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One tough (sweet) cookie: from candy dish to cookie jar

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BSMbanner_baked-150Last week, I was absolutely thrilled to finally dive into a recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings which immediately caught my eye when I received Baked Elements – the Chocolate Chunk-Pumpkin Bread Pudding.  It was scrumptious, and lived up to all my expectations and then some.   This week, we tackle a recipe that I was a little less than enthused with when I saw the recipe and photo in the book: Candy Bar Cookies.

Apparently, Renato from Baked was inspired by European treats to create the recipe for these cookies, which feature a small candy bar – or piece of candy – IMG_3518completely encased in cookie dough, baked, then capped off with a finishing coat of melted chocolate.  While this is an intriguing concept and I admire his fortitude to recreate it, I personally subscribe to a train of thought that if you want your candy or your cookie, why go to all of the trouble of putting them together to eat them?  Why not just eat the candy bar, and avoid all of the steps to put these cookies together?  Obviously, I’m a big proponent of instant gratification when it comes to chocolate!

It is a slightly intensive recipe.  First, you put together a cookie dough I found quite troublesome, consisting of, basically: flour, sugar, salt, dark cocoa, butter, and an egg yolk.  No vanilla, no leavening agents of any kind.  Once mixed together in a mixing bowl, Baked mentions that the dough will have a sandy texture, which indeed, it does.  To gather the dough into a ball and wrap it up as a disk for a quick chill, I needed to dump it all out onto a counter, push it together with my palms, and knead it pretty brutally – the heat from my hands transferring to the butter and melting it a bit more in the dough – to get the dough pieces to bind and adhere together.  I did follow the recipe and chilled the dough for over an hour – a point which, in hindsight, I realized was not necessary.  The dough was perfectly fine to roll out immediately after kneading it together. 

Once the dough is rolled out, I used a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out circles of dough, which is then wrapped around individual pieces of fun-sized candy bar.  (Side note: I’ve always felt “fun-size” was a terrible misnomer for those little candy bars you buy at Halloween – isn’t a larger candy bar more “fun” than a smaller one? Ha! Plus, they do seem to shrink more and more as years go by!).  I went for the suggested Mounds candy bars, cut in half, and also Reese’s mini peanut butter cups, which I did not cut; splitting the dough in half among the two candies.  I rolled the balls of dough and candy gently between my hands, put them on a baking sheet, and baked them off.  The cookies came out a rather unattractive pale brown, but never fear – the finishing touch, once cooled, was to dip the cookies in a luscious coating of melted chocolate. 

IMG_3512Baked suggests the pretty effect of double-dipping the chocolate, first in white chocolate, then dark.  It’s difficult for me to find good white chocolate here in Milwaukee outside of baking chips containing emulsifiers, so I skipped this and just coated mine in dark chocolate (the cookies with Mounds in them) and milk chocolate (peanut butter cups).  Plus, I’m going to be honest – by this point inIMG_3511 the process, I was bored already with putting these cookies together.  I wasn’t going to get more fussy with the decoration. To designate which cookies were which, I sprinkled the tops of the Mounds cookies with a bit of toasted coconut, and the peanut butter cup cookies with white and dark sprinkles.IMG_3508

The cookies turned out better than I imagined, looking like little truffles bathed in a smooth coating of chocolate.  They would look pretty displayed in a bowl or gift box, perhaps nestled among some mini paper cupcake liners.  I was disappointed when I bit into them, although the taste result was something I could have predicted from the get-go.  They are overly sweet; almost so much so that my mouth hurt eating them.  I cannot imagine how much sweeter these would be coated with both white and dark chocolate.  These might be favorites with children, or an adult with a massive sweet tooth.  I have always considered myself one of these, but not so much here. I know for certain I did not mess up my sugar measurement in the cookie dough; these are just all around sweet because of the cookie and candy combination.

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All due respect to our Baked friends, I think these are a pass for me in future baking.  As I anticipated, these were just not exactly my kind of cookie.  While “fun” in some respects (“fun” being the word Jake uttered when he first tried them), I think I’ll just stick to eating my candy bars and/or chocolate on their own, no cookie required!

You can find the recipe at:

Candy Bar Cookies

…and see if these sweet gems were hits or misses with my fellow Baked Sunday Mornings bakers.  I’ve observed that several times, without any intention on my part, I seem to be the contrary male among the group (if not the only male baker, at this point!), so I have a feeling the other bakers will greatly enjoy this one!

Previews for Baked’s new book, Baked Occasions, are steadily leaking out to the public via Facebook and Baked’s homepage, and it’s a beauty of a book.  In case you’re wondering why my blog is coming out with such ferocious weekly frequency, our anticipation of this book is exactly why.  We’ve upped our Baked Sunday Mornings baking schedule to wrap up Baked Elements.  I can’t wait to tell you the recipes I was fortunate to test.  For now, however, in respect to Baked and the publishers, mum’s the word!  Until next week, my friends…

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Pumpkin All Year-Round

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BSMbanner_baked-150I’m not one of those people who relegates pumpkin solely to the autumn season.  I typically have about 3 cans at a time of pumpkin puree stashed away in my cupboard.  If we’re going to keep it strictly fall-themed, I look at it this way:  when July comes around, I am already rooting for crisp air, color-changing leaves, sweaters and jeans… and chances are pretty good I am pining for pumpkin too.  Intense sun, begone.  Bring on fall.

Before I wax even further poetic on a squash, I better jump right in with this week’s assigned recipe.  With the dawn of September, Baked Sunday Mornings is beginning to wrap up the pumpkin-themed chapter in Baked Elements, and what better way to do that than making an absolutely scrumptious Chocolate-Chunk Pumpkin Bread Pudding.

IMG_3488When I first received this book, I’m fairly certain my jaw dropped when I fell upon the page with this recipe.  I mean – think of it: a homely, spiced bread pudding made with a delectable chocolate-studded pumpkin bread?  Sign me up, please.  Why did it take me so long to make this?

Your first try with making this may feel a little labor-intensive, but the results are well worth it, trust me. You could probably start out by using regular day-old bread for this pudding, but why?  Baked suggests making your own pumpkin bread as the base for this pudding – and with their easy chocolate-chunk pumpkin bread recipe, you’ll want to take them up on the suggestion.  You don’t even need to break out the mixer for this bread (or the custard for the pudding, come to think of it); it’s all whisked and whipped up in bowls, so just go for it.  Using homemade pumpkin bread deepens the flavor of this dessert – and overall, it just makes perfect sense.

Think chocolate and pumpkin sounds like a strange combination?  Once you try it, you’ll be hooked.  The warm flavor of the pumpkin matched with the earthy chocolate are a match made in heaven.  I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips in this pumpkin bread.  A good-quality, chopped up bar of chocolate would be heavenly, but I didn’t want to deal with the fuss of chopped chocolate flecks all over my counter.  I find the Ghirardelli chips to always be reliable, with a pleasantly smooth punch of good bittersweet chocolate flavor.  They also have a disk-like size to them that is larger than an average chocolate chip, so they substitute well for the chocolate chunks called for.

Once your bread is fully baked, cut it up into cubes, spread the cubes out on a sheet pan, and toast them for a bit – tossing them occasionally with a spatula for even toasting.  When making bread pudding, it is essential for the bread cubes to be somewhat dry, so they soak up all of that luxuriant custard.  I actually toasted my pumpkin bread cubes for a touch longer than the recipe advises, as the bread is quite soft and moist, particularly with the inclusion of the chocolate, which stays all soft, gooey, and melty in the warmed bread.  Let the toasted bread cubes warm for a bit while you make the custard.

The custard consists of 2 eggs and 4 egg yolks, which are the principal thickening agents of the pudding, whisked together with dark brown sugar, half and half, more pumpkin (stock up on a couple cans before making this recipe; or use your own homemade puree), melted butter, vanilla, and a wonderful mix of fall spices.  As the ingredient list notes, it helps to have your half and half and eggs at room temperature so that when you whisk in the melted butter, it doesn’t solidify.  As for the spices, I always like to recommend Penzey’s Vietnamese cinnamon, which provides a higher ‘heat’ than typical Cassia cinnamon.  I was also intrigued by the touch of cayenne pepper included in the spice mixture.  Unfortunately, I was out of cayenne, but I dumped what little bit I had into the custard.  As a companion to the cinnamon, I’m sure it provides a nice, subtle bit of heat to the flavor of the pumpkin pudding.  A good majority of the bread cubes are then soaked in the custard for about a half hour; a cup or so of remaining cubes is tossed with some extra melted butter for a good crunchy texture on the top.

IMG_3499I toyed with the idea of baking the bread puddings in individual ramekins or muffin tins, but decided to stick with baking the pudding off in a glass 9″ x 13″ buttered baking dish this time around. I like the rustic look of a square-cut piece of bread pudding.  When you pour the custard and soaked bread cubes into your baking pan, don’t panic if it seems like a lot of custard; the beautiful alchemy that occurs when a bread pudding bakes off in the oven is that the bread cubes almost expand and absorb the custard even more.  The creaminess of the custard and crumb of the bread meld into an irresistibly silky texture.

I baked the pudding for about 50-55 minutes.  When I removed it from the oven, I found that I did need to sponge off a bit of grease from the buttered bread cubes, which had puddled on the surface, but that’s really a minor gripe that is easily taken care of.  Let the bread pudding cool for about a half hour, then dust the entire pudding with confectioners’ sugar, slice it up into squares and serve.  I drizzled each serving with Baked’s standard caramel sauce (slightly warmed to drizzle easily), and this was a perfect, fitting complement; if you prefer a dollop of whipped cream, I’m sure that would work just as nicely.

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Honestly – one bite, and I discovered that this may just be my favorite recipe in Baked Elements.  I’m relieved it lived up to my high expectations!  Fresh from the oven, this is a delightful dessert for a chilly fall or winter’s night, and it makes a good amount, so it’s perfect for a dinner party or gathering with friends.  It may even be a good substitute for that traditional pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.  As Matt mentions in the recipe preface, you might be tempted to warm up a slice for yourself for breakfast with a cup of black coffee.  That’s exactly what I did as I sat down to write up this blog.  I simply cannot rave enough about this dessert.  It’s just amazingly good.  You’ll have to try it for yourself to see what I mean.

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Chocolate-Chunk Pumpkin Bread Pudding

And be sure to visit the blogs of my fellow Baked Sunday Morning bakers, to see how they fared with their bread puddings.  If this recipe doesn’t reinforce my firm belief that pumpkin is an ingredient to be savored and treasured all year-round, I don’t know what would!

I also cannot contain my excitement that in almost a month, I will be attending Baked’s new store opening and book launch for Baked Occasions in TriBeCa!  I have been invited to this event as one of the recipe testers for this new book, and I am thrilled to meet up with some of my fellow BSM bakers, as well as Matt and Renato.  The countdown starts now!

 

 

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Trial, Error, and Tribulation: Tales of a Troublesome Tart

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BSMbanner_baked-150Many times as a baker, when you go into a recipe, you really never know what you are in for.  A recipe that looks really difficult at first read can be an absolute cinch.  On the flip-side – a recipe can appear deceptively simple, when in truth, it’s an absolute monster.  This was true for me with those Brooksters a while back.  This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection from Baked Elements – the Chocolate Banana Tart – wasn’t too monstrous, but by the time I had spent a couple hours attempting to at least slightly master ‘caramelized bananas’, followed by scalding bits of my hand on a cookie sheet fresh out of the oven, I was about to throw the towel in.  Ever stubborn, I forged on and came up with a fairly decent result – which nevertheless didn’t completely sway my slight repulsion for (raw) banana.

The description for this sleek tart in the book sets the basis for this being a fairly simple recipe to put together.  It begins with a baked sweet tart crust base, filled with luscious layers of chocolate ganache sandwiching thinly-sliced bananas.  The trouble, I found, came in the final pièce de résistance: a smattering of caramelized bananas on top of this tart.  Having never made caramelized bananas before, I knew going into it that this might be an experience for me, and I was game to at least give it an old college try.

The sweet tart crust came together fairly simply in the mixer.  Once chilled, you’ll want to very gently roll it out on a surface liberally sprinkled with flour.  Sweet tart doughs, or short doughs, can be very sticky and warm up fast.  Of course, after I maneuvered my dough into my tart pan with nary a crack except one (I patched it up by pressing in some excess dough), my boyfriend Jake showed me an excellent tip on YouTube for filling a tart pan without risking cracks in the dough.  I’m embedding the video as a good tip for you to file away.  I know that I will.  The tip is from England’s own master baker, Mary Berry, a co-host on a fascinating reality show much revered my the Brits – and now by me as well – called The Great British Bake-off.  Gosh, have a I fallen in love with this show.  I’m watching as many bits and pieces of it as I can on YouTube.  I wish it were more easily available for viewing here in America, because it is utterly addicting.  And – my experiences with this tart notwithstanding – I want to go on it as a contestant and see how I fare!  Enjoy Mary’s expertise and suggestion:

While the dough was chilling in the freezer, I decided to jump right in with those caramelized bananas, knowing the ganache in the next step might firm up a little too quickly if made it too early.

Here’s the trouble I ran into, right away, with these:  for one thing, I don’t have a large, heavy-gauge aluminum skillet to brown things in.  I still need to get some new, better pans.  I only had a yucky, nonstick wide sauté pan to contend with for these.  I melted together what seemed to be copious amounts of butter and brown sugar until bubbling, according to the recipe, and added my diagonally-sliced pieces of banana in a scattered layer.  After 45 seconds bubbling away, you’re supposed to gently turn each banana slice to brown the other side.  Okay.

IMG_3453When I attempted this, I sadly found that, not only had my bananas not browned as promised, but they had overcooked and were a mushy mess that disintegrated when I barely touched them with the spatula.  I realized fairly quickly that I displayed excellent foresight in buying a large bunch of bananas, rather than just the amount called for in the recipe.

I decided to try adding small spoonfuls of the butter/brown sugar mixture to a nonstick, aluminum saucepan, heating it up to a very hot temp, and making smaller amounts of caramelized bananas at a time (with less caramel).  This seemed to do the trick a little better.  The bananas had a decidedly more browned, caramelized surface – though they still seemed mushy.  The recipe suggests transferring the browned banana slices to a plate and dabbing at them to remove excess moisture.  However, ripe bananas already have a lot of moisture to them.  That’s why they turn to mush fairly quickly.  When I dabbed at my browned slices, OFF went all of that beautiful caramelization, onto the paper towel.  Realizing I needed to attempt a third batch – and my supply of bananas was dwindling – I was starting to lose it.

Around this time, I also had set my crust  in the oven to bake.  It turned out beautifully golden-brown, but even with pie crust weights in the first half of the baking, it had really seized up and shrunken a touch, which was odd (overworked dough?  I swear I was gentle with it!).  I grabbed the hot sheet pan – on which I placed the tart for baking – with an oven-mitted hand out of the oven and placed it, a touch catty-wumpus, onto a cooling rack.  Absolutely not thinking, with my other BARE hand, I went to straighten out the pan. YEEEOOOOUUUUCCCHHHHH!  I sustained a major, painful burn all the way up the side of my left hand, grazing a couple fingertips in the bargain.  I dropped everything straight away – thankfully, not the just-baked, delicate crust – and had to delay my baking endeavors yet a little longer while my ever-patient and concerned boyfriend ministered to my throbbing, red hand and endured my frequent whines of “DAMN IT, THIS HURTS”.

About an hour later (after resting and watching several clips of The Great British Bake-Off), I carefully slipped a latex glove over my Burnjel-slathered hand and forged ahead with the rest of that *insert expletive* Chocolate Banana Tart recipe.  I attempted the caramelized banana technique of only a few at a time in a small amount of bubbling caramel again, this time trying to pat the banana slices dry prior to putting them to sizzle away in the pan.  It wasn’t very successful.  I just think ripe bananas are far too soft and wet.  I wonder if this technique would be better with firmer, less ripe – perhaps green – bananas.  Anyhow, I yielded a fair amount of caramelized banana slices, which I let sit on a plate as I assembled the rest of the tart.

As this blog post is already far too long, I won’t elaborate on the particulars of putting together chocolate ganache.  I’m assuming you, my readers, are already familiar that a ganache is simply a delectable mixture of chocolate and heavy cream.  Baked cleverly combines bittersweet, or dark chocolate with milk chocolate for this tart – which I think is truly essential for a nice, balanced chocolately flavor finish.  I adore all ranges of chocolate from extra dark to milk, as you know, but you can go too far one way or another at times, and sometimes recipes (like that one) call for a balance so the end result is not too overpowering.  You want a nice complement to the banana in this tart.  Half of the ganache is spread across the bottom of the baked crust, then the entire tart is put into the fridge to firm up while you slice another 1.5 bananas to layer inside.

IMG_3457Here’s the thing:  I’m pretty sure I’ve stated this before, but I’m not a huge fan of raw banana.  I’ve never been one for banana cream pie, as beautiful as it frequently looks.  I prefer my bananas baked into a yummy, homey banana bread or muffin.  So I was a little skeevy about putting raw banana between two decadent chocolate ganache layers.  With that in mind, I sliced up the banana fairly thin – as in, almost paper-thin.  I then tossed the thin slices with a small splash of orange juice to keep them from browning, removed the cooled ganache layer from the fridge, and arranged the slices in a pretty, circular petal-like pattern on top.  The second half of chocolate ganache is finally smoothed over the top of the bananas, then the entire tart is placed back into the fridge to firm up.

Now… back to those pesky caramelized bananas.

After all of that persistence – and your faithful reading of all this nonsense, I have a sheepish confession to make:  I decided to leave the dreadful things off the top of the tart.  They pooled up on the plate, seeped out their sugars, and some even lost their beautiful browned effect… so, nix on those.  If there is anything I learned from those tireless British bakers on The Great British Bake-Off, sometimes you just need to concede defeat of one element and do your best attempting something else.

That in mind, I also scrapped decorating the tart with a caramel sauce cooked up from the butter/brown sugar mixture used in the banana caramelization, as IMG_3461instructed in the recipe.  This was not done without trying:  I followed the instructions to a T and added the heavy cream, stirring it up into a thick caramel reminiscent of penuche fudge… but that was just the trouble.  It was simply too thick, grainy and sugary.  I quick whipped a batch of Baked’s Classic Caramel Sauce (recipe also in Baked Elements), put that into a squeeze bottle when slightly cool but still runny, and did a fancy, artistic Jackson Pollock splash on top of the tart.  I think the result was quite nice.  To hell with those mushy caramelized bananas.

(For the record, not wanting to waste all those bits of sweet tart crust, I cut the IMG_3471scraps up into coins with a cookie cutter and baked them off into little cookies to serve alongside the tart.  I even attempted topping them with the caramelized bananas – but ended up scraping them off and dipped the cookies in the extra homemade caramel sauce instead!)

In the end, I can say that for all of this trial and error, I yielded a pretty elegant little tart that would please any chocolate-and-banana enthusiast.  The flavor is decadent and rich (you’ll want to aim for serving this in thin wedges), and the ganache and banana has a smooth, creamy finish inside the buttery crust.  My crust was a touch too crumbly, shattering into pieces when I cut into the tart… but after the aggravation of the day, I decided I was ready to put aside sweet tart crust experimentation for another day.

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Let me not deter you from attempting your own Chocolate Banana Tart by directing you to this link at Baked Sunday Mornings:

Chocolate Banana Tart

And please support my fellow BSM friends and bakers by paying a quick visit to their wonderful blogs to see how they fared.  Beware the caramelized banana debacle, keep oven mitts on BOTH hands, and Happy Baking, friends!

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Have your vanilla bean malt cake… and eat it too

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For faithful Neufangled Desserts followers, it’s no secret that I am not exactly the world’s biggest fan of malt.  I detest Whoppers malted milk balls and stick firmly to my guns that a milkshake is sullied by the addition of malt powder. Following along in Baked Elements with the Baked Sunday Mornings group has presented a slight challenge to me, with an entire chapter devoted to malted milk powder.

Surprisingly, I’ve learned to embrace the nutty flavor of malt a touch, and find that it definitely depends on what food the malt is incorporated into for me to appreciate it.  When Jake and I visited NYC in fall of 2012, I enjoyed sweet, delicious cereal milk from Momofuku Milk Bar that tasted like a faint throwback to childhood, when I had finished my cereal and all that was left in the bowl was milk infused with the flavor of the cereal.  Indeed, Momofuku Milk Bar’s cereal milk is just that: milk that has been steeped in cereal (such as Corn Flakes).  For me, malt in baked goods harkens to that same nostalgic flavor.  As a lot of cereals today have malt included in the ingredients, this makes complete sense.  Mind you, I’m still not about to down a box of Whoppers or sprinkle a couple tablespoons of malt into a chocolate shake that is purely delicious on its own, but I’m beginning to understand its appeal to malt fans (albeit in smaller doses).

Speaking of malted milkshakes, this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment from Baked Elements can almost be considered a cake-form take on a classic vanilla malt: the Vanilla Bean Malt Cake.  Baked up in a fancy Bundt pan, it’s a cake simple enough to whip together for a fun get-together with friends or family, or simply enjoy on your own.

As Matt Lewis states in the recipe preface, this cake comes together fairly quickly. I opted for mixing Knob Creek bourbon whiskey with vanilla paste instead of fussing with a good vanilla bean in the first step.  I have to admit I’m intrigued by the bourbon inclusion, as I barely tasted the liquor in the finished cake, or perhaps it was there, but very subtle.  Aside from the bourbon and vanilla bean addition, the batter mixes up easily and isn’t too unusual.

Matt also mentions that if you do not own a 6-cup Bundt pan to bake this cake in, a standard 9- or 10-cup Bundt is perfectly fine – you just will have a shorter cake.  You could do as I did and make a recipe and a half.  It filled my 9-cup Heritage pan perfectly and didn’t rise over the edge.  It did require a touch more time baking in the oven (about 55 minutes over all), and be sure to check on it to make sure it doesn’t brown too much.  I tented the cake with foil in the last 10-15 minutes.

IMG_3431My fellow BSM bakers mentioned in their blogs that the glaze providing the crowning touch on this cake seemed too thin, so I was careful when whisking it together.  I didn’t think the ratio of liquid (milk/vanilla) to dry (confectioners’ sugar) was too outlandish, but I drizzled the milk in slowly just in case.  All told, I think I used about 1.5 tablespoons of milk instead of the listed 2, and I added a small splash of regular vanilla along with a touch more vanilla paste, as I wanted some specks of vanilla bean to show up in the glaze as well.  I achieved a thicker, glossy glaze that was nicely conducive to drizzling over the cake.  (Also note that if you are making 1.5 of the cake recipe as I did, there’s really no need to do the same with the glaze recipe.  A little goes a long way.)

This is really one of those Bundt cakes you’ll want to store under a cake keeper or IMG_3438glass dome on your kitchen counter, so you can slice off pieces at leisure to enjoy with a glass of milk or cup of coffee.  I think its buttery texture and flavor would only get better with age.  I like the airy, light crumb to this cake, and the nuttiness of the malt sneaks through at the end, almost accenting the vanilla and giving the cake a subtle tang when paired with the buttermilk (which also keeps the cake slightly moist).

While I enjoyed this cake, I felt it was lacking something.  I wanted the vanilla to be punched up more, perhaps.  Dare I even say that there could be a touch *more* MALT?  It didn’t strike me as a particularly memorable cake overall – just so-so.  I’m not sure I would rush to make it again any time soon, or label it a must-make, go-to cake.  It does lend itself well to being baked in a Heritage Bundt pan; with a good greasing and flouring, the cake plopped right out the moment I turned the pan over, and had a beautiful golden hue to it all around.  The glaze might be better and compliment the cake with a little bit of malt powder added to the milk as well.

To try your own Vanilla Bean Malt Cake, follow this link to Baked Sunday Mornings:

Vanilla Bean Malt Cake

My fellow bakers in Baked Sunday Mornings also had some interesting results with this cake, so make sure to check out their blogs as well before you tackle your own, and if you have any suggestions, please post them below!

Until next time, friends, and as always, Happy Baking!

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Christmas in July

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Scrooge-ish curmudgeons like yours truly don’t even want to conceive of the notion that the holidays are nearly 4 months off at this time of year.  This particular blog’s moniker may be a touch off by the time it is published (July being, well, over), but with how rapidly 2014 is already flying, we will be – shudder – decking the halls in only a matter of time.

Typically, Christmas is a time of year I take off from baking.  However, the recent assignments of two tasty treats through Baked Sunday Mornings – Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks and Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies – have me putting aside a prematurely grumpy holiday spirit.  These two cookies are not only fantastic, they are an outstanding addition to your holiday baking repertoire.  File these away in your December baking files, folks.

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The Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks truly put those bland Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies to shame.  I hesitate to mention those cookies together in one sentence, because I feel like Thin Mints went downhill when they redesigned them with scalloped edges.  I’m weird, I know.  That aside, I’m a tremendous fan of a good mint and chocolate pairing, and when I first got Baked Elements, this was a recipe that stood out for me to try.  I’m only curious as to why it took me this long!

I also understand why store-bought cookies maintain their incredible softness and chewiness, as these chewy delights do, indeed, contain a hefty half cup of light corn syrup.  I know, I’m not a fan either, but if you love chocolate mint as I do, you are depriving yourself a true indulgence if you hesitate to make these based on this alone.  It’s okay once in a great while, though I dare you to make a batch of these and not want to quickly make another once you have devoured the lot of them.  Use really nice dark cocoa (Hershey’s Special Dark does fine, if you cannot afford the expensive stuff).  I also swapped out Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips for the chocolate chunks called for in the recipe.  Slightly flatter and disc-like, they substantiate the size of chocolate chunks and melt beautifully into the midnight-dark chocolate cookie.

Inititally, I was a trifle stymied by the full 1.5 tablespoons of peppermint extract in the recipe, and felt perhaps I had read it wrong.  A little peppermint extract goes a long way.  Unless you use the full measurement of extract called for in this recipe, however, the true “pow” factor of the mint will be dwarfed by the intensity of the cocoa and chocolate, so add those full 1.5 tablespoons. You want to go ultra-mint here.  Of course, if you’re not a fan of intense mint, scale it back a touch.

IMG_3348These gems are sinfully good and easy to put together, but allow yourself some planning and time with these.  As suggested, an overnight refrigerator rest of the dark cookie dough perfectly weds the mint and chocolate flavors, so don’t skip this step because of impatience.  With their coat of sparkly sugar and crackly tops, these cookies are beautiful to boot.  Soft, chewy, and delightfully chock-full of chocolate chunks or chips and permeated with the effervescence ofmint, I found it hard to eat just one… or two.  Okay, maybe I ate three.  Then a couple more later in the day.

First batch - definitely held their shape better!

First batch – definitely held their shape better!

A word to the wise:  if you’re super-particular about your cookies like me, preferring them more on the plump, chewy side as opposed to thin and wafer-like, fold in your dry ingredients and chocolate chunks by hand, rather than using the mixer – taking care not to over mix. Chill the dough well and keep it chilled as you scoop off, roll, and bake the cookies.  I made two batches of these, and my first batch was infinitely better (I folded in the dry ingredients by hand).  The cookies held their shape and were fatter and soft.  The second batch spread and were not as attractive – though they still tasted fabulous.

For a bit of almost old-fashioned whimsy on your cookie plate, the Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies are just the thing.  I tend to avoid spritz cookie recipes, leaving them to those select few who seem to ace them every holiday.  I loved Baked’s idea of a cinnamon spritz, however, and decided to give these a go.

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I’m a fan of anything cinnamon, and the stronger and hotter the cinnamon, the better – so I went for Penzey’s Vietnamese cinnamon here.  I balked at the inclusion of cardamom.  I’m a traitor to my Danish heritage, I realize, by stating that cardamom is not one of my favorite spices.  I find it a bit too floral and musky in taste, but I included it when making these nonetheless, to stay true to the recipe on my first go-round with these.

IMG_3371The dough mixes together incredibly quickly and easily, with minimal ingredients.  As with any spritz or shortbread cookie, the butter shines appropriately as the main player here. Upon discovering that I had misplaced my cookie press (I had really hoped to pipe these out like true spritz cookies), I used a pastry bag and star tip as the recipe suggests, but I’m pretty sure I piped my cookies out slightly larger.  The dough may feel a little tough at first to work through the pastry bag; just carefully manipulate it down through the piping tip and don’t apply so much pressure that you risk splitting your bag.  Make sure your piped-out spritz are chilled well on the cookie sheets before baking.  I also opted to bake the spritz in-between the recommended cakey and crispy times – for about 15 minutes or so, until I could see the edges brown slightly.

A subtly sweet, glossy, soft meringue filling is made to sandwich two spritz halves together.  Again, the filling recipe comes together fast and shouldn’t be too daunting – but feel free to substitute a nice jam or speculoos spread if you feel so inclined.  All that is left for presentation is a delicate dusting of powdered sugar.

The flavor of these is reminiscent of a lightly-spiced snickerdoodle; not as intense, but similar.  I liked the slightly crisp texture of the cookie, and the warm notes of the cinnamon are nicely rounded out by the touch of cardamom (indeed, the cardamom intensifies a little after a day or two).  The light meringue filling is a nice contrast to the cookie flavors.  My slight complaint was that my first bite into the sandwich cookie had the filling oozing messily out of the sides.  What was a very elegant-looking cookie fast turned to sticky chaos between my fingers.  I’m wondering if letting the filled cookies sit on a plate to ‘dry’ slightly might firm up the meringue and remedy this effect a touch.

If these cookies tempt you to fire up your stove in the heat of summer to give them a whirl long before the snow flies and the tinsel is on the tree, check out the recipes on the Baked Sunday Morning site:

Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies

Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks 

I guarantee that these festive cookies will not having you saying “bah, humbug!” like yours truly, regardless of the time of year.  Please be sure to visit the wonderful sites of my fellow BSM bakers as well.  They have some wonderful blogs and photos to share with you!

Until next time, thank – as always – for reading and Happy Baking!

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Happily. Ever. After.

Wedding bliss ~ cakes and pies and tarts – oh my!

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You’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to.  Given that my last blog post was on March 30th, you may have thought I dropped off the face of the baking universe, but trust me – it’s been quite the opposite! Before I dive into the reason why I am finally back and posting again (ummm, some fabulous chocolate mint cookies; see tomorrow’s blog), I want to give you the lowdown on what’s been happening in the life of Neufangled Desserts during the past couple of months…

A wedding! IMG_3306

Well, let me clarify:  this was not MY wedding (ha! As IF), but the wedding of two dear friends of mine, Aaron and Rhonda Schmidt.  Aaron and Rhonda asked me around the beginning of the year or so if I would do them the honor of baking a variety of desserts for a dessert table at their July 11th wedding.  I was thrilled, not only to do this for them, but because I knew it was a challenge I was finally ready to take on.  Furthermore, they wanted good, old-fashioned desserts: cakes, pies, tarts – no frilly, cutesy cupcakes or quadruple-decker, tiered, fancy wedding cake.  Just honest-to-goodness, delicious desserts.

Keeping the couple’s particular likes and tastes in mind, I came up with a menu of about 13 desserts, yielding about 18 desserts made in total (I doubled up on a few).  This was a touch ambitious, I was quick to learn.  It was loads of fun, however.  I discovered that it’s truly all in the planning.  When you’re working on a huge baking project like a wedding, it’s wise to:

1 – Invest in a decent freezer.  I didn’t own a chest freezer prior to this project, but had always wanted one.  Buying one was the smartest thing I did.  I baked several of the layer cakes a month in advance and plopped them, all tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and foil, into the freezer.  I also made several items in advance – fillings and curds, toasted nuts, etc. – anything that could stand up well over a week or so to decent storage or refrigeration.  Making piecrust and freezing it in advance worked well too.  Finally, I took the day before the wedding off, as well as the day of, for baking off tarts and pies – which are always best made a day before you eat them, no earlier – and finally filling and frosting all of the cakes (and yes, I frosted the cakes right from the freezer).

2 – Having good refrigeration is also key.  Fortunately, my boyfriend works for a local ice cream maker (Purple Door Ice Cream), and they were gracious enough to let me store some of the desserts that required refrigeration in their cooler temporarily – and they were also only a few short blocks from where the reception was held – fabulous!  Our tiny refrigerator in our apartment fast filled up; I was using every single inch of available space.

As we loaded the car with all of the cakes, packed in cardboard boxes (I really need to invest in some good Rubbermaid totes for transport if I’m going to keep doing this), I admit to having some panicked moments.  It looked like it was going to rain (it sprinkled).  I was hoping we wouldn’t forget anything, plus I was hurriedly dressing myself as we were running out the door.  Time was getting tight – and drat, I still hadn’t tied my new bow tie, a process that takes me at least a good twenty minutes!  With only a few mishaps – I did leave an entire cake in the refrigerator and Jake needed to drive back and get it – we made it to the wedding and got everything set up on some pretty glass cake pedestals I found at a vintage market in Chicago, as well as several I previously had in my collection.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  The desserts were a huge hit, not only with the wedding guests, but even with the caterers!  I was quite proud of all of my hard work.

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RHONDA AND AARON’S DESSERT TABLE

Chocolate Layer Cake with Coffee Buttercream and Dark Chocolate Ganache

Almond Raspberry Layer Cake

Raspberry Truffle Tart

Chocolate Derby Pie

Peanut Butter Chocolate Tart

Apple Slab Pie

Lemon Sour Cream Pie

Lemon Cake with Blackberry Curd Filling

German Chocolate Cake

Balsamic Strawberry Pie

S’Mores Layer Cake

(including a small S’Mores Cake special for the bride and groom – photo above!)

Chocolate Whiskey Tart

Blackberry Jam Tart

You may have read about a few of these desserts before – the Chocolate Whiskey Tart, for one – on this blog, but I have to say there are a few new recipes I discovered that I will need to share with you in the future.  Namely, I’ve made Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ Balsamic Strawberry Pie probably 4-5 times in the past few months.  It is fantastic!  I also adore their Lemon Sour Cream Pie.  It dirties a few more pots and pans than you might like and is a touch labor-intensive, but the pay-off is totally worth it.  I’ve fallen in love Alisa Huntsman’s book, Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes, from which I obtained the recipe for the Almond-Raspberry Cake (I admit I was tipped off to this recipe, and book, by Deb Perelman of The Smitten Kitchen).  I am bemoaning the fact that this book was published for only a short time, as I would really like a hardcover copy.  Fortunately, I downloaded the book on my Kindle Fire – but who really enjoys using a cookbook on a Kindle?  Not I.  If any of you can find a gently-used copy of this for a fairly reasonable price, I will pay for it – shipping and all, if you send it.  I really need to get my hands on an actual copy, as it’s a gem.

Two Dapper Dans at a wedding: Jake and I!

Two Dapper Dans at a wedding: Jake and I!

My sincere thanks go out to Rhonda and Aaron for making my desserts a part of their special day.  It was such a beautiful wedding, and we had so much fun.  For as much work that goes into putting together a dessert table, the entire project was rewarding.  In fact, I think it only further solidified for me the notion that baking, and working in a kitchen, is really something I should be doing on a more regular basis.  It’s one of my strongest passions.  Most folks would be exhausted after putting together something like this, but I hopped out of bed the next morning and starting thinking about what I might do with that extra ball of piecrust that was left over in our fridge!  I also have two potential wedding gigs booked in 2015 as a result, and the caterers even took my card with my info!

So now… I am back.  The wedding is over, and while theatre is still keeping me busy (I’m closing my 5th show of this year this weekend…phew!), I’m hoping to find my way back into the regularity of my Neufangled Desserts blog once again, with some interesting developments for the ‘future’ of ND in the works.  I’ll keep you informed, but for now – onto the cookies!  Check out tomorrow’s post on Baked’s Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks. YUM.

Happily. Ever. After.

Happily. Ever. After.

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PB + chocolate = a swirl made in heaven

IMG_2228BSMbanner_baked-150There’s something really irresistible about the combination of chocolate and peanut butter. I guess we can applaud those Reese’s folks for that one, but I have to think the addiction went back even farther than the humble peanut butter cup.  Not being a nut person myself, I find I can usually make an exception with peanut butter, especially if it is paired with chocolate.  I adore peanut butter cups, and peanut butter M&M’s are the bomb.  (Surprisingly, I don’t like peanuts at all, but I will tolerate a handful of peanut M&Ms.  Strange, I know.  That’s just odd little ol’ me.)

This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment was the tricky-looking Peanut Butter Chocolate Whirligigs from Baked Elements.  Having read on Baked’s blog not too long ago that one of Baked’s top testers found these challenging herself, I needed to take a pretty deep breath before attempting these, as they looked fussy from the get-go.  I like a baking challenge, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never been fond of rolling things up, jelly-roll style, with gooey fillings inevitably oozing out and making a huge mess all over the place.  If there is a choice between making a drop cookie and a rolled cookie, I go with the former nearly every time.

In an effort not to insult your intelligence, readers, I’m going to attempt not to go through the recipe step by step (as I have done with previous blogs) starting with this blog. Instead, when applicable, I’m simply going to tell you about my experience along the way and offer some tips or pointers I discovered.  This recipe, in itself, is pretty lengthy and involved, and detailing my step by step process in this could generate a lengthy blog.  I don’t want to bore you.

Basically, Baked’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Whirligigs are a slice and bake cookie, which can be the easiest and handiest type of cookie you can make.  In essence, you make the dough, roll it into a log, and keep it in your freezer or fridge for a long time, slicing off and baking the cookies whenever you need them.  The fanciful – and trickier – factor with this recipe is that you first must make a peanut butter cookie dough that needs to be very well-chilled in order to work with it.  It was, I gotta confess, annoyingly rather soft; if you chill it good enough, you can work with it however.  That being said, allow yourself some time to IMG_2219make these cookies – maybe even a couple days.  You then roll the peanut butter dough out, slather it with rich and melty dark chocolate, then carefully roll it all up – with guidance from parchment paper – in cinnamon roll fashion.  The tough part I encountered with this process was that, in addition to the soft dough tearing in spots, that luscious chocolate filling just kept pushing and spilling its way out as I slowly rolled it all up.  Yes – if you are like me, there will be a few choice words uttered in your kitchen.  Just be patient, slow, and careful.  My second roll was much smoother than my first.  Cut yourself some slack.  The dough roll is chilled good until firm, then the cookies are sliced off and baked.

I was thankful for Matt’s note at the start of this recipe that the whirligigs should be “fun and whimsical” and each cookie should have its own personality.  Setting up such a disclaimer is reassuring to perfectionist bakers like myself.  As you will witness from my IMG_2231photos, the swirls in these cookies did not come out “perfect”.  Sometimes – some might even argue that often – imperfection is beauty indeed.  My mind – which typically would fret at this detail – was really able to relax and go with the rugged imperfection in these cookies this time around.  I realized it was inevitable; the chocolate inside, when chilled, gets extremely firm and harder to slice into, pushing against the softer dough on the exterior, and in general, you might wind up with some misshapen cookies.  You can manipulate the slices a touch with your fingers, if need be, before popping them in the oven.  I liked the rusticity and whimsical quality of these cookies as they baked.  You may be surprised how big they round out and puff up in the oven.  I know that I was.

If you’re a chocolate and peanut butter fan, you will really appreciate these gems.  If you don’t over-bake them too much, they should be slightly crisp, maybe tender in a few spots, with a firmer texture to the chocolate (once they are completely cooled) which fast melts in your mouth.

Many could argue that one should be altruistic to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and make these with milk chocolate; milk chocolate and peanut butter seem to be a perfect match.  I personally like both.  The recipe calls for dark chocolate, which I used – and I really appreciate the sharp, bittersweet taste of dark chocolate against the creamy, earthy peanut butter, but some folks may not like this contrast.  If you’re one of them, by all means, give milk chocolate a try and let me know what you think.  Milk chocolate will definitely produce a mellower and perhaps more balanced flavor palate against the peanut butter.  When I make Ina Garten’s peanut butter chocolate chunk (drop) cookies (a favorite cookie with Jake and I), I usually use half Ghirardelli bittersweet and half Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips, because I like the combination of the two with the peanut butter.  I couldn’t go completely milk chocolate; I have to have some dark in there to provide some sharpness.  I like to get deep and dark with my chocolate, what can I say? (Share your opinion on this by voting in the confidential poll below!)

IMG_2230My end verdict on the whirligigs?  They’re fun, they’re whimsical, and they delightfully pair two favorite flavors into one rustic and funky cookie.  They would be fantastic milk dunkers… or delectable ice cream sandwiches with vanilla or chocolate ice cream.  The work and slight fuss that go into them produces a nice payoff.  I’m not certain I would make these all the time, but as with most things, I’m positive that practice would make them perfect over time.  They would be a great summertime picnic cookie, and I have no doubt kids would go nuts over them (no pun intended).

*Unfortunately, shortly after posting my blog, I went to move a few things on my kitchen counter and knocked the container holding these cookies to the floor – totally smashed and in crumbs!  So sad.  These cookies, in other words, are brittle!

Here’s the link to Baked Sunday Mornings so you can attempt your own:

Peanut Butter Chocolate Whirligigs

As always, please visit the blogs of my fellow BSM bakers to view and read about their wonderful whirligig creations!  Thanks for reading and happy baking, friends!

Finally, just for fun… please vote in my poll and let me know what you think!

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Brûléed

IMG_0010_2BSMbanner_baked-150It’s been some time since I have been able to post a new blog, and I’m excited to make my return this morning!  I’ve been exceptionally busy doing play after play after play after play (I am going into my 4th show in a row in a couple weeks), plus I started a new job – very exciting!  Many wonderful things happening in 2014 – but I have dearly missed writing my blog for my faithful readers.  I didn’t miss too many exciting desserts for Baked Sunday Mornings – if you’re following along in the book, I had some unsuccessful results with the Lime Angel Food Cake (a touch too deflated and rubbery), and the Banana in a Blanket just did not appeal to me, visually or taste-wise.  Not a huge banana fan here.

IMG_0001_2However, I am more than happy to make a return with a classic, favorite dessert.  Before I proceed, I must make a sad confession.  I am typing this blog out on my laptop with a slightly burnt index finger.  Yikes!  Nothing pleasant about that.  How did this happen, you ask?  Well, consider: this week for Baked Sunday Mornings, the assignment is Classic Creme Brûlée with Caramelized Brown Sugar.  Yep.  You got it.  I brûléed the tip of my finger, not just the creme!  Ugh!  This has never happened to me before when making creme brûlée – unfortunately, my finger just happened to slip into the portion of sugar I had just caramelized with the kitchen torch as I was transferring the ramekin to another section of my counter.  OUCH!

Getting that out of the way, I adore creme brûlée, so the fingertip sacrifice was slightly worth it!  It’s one of those desserts that fall under the ‘sexy’ and ‘seductive’ category.  It’s subtle, smooth, then sassy – with that crackling, crunchy burnt sugar top.  I have frequently ordered it in restaurants when it’s been on the menu – but the wonderful conceit with creme brûlée is that it is super easy to make, despite its fancy moniker, which translates to “burnt cream”.  The hardest part may be using a kitchen torch, if you are unfamiliar – and even that turns out to be easy and fun in the end (um, if you’re careful, that is!).

IMG_0002Baked’s recipe uses only 6 ingredients.  First, you warm 2 cups of heavy cream in a saucepan (yes, a whopping 2 cups – for 4 servings; you need to indulge a little with this one), along with a vanilla bean, split down the center to allow the millions of wonderful little vanilla seeds to spill out into the custard.  I unfortunately did not have a vanilla bean handy, so I used about a teaspoon and a half of vanilla bean paste.  While this is warming, separate 6 eggs.  Forget investing in a fancy egg separator – your hand is the best tool.  Wash your hands thoroughly, then crack the egg into your fingers and let the whites drip down into a bowl while you carefully cradle the golden yolk into your hand.  When the yolk is completely free from the white, I take the opportunity at this point to gently pinch off that stringy white chalazae attached to the yolk.  Typically, if this is left on, it cooks up into an unappealing, chewy mass in your custard.  Obviously, you want to avoid this in such a light, silky dessert. You will be sieving the custard  in the final step, so if you skip it on this step, you should be able to strain it out later on.  (Don’t toss those egg whites – save them in your refrigerator for another use!)

In a separate bowl, the egg yolks are beaten with a whisk with 1/3 cup sugar and a pinch of salt, until they just start to turn a pale yellow and no further.  Gently stir in the warmed vanilla/heavy cream mixture, a little bit at a time, to temper – and not scramble – the egg yolks.  The key word here is stir – I’ve learned from countless other times making creme brûlée that at this point, you want to get rid of that whisk you started with and use a wooden spoon or spatula to incorporate the warm cream; the reason being that you want to avoid creating a lot of fizzy air bubbles on the tops of your custard, which bake up into an unsightly mess.  You want to keep the surface of your custards as smooth as possible for the layer of sugar you will scatter over it later.

Pour the egg/cream mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a large measuring cup that will allow you to pour the custard into the ramekins to be baked.  This is a crucial step, as it removes any egg solids (or that icky white chalazae) that may have cooked when you added the cream to the egg yolks.  Pour the custard mixture into ramekins.  As the recipe suggests, I yielded about 4 6-ounce ramekins worth of custard – perfect for a small dinner with a couple friends.  Place the ramekins in a small roasting pan, then carefully pour boiling water into the pan until it encroaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  This is called a bain marie, or water bath.  Baking custards in a water bath allows them to bake uniformly, preventing excessive curdling or overcooking.  A bain marie is also a wonderful way to bake a cheesecake.

The creme brûlées are baked for about a half hour, in the roasting pan, until they just slightly jiggle in the centers.  Remove, and let cool to room temperature, before wrapping them in plastic and refrigerating them overnight (which I have found is best).  While making these a day in advance may seem a touch tiresome, it also frees you up for making dinner the next night and not having to worry about dessert! All you need to do is brûlée the custards when ready to serve.

There are kitchen torches specific for making creme brûlée and desserts, and there are also larger, possibly even cheaper, propane torches available in your local hardware store.  Either will work!  Baked’s recipe for creme brûlée adds a slight twist in that it uses dark brown sugar – instead of the standard granulated – for that splendid caramelized top.  Toss a couple tablespoons or so of sugar across the top of your custards, and with your fingers, gently smooth it out.  Turn on your kitchen torch – don’t be scared of it! – and carefully move the flame close, but not too close, to the sugar.  I sway the torch back and forth, watching for the sugar to begin melting and bubbling into a glorious, golden crust on top of the custard.  It will smoke up a bit, but don’t be alarmed – it’s doing what it’s supposed to.  If you’re like me, you might hold the torch over one spot until it’s almost dark amber in color; I like the sugar on my creme brûlée just bordering on burnt more than brown.  Set the creme brûlée aside for a little bit for the crust to fully harden.

IMG_0003_2The glorious moment of truth comes when you serve the creme brûlée.  I love to ‘thwack’ the base of my spoon against the sugary top.  It should beautifully crack into shards, disclosing that beautiful, creamy baked custard, speckled with vanilla beans, underneath.  A well-made creme brûlée is a true beauty to behold.  What I especially appreciate about creme brûlée is how it texturally appeals not only to the visual senses, but also – obviously – to the taste and palate.  The smooth custard, permeated and perfumed with warm vanilla, contrasts luxuriantly against the earthy crunchiness of the burnt sugar crust.  It is almost intoxicating – and yes, quite sexy.  Serve this on a date night and watch the sparks fly.  With this recipe, you might find a fun little surprise in the bottom of your ramekin – I discovered that a lot of the vanilla beans settled there.  No matter – it was still delicious, and I decided that the vanilla bean was actually preferable to just using vanilla extract.

I recently made creme brûlée for Oscar night using Ina Garten’s recipe, as I forgot that Baked had a recipe in this cookbook at the time.  It was a wonderful treat for this occasion, though I found myself quickly running into the kitchen and firing up the kitchen torch to brûlée the custards in between commercials!  With any dessert, obviously your best bet is to plan accordingly!

To try your own hand (and not burn it!) at creme brûlée, follow this link:

Classic Creme Brûlée with Caramelized Brown Sugar

…and be sure to check out how my fellow Baked Sunday Mornings bakers fared.  I think I can confidently predict that none of them were as klutzy with the burnt sugar as I was!

I still have a busy few weeks ahead of me, but I will do my very best to stay up to date with my blogs.  Thank you for hanging in there with me!  Happy St. Patricks Day to everyone, by the way!  May the luck of the Irish be always with you!

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Bale-ing out

IMG_2113BSMbanner_baked-150When I noticed that this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection from Baked Elements was essentially a no-bake peanut-pretzel bar, I must confess that I immediately cringed.  As this is my personal blog, and therefore I’m guessing I can express my own personal opinions on here without danger of being hazed (ahem, Facebook), I’m not going to sugar-coat it:  I detest nuts.  This isn’t anything new.  You’ve read it all here before.  With the exception of almonds and pecans, nuts just aren’t my thing.  A baked good containing nuts is best left alone… best left forgotten, as it is pretty much sullied.  Why spoil something so wonderful with something so… ICK?

IMG_2114I honestly try to keep an open mind, so I went into making Baked’s revered Bale Bars this week not without with my typical nut trepidation, but with some immediate clarity and understanding that I needed to give them, at the very least, an objective try.  I wasn’t going to go rogue and make another recipe.  I wanted to stick with the group.  I might not eat them once they are made – lest my stomach do its dreaded flip-flop at the slightest hint of a peanut on my tongue – but perhaps I could rely on some good taste testers to give me their honest opinion about these treats for this blog.  Here goes.  Onward I forge.

The recipe comes together fairly quickly and easily, but I could see at first glance that it might be a touch problematic.  To begin with, when working with white chocolate, which – along with caramel-like brown sugar – comprises the ‘sweet’ part of this sweet and salty treat, things can get surprisingly tricky, especially when melting it.  Typically, if you’re not careful, melted white chocolate care seize up and become a gritty, oily, quite unattractive mess.

The recipe begins with making a caramel of sorts by combining butter, brown sugar, cream, and fleur de del in a saucepan, then adding chopped white chocolate – stirring it in until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth.  Perhaps it is really quality white chocolate you need here; I used Ghirardelli white chocolate chips, which I don’t necessarily consider to be ‘poor’ quality, perhaps average.  Anyhow, once I added the chocolate, the mixture did indeed seize up and turn grainy.  Even worse, the butter and the butter solids in the white chocolate seemed to pair up and seep out a lot of excess oil.  Not good.  I remedied this by first draining out some of this oil (into the garbage), then I whisked in the vanilla extract, followed by a splash or two more of cream before proceeding with the next step of adding slightly more fleur de del, vanilla, and the peanut butter.  I used a creamy peanut butter, not crunchy as the recipe suggests.  (If the prospect of this white chocolate ‘hell’ daunts you, Baked suggests you can substitute a good quality milk chocolate.)

IMG_2109This warm, somewhat gooey mixture is added to a hand-tossed combination of crushed, salty pretzel sticks (I agree with Renato – this particular type of pretzel is essential), and coarsely chopped salted peanuts.  Stirred together, this forms a thicker mixture speckled with nuts and pretzels and somewhat reminiscent of a no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookie, though definitely NOT as appealing-looking, in my opinion.  Honestly, I thought the color of this mixture was very off-putting.  With buttered or lightly-oiled hands, press the mixture into a parchment-lined pan, then let it cool to room temperature, or chill in the refrigerator before lifting out the parchment and cutting into squares or rectangles for serving.

IMG_2115I made only a half batch, knowing we might not eat all of these.  I was pretty surprised at how thin they were; they reminded me of a nut brittle or bark.  Cutting them into individual pieces further enforced this train of thought, as they shattered at the edges in several places.  While, for the most part, they held together, they are a crumbly type of bar cookie when eating then.  Believe it or not, I did try one… and as I expected, these are just not my cup of tea.  I was able to stomach it, which was a surprise – and I don’t mind the peanut butter and the pretzels, but the peanuts are just too much.  The piece I ate was smallish and the taste sufficient enough for me to know I won’t be rushing to make these again.  My boyfriend Jake thought they tasted fine – but I noticed he wasn’t as quick to grab one of these for a treat later as he was the Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies I made right after this (Ina Garten’s recipe; I may post about these in a future blog)!  This was probably one of my least favorite Baked recipes – close to the Good Morning Sunshine Bars (though I felt I could tolerate even those a little more, with plenty of milk chocolate drizzled on top and NO peanuts).

You win some, lose some.  I’m going to stick to the notion that ‘honesty is the best policy’ and admit these were not a hit for me, but you have to give me credit for trying them.

If the Bale Bars sound like something you would like to try – and you might love them! – follow this link to make your own:

Bale Bars

Next time – it’s all about homemade lime angel food cake with a lime glaze!  I will skip the suggested sprinkling of pistachios, however.  No thanks!  Learned my lesson…

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Simple, sleek, and oh so chic

IMG_2103BSMbanner_baked-150There’s something slyly seductive about the pairing of smooth, rich chocolate and a good, smoky whiskey.  A well-made chocolate tart for dessert is almost like an elegant little black dress – chic, simple, and irresistible to pass up, rather like Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.  Splash in a little booze and you’ve got the makings of Holly’s wall-to-wall party in her cozy Manhattan flat.  Well, maybe not as raucous – but you get the idea.  I may be getting a little carried away – I will seize any opportunity to throw a little Audrey into anything!

This week, Baked Sunday Mornings highlights Baked’s Simple Chocolate Whiskey Tart, crowned with soft, billowing Whiskey Whipped Cream.  I’ve been looking forward to making this recipe since I first received Baked Elements, as I’ve gradually become a pretty big fan of tossing whiskey into – well, any dessert, especially good whiskey!

Honestly, you will find that the best thing about this tart is that it lives up to its name for being ‘simple’.  You start by making a super-buttery crust with homemade or pre-made shortbread cookies, crushed to fine crumbs in a food processor.  I used a box of Archer Farms Shortbread Cookies I found at Target, but you could also go with Lorna Doone cookies, if you are taking the pre-made route.  Combine the crumbs with melted butter, a touch of granulated sugar and salt; press this into a springform pan.  As the crumb crust seemed a little more ‘tacky’ and sticky than a typical crumb crust (there’s a ton of butter in it, what with the butter cookies AND butter), I found it most helpful to use a metal measuring cup to tamp down the crumbs and press them against the sides of the pan; the IMG_2076crumbs stuck less to the metal than my fingers.  As with most crumb crusts, pay heed to the instruction that you should place the springform pan on a sheet pan, as excess butter in the crust does tend to seep out of the bottom of the pan when baking.  You will have a smoky, greasy mess in your oven if you skip this suggestion (take it from one who knows!). I ended up baking my crust a touch longer than the recipe suggests; after 12 minutes, it still looked rather shiny, soft, and greasy rather than dry.  I think I took it to about 17-18 minutes, but do keep an eye on it, as you don’t want it to over-brown.

The luscious filling is made by combining milk (whole or 2%, which I used and it worked just fine) and heavy cream; heating this almost but not quite to the point of boiling or scalding. Pour the milk/cream mixture over a combination of bittersweet (or dark) and milk chocolates, allow the chocolate to melt, then whisk to form a sort of loose ganache.  As with any chocolate, using quality chocolate yields the most favorable results.  I typically use Ghirardelli chocolate baking chips and they work perfectly fine – and do not contain fillers, like most chocolate chips do (check the ingredient list).  Make a ‘slurry’ – a thickening mixture – of one egg plus one egg yolk, a tablespoon of flour, and 2 tablespoons of whiskey.  My current whiskey of choice is Knob Creek.  It’s a little pricier, but worth it for the results you’re aiming for.

Once the ganache mixture has cooled or is only slightly warm, gently whisk in the whiskey slurry.  Try not to over-whisk this chocolate mixture if you want a finished tart that looks IMG_2083smooth and satiny on the top; I found that I incorporated a few too many small air bubbles/pockets in mine as I whisked everything together.  The tart still came out lovely, but was speckled with several burst bubbles on top.  Pour the chocolate filling into the tart shell and bake off for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the sides look set and the middle is still a bit jiggly.  I let the tart cool completely before attempting to remove the sides, as springform pan tarts or cheesecakes always make me slightly nervous in this regard; the edges look so lacy and delicate and I hold my breath as I slowly release the outer ring.  This tart released beautifully, sliced up nicely, and served smoothly from the plate, largely due to the quantity of butter in the crust.

While the tart was baking, I had to chuckle when my boyfriend Jake mentioned that the kitchen smelled like a chocolate doughnut – it truly did! The combination of chocolate and whiskey is really intoxicating in a lot of respects.  Jake currently works part-time for a local ice cream company, Purple Door Ice Cream, which I have talked about in prior posts.  They make an excellent whiskey ice cream – and have even gone so far as to top that with a chocolate whiskey ice cream, served for dessert at one of our favorite local restaurants, the Smoke Shack.  Dusted with a hint of cinnamon, this ice cream gloriously weds chocolate and whiskey in creamy, wonderful bliss.  I could eat a whole pint in one sitting, so I’m thankful it is only exclusive to this restaurant.  It’s even more romantic and delicious when shared by two.  We absolutely love this ice cream, and I was curious to see if this Chocolate Whiskey Tart would be a richer, decadent ‘cousin’ to the flavors in that ice cream.  I found that it certainly was – one bite of this tart was swoon-worthy.  The punch of whiskey flavor is bold and grand, but it doesn’t overpower the sexy chocolate; rather, it complements it IMG_2099perfectly.  The shortbread cookie crust is rich, buttery, and a touch salty – the perfect bedding for that sleek, dense chocolate.  I’m fairly sure a graham crust would do sufficiently in a pinch, but if you can try the shortbread cookie crust, do.  I topped individual slices with Whiskey Whipped Cream and a dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder, as suggested by Baked.  If you’re serving the tart all at once, follow Baked’s lead and pile the middle of the tart with the mound of whipped cream and dusting of cocoa for a show-stopping, presentational flourish.  The whisper of whiskey in the whipped cream heightens the deliciously boozy flavors in the tart, making this truly the ultimate dessert to serve to the whiskey lovers in your life.  (Warning: teetotalers may not be huge fans.)

To make this sexy and sleek tart yourself, follow this link:

Simple Chocolate Whiskey Tart with Whiskey Whipped Cream

I guarantee this is one you will add to your dessert repertoire!

A couple last notes…

I made only half of the Whiskey Whipped Cream that the recipe suggests and found it was sufficient enough in quantity, especially as I was only serving the tart at odd times, individually.  If you’re a HUGE whipped cream fanatic, by all means, forge ahead with the entire recipe – just know that you will have lots of whipped cream!  As long as I am once again promoting Purple Door Ice Cream, might I also recommend that – if you’re not a fan of whipped cream – you could side this with Purple Door’s Whiskey ice cream?

IMG_2092You also may want to try this tart both at room temperature and refrigerated.  Baked suggests that it can taste differently both ways.  So far, I have only tried it chilled from the fridge, but I can imagine that the boldness of the whiskey may either deepen or mellow into the chocolate at room temperature.  Give it a try.  After all, who wouldn’t want a second piece of this later on? Enjoy!

Thanks to Jake for the top/first photo, by the way…

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