Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Icing

I'm not a pumpkin pie kind of girl (gasp!).  I think it's a texture thing-- I love the pumpkin flavor but don't care for the strange wobbly, yet dense, yet gooey consistency.  I know-- sacrilege.  But that's just me.  Fortunately I think I've found a good compromise in this cake.

This recipe had me at "brown butter icing".  Pumpkin shmumkin. Bring on the icing, baby!

Truthfully though, both the cake and the icing are phenomenally good and embody quintessential taste of the season.  See, I promised you there'd be pumpkin-something soon, didn't I?  I first found this recipe on Shutterbean and then saw that it was featured again more recently on RisingShining.  This cake lived up to the high praise it received on both of these blogs... and then some!

Here we go!!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cranberry Orange Scones

It's fall, or so they say.  As desert dwellers we have few of the telltale signs of fall that other regions see... no cooler weather (it was 90 degrees yesterday... true story), no changing leaves (as far as I can tell, the palm trees are still green and the cacti are still pointy).

I did have a short jaunt to Chicago last week for work and was positively beside myself with excitement as the plane descended into O'Hare and I saw the bursts of bright yellow, red, and orange.  I'm pretty sure the guy sitting next to me thought I was a complete lunatic as I pressed my forehead against the window in an attempt somehow to be closer this breathtaking marker of the changing seasons.  I travel quite a bit for work, and generally pull off the whole nonchalant/blase 'too cool for school' business traveler attitude pretty well, however any semblance of cool composure was quickly abandoned at this awe-inspiring menagerie of colors.  Cool is overrated anyway.

With fall comes all things pumpkin and the food blogs are abuzz this week with pumpkin delectables.  And I'm pretty sure I'll do pumpkin-something at some point this season, but being hardwired for deviance I bucked the trend this week and decided to work with a couple other distinctly fall flavors: oranges and cranberries.  I know I did scones a few weeks ago, so maybe this is cheating (there goes that deviance again...), but orange cranberry scones are my favorite.  This had to happen.  It just did. Don't judge. Next week I promise you something brand spanking new.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Homemade Soft Pretzels

Prepare Yourself for Some Serious Deliciousness
Tomorrow is my 31st birthday.  Yikes.  Truthfully, though, my 30th year on this planet has been pretty fantastic, so if 31 is just 30 plus one, I think I can handle that.  It's just one more candle on the cake and 365 days to live, love, and learn as much about life as possible.  Totally doable. Totally awesome. Bring it on!

With the impending anniversary of my birth on my mind, I thought today might be a fitting day to try a recipe I've had on my "to bake" list for years: soft pretzels.  Soft pretzels are easily on the list of my top 15  favorite foods, maybe even top 10.  There's just something completely irresistible about their chewy, yeast center and their crispy, salty exterior.  I found the recipe on Shutterbean and learned that making soft pretzels was on the list of the author, Tracy's, "31 comes before 32" list (31 things to do before turning 32).  How awesome is that?!

Soft pretzels remained unchecked on my "to bake" list for so many years because I was intimidated by their perceived complexity (boiling dough... whaaaaaat?!).  Truthfully though, these are silly stupid easy. And the results are a-ma-zing!  There are so many awesome options for toppings-- I made three plain with sea salt, three with cinnamon sugar, and two with (get ready for this) sharp cheddar cheese, roasted garlic salt, and crushed red pepper. YUM.  My only challenge now will be to not consume all eight of them today.  
Baked Pretzels Just Removed from Oven

Soft Pretzels and Birthday Flowers!


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ginormous Soft Sugar Cookies

Sugar cookies are weird.  I mean, they themselves aren't weird, but their appeal is somewhat mysterious.  No chocolate, nothing gooey, no marshmallows, no fluffy egg whites... no good?  Opposite!  Super good! I think it's their simplicity that makes them so appealing-- sweet, but not too sweet, soft and somewhat dense, they're a cookie's cookie (like a man's man, but not... you know what I mean).

My favorite kind of sugar cookies are the soft kind,  but alas  I've always been in somewhat of a conundrum because I don't like to use shortening in my baking (hydrogenated oils.. yuck).  I'm definitely a butter girl, but you already knew that, didn't you?  But you can't get that soft delicious texture with butter, so pretty much you're stuck with crunchy cookies or cookies filled with junk.   Until now.  While perusing the baking aisle in Whole Foods last night, I discovered Spectrum Organic Shortening which contains only 100% unhydrogenated palm oil.  Jackpot!

With my newfound (and hopefully somewhat more virtuous) ingredient, I mixed up the sugar cookies and they came out deliciously.  This recipe makes a huge amount of ginormous sugar cookies, and being that it's just me and my sweetheart in the house, I thought it wise to bake up only 8 cookies and freeze the rest of the dough for later (lest we consume all of them in one night and find ourselves relegated strictly to elastic waistband pants).  I don't even know if that's a legit baking thing to do-- freezing the cookie dough.    It's times like these, well really anytime I bake, that I wish I had some more (any) formal training, or a baking 'mentor', or something.  Anyhow, I broke the dough out into 4 equal chunks, wrapped three of them individually in parchment paper first, then in plastic wrap, tossed them in the freezer and hoped for the best. I figure next time we're wanting sugar cookies, I'll just pull one of the packages out and let it thaw for an hour or so before baking.  We'll see how that goes.

The ones I baked today turned out great-- Sweetheart says they taste "like professional bakery cookies but better".  I think it's the love... oh, and the lack of yucky hydrogenated oils.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Flourless Chocolate Walnut Cookies- Ooops!

Tonight in search of a gluten-free cookie recipe to make for my sweetheart, I came across this recipe on Smitten Kitchen (yes, that same blog, again... but it's just wonderful, so I can't argue with that).  I think I should really start by telling you that these didn't turn out as I hoped... so if you're hoping for a smashing success story, you'll probably want to stop reading this now and direct your attention elsewhere-- say, to Martha Stewart, Queen of Domestic Perfection.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy tales of human fallibility, read on.

I'm sure in theory, I'm sure they are great cookies when made by someone else under different circumstances, but I found them to be quite vexing, from start to finish.  So why even post this?  Why not opt out of giving this regrettable incident internet immortality and just let this traumatic kitchen episode fade into a distant memory instead?  Because I'm human.  Because we're all human-- and I'm pretty sure this kind of nonsense happens to everyone, even the most talented and experienced bakers out there, at least every once in a while.  If we only highlight our successes, first of all, we're not being honest with ourselves or with the world, and secondly, we perpetuate an unrelenting (and impossible) standard of perfection for others.  I don't think the world needs more of that, do you? <stepping off soapbox>

Onward to the gory details...

Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign when the first step in this recipe went horribly wrong.  In an attempt to lightly toast the walnuts, precisely following the instructions to toast them at 350 degrees for 9 minutes (actually, they only made it to about 7 minutes before I was alerted by the smoke spilling out of the back of the oven), I nearly set them ablaze. The smoke was so bad our dogs, who are normally constantly underfoot while I bake, packed up their chew toys and departed for greener, less smokey pastures (read: our bedroom). True story.  After that, the measuring and mixing part was uneventful-- thank goodness!  However, when I dropped spoonfuls of the batter onto the parchment paper, the batter was so runny the cookies kind of merged into each other and the runny batter dripped everywhere from the spoon while en route from the bowl to the parchment paper.  But, being the perpetually optimistic girl that I am, I held out hope as I watched them bake in the oven.  Just as the recipe said, after 14 minutes in the oven, they did have a nice glossy finish and a crackly top, so I removed them to let them cool.  Tragically, even after letting them cool completely, they refused to let go of the parchment paper-- they. were. STUCK.   And not just kinda stuck, really really stuck.  I attempted all manner of prying them from the parchment without completely destroying them (spatula, various other flat utensils, my hands, etc), all to no avail.  I was able to save about half of them from completely crumbling (but still left their bottoms stubbornly stuck to the parchment paper), while the other half simply went into the trash.

I tried one of the survivors and it wasn't bad, in fact, the chocolate cookie part was quite delectable-- but the burned walnuts definitely tasted, well, burned.  I enjoyed the gooey fudgy texture somewhat, but realize it was that texture that probably lead to them being impossible to remove from the parchment paper in once piece.  

So what did I learn from the exercise in frustration? That's a tough one, since I can honestly say that I followed the recipe precisely.  I know for the walnuts, that I need to watch them like a hawk in the oven-- and not try to multitask while relying on the kitchen timer to tell me when they're done.  And what of the sticking issue?  I'm honestly not sure what went wrong-- I've never, ever had anything stick to parchment paper like this-- that's the great thing about parchment paper-- things are far less likely to stick to it than to a cookie sheet.  I'm not ready to give up on this recipe yet, but before I attempt it again, I'm going to do a bit more research into what may have caused the issue.  I'll get back on this horse one day, but for now, I think I'll move on to a different recipe... I need a little space from this one.

Misbehaven Cookies
See the cookie merging?  And the sticking?  Boooo


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sally Lunn Bread with Honeyed Brown Butter Spread

So I have to admit, when I saw this recipe on Smitten Kitchen, I was primarily drawn to it for it's tempting accoutrement-- the honeyed brown butter spread.  I love honey butter to begin with, but browning it to add a nice nutty flavor and then adding a couple of pinches of sea salt?  I was sold.  And I figured I should make the bread too... you know, since you can't just eat butter by itself (or can you?!)

I really enjoy making bread, but having been in the throes of a sweltering Phoenix summer forever, or so it seems, the prospect of heating up the oven for over an hour at a time has been less than appealing.  This same sentiment also explains my general lack of posts in the summertime, as I eschew baking on days when walking outside feels akin to sticking my face in an oven pre-heated to 350 degrees.  Call me crazy.

Now that it's October, we've been granted a little reprieve from the heat and I'm back in the kitchen again and loving every minute of it.  I've made no less than three batches of chocolate chip meringue cookies in the last week for a multitude of reasons but mostly because a certain lovely someone in our household is eating gluten free these days and this is pretty much the only thing I make that doesn't contain copious amounts of flour.  However, last night, with the windows open in the house and the outdoor temperature in the mid seventies, I decided it was time to get my bread on (actually my honey butter, but here I am trying to pretend I'm a grownup who wouldn't just eat honey butter by the spoonful).

So the bread!  Pretty easy to make, especially using the Kitchen Aid mixer since it pretty much does all the hard work (read: mixing for minutes on end) for you.  It only rises for a total of an hour and thirty minutes, which makes this a bread doable on a weeknight, as opposed to sourdough which takes all dang day (the way I make it at least). In reading about this type of bread, some people said that it tasted like a lighter version of brioche which was appealing to me because I loooove brioche.  However, I felt like it (well, my loaf at least) really didn't resemble brioche in the slightest.  It was still a delicious bread, completely worthy of the to-die-for honey butter, but just didn't seem reminiscent of brioche to me.  It was very slightly sweet and relatively light in texture.  When I sliced a piece this morning, it seemed a bit crumbly but still toasted up nicely and tasted wonderful, particularly when adorned with the honey butter. 

Bottom line, a pretty tasty breakfast bread made even better with the accompanying honeyed brown butter spread.  I wish it were chewier, but that's just me (maybe bread flour next time for a higher protein content?).  One of these days I'll give this one another shot with some tweaking, but even as-is, it's a great recipe. 


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chocolate Chip Meringues

So... I think I have an unhealthy obsession with egg whites.  I guess not just egg whites in general, but mostly with how they behave when whipped for long periods of time along with sugar and a little cream of tartar.  No matter how many times I do this, no matter the recipe, whether it be for frosting, pie topping, candy, or meringue cookies, I just stare in utter amazement at my mixer as it transforms a quarter of a cup of translucent goop into fluffy white pillowy peaks of awesomeness.  Am I the only one who is amazed by this?  Probably so... but I never said I was normal, people, never.  What fun would that be anyway? 

Naturally I gravitate towards recipes that include the aforementioned "miracle".  Accordingly, tonight I couldn't stop thinking about meringue cookies, so I found this recipe on Smitten Kitchen (a completely brilliant blog, by the way) and decided to give it a shot.  Like clockwork, the magic occurred in my mixer once again.  This is a super simple recipe (as most meringue recipes are).  They keys are room temperature egg whites and patience while the egg whites are mixing (although with only two egg whites in this recipe, the patience required is fairly minimal).  The original recipe called for toasted pecans or walnuts, however not having any on hand, I omitted them and the cookies still tasted amazing.  I imagine this addition would make these puffy little bites of heaven even more delicious, so next time I'll try adding them.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Lemon Scones

Last night I had the opportunity to do two things I absolutely adore: spending time with my sweet sister, Christina, and baking lemon scones. Lemon scones are kind of my "thing"-- there's just something delightful about a recipe that is so simple and satisfying.  The scones I remember from my youth were so dense they could have doubled as door stops, but these are light and fluffy with a fresh lemon flavor!

 The recipe below is one that I created as a hybrid of 3 different recipes when making a huge quantity of scones for Christina's baby shower about a year and a half ago. Last night, we got together to make six (yes, SIX) batches of lemon scones for her sister-in-law Carolyn's bridal shower. We had a great time, and got the six batches done in record time (especially considering that there was plenty of chatting and some wine sipping involved)!

 This is a ridiculously easy recipe that takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, including baking. And best of all, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your kitchen!


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Triple Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

Dear readers, I must confess something to you. Before I embarked on this most recent baking adventure, I took ten deep breathes, meditated for five minutes, prayed to the baking gods, and chanted a little bit. And I'm (mostly) not kidding. I first tried this recipe almost a year ago and nearly ended up having an anxiety attack. You see, I'm not someone who deals well with failure, particularly in the baking arena. I was preparing these cupcakes in a mad rush for a dinner party (mistake #1) and for some reason I found everything about the recipe, particularly the frosting, nerve wracking. The cupcakes actually turned out fine- and were even met with high praise by my parents (but they're my PARENTS, the incredibly sweet loving folks who used to proudly display my disastrous finger paintings on the refrigerator!) Bottom line, they had texture issues- the frosting was a wee bit lumpy and the cake was a little dry, and worst of all, the cupcakes were, in my mind, tinged with anxiety and mediocrity.

Fast forward one year, and here I was, ready to take on the mighty triple chocolate ganache cupcake monster once again. After the proper preparations (prayer, chanting, offerings to the baking gods), I started on the cupcakes, this time ensuring I had plenty to time (no dinner party) and the right baking music (the Fleetwood Mac station on Pandora). To make along story short, they turned out much better this time, and I'm finally recovering from the cupcake trauma of 2010. This time the only hitch was having to remake the Italian meringue buttercream frosting-- after accidentally buying and using salted butter, the frosting was way too salty. Even that though, has a positive side. I thought the original recipe I was using had an excessive amount of butter, even for buttercream frosting. In an effort not to have to make another run to the store, I found an alternate recipe that was quite a bit easier and used less butter.

The official verdict is that these cupcakes rock, according to people who aren't obligated to love me or my baking and who certainly don't give out false compliments. Amazingly chocolatey, great texture, delicious frosting-- I dare say the best chocolate cupcake I've ever had (and I've had my share, believe me!). They're a bit of effort, but completely worth it for an outcome that is leaps and bounds above your average run-of-the-mill chocolate cupcake. So, go ahead, lay an offering of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the foot of your Kitchen Aid stand mixer, turn on your favorite baking music, and get started. It's SO worth it!


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marshmallow Fluff Rice Krispy Treats

Rice Krispy Treats are a classic, and for good reason-- who can resist the ooey gooey sweet chewy and crunchy taste of this confection? As a vegetarian, though, I struggle with these, because the traditional recipe contains marshmallows, which contain gelatin which contains... well, I won't say it here, but let's just say I don't find it very appetizing. So as an alternative, I tried making these with marshmallow fluff, because it does not contain gelatin.

All in all, the taste was awesome-- my only qualm is with the texture-- the darn things want to fall apart when they get warm.  I let them set in the freezer, and they were perfectly firm, but after they'd been on the counter for a half hour or so, they started to sort of fall apart.  Not very practical for a bakery.  I think I'll try reducing the amount of butter next time to see if that helps.


Hudson's Smash Cake- Epilogue

To my utter delight, Hudson did, indeed, smash the cake all through his cute little fingers.  And he picked up the letter blocks and clapped them together, getting frosting EVERYWHERE.  Mommy and Daddy had to bathe him in the sink because he was covered head to toe! Oh what a proud auntie I am!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hudson's Smash Cake- Part 3

Aaaannnd it's done!

I have to say this was quite an adventure and I absolutely have newfound respect for cake decorators- this stuff isn't easy!

The cake didn't turn out precisely as I'd planned, but I still think it was a good first attempt at cake decorating. And as I've mentioned before, the purpose of this cake is for it to be smashed between Hudson's fingers, not admired for its form and beauty. So in light of that, I'm trying not to hold myself to too high a standard, however difficult that may be for someone who tends to have "unrelenting standards", or so I've been told!

The cake itself turned out nicely... the second time around. After a killer 16-hour workday, I decided to bake the cake last night.  I realized (too late) that normal common sense eludes me after a certain number of hours working my crazy job. So, of course, when I got home at 11pm, I thought... "let's bake that cake!"  Two words: bad.idea. I made the full recipe (see below) which was for two 9" round pans and poured the entire recipe into two 6" round pans.  The result?  The pans runneth over with batter, the oven was an unspeakable disaster, and I narrowly averted setting off the fire alarm during this middle of the night baking adventure.  I crawled into bed at 2am with a smoke-filled house and an oven that looked like a war zone, just thankful the house was still standing. This morning I surveyed the damage, cleaned the oven, and started over.  This time, I halved the original recipe and voila... it's amazing how things can work out when you consider the basic laws of chemistry and physics while baking.

The 3D "1" didn't happen, but I think that the letters turned out quite nicely.  I made a fluffy white frosting that doesn't contain any fat (and should, theoretically, be easier to clean up off the birthday boy than greasy buttercream).

So it's all done and I can't wait for Hudson to smoosh his cute little fingers into it!

Recipes for cake and frosting below:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hudson's Smash Cake- Part 2

Other (probably more fitting) titles for this blog post include...

  • Watching Cake Boss episodes on Netflix does not MAKE me a Cake Boss
  • Why People Pay Professional Bakers Hundreds of Dollars to Make Cakes
  • Thank Goodness This is a Smash Cake and Not the Real Cake
  • Let's Just Pretend This Cake was Made Not Only for a 1 Year Old, but also BY a One Year Old
  • and finally.... Eff You, Fondant (pardon the implied profanity)
So yes, tonight I worked on the fondant letters for Hudson's smash cake.  It was hard. I'm starting to understand why people take classes for cake decorating. Let's just say I'm um... humbled... by my efforts tonight and I'll be signing up for a cake decorating/fondant class soon.  

But the letter blocks are done!  They aren't perfect by any stretch, but they are done, and they do look like blocks with letters on them, which is what I was going for.  I learned that you have to work very quickly with fondant or it dries out and cracks.  I'm not sure if there's any way to smooth fondant out that has cracked, but if there is, I didn't discover it tonight. 

My efforts at a 3D "1" made of rice crispy treats and covered in fondant were pretty frustrating... the results were scary.  The fondant wouldn't smoothly cover the surface and began cracking and falling off.  I should have taken a picture, but I tossed it in the trash in a fit of rage... just kidding...sort of. 

The good news is, the letters are done and I've picked out the cake and icing recipes I'm going to use, so all that's left is the easy stuff- the baking!  I'm still going to try to figure out if I can somehow get a 3D "1" of some sort on the cake.

I'm planning to finish up the cake on Friday night and I'll post a final update and pictures afterwards. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hudson's Smash Cake- Part 1

This little cutie pie is turning 1! Time to make a (smash) cake!

So my favorite nephew, Hudson, (okay, so what if he's my *only* nephew... if I had more than one, he'd still be my favorite!) is turning one in a couple of weeks.  When I asked my sister what I could do to help with his party she said I could make his "smash cake".  Now, not having kids of my own or having been to any first birthday parties recently, I had no clue what this was.  So, of course, my next step was to consult "the google". The internet told me that it is now common for the birthday boy (or girl) to be given a small cake to do with it what he pleases (hopefully, smash it all through his fingers and on his face-- makes for good pictures).  This saves the cake set aside for consumption by guests from whatever mayhem befalls the "smash cake". Pretty brilliant idea.

Being that I don't have a tremendous amount of experience in cake decorating... okay, almost none, it's certainly more fitting for me to make the cake intended to be smashed through the fingers of the guest of honor than the official birthday cake. Still, I've been dying to play with fondant recently-- blame it on too many episodes of Cake Boss on Netflix. Since the goal here is for Hudson to get as messy as possible with this cake, covering the whole thing with fondant is out-- too hard for tiny little fingers to break through, not enough messy smeary stuff to create the desired "smash effect", etcetera, etcetera. Instead, I'll do traditional buttercream frosting on the outside of the cake with plenty of buttercream decorations to smoosh.  However, I'm going to top the cake with decorations made out of rice crispy treats covered in fondant.  My idea is to make alphabet blocks that spell out Hudson's name and also to make a "1" to sit in the middle of the cake.

Yesterday I visited my favorite cake decorating store and bought the supplies- two 6" round cake pans, some pre-made white fondant,  a fondant smoother, a rolling pin, blue and black food coloring gel (the theme colors are light blue, gray, white, and black), and rolling pin guides to ensure even thickness for the fondant.   I also made the rice crispy treats.

This morning I cut a tiny block out of rice crispy treats, rolled out a small amount of fondant and covered it to make the alphabet block-- looked pretty good for a first attempt.  Fondant is so cool-- I don't know why I never ventured into this territory before!  I forgot one essential element for adding the food coloring gel to the fondant-- rubber gloves!  Since I didn't want my hands dyed blue for the next several days, I didn't dye the fondant.  I didn't want to waste the fondant or rice crispy treats, so I stopped there today.  Once I make it to the store for some rubber gloves, I'll finish making my alphabet blocks and "1" prototypes.  I also need to invest in some fondant stencils for the letters on the blocks... I tried cutting out a letter "H" by hand... and as you'll see from the picture below, not so pretty!  Stand by for more updates on my adventures with fondant!

Smash Cake Supplies

And this is why I need fondant stencils... raggedy looking "H"

Pecan Pie Bars

So... confession... I've never eaten pecan pie before.  Ever.  Not because I don't like pecans or it doesn't seem appealing, though.  It's just that whenever there's pecan pie around, there's also usually apple pie, which is my favorite, so I default to that.  Anywho, I digress.  Our favorite coffee shop has these delightful little confections they call pecan pie bars.  They're positively delicious-- though I can't speak to their likeness to the traditional pie that no doubt inspired them.  I love how the sugar caramelizes with the pecans to form this deliciously sweet crunchy crust all atop a delicious buttery shortbread-like crust. Seriously awesome.  So, of course, I had to try making them.

I started with the shortbread crust recipe I used for the lemon bars earlier this week and for the topping I found a recipe on the internet, and then tweaked it to my liking.

Pecan Pie Bars Recipe

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lemon Bars

Too many eggs with no idea what to do with them... what's a girl to do?  Bake, of course!  I considered egg-heavy concoctions like creme brule and angel food cake, but ultimately decided on two types of bars, lemon and pecan pie.  Each recipe calls for 4 eggs, and with 10 eggs to spare, an 8 egg dent in my supply (plus some pretty tasty bars) sounded like a pretty good deal!

I never cease to be amazed by the things I can make with ingredients I already have-- avoiding a trip to the grocery store on a weeknight just makes baking that much more fun!  I had everything I needed for these lemon bars on hand.  The pecan pie bars are another story-- I'm running low on pecans, so I will have to venture out to the grocery store before I can take those on.

Lemon Bars Recipe