Naked cake

DSC_3181

A naked cake with raspberries and mint to celebrate someone special’s birthday.

 

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Peppermint bark with a crunch

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I’d never heard of peppermint bark until the first Christmas I spent with the Mister’s family, and it has since become a holiday favorite.  This year I wanted to try making my own, and I scoured the internet looking for the perfect recipe.  I’m a big fan of Shutterbean and when Tracy posted a recipe for crunchy peppermint bark a few days ago, I knew I’d found the one.

These have been a hit both at home and with my colleagues;  I think the Mister ate about half the plate by dinnertime.  Fortunately they are super easy to make, so I think I may whip up another batch before Christmas.

Candy canes, white chocolate, rice crispies, dark chocolate

Candy canes, white chocolate, rice crispies, dark chocolate

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A few tips:

Tracy recommends buying “good” white chocolate.  I’ve never bought white chocolate before so I wasn’t sure whether this was for flavor or ease of use.  I get my good dark chocolate (for baking) at the local organic store, so I just bought the only white chocolate they had and it tastes good and melted well.

I took her advice and refrigerated the crispy white chocolate layer, then added a dark chocolate layer and the crushed peppermint.  This was a fantastic idea and I like the way the white and red of the crushed peppermint stands out against that dark chocolate layer.  I do think next time I’ll look for a slightly more bitter dark chocolate since the white layer is already so sweet.

I smoothed my white chocolate and rice crispy layer between two pieces of parchment paper.  This meant that the upper surface was nice and smooth by the time it had set, and much easier for me to spread a thin layer of dark chocolate over.

When crushing the candy canes, I recommend doubling up on the plastic bags.  The sharp edges of the candy tend to bust right through the baggies, and the peppermint dust will go flying.  I went through three plastic baggies altogether for this batch.

Tracy breaks her bark into jagged pieces, but I found it pretty easy to cut into neat little rectangles with a knife.

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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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Chocolate dipped coconut macaroons

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I remember the first coconut macaroon I ever had.  During a grad school break, I was visiting a friend who was interning in Washington, D.C.  While my friend was working, I was exploring the Capitol Hill neighborhood and popped in to Eastern Market for a snack.  At the time, the Market was housed in a temporary location across the street from its historic building, which was being restored after a fire the summer before.  At one of the bakery counters I bought a macaroon and a piece rugulach, neither of which I’d ever tried.  The rugulach wasn’t memorable, but the coconut was a revelation.  It was everything I’d ever wanted in a cookie.  Crispy outside, dense and chewy inside.  Mildly sweet and made from coconut, one of my favorite flavors.

Sea salt, vanilla, honey, dark chocolate, eggs, sugar, flour, shredded unsweetened coconut

Sea salt, vanilla, honey, dark chocolate, eggs, sugar, flour, shredded unsweetened coconut

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

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Since I’m working on my cookie-making skills and we had a party to attend, I thought this would be a good weekend to learn to make macaroons.  We own several David Lebovitz books, including Ready for Dessert, which contains a great macaroon recipe (a halved version of the recipe can be found on his website).  These baked like a dream, were a hit at the party, and are my favorite new cookies.  Since the batter can be made ahead and refrigerated, I’m thinking of making another batch next weekend and baking them to take to Thanksgiving with the Mister’s family.

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A few tips:

Be sure to add and mix all your ingredients in the pan or dutch oven BEFORE heating it.  If you were to heat the pan first, you’d risk cooking the egg whites prematurely.

When you are cooking the coconut mixture, you are trying to get to a consistency that is neither runny nor dry, but rather sticky and clumpy.  Right as mine started to look right, I noticed the scorching on the bottom of the pan and pulled them off the heat.

The mixture is much easier to shape into balls or pyramids once it has thoroughly cooled.  Let it sit until cool to the touch or pop the mixture into the fridge for half an hour.

Since I wanted pyramids, I found the best process was to roll tablespoons of the coconut mixture between my palms to form little balls and then set these on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Once I’d rolled out all the balls, I went back and used my fingers to shape them into pyramids.  The cleaner your hands are, the less the coconut will stick to them.  I found my fingers got too tacky after shaping about 7-8 pyramids, so I’d just give them a quick rinse and dry, then start on the next 7-8.

You can make these without the chocolate dip at the end, but it really really adds a little something special to these cookies.

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Halloween pudding with lavender, sea salt and chocolate cobwebs

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As berries and stone fruits disappear for the season, I find myself switching back and forth from cravings for apple and pear desserts, to anything with dark, dark chocolate.  I’ve been having fun trying out recipes from the new Kinfolk Table cookbook and over the weekend, I experimented with their recipe for chocolate pudding with sea salt and lavender.

The Kinfolk recipe is simple and easy, similar to many that can be found online using olive oil, vanilla, heavy cream and sea salt (here’s a Martha Stewart favorite), but with a twist.  In this case, you brew 1/4 cup of water with a mixture of lavender flowers and Earl Grey tea.  Steep for five minutes then mix it with the chopped chocolate and vanilla, before adding the boiling cream.  Check out the new Kinfolk Table for the full recipe, or try adding a little lavender tea and sea salt to your favorite pudding recipe.

Lavender, Earl Grey tea leaves, heavy cream, bittersweet dark chocolate, sea salt, vanilla

Lavender flowers, Earl Grey tea leaves, heavy cream, bittersweet dark chocolate, sea salt, vanilla

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A few tips:

A tiny bit of salt really makes chocolate pop.  I thought the Kinfolk recipe had just a bit too much, so in the future, I may cut the salt in half.  I used the best grey sea salt we have in the house.

Take a few minutes to give your chocolate a good chopping, even if you have morsels.  The smaller the pieces, the more surface area and the faster they will melt.

Since its nearly Halloween, I thought it would be fun to dress up the pudding with a little whipped cream and chocolate cobwebs.  Last week, Food52 featured a cute little tutorial for making them with melted chocolate and I had fun giving it a try.

These are very rich, and the Mister and I have been splitting a cup after dinner for the last few days.  If I serve them to guests in the future, I may layer them with berries, chopped nuts, or preserves.

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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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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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Nutella banana bread

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The mister and I have very different views on Nutella.  Unlike me, he doesn’t find a multitude of ways to sneak it into various sandwiches (peanut butter/banana/nutella, anyone?) or desserts and sometimes, when I’m oohing and aahing over some new recipe he will wrinkle his nose and remind me that it isn’t really his taste.  My colleagues, on the other hand, love Nutella, and when one of them recently decided to invite us all to an afternoon birthday party for his wife, I decided it was the perfect occasion to bake banana bread with a little something special.

Sugar, flour, butter, yogurt, eggs, banana, nutella

Sugar, flour, butter, yogurt, eggs, banana, nutella

I liked this version from Recipe Girl.  Instead of just dumping the Nutella into a cavity or slathering it on top (not terrible ideas), she has you temper it with a little of the banana bread batter, then alternate spoonfuls of the regular batter and the Nutella batter into a bread pan.  Give it a little swirl with a knife, pop in the oven for about an hour, and then you have a delicious loaf, each serving perfectly marbled with Nutella goodness.   The loaf was gobbled up pretty quickly and I enjoyed hearing a little girl and another guest politely argue about who was going to eat more of it.

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A few tips:

I followed this recipe pretty closely.  I even checked the loaf at the 45 minute and, lo and behold, the top was browning a little too quickly.  I covered it with tinfoil, just as Recipe Girl suggested, and the finished loaf came out perfectly.

If your first test with a toothpick comes out a little chocolatey, it may be because you stabbed it in a very Nutella-y area rather than that the loaf is underbaked.  Give it a couple of pokes elsewhere to be sure.

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To make this loaf a little more party friendly, I made a little flag out of a mailing label and half of a barbeque skewer and wrote Nutella Banana Bread on it.  Its a nice idea at parties to warn other guests if a dish may have unexpected ingredients like chicken stock, nuts, or mushrooms.  This way vegetarians and people with food allergies and other dietary restrictions can opt out.  Also, I’m very sorry for anyone with hazelnut allergies.  That must be tough.

Its also nice to not have to worry about keeping track of dishes and utensils you may have brought to a party, so in the case of this loaf, I wrapped it up in parchment paper as though it were a sandwich and secured it with a little bit of colorful string.  Easy to carry, festive looking, and no need to take anything back with me.

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Blueberry Plum Upside-Down Cake

Blueberries and Plums

Blueberries and Plums

Summer fruits seem to be peaking.  Peaches are heaven right now and blueberries are just about gone.  I’m wishing for another slice of this blueberry plum upside down cake.  I’m more of a savory person, than sweet tooth, so desserts that go easy on sugar are just right for me.  I believe this recipe came from Martha Stewart.

Fruit in the Springform pan, pre-batter

Fruit in the Springform pan, pre-batter

Blueberry plum upside-down cake

Blueberry plum upside-down cake

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