Monday, January 19, 2009

I Must Put Down the Cinnamon.

I know, I know, there are desserts that do not have cinnamon, but where would we be without the possibility of a delicious, irresistibly spicy, deep-flavored treat? Nowhere, that's where. So I present to you another cinnamon-influenced dessert that is sure to please young and old alike: snickerdoodles.

Now, snickerdoodles are a New England tradition. I remember always getting them from a local bakery and savoring the interesting flavor combination--on the one hand, the sweetness and warmth of cinnamon sugar, and on the other hand, the tanginess and distinctive flavor of the cookie itself. If you think that snickerdoodles are simply sugar cookies rolled in cinnamon sugar, you are wrong. I used to hold that misconception, but I have since seen the light and discovered that, despite my best efforts to simplify my baking recipes, snickerdoodles are different. They cannot be faked; they cannot be dumbed down.

The unique flavor and appearance of these cookies come in part from the inclusion of cream of tartar in addition to baking soda. The cream of tartar gives the cookies a good tang and facilitates their crackly, fallen tops. So don't worry if the cookies fall; they're supposed to. Isn't that a load off your mind?

The recipe itself is from Baking Illustrated, from which I've already made more recipes than I can count (none of them got on this blog, though) and which I really must put down. Right next to the cinnamon. As always, the good folks at America's Test Kitchen are spot on with the recipe, and the cookies taste exactly I remember them. But better. :-)

Adapted from Baking Illustrated.
Makes about 30 cookies.

3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 1/4 cups (11.25 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar (do not substitute)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (do not substitute)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs

**Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.**

1. Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Grease two medium or large baking sheets.
2. In small bowl, mix cinnamon and 3 tablespoons sugar. Set aside.
3. In medium bowl, whisk flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt until well combined. Set aside.
4. In large bowl, cream butter, shortening, and 1 1/2 cups sugar on medium-high speed until blended thoroughly, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add eggs and beat for about 30 seconds.
6. Stir in dry ingredients just until incorporated.
7. Using your hands, roll dough into one-and-a-half-inch balls and coat with cinnamon/sugar mixture. Place two inches apart on baking sheets.
8. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until centers are soft and puffy and edges are set.
9. Let cool 2 minutes on baking sheets, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, January 9, 2009

You'll Want To Eat ALL the Crumbs...

(Oh my, it has been a long time since I've posted. My sincerest apologies; I fully intended to keep updating, but my busy schedule got in the way. An excellent recipe, however, has roused this blog from its hibernation...)

There's coffee cake, and then there's coffee cake. I'm not talking about the ordinary, ho-hum, run-of-the-mill yellow cakes with a smattering of thin cinnamon streusel. The real deal is crumb cake as it's done in New York: tender cake absolutely loaded with buttery, crunchy crumbs that fall all over the place and positively burst with flavor.

Hungry yet? I bet you're wondering how to make such a wickedly good concoction. Well, this delightful treat is from the folks at America's Test Kitchen, whose recipes have never failed me. The cake itself is extremely easy to make and comes together quickly--less than 5 minutes. The crumbs, on the other hand, are another story. Each crumb is formed individually by hand from a soft dough, and there are literally hundreds of crumbs. This process took me a good 45 minutes to an hour; it definitely fell into the "labor of love" category.

The successful cake you see here is, in fact, my second attempt. You see, at first, I thought that the recipe was a dud, or at least not the best crumb cake recipe out there. I later figured out that I had made two mistakes: for one, I tried to substitute my usual milk and vinegar mixture for buttermilk; secondly, I made the crumbs pretty big. This was unfortunately a bad combination: the buttermilk substitute made the batter too thin, and the heavy crumbs sank, giving the finished cake an appearance (but not texture) somewhere between sausage cornbread and fruit suspended in Jell-O. The second time, I used real buttermilk and made smaller crumbs, and I was much more successful.

The cake was absolutely delicious and definitely worth the effort! You may even need to brew some coffee to give yourself an excuse to indulge. :-)

New York-Style Crumb Cake
Adapted from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008.
Makes one 8-inch square cake.

Crumb Topping:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) cake flour

** Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and set oven rack to upper or upper-middle position. **

1. Whisk the warm melted butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt together in a medium bowl.
2. Stir in flour until mixture becomes a thick dough and no streaks of flour remain.
3. Let cool 10 minutes.
4. Lay sheet of wax paper on workspace.
5. Break off pieces of dough and roll them between your fingers to the size of peas. The crumbs must be relatively small. Set each crumb on wax paper so that all the crumbs are in a single layer or are slightly overlapping.

1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, softened
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Crumb topping

1. In large bowl, whisk together cake flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
2. With electric mixer on low speed, add butter pieces one at a time. Mix until no large chunks of butter remain, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Add buttermilk, egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat on medium-high speed until batter is light and fluffy, about 1 minute, scraping sides of bowl if necessary.
4. Scrape the batter into a greased 8 x 8-inch pan and smooth the top with a knife or rubber spatula.
5. Sprinkle crumbs evenly over cake, working from the edges toward the center so as not to make the center too heavy.
6. Bake in preheated oven until crumbs are golden and a toothpick inserted near center comes out with moist crumbs, 35 to 40 minutes.
7. Cool on a wire rack and enjoy warm or at room temperature. If desired, dust with powdered sugar just before serving.