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.