Friday, June 30, 2006

And the DMBLGiT winners are...

Wow! We had some fantastic entries in this month's Does My Blog Look Good in This? event! We also had some fantastic judges who, up until now, were anonymous: Cathy, from My Little Kitchen, Lori from Dessert Comes First, Sarah from The Delicious Life and Slashfood and Anna, from the Annalog, which isn't a food blog, but she's an excellent photographer and still likes to eat. I was the fifth and final judge. We all had a blast looking at the entries.

Some tips for future entrants: Since the judging is based on edibility, originality and aesthetics, any one of those three categories can make or break a would-be winner. For aesthetics, aim for good or interesting lighting and a sharp focus. Originality could be anything from presentation to the food itself, or simply the fact that there are no other (cookies/cakes/salmon filets) entered that month, so it's a bit of a wild card. That brings us to edibility. If it's not edible or drinkable in its current state, it's going to be at a disadvantage. Of course, I think that every single entry scored highly in that category, so don't take this too serioiusly! We're food bloggers - we like to eat.

Other Awards:
Viewer's Choice: Fairly Easy Fairy Cakes (based on number of views)

Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to all the judges. You can still view the rest of the entries here, if you missed them. The next round of DMBLGiT is being hosted by Helen, the Sydneysider who blogs at the wonderful Grab Your Fork. Head over there for more details!

I'll leave you with a gratuitous photo of my key lime pie. Any suggestions for which photo from the last month I should enter in the next round? Leave them in the comments!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cooking School: Peanut Butter Tasty Kakes

Tasty Kakes are snack cakes that are originally from (and hugely popular in) the Philadelphia area. Since a lot of my family lives out there, I regularly got to taste these delicious cakes when I was growing up, despite the fact that they weren't sold out in California. More recently, I have seen a kind or two in the market, but they are still largely unavailable elsewhere in the country.
If you ask a Tasty Kake lover, they will tell you that they are the best snack cakes on the market. Now, I am no snack cake connoisseur, but they are certainly very tasty. The company makes a huge range of products and has a lot of extraneous "k"s in their spelling, which adds to their charm. When I'm back east, I like to go for the seasonal products, just to keep things interesting, but the gold standard of Tasty Kakes is the Peanut Butter Kandy Kake.
The Peanut Butter Kandy Kake (which used to be called "tandy takes" for reasons unknown) is a vanilla sponge-type cake with a thin layer of peanut butter and another of chocolate on top. The packaged Kakes are circular and are enrobed in chocolate. When I found a recipe on Epicurious for a version of these cakes, I knew that I had to try them, even though it can be difficult (and sometimes disappointing) to compare anything to a favorite food or product, since it is hard to match flavors exactly.
This recipe, however, was spot on - and maybe even a bit better than the original, because I liked the increased cake-to-topping ratio of this version.
The cake base is a vanilla-flavored sponge cake that is enriched with a little bit of butter. The peanut butter layer is simply peanut butter (not a "natural" kind, which will separate and turn greasy when put onto a hot cake) spread onto the hot cake and cooled. The chocolate is creamy milk chocolate. The whole thing is prepared in the pan and the only "trick" to remember is to make cut marks in the chocolate layer before it sets up completely, which will allow you to easily slice through the cake without cracking the chocolate when you are ready to serve it.
To keep the topping firm and give it a bit of "snap" when you bite into it, the cake must be stored in the refrigerator. Make sure to keep it well-covered so it does not get stale. You can also slice up the bars and individually wrap them, keeping them in the fridge or freezer for later use - just like the real, individually packaged Kandy Kakes!

Peanut Butter Tasty Kakes
(from Gourmet magazine)
For cake
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk (low fat is fine)
2 tbsp butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

For topping
1 1/3-1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter (do not use a "natural" kind)
1 pound milk chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 17x11 1/2x1-in. jelly-roll pan, knocking out excess flour.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together eggs and sugar until thick and pale, 3-5 minutes. Beat in vanilla.
While that is beating (or before, if you're not using a stand mixer), heat milk and butter in a small saucepan or in the microwave until the butter has just melted and the milk is steaming, but not boiling. Set aside.
Sift flour and baking powder into the beaten egg mixture and beat until just combined. With the mixer running, slowly stream in the milk/butter mixture until just combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading it out evenly, and bake for 20-25 minutes at 350F. Cake is done when a tester comes out clean and the top is golden and springs back when touched lightly.

Let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then place small dollops of peanut butter on the surface of the cake. Use an off-set spatula to spread the peanut butter into an even layer, covering the entire cake.
Let cool completely, then refrigerate for 1-2 hours to make sure the peanut butter is set.

When chilled, melt the chocolate in a double boiler (bowl over a pan of simmering water), stirring constantly. Once it is smooth, pour it over the chilled cake and spread it evenly with an offset spatula.
Using a knife, cut the cake into 30 bars. It is not necessary to cut all the way through the cake, just into the chocolate/pb layers. Make sure the cuts are clear, so wipe your knife in between each. This will make it easy to divide up the bars when the chocolate has set.
Return cake to fridge and chill until chocolate is firm (or overnight).

Makes 30 bars.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mushroom Caviar

When I saw Elise's post about mushroom caviar, I was immediately interested in it. It's a cross between dip and "real" food, not to mention that it's different from most of the dips that I have on a regular basis, so I thought it would be a great summer snack. And I was right.
This dish is called "caviar" for its slight physical resemblance to the fishy product and to make it sound a bit more posh than "mushroom dip." It comes together easily, with chopped up mushrooms and shallots, followed by a bit of garlic and seasonings, all of which is sauteed until tender. I didn't have an open bottle of white wine, so I left that out, as well as omitting the pine nuts (sorry, Elise). The caviar is served cold, so it can be made in advance, and is made creamy with the addition of a little bit of sour cream. I actually used plain yogurt instead of sour cream and, since I didn't measure it, my caviar appears to be slightly creamier than Elise's. The sour cream/yogurt helps the mushroom bits to stick together, so you can form it into an attractive round on your serving dish that looks almost like pate.
I'll be making this again many times. I served it with some garlic crackers that I picked up at Trader Joe's, though it also went extremely well with pita chips.

Mushroom Caviar
(recipe from Simply Recipes)
1 tbsp butter
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, finely chopped (I used about 12-oz.)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup of minced shallots
1 tbsp dry white wine (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, optional)
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp sour cream/plain yogurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped parsley
A couple dashes of cayenne pepper, to taste

Sautee mushrooms and shallots in a large skillet, with the butter, salt and pepper, over high heat until quite tender, about 5-7 minutes.
If you're including pinenuts (which will add a nice crunch), lightly toast them in a small skillet (1-2 minutes), then set aside.
When mushrooms are slightly tender, add in the garlic and white wine (if using), and cook until for an addition 1-2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, along with the pinenuts, and refrigerate until cool. Once chilled, stir in lemon, sour cream/yogurt, parsley and a bit of cayenne. Add additional salt and pepper, if needed. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Zucchini Cookies

Raise your hand if you have ever experienced and overabundance of courgettes/zucchini/summer squash in either your garden or refrigerator.
Everyone? I thought so.
I don't try to grow it anymore for two reasons. The first is that it takes over the garden and results in an unbelievable number of squash. The second is that my garden is already overtaken with cucumbers and I don't have any more room. I buy it, though. I love zucchini because it tastes great, is versatile and is usually both plentiful and inexpensive. I have used it in cornbread and to make oven-fried zucchini sticks, and there are even blogs named after it. From time to time, I am struck by the desire to do something different with my squash and will toss some into a cake or bread, both of which work beautifully - but cookies?
Zucchini works as well in cookies as it does in cakes. Don't worry - the cookies don't taste like zucchini, even though you will be able to see little specks of green in them. It gives the finished product a moistness that is uncharacteristic of most cookies. It also makes them fairly cakelike, much like a muffin top, so this recipe is probably not for you if you only like crunchy cookies!
The cookies are easy to make and use up about 1 medium sized zucchini. Though cakelike, they are not dry and they keep well in an airtight container. I like the fairly mild spicing that the cookies have, but you could certainly add in a bit of freshly grated nutmeg or more allspice, if you like. I prefer raisins to chocolate chips in these cookies, but if you need to have your chocolate fix, simply substitute an equal amount of semisweet chips.

Zucchini Cookies
1 medium zucchini (with skin)
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t allspice
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper
Finely grate the zucchini and, using several paper towels, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of it. You should have approximately 1 cup of zucchini. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and allspice.
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light. Beat in egg, then zucchini, and gradually beat in the flour mixture. When the cookie dough has just come together, stir in the raisins.
Scoop by tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet. Cookies will spread, so leave at least 1 1/2 inches between scoops.
Bake for 13-15 minutes at 350F, until light golden at edges, but not browned all over (which could cause them to be too dry).
Cool on baking sheet for about 4-5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack.
Store in an airtight container.

Makes about 3 dozen.

Serving suggestion: Sandwiching these with vanilla ice cream or cream cheese frosting is definitely going to convert even the cakey-cookie haters, not to mention it's a good way to sneak some zucchini into a non-zucchini lover's diet!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

IMBB27 + SHF20: Cookies & Cream Vegan Ice Cream

This month's food meme mashup of IMBB27 and SHF20 is hosted by Reid, of the inimitable Ono Kine Grindz, everyone's favorite Hawaiian food blog. If you don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to clarify. Every month, many food bloggers participate in the food blogging events Is My Blog Burning? (IMBB) and Sugar High Friday (SHF), which usually occur independently, but happen to both be run by Reid this month. Everyone makes a dish according to a theme and sends it in to one blogger who publishes a roundup (list of links) of all the participating bloggers and their recipes. The catch is that the events are themed and this month's theme is soy.
It didn't take me long to decide what to make.
First, I wanted something sweet, which would be appropriate to the spirit of SHF as well as IMBB. Given that it is getting pretty darn hot here in Los Angeles, I figured that something cold would be a good choice, too. The final piece of the puzzle came from leftover cookies.
I made cookies n' cream ice cream with a low-fat soy milk base. Since my Trader Joe's Jo-Jo's (Oreo cookie look-alikes) are vegan, this made the whole ice cream vegan. How's that for a guiltless summer treat?
The ice cream turns out to taste pretty much just like cookies and cream. It is smooth an creamy, with a bit of crunch from the cookies. The chocolatey color is due to the fact that I crushed up some cookies very finely, while leaving others in bigger chunks. If you only want chunks, stir in the crushed up cookies after the ice cream base has churned in the ice cream maker. And yes, I do recommend that you use an ice cream maker for this recipe.
This works best with low fat soy milk, which will yeild a slightly creamier than non-fat. Using vanilla soy milk will give you even more vanilla flavor.

Vegan Cookies & Cream Ice Cream
3 cups vanilla soy milk
5 tbsp cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1/2 tsp almond extract
6-10 cookies (depending on how much cookie you want!)

In a large saucepan, combine 2 1/2 cups vanilla soy milk, sugar and vanilla bean. Bring to a simmer, then scrape out the vanilla bean, stirring the seeds into the milk mixture, and discard the pod. Whisk cornstarch together with remaining 1/2 cup soy milk and pour into the hot vanilla milk mixture, while whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium low and, stirring occasionally, cook until it has thickened and starts to bubble (3-5 minutes). Stir in almond extract.
Refrigerate until cold.
Crush cookies and add both cookies and chilled cream base into your ice cream maker and freeze according to directions.

Makes 4 generous servings, more than enough to cool you off on a hot day.

Tagged with: , , &

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cooking School: Ricotta Cheesecake

What do you do when you already have a really good cheesecake recipe, but want to make another one? Sometimes, it is hard to justify trying a new recipe when the one you have is excellent because it is taking a risk on something new when you already have a sure thing going. The best solution is to make a variation on the recipe, which will give you a similar product, but get you there in a new and different way. For example, I wanted to make a cheesecake, but I didn't want to use the same recipe again (even though it is fantastic). I made ricotta cheesecake instead.
Ricotta cheesecake is rich, but light at the same time due to the ever-so-slight texture that the cheese gives the cake. Of course, it's not "light" in the sense that it is low in fat or calories, but you'll certainly never mistake it for the super smooth and super dense New York-style cake. This cake has a hint of lemon, which is tasty and almost refreshing in the chilled cake.
I prefer it this way, but I won't say that it's necessarily better.
I used the recipe from Joy of Baking because it incorporated both cream cheese and ricotta, giving the cake a good flavor profile. The cheesecake whips together in minutes and, though it does bake in a waterbath, it is easy to tell when it is done because you want it to brown slightly on the top. As it bakes, the cake will puff up a lot, almost twice the size that it will be after it cools. After it deflates, there will be small wrinkles around the outer edge of the cake, giving it a distinctive and appealing look.
I omitted a crust because I noticed that many ricotta cheesecake recipes leave it out. While I crust would have been fine, I do think that the texture of the cheesecake was subtle and might have been lost with on the tongue with the crisp, crumbliness of a crust. It still would have tasted good, though.
One final word of advice: don't eat cheesecake at the end of a meal. You won't be able to finish a piece, but you will want to and will probably just end up feeling guilty that you wasted it. And even if you stuff yourself, you won't feel good enough to actually enjoy the flavor. Instead, have a piece with your coffee in the afternoon, when you're really able to savor it.

Ricotta Cheesecake
(adapted from Joy of Baking)
15-oz fresh whole milk ricotta, room temperature
2 - 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature (full fat)
1 cup white sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
4 large eggs, room temperature
Zest of 1 lemon (2-3 tsp)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round springform pan. Wrap the bottom in two layers of aluminum foil.
Place a deep pan, large enough to fit the springform pan, in the oven as it preheats and fill it with about one inch of water.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine ricotta and cream cheese and process until smooth. Add in sugar, whizzing for 2-3 minutes so the sugar dissolves in the cheeses, then add cornstarch. Add in the eggs one at a time, waiting until each is fully incorporated before adding the next one. Add lemon zest and vanilla and pulse until blended. Pour mixture into prepared pan.
Place pan into waterbath that has been heating in the oven. Bake for 65-75 minutes, until the top is lightly browned, but the center still jiggles slightly when the pan is gently shaken.
Remove from waterbath and cool on a wire rack. Chill overnight in the refrigerator before serving.
Cake will keep several days, covered, in the fridge.

Serves 12.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Watermelon and Feta Salad

Watermelon is 80% water and, as such, is one of the most refreshing foods that you can have. It satisfies your sweet tooth, your thirst and your hunger, all in one go. I used to love to eat it plain, scooping it out of the rind with a spoon when I was down at the beach as a kid.
One day, years later, a coworker introduced me to the practise of adding a sprinkle of salt to the melon. What a revelation! The fruit was juicier and sweeter behind the subtle taste of the salt. It's not a big leap from there to realise that salty feta cheese can bring out the flavor of the melon in the same way, with the creaminess of the cheese adding a nice contrast to the crisp melon.
I don't have all that much to say about this salad except that it is simple, refreshing and delicious. It is the perfect dish to bring to a barbecue or a picnic, as it is surprising and summery. The only thing to keep in mind is that it is best to prepare it no more than a few hours before serving, as after a day or so in the refrigerator the watermelon will start to leak water into the bottom of the bowl (a phenomenon that anyone who keeps watermelon on hand will have witnessed before).
The amounts given here are approximate, so don't feel the need to measure too carefully. Add as much or as little feta to the watermelon as you like, but be sure not to forget the fresh basil. Jennifer used parsley in hers, but I think that the sweet, sharp bite of the basil is the perfect compliment to the cool melon and creamy feta.

Watermelon and Feta Salad
6-8 cups watermelon, diced (1/2 large melon)
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh basil, diced

Combine all ingredients in a very large bowl and mix. Refrigerate until cold before serving.
Serves 8.

Monday, June 19, 2006

White Chocolate Macadamia Cookies

I think that I've mentioned before that I am not a big fan of nuts in cookies or cakes. While I like the flavor of nuts, I just don't like big chunks of them. As a result, if I use them, I'll generally chop them up into small pieces. Exceptions to this rule are when I am making a batch of something for other people to eat and pecans, which I quite like in cookies.
Another nut that I am fond of is the macadamia nut, which has an unusually smooth and buttery flavor. I particularly enjoy it when it is paired with white chocolate, as the chocolate contributes a sweetness that is noticeably lacking in the nut. This is the point where the size of the nut becomes an issue: I like white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, but would rather not have the huge nuts taking over the texture with their bulk.
Luckily for me, this recipe not only made the most delicious white chocolate macadamia cookies I've had in a long time, but there was not a single nut to be seen. And it was an accident.
I was trying out Dreena's recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies, since they looked so wonderful in the picture. I opened my cupboard to discover that I had no vegetable/canola oil. I was forced to choose between olive and macadamia nut and, not wanting an olive oil chocolate chip cookie, went for the mac nut option. When I noticed that the batter smelled distinctly of macadamia nuts, I decided to mix in white chocolate chips instead of plain.
They turned out great! The cookies were crispy on the edges and slightly chewy in the center. They tasted like mac nuts and the white chocolate wonderfully accented the overall cookie. Though there was maple syrup in the batter, there was no maple flavor to the final cookie. The recipe makes only a few, so they disappear in a flash, but store them in an airtight container if necessary.
While I wish I could say that these were still vegan, in the spirit of Dreena's original recipe, the white chocolate has milk solids in it. I did eventually make the original recipe with plain vegetable oil (canola) and chocolate chips and they were wonderful, too.

If you can't find macadamia nut oil at your usual grocery store, try a natural foods or specialty store (like Whole Foods). Otherwise, make the regular chocolate chip version and keep and eye out for it!

White Chocolate Macadamia Cookies
(adapted from Dreena's recipe)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup macadamia nut oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar.
In a small bowl, whisk together macadamia nut oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract. Pour into flour mixture and stir until almost combined. Add the white chocolate chips and mix until no flour remains.
Shape into ten rounded balls and place on prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes at 350F.
Cool on baking sheet.

Makes 10 large cookies.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Balsamic Barbecue Sauce

Barbecue sauce is a great condiment to have around, especially during summer when the grill gets a lot of use. You can put it on just about anything and, somehow, it manages to always taste great. My current favorite way to have it is to add it to a salad instead of dressing.
While I love barbecue sauce, sometimes they tend to be a little on the sweet side. I think that a sweet sauce is great for dishes like ribs, but sometimes I want a little more zing. When I set out to look for a sauce recipe on this occasion (which happened to be yesterday), I decided that balsamic vinegar was the ingredient I wanted to highlight.
WhileI have added a bit of vinegar to sauces before, I can't recall putting it into a starring role. So originally, I thought that I might make some sort of reduction sauce for this chicken to add balsamic vinegar to the dish. Fortunately, I came across a recipe for balsamic barbecue sauce on the Sunset magazine website and, after reading it, knew that it was exactly what I had in mind.
The sauce was fairly thick and very smooth. It had a complex, rich taste and a definite tang from the balamic vinegar. There was a small kick of spice, from the Worcestershire and the dry mustard. I opted to use dried, powdered garlic instead of a fresh clove to ensure that I would have a smooth texture in the final product.

Balsamic Barbecue Sauce
(from Sunset Magazine)
1 cup ketchup
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp garlic powder (or 1 clove minced garlic)
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan and whisk to combine. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until sauce is reduced by about 1/3. It's not crucial to be exact about the reduction.

Serve warm, at room temperature or store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cooking School: Oreo Cupcakes

I was tempted just to make plain vanilla cupcakes this week but inspiration struck me when I was watching the World Cup: black and white cupcakes, inspired by the colors of a soccer ball. This was quickly followed by a thought of cookies and cream and the oreo cupcake came to life.
It was a simple thing to mix crushed up cookies into a fairly standard vanilla cupcake and I'm surprised I never did it before. All I had to do was put 10 cookies in a zip-lock plastic bag and gently crush them with a rolling pin.
I have to admit that I didn't even use Oreo cookies in these. I actually used the chocolate and vanilla bean JoJo's from Trader Joe's. Essentially Oreos with higher quality ingredients (you can see the vanilla bean specks in the filling), they are non-hydrogenated, so you can feel better about eating them. Any cookie of a similar sandwich composition and texture (such as Hydrox, or whatever they're calling them now) should work fine.
The cupcakes were fantastic, in my opinion. If you don't like cookies n' cream or Oreos in general, you probably won't feel the same way, but there is a variation of the recipe you can use, below. The cakes were tender and moist, with a satisfying crumb and and excellent vanilla flavor. As for the cookie pieces, the filling of the cookies melted into the batter and while the chocolate wafers stayed ever so slightly crisp, maintining a different texture than the rest of the cake. The smalled bits of cookie were less noticeable, but I enjoyed the textural and flavor contrasts of having both large and small cookie pieces. Don't crush them too finely.
Overall, the cupcakes remided me exactly of cookies and cream ice cream. Possibly a bit better. The only problem I encountered was that the cookie garnish lost its crispness after storage, so I recommend frosting and adding the cookie garnish the day that you serve the cakes.

Oreo Cupcakes
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 egg whites, room temperature
3/4 cup milk
1 1/4 cups crushed oreo cookies (10 cookies)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line 24 muffin cups with baking cups.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and the butter until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract, then beat in the egg whites one at a time, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next.
Working in 4 or 5 additions, alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the sugar mixture. Keep the mixer on low speed while you do this. When just combined, stir in the crushed oreos.
Spoon batter evenly into muffin tins, filling each about 2/3 full.
Bake for 15-18 minutes at 350F, until a toothpick comes out clean (a few chocolate cookie crumbs are fine, but not batter).
Cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
Store in an airtight container if not serving the same day.

Makes 24 cupcakes

Note: If you only have a 12-cup muffin tin, the batter will not suffer from sitting around for a few minutes while the first batch bakes. Just be sure to let the pan cool completely before filling it up again.

Variation: To make plain vanilla cupcakes, simply omit the oreos. You might end up with only about 18 cupcakes, but as long as you fill the tins about 2/3 full, the baking time will be the same.

Quick Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
1 stick butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and beat, with an electric mixer, until frosting is creamy, 3-5 minutes.

Frost cupcakes with frosting using a butter knife or offset spatula. Add as much or as little frosting as desired. If making oreo cupcakes, garnish with additional chunks of Oreo.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Perfect Pizza Crust

Normally, I don't cross-post things to both this site and Slashfood, but this pizza crust warrants an exception.
This crust is a recipe from the most recent issue of Cook's Illustrated. It caught my eye because there was a tagline that said "great pizza without an 800-degree oven." I guess it doesn't take much to convince me.
I've made good pizzas at home, but never a great pizza until now. The crust was incredibly easy to put together and baked up light, crispy and full of air pockets, which I love to see in my crusts. The dough was actually made in the food processor, so it took very little effort in terms of mixing and kneading, and it was also very easy to handle.
The secret to the crust is the use of cake flour. In a commercial pizza oven, the dough cooks so quickly that a high protein flour (like bread flour) is needed to maintain the chewiness of the crust and keep the pizza from drying out. In a home oven, the pizza spends more time cooking because it is done at a lower temperature; the high-protein flour doughs take too long to cook, resulting in a tough pizzza, while the dough made with the low-protein cake flour cooked faster and delivered a crust with a tender interior and crisp crust.

View a photo essay of the pizza-making process here.

The other key to this recipe is a pizza stone. Pizza stones absorb the heat of the oven and cook the dough from the bottom as well as from the top, producing a crisper, lighter crust. It is imperative that you use a pizza stone to get the best results. I got mine for about $10 at Trader Joe's. You don't need an expensive one, any one will do.

Perfect Pizza Crust
(from Cooks Illustrated)
1 1/4 tsp instant or active dry yeast
1 cup water, slightly warm or room temperature
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 cup (4 oz) cake flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 500F with your baking stone on the oven rack.
Combine yeast and water and stir to dissolve.
Combine flours, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to blend. With the motor running, stream in water/yeast mixture. Continue to process for 1-2 minutes, until dough becomes smooth and satiny. Add an extra tablespoon of flour if the dough becomes too sticky (see photos).
Divide dough into two and shape each piece into a tight ball. Place on a lightly floured surface and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Working with one ball of dough at a time, place on a lightly floured surface. Flatten the dough into an 8-inch disk, then stretch the edges gently until the dough is about 12-inches in diameter, rotating the dough by quarter turns as you work. You can also gently stretch the dough by placing it on the backs of your hands, letting the weight of the dough stretch it out.
Transfer the stretched dough onto a baking sheet that has been covered with cornmeal (you can use a pizza peel, if you have one). Spread it with a small amount of the sauce (see recipe below), toppings of your choice and slide it quickly into the oven.
Bake pizza at 500F for 5-10 minutes, until well browned.
Retrieve pizza with baking sheet or pizza peel.
Serve immediately and repeat process with second piece of dough.

Makes 2, 12-inch pizzas

Note: You can also use the "convection bake" setting, if your oven has one, and reduce the cooking time by 1-2 minutes. This allows for extra air circulation and could result in a slightly crisper crust, as well as a quicker cooking time.

Pizza Margherita Sauce
Cooks Illustrated offered a really simple sauce with the crust recipe. It's made from canned tomatoes, so take care to use good ones. I've had better sauces, but I've also had worse. For a simple recipe, this one isn't bad.
2 15-oz cans whole plum tomatoes (or diced tomatoes)
1/2 tsp sugar
1 clove garlic (optional - I left it out), minced
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
salt, to taste
Whizz tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor until tomatoes are broken up. Drain with a fine mesh strainer for at least 30 minutes to get rid of excess moisture that could make the dough soggy.
Cooks Illustrated recommends using fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces or a simple sprinkle of parmesan if you're not a big cheese eater. The crust is also excellent with just the toppings and sauce, if you don't want any cheese. Other options include:
Diced artichoke hearts (pictured above) are delicious, as are other veggies
Thinnly sliced red onion goes with just about everything
Pepperoni or thinnly sliced ham/sausage is always an option for meat eaters
The crust is light, so very "wet" ingredients, like fresh tomatoes, may not be a good choice.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rocky Road Brownies and Baker's Edge

Ever since I saw the s'mores brownies in an issue of Cook's Country last year, I wanted to try them. Unfortunately, not only did I completely forget about them, but when I finally got around to trying the recipe, I didn't have any graham crackers to make the crust with. Rather than make my own grahams, I decided to go a different route by making rocky road brownies. After all, the thing that appealed most to me was the marshmallow topping, so the change from crust to nuts was not a big deal.
Baking brownies turned out to be a good excuse to try my new pan: the Baker's Edge. Baker's Edge has an unusual, innovative design. As you can see from the picture below, there are extra edges running throughout the pan and their purpose is to evenly distribute the heat as your food bakes, eliminating soggy centers and overcooked edges. In a traditional pan, getting the timing just right can be a challenge, especially for sweets like brownies and cheesecakes, though the same holds true for savory casseroles and lasagnas. If you have never under- or over-baked anything, you're lying. I know I have.
I mixed up the brownies and poured them into the pan. I topped the batter with chopped up pecans, even though walnuts are more traditionally used in rocky road, before baking. I like the flavor of pecans better, especially when sweets are concerned, and putting them on the top of the batter instead of stirring them in allowed them to toast slightly in the oven. Because the brownies were slightly thinner than they might otherwise have been , I reduced the baking time from the original recipe.
So did the pan work? Were my brownies evenly done?
Yes, and they were fantastic. The pan is made of heavy cast aluminum and has a nonstick coating, so I didn't even need to grease it before baking (though I probably would in the future, just to be on the safe side). The brownies were evenly cooked and slightly fudgy in the middle with crisp edges and a crackly crust. Each piece had the perfect ratio of crust to center. I'd say that in terms of brownie baking, this is easily the best pan I've ever used.
The brownies just use melted chocolate, not cocoa powder, for flavor and were more chocolaty that I expected them to be. They were moist and tender, but not dense or heavy at all, as brownies made with melted chocolate can somtimes be. I used bittersweet chocolate rather than unsweetened and did not find the brownies to be too sweet, but I recommend using unsweetened rather than semi-sweet or another milder chocolate if you cannot find bittersweet. The nuts made a nice, slightly crunchy contrast to the base, but the marshmallows were still my favorite part. They browned up perfectly after only a few minutes under the broiler and were simply delicious, especially when they were still slightly warm.
By the way, most recipes that fit a 9x9 or 9x13-inch pan will not have to be adjusted to use the Baker's Edge, so if you don't have one, you can make this recipe in a normal pan.

Rocky Road Brownies
(adapted from a Cook's Country recipe)
3 ounces bittersweet/unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup butter, cut into a few pieces
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2-3 cups miniature marshmallows

Preheat the oven to 325F.
Grease a 9x9 inch baking pan (or use the Baker's Edge) and set aside.
Melt together the butter and chocolate, heating it in brief intervals in the microwave and stirring frequently. Set aside to cool slightly, for about 2 minutes.
In a large bowl, beat together sugar, baking powder, salt, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Quickly beat in the cooled butter mixture, then stir in the flour until the batter is just combined. Scrape into prepared pan and use a spatula to spread it evenly.
Bake for 22-24 minutes (22 for the larger pan size).
Turn on the broiler function in your oven. Top brownies evenly with the miniature marshmallows and broil for 2-3 minutes, turning the pan once, until marshmallows are evenly browned.
Cool the brownies in the pan before slicing and use a moisted knife to slice through them and prevent the marshmallow from sticking.
Makes 16 large brownies.

Note: You can leave off the marshmallows, if you wish, and just make the brownies with the pecans. Increase the nuts to 3/4 cup, if doing so.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Does My Blog Look Good in This? Gallery

As you all know, I am hosting this month's Does my blog look good in this? event, where food (and drink) bloggers can submit their photos to be judged by a panel of experts.
Half of the fun is checking out everyone else's entries, and you can view them here. You can also leave comments about your favorite entries and track back to the original blog posts that they appeared in. The entries are listed in no particular order and I have also added a link to the gallery in my sidebar, so it should be easy to check back for updates.

For anyone still wishing to participate, please read the sumbission guidelines.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Buttermilk Sorbet

The only reason that this is called "sorbet" and not "ice cream" is the fact that there is no cream in it. Don't let the name fool you, though, because it is still as cold and satisfying as ice cream, while having the unique flavor profile of buttermilk.
When I first saw the recipe in this month's issue of Cooking Light, I knew that I had to make it. Not only did the original recipe have but three ingredients, but buttermilk is one of my favorite flavors. Interestingly enough, I never really cared for buttermilk growing up. I didn't much like yogurt either, so I think that the slight tanginess I now love put me off somewhat. It's a good thing I changed my mind. It imparts a rich, full flavor to baked goods, so I always keep it on hand.
In the recipe, both sugar and corn syrup are called for. Sugar is included to make the mixture sweet and creamy, while the corn syrup is included to make sure it stays that way, as it does not crystallize like sugar does. I reduced the corn syrup to two tablespoons from four primarily because I only had two tablespoonfuls left in the bottle. Light corn syrup is not as sweet as sugar (contrary to popular belief), so this change did not have a big impact on the sweetness of the sorbet.
The sorbet itself is smooth and slightly tangy. It is not as rich and creamy as ice cream, but it isn't icy at all. It is light and melts quickly on the tongue. I added vanilla extract to my buttermilk mixture before putting it into the ice cream maker, which added another layer of flavor that I highly recommend.

Buttermilk Sorbet
(adapted from Cooking Light)
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk together sugar, corn syrup and 1/2 cup buttermilk until sugar is dissolved. Stir in remaining buttermilk and vanilla. Pour into ice cream maker and freeze as directed (this took 15/20 minutes in mine). Place in freezer for 1 hour, until slightly firm, before serving.
Store in freezer in an airtight container.
Serves 4.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cooking School: Monkey Bread

First of all, before I get to today's post, I would like to apologise to everyone for not putting up a post yesterday. I meant to, but Blogger had some technical difficulties and thwarted my efforts.
Fortunately, this recipe is good enough to make up for it and I'll have a couple interesting things coming up in the next week or so, including the DMBLGiT gallery.

Monkey bread is nothing like monkey bars. It is much more like cinnamon buns, except that the dough is shaped into little balls which are all coated in sugar, piled together and baked. Once the bread is done, the delicious balls of dough can be pulled off - presumably like a monkey - and eaten one by one.
No one is exactly sure how the bread got its name, though there are several theories. Never having seen a monkey eat a bread like this one before (nor, in fact, any breads at all), I can't speak to the validity of the name, but I do like it better than the alternate name, which is "pull-apart bread."
The first well-known recipe for monkey bread appeared in the New York Times in the 1970s, but it was reportedly popular with home cooks during the 60s as well. It can be made with a yeasted dough, as I did here, and is frequently made with refrigerated biscuit dough for the sake of convenience.
I used a simple buttermilk bread, which I lightly sweetened, for this recipe. There are two options for coating the bread before baking. For a more decadent recipe, as indicated in the instructions below, the balls should be dipped in melted butter before being dredged in sugar. A lighter version of the bread can be made by dipping the dough into milk before the sugar. The purpose of the butter (or milk) is simply to help the sugar adhere to the bread. Granted, butter adds flavor, but the sugar is the key ingredient and all you need to do is make it stick.
Once it has been baked and cooled, the bread should not last long. The sugary puffs encourage nibbling and the loaf will be gone before you know it. The bread itself is very soft and moist, while the sugar coating is caramelized on the sides and bottom of the bread and crisp on top. Don't skimp on the sugar and, if you want to make a bigger bread, double this recipe and bake it in a well-greased bundt pan.

Monkey Bread
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (1 package)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, warm (110F)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
3 - 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup melted butter (or warm milk)
1 cup brown sugar and white sugar, mixed

In a large bowl, combine yeast and buttermilk. Let stand for about five minutes, then add 1/4 cup sugar, salt and 2 1/2 cups of flour. Mix well and add remaining flour a tablespoonful at a time until the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-7 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place in a lighlty greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan. Place melted butter into a small bowl and put the sugar mixture into a fairly shallow bowl.
Turn risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate. Divide into about 16 pieces (a few more or less is ok) about the size of golf balls. Roll each one gently into a ball. Dip each ball into melted butter (or warm milk) and generously coat in sugar. Add more sugar to the mix if you run low at any point. Put dough into pan and repeat with each ball, stacking them up as necessary. Sprinkle a tablespoon ot two of extra sugar on top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes, or until the dough just barely reaches the top of the pan.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Bake bread for about 30 minutes, until browned on top (you can check the internal temperature, which should be about 190-200F with a meat thermometer, but otherwise try baking for 30 minutes). Turn bread out immediately onto a plate and let cool. Bread can be left inverted, with caramel on top, or turned so the crisp, sugared side faces up.
Once the bread has mostly cooled, give in to temptation and eat!
Makes one loaf.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Cinnamon Muffins

I am always tempted to add something to muffins, whether it is fresh fruit, dried fruit or some sort of other tasty tidbit. I resisted temptation when making this muffin to keep it as simple as possible. And it turned out well.
Don't get me wrong, I love fruit in my muffins. The problem is that sometimes we get into ruts with that we make. For example, I have put blueberries (fresh or dried) into almost every single batch of muffins that I have made in the last few weeks. It's nice to do something to break up the monotony, if for no other reason than to avoid getting tired of a favorite flavor. Cinnamon also happens to be a favorite of mine, though I don't use it enough as a stand-alone spice. I tend to add a pinch here and there, using it as an accent.
These muffins were very cinnamony and I loved that about them. The flavor actually reminded me a great deal of the cereal Cinnamon Toast Crunch and the crumb was light and even. I'm glad that I resisted the impulse to add anything else into the batter, letting the cinnamon shine, but these would be good with a few chopped walnuts (if you like nuts) or perhaps even dried cranberries...
Though they resemble coffee cakes, they don't have the same buttery crumb. I personally find this to be a nice feature in a muffin, since I don't want something loaded with tons of butter for my daily breakfast. To change the cinnamon-sugar mixture into a crumb topping, simply stir in 1 tablespoon of very soft butter into the mix before using it.

Oh - there is one more thing to note about this recipe. I only made 11 muffins and not 12. There are two reasons for this. First of all, if you add 1/2-1 cup of nuts, chocolate chips, chopped banana pieces, etc, you will need that extra cup to use the extra batter. Second, the muffins will be puffier, with prettier tops if you make only 11.

Cinnamon Muffins
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400F. Line 11 muffin cups with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugars and the egg until smooth. Beat in vegetable oil and vanilla. Working in 2 or 3 additions, alternate adding the flour and the buttermilk to the sugar mixture, stiring until just combined.
In a small bowl, stir together remaining brown sugar and cinnamon.
Fill each muffin cup about 1/2 full. Sprinkle with a scant 1/2 tsp of the brown sugar mixture into each cup. Evenly divide remaining batter on top and sprinkle with remaining sugar mixture.
Bake at 400F for 15-18 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before eating.

Makes 11 muffins.
(Don't divide it into 12 unless you're adding 1/2-1 cup fruit/nuts/chips to batter)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Watermelon Gazpacho

I really love gazpacho, because it's a fantastic summer soup. Made to be prepared in advance and eaten cold, it can be subject to many varitions, though my favorite way to make it is spicy.
Rather than going on about gazpacho in general, I'll get down to the watermelon part, since that is what makes this recipe unusual.
To put it simply, this recipe uses watermelon instead of the tomato base that forms most gazpachos. It gives the final dish a light, sweet taste and makes for a tangy contrast with the balsamic vinegar that I added to it. It's very simple and tasty - definitely something that I'll be making again this summer.
There were only a few problems that I had with the recipe, the original version of which was originally published in EatingWell. First, I had a hard time finding a 6-pound watermelon. My watermelon was one of the smallest at the market (except for the mini-melons) and it weighed 14 pounds. I just used half. Second, I didn't like the way that the recipe called for everthing to be diced before it went into the food processor. It was done so a bit of the diced mixture could be reserved for garnish, but it seemed really unnecessary to "finely dice" everything. The final "problem" was a simple change: I wanted the soup to be a tad spicier, I added some jalapeno pepper. I also added quite a bit more salt, but this was in part becase I had much more soup that the recipe directed originally.
Make sure to wash all your veggies thoroughly, so you don't end up with any off tastes in the final soup.

Watermelon Gazpacho
(adapted from EatingWell)
8-10 cups chopped seedless watermelon (about 6 pounds with the rind)
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 large red bell pepper, chopped
2 tbsp chopped jalapeno pepper
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp minced shallot
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
for garnish: 1 cup watermelon, dinely ficed; 1/4 cup cucumber, finely diced

Working in two batches, puree all ingredients in a food processor (except garnish) and pulse until smooth. Pour into a large serving bowl. Stir in the remaining diced mixture and refrigerate 4 hours, or overnight, until cold.

Serves 6-8

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Cooking School: Key Lime Pie

I don't like baked key lime pies. Some people say that they taste the same (or very similar), but I still object. The pies are baked because of a fear of salmonella or other potentially egg-borne pathogens. The fact of the matter is that the acid in the fresh lime juice that is used to make the pie actually "cooks" the eggs, thus destroying anything harmful that might have been in them. Dishes like tartar and ceviche, where the fish is "cooked" with lemon or lime juice operate under the same principle. If it's good enough for fish, it's good enough for pie.
Part of the allure of the key lime pie, aside from its bright, tart flavor and incredibly creamy texture, is the fact that it has four ingredients, including the crust. Technically, the crust has more than one ingredient (graham crackers, butter, sugar), but because the pie filling is so simple, it sounds much better to phrase it that way. And if you buy a pie crust, so much the better.
The ingredients are egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and fresh key lime juice. Key limes are smaller and more tart than regular (Persian) limes, but I have never found my pies to be lacking in tang despite the fact that I don't use key limes. It is imperative that you use fresh lime juice for this pie, as many "juices" in the store are reconstituted or contain preservatives that you don't want in the pie.
As I said before, the pie is tart, refreshing and incredibly creamy. The lime juice-"cooked" yolks give just enough structure to the pie to make it sliceable. I like it plain, but whipped cream is the most popular accompaniment.

Key Lime Pie
1 pre-baked graham cracker crust (8 or 9-in.)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (key lime, if possible)
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk with a large whisk until smooth. Whisking constantly, stream in lime juice and stir until smooth and well-combined. Pour into pie shell.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Serves 8.

(Disclaimer: All this said, I know that there are some people whose doctors tell them to avoid even a hint of undercooked food. If so, you may want to consider that advice when making a key lime pie. I'm a baker, not a doctor.)