Tuesday, July 28, 2009


A recent post by one of my blogging friends, Caitlin, got me thinking. She was wondering about what gets people into blogging and how they find their own blogging "voice." And my friend Nancy also posted about some of her observations from her past year of blogging. As I was thinking about both of these, I realized something. Yeah, some people think it's weird that I take pictures of food that I make and write about it. And like Nancy mentioned in her post, I'm sure they also wonder about the fact that I "have to" bake things and then I give them away. But even before I started the whole blogging thing, people were sometimes amazed at the things that I made from scratch. And I get that even more now, what with making all my own bread and other things. So I'm curious--what got all of you into baking and cooking all the things that you eat?

For some people, it's because they want to know what goes into the food they eat. For some, it's just the challenge. For others, it's a way to save money. And for a lot of people, me included, it's all these things (and probably others). While it's not my primary motivation, the saving money is a nice side benefit. Sure, I'd bet I spend a lot more on groceries every week than a lot of people I know. Or do I? I like to buy quality ingredients, but maybe they're not always more expensive than ready-made food or stuff from a box. And because I cook and bake a lot, I pretty much always take leftovers for lunch. We seldom eat out, except sometimes on special occasions.

I really started thinking about the whole cost thing as I was buying the ingredients for this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe. Lynne of Cafe Lynnylu picked Vanilla Ice Cream for us to make this week. Sure, it's fun to make your own ice cream, but is it really cost-effective? Now I knew this recipe was coming, since we get the whole month's recipes at once. So I started thinking ahead about what I would need. A few weeks ago, I needed vanilla beans for another ice cream recipe. Two beans set me back $7.69. (ouch!) And that was the best price I could find locally. Knowing that I wanted to experiment more with vanilla, I knew I had to find a less expensive way to buy vanilla beans. I put out a request for ideas on Twitter, and Clara came to my rescue. She recommended The Organic Vanilla Bean Company. Much more reasonable than my local store. I ordered a sampler of 20 beans, 10 each Tahitian and Bourbon. $15 including shipping, so the cost works out to $0.75 per vanilla bean. And quick--I ordered Saturday and had them Thursday.

I don't often break it down precisely, but here's the tab for my ice cream making this weekend:

organic cream - 1 pint - $2.79
whole milk - 2 cups - $0.44
eggs - 6 - $0.95 (plus I have the whites left over, since I only used the yolks)
sugar - ~5oz - $0.14
vanilla bean - 1 - $0.75 (plus I'm using the pod to make vanilla sugar)

total - $5.07 for about 5 cups of ice cream, which works out to about $2 per pint

When you consider that you can buy a half-gallon of your average ice cream for about $5, that seems a bit high. But really, what we made would be more accurately compared to a premium brand like Ben & Jerry's or Haagen Dazs. And those run about $3 a pint. So really, not bad! And knowing exactly what goes into your ice cream and being able to customize it if you want is definitely priceless. =)

As for the actual making of the ice cream, I did tweak things slightly. I decided to try one of the Tahitian vanilla beans, since I don't think I'd tried one before. After splitting the vanilla bean and scraping out the seeds, I added the seeds to the sugar called for in the recipe. I rubbed them into the sugar so they would be more evenly dispersed. (Thanks to Wendy for the idea!) I put the bean itself into the cream and milk and heated the mixture in a double boiler. Meanwhile, I whisked my newly made vanilla sugar into the egg yolks. When the cream mixture was hot, I tempered it into the yolk mixture, then returned the whole thing to the double boiler. I also added a pinch of kosher salt. I heated the custard to about 175 degrees F, at which point it coated the back of a spoon. I let the mixture cool off somewhat, then put it into a container to chill in the fridge overnight. I actually left the vanilla bean in the custard the whole time. The next morning, I removed the vanilla bean and poured the custard into my ice cream maker to churn. It yielded a bit more than the quart that the recipe says (about 5 cups). I rinsed off the vanilla bean, let it dry overnight, and added it to my container of vanilla sugar (which will now be a mix of Tahitian and Bourbon).

The verdict? Wow. I love the flavor of the Tahitian vanilla. The Bourbon variety is what I'm used to, and I like it, but this was really good. I can see why the Tahitian ones are described as being more floral. Absolutely delicious. All my taste-testers seemed to agree. Brianna and Gillian enjoyed eating their ice cream in their "animal bowls." Awhile back I found a couple of really cute bowls at Sur la Table. I think they're intended to be rice bowls, but they were really cute and I couldn't pass them up. As soon as I saw the monkey one, I knew I had to buy it for Gillian (who loves all things monkey). I also have a pink bunny one for Brianna. They make great dessert bowls.

For this week's recipe, head over to Lynne's blog. And be sure to check out the Tuesdays with Dorie blogroll--I'm sure there are lots of great variations on this week's recipe.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

There's always room for Blanc-Manger

I'm not entirely sure why, but I've been rather apathetic about baking and blogging lately. I still haven't managed to make last week's TWD recipe. And it's not because I didn't want to. I just seem overwhelmed with other stuff right now. And yet I feel like I'm not getting anything done at all. I think the heat isn't helping. It's been miserably hot, with way too many 100+ days so far this year. Yes, we spend a lot of our time in air-conditioned places, including our house, but it's still draining when we are outside. Everyone has been in a bad mood at least some of the time. Case in point--I just had to stop writing to go break up a dispute between Brianna and Gillian over who would get to sit in a particular chair in the living room. Both of them have been getting way too upset over little things, and I'm really not doing any better. *sigh*

So thank goodness this week's Tuesday with Dorie recipe was easy to make. Susan of Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy picked Raspberry Blanc-Manger for us this week. I've actually heard of Blanc-Manger before, in something or other that I've read, but I had no idea what it was. Turns out that it's a creamy gelatin dessert with fruit in it. We ate jello quite a bit for dessert when I was a kid. It was traditional on Christmas Eve. My mom had a mold that had options for different shapes, and one was a Christmas tree. She would use green or red jello mix and ice cream to make a creamy dessert. But once I left home for college, I seldom ate jello.

When I read the recipe for this week, I wasn't sure if I wanted to make it or not. But I didn't want to miss another week. And I was assured by several people on Twitter that it was an easy recipe. So I decided to make half the recipe. I didn't have raspberries (none looked good at the store), but I did have some strawberries, and I figured that would be a safe substitution. I even remember to buy some new unflavored gelatin. I had some, but had no idea how old it was. I don't know that it really goes bad (hard to tell, since it always smells pretty nasty), but I figured it couldn't hurt to replace it, since I was sure it was more than a few years old.

I learned at least one thing this week. It's not necessarily a good idea to try to multitask when making desserts involving gelatin. In the recipe, you're supposed to whip the cream first, then store it in the fridge while working on the gelatin mixture. I didn't have much time, since I was trying to get the blanc manger made before I left for work on Monday morning. I knew that the gelatin mixture would need to cool for a bit, so I figured I could whip the cream while I was waiting. Good idea in theory... Of course, it took longer than I thought it would to whip the cream. And even though I checked on the gelatin a couple times, it still suddenly started to firm up before I was ready. Fortunately, I caught it before it got too set, and I was able to whisk it smooth. I then whisked in about a third of the whipped cream to loosen the mixture a bit. Then I folded in the rest of the whipped cream and the strawberries. I quickly poured it into my 6" pan, covered the pan with plastic wrap, and popped it in the fridge to set while I was at work.

I had no problem unmolding the blanc-manger. I put the bottom of the pan in a bowl of hot water for less than a minute, then flipped it over onto a plate. Perfect. Brianna and Gillian were eagerly waiting to try it, so no garnishing or anything.

The verdict? I was kind of surprised that Brianna and Gillian both liked it a lot. Gillian asked me several times if she could have more "jello." Jamie's comment on it was "weird." I kind of have to agree. I wasn't thrilled with the texture from the almonds. The strawberry and cream combination was quite tasty though. I realized after I tasted mine that I had forgotten to add the vanilla. I used vanilla sugar, though, so there was a little bit of vanilla flavor.

I'd like to give this one another try, but do something about the almonds. Maybe strain them out after steeping them in the milk/sugar mixture. Or try processing them with the sugar beforehand to get a finer texture. I'd also like to try Dorie's suggestion of putting the blanc-manger on a base of cake. All in all, not my favorite, but worth trying again. If nothing else, making this reminded me that that there are lots of things I can do with gelatin that are very different from Jello, since I control what ingredients I use. And Brianna and Gillian were so excited when I told them I had made something like Jello, so I'm going to have to experiment.

Thanks to Susan for a great pick this week. It's definitely something I wouldn't have tried on my own, and it's a great summer recipe. Be sure to head over to her blog for the full recipe. And check out the Tuesdays with Dorie page to see what everyone else did this week.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Now that's Italian

Like most parents of young children, my life is definitely not the same as it used to be. I don't have nearly as much time as I would like to pursue my own interests. Fortunately, one of the things I enjoy doing is cooking and baking. And since we all still need to eat, I get to do a lot of both. That's not to say that we don't get into food ruts, because we definitely do. Especially since Brianna likes to complain about most of what I make (she's at that age...). But I still get to do some of what I love, and the baking has even evolved into this neat hobby of blogging.

I know Jamie doesn't get to do some of the things that he would like to, either. One thing that interests him a lot is genealogy. Back before we were married and had kids, he would often spend part of weekends staring at microfilm, trying to decipher old Italian handwriting. Not to mention the Italian words themselves... That's because his family is Italian. Some northern, some southern. When we first moved to the Austin area, he discovered that there was a local chapter of a national group known as POINT. Basically, it's a bunch of people researching their Italian heritage. They have monthly meetings to share ideas and discuss progress on filling in their family trees. Unfortunately, we don't make it to a lot of the meetings these days, since they're usually during the week. But we do still make it to potlucks periodically. Yes, lucky for me, even though I don't have a drop of Italian blood, they let me hang out and eat their food. =)

I enjoy coming up with things to bring to the potlucks, both sweet and savory dishes. Jamie has even been know to look through Italian cooking magazines and cookbooks to come up with his own contributions. We always bring at least one dish, and often more than one. Which (finally) brings me to the latest recipe that I've made for the BBA Challenge--Casatiello. What a nice Italian name. =) I think I've found my next potluck contribution!

In the book, Peter Reinhart describes this bread as "a rich, dreamy Italian elaboration of brioche." It's a relatively lean version of brioche (six ounces of butter and only two eggs), but with the added bonus of cheese and meat, usually salami. Even better, it's pretty quick to make, for brioche. You make a quick sponge with a hefty tablespoon of instant yeast. The dough itself comes together quickly, and you knead in the salami and cheese. The dough then rises for a few hours, not needing a long refrigerated fermentation. There are various shaping options (panettone molds are commonly used), a bit of baking time, and before you know it you're eating a meal in a piece of bread.

I've made casatiello twice so far, and I definitely see myself making it many times in the future. For the first version, I used buttermilk for the liquid, since I had some that I needed to use up. I used about 4 ounces of salami that I cut into small cubes and sauteed. For the cheese, I chose gouda, cut into small cubes as well (between 1/4" and 1/2"). I found some cute little mini panettone wrappers at Sur la Table, and couldn't resist buying some. On that same trip, I also managed to come home with three adorable little loaf pans. So I ended up making eight 3-ounce mini panettones and three 6-ounce small loaves, baking the rounds for about 20 minutes and the loaves for 5 minutes longer. (I checked doneness by temperature.)

The verdict? Good, but not my favorite. Jamie, the girls and I split one of the loaves. The bread itself was quite tasty, but I didn't like the salami in it. That may well have been because I used a brand of salami that I hadn't tried before. I'd like to try it again with a salami that I know I really like. The cheese was good, though. I took the 3-ounce minis to Gillian's daycare, where they quickly disappeared, and the other two small loaves are still in my freezer.

So I mentioned that I've made casatiello twice. I'm friends with one of the teachers at the daycare and often bring her samples of things that I've baked. But she doesn't eat pork, so she didn't sample any of the casatiello when I brought it in. I started trying to come up with a version that she would enjoy. It occurred to me that sun-dried tomatoes might be a really good addition. For the cheese, I decided on a combination of asiago and mozzarella.

I figured that there was plenty of fat in the dough already, so I bought sun-dried tomatoes that weren't packed in oil. I ended up with a 3.5 ounce package. I cut the tomatoes into small pieces with my kitchen shears. I put the pieces in a bowl and covered them with boiling water to plump them up. I let them sit for about 10 minutes, then drained off the water and patted them dry. I used about 1.5 ounces of asiago that I grated and 4 ounces of whole-milk mozzarella (block, not fresh) cut into small cubes. For this version I also used milk in the sponge (no more buttermilk in the fridge). Things got interesting when I kneaded the sun-dried tomatoes into the dough--it turned a swirly orange color. =) I didn't have a chance to get more panettone wrappers, so I used my muffin tin instead, making twelve 2-ounce rolls. The remaining 18 ounces of dough got turned into a loaf (8.5" x 4.5"). The rolls baked for about 20 minutes and the loaf for about 30 minutes.

The verdict? Wow. I am definitely making this version again. It was fabulous. I'll probably add a bit more of the asiago next time, to make that flavor stand out more. But everyone who tried it loved it. Brianna said it tasted like pizza bread, which made me think that next time I should add a bit of oregano as well. Amazingly, I still have part of the loaf in my freezer; I want to try it toasted but haven't gotten around to it yet.

Be sure to check out the BBA Challenge blogroll to see what everyone else has done with this recipe. It's definitely a fun one to play around with. Next up, Challah. BTW, I've officially joined the Slow & Steady sub-group of the BBA Challenge. So head over to Nancy's blog later this week for a round-up from some of the bakers who are taking a more leisurely approach to this challenge. Also, I'm submitting my sun-dried tomato version to YeastSpotting, hosted this week by imafoodblog.

Oh, and if you're looking for my TWD post, it'll be delayed a bit, since I haven't even made my brioche tart yet. Check back later, probably this weekend, for that one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Celebrate with brownies

I love chocolate. And I love chocolate desserts. But oddly enough, I'm not really a fan of chocolate cake. Way too often it's kind of dry and just not that chocolatey. Of chocolate desserts (and maybe all desserts) my favorite is brownies. Intensely chocolatey, moist & fudgy brownies. Maybe with nuts, but more often not. Maybe with chocolate chips or chunks added. Or peanut butter chips. Mmm.

Like chocolate cake, there are different style of brownies. They vary in texture and chocolate intensity. It's taken me a while, but I think I've narrowed down the sort of recipe that makes the kind of brownies I like best. I haven't made this a formal search (like my blogging friend Megan) or done double-blind taste tests (like my friend Nancy). I like brownies made with chocolate instead of (or in addition to) cocoa powder. And I like the results from recipes that just stir in the sugar and eggs (as opposed to whipping them together then adding the chocolate to them). I'm sure there are other things that contribute to my favorite type of brownie, but those are the ones that stick out.

My favorite brownie recipe right now is the Fudgy Brownies from The Essence of Chocolate, but there are others that I like as well (from Bittersweet and The Art & Soul of Baking). But I'm always happy to try a new recipe. That brings us to this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe. The choice this week is from Lisa of Surviving Oz. Lisa is not a regular member of TWD. But she's the person responsible for designed our fantastic new logo (check it out on my sidebar!). So she got to pick this week's recipe, Tribute to Katharine Hepburn Brownies. Dorie must really like brownies--there are a dozen different recipes in BFMHTY. I know, because I looked at them all while trying to settle on my TWD pick last year. To date, I've only made three of them, so I was looking forward to trying a fourth.

The significant thing about this week's recipe is that it doesn't include very much flour--only 1/4 cup for an 8" square pan. And Dorie added a bit of cinnamon and some instant coffee to change the flavors up a little. I don't like cinnamon with my chocolate, so I left it out. And I don't have instant coffee, either, but I do have instant espresso powder, so I used that (1 teapsoon). The recipe calls for cocoa powder (I used Scharffen Berger), rather than chocolate in the batter. But some chopped chocolate gets stirred in at the end--I used a 100g bar of 67% chocolate from my extensive stash (thanks to my wonderful husband who buys me chocolate for all occasions). And the recipe calls for a cup of nuts. I don't usually like nuts in my brownies, but I decided to go ahead and put them in this time. I used pecans, since that's what I had in the freezer (plus I like them better than walnuts).

The only 8" square pans I have are Pyrex, so that's what I used. Rather than lining the pan with parchment, I used non-stick foil. I love that stuff for making brownies. I ended up baking the brownies for about 35 minutes. I made them on Saturday (the 4th) for a party/potluck that we were going to that evening. I wasn't thinking, and I tried to cut them before they were really cool enough. The chocolate chunks were still quite melty. So I stuck them in the fridge, hoping that they'd firm up before we had to leave.

The verdict? There were lots of other desserts to choose from at the party, but almost all of the brownies disappeared very quickly, so I guess they were a hit! I made some blondies as well, and they all got eaten as well. Jamie didn't try the brownies, since he wasn't sure if his throat was up to dealing with the nuts in them. I did get a small piece to sample. They were very chocolatey, but softer in texture than my favorite. The pecans were a good addition. I doubt this recipe will go into my regular rotation, but I did enjoy them.

Want to give them a try for yourself? Head over to Lisa's blog for the recipe. Be sure to check out the Tuesdays with Dorie blogroll to see what everyone else thought of this week's selection. And here's a picture of the girls, since I haven't shared any in a while... =)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fun with brioche

I've mentioned before that we're very fond of breakfast in this house. In fact, I just realized that "breakfast" is one of the biggest categories of posts on my blog (surpassed only by chocolate). You hear all the time about how many people skip breakfast. I have no idea how or why they would do that. =) Growing up, breakfast during the week was simple. Cold cereal, a lot of the time. One of my earliest cooking memories was my mom teaching me how to make oatmeal (real oatmeal, cooked on the stovetop) for my sisters. I wasn't making it for myself, mind you, since I hate oatmeal. She would measure out the ingredients the night before (ooh, mise en place, long before I had any idea what that meant) so all I had to do was put them in the pot at the right time. I was probably about 10 0r 11 at the time.

More involved cooked "breakfasts" were reserved for dinner time, or Sunday mornings, especially at Gramma & Grampa's house. On those weekends when we went to visit my grandparents, we knew that we had good stuff to look forward to after church. Eggs, bacon, leftover potatoes cut up and fried in the bacon fat, bagels or English muffins... And coffeecake. We all loved the coffeecake part of breakfast. =) Sometimes homemade, but often Entenmann's. My favorite store-bought ones were the classic crumb cake, and the raspberry danish/coffeecake. I've got some really good recipes now for homemade crumb cake, like this one. And thanks to the Daring Bakers, I've even made my own danish. And let me tell you, that danish was fabulous. But it's rather time consuming to make danish dough, so it's not something I can do all the time.

Which brings us to the next bread I made for the BBA Challenge--brioche. I wasn't too concerned about this one. Thanks to Tuesdays with Dorie, I've made brioche dough a couple times before, for raisin snails and sticky buns. Both times I used the other half of the dough to make rolls or bread. Plain brioche just doesn't appeal to me that much--too rich for something that will be eaten on the side. But I liked the pastry-ish applications, a lot. So I was pretty sure that I wanted to use my BBA brioche for making a yummy breakfast pastry.

The Bread Baker's Apprentice has three different versions of brioche--rich man's, middle-class, and poor man's. They vary in the amount of butter and eggs that are worked into the dough. For what I was looking to do, I figured the middle-class version would be a safe bet. The full recipe uses a cup of butter. And it seemed like a good opportunity to use some of my eggs from the farmer's market. I've only made brioche dough in my standing mixer, and that works just fine for me. I made sure the butter and eggs were at room temperature before I started, and I didn't have any trouble at all mixing up the dough. It just takes a while to come together. Once the dough was made, I stuck it in my 4-quart bucket and tucked it into the fridge to rise overnight. Plus, such a rich dough is much easier to work with when it's very cold.

I had looked through various books in my cookbook collection trying to figure out what to do with the brioche dough. I ended up taking ideas from a couple different ones. The main idea came from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. In the brioche section, there's a recipe for a Brioche Coffeecake, in the style of what my mom used to call a "tea ring." You roll out the dough, spread filling over it, and roll it up, kind of like you're making cinnamon rolls. Then you form the log of dough into a ring, joining the ends together. You cut the dough at 1 1/2" intervals, and twist the sections so the cut edges are facing up. The whole thing ends up looking kind of like a flower. For the filling, I went with a simple Cream Cheese Filling from The Art and Soul of Baking. I spread it over the rolled out dough, and then spread a layer of raspberry fruit butter on top of it. Once the coffeecake was formed, I let it rise at room temperature until puffy. I baked it for 10 minutes at 400 degrees F, then turned the temperature down to 350 and baked it 20 minutes more. While it was still warm, I drizzled the pastry with a glaze of powdered sugar mixed with a bit of milk.

The verdict? I'm really happy with the way the coffeecake turned out. The flavors were just what I was looking for. While not quite the same as Danish dough, the result was a buttery crumb with a flaky exterior. Gillian was a big fan (as usual), and Brianna ate some as well, though she wasn't quite as enthusiastic. I probably ate the majority of it, though I did take some to work. I'm sure my memories of the Entenmann's raspberry danish are much better than the reality (I haven't had it in years). But I won't soon forget how good this coffeecake is, and I'll be making it again, sooner rather than later.

With the other half of my batch of brioche dough, I tried to make something like a cross between the raisin snails and cinnamon rolls. But it didn't work out quite right; I'll tell more about it if I can get it to turn out better next time. Meanwhile, be sure to check out what the other BBA Challenge bakers have been up to by checking out the blogroll. Many of the bakers are quite a bit farther along than I am. Next up, Casatiello, a brioche-relative with some interesting add-ins. I've got a couple variations to share. Also, I'm submitting my pretty coffeecake to YeastSpotting.