Monday, March 26, 2007

Patience and changes

I just wanted to thank everyone for being so patient lately. I'm making a couple of changes to the site and it is taking me a little longer than anticipates. I have a couple of recipes waiting to go, but am trying to hold off on them for a few more days.
Bear with me, guys. I'll be back at 110% soon!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Traditional Irish Soda Bread

The New York Times ran an article this week about traditional Irish soda bread - or rather, they ran an article that discussed how the loaf presented as "traditional" in the US is often not. The author's loaf had butter, sugar and eggs in it, as well as raisins, and turned into a very cake-like loaf. I myself am guilty, to a degree, of making a less-than-traditional loaf. I don't use butter or eggs, but I usually add a bit of sugar, caraway seeds and raisins. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, it is good to know that the Irish soda bread that I typically make is a variation on the standard, not the standard itself.
The article hinted at the fact that the traditional recipe used only flour, buttermilk, salt and baking soda, but for some reason failed to include the recipe (it did include the cake-like version, however). I thought I'd step up and fill in the gap. I took out all the extraneous ingredients from my usual recipe and whittled it down to a plain, basic traditional loaf.
The bread is best when it is warm and comes out of the oven with a crisp crust and a tender interior. It is easy to taste the buttermilk in the loaf, but it is very plain bread. I like it with soup, where it can sop up broth, or cut into slices (I often simply pull pieces off the loaf) and topped with butter or jam. Irish butter is usually salted and will taste better with the bread than unsalted butter.

Traditional Irish Soda Bread
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 - 1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients and stir together. Add buttermilk and mix with a large spoon (or with your hands, shaping your fingers into a "claw") until the dough comes together. You might need two tablespoons more or less buttermilk depending on the weather. The dough should be moist, but not so sticky it is very hard to handle.
Shape into a round and place on baking sheet. Cut an X into the top with a sharp knife and bake for about 45 minutes, until dark golden. A toothpick will come out clean.
Cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before slicing. Bread is best served soon after baking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chocolate Mint Sticks

"Who's gonna turn down a Junior Mint? It's chocolate, it's peppermint -it's delicious!" -- Kramer, Seinfeld

I know one person who does not like the combination of chocolate and mint, but to be fair, he does not care for peppermint-type flavors in general. Doubtless there are a handful of other people who also do not care for the combination, but the vast majority of people simply adore it. The freshness of mint complements the rich and intense taste of chocolate (particularly of dark chocolate) and makes the two a winning pair.
Junior mints and York peppermint patties are two of the best examples of this flavor combo, but Maida Heatter's Chocolate Mint Sticks might even be better. The little bars are dense, but tender, and intensely chocolaty. On top of the chocolate layer is a thin glaze of peppermint, which in turn is topped with a drizzle of melted, bittersweet chocolate for contrast. It tastes like a little candy bar, only better.
As if the outstanding flavor weren't enough, the "sticks" are even better when they are cold, so store them in the fridge or freezer and use them as a treat to cool off with on a hot summer day (or a hot winter day, if you have also been experiencing this year's rather odd temperature shifts!).

Chocolate Mint Sticks
(adapted from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts)
2 ounces dark chocolate
1/2 cup butter
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 9-inch square cake pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease.
Melt chocolate and butter together in a small bowl in the microwave, stirring after every 30-second interval until smooth. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar, salt and vanilla extract until smooth. Beat in chocolate mixture, then stir in the flour at low speed. Mix in chocolate chips, then pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake for 28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool completely on a wire rack.

Mint Icing
2 tbsp butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tbsp milk or cream
1/2 tsp peppermint extract

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl until smooth. Spread evenly on cooled chocolate base, then refrigerate for exactly 5 minutes while you make the chocolate glaze.

Bitter Chocolate Glaze
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1 tbsp butter

Melt together chocolate and butter in a small bowl, in the microwave, stirring after every 30-second interval until smooth. Immediately pour the hot glaze (it should be fairly fluid) over the chilled chocolate/mint base. Tilt the pan around to coat the mint layer as much as possible, or drizzle over evenly. Some white will show through; this is ok.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before removing foil and chocolate bars from pan and cutting into 24 thin bars with a sharp knife.
Sticks can be served at room temperature, but are best when chilled or frozen.

Makes 24.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Raisin Bread

It has been a while since I have posted a yeast bread recipe. This isn't because I haven't been baking them, however. I have simply been sticking to old favorites for a while, like Sourdough and Country White Bread, and have been working on a new baguette recipe that I really like (not ready for prime time yet, sorry!). What this all boils down to is that I have been in a bit of a rut and was finally kicked out of it by a box of cinnamon raisin granola. The granola was so good that after running through a box of it for breakfast (and snacks), I decided that I needed to make some cinnamon raising bread for toasting in the morning as a replacement.
Cinnamon and raisins obviously played a role in the bread, and I went for a fairly plain loaf, rather than doing the slightly more traditional cinnamon spiral. Since granola is a whole-grain product, I also decided to go with whole wheat in my bread. I used both whole wheat flour and white whole wheat flour, as I wanted to maximize the amount of whole grain in the bread but didn't want the texture to be too coarse, which can be a fault of whole wheat-only breads. I used honey, instead of regular sugar, to add some sweetness to the bread, and I used both buttermilk and butter to ensure that the finished loaf had a hint of a buttery taste to it. The buttery taste is a good feature in bread meant for toasting.
All in all, the bread turned out to be very satisfying. It wasn't too heavy or dense because I gave the bread a long time to rise a develop small air pockets as the yeast did its thing. The final loaf also had the tenderness that the relatively low gluten (lower than regular flour, anyway) whole wheat flour provides. The cinnamon was mild in the untoasted bread, but came out beautifully in the finished product. I wish now that I would have tried a few slices of french toast with the loaf, but the call of the toaster was just too tempting and just about every single slice ended up there.
Butter, jam and peanut butter (not necessarily together) are my top three toppers for toast made with this bread, but use whatever strikes your fancy. But be sure to toast it. It's well worth it!

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Raisin Bread
1 tbsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (approx 110F)
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, room temperature or a bit warmer
1/4 cup honey
2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 - 2 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
2/3 cups raisins

In a large bowl, combine yeast and warm water. Let stand for 5-10 minutes until foamy.
Mix in buttermilk, honey, salt, cinnamon and whole wheat flour. Stir well. Gradually mix in white whole wheat flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, adding a bit more flour as you go to keep it from sticking, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5-7 minutes (it won't get quite as smooth as breads made with other flours, but it will still be a bit stretchy). Place in a lightly greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand for 1 1/2 - 2 hours, until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Turn bread out onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate. Shape into a rectangle, then form into a log by folding the short ends into the center, then pulling the long ends up and pinching them together. Place dough seam-side down into a greased 8x4 inch loaf pan. Let rise for 45-60 minutes.
Bake at 375F for 35-40 minutes (until an internal-read thermometer inserted into the bottom of the loaf reads approx 200F). Remove from pan and cool completely on a wire rack before slicing and toasting.
Makes 1 loaf.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Black Forest Tart

Black Forest Cake was once the pinnacle of all desserts. Every restaurant worth eating at - or that wanted to look like it was worth eating at - had it on the menu. The cake is from, as you might suspect from the name, the Black Forest region of Germany, where it began as a cherry and liquor dessert before morphing into a cake. The cake itself has layers of chocolate cake with lots of whipped cream and cherries stacked between the layers. Some recipes will use rum or kirsch, but the important things are the chocolate, cream and cherries.
Combining these three things can turn anything into a "black forest." The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf coffee shop chain in LA, for example, makes a delicious ice blended coffee drink with maraschino cherries, chocolate and coffee called the Black Forest. Faced with a jar of perfectly preserved (in cherry juice) Morello cherries, I decided to make my own version of the Black Forest - in tart form.
I made a crust out of chocolate wafer cookies (you can use the ends of Oreos or similar cookies, with all the filling removed), filled it with a smooth cream cheese filling and topped it with the cherries. The dessert was so simple, yet it managed to seem perfectly balanced. It definitely falls into the comfort food category before the gourmet one, but that's not always a bad thing, right?
If you don't have cherries or other fruits are in season, go ahead and top the tart with strawberries, raspberries or some combination of other fruits for a chocolate fruit tart. Don't forget a little dollop of whipped cream on top of each piece!

Black Forest Tart
Chocolate Crust
1 1/2 cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a medium bowl, combine chocolate crumbs, sugar and butter and stir well. Pat into 9-in. pie plate.
Bake for 15-18 minutes, until firm at the edges.
Cool completely.

8-ounces cream cheese, slightly softened
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp cream
1 tsp vanilla extract or 1 tbsp kirsch

approx. 2 cups cherries, pitted (Morello or marischino) or other fruits
whipped cream

Combine cream cheese, sugar, cream and vanilla (or kirsch) in a medium bowl and beat until smooth. Spread evenly into cooled tart crust. Top with an even layer of fruit and a few dollops of whipped cream before serving.

Serves 8.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Peach Passion Muffins

The other day when I was at Trader Joe's, I noticed the most unusual fruit in the freezer department. Now, when it comes to fruit, I always like to have fresh on hand for eating and frozen on hand for baking. After all - it can be difficult to get wild blueberries (which I adore in all kinds of cakes, muffins and scones) in January. The fruit I found on this particular occasion was sliced, peeled peaches that were passion fruit flavored - by which they seemed to mean that the stone fruit slices had been soaked in passion fruit juice before freezing. I didn't think that you can go too far wrong with either peaches or passion fruit, so I bought a bag.
When still cold, but slightly thawed, I could taste both fruit flavors in the peaches and they went splendedly with yogurt. Sticking to my original plan, however, I duitifully chopped up some of the slices and folded them into a batch of muffins. The passion fruit flavor didn't quite carry over in the way I had hoped, but I like to think it was there in a (very) subtle way.
Despite the lack of passion flavor and the rather plain look of these muffins, they were actually very good. I added a fair amount of vanilla, which blended nicely with the fruit. The peaches worked out perfectly and had a great texture - far, far better than what you'd get with any canned peach and much easier than working with a fresh one (especially in the off-season!).
The only change I would make to this recipe is that I would add a sprinkle of coarse/raw sugar to the top just to make them look a bit prettier

Vanilla Peach Muffins
1 ¾ cup all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp oil
2 tsp vanilla extract*
1 ½ cups peeled, diced frozen peaches (unthawed)
coarse sugar, for topping

Preheat oven to 350F and line a 12-cup muffin tin with baking cups.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk/beat together eggs and sugar for about a minute at high speed, just until fairly smooth, then add in oil and vanilla. Add in flour mixture and stir until just combined. Briefly stir in peach pieces. Divide evenly into muffin cups and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
Bbake at 350F for 18-22 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
These are best on the day they are made.
Makes 12 muffins.

*Vanilla paste, if you can find it, is a great substitute, since it will add attractive vanilla specks to your muffins.