A buttery shortbread to ring in a fabulous New Year

Classic Shortbread with Fleur de SelBSMbanner_baked-150It may just be my opinion, but I feel that shortbread truly is the quintessential holiday cookie.  If you’re not one for making those standard sugar cookies, cut out and baked and then smeared with an overly-rich confectioners’ sugar icing, shortbread may be the solution for you.  Simple, buttery, and rich without feeling like ‘too much’ – and might I say, utterly addictive – shortbread, with one taste, fairly screams holiday.

I immediately had a lot of faith and trust in this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe, the Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel, from Baked Explorations, because it’s Matt Lewis’s paternal grandmother’s recipe.  It’s nearly 80 years old and it’s pure Scottish, through and through.

Not surprisingly, the recipe starts with the prerequisite pound of butter (yep, that’s a hearty 4 whole sticks, y’all), at a nice cool, but not cold, temperature.  Now, I admit, I have the annoying and super-bad tendency to jump right in, full-throttle, on any given recipe without reading it thoroughly first.  I totally unwrapped my beautiful sticks of butter, tossed them into my mixer and whipped them up, neglecting to read Matt’s Baked Note in the cookbook that you MUST cut the butter up into individual cubes for the optimal results with your shortbread, or ‘shortbread nirvana’ as he affectionately calls it.  Given that you just end up blending it all up anyway in the mixer, I have to confess that I scratched my head (with a butter-smeared hand, no doubt) at this piece of advice, but if Matt swears by it, give it a try when you tackle your shortbread.  I, however, soldered on, as it was too late for me to salvage my creamed butter.

I opted to use confectioners’ sugar for the sugar rather than the superfine sugar first listed and recommended, but that is only because I didn’t have a box of baker’s sugar (ie., superfine) in my cupboard.  I didn’t regret the decision, as I found that the confectioners’ sugar only gave the shortbread an even more melt-in-your-mouth quality.

The perhaps most interesting and curious ingredient, listed after the 3-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, was rice flour.  It’s only a 1/2 cup, but I found myself pondering why rice flour, and not an extra cup of all-purpose flour, was used.  My closest guess would be that rice flour provides a nice tenderness to the shortbread and develops less gluten than all-purpose flour, keeping the shortbread from becoming too tough.  You certainly don’t want your shortbread to be a tough cookie, so I would suggest you don’t substitute all-purpose flour for the rice flour.  I found rice flour in bulk at my local organic foods store (Outpost Natural Foods here in Milwaukee), and it was relatively inexpensive.

Classic Shortbread with Fleur de SelToss in some salt and 2 egg yolks, and you are on your way to making a fabulous shortbread cookie.  The dough mixes up pretty quickly in your mixer, but try not to overbeat it, as you will soon be turning the whole lot out onto a well-floured board to gently knead it together.  I gently worked the dough into a cylindrical log, then cut it into 8 as-equal-as-possible dough disks, which I wrapped and chilled until I was ready to bake off the shortbread.

Roll the disks out individually to about a little less than 1/2-inch thickness, then cut them into wedges as you would a pizza. I briefly pondered cutting out shortbread ‘coins’ or ‘buttons’ when rolling out the dough, and perhaps I shall the next time I make these, but I do feel, overall, that the wedge-shape cut is a terrific idea.  Not only is it pleasantly rustic in appearance, you also don’t want to keep re-rolling scraps of this dough, therefore making the dough more tough and overworked.  The less the dough is rolled/handled, the better.

IMG_0529Prick each wedge lightly with a fork, and finally – Matt Lewis’s extra flourish to his grandmother’s recipe, which I personally feel is a stroke of genius – sprinkle a bit of fleur de sel, or sea salt, on each shortbread wedge.  Line up the wedges on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and bake just until you start to see the tips of the shortbread turning a light golden-brown.  I would hesitate to take them much further, as you will be cooling them for about 10 minutes more on the cookie sheet, before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.  They will bake a little more from the residual heat of the cookie sheet.  Handle your shortbread carefully when transferring the wedges to the rack, as the warm shortbread tends to be very delicate.

As Matt suggests (and much to his grandmother’s possible abhorrence, he admits), you can gussy up your shortbread in many different ways, if you prefer not to keep it plain.  The ends of the shortbread may be dipped in dark chocolate.  Add lemon or orange zest to the batter for a citrusy slant, or add visual appeal by speckling your shortbread with vanilla bean with the addition of vanilla bean paste (and omission of the fleur de sel).  I opted to keep my shortbread plain with the fleur de del, as I currently have some personal dietary concerns to address (among them being that I need to remove chocolate, coffee, and citrus from my diet…OH, the torture and unfairness of it all!).

IMG_0543Matt hinted that his grandmother’s shortbread had a ‘crisp’ quality to it – my shortbread was not crispy, and perhaps I didn’t roll my dough out thin enough for this effect.  Regardless, I was not disappointed and found this shortbread immensely pleasing to the palate.  At first bite, the shortbread was soft and delicate, and shattered wonderfully on my tongue.  It had a perfect melt-in-your-mouth quality.  The immediate taste notes were of butter – as they should be – beautifully countered by the sharp bits of salt from the fleur de sel.  While the shortbread would still be equally tasty without the fleur de sel, I do believe its inclusion really amps it up a marvelous degree.

The holidays may be over – with the exception of New Years just around the corner – and you may, in fact, be completely baked out… the good news, however, is that shortbread like this is welcome year-round, and doesn’t require a ton of fancy ingredients to make (well, okay, you may have to make a dash out for the rice flour and/or the fleur de del).  It also makes a welcome gift – I don’t know too many folks who would pass up homemade shortbread.  Give the Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel a try in your own kitchen… and by following this link, check out how my fellow BSM bakers fared on Sunday morning via the “Post Your Links” for the shortbread recipe.

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Happy New Year to all of you!  May 2013 bring you and your loved ones the very best of blessings… and even more importantly, lots of fabulous baked goods and treats!  (yeah, if you keep reading my blog, you better break that resolution to lose weight/eat better NOW… just sayin’!)*

*A final note:  I want to thank you for all of your kind thoughts, comments, and suggestions since my post regarding my health earlier this week.  In the short time since that post, I’ve been floored by the outpouring of support and encouragement – via Facebook, phone calls, texts, blog comments – which I have received from many of you, first and foremost expressing concern for my health (please do not worry, it’s manageable and nothing deadly), but also telling me to please ‘stay with it’ and to keep blogging.  I am, sincerely, very humbled.  I’ve thought it over some, and never fear, (somewhat) contrary to that blog, I will continue to share my baking adventures with you and will certainly do my best to stay a part of Baked Sunday Mornings group.  Baking – and the wonderful friendships I have gained through BSM – brings me far too much joy to completely eliminate it from my life.  I just need to share the fruits of my baking labor more, rather than devouring every morsel myself (how I wish I could make shipments to all of you every week!), watch how much I eat, and be careful with my intake of certain foods (ie., chocolate, coffee, citrus, anything too spicy).  I am challenging myself to seek out healthier recipes from time to time, and to perhaps even come up with alternative ingredients which might work just as well or even better than the original ingredients.  And while it would be easy to simply delete that blog post, I am going to keep it as a gentle reminder to hold onto, rather than give up on, those things in my life which bring me joy.  They’re important!  In the meantime, thank you, again, for your support.  I really do appreciate it… and it is because of all of you that I’m going to hang in here and continue to provide you with (what I hope is) a fun and engaging baking blog you can look forward to!  Cheers!

This is not goodbye – but rather, thank you!

Hello friends!

I write this post this morning with a somewhat heavy heart.  I’ve recently been battling some health issues which (thankfully) are not dire, but are specifically related to my diet.  My diet, as you can imagine, largely consists of far too much sugar and chocolate than any human being can or should possibly consume within a given time!  I will not go into the personal details of these issues, but suffice it to say that, given the research I have done into them, I need to make some sacrifices of foods I hold dear and have always considered essential to my diet as a baker: namely, chocolate, coffee, and refined sugars.  So sad.

That being said, I will not be continuing my blog for some time, while I get these issues under control.  If and when I do, I’m not even sure that I can return to baking as much as I have.  It’s a fun, wonderful hobby and it has given me so much joy, but it’s sadly not a healthy one.  I’m always thrilled with sharing what I make – which is what I usually try to do – but having a new baked good on my counter each and every week is not especially healthy for me, or for Jake (who – I must say – has much more control than yours truly).  It would be one thing if I had my own bakery in which to experiment, and try a sample of something before setting it out into a bakery case to share with customers.  However, I do not see that opportunity on my immediate horizon.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have subscribed and read my blog every week.  I know that I have only been doing it pretty faithfully for a few months, but I’ve gathered quite a handful of fans who I know read this every week – and for that, I am very grateful.  Baking brings me so much happiness and sharing it with all of you makes that happiness even sweeter (no pun intended – or maybe it is intended).  I do hope that you will maintain your subscription and will keep Neufangled Desserts among your ‘likes’ on Facebook, in case I stop back from time to time when I feel compelled to blog about a particular recipe.

As for Baked Sunday Mornings, I regret to say I will need to drop out of the gang.  I have met so many fabulous fellow bakers through this fun group and will definitely follow their progress with Baked’s wonderful recipes.  And who’s to say I may not jump in again when they do a recipe I really want to make?  I’ll always be happy to toss in my two cents!  I’m thankful to BSM for lighting that fire under me with my home baking – and for making me feel that I am not alone or ‘stalker-ish’ in my passion and love for that amazing little bakery in Brooklyn.  And along those lines, thank you to Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito for being my ultimate inspirations for baking and doing this blog!

I wish all of you the very best in 2013 and the years beyond.  Thank you, once again, for making Neufangled Desserts a part of your life!

Best,

Mark

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Fa-la-la-la-la-layer cake!

Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream BSMbanner_baked-150Holiday joy!  I am so down with spice cake.  So down, in fact, that were I ever to get married (HA!), spice cake would be my wedding cake of choice.  Smothered in cream cheese frosting, with real flowers.  But – I digress.

This week’s recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings is Baked’s resplendent Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream (from Baked Elements).  In a flowery-phrased nutshell: warm, fragrant holiday spices of cinnamon, fresh ginger, and allspice perfume this 3 layer tower blanketed and filled with a creamy smooth, rum-spiked, nutmeg-enhanced ‘eggnog’ version of Baked’s famous buttercream. Sounds pretty delicious, huh?  It is.

This is a recipe I looked very forward to making in spite of my grown-up repulsion to egg nog.  When I was a kid, egg nog was a holiday treat – as an adult, eh… not so much.  I don’t know whether it’s the fact I’m drinking something called a NOG (that word just reeks of ‘ewww’) or the usual overabundance of nutmeg (a spice I only like in smaller quantities), or whether it’s just the overall richness of it.  Anyhow, in regards to this particular recipe, I think it’s the simple fact that it’s a spice cake that sold me on it… and maybe only slightly that the buttercream is merely flavored with standard eggnog spices and flavorings and isn’t made with actual eggnog.  Enough on the eggnog hate.  I know it’s a traditional favorite with the overall populace come Christmastime, in which case I have terrific news for you:  you’ll love this cake.

My hesitation with Baked’s spice cake recipe really only came with the inclusion of – gasp! – a 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening.  I know there are organic shortenings out there on the market, so I would always strongly suggest seeking them out if you are as skeevy on shortening as I am.  I did, however, use Crisco with this recipe (I love the Crisco sticks.  If only organic shortening came like that!).  I read somewhere in one of the Baked books that they include shortening for a tender cake crumb, so, as much as I utter a little ‘eek!’ when my eyes scan the ingredients and fall upon ‘vegetable shortening’, I try to let it pass  and trust the authors’ best judgment!

Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream - slice detailAs this is a spice cake, the spices should take center stage – so I used really good spices. I always heartily recommend Penzey’s Vietnamese cinnamon for its extra heat.  I also used Penzey’s allspice and nutmeg (the frosting does use freshly-grated; I did not, but used slightly less than the tablespoon the recipe calls for, as ground nutmeg is rather strong as compared to grated).  I did go with freshly grated ginger root for the ginger, but you could, of course, use ground ginger instead.  I liked seeing the little gratings of ginger studding the cake slices.

I know you all have busy holiday weekends, so I won’t elaborate on the actual steps and making of this cake, as it’s fairly straightforward.  The fussiest steps you may encounter are in making the buttercream.  I adore Baked’s traditional buttercream recipe, but it does take some practice and finesse, and because it involves a lot of butter, you want to do your best to get it right the first time.  Just know that you’re not alone if you struggle with it! The important thing to keep in mind is to really whip up the cooked milk, flour, and sugar mixture good (after cooking, it should be the consistency of pudding when you put it into the mixing bowl) until it’s cooled to room temp.  It should not still be warm.  While it’s whipping/cooling in the mixer, cut your butter into small pieces; about a 1/2 tablespoon each.  The butter should be close to room temp, but not mushy – as Baked typically says, ‘cool but not cold’.  When the milk/flour/sugar mixture is at the right temp, start adding your butter, keeping the mixer going at a medium speed until all the butter is incorporated and the frosting is light, buttery, and all of the pieces of butter are completely blended in.

Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog ButtercreamIn a world that has exploded with – and gone obsessively over-the-top with, if you ask me – those cute little personal cakes called cupcakes, layer cakes often get a bad wrap.  They’re actually not too difficult to make, if you follow the instructions in the recipe and – I find – have a good eye for when not to over-beat your batter and when to fold gently.  I personally feel layer cakes are less fussy than cupcakes. With a layer cake, it’s once and done.  You don’t need to frost and/or fill a bunch of mini cakes.  I applaud my fellow bakers who attempt making any cake recipe into a cupcake – and I know a few of the bloggers this week have, with this recipe, and I am positive they’re beautiful, awesome, and amazing – but if you have busy holiday plans and still want to make this cake, keep it simple on yourself: make the layer cake.  Freeze the layers ahead of time.  Make the frosting when you’re ready to assemble.  Frost, chill, you’re good to go. (The plus side, I will admit, with cupcakes is that they are much easier to travel with!)

I shared this cake with my co-workers for our holiday lunch and it was a hit.  I enjoyed how the cake and frosting nicely complemented one another and truly played up the overall feel of holiday warmth with the spices.  As someone anti-eggnog, the eggnog-flavored buttercream was just right and not too overpowering.  I found that it was a difficult cake to plate; the layers are very light and crumbly, so the slices were not as clean and pretty as I would have liked, but no matter – they were eaten quickly once passed around!  The buttercream also provides a beautiful, clean palate for decorating.  When I wasn’t successful with finding some silver and gold glitter sprinkles for the edge of the cake, I opted for pearlized sugar beads instead, which resembled tiny snowballs and still went with the overall theme.

To wow your holiday guests with a dessert they will truly remember, make this special cake from Baked by following this link: Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream, and be sure to check out how the other bakers fared!

Finally, a very Merry Christmas to all of you!  May you find much joy, delight, merriment, warm memories… and yummy baked goods surrounding you during this holiday season!  I wish you the very best – today and every day of the year!

Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream

Chewy, soft, buttery… and very holiday

Soft Candy CaramelsBSMbanner_baked-150The holidays in my family always heralded a candy dish full of my Grandma Neufang’s homemade, delicious soft candy caramels, individually offered in a simple, homey waxed paper wrapper, twisted whimsically at both ends.  I remember spending Christmas day with my family at my grandmother’s, then reluctantly going home at the end of the day, bidding the holiday adieu for another year – but not without my grandma pressing bagfuls of her caramels into our hands at the door.  Baked’s recipe for Soft Candy Caramels from Baked Explorations may not be the same as my grandmother’s, but I have to think the ingredients and technique are indeed, rather similar.

Surprisingly, I’ve never attempted candy caramels at Christmas before, but then again, boiling sugar makes me slightly nervous and I wouldn’t classify myself as a candy maker.  Though I’m probably the biggest baker in my family, I’ve gladly surrendered this tradition to my sister Jill, who – I’ve gotta say – has aced them.  I was interested to see how I would fare this week when Baked Sunday Mornings gave me the opportunity to finally break out that pot and set to work with some boiling sugar and cream once again.

Soft Candy CaramelsThe unfortunate obstacle I immediately faced was that all of my pots, bought several years ago, are nonstick, and therefore have a dark interior which makes it difficult to make a burnt sugar mixture – where you really need to pay attention to color change.  With the exception of a skillet or two, I’m not a huge proponent of nonstick cookware.  I did purchase a small, cheap, metal saucepan at a grocery store (believe it or not) which I typically use for caramel making and melting chocolate, but I knew immediately that I would need to use a much deeper pan for these candy caramels, as it makes a large batch.  Additionally, nonstick/Teflon-coated interior pans really should not be heated at the excessive temperatures required for candy making.  Still, with no other choice, I soldiered on.  (In other words, if you already have a stainless steel, NICE set of pots and pans, you’re already ahead of me on doing this the right way! That set of cookware is fast going on my wish list for next year!)

The recipe begins with combining an entire 16-ounce bottle of light corn syrup (gulp; not a favorite ingredient of mine) with a cup each of sugar and brown sugar and a 1/4 cup of water.  This mixture is stirred gently over low heat to dissolve the sugars, then brought to a bubbly temperature of about 240 degrees using a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pan.  I would advise: a) investing in a good, accurate candy thermometer (see Baked’s tip for testing your thermometer in the book), and b) sticking around 240 degrees and no higher whenever you heat up this caramel mixture.  Though the recipe states that you can go up to 250 (and while I do trust the Baked guys’ advice implicitly), I found that 240 degrees was sufficient.  Keep an eye on the mixture until it turns a golden amber hue; this may be difficult, as the mixture contains brown sugar, which already colors it a bit.  As a ‘back-up’ plan for gauging if I am at the right point, I use my nose and smell it!  If it smells slightly browned and burnt, you’ve reached the right point, as caramel is essentially a burnt sugar (don’t be alarmed).  If it’s smoking slightly, you’re definitely there – get that off the heat right away!

Warmed sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream is added to the boiling sugar, along with the essential ingredient to successful caramels, in my book – butter. Immediately, you achieve that ‘fun’ moment when the mixture bubbles up somewhat furiously and you need to stir, just as furiously, to keep it all smooth and homogenous.  Place this entire mixture, candy thermometer still attached to the pan, over the heat to again cook and heat up, without stirring – to no higher than 240 degrees F.  With the addition of the cream, bear in mind that this will take a little bit longer than your initial heating of the sugars.  The mixture produces large, bursting bubbles (keep at a safe distance) and will start to thicken.  At this point, you will remove the pan from the heat, stir in vanilla and salt (I used fleur de sel), and pour the mixture into a foil-lined and buttered 9-inch pan.  I initially thought this would not yield a lot of caramels, but trust me, it does!

Cutting the caramelsAll that remained for the caramels was an overnight rest on the kitchen counter. The next day, the caramels are cut with a buttered chef’s knife into small squares or rectangles, then wrapped up in squares of waxed paper (or fancy, colored wrappers, if you so desire).  My blog photos to the contrary, you will definitely need to wrap these.  If you store your caramels ‘naked’, they will dry and stick together (I found this out after a few minutes’ of shooting photos!).  Your caramels should be soft and chewy; if they are not, you’ve boiled the sugar too far and they may be jawbreakers, and actually, impossible to cut.  I would hate for this to happen to you – but this is largely due to a faulty candy thermometer, so make sure your thermometer is accurate.  Have patience and realize that caramel-making, in general, is a process that is trial and error.  You may have to endure a few burnt batches to finally hit gold.

Soft Candy CaramelFortunately, my first foray into making these caramels was a success… but then again, I’ve made a lot of caramel, thanks to Baked and their love of all things caramel!  The caramels are the perfect texture – chewy, soft, and smooth, with the exception of a few pieces of slightly browned, crystallized sugar in a few spots.  Though I was initially a bit upset to find that these bits had worked their way into my otherwise perfect caramel, upon first taste I discovered they weren’t really a detriment; more of a nice, occasional contrast to the bite of the caramel.  I’m hoping and praying those aren’t bits of Teflon from the pan – yuck!

I also personally prefer a nice buttery taste in caramels such as these, and this recipe hits the target.  Caramels without a buttery taste quotient are boring caramels, in my book, and this recipe produces caramels with just the right buttery finish.

While I will continue to bow to my sister’s prowess at making the superior Neufang family caramels, I was proud of my first venture with this recipe – and I’d like to think my grandma is smiling up there in heaven at my attempts as well. I’ve discovered that these caramels also spread wonderful holiday cheer!  In the past week since making these, I’ve conveniently stowed handfuls of them in my coat pockets to share with my co-workers and fellow actors at rehearsal.  I like to think that spreading a little more sugar around at the holidays cannot help but do anything but bring smiles to everyone’s faces!  They also make make perfect homemade gifts, stored in a decorative tin or treat bag tied with ribbon.

Baked’s recipe can be found by following this link:  http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/12/09/in-the-oven-soft-candy-caramels.  As always, be sure to check out the Sunday morning posts of my fellow bloggers as well.  You may find some other very helpful tips, pointers, and thoughts before you attempt your own candy caramels!

Soft Candy Caramels

Mamma mia! That’s a spicy brownie!

Spicy BrowniesBSMbanner_baked-150For someone who is a self-professed ‘non-baker’ during the holidays, there certainly has been a lot of baking going on in the Neufangled Desserts kitchen lately!  I recently splurged on a post-birthday present of a heritage Bundt pan for myself – and of course, needed to break that in immediately – so I made Mom’s Orange Olive Oil Bundt cake from Baked Explorations (post certainly forthcoming; it was amazing and came out beautiful!).  I made Mint Chocolate Thumbprints, also from Baked Explorations, with my niece this weekend to satisfy our chocolate-peppermint holiday craving (and come on, wasn’t that holiday baking video with Matt and Renato wonderful?  I could watch those two bake all day, of course.) I’m having some dear friends over this upcoming Friday after a theatrical reading I’m participating in, so of course, I have to make a cake (maybe in the official Baked Bundt pan, advertised on their blog this week, which I also splurged on—?  Yeah, I’m pretty pathetic – I buy myself holiday gifts AND I am an official Baked junkie – but was there any question by this point?)  I suppose baking becomes inevitable at this time of year – why fight it, right?  Being a tremendous aficionado of anything chocolate + spicy (especially cinnamon), I was super-stoked to add the Spicy Brownies in Baked Elements to my baking roster this week.

I’ve made lots of brownie recipes over the years, and I have to say the Baked Brownie recipe is definitely among the best – if not, THE best.  The only other brownie recipe which comes close is Ina Garten’s, which I’ve probably made the most (see my older “Ultimate Brownie” post).  Ina’s recipe, however, leans toward the slightly greasy side, as she uses a lot more butter (there’s an entire pound in the recipe!), and the Baked guys have definitely experimented and tweaked things a little to make sure there are just the right amount of essential ingredients to really ‘get it right’.  Oprah raved about Baked’s brownies when they were just getting started, and as you can imagine, Oprah’s touch was golden to getting them headed toward the success they enjoy today! Many of my friends have remained huge fans of Baked’s Sweet and Salty Brownie variation – which I could probably make in my sleep by now!

Spicy Brownies - InstagrammedThe wonderful thing about brownies is that they really are not difficult, bearing in mind a few pointers and suggestions, which I elaborate upon below.  Once you have your favorite recipe down, you can continue to use that recipe and tweak it any way you want.  With the Spicy Brownies, the Baked boys take their fabulous basic brownie recipe and amp it up a little by adding ancho chili powder, cinnamon, and ginger.  It took me a little while to find basic ground ancho chili powder – you can find it in fine spice stores, like Penzeys, or a Mexican grocery.  Do not use your regular chili powder – in a lot of ways, that is a misnomer.  When bottles of spice in the grocery store say ‘chili’ powder, they basically mean a combination of spices suited for flavoring chili (as in, the meat and beans entree).  These combinations include extra salt, cumin, garlic and the like – which you don’t want flavoring these brownies.  You want the actual ancho chili pepper, ground into a powder – so this may take a little label reading on your part.

Spice melange for Spicy Brownies!Though my photo shows a sprinkle of ground ginger, I opted to take Baked’s suggestion and used freshly grated ginger, from ginger root.  It added a nice little bit of heat as well as some chewiness/chewy pieces throughout, which I didn’t find off-putting.  As for the cinnamon – Baked suggests using freshly grated, and I had cinnamon sticks in my cupboard, but I used my ground Vietnamese (read: extra-spicy) cinnamon instead – if anything, because I adore its pungent flavor so much, but also because I read that my fellow bloggers, when trying to grate their sticks, found that they shattered against even the finest of spice graters.

For those of you who may love to bake, but are hesitant to break out the mixer, good news: making brownies typically does not require a mixer – and I would skeptical of the recipe if it did require it.  Your overall aim is ‘fudgy-ness’, which requires no over-beating and a by-hand approach. Simply melt your chocolate and butter together and let them cool for a touch.  Add your sugar(s) and eggs (and vanilla, if the recipe calls for it) – yes, all by hand – then gently fold in your dry ingredients (those spices smell phenomenal at this point when you make these particular brownies).  Pour this delectable batter into the pan – making sure you sample a lick from your spatula – then bake!

I don’t claim to be as big a brownie expert as the Baked guys are, but at the risk of being a know-it-all (smack me now), here are a few tips and things I’ve found out and stick by when whipping up a batch:

* This probably goes without saying, but really try and use the best chocolate you can reasonably afford.  I know most of my fellow blogging bakers will probably gasp when I say this, but I typically use Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips for most of my chocolate-based recipes.  Truth is – of course, I would love to use a Scharffen Berger or Vahlrona, but let’s be reasonable.  I work for a nonprofit for a living.  I can’t afford to buy expensive chocolate, much as I’d love to and much as I consider myself a ‘serious’, dedicated home baker.  So – again, use the best you can afford.  Don’t break the bank, but don’t use a poor, generic brand in a good brownie recipe either.  When baking book authors say use ‘good-quality’ chocolate, they mean it. The star of the brownie is the chocolate.

* Double boilers are a smart tool, yes, but seriously – why dirty up or use an extra pot?  When you’re melting good chocolate, true – you don’t want to scorch it, so be careful – especially if you’re melting it in a saucepan on low, direct heat.  For recipes where you are melting it into butter or cream, however, simply melt the butter or heat the cream completely in the saucepan first.  Have your chocolate ready.  Turn off the heat, then add the chocolate.  Chocolate has a very low melting point.  It doesn’t take much for it to completely melt and blend into the butter or cream.  Simple whisk gently and you’re good.

* A really good brownie recipe typically does not have any leaveners like baking soda or baking powder in it.  That’s not to say I haven’t had perfectly good brownies that have contained these ingredients, but technically, I’m leery of these recipes when I find them. A brownie doesn’t need any kind of ‘rise’.  It’s best when it’s dense, in my opinion.  That’s the point of a brownie.  It’s also why you don’t want to over-beat your eggs in the batter when you whisk them in.  Over-beating can turn your brownies quickly to cake.

Spicy Brownies* I’m come to the conclusion that really good brownie recipes – like Baked’s – have a combination of (white) granulated sugar and a bit of brown sugar.  That brown sugar gives the brownies the little bit of oomph they really need.  It steps the brownie up a little.  Look for brownie recipes like these, or experiment with your own personal favorite by changing up a portion of the granulated sugar with brown sugar.  Let me know how they turn out!

* General rule of thumb: when baking brownies, always choose to underbake rather than overbake. ‘Nuff said.

* Brownies require a ton of patience and willpower.  This isn’t saying they’re difficult to make, they just require time.  Before putting them together, make sure your ingredients are room temp.  After you take the brownies out of the oven, resist the huge temptation to cut right into them.  It’s difficult, I know.  Believe me, I know.  Your cuts won’t be very attractive (sometimes, that matters if you are serving these to guests or gifting them), and your brownies really need some time to fully ‘settle’ after their baking soiree in that hot oven.  I usually try to let mine cool completely, then I refrigerate or even freeze them.  Cutting them is much cleaner and easier when they are chilled, and you’d be surprised how delicious a cold brownie is.  Overall, I like to make brownies on a weeknight – I let them cool on the counter overnight, the pop them in the fridge during the day when I’m at work.  It gives me a reward to look forward to when I get home after a hard day’s work!

* Lastly, this is a very weird habit of mine, and I do not blame any of you for thinking I am truly a bizarre person for doing this… but there is a method to my madness.  I actually separate out the chewy, gross chalazae inside my eggs.  The chalazae is the white, squiggly part which suspends the egg yolk in the white.  The reason I do this:  brownies are usually best when slightly gooey and underdone.  There is nothing worse than sinking your teeth into a delicious brownie, starting to chew the melty goodness, and all of a sudden – ewww! – you’re gnawing on a rubbery piece of egg.  That’s usually a piece of chalazae.  Yuck.  I choose to take the time and extra step to pinch this piece of yuckiness off of every egg I put into my brownies.  I don’t do this with every recipe I make – some cookie and cake batters whip the egg up nicely in a Kitchen Aid mixer, and the chalazae is somewhat ‘dissolved’, but with recipes such as brownies, custards, custard pies, puddings – taking this extra (yes, goofy) step is totally worth it to ensure silky smoothness.

Spicy BrowniesNeedless to say, I absolutely adored this spicy spin on an already perfect brownie.  Much as I love the original Baked Brownie, I may be making them this way more often from now on.  My first bite – I was in love.  The warmth and slight kick of the spices immediately sets in as the brownie hits your tongue, but it isn’t overwhelming or disturbing.  It’s really ‘just right’.  The texture was dense and fudgy, not cakey.  Perfect with a cup of coffee or cocoa on a winter day.  I find that I prefer my brownies right out of the fridge, and like the Baked Brownie, these are good either cold or at room temperature.  They cut up perfectly when chilled.  If making these for a holiday gathering, arrange the squares haphazardly on a platter with cinnamon sticks scattered throughout, so your guests know ahead of time that they’re not tasting their typical kind of brownie!

What a winner.  Definitely one of my favorites from the new book.  Kudos, Matt and Renato. As usual, you won me completely over with this one.  Try them with your holiday baking, folks.  It’s like a decadent Mexican hot chocolate in solid form!  The recipe: http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/12/03/in-the-oven-spicy-brownies.

And in case some of you didn’t catch my pop culture reference with the title of this blog, I offer this bit of fun nostalgia for you.  Of course, I would hope, however, that you would not need Alka-Seltzer after eating these brownies… yikes!

This one’s for Alice

Peanut Butter No-Bake 'Cookies'Baked Sunday MorningsThere’s something so quintessentially 1970’s about the Peanut Butter No-Bake “Cookie”, this week’s selection for Baked Sunday Mornings.  While I’m sure they have older origins, I like to think that these ‘cookies’ were the brainchild of the busy career woman (or man) of the ’70’s who wanted something to satiate their sweet tooth, but didn’t have the time to fuss with a heavy-duty recipe that required use of a mixer and oven.  I chuckled when I fell upon this recipe while paging through Baked Explorations.  I adore that this was included because it reminds me of that Matt, Renato, and I truly grew up in a similar era and key in to that nostalgia in the kitchen.

While one should hesitate with calling these ‘cookies’, as they require no standard baking or cooking, these confections nonetheless were more like the food of the gods to me than even a chocolate chip cookie when I was a child. One bite, and I am instantly transported back to my days as a 3 or 4 year-old, and my memories are pretty vivid and deep even back that far.  I can hear Donny and Marie Osmond or Captain and Tennille playing on the record player, picture dark-panelled walls and mustard-yellow upholstery, and see the funky brown check pattern in my pants (with no rivets, mind you… I had this weird repulsion to pants with rivets which I thankfully got over).

No-bake cookies also conjure up fond memories of one of my favorite aunts – my Aunt Alice, who frequently made these for me when she would babysit me while my mother was at work during the day.  She also watched my two older sisters when they weren’t in school, and we were all little devils!  She was frequently the brunt of several jokes on behalf of all three of us.  Short, spunky, with a Pennsylvanian (born and bred) accent which she still maintains to this very day, Alice was just a load of fun – and a ton of fun to make fun of!  She was one of our younger aunts and we just adored her – and I like to believe the adoration was returned, despite the jokes!

For example, back in the late 70’s, my sisters were hell-bent on getting Alice to quit smoking, so whenever she lit up, they would follow her around with cups of water to douse the cigarette whenever she put it down!  When my sisters finally went off to school, I spent lots of time with Alice myself, and I like to think I wasn’t as much of a pest as my sisters – though maybe I just wasn’t as creative!  Still, I no doubt got under Alice’s feet several times during the day, and to calm me down and keep me occupied, she might occasionally succumb to my begging and make peanut butter no-bake cookies!  I remember all of the shiny oatmeal-chocolate ‘blobs’ lined up on sheets on waxed paper on her counter… It took all the strength I had in my 4 year-old soul to wait as patiently as I could for them to cool and solidify before sinking my teeth into them!

Peanut Butter No-Bake 'Cookies'The concept behind no-bakes is very simple, indeed – heat up butter, milk, sugar and cocoa until quite warm (and the butter is melted), then stir in peanut butter, oats, and vanilla.  You’re done!  Drop the mixture onto waxed or parchment paper-lined cookie sheets and allow them to cool and harden.  True, they won’t win any beauty contests, and fall more into the category of candy than cookie.  Some folks may object to the chewiness of the uncooked oats in these, but I don’t think it’s too much of an issue – if you’re a fan of chocolate and peanut butter, you will find they’re delicious and after a couple of bites, you seriously will think nothing of it.  The chewy component is actually a bit necessary for texture.

I used Trader Joe’s unsalted, natural peanut butter (creamy, NOT crunchy as I really can’t eat/have an aversion to nuts), and therefore added a touch more oats to soak up the oil, as Baked suggests when opting for the natural peanut butter.  It’s also a matter of preference – I tend to like my no-bake cookies on the thicker, denser side.  They can very easily be made thinner, and as a result spread more on the cookie sheet, with less oats.  It’s totally up to you.  I do feel the kind of peanut butter you choose can also make a difference.  The batch I made for this blog (and pictured) was a touch grainer in texture than what I remembered as a kid, and I think it’s because of the natural peanut butter.  I feel that they would be much smoother with a peanut butter like Skippy (the peanut butter with fillers, etc. that I typically grab for baking – I know, natural is best, but sometimes you need the other ‘stuff’ for smoothness).

If you’re craving something sweet in a flash, chances are you will have most of the ingredients for these in your kitchen, which is another big plus with this recipe.  Unleash your busy-career-woman/man-of-the-1970s-with-no-time-to-bake – or quite possibly you’re a mom/dad/aunt/uncle looking to placate a young child’s sweet cravings – by whipping up these treats!  Follow this link for the recipe: http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/11/27/in-the-oven-the-no-bake-peanut-butter-cookie, and while you’re at it, say hello to my fellow bakers by checking out their blogs as well!

A recent photo of my Aunt Alice - doesn't she look fabulous?

A recent photo of my Aunt Alice – doesn’t she look fabulous?

As for my Aunt Alice, she’s still a trip – and spunky as ever.  As we all grew up, we’ve surpassed her in height – she’s always been pretty short – and frequently used her as a ‘measuring stick’ (“Hey, you’re getting taller than Alice!”)!  We also laugh when she says she’s from “Oral City” (translation: Oil City), tells us all to “go pound sowlt!” (salt), sings “What Chowd is This” (Child) at Christmas, and states that despite all of our joshing, she has “broad showders” (shoulders).   She takes all the kidding in great stride – and I love her dearly.  She quit smoking years ago (thankfully!), has run two successful businesses, raised three terrific kids of her own and is now actually enjoying being a grandmother.  Thanks, Alice, for the fond memories and all of the amazing no-bake cookies!

One final note:  Thank you, all of you, for first of all following and reading my blog, and secondly, for leaving such wonderful comments.  I especially enjoyed your thoughts regarding my Baked trip last week for my birthday.  I honestly wish I could respond to every one of your comments – and I tried for a while – but some days, it’s just difficult to do.  Please know that I read each and every one and adore them.  You’re the best!  Happy baking!

Peanut Butter No-Baked "Cookies"