phyllo
6) nuts
7) 8 sheets phyllo

With a sharp serrated knife, cut into 12 pieces. Be sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the dish. Once baked, phyllo will shatter when cut. Bake 30 minutes or until phyllo is golden brown.

When baklava is nearly done baking, make the syrup: combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until thickened slightly, 7 minutes. Remove peels and cinnamon stick.

When baklava is finished, cool on a rack 5 minutes. Pour syrup over baklava, allowing it to run between the cut pieces. Cool completely, several hours. May be made up to one day ahead. Baklava keeps 7 days at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Blueberry-Peach Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuits

This is exactly what you want to make this weekend, am I right? It seems to me that blueberries have been fantastic this year. In early summer, we got Florida and some North Carolina berries, which were great. Then, by early August, the stores were full of New Jersey berries, most of which have been excellent too. The past couple blueberry seasons seemed kind of short and disappointing, so I've been loving this year's crops.

Unlike my blueberry pie earlier in the season, a cobbler like this is hardly any work at all. If you're a biscuit person like me, the cobbler is your go-to dessert. Not excessively sweet, and wholesome in its own way, you shouldn't seek out an occasion to bake one. Double this recipe and use a 9 x 13 dish if you have a crowd, or make it as written for just two of you since it reheats fine.


If cobblers don't happen to be your bag, how about a (frankly fabulous-sounding) chiffon pie, tangy whole wheat pancakes, fresh blueberry scones, buttery blueberry crumb bars, or better-for-you muffins? And if those recipes from other wonderful bloggers aren't enough, check out the Sugar High Friday blog event round up here. The theme was berries! I totally missed this one, but there are about 85 tasty berry desserts from food bloggers for you to peruse. Enjoy!

Blueberry-Peach Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuits

I combined and adapted two recipes from cooksillustrated.com to create this dish.

For fruit filling:
3 large firm-ripe peaches
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbs. cornstarch
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups fresh blueberries

For biscuits:
1 cup minus 3 Tbs. AP or white whole wheat flour
3 Tbs. cornmeal
3 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. sugar, divided
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
1 (6-oz.) container flavored yogurt, such as honey, vanilla or lemon

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place oven rack in lower middle position. Remove peach skin with a vegetable peeler, halve, pit and remove any dark flesh from pit area (If your peaches are on the soft side, it’s better to peel them by blanching instead). Cut each half into 4 to 6 wedges, toss with sugar in a large bowl and set aside for 30 minutes. Transfer peaches to a strainer set over a bowl and drain thoroughly. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup of drained peach juice (discard extra), cornstarch, lemon juice and salt. Toss with peach slices and blueberries and transfer to an 8 x 8 baking dish. Bake 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the biscuits: whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, lemon zest, baking soda and salt. Add chilled butter and work it into the flour mixture with your hands to create a loose, shaggy mixture. Fold in yogurt until flour is moistened (will still appear rather loose). With floured hands, form dough into 6 equal lumps. Arrange biscuit lumps on top of hot fruit, spacing them close together, but not touching, about 1/2-inch apart. Sprinkle remaining teaspoon of sugar over dough. Return to oven and bake 17 to 20 minutes, or until biscuits are lightly browned and cooked through. Cool on a rack for 20 minutes and serve warm.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Coconut Cake with 7-Minute Frosting

I've been wanting to make a coconut cake for Mike's birthday for a few years now. But in the recent past, he's asked for German chocolate and carrot cake. They both contain coconut, but that does not put them under the category of "coconut cake." Not even a little bit.

So this year, Mike said a straight-up coconut cake would do, and I knew exactly where to turn for a recipe. All I wanted was a great cake - light, moist texture; two layers; filling; and good frosting. With no designs whatsoever on reinventing the wheel, I knew I'd use a recipe I pulled out of Good Housekeeping magazine a few months ago. The issue had Paula Deen on the cover, and inside she was noshing merrily on this cake. If it was good enough for her, I figured I couldn't go wrong.

Then, the funniest thing happened. One of my regular blog reads, Cookie Madness, posted an easy coconut cake that was rated very highly by Anna, who I believe more than the things I read in Good Housekeeping (no offense to GH, but you know...). So I decided to make her recipe, which she sourced from recipezaar.com, instead. But, before I baked, I took a quick look at the Paula Deen recipe to see how they differed. Want to guess what happened? They were exactly the same. Now I had a cake with glowing endorsements from all fronts.

This is a great cake. It's easy. I will never tell you to crack your own coconut in the interest of purity, and neither does this recipe. Simple canned coconut milk flavors the cake. A tangy filling made from sour cream, sugar and shredded coconut adds an interesting tangy note. And finally, there's the 7-minute icing. This is an old recipe. I don't know its origins, but it's the one that's kind of like marshmallow fluff, only better. There's no butter - just sugar and egg whites - so it's not as dense with fat and calories as buttercream.

I followed Anna's version of the recipe, which she cut in half to fit 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Paula's version is for 3 (9-inch) pans, and I had no interest in having that much cake in my house (plus, I only have 2 cake pans). Here is Paula's full recipe on the Food Network site, if you do want that much cake (nothing wrong with that). And here's the 7-minute frosting.

As I said, Anna baked her cake in 2 8-inch pans, and that's the ideal size. I thought I could get away with my 2 9-inch pans and just have thinner layers. Once I made the batter, however, I knew it was not enough to respectably fill both pans (and I'd already buttered and floured them, darn it!). So, I just poured all the batter in one pan, baked a little longer and cut the cake in half horizontally with a large serrated knife. I had never performed this cake operation before, but it was wonderfully easy. Just like the rest of the cake.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Cinnamon Chipotle Brownies

These brownies came from a line of three distinguished bakers. The original version is from Alice Medrich's book, Pure Dessert. Cheryl of 5-Second Rule made a cinnamon-white chocolate version, which Charmain of Christie's Corner turned into a chocolate-chipotle brownie.

I've been wanting to do a brownie with chipotle for awhile, and seeing Charmain's excellent recipe finally motivated me. Knowing it came from a chocolate expert like Medrich and got the thumbs up from two trusted blogging buddies-slash-food writers made me feel certain that I'd have great results. I kept Cheryl's cinnamon, left out Charmain's walnuts and got my ideal cinnamon-chipotle brownie. I cut out the seeds and ground up some whole dried chipotle peppers in a spice grinder. Their sweet, smoky flavor is a natural with cinnamon.

This is a simple brownie loaded with chocolate. I like that it doesn't go overboard on butter and sugar (it's not light by any means; just not overly heavy); rather it uses plenty of richly flavored bittersweet chocolate. You've heard this before, but I'll say it anyway--use the good stuff.

The texture is moist and fudgy. On first look, the brownies appeared dense, but they feel light on your tongue and, yes, they melt in your mouth. I still love my Guinness Brownies and these easy peanut butter brownies that get their chocolate punch from Dutch process cocoa, but this one is a bit more nuanced and adaptable, as you can play with different types of fine quality chocolate. It is going into my permanent repertoire.


Cinnamon Chipotle Brownies
Adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich
I used the 70% cocoa bars by Lindt. Use any good-quality chocolate you like, but I would recommend staying over 60% cocoa. Whether you grind the chipotle chiles yourself or use a powder, heat levels vary. Taste your chile powder and use more or less depending on your preference. If you use flaky sea salt or other coarse salt for baking, use the higher amount.

Makes 12 or 16 brownies

8 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons butter, cut into 12 pieces
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 x 8 baking dish with nonstick "release" foil or parchment paper (or use regular foil, then coat with cooking spray), letting at least 6 inches hang over two of the sides like handles.

Put chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium-low power 45 seconds. Stir and continue to microwave in 15-20 second intervals, stirring each time, just until chocolate is smooth; be careful not to over heat. You can do this in a double boiler if you prefer. Set aside to cool slightly.

Combine the flour, cinnamon, chile and salt in a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Set aside.

In another bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and light-colored, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the chocolate. Gently fold in the flour mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 30 to 35 minutes (mine took exactly 32) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with little or no chocolate; toothpick should come out clean when inserted near the edge.

Cool completely on a rack. To serve, use the foil handles to lift brownies out of pan. Cut into 12 or 16 pieces. Brownies freeze well.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Best Blueberry Pie

This past weekend was the 2-year anniversary of A Mingling of Tastes! I've recorded so many great recipes here and tried so many new things, and having like-minded food lovers to share it with is wonderful.

I wanted to make a special treat to celebrate my blog-iversary, and when I saw the recipe for Best Blueberry Pie in the current Cook's Illustrated, all other recipes fell out of the running. I am not a habitual pie maker, nor am even much of a "pie person," particularly fruit pies. I have every appreciation for great pie, but great pie isn't very common, and I tend to gravitate toward chocolate, chocolate and chocolate.

The summer after starting this blog, I attempted to make pie with peaches and the other luscious stone fruits available at the time. It was so disastrous that I had no pictures or recipe worth posting (filling turned to soup; butter crust was awful). But now, I have the CI recipe, and I took care to follow it to the letter. Their Fool-Proof Pie Crust, which they published late last year, is nothing short of brilliant. The secret is forming the dough with both water and vodka. In the oven, the alcohol in the vodka evaporates, so less liquid is present, resulting in less gluten formation in the dough (gluten makes baked goods chewy--good for bread, bad for pastry).

Another secret ingredient in the pie is one grated Granny Smith apple. In order to avoid a glue-like texture from the high quantity of tapioca needed to thicken a blueberry filling, the natural pectin present in the apple acts as a thickener. The actual fruit is undetectable in the finished pie.

I did have one problem, as you may have guessed from the photo above. This particular pastry dough is on the soft side, and my hand was not quite deft enough when it came to transferring my top crust to the pie plate. After tasting the finished product, I couldn't have cared less (you say homely, I say homey). The filling is blueberry heaven, and I LOVE the crust. Not just the nice flavor and tender, flaky texture, but people, it is now day three, and the edges are still crisp and wonderful. The top is soft, but the bottom has stayed quite firm, thanks to placing it on a preheated baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and using a high temperature for the first half of the bake time. I actually liked the pie better the second day than the first. It sounds crazy, but so does vodka in a pie crust.

Here is the recipe for the Fool-Proof Pie Dough, on SeriousEats.com.

Currently, you can see a 2-minute video of how to make the blueberry pie on CooksIllustrated.com under the "Videos" tab. It's one of the featured videos, but if it's no longer there, try doing a search. You have to pay for full access to the CI site, but this video is free. Since CI doesn't give away most their recipes free online, I don't think it's right to post here--especially since I didn't change a thing. But, if you're ready to make this pie, you can do a free 14-day trial of cooksillustrated.com, and after seeing all the recipes and resources, you may opt to subscribe. You can also go out now and buy the July/August issue--I know it's sold at Barnes & Noble. I also came across this recently published recipe in the Charlotte Observer for a Peach-Blueberry Pie using CI's fabulous crust.

So happy blog-iversary to me, and happy blueberry season to my lovely readers!


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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bacon Ice Cream


Are you dying to try the bacon ice cream Richard made on the Top Chef (warning: that link contains a spoiler) finale, but don't have your own liquid nitrogen stash?

Here's the recipe for Bacon and Egg Ice Cream that I posted just over a year ago. It's from an episode of Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie, and it is a very good thing. The bacon is cooked in the oven with brown sugar, and that bacon candy is then mixed into a rich, custard-style base. I included the link to the original recipe in my post, along with notes on few small tweaks we had to make to the process.

And while we're on the subject...my take on the ever-popular Bacon Brittle recipe.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Lemon Lovers' Lemon Bars


These are the lemon bars I’ve been craving! I always loved my mom’s recipe, which is virtually identical to the one in my red Betty Crocker cookbook. However, as my tastes and preferences have changed, I outgrew the classic. The shortbread crust is delicious, but it loses its crisp, flaky texture so quickly. There wasn’t much I could do about that, but mostly I just wanted more lemon.

Some people like the shortbread layer and the lemon curd layer of a lemon bar to be roughly equal in size. I have no objection to that, but I personally want a thick, soft lemon layer and just enough shortbread to provide a sturdy base. Two weeks ago, I made a version that contained more lemon than the classic version, but it still wasn’t quite enough. I also used Meyer lemons, which were surprisingly bad for this particular recipe. Their signature lack of tartness takes away that tangy acidic quality that I feel is essential to a good lemon bar.

Looking for a method for lemon bars with a thicker lemon layer, I stumbled on Smitten Kitchen’s version of Ina Garten’s lemon bars. Ina packs her bars with sugar, but the woman created an impressive lemon layer that you can see in Deb’s great photos. Ina’s version, however, used too much flour for my personal comfort. I didn’t want anything remotely cakey, but I knew the flour definitely contributed to the bars’ great height.

I also used this recipe on Cookie Madness for inspiration, which uses comparatively little sugar and must make a wonderfully tart bar. I took ideas from both recipes, as well as the classic Betty Crocker version and came up with something I really love. These bars still have plenty of buttery shortbread, but they have more filling than the average bar and are very lemony. One key to the flavor is lemon sugar. It’s an extra step that you have to do one day ahead, but it’s ridiculously easy and so totally worth it. It also requires you to finely chop the zest in a food processor, so you won’t end up chewing on any stringy bits of zest in the finished bars. And if you love lemon, the fragrance of the sugar (not to mention a fabulous dessert) will be your reward.

I’m sending this post to Helen of Tartelette, who is hosting Sugar High Friday this month. The theme is citrus sweets, so if you’re in the mood to make something a bit more exotic than lemon bars, you’ll find tons of inspiration when she posts the round up toward the end of the month.

Lemon Lovers’ Lemon Bars
The lemon sugar must be made one day ahead--see step one of the recipe. If you don't have time, just use one cup of plain sugar and 1 to 2 tbs. zest when you mix up the filling. Also, note that you must lower the oven temperature after baking the crust.

Makes 12 or 16

For crust:
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled

For filling:
1 cup granulated sugar
zest of 3 lemons
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs. all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 1 tbs. lemon juice (3 to 4 lemons)

1. Make the lemon sugar: In a food processor, combine the granulated sugar and lemon zest; pulse several times, until zest is very fine. Transfer to a shallow container or baking sheet and let sugar dry out at room temperature for several hours. Cover and chill overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8 x 8 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or line with nonstick foil. In a food processor, combine flour, powdered sugar and salt; pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some pea-size chunks of butter still visible. Transfer the crumbly mixture to the baking dish and press into the bottom and sides of the dish with your hands. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until lightly golden around the edges. Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon sugar, flour and salt. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then whisk in the lemon juice. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until thoroughly combined. Pour the lemon mixture over the hot crust, return to oven and bake for 28 to 33 minutes. The center should be set, but still gooey when poked with a toothpick. Cool completely, at least two hours. Sift powdered sugar over the dish, cut into 12 or 16 bars and serve. To store, cover and chill.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Derby Day Brownies with Bourbon-Soaked Raisins

Let me start by saying that putting raisins in brownies is not something I would normally do. With a few notable exceptions (chocolate dipped strawberries come to mind), I don't usually like chocolate and fruit together. When I came across a brownie recipe with raisins that actually sounded appealing, I had to embrace that feeling and give it a try.

I am usually a little late with getting holiday or themed recipes on the blog--for example, I forget St. Patrick's Day was right around the corner and missed my chance to make some green pistachio cookies I wanted to try. Last weekend, Mike mentioned that the Kentucky Derby is coming up on May 3rd, so I made a mental note to blog about an appropriate, preferably bourbon-laced, recipe since the Mint Julep is the official derby drink.

The brownie recipe, from Baking by Dorie Greenspan, called for raisins soaked in dark rum, and right away I thought of switching it up to bourbon. Thus, I could complete a derby-themed recipe and indulge my current preoccupation with brownie-making. As it turned out, you can't really detect the bourbon in the final product, and the raisins--while a nice change of pace--were a little distracting to both me and Mike (despite the handful of semisweet chips I sprinkled on top because I felt a need to balance the fruit with even more chocolate). The raisins sort of got in the way of an otherwise really great brownie. On the other hand, if you like chocolate and dried fruit, you'll really like this.

The recipe produces a thick, moist (but not wet), fudgy brownie. I used fine quality bittersweet chocolate (Lindt 70%), as specified; great chocolate makes a great brownie. I also liked the addition of cinnamon in this recipe, and I raised the quantity to 1/4 teaspoon, which created a slightly spicy, but not overpowering, flavor that gives these brownies added interest. This is a nice recipe, so if you want to go with a derby theme sans raisins, just skip that part, tip in a shot of bourbon and you're good to go!

Fudgy Brownies with Bourbon-Soaked Raisins
Adapted from Baking by Dorie Greenspan

This recipe calls for bittersweet chocolate, so I would look for something with a 65 to 75% cocoa content. I love cinnamon and always have a fresh, potent Vietnamese variety on hand (Spice Islands found in most supermarkets makes a good one); if your cinnamon isn't very strong or past its prime, add a little extra or replenish your supply.

Makes 16 brownies

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
1/3 cup raisins
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Mint leaves for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish, line with foil and butter foil; or use nonstick foil and skip the butter.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and microwave on medium power for 1 minute; stir thoroughly. Microwave again for 15 to 20 seconds and stir. Repeat, if necessary, until chocolate is just melted (don't let it get too hot and watch it closely to avoid burning). Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine raisins, water and bourbon; bring to a simmer and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, salt and cinnamon.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs and sugar and beat on medium speed until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Add chocolate mixture and beat on low speed until just combined. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed for 30 seconds (flour won't be completely incorporated). Finish mixing in the flour by hand with a rubber spatula. Fold in the raisins along with any liquid in the saucepan. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle chocolate chips over the top and press slightly into the batter with a flat hand.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes (mine took 57 minutes), or until top is dry and crackled and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean (a few moist crumbs is good; wet means it's not done yet). Cool on a wire rack. Use the edges of the foil as handles and lift brownies out of baking pan. Transfer to a cutting board and cool completely (alternatively, refrigerating brownies makes them easy to cut if you don't mind chilling them). Cut into 16 squares.



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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pear-Almond Tart

I bet a lot of you are recovered from any Easter celebrations by now. If so, you will want to try this excellent pear tart that I made for Easter. I, on the other hand, am in recovery from a weekend of delicious meals at my favorite Boston restaurants. Here's some of the things Mike and I ate over our anniversary celebration weekend:

- Shabu shabu plus skewered hardboiled quail eggs wrapped in pork belly
- Fried New England-style clams with a side of steamed broccoli (it's all about balance)
- The gorgeous antipasto platter plus a great carbonara at my favorite Italian restaurant
- The best pad Thai and Drunken Noodle
- Exquisitely delicious and creative Mediterranean Middle Eastern food here
- Shanghai-style dim sum
- Tapas

It was a long weekend, okay. And it wasn't actually gluttonous. We don't order too much when we go out, and we do tons of walking and jogging along the Charles. The worst thing about the weekend, nutrition wise, was probably the coffee and donuts from where else that we ate for breakfast more than once.

So, I'm taking it easy this week with my oatmeal for breakfast, tuna sandwiches for lunch and healthy dinners, heavy on the vegetables. If the air-conditioning in the building had not gone unexpectedly down today, I would be making soup. But with the moist 80 degree indoor temperature, I'm craving something light and really spicy...hmmm.

Despite my healthy resolve, I have no trouble talking about how good this pear and almond tart is. From my beloved Gourmet, a magazine that really appreciates the food art form known as the tart, this one is both beautiful and delicious. The key is a custard made with pear brandy, or what's apparently known in the Alsace region of France as eau-de-vie.

Just 2 1/2 tablespoons of brandy may not seem significant, but you really can taste it. It sets the tart apart and complements the low level of sweetness with a more complex, mature flavor. It is the kind of thing you would want after an elaborate meal because it's so light and worthy of the indulgence.

The recipe appealed to me because of this lightness and because we always have Belle de Brillet, a gorgeous pear cognac, in our liquor cabinet. We discovered it in a cocktail called the Naughty Au'Pear served at a great lounge in Boston, now sadly closed. If you like this kind of brandy (cognac is brandy made in a specific region of France), I highly recommend it. But there are other pear brandies that may be easier to find in any well-stocked liquor store. Don't substitute a very sweet liqueur like pear schnapps, as it has less alcohol and more sugar than pear brandy. However, other potent liqueurs like Amaretto might work. If you don't want to buy pear brandy just for this, I think the best bet would be plain brandy or cognac, possibly with an extra 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla.

I followed the recipe from the March Gourmet with one (sort of) big change: I substituted reduced fat sour cream for "2/3 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream." I wasn't in the mood to splurge for creme fraiche, and I know that sour cream is a lot more similar to it than heavy cream. I'm right, aren't I? I'm not sure why they suggested heavy cream because my sour cream worked absolutely perfectly - and is much healthier too.

Additionally, I have a large, 11-inch tart pan, which caused me to fret that I didn't have enough dough, but it turned out okay. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose, and I reduced the butter in the pastry by one tablespoon. I guess I was already anticipating my weekend of eating out in Boston.

A quick note: If you haven't already done so, you can sign up to receive new posts by email, so you won't ever miss a thing. Just enter your email address in the box in the upper left sidebar, and know that it will never be used for other purposes besides receiving posts from A Mingling of Tastes.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Guinness Brownie Recipe


Another year, another Guinness recipe. This is a great brownie recipe ANY day of the year, but it's perfect for St. Patty's. These brownies do not taste like beer, but you can detect the smoky flavor of stout, which is a dream date for the intense dark chocolate in this recipe. Read on if you're a brownie fan (and who isn't?!) or check out last year's Guinness cupcakes with espresso buttercream (or this Guinness Beef Stew while you're at it).

I've been eating these brownies for a few days now, feeling guilty about not sharing them with you. Last week was so busy with work, and it carried right into the weekend (but don't feel bad for me; work is good news if you're a freelancer). Now that things have calmed down a bit, I can finally get back to my blog!

This is an easy recipe that I found on here on about.com. "About" is not my favorite recipe source, due to a truly awful cookie recipe I tried years ago, but this one looked solid compared to a few of the other Guinness brownie recipes I turned up. Then I saw that one of my favorite bloggers also used it with good results. There is not a lot of sugar in this recipe, so I think the white chocolate is there to add some additional sweetness, and the brownies are definitely sweet enough for me.

I recommend a good quality bittersweet chocolate (I used Lindt 70% cocoa), but I'm sure you could get away with semisweet too. The texture is fudgy, but not in an under-baked sort of way. I think the Guinness imparts a unique bubbly lightness, so these brownies are not as dense and heavy as your typical fudgy brownie. To my surprise, I like them just as much as these peanut butter swirl brownies. Both are rich and chocolatey, but that's where the similarities end. Just give them a try for St. Patty's Day, and you'll see what I mean!

Guinness Brownies
Adapted from About.com and Cookie Madness
I used Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa powder; Hershey’s or Green & Black’s Organic are two other good brands. I used Lindt 70% cocoa bittersweet chocolate, which I believe is widely available in large, 3.5 ounce bars that cost about $2 each. I have to mention that this is also my favorite everyday eating chocolate. The price makes it a steal, and it’s just as satisfying to me as more expensive brands. For white chocolate, I used a Ghirardelli white chocolate baking bar. I don’t know if they are that different, but I think the bar has superior flavor to the Ghirardelli white chocolate chips, which I think are totally tasteless (but I’m not a fan of white chocolate). Finally, be sure the beer is at room temperature so you don’t bring an unwelcome chill to your other ingredients.
Makes 24 brownies (in a 9 x 13 pan)

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
8 ounces dark bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces high quality white chocolate, chopped
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup Guinness Stout beer, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with nonstick foil (or regular foil coated with nonstick spray); or, use a nonstick pan coated well with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa and salt; set aside.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave: In a medium glass bowl, or other microwave-safe bowl, combine the dark chocolate, white chocolate and butter. Microwave on medium power for 45 seconds and stir. Continue microwaving and stirring at 30 second intervals, reducing to 15 second intervals as the chocolate is nearly melted. Stop just when the chocolate is smooth (all microwaves are different, so take care not to burn it). Set aside.

Combine the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and mix on high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add melted chocolate in two additions, beating on medium speed until combined. Add flour mixture in two additions, beating on medium speed until combined. Add one-third of the Guinness and the vanilla and whisk until combined. Repeat two more times with remaining Guinness.

Pour brownie batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over top. Bake for 23 to 27 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (mine took exactly 25 minutes). Cool completely in pan, cut into 24 squares and serve. These are excellent eaten within 24 hours (possibly longer; I’m not sure), and they freeze very well.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pear Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake


I definitely have cornbread on my mind. I loved writing about The Cornbread Gospels in my last post, and I’m still enjoying the results of the recipe I gave you – buttery Almond-Herb Biscuits. They freeze beautifully, and I’ve been defrosting them one at a time to eat with soup for dinner…so good!

You’d think I had enough corn-y recipes for a while, but when I saw this cake in the February issue of Gourmet, I had to make it. I’ve been clipping cornmeal cake recipes out of magazines for the last couple years. I’ll see one now and then, often served with a fruit compote, sometimes topped with cream or a sweet glaze. Some cornmeal cakes remind me of my favorite blueberry-cornmeal pancakes (I’ll post them for you as soon as I can snap a decent picture!). I could somehow justify the pancakes as a balanced meal, yet the cornmeal cakes felt too much like desserts that weren’t quite as indulgent as say, a flourless chocolate tart.


But with the novelty of the upside-down cake and my love of pears – especially sticky, warm, caramelized pears – this cake got me into the kitchen. It is very easy to make – minimal ingredients and not much mess. Peeling and coring the pears is only slightly fussy, and everything else is a snap.

The flavor is deliciously subtle. It’s not tooth-achingly sweet from pounds of sugar, but sweet with maple syrup, stone-ground cornmeal and caramelized fruit. You could serve it with whipped cream or ice cream, but I love a little sour cream to swirl around with a drizzle of maple syrup on my plate. I don’t see myself getting tired of cornmeal cakes, cornbread, corn muffins, corn biscuits or the rest of it anytime soon.

But wait, there's more!
Head over to NPR's website and read the story with recipes that I wrote for their Kitchen Window column. It’s the dramatic tale of my obsession with gourmet pizza. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry…you might even bake.

Pear Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from this recipe, Gourmet magazine, February 2008

Gourmet calls this a “johnnycake,” after the griddled cornbread-slash-pancake that is a Rhode Island specialty. I don’t disagree – it was just too much to fit in the title. This is a dessert with actual nutritional value, especially if use whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose. Stone ground cornmeal is the best choice because it is all-natural and has truer corn flavor. You can find it many supermarkets and natural food stores.

Serves 8

1 stick unsalted butter (4 oz.)
2 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 firm-ripe Anjou pears, peeled, halved lengthwise and cored
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, divided
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)
3/4 cup stone ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk (reduced fat or whole)
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
To serve: additional maple syrup and sour cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large cast iron or nonstick skillet. Pour all but about 1 tablespoon into a small bowl. Use about 1 tablespoon from the bowl to brush the bottom and sides of an 8- or 9-inch cake pan.

Return the skillet to medium heat, sprinkle the sugar over the butter and add the pears, cut side up. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of the nutmeg and cook for 5 minutes. Flip the pears, sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg and continue cooking until the cut sides are lightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes more. Transfer the pears to the cake pan, cut side down.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, maple syrup and reserved 6 tablespoons of melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk just until smooth. Pour batter into the cake pan over the pears. Bake for 20 to 24 minutes or until the top is golden and sides pull away from the pan (it took 22 minutes with my 8-inch pan). Cool in pan on a rack for 15 minutes, then run a thin knife around the sides to loosen the cake. Invert onto a platter and serve with maple syrup and sour cream.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Want to Experience Death By Chocolate?

So what do you say? There are worse ways to go than being overcome by one of most delicious things on earth. I found out about a little contest being run by Culinate, a tasty website full of articles, recipes and other foodie insights. They are giving away two trips to Napa Valley for the Annual Death by Chocolate Festival.

One winner (and their lucky guest) will be chosen by random drawing, so that means YOU can win. The other trip will go to a food blogger. Because I love chocolate, and would love to win a trip to Napa (ahem, wine!), I entered the food blogger contest by submitting my favorite blog post focused on chocolate. But I need your help! The food bloggers who entered will be narrowed down to 10 finalists based on your votes from now until this Friday at noon.

To get yourself entered in the contest, click on the "Death By Chocolate" graphic at the top of my left sidebar (if you're reading this as an RSS feed, click here). You'll have to register to enter the contest and vote. While you're there, check out the list of over 70 food bloggers who entered, read some to-die-for posts about chocolate, and vote for me! You can vote for as many bloggers as you want, and there is plenty of delicious competition. If you've already entered, you can still head back to Culinate and vote for the bloggers you like-- including me I hope! If I win, I promise many delicious chocolate-centric posts for your enjoyment.

And because this is all about chocolate, it wouldn't be right to beg for your vote without giving you a little something. This is my favorite brownie recipe, which I wasn't going to blog about because it's really Anna's, and she posted it quite recently. But, since we are talkin' chocolate, and since I LOVE this recipe, here you go. The brownie base is actually King Arthur's "Best Ever Fudge Brownie," and it's topped off with a peanut butter cream cheese swirl. It's the easiest brownie because you don't have to fuss around melting chocolate or track down expensive chocolate of varying cocoa percentages. They are intensely chocolatey, and fudgy without being wet. Even if you don't want to do the PB swirl, these are the best brownies!

For the contest, I submitted my post about tempering chocolate for truffles...mmm, truffles.

So, you're going to go enter the Culinate contest and do some voting, right? Even if you don't usually leave comments, or just read this blog for the sparkling prose or the stellar photography (I wish), I need your vote by noon this Friday! And if we both win, we can meet up in Napa and see who can eat the most chocolate.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Super Bowl Snacks: Bacon Brittle and Spiced Nuts

I'm really looking forward to the Superbowl because it's a great excuse to make really fun food. And because I'll get to see Tom Brady crush Eli Manning...yippee!

If you serve even one of these recipes to people on Superbowl Sunday (or any day), they will remember you for throwing the best Superbowl party ever. Serve both and people may not be able to handle all the tastiness--these snacks are unbelievably addictive.

I made them both over the holidays, and the bacon brittle was a surprise stocking stuffer for Mike. I had never made any kind of brittle by myself, but the process went smoothly, and it turned out perfectly. It's pretty well established that a little salt makes sweet things a million times more delicious. When that salt comes in the form of bacon, you've really hit the ultimate expression of the idea. Whatever doubts you might have about this recipe, just banish them and go for it. At the very least, you'll have fun breaking the brittle up with a hammer (in the photo above, the brittle is set, but not yet cracked into shards).

I followed this simple recipe, which was adapted from Obsession with Food. I did however use slightly more bacon, about seven slices. Needless to say, use the best bacon you can find for this recipe. Overly salty, watery stuff will reduce the deliciousness considerably. For planning purposes, note that this brittle stays hard for about 48 hours after you make it, then gets progressively softer.

The spiced nuts are another take on sweet and salty, this time with some fresh rosemary thrown in. I've been making these for years, since I saw the recipe in Nigella Bites. Nigella adapted it from the Union Square Cafe, a great restaurant in New York. When I was there on business a few years ago, that's where I went for dinner the first night because I remembered Sara Moulton talking about it on her old cooking show, and I loved Sara. I think they had bar nuts when I went, but they weren't quite like these.

I love these nuts. Anytime you're having people over, you won't go wrong if you put these out. They are incredible warm, and not really any less incredible after they've cooled. You can make them a day ahead if you want. I tweak the recipe a bit every time I make them, and I always start with different quantities of nuts. You can't really go wrong here if you use fresh rosemary, good salt and a chile seasoning you like. I use standard cayenne pepper, but you can use any ground chile.

If the Superbowl isn't your thing, wouldn't your Valentine love one of these treats? If he's a man who likes meat, you cannot fail with the Bacon Brittle.

Sweet and Spicy Roasted Nuts
Adapted from Nigella Bites
The nuts must be raw because you’re going to do the roasting and salting. My grocery store sells mixed bags of Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews and hazelnuts in the produce section. Another good idea is to hit the bulk bins at a natural foods store and make your own mix. If you want more nuts to feed a crowd, scale the quantities up as needed.

Approximately 1 1/2 cups raw mixed nuts
1 tbs. finely chopped fresh rosemary (do not substitute dried)
pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 tbs. dark brown sugar
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
1 1/2 tbs. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread the nuts out on a baking sheet and roast until lightly browned and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Give the tray a shake and turn the larger nuts once or twice during roasting, watching closely so they don’t burn.

Meanwhile, combine the rosemary, cayenne, sugar, salt and butter in a bowl. Add the hot roasted nuts and toss well to coat. Serve warm or cool and store in an airtight container.

Need more snack ideas? Here are a few picks from my archives:

1) Oktoberfest Crostini - great party bites with bratwurst and sauerkraut
2) Catalan Flatbread with Piquillo Peppers, Caramelized Onions and Anchovies - the title is a mouthful, but these appetizer pizzas are really easy to make!
3) Mini Corn Cakes with Guacamole - a great munchie if you're serving chili too.
4) Phyllo Triangles with Lamb, Onions and Pine Nuts - perfect if you want to go a little bit exotic.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chocolate Chip-Oat Cookies with Coconut

Yum. I love when I have an idea of what I want and find a recipe that perfectly epitomizes what I'm craving. That's what happened with these cookies I made last night. They are chewy, just a little crisp around the edges and full of semisweet chocolate chips, oats, coconut and toasted pecans. Yum.

If you haven't noticed, I'm a big Cookie Madness groupie. Anna posts at least one recipe (not always a cookie, but usually sweet) every day. Whenever I want something sweet but I'm not quite sure what, I browse through the Cookie Madness archives. Thanks to the sheer volume of recipes, I always find something appealing along with an honest assessment of how it tastes, what it's like (crisp or soft, ultra-rich or more nuanced), and how it behaves during baking.

I really like this cookie because it's hearty, chocolately and reminds me of one of those tasty "congo bar" type desserts, probably because of the coconut. I made a very small batch, and after less than 24 hours they're almost gone. With whole oats and whole wheat pastry flour, it even has a bit of nutritional value. Here's the link to Anna's recipe, but I'll write it up here too in case you want to make a small batch like I did.

Chocolate Chip-Oat Cookies with Coconut
Adapted from Cookie Madness
I like the old-fashioned type of oats here--it's supposed to be a chunky cookie. I'm not sure if using quick oats (do NOT use instant) would make the cookie flatter. I gave a range for the quantity of pecans because I only had 1/4 cup on hand. Next time, I'll up the quantity a bit, but this batch definitely didn't suffer. To toast the pecans, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in a 325 degree oven for about 8 minutes, flipping once, or until they take on some color and turn fragrant.

Makes 18 cookies.

4 tbs. unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c. plus 1 tbs. dark brown sugar, packed
2 tbs. granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 tbs. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup plus 3 tbs. whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)--56 grams
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. old-fashion oats
1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 to 1/3 cup toasted pecans, finely chopped
1/4 c. shredded sweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until light and creamy. Beat in the egg, then beat in the milk and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir into the butter mixture. Stir in the oats, chips, pecans and coconut.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets and bake for 10-14 minutes, or until the bottoms are lightly browned. Bake shorter or longer depending on how soft you like your cookies. Let rest on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool.

Here are the other Cookie Madness recipes I've made (and loved):

Creamy Butterfinger Pie
Soft Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Favorite Thumbprint Cookies


Unlike Pecan Balls, I haven't seen a lot of thumbprint cookies in the blogosphere. Women's magazines, on the other hand, always seem to include one obligatory thumbprint in their collections of holiday cookie recipes. They usually look fairly uninspired, although they may be wonderful recipes. I'll never know because these are the only thumbprints I will ever make.

This recipe is another oldie but goodie from grandma. The original typewritten recipe that I have a photocopy of calls for all shortening. And this is from back when Crisco had plenty of trans-fat. When I was a kid, I think we made them with margarine, which was the good-health fat of choice back then. Now, I make them with delicious, organic unsalted butter (Organic Valley is my everyday butter of choice), and they taste as wonderful as ever.

I've mentioned how much I like soft, tender, nearly under-baked cookies, and that is how I like these. Thanks to the butter and brown sugar, they melt in your mouth. Still, a contrast of textures is important if you want a truly sophisticated cookie experience, so these thumbprints are rolled in finely chopped--almost ground--walnuts.

And, as with so many desserts, a sweet, simple frosting takes these cookies from great to really great. Jam in thumbprint cookies never did it for me. Why have jam when you can have actual icing? To each her own, I guess. If you happen to have ideas about thumbprints that are equally as strong as mine, I would love it if you tried the cookie part and added your filling of choice, whether it be chocolate, jam or candied fruit--just as long as you tell me all about it!

I'm submitting this post to Susan's Christmas Cookie round-up at Food Blogga. She's gathering cookie recipes from far and wide, so it might be a good place to go if you're still looking for cookie inspiration!

My Favorite Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 egg whites
1 1/4 cup walnuts, ground or very finely chopped
1 cup powdered sugar
2 to 4 tbs. milk
red and green food coloring

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. With an electric mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar and egg yolks at medium-high speed until thoroughly combined. Beat in vanilla. Stir in the flour and salt at very low speed or by hand.

Place the egg whites in a small bowl and spread the walnuts out in a shallow bowl or plate. Roll a spoonful of dough into a one-inch ball with your hands, quickly dip in egg white, roll in ground walnuts, shaking off any excess, and place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, spacing cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on baking sheets.

Bake for 6 minutes, remove pans from oven and quickly make a deep thumbprint in the center of each cookie. Return pans to oven and bake for 7 minutes more, or until just barely beginning to brown on the bottom. If notice the indentation you made disappearing as the cookies bake, pull them out and press again. Cool on baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to wire racks until cooled completely.

In each of two small bowls, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar with 1 to 2 tablespoons milk. Add red food coloring to one bowl and green food coloring to the other. Stir well to combine and create a thick icing that slowly drizzles off your spoon. When cookies are completely cool, fill thumbprints with icing. If you want to freeze some of the cookies, allow icing to dry completely, 8 hours to overnight.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Baking and a Recipe for Pecan Balls


I love baking Christmas cookies. From what I've been seeing on so many other food blogs, I'm not the only one. This weekend I went into a highly organized frenzy of holiday baking.

All I did was make batches of cookie dough, watch sweet loaves of bread puff up out of their pans, and roll out individual little nut pies. Okay, I also went to a wine tasting on Friday, had a fun dinner out on Saturday and watched a football game on Sunday from the comfort of my sofa after the day's cookies were out of the oven.

It was all so much fun! This morning, I was wondering aloud why I go through so much work, especially when there aren't a ton of people around to eat my goodies (that's what freezers are for, right?). It's not because I need food to be happy (food makes me happy, but that's different) or because I want to relive childhood Christmases past (I wasn't a very child-like child, so that's not it). I just love to cook. And bake. Either way, I love recipes that challenge me somehow.

I do make a lot of family recipes this time of year because I want to make them my own--master them so I can then improve upon them--and enjoy them without thinking they don't taste quite the same as they did when I was 10. More than that, baking just tells me it's Christmas. It's a knee-jerk reaction sort of thing. Since I enjoy it so much, why not indulge?

All of the cookies in the photo happen to be things I ate as a kid, and I love them all. Today, I want to post the recipe for Pecan Balls (the ones that look like little snowballs). I've been seeing this cookie everywhere of late and no wonder--it's a Christmas classic. I poured over several recipes trying to find the ultimate version that would produce a very tender cookie with a nearly under-baked texture and without anything too fancy going on. In the end, I used a very old recipe from my mom that seems to be the classic version.

Newer recipes use more nuts, but I think one cup is plenty nutty. Sugar seems to be the most controversial ingredient. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe using superfine sugar (white sugar ground very fine), but they don't say if that produces a softer texture or not. Dorie Greenspan has a version in Baking with granulated sugar, but she seems to be a fan of crisp cookies. I will try these recipes eventually and tell you about any revelations they might bring. For now, I've got a simple, delicious cookie that is both tender and crumbly. Anna just posted a similar version here, and Jennifer made the Cook's Illustrated version with hazelnuts. More holiday goodies to come!

Pecan Balls
The recipe I used actually calls these tender little cookies Russian Tea Cakes (one of their many names), but my mom called them Pecan Balls, and I think that’s a more descriptive name anyway. You could substitute other nuts--I think walnuts or hazelnuts would work particularly well. I error on the side of under-baking these cookies because I like the centers to be a bit moist, as opposed to crumbly. A food processor comes in handy to chop the nuts, but be careful not to grind them to a powder. This recipe requires at least two hours of chilling time (for the dough, not you...hehe!).

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
Additional powdered sugar (about 1 1/2 cups) for rolling

With an electric mixer, blend the butter and 1/2 cup sugar at medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the flour and salt just until combined. Stir in the pecans. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Roll dough into one-inch balls and place on prepared baking sheets (cookies will not spread much during baking). Bake for 12-14 minutes or until bottoms are just barely golden.

Sprinkle some powdered sugar on a rimmed baking sheet or a plate. Cool cookies on baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar and place on racks to cool. When cookies are completely cool, or just before serving, roll in powdered sugar again.

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