Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Splendid" Muffins

I love a good muffin--a fluffy, vanilla-flavored concoction just filled to the brim with blueberries, strawberries, chocolate chips, whatever strikes your fancy. Sometimes, though, in the name of healthy living, we must cut back on the sugar. I know, I know, I'm a baker, I'm not supposed to be anti-calories, and I'm not... but an effort to reduce the calories in an old favorite can never hurt.

Enter Splenda. I've always been a fan of Splenda because it's nice and sweet and because it doesn't have an unpleasant aftertaste. When I was in the store a couple of days ago, I noticed a bag of Splenda "Granular" on the shelf and decided to buy a small bag and give it a try. Although it is very, very different in texture and density to sugar (it looks a bit like snow), it measures cup for cup in recipes. Muffins and quick breads are especially noted on the bag, so I figured that there would be no better way to test Splenda Granular than with a nice blueberry muffin.

I used my regular muffin recipe--after I put the muffins the oven, I noticed a blueberry muffin recipe on the back of the bag, haha!--adding a bit of baking soda (probably unnecessary) and a touch of honey (to help browning). When the muffins came out of the oven, their tops were craggy, almost sconelike, but the interior was very, very nice. Given a sugar-laden muffin, I would not have been able to tell the difference, and I could pronounce my Splenda experiment a success.

Even if you don't have Splenda on hand, this recipe is a great basic muffin, but I would especially recommend it to be made with Splenda if you're watching calories. One muffin here has at most 175 calories, according to my calculations. I'm not one for healthy baking, but this was a nice change of pace!

Splendid Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12.

280 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup Splenda Granular sugar substitute (or granulated white sugar)
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 eggs
1/4 cup honey (omit if using sugar)
1/2 cup milk (I used skim)
1 cup blueberries

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in blueberries, and set aside.
2. In large bowl, whisk together Splenda (or sugar), butter, eggs, and honey.
3. Whisk in milk until smooth.
4. Gently add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and mix until just combined.
5. Divide batter among muffin cups and bake for 15 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached.
6. Let cool completely on wire rack before serving.

Sniffing Around

Peabody, of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody, recently posted a delicious-looking recipe for Brown Sugar Pound Cake. The mouth-watering pictures are enough to make me try a Martha Stewart recipe for the first time. And that's an accomplishment, for sure.

One of my very favorite foods is peanut butter--not any of that natural stuff, either, but good ol' creamy Jif. You know, the processed stuff. But I think I would enjoy Peanut Butter Crumble Cake (courtesy of Baking Bites with any brand of peanut butter, and cheers to Nicole for introducing yet another recipe to my test file!

I think oatmeal is the forgotten flavor of cookie, yet a nice, soft, spicy oatmeal cookie is one of the most satisfying experiences. Marilyn of Simmer Till Done has thought of 25 Ways to Make Oatmeal Cookies Even Better, and, although not all twenty-five are to my taste, that post has certainly whetted my appetite for an old-fashioned oatmeal cookie, maybe with a twist or two.

Looking for something a little richer and fancier than cookies? Try the Sour Cream Scones, as featured on Joy the Baker's blog. They look so fluffy and delicious--and after you're done drooling over those photos, scroll down for a fun list of Joy's other loves.

I've done a whole lot of baking, but I've never made a jelly roll. Well, the Lemon Berry Roulade at Pastry Studio has inspired me to try something new. It just looks so refreshing and delicious!

And finally, the savory... I think that everyone should know How to Boil an Egg, and Sydney of The Crepes of Wrath shows us this important skill. So if you're in need of a delicious, nutritious snack, take a break from baking and try some hard-boiled eggs--you won't regret it.

That's all for my sniffing around this time. Stay tuned to "Smells Like Dessert" for recipes, tips, tricks, amusements, and general oddities!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Perfect Brownie. There, I Said It.

I apologize if the post title shocked or scandalized you, but I had to be bold, to make a statement: I have, in fact, found my perfect brownie. Now, I understand that people's ideas of the "perfect" anything, especially brownie, are different, so fear not... I will not try to impose my own personal brownie beliefs on you. But you might as well know where I stand. Most importantly, in the fudgy vs. cakey battle, I fight for the fudgy side, with the caveat that I do like my brownies to have a little structure. I see these ridiculously low amounts of flour--like 1/4 cup--in recipes, and I find myself wanting more than just a big pan of chocolate, butter, sugar, and eggs.

I have fond memories of childhood baking. One of the most fun moments in the kitchen was with my sister, making brownies from a cookbook we had just gotten called Kids Cooking: A Slightly Messy Manual by Klutz (as a side note, one of my friends swears by the chocolate chip cookie recipe in there, but we all know I have my favorite). She and I worked together, cooking up a storm, to make a pan of these brownies, and they were absolutely wonderful, garnering rave reviews from all who partook. And we never made them again because we lost the book.

For the next several years, I would make brownies and think of how they paled in comparison to the joyous chocolatey morsels that emerged from the oven that one evening many years ago. It was not until college that I decided to search on Google for two words, "brownies+Klutz," and, miraculously, I found the recipe and immediately (not kidding!) made brownies for my friends, who declared them the best brownies they had ever had. This is good stuff, people. And then, I went home and, equally miraculously, found the cookbook hiding behind other volumes! What joy, what rapture!

And so, readers, now that I have regaled you with a heartfelt childhood story, I urge you to try this brownie recipe (and it's one bowl, too!). If you wish, you may substitute 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate for the cocoa powder, but I'd try the original recipe first just to experience for yourself the enchanting brownies that have lived in my memories for years. Be sure to measure the flour lightly. This is different from the other recipes on this blog because, for this particular recipe, measure flour as follows: first, place the measuring cup on the counter and fluff up the flour with a regular spoon. Then, take a spoonful of flour and plop it into your measuring cup. Do not shake, tap, or otherwise disturb the measuring cup. Just keep going by taking another spoonful of flour and plopping it into the cup. Repeat until flour mounds over top of cup, and level off with knife. Trust me, if you just irreverently dip the measuring cup into the flour, take a big ol' scoop, and level, you'll have too much flour in the recipe, so please, for this recipe, follow the method. Do it for me. And for brownies, of course.

Okay, enough of this technical talk. Make these brownies and brace yourself because they are out of this world!

The Brownies Dreams Are Made Of
Makes 12 to 16 brownies.
Adapted from Kids Cooking.
2 cups granulated white sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150 grams (1 1/4 cups sifted) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. Grease an 8-inch (9-inch) square or 13- by 9-inch rectangular pan for thick or thin brownies, respectively.
2. In large mixing bowl, combine sugar and cocoa powder with whisk until homogeneous.
3. Add melted butter and whisk to combine.
4. Add eggs, all at once, and vanilla, and whisk vigorously until well incorporated.
5. Sprinkle flour and salt over wet ingredients and whisk. Finished batter should be smooth and satiny.
6. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes (8x8 in.) or 20 to 25 minutes (13x9 in.), or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs.
7. Cool completely on wire rack before serving, if you can wait that long.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Coffee? I'd Rather Have Cake!

I love baking cake; in fact, it might be one of my favorite treats to make. I was looking through my "Recipes to Test" file and saw that nearly all of them were cake recipes. That just goes to show where my tastes lie! But really, cake is very difficult to hate--there are so many flavors to choose from, and the (ideal) texture is just so lovely.

Enter the Sour Cream Coffee Cake from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008, of which I have posted a review. Would you believe that, before this experience, I had never used sour cream in baking? Ever? I know, it's shameful but true; I just never had occasion to. Well, this was as good a time as any to try my hand at baking with sour cream, and it really does add a lot to the texture of a cake, although I must say that non-sour-cream cakes can be just as nice.

So I have good news and bad news about this recipe. The good news is that the cake tastes delicious, and it is so light and fluffy. I cut the cake recipe in half and baked it in an 8x8-inch pan; the streusel topping I reduced to a quarter of the original recipe, and it was enough. Believe it or not, I do care just a bit about calories, and I thought it wise to reduce the streusel topping a little. Oh, and the finished topping? It was wonderful, with an excellent cinnamon flavor and a good crunch from the almonds I used.

Now the bad news. My "oh damn" moment... Due to the different pan size, I was unsure of baking time (I usually estimate correctly but was a bit off this time), and I tested the cake too early. Thus, I had the pleasure of watching the middle of the cake sink right before my eyes, as if I were deflating a balloon. Whoops. I'm going to blame that little blunder on the oven's less-than-well-behaved antics as of late. But the texture in the middle did not suffer terribly, so the consequences were mostly aesthetic. Even then, no one really noticed, so I didn't worry about it too much, and neither should you (if that happens)! Coffee cake, I have found, is quite a bit sturdier and therefore more forgiving than your standard, delicate, birthday-cake creation.

You may have noticed that, throughout this post, I have refrained from using the word... moist. I really hate it when people use that word because, in my opinion, that's what a cake should be. It is the normative, so to speak, and I think that saying a cake is moist or should be moist is a bit redundant. Besides, the term is overused. I prefer less tired words like velvety, silky, soft, and fluffy. And they all describe this cake, so make it! Right now! Here's the recipe!

Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Adapted from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008.
Makes two 8-inch square or 9-inch round cakes.

Streusel Topping:
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
45 grams (1/3 cup) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup pecans, almonds, or walnuts, chopped

420 grams (3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups sour cream [a 16-ounce tub should be just enough]
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated white sugar
3 eggs
7 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. Make Streusel: Combine sugars, flour, butter, and cinnamon in medium bowl, and rub with fingers until mixture is no longer powdery. Stir in nuts and set aside.
2. In large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
3. In medium bowl, whisk sour cream, sugars, eggs, and butter until thoroughly combine.
4. Gradually whisk sour cream mixture into dry ingredients until just blended.
5. Pour into greased pans and sprinkle topping evenly over batter.
6. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached.
7. Let cool in pan on wire rack at least 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Blondies: The Other Brownies.

Okay, okay, I know what you're thinking: "Chris, please! I haven't even gotten rid of those cookies yet, and now another recipe?" Yes, another one. After all, it's hot this time of year, and I've got to use up the bag of Ghirardelli chocolate chips before the remaining morsels of goodness melt. I know that I could just eat the rest of the chocolate chips--a viable option, for sure--but perhaps a more generous method is in order.

Enter blondies. While eerily similar to chocolate chip cookies, they are so much more: thick, sweet, rich chunks upon which the taste buds may feast. This recipe is one of the easiest I've ever baked, especially since it only dirties one bowl and uses melted butter. And you know what that means... no electric mixer! Woohoo! Kudos to Deb of Smitten Kitchen for pointing her loyal readers to this blondie recipe.

Making these goodies may be easy as sin, but by the end result, you would never know because the resultant blondies are just wonderful. I will warn you, though: because, unlike brownies, there is no chocolate to cut the sweetness of these treats, you may need a chaser of water. But hey, dessert is supposed to be sweet, so who's complaining? Not I. Enjoy! Oh, and by the way, blondies tend to dry out very quickly on the oven, so make sure to watch them carefully (to the point of paranoia) and to remove them when there are moist crumbs clinging to a toothpick so that the texture inside is perfect.

Adapted from How to Cook Everything.
Serves 9 to 16.

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
140 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. Grease (with butter, shortening, or spray) an 8x8 in. pan.
2. In large bowl, combine butter and sugar until smooth.
3. Stir in egg and vanilla and mix well.
4. Gently stir in flour and salt until just incorporated.
5. Add chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed throughout batter.
6. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached.
7. Let cool completely on wire rack (if you can stand it) before cutting.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Quest Has Ended

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am jumping on the chocolate chip cookie bandwagon several months late. I, too, have been on the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and I have found it. Yet the perfect cookie never goes out of style; it is timeless and is wholly without bandwagon.

Now, in the cookie battle, I choose to plant myself squarely in the "chewy" camp--I like a cookie that is buttery, soft, and rich. I also don't like too many chocolate chips, just enough to dot the cookies with little morsels of goodness. This recipe, which some claim appeared in Cooks Illustrated and which others say has been a family favorite for years, definitely fits the bill. It is soft and gooey, even hours, nay, days out of the oven. The extra egg yolk, it is said, contributes to richness and chewiness without making the texture gummy (sometimes an unintended side effect of egg whites), and the melted, rather than softened and creamed, butter helps the cookies stay chewy for a while (yes, melting the butter is essential!).

I used Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips because I really like a nice sweet chocolate and thought that the milk chocolate chips would add to the overall richness of the cookie. And believe it or not, this brand is only zero to ten cents more expensive than Toll House morsels. Trust me, it's worth it; these cookies were absolutely delicious. Now, I'll warn you--the recipe makes a big cookie, but you cannot skimp. I'm as health conscious as anyone, but the consumption of chocolate chip cookies is not the time for calorie counting. Enjoy a nice big, fat, chewy cookie. If you must, have half, but please, please do not reduce the size of the cookie in the recipe. It makes a difference, y'know!

You won't believe the number of recipes I tried before I stumbled upon this one. But behold! Buttery goodness! And then, the recipe.

Best Buttery Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Allrecipes.
Makes 18 cookies.

280 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-2 cups chocolate chips

** Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. **

1. In small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt.
2. In large bowl, combine sugars. Add butter and stir with wooden spoon for a few seconds until well blended.
3. Stir in egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Be sure that all ingredients are incorporated.
4. Add dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
5. Gently stir in chocolate chips.
6. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 20 minutes.
7. Drop dough by 1/4 cupfuls onto a greased baking sheet (9 cookies on the sheet, about half the dough).
8. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, until the cookies are just beginning to brown around the edges--don't even let them set in the middle.
9. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes to allow cookies to firm up.
10. Place cookies on wire rack to cool, and repeat with remaining dough.
11. Store any leftovers (say what?) in an airtight container with a slice of bread to preserve chewiness.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Celebrating Deliciously

Everyone always seems to have a lot of spirit on the Fourth of July--very colorful spirit. I knew, therefore, that I wanted to make an equally colorful dessert, but what would I use to achieve those colors? I had been itching to bake a cake, so I decided to satisfy that urge. Plus, cakes are easy to make colorful because there are many, many combinations of frosting, filling, cake layers, et cetera, to use.

I knew exactly how I would make the white portion of the cake: first, the layers themselves, and second, the frosting. Tucked away in my "Please Test These Recipes!" file was a recipe for Real Vanilla Bean Buttercream from Baking Bites, with a couple of modifications to compensate for my lack of vanilla-bean ownership. The cake itself is a yellow cake recipe that I originally found on Crisco's web site and since have made my own. I always joke that it's a butter cake without any actual butter, but it still tastes delicious, with quite a bit of moistness and fluffiness. If you're looking for a better-tasting version of a box mix, this is it--and you can make it by hand!!

As for the red, I opted for a nice strawberry sauce from Joy of Baking, and, to achieve the blue, I sprinkled some fresh blueberries on top.

The cake came out wonderfully; as you can see, it is nice and high, and, although the strawberry sauce kind of disappeared, there is a nice hint of red that completes the patriotism of the cake. I found that I couldn't mix the cake with a mixer due to the large amount of batter, so I had to do it by hand (it gets easier every time, I promise!). And the frosting... oh, the frosting... it looked like ricotta cheese for quite a while once I added the pound of butter, but I just kept beating and beating, and it came together like a thing of beauty. So have faith when you make this frosting; it will pay off!!

Yellow "Butter" Cake
Adapted from Crisco.
Makes one two-layer 9-inch cake.

300 grams (2 1/2 cups) sifted cake flour
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk, divided
2/3 cup shortening (e.g., Crisco; do not substitute butter)
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

**Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.**

1. In large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
2. Add 3/4 cup milk and all of shortening. Beat 300 strokes by hand or 2 minutes on medium speed of electric mixer.
3. Add remaining 1/2 cup milk, eggs, and vanilla. Beat 300 more strokes by hand or 2 more minutes on medium speed of electric mixer.
4. Divide batter evenly between pans, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until cake tester comes out with moist crumbs.
5. Turn cakes out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting and filling.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Baking Bites.
Makes enough to fill and frost one 9-inch layer cake.

1 pound (2 cups or 4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized chunks
1 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup water
5 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Separate eggs while they are cold, and place whites in large mixer bowl. Save or discard yolks.
2. Combine 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in small saucepan. Set aside.
3. Measure out 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (in separate bowls) and place near egg whites.
4. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring to 230 degrees F (soft-thread stage) on candy thermometer.
5. While sugar continues to cook, beat egg whites; when they are frothy, reduce mixer speed to medium-low, and add cream of tartar. Slowly add 1/4 cup sugar.
6. When egg whites reach the soft-peak stage, remove boiling sugar syrup from heat and slowly stream it into egg-white mixture. Beat mixture until bowl is no longer warm to the touch, a few minutes.
7. Add butter, piece by piece, until all butter has been added.
8. Beat until mixture is smooth, about 10-20 minutes. Mixture will separate, look awful, curdle, shrivel, whine, frighten, or all of the above; just keep beating until it is smooth. It will come.
9. Store at room temperature.

Strawberry Sauce
Adapted from Joy of Baking.
Makes enough for a thin layer of filling; can be doubled.

10 ounces fresh or frozen (thawed, undrained) strawberries
2-4 tablespoons sugar

1. Puree strawberries in food processor.
2. Transfer to bowl or measuring cup; stir in sugar to taste. Serve immediately or refrigerate (or don't--it can stay on the cake at room temperature without dire consequences).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sniffing Around

I love surfing other food blogs; they give me ideas, inspiration, and motivation. Here's some of the best of the Internet from the past week or so:

Ever since I went to England, I've had a thing for shortbread. Nicole of Baking Bites has posted a delicious-looking recipe for Strawberry Pecan Shortbread Crumble Bars, and I can't wait to satisfy my undying hunger for shortbread with this new twist. And what an appetizing photo to drool over!

Isn't fresh fruit just wonderful? Berries are probably my favorite, so, as you can imagine, summer blogsurfing yields a ton of berry recipes for every reader, especially me, to enjoy, including Raspberry Buttermilk Pancakes over at Use Real Butter. Jen, the blog's author, added some particularly stunning photos of nature, family, and food to go along with the recipe, so be sure to check those out, too!

But enough about berries, delicious as they may be, and on to cherries. Now, I don't particularly like to eat cherries in their purest form, but I do love them in pie! Deb of Smitten Kitchen recently featured a Sweet Cherry Pie that I'm just dying to make! (Deb is fearless with a cherry pitter, not like me, who wimps out and buys canned cherries for pie.) I don't know how she takes food photos like this, and just look at that flaky pie crust. Mmm...

Okay, I may have been a little hasty in that last paragraph--I don't like cherries, for sure, but I've never tried them in cake. Enter the Cherry Jam Cake at Culinary Concoctions by Peabody; this cake looks very tasty, with a very deep flavor due to that lovely syrupy glaze, which Peabody captures perfectly in her photography. Not to mention a great Saturday Night Live reference that made me smile.

And finally, I guess we have to have something savory to round everything out, don't we? Well, have I found a sandwich for you: Croque-madame, found at The Way the Cookie Crumbles. I admit, I've never had a Croque-madame, but this one looks suitably rich and, to sum it up, amazing. My mouth is watering just looking at that first photo...and all the other ones, of course!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Best Pie Crust, Ever.

Pie crust and I have a checkered relationship. One the one hand, I absolutely love pie, and the crust is my favorite part; however, my attempts to create really good crust (the old-fashioned way--I did have success with CI's vodka pie crust) have failed in various ways. Flaky and not tender, neither flaky nor tender, à la cardboard--just disastrous. Until now!

Introducing the secret to good pie crust, courtesy of Alanna Kellogg of Kitchen Parade (and steward of the excellent blog, A Veggie Venture): more fat, less water! When the fat is cut into the flour, it both contributes to flakiness and protects the precious gluten from developing too much, and the minimal amount of water ensures a tender pie crust.

This was, without a doubt, the best pie I had ever made. And want to know a secret? I used canned filling. I know, I know, I'm a horrible person, but I really wanted to showcase the crust (and besides, homemade blueberry pie filling can be tricky, not to mention expensive). Without further ado, I would like to share the life-saving recipe...

Oh, and by the way, I got my pastry blender, which helps "cut" the fat into the flour, for $10 at Williams-Sonoma, and it is just wonderful. If you are looking for one, make sure it has blades and not wires; it will be most effective that way.

Flaky Tender Pie Crust
Adapted from Kitchen Parade
Makes enough pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie.

280 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 16 pieces
1/2 Crisco shortening, cold
Egg wash of 1 yolk + 1 Tbsp water

1. In large bowl, mix sugar, salt, and one cup (140 g) of flour.
2. With pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients.
3. Add shortening and cut into butter/flour mixture.
4. Lightly stir in the rest of the flour.
5. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons water.
6. With an open palm, press flour against side of bowl. Rub hands together and let damp flour fall back into mixture.
7. Add water, drops at a time, until mixture just barely holds together. Dry crumbs are good!!
8. Gather dough into ball, divide in two, and flatten into disks. Chill dough for a few minutes.
9. Take one piece out of the refrigerator and roll out into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface, on a silicone mat, or between two pieces of plastic wrap. Transfer to pie plate and bake (if prebaking is required) or return to refrigerator.
10. Prepare pie filling and place in bottom crust.
11. Roll out the other crust and place on top. Seal and flute. Cut vents in top and brush with egg wash.
12. Bake as your favorite pie recipe directs.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review: The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008

I trust the good folks behind Cook's Illustrated more than any other authority when it comes to cooking and baking. This book offers the best of a year of extensive recipe testing, revamping, and publishing from all the America's Test Kitchen publications, including Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines, not to mention the various other assorted volumes published throughout the year.

Well, I have spent the past few hours perusing this extensive cookbook, and I already have so many ideas on things to make. This book, in the spirit of America's Test Kitchen, explains the science behind ingredients, methods, and unusual-sounding ideas. As an avid baker, I know that I will soon be making the Chocolate Blackout Cake, Lemon Layer Cake, and Big and Chewy Low-Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies (a lower-fat version of the CI chewy chocolate chip cookies published recently). This book is well worth the money, and if you want a great variety of recipes and techniques, all of which are quite solid, then this cookbook is the one to get!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Amazing Fruit Tart

Father's Day weather was unbelievable this year--nothing short of a beautiful summer day. I decided to bake a summery dessert in honor of my wonderful father, and a fresh fruit tart, the likes of which I had previously sampled only a couple of times in my life, fit the bill.

A fruit tart is really quite simple in its components: a sweet tart crust is brushed with melted chocolate, filled with vanilla pastry cream, and topped with fresh fruit. An optional apricot glaze keeps the fruit nice and shiny, but I am quite wary of apricots and did not elect to use them in any form in this dessert. I'm a chicken when it comes to these things!

I took the recipe mainly from a wonderful web site that I often visit, Joy of Baking, whose recipes are always well written and spot on. I did modify the tart crust because my sister is allergic to wheat; as such, I used a gluten-free flour in place of the all-purpose flour. Moreover, a touch of vanilla helped to enhance the crust's sweetness and brighten the flavor a bit. I also discovered that I do not, in fact, have a tart pan (!), so I instead baked the tart in a glass pie plate (gasp!), which worked out great.

For a pastry cream that did not include flour, I used a recipe from another terrific, albeit somewhat larger, site, Allrecipes. I know cornstarch can be substituted for flour, but I didn't want to mess up any delicate ratios because I wanted this dessert to be perfect.

And the fruit tart was, in fact, perfect. The crust was sweet and cookie-like, and the melted chocolate and vanilla pastry cream were perfect complements to each other. This was my first time making pastry cream, and it came out extremely well, although next time, I will boil the cream a little bit less so it isn't quite as thick. But it was still delicious. And the fresh fruit on top was a nice touch, a nod to good health, even without the apricot glaze. Enjoy!

Fresh Fruit Tart
Adapted from Joy of Baking and Allrecipes.
Makes one 9-inch tart.

For the crust:

210 grams (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

**Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.**

1. Have ready a 9-inch tart pan or pie plate.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until combined. Mix in egg and vanilla to incorporate.
4. Add dry ingredients and stir until just blended.
5. Gather dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
6. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out, between two pieces of plastic wrap, into an 11- or 12-inch circle.
7. Peel off top layer of plastic wrap and, with the aid of the remaining piece of plastic wrap, transfer to tart pan (or pie plate). Peel off remaining plastic wrap.
8. Adjust dough so that it fits nicely in the pan, conforming to all edges, ridges, etc. Just make it look pretty!
9. Place pan in refrigerator and chill for 20 minutes.
10. Prick all over with fork and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown and fully baked.
11. Turn oven off; you won't need it again!
12. Admire your finished crust and set on a wire rack to cool.
Makes one 9-inch tart shell.

For the pastry cream:
2 cups milk (I used skim milk)
1/4 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In medium saucepan, combine milk and 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to boil over medium-high heat.
2. Just before that mixture boils, stir together the egg yolks and egg.
3. Combine cornstarch and 1/3 cup sugar, and whisk into egg mixture.
4. When milk mixture boils, add it very, very slowly, whisking constantly, to the egg mixture (so as not to cook the eggs).
5. When mixtures are combined, pour into saucepan (don't stop whisking) and return to heat.
6. Whisk vigorously for thirty seconds, or until cream is suitably thickened.
7. Remove from heat and whisk in butter and vanilla extract until all ingredients are combined.
8. Push through fine-mesh strainer into large bowl.
9. Cover with plastic wrap, placing the plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream (to prevent skin forming).
10. Place in refrigerator and chill for several hours.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

For the assembly:
One 9-inch tart shell
1/2 cup to 1 cup semisweet or milk chocolate chips
About 2 1/2 cups pastry cream
Strawberries, blueberries, etc., for topping

1. Remove the tart shell from the tart pan by holding the tart pan and pushing up the bottom, letting the ring slip down your arm. Skip this step if you have a pie plate, of course.
2. Melt chocolate and brush on bottom of tart shell.
3. While chocolate is cooling, take pastry cream out of the refrigerator and let it warm up.
4. After about ten minutes, take a spoon to the cream. If it's too firm, mash it a bit with the spoon until it's softer. If it's too watery, well, sorry. It'll still taste delicious.
5. Spoon pastry cream into tart shell.
6. Arrange fruit as desired on top.
7. Capture the beauty with photography before serving to a crowd filled with amazement, wonder, and excitement.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Banana Muffins: Not Your Average Quick Bread

Okay, so maybe these banana muffins are your average quick bread. But they're still damn tasty! Someone gave my mother this recipe on a recipe card quite some time ago, and I've made the recipe many times. The muffins are moist, with a nice, tender crumb and just the right level of sweetness (perfect for breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack). What's more, the recipe is simple--I'm very careful and still managed to whip up a batch in about five minutes. If you like, you can add some cinnamon to the batter, but the muffins are fine without.

Now, quick breads always confuse me a bit because of the different sizes, baking times, and so on. After a few mishaps (but that story is for a future post), I have found that one 9x5x3 loaf pan equals 24 muffins or two 8x4x2 pans. As for baking times, you want to bake muffins for 15 to 20 minutes and quick bread for 45 minutes to an hour, generally. Of course, it never hurts to check early, nor does it hurt to keep a few toothpicks on hand to test. Quick breads are done when the toothpick comes out almost clean, with maybe a few moist crumbs still clinging. Oh, and one more thing: quick-bread batters are generally a bit lumpy, and that's quite all right. In order not to be tough, they require gentle mixing, and the lumps will smooth out in the oven. I promise.

This recipe makes a small batch--only 12 muffins, or one 8x4x2 in. pan--but it scales well, so feel free to double for more banana bread, as long as you can spare the bananas. ;-)
Banana Muffins
Makes 12 muffins.

245 grams (1 3/4 cups unsifted) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup granulated white sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
3 bananas, mashed

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. Grease or line a 12-cup muffin tin.
2. In large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar.
3. Stir in vegetable oil, eggs, and bananas.
4. Mix gently until batter is uniform but still lumpy. It will be thick.
5. Divide evenly among muffin cups (about three-quarters full).
6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out almost clean.
7. Let cool slightly or completely before enjoying.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Easter Surprise: Cadbury Creme Egg Muffins

I'm always a little bummed that, because school is quite far away from home, I don't get to go home for Easter (unless it coincides with Spring Break). You can imagine how happy I was, then, that my professor invited me, along with a few other students, to her house for Easter dinner. Needless to say, I volunteered to bring a dessert.

Then the question became that of what in the world I would make. I needed something Easter-y, creative, and (most importantly) tasty. I was surfing around on my food blog haunts and came to one of my favorite blogs, Baking Bites, whose author, Nicole, mentioned Cadbury Creme Egg Muffins. Hmm, I thought. An interesting concept--a little piece of Easter nestled in thick muffin batter can't be all that bad.

The muffins came out beautifully! The muffins had a very pleasant vanilla flavor, sweet enough to satisfy my raging sweet tooth but not so sweet as to overshadow or villainize the sweet egg nestled inside. Now, I deviated from Nicole's approach because I wanted a little something-something to round out the muffin, so I whipped up a chocolate glaze and drizzled it over the top. The combination was perfect, and the muffins were a huge hit!

A quick note: Even if the creme eggs are not available, this is a great all-purpose muffin recipe, and one can mix in blueberries, raspberries, chocolate chips, or anything else. This has gone in my recipe file forever!
Cadbury Creme Egg Muffins
Adapted from Baking Bites.
Makes 12.

280 grams (2 cups unsifted) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
12 mini Cadbury Creme Eggs
1/2 recipe chocolate glaze, below

** Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. **

1. Grease or line one 12-cup muffin tin.
2. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
3. In large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, butter, and vanilla.
4. Whisk in milk until combined.
5. Add dry ingredients to the large bowl and mix until just combined.
6. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups (about two-thirds full). Place one mini egg in the center of each unbaked muffin and press down almost, but not completely, to bottom. If desired, use a knife to pull a bit of batter over the egg.
7. Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, or until muffins are golden.
8. Cool completely before gobbling.

Chocolate Glaze
Adapted from
Makes enough to glaze 24 muffins or one large Bundt cake.

3/4 cup semisweet or milk chocolate chips
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine first three ingredients in small, microwave-safe bowl.
2. Microwave on high for 45 seconds; stir.
3. Microwave on high for another 45 seconds; stir.
4. If necessary, continue to heat for 15 seconds at a time. (I didn't have to!)
5. Stir in vanilla.
6. Spread glaze while warm over muffins or cake.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Welcome to the Blog

Hi there!  My name is Chris, and I'm a college student trying to bake delicious treats with limited resources and time.

On this blog, I will post recipes that I've found, modified, created, saved, et cetera, based on what I've made, and hopefully I'll include some nice foodie pictures, as well.  Generally, I bake food that is relatively simple but solidly good--I aim to please a crowd, and nothing less.

So stay tuned for the great desserts in store!