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 Hunstman’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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Golden granita (with a touch of bubbly)

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BSMbanner_baked-150There are very few desserts one could make that are simpler than a delicious granita – nice and icy cold and fluffed with (simply) a fork from the freezer.  Though the holidays are a few weeks past at the time I write this post, I am reminded by this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection – Lemon Lime Champagne Granita – of the several years when I, as a child, yearned for Santa to put that Snoopy Snow-cone Machine under the tree for me.  It seemed all of my friends had one.  I adored the Peanuts characters, and what kid doesn’t like a good, fruity dessert reminiscent of those sickly-sweet Slurpees you could buy at K-Mart – which inevitably provided you with killer brain freeze – right?

Alas, Santa never came through with the Snow-cone Machine (for reasons unknown – perhaps a fear of the small, sharp rotating blades inside?  Who knows!).  As an adult, however, I can delight in the fact that making my own tasty, refreshing icy treat is as simple as combining a few tasty ingredients together with a simple syrup, tossing it in a metal pan, freezing it, and occasionally stirring it with a fork to yield those beautiful, flavorful crystals of ice.  I’m pretty sure a recipe such as this one would be ultimately better than anything a plastic Snoopy doghouse could churn up too!

IMG_2067I’m a touch behind schedule on posting my entry for Baked Sunday Mornings; this granita was highlighted by my fellow BSM bloggers last week.  Time got past me, however, as I opened a new show this week, and with wrapping up the holidays, things were just crazy.  That bottle of Korbel champagne we reserved for cracking open on New Year’s Eve remained nice and chilled – and unopened – past midnight January 1st.  We were simply too tired to stay up too much later and indulge in some bubbly.  It’s called getting OLD, folks.  In making this delicious granita, I discovered that the delay in popping the cork was well worth it.  Not being a huge champagne fan myself – I reserve it strictly for special occasions and can usually only tolerate a few sips – I was intrigued to see how Baked incorporated it into this citrusy granita… Not to mention, it provided the perfect indulgent but light dessert for watching the Golden Globe Awards!

In the past, my favorite granita to make has been espresso granita (Bon Appetit magazine has a fantastic recipe).  Topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and chocolate shavings, it’s a wonderful summertime treat reminiscent of iced coffee, and the textural contrast on the tongue of icy coffee and luscious whipped cream is amazing.   Baked’s granita incorporates the tangy flavors of lemon and lime with the effervescent flavor of champagne and clean, crisp mint.  It’s an irresistible combination, and again – it’s so simple to put together.

First, a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar are heated together until the sugar dissolves; set this aside to cool.  Combine your champagne, a few leaves of fresh mint (if desired), freshly grated lemon zest (from two lemons) and lime zest (one lime), and the IMG_2074juice from the lemons and the lime.  When cooled, stir in the simple syrup, and pour the entire mixture into a metal pan.  Pop the pan into the freezer, allowing for plenty of time for freezing.  The freezing of the granita is probably the most difficult part of making it – you will be impatient to give it a try!  Every hour, use a fork to stir and break up the granita as it forms into ice, ‘fluffing’ it gently.  (I’d say a few cursory tastes are allowed as you go…)  As the granita firms up, you will get larger chunks of ice – carefully break these up and continue to fluff the granita until it forms a nice, almost slushy (but firmer) mixture.  Voila!  You have your granita.  Discard the mint leaves, and serve in a pretty dessert glass – with a fresh sprig of mint on top of each mound of granita. Easy, right?  And very elegant.

Baked makes a very important note that you shouldn’t feel that you need to use an especially expensive champagne for this granita – which is very true.  A nice prosecco may even do the trick.  I would suggest that, with the tart citrus and sweetness from the sugar in the syrup, you use a drier champagne (something with more ‘brut’).

IMG_2066The taste of this granita really surprised me.  It’s pretty amazing.  The ice bursts with the cheerful lemon, lime, and mint flavors, and while one might think the lemon and lime zests would be off-putting, they actually provide a nice textural contrast (somewhat chewy) which isn’t disturbing in the least.  The champagne is subtle, but it’s there – and it rounds out the overall flavor profile beautifully. I had a thought that this might be an excellent palate cleanser between meal courses – it’s so light and refreshing.  I would say this Lemon Lime Champagne Granita definitely takes home the Golden Globe Award for a truly outstanding, easy dessert to toss together!

IMG_2069If you have a bit of leftover bubbly in your fridge from New Year’s (yeah, right!) and want to try your own hand at making this easy granita, follow this link:

Lemon Lime Champagne Granita

… and be sure to follow the Baked Sunday Mornings ‘Leave Your Links’ page to see how my fellow bakers fared!

A Happy New Year to all!  Be sure to visit Neufangled Desserts again next week when I make Baked’s Chocolate Whiskey Tart!  Can’t wait!

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Panettone! Panettone!

IMG_1990BSMbanner_baked-150There are definitely times when I, as a baker with decidedly perfectionist tendencies, need to step back, take a deep breath, and realize: things aren’t always going to be as beautiful as anticipated.  Even Martha Stewart must have had those days… and those several tries when she pulled her perfectly-coiffed hair and agonized that “it just wasn’t coming out RIGHT”.  This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment – Chocolate-Chip Orange Panettone, a perfect treat for the Christmas holidays – presented one of those challenging times for me, not so much in the making but rather, during the baking – as you will see below.  This wasn’t altogether pleasant during a time when I typically take a baking hiatus, but the results – at first taste – were really not all that unpleasant either.

IMG_1995To begin with, I should state that, while I enjoy baking bread, I do not do it often enough to feel complete confidence in it.  I therefore hesitate to ever say I am a bread baker.  Panettone, for those of you who do not know, is a festive, slightly sweet bread studded with candied fruits, raisins, and/or nuts, which usually surfaces around the holidays – but probably more often in Italy, or among Italian families.  Renato Poliafito of Baked, being of Italian heritage, is a huge fan.  I myself have only eaten panettone a few times in my life and have not been a huge fan.  I don’t like citron or any of the candied fruits or nuts, and the texture has always leaned toward dry.  I was intrigued to tackle this recipe, however – a deep, dark, decadent chocolate panettone that (thankfully) isn’t too sweet, and swaps out the candied fruits and nuts (again, thankfully) for delicious homemade candied orange peel and chocolate chips.  Yum.

I won’t go into too much detail on the recipe; it involves yeast, rising dough, and the option of making your own candied orange peel – which I did – so you can imagine: it’s pretty involved for the amateur baker.  If you’re up to the challenge, the effort and payoff is pretty sweet.  A few tips I want to share about my experience with Baked’s recipe:

  • Paper panettone molds may seem hard to find, but they’re really not – and IMG_1984they’re relatively cheap.  You can easily mail order them through Amazon or get them at a Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table.  In a pinch, there are alternative ways of making a mold, including using a coffee can (see Baked Elements for some suggestions).  I loved how, as the dough rose within the paper mold, the houndstooth design on the exterior dissolved (from the grease in the dough) to reveal the pretty floral design hidden underneath.  Pretty cool.
  • The Baked Sunday Mornings link provided below does not include Baked’s candied orange peel recipe, but if you want to try it, I promise you, you will adore it.  It’s super-easy, and you’ll be delighted at how you made something so deliciously akin to a homemade Fruit Roll-Up.  Seriously.  Make extra, and roll strips in some granulated sugar for a fun holiday treat.  Shoot me an email or leave me a comment if you would like me to post the recipe.  I know it seems like a tad much to make your own candied peel, but it’s not hard and it’s worth it.
  • A lot of times, I am personally daunted by yeast bread recipes when it comes to ‘proofing’ the yeast.  This process is when you add a warm liquid – either water or milk – to activate the dry yeast and get it ‘going’, as it were, for your dough.  Usually, the liquid should be ‘lukewarm’.  Never fear – you are not alone if things like this strike the fear of God in you… I’m the same way.  It’s like I’m afraid I will actually kill the living creature that is the yeast if I add water or milk that is too hot, or even worse, not stir it into action at all by adding liquid that is too cold.  This time around, I consulted my boyfriend Jake, who is a bit more adept at bread-baking than I am, and he mentioned that the liquid should be at a temperature comfortable enough that you can test it with your finger and notice that it is almost be room temp; or at least slightly warm enough that the difference between air temp and liquid temp is hardly noticeable.  I attempted this with this dough (I microwaved the milk) and it seemed to do the trick.
  • You should probably know right away that your kitchen counter will be covered in flour and cocoa when making this.  After the first rise of your dough, you will add the risen ball of dough to a remaining batch of flour, cocoa and sugar, and instantly, once you turn on that mixer – get ready for the cloud to burst up from the bowl.  Suggestion: cover your mixer with a dish towel or your arms/hands to keep the flour from sloshing out of the bowl.  Your mixer will also endure quite a heavy workout with this recipe.  I’m fiercely protective of my precious Kitchen Aid mixer, and I made two of these panettone – once I was done mixing up the dough for both, I swear my Kitchen Aid was panting with exhaustion.  It’s a tough dough, and kneading the dough for upwards of almost 10 minutes (I don’t think I took it to the full 15 listed in the recipe) is tough on the motor, which leads me to believe this is best made in a more industrial machine.  Listen to your mixer’s motor.  If worse comes to worse, dump the dough out onto a lightly-floured board or surface and hand-knead the dough yourself.  Flatten the dough out into a rectangle, scatter on your orange peel and chocolate chips, and fold these ingredients in by hand to finish.
  • REALLY take seriously Baked’s note that when you are allowing the dough to rise for the second time in the panettone mold, you only let it rise to the topof the mold. Let it rise any further, and you will have a monster on your hands, like yours truly.  As you will seein the photo, my panettone practically exploded over the mold and over onto the sheet pan. Not very attractive – definitely not the pretty domed look you want for your panettone. This was my tragic mistake that I mention at the beginning of this blog – the error that had the perfectionist in me screaming, “Noooooo!!!!!”  I had this gorgeous, smooth dough to begin with… but apparently, yes, you can let the dough over-rise.  Silly me, thinking it didn’t matter how long you let it rise.  Oh yes.  Yes, it does.  So – keep an eye on your rising dough.  As soon as it begins to clear the top of that mold – maybe even just before – you best fire up that oven and get that baby in there.  I sawed off the over-risen section and simply nibbled away at chunks of it.  I also discovered that, because it’s a lighter density ingredient, all of my candied orange peel had migrated to this section in the baking (whomp whomp…) and there was scarcely any peel in the main panettone.  This was a tremendous bummer.

IMG_1987Perfectionist be damned… this panettone was actually pretty delicious, over-risen and all.  It may not win any beauty contests, but it’s definitely a bread you can tear into like a gluttonous savage (as you should do with all yummy holiday treats, right?) and enjoy as the pockets of chocolate burst in your mouth and you taste the chewy tang of the orange peel.  Pretty scrumptious.  The texture was just right; I liked the drier, crispier crunch of the outer crust and the softer, slightly moist, fibrous crumb inside.  It was barely dry at all – but be careful after cutting it not to leave it sitting out and exposed too long, as it can dry out fast.  While toasting this panettone presents a tempting prospect, it may be tricky in a standard toaster with the melty chocolate chips; oven toasting may be the best option if you want to attempt this.

In comparison to my fellow BSM bloggers, the photos of my panettone are pretty embarrassing, I gotta admit.  It also is not a very photogenic loaf of bread, honestly. However, as I have done with previous goof-ups (ahem… Brooksters), I didn’t want to be a baker ashamed or afraid of owning up when he’s made a mistake.  I know what to do the next time I make this recipe!

To try your own hand at a delicious panettone, follow this link:

Chocolate-Chip Orange Panettone

All of this being said… have a delightful Christmas, one and all.  Be merry.  Be bright.  And a Happy New Year too!  See you on the flip-side in 2014!

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Salty, sweet, heavenly cookie love

IMG_1885fbcookieswap2013_badgewhiteI never actually thought I would admit this, but I have completely fallen in love with a cookie.  If you’re anything like me, the romance of salty and sweet in a cookie – or any dessert, really – is irresistible.  Add a little chocolate to it, even better.  The great baker and cookbook author extraordinaire, Dorie Greenspan, advocates a sprinkling of salt across the top of her famous chocolate chip cookies as a final piéce de rèsistance.  What brilliant inspiration!

The particular object of my cookie affection doesn’t contain the typical bittersweet chocolate I go head over heels for – instead, we’re talking white chocolate.  The salt?  Flowery yet subtle fleur de sel.  The sweet?  A homey, caramel-flavored brown sugar cookie, studded with lots of old-fashioned oats for a little chew.  Have I tempted your taste buds yet?  If so… then ladies and gentlemen – I present probably my favorite cookie of the year: Shauna Sever’s Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies, from her fantastic book, Pure Vanilla.

I’ve said it many times, every time I’ve made them: “These cookies… damn… are like crack.”  They’re relatively easy to make, coming together like a typical oatmeal chocolate IMG_1880chip cookie.  I’ve lamented – several times (just skim back through my blogs on cookies) – my almost hopeless inability to make cookies that hold their shape while baking.  My perfectionist, ‘ideal’ cookie comes out of the oven with a thicker, almost plump, chewy center and a caramelized, browned, almost crispy edge.  This recipe is forgiving enough that I’ve nearly accomplished that result with only a few slight tweaks, and I’m happy to share those tweaks with you below (feel free to use them or make the recipe as is).

I felt so passionately about these cookies that when I discovered one of my favorite blogs, Love & Olive Oil, was organizing a cookie swap among food bloggers to raise money for children with cancer, I knew right away that: #1 – given the cause, I just had to jump in and participate, and #2 – I would have to participate with these cookies.  Much as, sometimes, I relish squirreling away fantastic recipes as secrets best-kept between myself, my Kitchen Aid mixer, and the four walls of my apartment kitchen, I decided that if I can pass along the salted vanilla chip oatmeal love, by all means, I will do it!

If any of the ingredients in this recipe make you even remotely happy, you will be grinning from ear to ear at first bite.  I dare you to eat just one.

SALTED VANILLA CHIP OATMEAL COOKIES

Recipe by Shauna Sever,
from her book Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques

Makes 3 dozen 3-inch cookies

IMG_18923 cups old-fashioned oats
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda*
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
⅔ cup brown sugar, packed
⅔ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped*
2 tablespoons Vanilla Fleur de Sel, for sprinkling*

*See my notes

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat oven to 350ºF.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

In a large bowl, whisk oats, flour, baking soda, and salt to blend well.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and vanilla extract on medium-high speed until blended and creamy.  Add sugars and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time.  Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add oat mixture, then white chocolate.

Scoop batter, 2 tablespoons at a time, onto prepared baking sheets, about 8 cookies to a sheet.  Sprinkle a bit of vanilla fleur de sel onto each cookie. Bake until cookies are golden around the edges, but still a bit soft in the centers, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking.  Do not overbake.  Let cookies cool on sheets for 2 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

*NOTES:

  • I tend to like a cookie that holds its shape and is more plump and chewy.  Whenever I make this recipe, instead of adding 1 whole teaspoon of baking soda, I swap out a ½ teaspoon of the baking soda for baking powder to give these a little ‘lift’.  Don’t remove the soda all together; use a ½ teaspoon of each.  It’s good to have the two counter-balancing each other. Sift the baking powder in with the other dry ingredients.
  • Sever mentions that these cookies are best with chopped chunks of good white chocolate, but I typically use white chocolate chips, which are fine (I prefer Ghirardelli).  By all means, try them with chopped white chocolate – I’m sure they would be amazing and take the cookies to an entirely new level.
  • I don’t make these as large as Sever does – I use a 1 tablespoon-sized scoop and can fit a dozen to a cookie sheet.  Of course, keep an eye on the baking time if you make them smaller!
  • IMG_1881A fellow food blogger once provided me with the suggestion to scoop out, then chill, your cookies for a few hours – or for best results, overnight – prior to baking them off.  As you can imagine, this requires a good amount of planning, restraint, and patience on my part, but I’ve found that it’s totally worth it.  Completely chilling your cookie dough allows the fats in the dough to coat and bind the particles of all-purpose flour.  As a result, the dough almost ‘plumps up’ and dries out a touch more, the cookie is more likely to hold its shape (and not to spread) while baking, and the flavors meld beautifully – yielding an almost caramel-like finish to theIMG_1877 taste. These cookies – much like chocolate chip cookies – are splendid when the dough has been allowed to ‘age’ a bit in the refrigerator.  Trust me.  Do yourself a favor and let these sit for a while before baking them off.  Keep them in the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to bake them.  To aim for a more uniform shape, I like to gently roll the balls of dough between my palms before placing them on the parchment-lined sheets and sprinkling them with the salt.
  • Sever uses her own homemade Vanilla Fleur de Sel to sprinkle on top of these cookies, but I usually just use regular fleur de sel – does just fine.  Whatever you do, do not substitute table salt, coarse salt, or kosher salt for the fleur de sel.  It’s best if you can find a good-quality flaky salt, like Maldon, or just a reasonable fleur de sel.  You’ll pay a little more for it, but I hope I can justify the cost to you by promising you will find many more glorious uses for it (namely, making more of these cookies).  If you want to go fancy and make your own Vanilla Fleur de Sel for these cookies, I present Sever’s instructions:  “All you need is a box of good flaky sea salt (I love Maldon Sea Salt Flakes) and a whole, split vanilla bean or two.  Put them in a lidded jar and shake it every couple of days, letting the vanilla penetrate and perfume the salt for a week or so.  The result is a parcel of unexpected culinary genius that makes a perfect gift for those perennially unimpressed foodies in your life… A general rule, use about 1 cup of flaky sea salt per bean.”

I packaged up these cookies in a plastic bag, nestled down into a small shirt box with blue tissue paper and a copy of the recipe, as well as my business card.  I wrapped the shirt box IMG_1895with pretty silver polka dot paper and attached a message to my fellow bloggers letting them know what kind of cookies were inside.  3 boxes (1 dozen each) were then sent out to 3 different food bloggers:  Susan Dikeman-Nerenberg of The Foodette (Austin, Texas), Brianne Izzo of Cupcakes & Kale Chips (Somerset, New Jersey), and Brittany Everett of Kitchenette (San Francisco, California).  I hope they fell in love with these cookies as much as I did!  In return, I received 3 different dozens of cookies from 3 different bloggers in my own mailbox… all were absolutely scrumptious, and disappeared pretty quickly!  I’m thrilled that this fun cookie blog has connected me to more food bloggers who enjoy the art of baking just as much as I do – and contributed to such a worthy cause as well during the holiday season.

If you’re looking for another cookie to add to your Christmas cookie baking repertoire – or just for anytime –  I guarantee you will love these Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies.  While you’re at it, be sure to visit Amazon and pick up a copy of Shauna Sever’s fantastic book, Pure Vanilla.  It’s an absolute treasure trove of fantastic vanilla-themed recipes that even a complete chocoholic like me goes completely crazy for – not to mention a great gift for the vanilla fanatics in your life!

Happy Holidays and Happy Baking to all of you!

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Oh fudge!

IMG_1954BSMbanner_baked-150I’m going to be truthful with you about something.  I’m not a hard-hearted fellow, but I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays.  They don’t hold as much magic and splendor for me as they did when I was a child, and I suppose that’s all just a part of getting older.  I detest the commercialism of Christmas, and how folks basically turn into gift-grubbing zombies from Black Friday through December 26th (this is, of course, an exaggeration on my part – not everyone is like that! Calm down and have a cookie…).  I prefer the quieter ways of celebrating – like staying warm and cozy indoors bundled up under an afghan while the snow flies outside… a good cup of coffee or cocoa nearby, sided with a plate of homemade sugar cookies… some Christmas music softly playing in the background… perhaps a good book to read… a beautiful Christmas tree shining and resplendent before me to admire.  I relegate all of my shopping to the online variety.  (Okay, I suppose I do enjoy the holidays a little more than I care to admit.)

The holidays definitely are an occasion for peaceful reflection.  They are a time to step back, review the year, and celebrate with good friends and family.  This is what I value most about this time of year.  The holidays also are a time when bakers typically go a little crazy, stocking up on loads of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs and churning out dozens upon dozens of delicious Christmas cookies.  Not me.  I usually take the holidays off as a baker, unless I am invited to parties or events for which I am asked to bring a sweet treat (which happens quite frequently – and I am happy to oblige).  Whenever I have made lots of Christmas cookies, I’ve found that all of those wonderful ingredients I invested in go to waste – with so many varieties of cookies in the offing, and even after handing lots of them out, a ton of them still go into the garbage because – let’s face it – some cookies have a short storage life, go stale and – yep – we get tired of them.  So I vowed not to do that anymore.

IMG_1947I mention all of this because plenty of folks I know like to make – not cookies – but candy for holiday gifts; peppermint bark, spiced nuts, and fudge being some popular varieties.  I’ve never been a huge fan of fudge – it’s typically grainy from so many sugar crystals and cloyingly sweet; so much so that your mouth hurts with one bite and you’re begging for a huge glass of milk to swill it down.  Not so with this week’s Baked Sunday Morning’s selection – Velvet Chocolate Walnut Fudge with Olive Oil and Fleur de Sel.  If you enjoy making your own homemade fudge and have been seeking a recipe for fudge with a perfect, silky-smooth texture – you’ve come to the right place.

The starting point, or I should say ‘base’, for this IMG_1918luscious fudge – like many fudge recipes – is light, airy, heavenly marshmallow creme.  Good old Fluff always does the trick, but if you’re in for a fun little challenge, try making your own.  The recipe is included in the link below.  You may be surprised that it’s not as hard as you think.

In a saucepan, you will then mix the marshmallow creme with both granulated and dark brown sugars, evaporated milk, butter, and salt, and let this thick, gooey mixture cook over low to gradually medium to medium high heat until a candy thermometer registers 230 degrees F.  Now, I won’t lie to you – this is a tricky step.  Make sure you use a good heat-safe spatula or a whisk to keep this syrupy mixture in constant motion as it heats.  Do not walk away from the pan.  The reason I tell you this is that the sugars and the marshmallow creme have a tendency to heat up rather fast.  They may caramelize and burn to the bottom of the saucepan if you’re not careful, so you need to keep stirring.  I had a panic moment for a bit there, and wondered if the mixture would, indeed, ever reach 230 degrees, but it eventually did.  Look for steam bubbles to rise and break along the surface as you vigorously stir.  If you’re new to candy making, don’t be too worried about this – and don’t fear recipes that include a candy thermometer!  If you purchase a decent one (it doesn’t need to be expensive) and know how to read it, it will do its job and you will be fine!

Here’s where the decadence comes in: an equal mix of bittersweet or dark chocolate and milk chocolate is then gently folded into the warm sugar mixture.  I’m a bit of a chocoholic and self-professed chocolate snob.  As the recipe and many of my fellow bakers would suggest, when making fudge, a top-quality chocolate – if you have it and can afford it – is key here.  Unfortunately, I cannot afford it, but I typically find that Ghirardelli baking chocolate chips work sufficiently.  I would not advise using Nestle or Hershey’s chocolate chips; they contain more stabilizers and do not melt as smoothly and luxuriously as the Ghirardelli.  For the nuts, I actually swapped out the toasted walnuts called for in this recipe for toasted pecans.  I’m not a walnut fan and, while I make most attempts to stay true and not stray from Baked’s recipes, this particular recipe sounded too delicious for me to taste once and abandon, as I knew I would if I had used icky, disgusting walnuts… so I went with a nut I knew I would eat and be happy with.  Pecans are a good substitute for walnuts, as they almost have a similar crunchy texture to them, especially when toasted nicely in the oven.

Once the chocolate and nuts are stirred in, the mixture becomes denser, thicker, and definitely more the consistency of fudge.  Pour this into a foiled-lined, buttered 8-inch pan, IMG_1924smooth the top with an offset spatula, and let sit for about 20 minutes or so.  I then lightly scored the top surface of the fudge with a small, thin knife into 16 squares, and used the blunt end of a chopstick to indent a small ‘x’ mark on the top of each piece (the recipe suggests using a small spoon, but I found this did the trick nicely).  This ‘x’ holds a nice drizzle of olive oil when you cut and serve the fudge, sprinkling it with a pinch of fleur de sel (or good, flaky sea salt).

IMG_1960Now – “wait a minute!”, you may be yelling… olive oil?  Sea salt?  Trust me.  Trust Baked.  They know what they are doing here.  I never would have believed it, but this extra flourish elevates standard fudge to a new level, though I will go out on a limb and say this isn’t even ‘standard fudge’.  One bite, and you discover that – thanks to that hard work at the stovetop cooking down those sugars – gone is the typical sugar graininess you might usually find in homemade fudge.  The dark and milk chocolates work harmoniously and provide a warm, balanced flavor that isn’t too overly sweet, and this warmth is further deepened by the flowery, earthy olive oil and the slight bite of the fleur de sel.  I confess that I usually enjoy my fudge like I enjoy my chocolate bars – smooth, simple, and unadulterated by nuts or any kind of add-ins – but I did really like the textural contrast and crunch of the pecans in this fudge.  Each bite is to be savored, truly.  While not as rich as some fudges, don’t get me wrong – it’s still rich… you may want to have that glass of milk handy.  It’s an excellent pairing!

IMG_1949One final note: there is some confusion in the book in regards to the yield.  The suggested yield at the top of the recipe is 24 pieces, but the instructions mention to cut the fudge into 16 squares.  I followed the instructions and cut 16 squares, which also made it easier to make the ‘x’ indentation for the olive oil on top.  However, bear in mind that fudge is exceptionally rich and decadent.  If you make 16 squares as well, you may find that one square is sufficient, or best split, between two people.  If you can cut these into 24 equal pieces, all the better (maybe make your indentations into a small, straight trough instead of an ‘x’).  Baked suggests that this fudge would be the perfect holiday gift, packaged with a small box of fleur de sel and a mini bottle of good olive oil.  I would agree!  (In case you were wondering which olive olive I would suggest, I’ve become a tremendous fan of Paesano Extra Virgin Olive Oil.)

Whether you’re like me and prefer those cozier, quieter holidays… or if your kitchen is a flurry of Christmas baking excitement in the next week or two – one thing is for sure: you can’t go wrong with adding this very welcome, elegant fudge to your repertoire, either for sharing as gifts or enjoying yourself:

Chocolate Walnut Fudge with Olive Oil & Fleur de Sel

Happy holiday baking from the (somewhat) Grinch himself!  Now that my tree is finally up, I’m back to that couch, coffee, afghan and book… as the snow is just starting to come down outside.  I think a piece of fudge may be in order as well…

*Stay tuned for a special bonus blog on Wednesday, December 11th, with the cookie recipe I made for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2013!  You won’t want to miss it!

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A worthy heirloom of a cake

IMG_1852BSMbanner_baked-150It’s simple and unassuming.  It makes no claims to be magnificent.  It’s not impressively towering and colossal, with three decadent layers sandwiching a thick, buttery buttercream.  The recipe is quietly tucked among the other fantastic recipes in the “caramel” chapter of Baked Elements.  It’s quiet, smooth, and sleek… and of decidedly Southern gentility.  It’s Antique Caramel Cake, this week’s selection for Baked Sunday Mornings.  Despite all of these humble disclaimers, it just might knock your socks off.  I know it did mine.

Last week I celebrated my birthday (on November 19th, to be exact), and I had no shortage of sweets and baked goods, whipped up by yours truly, with which to bust my calorie counter wide open!  When this weekend rolled around and I was faced with making yet another yummy dessert such as this, I confess that I groaned a little inwardly.  If it were a nut-laden dessert, I would have gladly passed.  Unfortunately, it was caramel.  I simply cannot resist caramel.  My defenses were down, my resistance weak.  I forged ahead!

IMG_1846One of the things I adore about the guys at Baked is that they relish taking traditional, old-fashioned – sometimes, family-cherished – recipes and dialing them up a notch, or putting a unique new spin on them.  For this recipe, Matt Lewis borrowed a recipe from a college friend’s mother who hails from Mississippi.  He claims that, for the most part, they kept the cake recipe as is, and toned down the caramel sweetness of the frosting with the addition of cream cheese.  My overall verdict is that they made some pretty smart choices.

The cake itself is a sturdy yellow cake with a tinge of molasses flavor, thanks to the inclusion of brown sugar.  The crumb is dense and moist from buttermilk.  It clings to your fork – just the way I like it!  There is a somewhat ‘fun’ step in the final process of beating together the batter for this cake, in which white vinegar dissolves baking soda.  It foams and fizzes up gloriously, reminding you that baking is, after all, a bit of a science and you are the gifted kitchen alchemist who brings all of this deliciousness together.  I wish I knew IMG_1858a bit more about baking science to explain how all-important this fusion of vinegar and baking soda is to the process and result of making this cake – but alas, I come up short.  Perhaps one of my fellow Baked Sunday Mornings bakers can enlighten you (yes, be sure to read their blogs and support them as well!).

Unlike most of Baked’s stupendous cake recipes, this one is definitely more simple, yielding only two layers instead of three.  These two layers are cloaked in a smooth caramel cream cheese frosting.  I know what you’re thinking as you read this.  Caramel cream cheese frosting?  Really???!!!  Trust me.  It’s tremendously good.  Butter and brown sugar is first cooked together in a saucepan, then heavy cream is added to make a sort of brown sugar caramel.  This mixture is set aside to cool.  Additional butter and room temperature cream cheese are whipped together in a mixing bowl.  The cooled brown sugar mixture is then added, along with a bit of salt and confectioners’ sugar.  From this point on, do your best to beat the frosting together gently in your mixer, as cream cheese frosting, when over-beaten, can become a touch elastic.  The frosting is then carefully and luxuriously slathered over the cake layers.  I’ve made Baked’s Caramel Apple Cake from Baked Explorations before, and while I adored the Caramel Buttercream on that cake, I preferred this frosting – I think it’s because of the cream cheese, which keeps the frosting from being too overly sweet.  Typically, I appreciate cakes for the cake and not the frosting, as I find most frostings too sweet.  This particular frosting complements and enhances the buttery cake perfectly.

IMG_1856 IMG_1855To crown this scrumptious cake further, I made a half-recipe of Baked’s Sweet and Salty Caramel – also in Baked Elements, and a recipe I could probably make in my sleep by now! I poured the caramel into a small squeeze bottle and decorated the top of the cake with a spiral, ‘spider-web’ pattern.  To do this, begin drizzling a thin line of caramel from the center of your cake all the way to the outside in a circular pattern.  When you have finished this large spiral, take a toothpick and gently run it from the center of your spiral out to the edge in a straight line.  Alternate these lines with another line from the edge to the center to create contrasting lines.  Pretty easy – and a beautiful finishing touch sure to impress your friends!

One of my good friends, Jenny Kosek of Sensible Spoonful suggested that, while she adored every part of this cake, a bit of textural contrast would have been a welcome addition; perhaps a bit of toasted walnuts or pecans, maybe some crumbled Heath bar/toffee pieces.  I agree.  It would be fun to experiment with this, using ingredients with a bit of crunch that would compliment the caramel flavors nicely.  I’m not certain if doing so would make the recipe a touch more newfangled (Neufangled?  See what I did there?) and less vintage/antique – regardless, it’s worth trying!

Honestly – this cake may be one of my favorite recipes from Baked Elements.  It’s so divinely good and dangerous to keep around, as I want to keep devouring slice after slice.

Pass along the caramel cake tradition and make your own Antique Caramel Cake today by following this link:

Antique Caramel Cake

…and most of all, have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving with your family and friends!  What are you baking for the holiday?  Pumpkin pie?  Apple pie?  Pecan pie?  Perhaps all 3?  Might I suggest you try One Girl Cookies’ Fresh Pumpkin Pie with Salty Roasted Pepitas?  (It’s fabulous.)  Whatever you choose – HAPPY THANKSGIVING!  It’s the holiday to end all holidays for us food lovers!

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