Saturday, February 28, 2009

Daring to wait 'til the last minute

This month marks the completion of my first year as a Daring Baker.  I'm happy to say that I've managed to make all but one challenge recipe so far.  And I was really excited when this month's challenge was revealed.  A flourless chocolate cake.  It's been a very long time since I've made one (more than ten years), and that one didn't turn out all that well.  My baking skills were quite good back then, but have improved so much in the past year as I've tackled recipes for the different baking groups that I belong to.  However, despite all my experience, I still manage to leave things to the last minute...  Like this month, when I ended up making the recipe on the actual posting day.  (In my defense, I lost most of the past week due to tending a sick child...)

Fortunately, it doesn't get much simpler than the ingredient list for this cake--chocolate, butter and eggs.  A pound of chocolate, 10 tablespoons of butter, and 5 eggs.  So no, this is not a low-fat dessert. =)  I went with my usual brand of baking chocolate, El Rey, but chose a percentage that I don't often use.  I was afraid that the 58.5% Bucare would be a bit too sweet, but didn't want to go with the bittersweet 70% Gran Saman.  So I decided on the 61% Mijao.  Since the recipe calls for the chocolate to be coarsely chopped, I actually didn't chop it at all.  I usually buy the chocolate in discos, so I just broke them into smaller pieces.  I really dislike chopping chocolate--I hate how the finer bits end up everywhere, including melting all over my hands.  

The cake batter is actually pretty straightforward to put together.  I started by lining the bottom of my 8-inch springform pan with non-stick foil to make it easy to remove the finished cake.  The chocolate and butter get melted together.  The eggs are separated and the yolks are whisked into the chocolate and butter.  The whites are beaten until stiff peaks form and then they are gently but thoroughly folded into the chocolate mixture.  The finished batter is poured into the pan and then placed in the oven for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees F.

The recipe says that the cake will be done when the temperature registers 140 degrees F in the center.  Mine did after the 25 minutes was up, so I took it out of the oven and place it on a rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Then I removed the outside ring of the springform pan and inverted the cake onto a rack.  It seemed soft in the middle, but I didn't think that much of it until a few minutes later when I heard something plop onto the counter.  The middle of my cake was oozing out all over the place!  I quickly inverted the cake again onto a platter and tried to salvage what I could of the part that had leaked out.  I then promptly put the cake in the fridge, hoping it would firm up as it cooled.  Fortunately, it did. =)

While the cake was cooling, I worked on the ice cream to accompany it.  I've made ice cream quite often in the past, so I wasn't too concerned about this part of the challenge.  I did want to make something I hadn't tried before, though.  I turned to my trusted volume, Baking From My Home to Yours.  I've been wanting to try the Burnt Sugar Ice Cream, and thought this would be a good time.  I followed the recipe pretty closely, but added half a teaspoon of kosher salt along with the milk and cream, since I love the taste of salt with caramel.  I'm amazed how far I've come with things like caramel--I routinely multitask while making it these days, something I never would have done when I first tried it.

The verdict?  Yummy, both the cake and the ice cream.  Actually, particularly the two together.  The cake by itself is almost too much--it needs something to contrast with the chocolate.  The ice cream was fantastic--a great balance of sweet and salty.  I can definitely see myself making both of them again, though I'd probably save the cake for an occasion when lots of people would be around to help eat it.  Gillian really liked the cake.  Brianna did at first, but then decided she didn't.  I think she was expecting it to be more cake-like, and didn't like the texture.  

For the record:  The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

The cake recipe can be found here on Dharm's blog or here on Wendy's.  The ice cream recipe can be found in various places online, including over here at Jaime's blog, Good Eats 'n Sweet Treats.  And don't forget to check out the blogroll to see how the hundreds of other Daring Bakers did with this month's challenge.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I actually thought I'd get this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe done early this week, since I had the weekend off.  But life had other ideas.  My birthday was on Saturday.  We had plans to go out to dinner while some friends watched the girls.  (Yay!)  But then Jamie called me Friday evening while I was still at work to say that he'd had to pick Gillian up early from daycare because she had pink eye.  Ugh.  But he was really awesome and was able to get her in for a quick doctor appointment, so we were able to get the antibiotic drops started right away.  So we were still able to go out, since Gillian's eye was doing much better by Saturday night.  But I didn't accomplish anything but baking some bread on Saturday afternoon, since Gillian was generally cranky and difficult about taking a nap.  (For a change, Brianna gave me no trouble about it.)

We had a nice dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants that we seldom get to go to these days.  And then we wandered around Half Price Books for a bit, since we don't have enough books in the house already... =)  When we got back from dinner, we discovered that Brianna wasn't feeling well.  (Should have known the nap was suspicious...)  I'm pretty sure that she has the flu.  (Still sick as of Tuesday morning.)  So Gillian and I went by ourselves to finish the grocery shopping on Sunday (which took forever), and the rest of the day was eaten up with tending Brianna.  

I stayed home with Brianna on Monday, so I did finally have a chance to bake Monday afternoon.  (The morning was taken up by cartoons for B and napping for me, since I was up in the middle of the night with her two nights running.)  This week's recipe fortunately wasn't too difficult.  Or at least it wasn't until I decided to make it a bit more complicated. =)

For this week, Whitney of What's Left on the Table? picked the Caramel Crunch Bars.  I made a few changes to the recipe.  Someone mentioned in the P&Q that the bars were quite thin when baked in a 13" x 9" pan, so like a number of other people, I used a 9" square pan instead.  I lined it with non-stick foil so that the bars would come out easily.  The dough for the base was pretty easy to mix up, and I used both the cinnamon and instant espresso powder called for in the recipe.  I wasn't sure if I was in the mood for the toffee to go on top, though.  I did see toffee bits at the grocery store, but they were made with almonds, which are my least favorite nut.  So I decided to make my own topping.  

I checked online and found a couple of toffee recipes over at Food Network, but just couldn't get motivated to make either one.  So I went in a slightly different direction.  I had pecans in the freezer, and I thought they would be good on these bars.  I coated them in caramel using the technique used for the peanuts in the Snickery Squares (I used 3 ounces of pecans, but kept the sugar and water the same).  Once the coated pecans had cooled, I stuck them in my food processor and pulsed them until they were in small pieces.  Next I had to decide what chocolate to use.  After tasting the dough for the base, I thought that bittersweet (70%) chocolate was the best match for the espresso.  But the praline bits were almost a bit bitter, and didn't taste as good with the bittersweet chocolate.  So I used milk chocolate for the top, but only three ounces instead of six, since I was dealing with a smaller surface area and I didn't want the bars to end up too sweet.  

I baked the base for 25 minutes.  This is one recipe where I really appreciate the description Dorie gives for how to tell when things are done... "until the base is bubbly--so bubbly you can almost hear it percolating--and puckery."  That's exactly what mine was like.   I sprinkled the chopped milk chocolate over the base and popped it back in the oven for a couple minutes.  After spreading the chocolate all over with my offset spatula, I sprinkled the pecan praline on top and pressed it into the chocolate.  I let everything cool pretty much to room temperature and then put the pan in the fridge to make sure the chocolate was firm.  I used my bench scraper to cut the pan into squares.

The verdict?  Interesting, in a good way.  The bottom of the bars is quite crunchy, where the sugar and butter caramelized.  I'm not sure I like the cinnamon, but I do like the espresso in the background.  Dorie suggests using these bars to make ice cream sandwiches.  I made mine too thick for that, but I did want to try them with ice cream.  I thought about chocolate, but figured that it wouldn't be very photogenic. =)  I went with vanilla, which paired nicely with the flavors in the bars, as well as a drizzle of salted caramel sauce.  Yum!  Jamie liked it, which isn't surprising since he likes caramel and the mix of salty and sweet.  Not sure if the girls will like the bars.  I think most of them are headed to the daycare teachers so we don't eat them all. 

The recipe can be found over at Whitney's blog as well as in Baking From My Home to Yours.  And be sure to check out what all the other TWD bakers did this week!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Black and white and crumbs all over

Ever since I was in high school (20+ years--wow), I've been a designated baker.  Who's going to bring dessert to the potluck?  Di!  Who's going to make something for the bake sale?  Di!  Who's going to make cake for so-and-so's birthday at work?  Di!  

It's mostly my own doing.  I love to bake, and everyone knows it.  Early on in my career, I had a manager who would bake for all her employees' birthdays and other special occasions.  When I became a manager, I started to do the same thing.  I bake to welcome new employees.  I bake for all sorts of holidays.  I bake for birthdays--and take requests.  =)  Some have been interesting, like coming up with something gluten-free for one person (long before my blogging days, back when I didn't have lots of online resources to turn to for help; I made cheesecake).  Some I wouldn't even eat myself (the German chocolate cake I made for the most recent birthday at work; I hate coconut).  

So when our small staff at work decided to have a potluck the day before Valentine's Day, I immediately volunteered to bring the dessert.  Not that I had to say so--everyone assumed I would.  Especially since three of the others are guys who definitely don't bake. =)  I was just really happy to have a reason to make the full recipe of this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe.  Stephanie of Confessions of a City Eater chose the recipe that I'm sure many of us have been eyeing since buying this cookbook--the cover recipe, Devils Food White Out Cake.  

Most of the time these days, I make smaller versions of layer cakes, since it's hard for us to finish off a big one.  I've got a couple of cute little 6-inch pans that work well for halving recipes.  My 9-inch pans are pretty decent, too, but my 8-inch pans date back to my college days, and are pretty cheap.  They're also not very deep, so I wasn't sure how well thicker layers would work in them.  Fortunately, I recently had the chance to do some unexpected shopping at Sur la Table (a story for another post) and I acquired some much better 8-inch pans that I was able to break in with this recipe.

While I love pretty much anything chocolate, I often don't like chocolate cake.  More specifically, I don't like most bakery and box-mix chocolate cakes.  Most of them just aren't all that chocolatey.  Yes, I'm a chocolate cake snob, and I seem to be raising my children to be the same way. =)  I've found a few good recipes, like the one I used for Brianna's birthday cake.  After making this week's TWD recipe, I've realized that the ones I do like are the ones that use melted chocolate in addition to cocoa powder.  And even better, Dorie's cake adds in chopped chocolate pieces!

For the cake itself, I followed the recipe as written.  I took the buttermilk option, since I actually had some in my fridge.  I used Scharffen Berger cocoa and El Rey 70% chocolate in the batter and used El Rey 58.5% for the added chocolate.  My playing around came with the frosting.  Due to a lack of time and energy, I really didn't feel like trying the Italian merengue for the frosting.  So I cheated and did a Swiss merengue instead.  I put half a cup of egg whites (I pretty much always have some stashed in my freezer) and a cup of sugar in the bowl of my standing mixer and set it over a pan of simmering water.  I whisked the whites and sugar together until the mixture hit a temperature of 160 degrees F.  Then I removed the bowl from the heat, put it back on the stand mixer, and added the vanilla.  I used the whisk attachment to beat the merengue until it was cooled to room temperature and it was fluffy and shiny.  

I'm not sure how it compares to the frosting as I was supposed to make it, but it worked pretty well.  I cut the cake layers in half, and layered three of the pieces with the frosting, spreading frosting over the sides and top of the cake as well.  Then I crumbled the fourth cake piece and pressed the crumbs over the sides and top of the cake.  I realized later that I was actually only supposed to do the sides and a bit of the top.  Oops. =)

The verdict?  I really, really liked this cake.  I will definitely be making the cake itself again.  I'd like to try it with a different frosting, maybe stabilized whipped cream or cream cheese frosting.  I particularly liked the bits of chocolate in the cake.  Jamie really liked it as well.  As for the people at work...  As luck would have it, the potluck ended up being cancelled on account of flu.  Two people sick out of a 5-person staff makes things a bit challenging.  But I already had the cake made, so I took it to work anyway.  The guys all seemed to like it.  I had a hard time with pictures this week, though, because the lighting at work isn't that great.  In fact, the best pictures turned out to be the ones I took of the cake sitting in my car... =)

If you'd like to try this one for yourself, you can definitely find the recipe in the book.  Or head on over to Stephanie's blog.  And be sure to see what all the other TWD bakers did this week!

Oh, and one last thing...  I couldn't resist including a picture of the lovely tulips that Brianna and Jamie got me for Valentine's Day!  (I also got a new cookbook--more on that later...)

Seeing the colors after all the brown and white makes me think of The Wizard of Oz... =)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


This seems to be the time of year when I take on new challenges.  It's not really a New Year's resolution thing, since I don't get around to it until February.  Last year, when I was still very new to blogging, I joined two amazing groups--Tuesdays with Dorie and the Daring Bakers.  I was quite nervous about it at the time.  I knew I'd be making things that would take me out of my comfort zone.  (That was kind of the point...)  And when I make a commitment to doing something, I want to make sure that I follow through.  Yes, I'm a big worrier as well as a rule-follower. =)  Things have turned out great--in a year's time, I've only missed one DB challenge, and I've made all but a handful of the TWD weekly recipes.  More importantly, I've made some amazing blogging friends, more than I can mention here (but check out my list of blogs on the left for many more of them).  

I'm probably crazy, but I've decided to take on another personal challenge.  It's an informal group with a simple goal--BYOB (Bake Your Own Bread).  Yes, all of it.  My first thought was that I must be insane for trying to do this.  But when I really started thinking about it, it wasn't as scary.  Since I got the Artisan Bread book for Christmas, I don't think I've actually bought any bread at the store.  And over the past year, I've made a lot of things that I would usually buy, like croissants, pizza, Danish braids, doughnuts, hamburger and hot dog buns, and bagels.  

In most cases, I was pleasantly surprised that these baked goods weren't as hard to make as I thought they would be.  I find it really satisfying to make things myself.  Some, like the laminated doughs, required a fair bit of time and effort, but the result was so worth it.  And some weren't as successful--like the doughnuts, which I really need to try again. =)  I love making the bread that my girls eat, because I know what goes into it.  And they love eating it.  

As Sandy says in her original post, there aren't any "yeast police."  I may very well end up buying bread at some point, and that's okay.  I'm in this to have fun and make some new things, not stress myself out.  And speaking of new things, does anyone have a good recipe for whole wheat flour tortillas?  =)  (B & G love quesadillas...)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A year of Dorie

I've always been a rule-follower.  It often drives me crazy when others don't follow rules, especially traffic laws.  =)  I joke about Brianna's "hall monitor" attitude, but much as it pains me to admit it, she gets it from me. =)  And then there's the fact that I'm also a bit of an over-achiever.  I tend to go above and beyond what I need to do, which sometimes causes me to get stressed out over things more than necessary.

Tuesdays with Dorie is a good case in point.  The point of the group is to bake on a weekly basis, working through the recipes in the fabulous Baking From My Home to Yours.  But because life sometimes gets in the way, Laurie said that we have to participate a minimum of two weeks out of four. I tend to feel guilty, though, when I miss a week, even if life is crazy or I really don't like what we're making. 

This week was more the former than the latter.  Shari of Whisk: A Food Blog chose Floating Islands for this week's recipe.  I had a busy week and weekend because of work, and by the time Sunday got here, I just didn't feel motivated to make the recipe.  Eggy and custardy things usually aren't that high on my list either, which didn't help.  I felt bad about it, but by Sunday night, I decided that I wasn't going to participate this week.  

But then on Monday, I realized that this week is the anniversary of when I joined the group.  My first recipe was the Brown Sugar-Apple Cheesecake.  In 52 weeks, I've only missed 5 recipes.  Not bad!  =)  And those were primarily because one of the main ingredients (e.g. coconut or blueberries) was something I really dislike, and I couldn't figure out a way to change up the recipe without completely re-writing it.  I still didn't feel like making meringues, but I did want to bake something.

So I turned to the list of recipes that were made before I joined TWD.  There aren't all that many, but one of them caught my eye.  I decided to make the Quintuple Chocolate Brownies.  Now when it comes to baking, my rule-following tendencies are often at war with my let's-see-what-will-happen-if-I-do-this experimental scientist tendencies. =)  So I did change a couple things in the recipe.  First, my chocolate choices.  I mostly use El Rey chocolate discs for baking, since I can buy them in bulk.  I used Gran Saman (70%) bittersweet, Caoba (41%) milk chocolate, and Icoa white chocolate, along with some NestlĂ© unsweetened and Scharffen Berger cocoa powder.  For the nuts I used toasted pecans.  Since I'm not that big a fan of white chocolate, I didn't actually make the glaze; I just chopped up some white chocolate and stirred it into the batter in place of some of the milk chocolate.

The verdict?  Pretty good, but not my favorite brownie recipe.  I'm not sure if I overbaked them (though I only baked them 30 minutes rather than 35), but they seemed sort of dry in texture, though very chocolatey.  I like the idea of the different types of chocolate chunks, though, so I may add them to a brownie recipe that I like better.  I'd probably skip the nuts though--I'm okay with them in cookies, but don't really like the texture of them in brownies that much.

Be sure to head over to the blogroll to see how everyone else did with the Floating Islands.  You can get the recipe here on Shari's blog.  (I do want to make them eventually!)  And the recipe for the brownies can be found on Laurie's blog.  

TWD teaser

With apologies to Shari, since I didn't make her pick.  More later... (gotta get to work)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Reese's (and TCHO) Peaces

I'm lazy when it comes to making cookies.  Bar cookies and drop cookies are my cookies of choice.  Once or twice a year, I will actually make the effort to bake cut-out cookies.  But most of the time it seems like way too much trouble.  And while many people would say that slice and bake cookies are even easier than drop cookies, I don't like making them.  I'm not even quite sure why.  =)  They just seem fussy to me for some reason.  I think part of the problem is that you usually have to chill the dough log for several hours before you can get to the slicing and baking part.  So I've got lots of recipes for that sort of cookie that sound good, but I've only made one of them.  

That being said, I think I've found the recipe that will get me to make slice and bake cookies much more often.  Thank you to Jessica of cookbookhabit for picking this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, World Peace Cookies.  And since Dorie mentions in the book that these are "the brainchild of Pierre HermĂ©," thank you to him for inventing them!

On paper, they seem pretty straightforward--flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, butter, sugars, salt, vanilla and chocolate.  Nothing that really stands out in the ingredients list, except that there is more salt than you usually see in a cookie recipe.  But I think this is definitely a cookie that is affected by the quality of the ingredients.  So I got out my favorite cocoa powder, from Scharffen Berger.  I also had several add-ins that I wanted to try, rather than just the chocolate chunks called for in the recipe.  The difficulty was in narrowing the choices.  Thanks to Caitlin, I knew I wanted to make some with peanut butter cups.  (Caitlin--we can still get the Reese's baking pieces here in Texas.)  For another variation, I decided to use some items from TCHO that I was lucky enough to sample.  I had both nibs and some chocolate in their Citrus flavor.  

After mixing up the dough, I split it in half and stirred in my additions.  I find that it's easiest to roughly form the dough into a log, wrap it in plastic wrap, and then roll the wrapped log back and forth, tightening the plastic wrap to even out the shape of the dough log.  Another handy tip is to place the dough logs inside empty paper towel rolls to keep the logs in shape while they chill.  (Plus the diameter of a paper towel roll is just right for most slice and bake cookies.) Edited to add:  I've been reading that a number of people had trouble with the dough being very crumbly.  So another tip I have is to weigh the flour if you can.  Too much flour might be causing dry dough for some.  I use a weight of 4.5 ounces per cup of flour for Dorie's recipes, and it seems to work well.

After chilling the dough for several hours, I sliced it into thick rounds and placed them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  (My serrated bread knife worked really well for slicing.)  I only got 30, rather than the yield of 36 listed in the recipe, but I went with thicker slices to help prevent any crumbling.  I baked them for 12 minutes as directed, and took them out to cool.

The verdict?  Wow, these are a keeper.  The extra salt really brings out the flavor of the chocolate.  You really can't go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter, so those were really good.  And I really enjoyed the flavor of the TCHO chocolate (everything I've tried from them has been very good).  I've made cookies with nibs before--I find that the cookies are usually better the second or third day as the flavors blend, and that was the case with these.  Jamie liked the peanut butter ones better.  Brianna and I prefer the chocolate ones.  And I just realized that Gillian hasn't tried any yet--I'll have to remedy that this evening. =)

If you haven't made these, I definitely think you should.  You can find the recipe on Jessica's blog.  And be sure to check out what all the other TWD bakers did this week!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Puff the magic pastry

As I was reviewing last year, I was also thinking about things that I wanted to try in 2009.  I try to fit in as much baking as I can during the week and on weekends, but sometimes it's hard.  In fact, in October, I barely managed to  make my Tuesdays with Dorie and Daring Bakers recipes.  So it's always nice when I know I'm going to be on vacation, since it gives me a chance to try some new stuff.  In fact, I started my notebook (the one this blog is named after) during a week of vacation in May 2005.  Well, everything came together nicely, and over the past several days I've finally had a chance to make something that I've wanted to for quite a while. 

When I got my February/March issue of Fine Cooking, one article immediately caught my eye.  It was Croissants.  Laminated dough really used to scare me, until the June 2008 DB challenge when we made Danish Braids.  Even though I discovered then that it wasn't as hard as I thought, I still never got around to making anything else.  And then lately, I've been seeing croissants everywhere.  

I still managed to get a later start than I wanted, but it worked out okay.  The timeline in the Fine Cooking article has things spread out over three days.  On Friday, I mixed up the dough that would be wrapped around the butter.  It went into the fridge to develop flavor overnight.  Saturday morning, while Brianna and Gillian were occupying with cartoons and playing, I laminated the dough.  The recipe calls for three turns, but I actually did four.  The third one was particularly difficult for some reason--the dough really seemed to resist being rolled out.  So I waited a bit longer to do the last one, and it went better.  Once I was done, I wrapped everything up and stowed it back in the fridge until Sunday morning.

I was pretty surprised when I took the dough back out on Sunday, since it had risen quite a bit.  I cut it in half and carefully wrapped one half and put in in the freezer for later.  Then I rolled out the other half of the dough.  The dough rolled out nicely, which was really good, considering how sore my upper back was from Saturday's workout.  (It still hurts...)  I cut it as directed, ending up with 7 large triangles of dough and 2 small ones.  Most I rolled up as plain croissants, but I also wanted to make some chocolate filled ones.

Now I usually have plenty of chocolate on hand.  But I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to sample something new that I received recently.  At the end of December, I was lucky enough to qualify for a giveaway over at Blake Makes.  And a week or so ago I came home to find a small box containing my bar of Amano chocolate.  I saved a few squares to sample straight, and broke the rest into bars to put on three of my triangles of dough.

After letting the formed croissants rise for a couple hours, I baked them for a little less than 20 minutes.  The whole house smelled amazing.  The hardest part by far was waiting for them to cool long enough to avoid burning my tongue on molten chocolate.  

The verdict?  Oh, it was totally worth all the work.  The croissants tasted amazing!  It's good that I froze part of the dough.  It's bad enough that I made as many as I did, since I don't think they'll last very long.  I ate one of the chocolate ones for brunch (definitely too late to be called breakfast) and used another for my sandwich at lunch.  Gillian ate one of the small ones and really enjoyed it.  Brianna ate the middle out of hers and complained that she didn't like the crispy outside.  Crazy, I know.  But typical... =)  

I'm posting this as part of Magazine Mondays, and also submitting it to Yeastspotting.  If you're looking for a workout and want to give these croissants a try, you can find the recipe here. (It appears to be free for everyone at the moment.)