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Roll out the pumpkin… again

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BSMbanner_baked-150Is it just me, or does the pumpkin gluttony seem destined for an earlier overkill this year?  I’m a self-professed pumpkin fanatic.  I could eat anything pumpkin year round, not strictly relegating it to the fall months.  I’m in love with it as a baking ingredient.  However, it seems 2014 has definitely been the year of “pushing the pumpkin”.  It began around August and is reaching its zenith, a full month well ahead of Thanksgiving.  I will even admit that I’ve gotten a touch tired of it.  Still, as I sit here drinking my third cup of coffee today (at 3 pm) on a Sunday afternoon, breathing in the intoxicating aroma emanating from a cake pan full of Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls, I can’t help but remain drawn in by the spell wrought by this fragrant and delicious autumnal squash.

This recipe from Baked Elements was undoubtedly one I was intrigued to dive into when I first perused the book, but I’ve held off until it was assigned through Baked Sunday Mornings this week.  I love a good cinnamon roll, but ashamedly admit that I’ve usually caved in to buying those Pillsbury “Poppin’ Fresh Dough” cans that magically pop open at the seam with the slightest press of a spoon.  The pre-made, ready-to-bake-off glob of dough contained therein also typically contains a sickly sweet can of faux cream cheese glaze to slather on top of the finished rolls.  Let’s face it, yeast kinda scares me.  While it’s true that there is something therapeutic about putting your heart and soul into a well made loaf of bread or a beautiful pan of dinner rolls, I tend to avoid it and stick to my pies, tarts, cakes, etc.  I leave a lot of the homemade bread baking to my boyfriend, Jake.  He’s got more of a knack for it – and definitely more patience for it.

IMG_3769These Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls beautifully paid off with a little persistence, a lot of coffee, and a good measure of patience… for yes, I needed to make the recipe two times.  I really try to overcome my perfectionist tendencies, but it’s not always easy.  Well – wait a minute – for yours truly, it’s never easy (Jake is an exceptionally strong man to live with and deal with me).  And when it comes to turning out delicious baked goods, I’m simply not content to make do with “well, they taste wonderful”.  I want them to look pretty too.  And photograph beautifully.  I really don’t deal in outside appearances in my everyday life, but I suppose I expect quite a bit when it comes to the baked goods I make for my loved ones.

The dough for these rolls comes together pretty easily in a mixer – incorporating bread flour, butter, brown and granulated sugars, yeast (for that rise you’ll eventually desire), pumpkin, whole milk, egg, and most importantly – those wonderful warming spices that meld so harmoniously with pumpkin: cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom.  The initial trouble comes with this dough.  Be mindful from the start that it is an exceptionally soft and sticky dough.  I had to chuckle at Baked’s tip to “remove the dough from the [mixing] bowl, carefully form it into a large ball, smooth the top with your hands, and place it in a clean, lightly greased bowl”.  Uh-huh.  Right.  I simply dumped the whole lot of dough into the greased bowl, using a spatula to scrape it out from the mixing bowl.  There was no way that dough was going to form into a nice, smooth ball in my hands.  No sir.  Cover the ball of dough with plastic wrap and let it sit while you make the delicious filling of melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon (even more – these are cinnamon rolls, after all), nutmeg, cloves, and salt.

Not ashamed to post... this was my first pathetic batch.  Yikes.

Not ashamed to post… this was my first pathetic batch. Yikes.

When it’s time to roll out your dough, here’s what I learned after my initial first (hideous) batch:  first, flour your board or counter like crazy.  I mean, excuse my language here – but flour the shit out of it.  If you do not, this troublesome pumpkin dough is going to glue itself to the surface.  Turn the dough out onto the counter (again, that spatula will comein handy – it will plaster itself to your hands; this dough is a monster, I tell ya), and flour the top of it.  Again, go for a liberal sprinkling of flour here, as you don’t want it sticking like the dickens to your rolling pin.  Another thing I discovered was that it did me no favors to roll it out to the dimensions (10″ x 20″ rectangle) the Baked guys instruct you to.  It will be way too thin, and your rolls will collapse.  Just roll it out to a good-sized rectangle, and not too thin.  Bear in mind that you will want to cut the rolls out, when the entire thing is rolled up, into 1.5-2″ inch pieces, numbering about 10 total.  Eyeball it as best you can.  Butter the rolled out-dough with melted butter, then, with your hands, spread out the filling and press it into the dough gently with your palms. Roll the whole lot up into a tight ball, turning from the longest side of the rectangle.  As I rolled, I used a dry pastry brush to brush off all of the excess flour from underneath the dough.  When the dough is completely rolled, cut the log with a sharp knife into 10 rolls and place them in a 10″ cake pan lined with buttered and floured parchment.

You’ll definitely wIMG_3755ant to let your rolls rise a little more in the pan before baking them off (Baked suggests for about 45 minutes).  I didn’t notice a tremendous change in size – you may, depending on the strength of your yeast and/or temperature of your kitchen.  It’s chillier here today in Wisconsin, and we’ve held off turning on the heat, so that may be why I didn’t get a ton of rise.  I also used active dry yeast and not the instant yeast designated in the recipe, which I’m sure had a lot to do with my rolls being denser.  Plus, I did not activate my yeast by proofing it in warmed milk… d’oh!  (Remember, I did mention I don’t do yeast recipes all that often; it’s painfully obvious from this faux pas.)  Still, my rolls puffed up beautifully while baking in the 350-degree oven.  While the rolls were baking – and man, it smelled wonderful in the kitchen while they were – I whipped up the glaze, which consists of cream cheese, a bit of buttermilk, and sifted confectioners’ sugar.  Let this beat up well in your mixer using the paddle attachment, as it is prone to lumps from the cream cheese, even if you’ve softened it.  It’s a delicious glaze, with the perfect amount of tang from the cream cheese and buttermilk to complement the spicy pumpkin rolls.  Be aware, though, that it makes a goodly amount.  If you want to dousIMG_3762e your cinnamon rolls with it (Southern-style, as Jake calls it), go ahead and make that full batch the recipe calls for.  I drizzled the tops of my rolls using a whisk dipped in the glaze, and truthfully, having done that, I realized I could have easily halved the glaze recipe.  Still, it may be nice to have a little dish of extra glaze on the side when serving these, for extra dipping!

As you can tell from the photos, I had terrific results with my second batch of these.  The first batch was horrendous, and I very nearly threw in the towel.  I’m glad I woke up this morning, took a deep breath, and gave these a second try.  They’re delicious on their own, nicely warm, but absolutely wonderful with a cup of coffee or glass of milk.  The buttery cinnamon filling is decadent with the soft pumpkin roll encasing it, and the glossy glaze is a fantastic crowning touch.  One final note:  though that luscious gooey-ness that results from the cinnamon filling migrating to the bottom of the pan while baking is quite enticing with any cinnamon roll, I found it a good idea to bake these about 5 minutes longer than suggested.  My first batch – which, granted, was a mess to begin with – came out with roll bottoms that seemed soggy and under-baked.  For my second go-round, I let the rolls bake in the oven slightly longer.  While they’re still a touch gooey on the bottom – again, not an altogether bad thing – they hold up nicely, come out of the pan cleanly, and don’t taste too doughy.  The bread was nicely baked, but still moist and flavorful, not dry – with that enticing ribbon of cinnamon in the center. The caramelized, buttery clumps of cinnamon and brown sugar at the bottom remind me of the fabulous cinnamon rolls I used to enjoy at a restaurant I worked in during my college years, back home in upstate New York – Kellogg’s Pan-Tree Inn on Canandaigua Lake.  When a recipe can turn me nostalgic like that, it’s a winner.

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All of this being said, I will probably hold off on making these again anytime soon.  They’re good, yes – and this pumpkin fanatic was ecstatic at the thought of incorporating pumpkin into a cinnamon roll – but I personally felt they were not as “simple to put together” as the recipe makes claim in the book.  Be prepared to throw a little bit of elbow grease, and a ton of flour, into these.  If you decide to give them a try, the pay-off is worth it, so roll these out (excuse the pun) for a special get-together with your friends.

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls

Hard to believe that next week, our Baked Sunday Mornings group closes up baking from Baked Elements!  Wasn’t it just yesterday we were all a-buzz with excitement from just getting that book?  Time has surely flown, and we’ve had a lot of fun.  The great news is – we have another new Baked book to bake from – Baked Occasions – beginning November 9th!  I’m still not positive I will be baking along as frequently, but who knows.  Given my past track record, you know by now that I can’t stay away for too long…

Okay.  No more pumpkin recipes for a while.  Promise.

Happy Baking!

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Hello Cupcake!

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BSMbanner_baked-150First things first… and I won’t sugar-coat it: I don’t like, or ‘do’, cupcakes.  I find them ridiculously cutesy, overly trendy, and just a touch passé.  (I know, *gasp*.)   I’ve heard in recent months that they’re kinda going out of style, thanks to cronuts, doughnuts, whoopie pies, mini pies, and the like… and frankly, I say “good riddance”.  If I’m going to bake a cake, I want to put all of my effort into a triple-decker layer cake with luscious, buttery frosting.  Or better yet, a PIE – or pastry of any kind.  No disrespect meant to those bakers who love making cupcakes – or even have a business in them.  It’s just a preference of mine.

I suppose it doesn’t help that a baking job of mine a couple years ago had me responsible for making a majority of the jumbo cupcakes the restaurant was – and still is – overly famous for (and their recipe is darn good, I will say).  I just got tired of them.  I was the day baker – and the day bakers were responsible for churning out the cupcakes, while the night bakers dabbled in the pies and cakes I would have preferred to create.  I wanted the day schedule, so I guess I couldn’t rightly complain to my kind boss that I was baking something I really didn’t like all too much.  Still, when I finally had to leave the job, I recall writing many a Facebook status update in which I rejoiced that I didn’t have to make the darn things any more!

But – enough of my cupcake grouchiness.  Looking at these photos, I suppose I can’t help but feel a slight smile encroach upon my face.

IMG_3729All of this being confessed, if I were pressed to make a chocolate cupcake, chances are I would willingly fall back on Baked’s Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcakes, this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment.  They’re tender and light with a moist crumb – a little subtle on the chocolate flavor because they do not include salt in the ingredients, but not as bland as the Chocolate Cheesecake Muffins I posted about a couple weeks ago.  Best of all is that they are amazingly simple.  They’re a workhorse recipe for any baker – from amateur to professional.  They really don’t take a great amount of effort, and they’re just a darn good cupcake to make, whether you’re a cupcake naysayer like yours truly or not.

Dark chocolate and dark cocoa powder are first mixed with boiling hot water;  this is gradually added along with the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda) to a creamed base mixture of mayonnaise, dark brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla.  I always find those chocolate cake recipes which start with cocoa mixed with boiling water or hot coffee to be the most magical.  I’m not sure what the alchemy is exactly, but chances are pretty good you will end up with a moist, dense cake – especially if the fat is an oil of some kind.  This recipe does not contain butter as the primary fat – the mayonnaise does that, providing a nice, delicate richness and softness to the cake.  If you’re not a mayo fan, don’t let this recipe detract you, as you do not taste it in the finished product.  I strongly suggest using Hellmann’s mayonnaise – not only in this recipe, but any recipe calling for mayo.  I’m a bit snobbish when it comes to mayo; I just think Hellmann’s holds up and tastes the best. I know plenty of folks who find mayonnaise a little gross; I love it.  I slather it on sandwiches, and yes – it’s good in baked goods.  (You would be more likely to see me eating a spoonful of mayo than that icky mud called Nutella!)IMG_3743

For the frosting crowning these cupcakes, I made the standard chocolate buttercream accompanying this recipe, which is slightly different from Baked’s other buttercream recipes in that it doesn’t begin with a cooked milk and flour mixture.  Instead, you’re just dealing with butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and melted chocolate.  Pretty simple, and pleasantly rich enough without being too rich.  The frosting suits these cupcakes nicely.

I decided to finally test out another frosting recipe which caught my eye a couple years ago – Jill O’Connor’s Caramel-Butterscotch Buttercream from her book, Sticky Chewy Messy Gooey.  She tops her own Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcakes with this delectable frosting, and as I am a huge caramel and butterscotch fan, I knew that I finally needed to attempt this frosting as I prepped Baked’s cupcakes.  The recipe takes a little bit of effort – it involves making a caramel sauce, cooking/whisking whole eggs with dark brown sugar in a mixing bowl over simmering water, then whipping them up nice and foamy (almost like a meringue) as you slowly add in chunks of soft but cold butter.  Finally, you add a touch of vanilla, salt, and bourbon, and finish by folding in a bit of the cooled caramel sauce.  You definitely work for this frosting, but let me tell you:  it is AMAZING.  I’m seriously not a huge frosting fan, but I could eat this frosting with a spoon out of the mixing bowl.  It’s just that good.  I halved the recipe from the book; a full recipe makes 5 cups frosting and uses 6 sticks of butter and a half dozen eggs!  Crazy, right?  Honestly, though… if you like caramel and butterscotch, you really owe it to yourself to make this frosting as soon as you get a chance to.  Seriously.  So good.  And on these cupcakes, it was divine.  The cupcakes themselves do not contain any salt to bump the chocolate flavor too much, but topped with a swirled crown of this buttercream, the entire flavor profile is really kicked up a notch.  It’s buttery, a little salty, ever-so-slightly kissed by that bit of bourbon (which you need for that ‘butterscotch’ component), and rounded out with the warm caramel notes… dangerously yummy.

By the way, I yielded about 32 cupcakes with this recipe; the recipe states that you should yield about 2 dozen.  Rejoice!  You have some extras to snack on or share!  I took a bunch to the theatre where I am in a current production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ play, Next Fall (running through October 25th at Soulstice Theatre; for tickets and details, visit the Theatrical Tendencies website!  Shameless self-promotion there…) The cast loved them – especially the cupcakes with the caramel-butterscotch buttercream.  Not too surprised.

IMG_3730If you are “meh” on cupcakes like I typically am, chances are you may be won over by these treats.  Or, if you are just looking for a simple, but delicious cupcake recipe to whip up for your parties or family gatherings, these are worth filing away in your recipes. Make your own – and read on for my fellow BSM bakers’ results with these – by following this link:

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcakes

… and if you’re intrigued by the intricate Caramel-Butterscotch Buttercream recipe, here’s a link with the recipe, courtesy of Leite’s Culinara (with Jill O’Connor’s own Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcake recipe):

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcakes with Caramel-Butterscotch Buttercream

Lastly – New York City was fantastic!  Matt and Renato were charming – as always – and it was so nice to catch up with them.  It was especially wonderful to meet some of the Baked testers who made the trip (quite a few of them Baked Sunday Mornings bakers).  It was a blast getting to know one another.  Delightful people, all of them – fantastic new friends!  The new Baked TriBeCa space is going to be amazing (they’re still finishing up on construction; nonetheless, the party was still held – yummy treats, great conversation, photos, music, burlesque dancers and all)!  Check out a few of my photos below.  And while you’re at it, you may want to head on over to Amazon and order your copy of Baked Occasions.  After all, you know one of the “Badass Recipe Testers”!

Happy Baking!

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Now THAT’s a great pumpkin cookie, Charlie Brown!

The following blog was written 2 years ago, believe it or not.  These cookies were the very first recipe I made out of Baked Elements, and obviously, I simply couldn’t wait another 2 years until they were scheduled to bake and blog about them!  I re-read what I had written and saved in my drafts, and decided to totally keep the blog as is.  It’s certainly proof that my writing has become a bit sluggish over time!  I adore these cookies – and without further ado, I present a 2-year-old blog post extolling their many virtues… and why it was the very first recipe I baked out of Baked Elements.  I’ve kept some of the original pictures as well, but also tossed in a couple new ones, because yes, I may have written about them long ago, but I couldn’t resist baking up a new batch this week.  Enjoy:

BSMbanner_baked-150I confess that when I pulled my first batch of Pumpkin Harvest Dunking Cookies from Baked Elements out of the oven, I snarfed down probably 4 of them after the first delectable bite.

Being a huge fan of pumpkin, the pumpkin chapter of Baked Elements is naturally the first chapter I turned to, and this recipe, tucked away at the end of the chapter, caught my immediate attention.  With the exception of biscotti (which I typically find too dry), I gravitate toward cookies that you can eat with/dunk into a cup of coffee. The intermingling tastes of strong, nutty coffee and buttery, spicy goodness is so nostalgic for me, as I was practically raised by a family that drank coffee religiously and had coffee klatches in which we savored wonderful treats with good coffee.  When I read in the book that Renato created a pumpkin cookie that could be dunked into coffee – with some semisweet chocolate and chewy, yummy dried cranberries tossed into the mix – well, I was so there from the get-go.

It’s a fairly easy recipe to put together.  The dough itself is a pumpkin cookie dough fragrant with warm fall spices and studded with oatmeal – topped off with the inclusion of chocolate chips and cranberries.  I suppose you could toss some kind of nut in there, but why spoil a good thing?  (Aside from almonds and pecans, you will discover I have a pretty big aversion to nuts – most kinds.  They just turn me off and have no place in good desserts.)  The hardest part is waiting for the dough to chill 4 hours before you bake these little treasures off.  In several of Matt and Renato’s recipes, I’ve noticed they suggest chilling the dough after it’s mixed all together – often for a few hours or even overnight.  This allows the dough to relax for a while – think of it as all of the ingredients partyin’ and chillin’ together for a little bit before things ‘get hot in here’!  It makes perfect sense and often leads to a better cookie which holds its shape.  I have a nemesis in chocolate chip cookies – I have NEVER made a good one – but the one time I finally did have minor success, it was with making Baked’s Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe – and that recipe suggested an overnight shindig in the fridge for the cookie dough.  Soooo… don’t skip this crucial step with these babies.  Chill your dough.  Yes, 4 hours.  The cookies, when scooped uniformly with a 2-tablespoon cookie scoop, held their shape and puffed up nicely.

The beauty of pumpkin as a main ingredient in a cookie, or even a bar cookie, is its ability to keep the cookie moist.  These cookies are no exception to the rule.  Matt prefaces the recipe by suggesting that you may want to over-bake these cookies a IMG_3596touch, in order to have a nice golden, slightly crunchy exterior which complements the pillowy, soft, and chewy interior.  And by all means, dunk them in a nice “hot coffee bath”… they’re even more heavenly and happy.  I made these in the later evening hours, and had to make a pot of coffee (decaf, of course) to test them out.  Trust me, it’s a flavor experience you don’t want to miss.

This is a keeper recipe.  Make this one to take your fall holiday or football parties, folks.  They make a fairly good-sized batch (the recipe says 36; I got 48, which is good, because I probably ate a dozen myself right away) and will be a bona fide hit among pumpkin aficionados.

For the recipe, visit:

Pumpkin Harvest Dunking Cookies

Brew up some coffee, and enjoy this delicious start to your fall!

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I’m off to NYC to see the Baked guys and their new location in TriBeCa! I’ll be sure and take plenty of pictures to share!
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Bundt Adoration

BSMbanner_baked-150I absolutely love Bundt cakes. I sense that I have a kindred spirit in Matt Lewis (of Baked), with his glorious collection of beautiful Bundt pans. I’ve tried several times to restrain myself from amassing my own crazy stash of pans – and so far, I feel I’ve been somewhat successful.  That being said, I think I still own a good 4-5 Bundt pans.

The wonderful thing about Bundt cakes is that they are simple and relatively easy to make. You don’t need to bother with frosting – perhaps just a simple glaze to drizzle over the top. This is especially good if you prefer the cake over the frosting, like yours truly. The trickiest part may be unmolding the cake from the intricate crevices of the pan; if you practice making enough Bundts, however, it is possible to learn how to craftily butter and flour the pan for smooth release. You also become more discerning of which Bundt pans are suited for particular batters and cake crumb. For such a humble kind of cake, it can be an art, that’s for sure.

This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings Bundt cake was a “Tunnel of Fudge” Cake incorporating ground hazelnuts for a Tunnel of Hazelnut Fudge Cake.  I swapped out the hazelnuts for ground, toasted almonds – not being a big fan of hazelnuts.  The batter is a dark chocolate batter made rich with the incorporation of dark cocoa.

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The tricky part of making this particular cake is understanding when exactly to take it out of the oven.  You want that thick, under-baked channel of fudgy goodness in the middle of the cake, so you can’t use the toothpick method to determine doneness.  I trusted both my oven’s temp and the suggested 40 minute baking time designated in the recipe.  When I removed the cake from the oven, the top was delicately crunchy, and the sides appeared done.  As it cooled, it caved in a touch, which further confirmed for me that the middle was still soft.  I eased the sides of the cake away IMG_3585from the pan gently with a metal icing spatula to loosen it, and let the cake cool overnight in the pan.

The next morning, I was relieved that the cake released, for the most part, from the pan and onto the plate – aside for one messy chunk on one side.  With some gentle coaxing, I removed the errant chunk from the pan, patched it back onto the cake and dusted it with confectioners’ sugar, to hide the mess and provide final presentation.  The taste of this cake is quite good. The crunchy and chewy texture from the ground toasted almonds is especially pleasing against the soft, gooey dark 10702054_10204916330488264_6542994677940449651_nfudge center.  This cake is really scrumptious paired with a cup of hot coffee.  In place of the hazelnuts, I found the almonds to be just dandy!  This cake is also wickedly good cold.

The second Bundt cake I experimented with this weekend was scheduled quite a while ago with Baked Sunday Mornings, but I never got around to it – possibly because I was out of poppy seeds!  It’s a delightful Poppy Seed Pound Cake with Brown Butter Glaze.  I’ve been eyeing this recipe in Baked Elements for quite some time, and figured I may as well tackle it as we wrap up this book.

IMG_3577A delicate richness in this cake comes from the addition of cream cheese in the batter.  I once made an especially delicious Poppy Seed Cake from Cooking Light that also included cream cheese, so this reminded me of that recipe straight away.  A ribbon of poppy seed filling containing a half cup – yes, a whopping half cup – of blue poppy seeds meanders lazily through the center of this buttery, dense cake. Poppy seed lovers rejoice – this is heavy on the poppy seeds!  I’ve always been a big fan, especially when nutty poppy seeds are paired with citrus – as they are in this recipe, with the bright flavor inclusion of orange zest.

While the cake came out of the Bundt pan cleanly (phew!), I suspected right away that I may have over-baked it a touch – and I did.  It has a delicious buttery flavor and crumb, and the poppy seed trail in the center is certainly whimsical, but I will definitely dial the baking time back a little bit, perhaps to 50 mIMG_3575inutes instead of an hour, the next time I make this cake.  There will be a next time, as I really enjoyed it.  Again, this is another cake perfectly paired with coffee, or perhaps especially, tea.

The glaze crowning this cake is heavenly.  It begins with brown butter – need I say more? – and incorporates powdered sugar, milk, orange juice, orange zest, and finally, (more) toasted poppy seeds.  It provides a wonderful extra punch of citrus and poppy flavor.  I did find that it was a bit thick when I attempted pouring it onto the cake, and it didn’t drizzle down the sides as I wanted it to, so I thinned it with more milk to achieve this effect a touch more.  It didn’t yield the prettiest results – there’s nothing to quickly ruin a perfectly turned-out Bundt than a gloppy-looking glaze – but I think the ribbon of poppy-seed filling is the “a-ha” moment of this cake when sliced, anyhow.

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To try your hand at both of these lovely Bundt cakes, head on over to Baked Sunday Mornings via these links:

Tunnel of Hazelnut (or Almond!) Fudge Cake

Poppy Seed Pound Cake with Brown Butter Glaze

By the way, I used Baked’s signature Bundt pan to make both of these cakes.  I know, perhaps I am hawking it a little bit more for my friends at Baked, but truly, this is a great investment for any baker. It’s been worth every cent I paid for it. This is a standard Bundt pan to end all standard Bundt pans.  I adore my fancy, swirly Heritage Bundt, but not all Bundt cake recipes work in it (it has very sharp, peaked crevices that can really grab the cake crumb).  If you want to go for a good, fail-safe, heavy-duty pan that will do the job – and release the cake easily – try out Baked’s pan.  It’s fabulous.

Enjoy!

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Muffin-top musings

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BSMbanner_baked-150Faithful followers of my blog will recall that within the past year and a half, I’ve been pretty good with watching what I eat and exercising.  This is no small feat for yours truly, especially given that my diet consists largely of sugar, butter, eggs, flour, and chocolate in various delicious combinations.  I managed to whittle myself down about 30-36 pounds within a year, but confess that I’ve probably packed on about 10-15 more in recent months.  Still not too bad; I’m at a healthy weight for my age and height and I manage to walk and run as often as I can, with a week or two of cheating once in a while.  I’ve successfully run three 5Ks and am training myself for a 10K.  I’m grateful that I have gotten myself into these better habits.

Friends have remarked upon my weight loss and said, “How can you bake and eat all of those things you bake – and still stay so THIN?”  I won’t go so far as to say I am overly thin, but believe me, it is a struggle that requires lots of self-restraint. This is especially so when it comes to ice cream, potato chips, or making yummy treats like this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment: Chocolate Cheesecake Muffins.  I realized going into this that I might be faced with the battle of the good ol’ ‘muffin-top’ (in more ways than the obvious one) all over again, if I’m not careful.  A good exercise in self-control is definitely in order.

IMG_3545Baked’s recipe from Baked Elements is pretty simple, but has several steps to it, so plan ahead and read the recipe thoroughly.  I have a bad tendency to skim a recipe and – feeling I have a good gist of it – forge blindly ahead.  As a result, I made three mistakes with this recipe: I neglected to fold the white chocolate into my cheesecake filling (luckily, I remembered to do so right before assembling the muffins).  Then, I forgot to toss my dark chocolate pieces in flour before adding them to the muffin batter to keep them from sinking. Finally, I had to open up the oven while the muffins were baking and reach in to sprinkle each muffin with sanding sugar.  Don’t be like me: read your recipe!

The inclusion of a tablespoon of white vinegar in the ingredients is intriguing.  Every so often, you may come across a recipe that contains an unusual ingredient and you have to wonder, why was this included?  In my past baking experiences, I’ve come to understand that vinegar often adds not only a slight tang of flavor which provides some balance to other flavor notes, but it also provides a bit of tenderness as it interacts with baking powder or soda in a batter.  My only guess with this recipe is that it provides the latter.

The recipe yields a dark chocolate muffin which I’m certain on its own is wonderful, but in this instance is jazzed up by the middle pocket of cheesecake, studded with bits of white chocolate.  I wasn’t a fan of the white chocolate inclusion and feel that, in all honesty, it can be left out.  It may have just been the quality of the white chocolate I used (which was actually Ghirardelli white chocolate chips), but I found that it actually caramelized a bit during the baking process.  While ‘caramelized white chocolate’ is a bit of a new rage in baking these days, I’m noIMG_3552t sure it produces an attractive result with these muffins.  The cheesecake filling on its own would have done quite nicely.

As for the chocolate muffin, it wasn’t quite as decadent as I anticipated.  I felt it was lacking something and, despite 2 teaspoons of salt, was a touch bland.  I really can’t put my finger on why these didn’t ‘wow’ me all that much.  Perhaps it needs a touch of vanilla extract; maybe a teaspoon.  They also were a bit dry and could have possibly benefitted from a little more oil to keep them moist.  Then again, I suspect I over-baked these, as the cheesecake center was also strangely lacking in moisture and unattractive (see photo above), so take care not to bake these too long.  Would I make them again?  Quite possibly, but they aren’t a showstopper by any means.  I suppose I was expecting these to rise above the ‘humble’ expectations one would associate with muffins, and they really didn’t all that much.  That being said, they are fantastic with a good cup of coffee.

One additional note: if you’re a bit skeptical about baking anything straight in a muffin tin, sans liners or baking papers, follow your gut with these muffins and use liners, to be safe.  I followed the recipe and baked my muffins right in the tins with a good coating of canola IMG_3544spray.  I was able to coax my muffins out of the muffin tins by jerking and shaking the pan while they were still a bit warm (after the 15 minute muffin tin cool-down stipulated in the recipe).  It was a bit humorous to do so and have them ‘pop’ out of the tins gradually, one at a time, but I found that there were still several I needed to pry out with a metal icing spatula.  Unfortunately, there were also a couple that were unmitigated, stuck-in-the-cup messes I prodded out with my fingers.  If I were to make these again, I might use some nice foil or pretty parchment liners.  I also yielded about 2 dozen in standard muffin pans, rather than the 1 dozen yield noted in the recipe.  I even had some extra cheesecake filling remaining.

If you feel ready to take a slight break in your exercise and diet routine to splurge on one of these muffins, I suggest you try these out and head on over to Baked Sunday Mornings and whip up a batch:

Chocolate Cheesecake Muffins

IMG_3553Don’t forget that you will need to toss out your calorie counter.  Only temporarily… as you devour one… okay, maybe two of these treats.

Next week, Baked Sunday Mornings tackles a tempting tunnel of fudge cake from Baked Elements.  Given that the fudge is swirled with toasted, chopped hazelnuts, I may need to beg off making this one, as you know I am not a huge fan of nuts (with the exception of almonds or pecans).  I’m wondering if a swap-out of hazelnuts for almonds might be acceptable?  It’s something to consider.

Believe it or not, the Baked Sunday Mornings crew has nearly completed Baked Elements!  We are all very excited for the release of Baked Occasions in October.  While I personally have managed to work along with the gang through a majority of Baked Elements, here are the recipes I skipped – either due to dislike of the recipe, or just because I needed to take a hiatus for a bit.  If any of these recipes sound tempting to you, please visit Baked Sunday Mornings and read up on how my fellow, talented bloggers fared with them. I’ve set up the links for you.  Simply click on the name to view the recipe – “In the Oven” – and check out the other bakers’ results via the “Leave Your Links” or “Round-up” pages.

Crunchy Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Oopsy Daisy Cake

Lime Angel Food Cake with Lime Glaze

(I did, in fact, make this, but did not blog about it; it was a complete flop for me!)

Sunrise Key Lime Tarts

Easy Candy Bar Tart

Turtle Thumbprint Cookies

Bourbon, Vanilla, and Chocolate Milk Shakes

Malted Vanilla Milk Shakes

Milk Chocolate Malt Semifreddo with Chocolate Syrup

Malted Madeleines

Cinnamon Chocolate Souffles

Cheddar Corn Souffle

Poppy Seed Pound Cake with Brown Butter Glaze

Lemon and Black Pepper Quiche

Lemon Pecorino Icebox Cookies

Bananas Cake

Banana Mousse Parfait

Banana Whoopie Pies

Banana Caramel Pudding with Meringue Topping

Banana in a Blanket

…and I did make, but did not blog about:

Classic Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting

Here are some of my carrot cake photos:

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In this same vein, I do have a final, somewhat sad note to make…

Many of you may have noticed what I have called a ‘catastrophic’ rise in butter prices recently.  As butter is basically an essential bedrock of most baking, I unfortunately may need to cut back on my baking activity for a while – at least until the prices are somewhat reasonable for me to afford again.

This does come at an interesting time, however, as – with the impending release of Baked Occasions – I am considering no longer doing Baked Sunday Mornings.  Honestly, the weekly baking schedule is too much, time and expense-wise.  I have enjoyed blogging and posting with this fabulous group of folks, but do not feel it is feasible that I continue.  Rest assured, when they are scheduled, I will be sure to post blogs and photos for the recipes I tested for the book, and I will also return from time to time when a recipe really piques my interest, but I’m not sure I can bake my way through the entire book with the group.  With my full-time 9 to 5 job plus play rehearsals, finding the time to whip up a recipe, write about it, take photos, edit, and post the blog has become a bit too much to squeeze in.  If you subscribe to my blog, please stay tuned for many future wonderful things in store, as I don’t intend to completely go away. I just may not be here as often as I would like.

Thank you to all of you for your understanding.  I feel so fortunate and lucky to have so many fans of Neufangled Desserts!  Happy baking!

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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.

IMG_3501To do so, follow this link:

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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