Peppermint bark time!

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I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but over the last few years I fallen in love with peppermint bark as a holiday treat.  The simplicity of the ingredients let’s me focus on using really good quality chocolate which is great for flavor and keeps the sweetness factor in check.  However, I’ve found that the real magic is adding rice krispies to the white chocolate layer.  It creates a subtle crunch that gives this holiday treat a special something, and everyone who tries them always remarks about how much they love the crunch.  We have multiple family holiday gatherings next week and I’m planning to make a few batches to share.

Here is a link to the original recipe over at Shutterbean and here is the more in depth write-up I did about peppermint bark last year.

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Just to remind you, I love you so

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Lately, we’ve both been stressed with work and school, and gloomy from the weather.  I may have to work late on Friday, so who knows if we’ll even get to do something romantic on that day.  But that’s ok.  I’m happy even with a couple of quiet hours at home, as long as we’re together.

Sometimes I think, in our home, we most often we say I love you with gifts of food.  So I whipped up these pink, heart-shaped reminders that I love you so, not just on Valentines, but everyday.  ❤ ❤ ❤

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Peppermint star sugar cookies

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Sunday was quiet and snowy, perfect weather for staying warm inside, drinking lots of tea, and wearing pajamas for most of the day.  It was also a perfect day for baking holiday cookies.

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I’ve been working on my cookie-making skills this year, and have been looking for a perfect sugar cookie recipe.  For these star-shaped cookies I used a simple Martha Stewart sugar cookie recipe, dividing it in half to make a slightly smaller batch.

I wanted to try something a little different for the frosting and thought it would be fun to drizzle them with lines of red icing.  The red frosting made me think of candy canes so I added a tsp of peppermint extract to the icing. This turned out to be a great idea, and everyone exclaimed that the icing was both pretty and tasty.

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My approach to icing making was a little less than scientific. I dumped about 1.5 cups of powdered sugar in a bowl, flavored it with 1 tsp of peppermint extract, then whisked in a tsp of water at a time until the icing had reached my desired level of drizzliness.  It took about 15 drops of red food coloring to get the right color of red, and once I’d whisked it in well, I used a long tea spoon to drizzle thin streams of icing over the cookies.

Overall these cookies came out fine, neither crumbly or rock hard; subtly sweet but a little on the crunchy side.  This pleased my colleagues, who got to eat most of them, but personally I’d like to find a recipe for a slightly chewier cookie.  Do you have a go-to sugar cookie recipe for the holidays?

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Caramel cider apple pie

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It’s taken a couple of tries, but I finally got got the caramel apple pie to come out perfectly and just in time for Thanksgiving.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I first saw this recipe on Cup of Jo over the summer and set it aside for apple season.

I found the recipe to be very inspiring, but a tiny bit sloppy.  There were details missing that I found frustrating, particularly with the cider caramel, so I took the liberty of making a few changes, which I’ve outlined below.

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A few tips and what I changed:

Given that the original recipe’s crust is from Martha Stewart, it’s probably perfect good to use.  I however, have a lot of faith and experience with Mark Bittman’s flaky pie crust and made two of those for this pie.  Bittman’s recipe is easy, always flaky, and has never gotten soggy on me.

Getting the caramel right took a few tries.  What ended up working for me was to keep the cider at a steady medium boil, and actually measure the liquid to see how far it reduced.  Once it was down to about a cup, it was noticeably thicker, but not as thick as I expect caramel to be.  If I cooked it much longer it burned, so at the one cup mark, I put it in a mason jar and stuck it in the fridge.  That finally did the trick.

I like the apple pie filling to be perfectly soft and have no sort of undercooked bite to the apple texture.  Once I’d cut up the apples, I sauteed them in skillet until they softened.  The additional benefit of pre-cooking your apples is that it removes some of the juice and the pie will be less likely to be watery (the pie in the original recipe photos looks very liquidy.) This takes about 10 minutes in my Le Creuset, and about 20 in a regular kitchen skillet.  I let them cool in the skillet for about 10 minutes, then mix the other filling ingredients directly into the apples in the skillet.  Mix well, then transfer to your prepared pie crust.

Lately I’ve been wanting to improve my pie crust making skills, so I’ve been toying with these dough circles I saw on Food 52.  I found that it was important to keep the dough thin and cold, so I rolled the extra crust out on a piece of parchment paper, then transferred the paper and dough onto a sheet pan and refrigerated them for about 15 minutes.  When I was ready to assemble the top crust, I pulled the sheet pan out of the fridge and cut the dough circles with a shot glass. I got the best result by arranging the dough cut-outs in concentric circles over the apple pie filling, then arranging another set of circles along the edge of the crust.

Given that I used dough circles instead of a regular top crust, I found the browning on the pie crust to be more even if I brushed it with a little milk, rather than egg.  Don’t forget to sprinkle the crust with cinnamon and sugar before popping the pie in the oven.

Lastly, as with most pies, it is very important to let the pie cool completely before serving.  This will help the filling set and not ooze out of your cut pie, as well as help prevent your bottom crust from getting soggy.

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Practice makes perfect pie crusts

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What I love the most about baking is the precision of the process.  How important it is to measure, to have the right ingredients, to know the temperature of the food or the oven, to understand what happens when you emulsify certain combinations of ingredients.  I always feel a little like a scientist in a lab when I’m baking.  Every new recipe is like an experiment, and it fun to try again if something fails, because I know, with practice, I can likely fix it.

For Thanksgiving next week, I’m in charge of the apple pie.  I’ve been working with this recipe I spotted on Cup of Jo over the summer, making just a few adjustments to suit my taste.  I nailed the bottom crust, the filling, even the apple cider caramel reduction.  A beautiful top crust, however, eludes me.  This one worked, but I couldn’t help but immediately start calculating how to improve it.  I want a thicker ruffled edge and thinner disks that cut more evenly and didn’t shrink away from the edge.

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The taste was amazing and we’ve enjoyed it for breakfast over the last few days–I like pie for breakfast more than dessert–but I really want to nail down a beautiful crust.  We have a friendsgiving to attend this weekend, so I have another opportunity to practice before the real deal, next week.  I’ll probably revisit this topic in a few days after I’ve had another go at it, and to talk a bit more about how I changed the crust recipe and the filling.  Until then, here’s to practice makes perfect.

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As cookie season draws near

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This year we aren’t straying too far from home for the holidays.  We’ll probably make a quick trip to see family for Thanksgiving and will be in town for Christmas and New Years.  Last year was the first time we had Christmas at home and the Mister’s parents came down to spend it with us.  It was fun to have a first go at creating our own traditions and decide how we wanted to decorate, eat, and celebrate.

When baking, I usually gravitate towards everyday cakes, but this year I’d like to work on my cookie-making skills, both in baking and decorating.  To get in the swing of things, I baked up a batch of Deb’s delicious toasted coconut shortbread cookies and used them to practice tempering chocolate.

I got these adorable little maple leaf and acorn cookie cutters and gave them a try.  Admittedly, they weren’t the best for this kind of cookie, but I’m not quite ready for sugar cookies and royal icing yet.  The tempering seemed to work pretty well, but I think I can do better and neither the Mister, nor my work colleagues seem to mind eating all my test batches.  Hope you have a great weekend!

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Coconut.chocolate.cookies.4

Braided apple pastry

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Some weekends are too lazy for recipes.   Coffee, naps, and cuddling are oh so tempting as the days get chillier.  These are the times when its handy to have a few puff pastry sheets tucked away in your freezer.  Its so easy to make puff pastry beautiful, and it can be filled with just about anything, savory or sweet.

Apples, cinnamon, puff pastry, brown sugar, butter, egg

Apples, cinnamon, puff pastry, brown sugar, butter, egg

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This pastry was something I threw together with what I had on hand.  Apart from the instructions for cutting the pastry, for which I’ve included a video link below, I didn’t really follow any recipe.  I think this would work well with pears, and next time, I plan to make a little caramel to drizzle over the apples before braiding up the pastry and sticking it in the oven.  Here’s an approximation of what I threw together:

  • 1 sheet puff pastry
  • 2 large apples, peeled and cut into 1/4 in slices
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg white
  • flour for rolling out the puff pastry

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Dividing the apple slices into three batches, sauteing them over medium-low heat in a tablespoon of butter, until soft and golden brown, about 5 minutes.  Stir occasionally and add a little extra butter if needed; don’t let them burn.  When apples are golden brown, sprinkle them with a teaspoon of brown sugar and cook for another minute, stirring frequently so that the sugar coats all apple slices from all sides.  Remove from heat and set aside.

Once your puff pastry has defrosted, follow the instructions in the video posted below to roll out and cut your puff pastry.  Add the cooked apples to the center of the dough, sprinkle with1 tbsp brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1 tbsp butter cut into four small cubes and even distributed over the apples.  Braid pastry, brush with egg white, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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Braided.Apple.Tart.6

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Rainy day plum cake

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My mother came to visit for a few rainy and chilly days.  Most years we see each other only two or three times, usually in the hustle and bustle of holidays or family celebrations, when there is little time for unhurried cooking or conversation.  We brewed large amounts of coffee and watched favorite old movies.  When the rain died down to a drizzle we went for strolls and browsed in little shops for vintage jewelry.  Mostly though, we spent hours cooking and baking.

This plum cake pops up in my blog feed from time to time, a classic recipe from the New York Times that bakers love to revisit.  Over a few days I saw it pop up on Food52 and Smitten Kitchen, so when my mother and I saw these dark purple plums at the farmer’s market, I knew exactly what we were going to be making.

Lemon, plums, salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, butter

Lemon, plums, salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, butter

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Here is a summary of the recipe from the various places I have seen it.  Everything is generally the same recipe to recipe, except that some recipes use 3/4 c of sugar for the batter and some use a full cup.  We used the full cup.

Plum cake originally published in the New York Times and adapted by a dozen blogs I read:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 
Pinch salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) butter
, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 10-12 plums
, pitted and cut in half
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp extra sugar for topping

Pre-heat oven to 350°F.  Butter a 9-in springform pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.  In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

Using an electric mixer and a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until creamy and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each one, then add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Spoon batter into springform pan, using a spatula to smooth it evenly around the pan.  Set plums on batter, skin side up, so that most of the batter is covered with plums.  Drizzle with lemon juice, then sprinkle with cinnamon and remaining sugar.

Bake 45-50 minutes, until tester comes out clean and top is golden.  Let cool for at least 15 minutes in pan.  Use a butter knife to make sure cake sides are separated from pan edge, then remove pan side and slide cake onto a plate.  Goes equally well with coffee or ice cream.

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A few tips:

Combine extra sugar and cinnamon in a bowl first, then sprinkle over batter and plums.  This is just a tad easier.

There may seem like a low amount of batter to a high amount of fruit.  Don’t worry, this will take care of itself.

Cut and pit the prunes before you start the rest of the recipe.  Depending on how ripe your prunes are, this make take a little longer than you anticipate and its nice to have them ready to go once you’ve made the batter.

I’ve seen recipes with and without the lemon juice.  We happened to have a lemon lying around and used it.  I didn’t notice it much on the day of baking, but the flavor really came through on day two, so if you have a lemon, go for it.

Deb recommends saving the cake for day two.  While she is right that the plum juices make the cake more moist and custard-y, the plums themselves are not as gooey and jam-like as they are on the first day.  Cake full of jam-like plums is indescribably delicious, so definitely enjoy at least some of the cake on day one.

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Dark chocolate cake

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My mother has been visiting and we decided to have half a dozen friends over for a little dinner party.  It had been raining for days, and the damp and chill gave us the perfect excuse to make the first squash soup of the season.  After so much summer traveling, it felt good to gather our dear ones around the table and warm our bones with baked brie, bowls of hot soup and far too much wine.

To round out the meal, I made my favorite dark chocolate cake.  Its a simple thing that improves with time, the perfect dessert to make-ahead when you are busy putting together dinner for a group.  Easy on the sugar and heavy on the chocolate, the cake is very dense.  It cuts well into small servings for a large group, and is just perfect its own, or can be dressed up with a little powdered sugar and served with fresh fruit as shown here.

Eggs, sugar, flour, sea salt, raspberries, dark chocolate, butter

Eggs, sugar, flour, sea salt, raspberries, dark chocolate, butter

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Gateau Therese in The Sweet Life in Paris.

  • 9 oz bittersweet chocolate (roughly 2.5 bars) broken into squares
  • 8 tbsp butter (1 stick)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temp, separate whites and yolks into separate bowls
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the sides of a 9′ inch spring-form pan. Trace bottom onto a piece of parchment paper and cut out circle. Place circle on bottom of spring-form pan; use a little dab of butter to hold down the corners, if needed.

Use a double boiler to completely melt the chocolate and butter.  I improvise a double boiler by filling a sauce pan with an inch of water, setting a stainless steel steamer basket in the pan.  Bring the water to a light boil.  Put the chocolate and butter in a glass dish and set the dish in the steamer basket.

Remove the chocolate and butter mixture from the heat.  First stir in half the sugar, then the egg yolks, then the flour.

Use a mixer to whip the egg whites with the salt until they form soft, droopy peaks.  Add the other half of the sugar and whisk until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.

Add 1/3 of the egg white mixture to the melted chocolate/butter mixture and use a spatula to lightly fold them together.  Then add the remaining egg whites and fold gently until there are no more white streaks.  Be careful not to overmix.

Transfer batter into the spring-form pan, using the spatula to even out the batter and smooth the top.  Bake for 25 minutes.  Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Improvised double-boiler

Improvised double-boiler

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A few tips:

I love this cake because it is very chocolatey without being too sweet.  The chocolate content is high in proportion to the rest of the ingredients, so the better quality chocolate you use, the better the cake.

Before firing up the double boiler, break the chocolate into small squares and cut the stick of butter into half tablespoon chunks.  This will create more surface area and allow them to melt a little more quickly.

The original recipe calls for baking in a loaf pan.  I’ve made that recipe a number of times and it works well.  The only difference is to extend the baking time to 35 minutes.

If you possibly can, cover the cake and leave out overnight.  Its even better on day two.

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Pear tart

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Tart with caramelized pear

Everyone spends all of autumn talking about apples, but right now, pears and I are having a moment.  Earlier this week I made caramelized pears.  Amazing.  With gelato.  More amazing.  I had a few of those caramelized pears left over and thought I might try using them instead of apples in a simple tart.

Puff pastry, pear, sea salt, butter, sugar

Puff pastry, pear, sea salt, butter, sugar

I’ve made Deb’s apple mosaic tart before (with apples), and its lovely, easy and tasty, so I started with that.  I cut the puff pastry, sugar and butter for baking down by about a quarter since I had eaten quite a few of the pears I had made earlier and didn’t think I’d have enough to make a full sheet.

Even still I wound up with a little extra space in the middle of the tart, but this was no problem.  When I first made baked brie, I figured out how to use puff pastry to make leaves and rosettes.  I made a few rosettes from the trimmings of the puff pastry, set them in the extra space, and gave them a brushing of the drippings I got when I caramelized the pears.

If its possible, I think this turned out better than the original recipe.  I often find that raw apples in tarts and pies don’t cook all the way through.  The apples are tougher than the crust and will fall off because they are too solid, or when you take a bite you’ll come a way with most of the filling and leave behind empty crust.  Here, since the pears have already been softened in the oven, the structure comes from the puff pastry.  Every bite is soft and perfect.  This tart tasted the way I always imagine tarts will taste when I look at the beautiful pictures in recipe books.

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Making caramel topping

Making caramel topping

A few tips:

I think it’s a good idea to check on your tart a few times while it’s baking.  Puff pastry can be unforgiving when it burns, and mine started to brown a little sooner than I wanted, at about 20 minutes or so.  The upside of having the pears pre-cooked was that it didn’t harm the tart at all to take it out a few minutes earlier than called for by the original recipe.

To make rosettes, stretch out a thin slice of puff pastry so its about the size of your palm and has a slight arc.  Starting with the lower corner of the arc, pinch one end together, then roll inward, lightly pinching and pressing the inner edge to the bottom of the flower.  Set lightly on the puff pastry and brush with pear drippings or an egg white, so that they won’t burn.  You could also use a butter knife to cut out little almond shapes.  Press lightly down the middle with the knife edge to make the leaf vein, pinch gently along that seam, and voilà, leaves!  Maybe I’ll make baked brie soon and take pictures to give a better example

Cut a long, slightly curved piece of puff pastry

Cut a long, slightly curved piece of puff pastry

Pinch one end together and gently roll inward to create a florette

Pinch one end together and gently roll inward to create a florette

Puff pastry florette

Puff pastry florette

This tart can be made in the afternoon and set aside to be enjoyed after dinner, but honestly, it will never taste quite as magical as it does fresh out of the oven.  Afternoon dessert is underrated.

Fresh sliced pears are also a great idea, and now I’m wondering how apples would do with the caramelization process that went into these pears.  If anyone tries, let me know.

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Rosemary olive oil cake

Garnished with a little powdered sugar and chopped pistachios

Garnished with a little powdered sugar and chopped pistachios

A few years ago I lived in a large, beautiful group house with several wonderful housemates.  We had an incredible kitchen in which we spent all our time, laughing and cooking and sharing food.  There were a number of cookbooks left in the kitchen by the landlords, journalists who traveled most of the time, and one of the roommates became obsessed with a recipe she found for rosemary remembrance cake.  She spent months thinking and talking about that recipe, and though she was an excellent cook, put off making it until just before she moved away to the other coast.

Flour, pistachios, lemon, eggs, rosemary, yogurt, olive oil

Flour, pistachios, lemon, eggs, rosemary, yogurt, olive oil

When she finally decided to make the cake, for her going away dinner if I remember correctly, we realized we didn’t have any rosemary.  Our house was next to a co-op with an amazing garden.  They had a the largest rosemary bush I have ever seen and the neighbors had told us to help ourselves if we ever needed any.  My roommate relieved the giant bush of one long branch of rosemary and this was baked right down the center of the cake.  It was so beautiful we even did a little photo shoot with it on our front porch.

It’s been about five years since she made that cake, and though I can’t recall the name of the cookbook in our old house, I’d done a little research online to try to find something similar.  The original cake was baked in a loaf pan, but I wanted to bake a round cake, and ended up choosing this recipe from Cayuga St. Kitchen.

In general, I’m more of a savory person who enjoys sweets in small quantities, so this warm, aromatic cake is right up my alley, and was the perfect accompaniment to morning coffees and afternoon tea.

Rosemary branches baked on to the cake top

Rosemary branches baked on to the cake top

A few tips:

While I did follow the recipe in adding two tablespoons of fresh minced rosemary to the cake, I saw a number of other recipes with branches of rosemary baked into the top, so I felt safe amending this one.  I selected three 5-in branches of new growth from my rosemary plant, choosing the new growth so that the branches would be flexible enough for me to shape them a bit and arrange the rosemary in a circle around the cake.  Fresh rosemary should have lots of natural oils that will be released while baking, so the leaves will dry out, rather than burn, as it bakes.

I felt that the cake might have benefited from a little more lemon zest.  Next time I make it, I might try zesting another half or whole lemon.

The powdered sugar and chopped nuts topping suggested in the recipe were a nice addition to the cake I remember.  Raspberries or fresh sliced pears would also pair nicely when serving.

The original rosemary cake

The original rosemary cake

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