Third time’s a charm? Or, snickerdoodles: revised

IMG_1666BSMbanner_baked-150I’ve always been a tremendous fan of that buttery, cinnamon-spiced childhood favorite cookie, the snickerdoodle.  When I was a kid, no other cookie both smelled and tasted like pure home comfort to me – not even a chocolate chip cookie.  I feel that way even now as an adult.  I was excited to discover that Baked had created their own spin on this treasured recipe with Brown Butter Snickerdoodles in Baked Elements.

Sadly, both times I attempted these cookies – with the exception of that warm, trademark snickerdoodle taste you would expect – they were a huge disappointment.  I followed the recipe to a T, and didn’t have the best of luck; namely, the cookies almost seemed to ‘melt’ into one another in a flat, greasy mess on my cookie sheet.  Definitely not pretty enough to serve, much less photograph.  I also found that the cookies barely betrayed a hint of that glorious, nutty brown butter.  I browned my butter to a wonderful, deeply brown hue without crossing over into scorched or burnt – it was just right and smelled perfect.  When I blended it with the rest of the ingredients for the cookies, it disappeared.  Perhaps my cinnamon was too overpowering?  (I used Penzey’s Vietnamese cinnamon, which tends to bring a bit more intensity and heat to the palate.)

Seeing as how this recipe uses a whopping 2 whole sticks of butter, I set my mind on the fact that I would need to be a bit more conservative with my ingredients and make a more traditional snickerdoodle recipe next time, filing this one away under ‘not one of my favorites’ in Baked Elements.  I was so saddened to discover that one of the recipes I was most looking forward to in this beautiful book was one of the least successful I’ve made from it (I put them on par with the pathetic Brooksters I tried to make a year ago).

IMG_1670I wasn’t going to so easily concede to defeat, however.  When the recipe popped up again as this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment, I committed myself to attempting the snickerdoodles again, with a few of my own personal tweaks.  Bear in mind that if you follow my suggestions when making your own snickerdoodles, it may require an extra step or two and therefore, a little extra time (and patience!):

  • First of all, I browned my butter and let it sit out overnight on my counter in a glass bowl, covered with plastic wrap.  This allowed the butter to harden somewhat back into the consistency of softened butter or shortening.  It also eliminated the need to beat the hot butter to room temperature prior to adding the sugar.
  • In the dry ingredients, I swapped out 3/4 teaspoon of the baking soda for baking powder to assist with maintaining the cookies’ shape and ‘plumpness’.  In my book, there’s nothing worse than a flat, greasy cookie – an issue I all too frequently come up against.  Adding baking powder instead of baking soda allows for a little more rise and a tender crumb.  I don’t know if I would eliminate the baking soda entirely, as you still need a slight counterbalance to those leavenings, so be safe and keep at least a 1/4 teaspoon of soda in the mix.
  • I also added only 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon to the batter, instead of the 1 teaspoon suggested in the recipe.  I adore cinnamon – and will often confess I add typically a touch more than the recipe suggests – so this is rare of me to recommend cutting back.  However, I wanted to see if this would make a difference in the overall taste and especially bump up the nutty notes of the browned butter, rather than overpowering them.  You may also want to use a warmer, and less spicy cinnamon.  Lacking the standard cassia cinnamon in my cupboard, I opted to use my usual Vietnamese cinnamon with the precautionary measure of adding less.
  • I’ve learned a wonderful tip from one of my fellow BSM bloggers (Erin Star Hayes!): if a recipe calls for chilling your cookie dough prior to scooping and baking it off, scoop the dough into balls first, put them on a cookie sheet, and then chill them.  This is a great tip especially for this recipe.  I like to chill my dough for at least 8 hours to overnight to allow the flavors and ingredients to meld sufficiently.  This cookie dough becomes quite hard, and the first time I attempted to scoop this chilled dough, I nearly broke my spring-loaded cookie scoop (let’s just say it’s bent at an awkward angle now!).  It’s definitely a terrific idea to pre-scoop these, then let them chill.  Proceed with making the snickerdoodles by rolling the chilled dough balls in the cinnamon-sugar, etc.

My rough scientific experimentation done and my brown butter snickerdoodles baked off, I was ready to taste and deliver my verdict.

IMG_1671The third time, at first glance out of the oven, definitely seemed to be a charm.  The snickerdoodles held their shape more, albeit just slightly.  I am still stumped as to how Baked kept theirs so wonderfully ‘fat’ (as shown in the cookbook photo).  I’m not displeased by how my snickerdoodles looked this time, though.  My first batch of cookies held their shape best, while subsequent batches may have shown a touch of spread simply because I had the chilled dough balls resting on the sheet pans on the counter for a bit, while waiting for the prior batch to come out of the oven.  That being said, if you’re a stickler for your cookies keeping their shape (I suspect I may just be one of the pickiest cookie bakers in this regard), keep your cookie sheets in the fridge.

IMG_1672As for the taste:  baked at 10 minutes, the cookies were soft, chewy, and perfectly buttery, with the right amount of cinnamon-y sweetness –  all the traits a wonderful snickerdoodle should have.  The nutty flavor I expected from these being brown butter snickerdoodles was still elusive, however.  My sister, who was present when I took these out of the oven and sampled these with me, had a good point:  if these snickerdoodles were eaten along with a regular, non-brown butter snickerdoodle, the taste difference might be more evident.

Overall, I was pleased with the tweaks I made on this third go-round with Baked’s fantastic re-imagination of the classic snickerdoodle recipe, and made sure to tack a post-it note with my revisions onto the page in Baked Elements for the next time I crave these cookies!

To attempt your own Brown Butter Snickerdoodles, with or without my revisions, follow this link:

Brown Butter Snickerdoodles

Let me know what you think, and please be sure to check out the successes of my fellow bakers with this recipe.  I’m in awe of their cookie-baking prowess.  Cookies seem to elude me quite often!  Give me a three-layer cake, soufflé, or pie any day over those little demons… (though they are delicious!)

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Thank you for being a friend… and bringing over this cheesecake

IMG_1558BSMbanner_baked-150If the thought of ricotta cheese immediately brings ‘lasagna’ to mind, think again.  How about cheesecake?  Alert the Golden Girls and cue the theme song… this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe selection is Orange Almond Ricotta Cheesecake from Baked Elements, presenting a different twist on cheesecake by using ricotta in place of typical cream cheese and blending in the harmonious flavor combination of fresh orange zest and amaretto.

Being a huge Golden Girls fanatic (I do own every season on DVD), I think I can confidentally say that this ricotta cheesecake is one that Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia would be happy to nosh on while commiserating their late night/early morning woes.  Not only does it involve oranges – which are, let’s fact it, a staple Florida fruit – but Sophia herself would be especially proud, given that cheesecake made with ricotta is truly an Italian twist on this popular dessert.

Graham cracker crumbs, speckled with ground toasted almonds, are combined with dark brown sugar and melted butter, then pressed into the bottom and sides of a springform pan for a flavorful, sturdy crust.  Good-quality ricotta provides the base for this cheesecake, mixed with sugar, egg yolks, and a touch of flour to slightly thicken and provide stability.  The cake is flavored with a combination of amaretto liqueur and almond extract, which echoes the use of ground toasted almonds in the graham cracker crust.  Orange zest, a perfect companion to almond, is also mixed into the filling to brighten up the flavor of the cheesecake.  The lighter texture of this particular cheesecake is achieved not only because of the ricotta, but also by the gentle folding/incorporation of beaten egg whites (reserved from the separated egg yolks) into the cheese filling right before baking.

IMG_1553The cake bakes up beautifully in the oven and even slightly puffs and rises in a very soufflé-like fashion.  Do not be too alarmed if it sinks after taking it out of the oven; this is pretty typical for cheesecakes and does not mean you have done anything wrong – or left an ingredient or step out.  After it has completely cooled and chilled in your refrigerator, a simple scattering of sliced, toasted almonds and dusting of confectioners’ sugar on top of the cheesecake will do to make this an instant showstopper – and as Baked promises, a recipe your friends will be clamoring for as they grab a second piece!

A couple thoughts and pointers I discovered while making this cheesecake:

I have never really used parchment paper in a springform pan, though the recipe instructs you to.  I feel that if you use it, there is no way – as with a traditional cake – that you can peel it off the crust prior to serving it, and you may end up serving wedges of parchment paper with your cake.  What a nuisance!  If you have a springform pan with a glass bottom (which I have and love), you may be able to get away with baking the cheesecake sans parchment, then – after the cake has chilled and you have removed the sides of the pan –  you can gently and carefully pry the crust from the bottom of the springform pan using a long offset metal spatula.  I was able to pop the entire cheesecake off the bottom of the pan and transfer it to a serving plate.  There is certainly enough butter in the crust to properly ‘grease’ it for easy release – which leads in to my next thought…

You may not need to use the entire 1 and 1/2 sticks butter in the crust.  The next time I make this recipe, I may attempt to use just one.  Too much butter in a graham crust risks excess melted butter seeping out of the bottom of the springform pan, causing a smoky, greasy mess on your oven floor (take it from one who has been there, done that).  To be on the safe side, slip a foil-lined cookie sheet or pan onto the oven rack below your baking cheesecake to catch potential drips.

IMG_1546Again, the recipe recommends using a good-quality sheep’s or cow’s milk ricotta.  I agree with this recommendation, but should note that I used regular Frigo whole milk ricotta (easily available in your local supermarket).  If you do the same, you probably do not need to drain the ricotta in cheesecloth as recommended, prior to making your cheesecake.  I tried it, and it yielded very little drained whey; it’s rather solid as is, right out of the container.  Good-quality ricotta – which definitely does require draining prior to making this recipe – can be rather expensive, but whether you opt to use this truly is a matter of personal preference or affordability.  I would suggest that if you intend to make this cheesecake for a fancy gathering and aim to impress, splurge and invest in the good stuff.  I’m certain the flavor will make a world of difference, as regular grocery-store ricotta doesn’t have the tangy flavor nuances prevalent in good-quality cheese.  While I agree with the Baked guys that factory-produced ricotta can taste like “old plastic”, don’t be ashamed if you need to use it in a pinch; simply try your best to find a good one.  Also bear in mind that you just may not have the “creamy, sometimes a little sweet, and rich without being heavy” taste and effect of good-quality ricotta as promised in Baked’s preface to this recipe.

This may just be my personal preference, but I wouldn’t skimp on, or remove, either the amaretto liqueur or the almond extract in this recipe.  You want that solid almond flavor in this cheesecake, acting in beautiful marriage with the orange.  If you leave it out, I just feel it won’t ‘sing’ as nicely, and you’ll miss out on a truly nice flavor combo.

Definitely wait to decorate your cheesecake with the powdered sugar and toasted almonds until just before presenting and slicing it up for your guests.  Inevitably, there will be excess condensation on the top of your cheesecake – which is natural – and this will quickly soak up any powdered sugar you dust across the surface.

As with any cheesecake, don’t rue the crack(s) across the top surface – this is one of the beautiful homemade effects of any good cheesecake!  However, should you prefer to avoid surface cracking, try baking your cheesecake in a bain marie, or water bath.  The steam from the water bath will allow for more even baking.  Make sure the sides of your cheesecake are well wrapped with heavy-duty aluminum foil, to prevent water from the surrounding pan from seeping into your cheesecake crust.

IMG_1555Overall, this recipe was a hit for us – and for the friends I shared it with.  It’s a lighter alternative to standard cheesecake (which I am all for these days), and the citrusy notes balanced off with the nutty, toasted almond flavors are just right.  The grainy texture of the ricotta on my tongue at first bite was not preferable for me, as I prefer a dense, creamy cheesecake.  Given that it’s ricotta, I fast got over this, as it was anticipated.  I will be curious to read what my fellow bloggers write about their experience with this recipe, particularly those who – unlike me – used good ricotta, which is supposed to have a creamier texture.  I curse myself that I was so fast to grab that Frigo ricotta before thoroughly reading this recipe and understanding that good-quality was essential – but again, sometimes we don’t have the ability to pay that expense!  Maybe next time… for I am certain I will revisit this recipe again.

To make your own ricotta cheesecake (perhaps for a Golden Girls viewing marathon?), follow this link:

Orange Almond Ricotta Cheesecake

When visiting the Baked Sunday Mornings website, be sure to click on “Leave Your Links” for this recipe and check out how my fellow friends fared.

The next Baked Sunday Mornings recipe coming up is Brown Butter Snickerdoodles, which I have made several times with mixed results.  I don’t have the greatest luck with baking cookies (go back a few blogs to my “Confessions of a Perfectionist Baker” blog to read some of my cookie-baking agonies), and – while they are delicious – these snickerdoodles have been no exception.  I do, however, have an ingredient substitution/experimentation I may attempt when I next make these for the blog.  I will certainly share the results with you – let’s just hope it is a success!  Happy baking, my friends!

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Mile-high mania

IMG_1399BSMbanner_baked-150When it comes to desserts, I admit I’ve been known to go a little overboard.  The more decadent, the better.  Nothing has ever been “too much”.  Richness?  Absolutely.  Pile it on.  Add on some more layers – not just physically, but also texturally, and flavorfully (Is that even a word?  If it isn’t, well… I just made it one.)

In my quest to eat better, I’ve really scaled back some – obviously – on my dessert craze.  I bake much less – usually just my blog assignments, to be honest with you – and once I’ve tasted one piece/slice/serving (what have you), I try my best to give it away.  If anything, it has made me much more appreciative of how good, and much of a treat, a well-made baked good is… each bite meant to be almost sensuously savored on the palate.

Another thing that has really opened my eyes is how BIG we, as Americans, really like our serving sizes.  We love our hearty plates of pasta and our large slices of bread.  We even crave pretty massive portions of salad – an otherwise ‘healthy’ choice, right? Well, even those salads – when piled with tons of extra ingredients and delicious salad dressing – can tip the scales.  Simply put, we love things in excess!  I say: nothing wrong with indulgence in moderation, though I don’t intend to start this blog on a preachy note by any means. This is a good observation, however, upon which to introduce this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment: the Mile-High Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream, from Baked Elements.

IMG_1409Following in the famed footsteps of sky-high lemon meringue pies and soaring soufflés, Baked has surely created a cake to impress with this towering treat.  It begins with 6 – yes, 6 – luscious layers of moist chocolate cake.  Between each layer is tucked a creamy, not too sweet vanilla Italian-style buttercream speckled with vanilla bean.  Crown off this tall achievement with a silky, sexy milk chocolate ganache and you’ve got a winner.  Oh my.  I knew I was in deep, deep trouble making this one.

I’m not going into much detail with how I made this cake, or each step – you can read that in the recipe (link below).  My goal with this blog in the coming weeks is to get to the point where I do less ‘talking’ and let the yumminess in the photos do all the work for me. Believe me, this cake is delicious – even if I could only treat myself to one piece (at a whopping 884 calories!  Yikes!).  Instead, I’ll elaborate on a few key points I enjoyed while making this cake… and maybe one or two problematic issues.

First of all, Baked truly has your basic chocolate cake down, recipe-wise.  Their chocolate cake recipe is fairly similar across all of their books, and it’s never let me down.  The inclusion of tangy sour cream, which keeps the cake crumb moist and spongy, is perfect.  I also appreciate the use of a dark cocoa.  If you can afford the top-quality cocoa they recommend (such as Vahlrona), knock yourself out.  Quality chocolate is going to make all the difference in your cake.  Honestly,  I have to settle for Hershey’s Special Dark unsweetened cocoa, which I find does just fine.  I used it in the professional kitchen I used to be employed in, so I figured if the pros are using it, it can’t be that cheap or bad.

I’ve also (rather proudly) decided that I’ve really become quite the pro at Baked’s buttercream frosting – which truly takes some practice to nail down and can be quite fussy.  It’s not for the faint of heart, and believe me, I endured my share of buttercream hard knocks and agonies the first few times I attempted it.  Practice is essential.

IMG_1390The vanilla buttercream frosting in this particular recipe is an Italian buttercream, which basically involves cooking up a simple syrup in a saucepan to soft ball stage, then slowly and carefully pouring that syrup into beaten egg whites to make a meringue base for your frosting.  (Still with me?  Don’t be frightened… you can do it!) Then, add your room temperature butter, one tablespoon or so at a time, whipping the frosting pretty fiercely with your mixer until the buttercream is light, fluffy, silky, and yes – intensely buttery.  (Some of my fellow BSM bakers have had luck with gently beating the frosting to incorporate the butter, but for me, I’ve found it works best when it’s beaten pretty quickly.  My advice is to try it both ways and see what provides the preferable result for you.)  WhenIMG_1396 you hit the grocery store for your cake ingredients, better pick up an extra pound of butter for your fridge, because you will need a full pound for this recipe.  When I made this buttercream, I think my meringue was still a touch too warm and my butter too soft, as it was relatively thin when I whipped everything together.  I popped the entire mixing bowl into the fridge for about 10-15 minutes, then took it out and beat it again – voila!  Perfect texture and consistency… and oh, so dangerously good.  I’m not a frosting fanatic, but I seriously could have eaten this with a spoon and been satisfied.

According to Baked’s instructions, the cake layers, baked in three 8-inch cake pans, are sliced horizontally into 6 layers to sandwich the buttercream – hence the ‘mile-high’ effect.  I’ve never been too good with horizontally slicing my cake layers, and I knew the minute I took my 3 cake layers out of the over that 6 layers was going to be incredibly tricky.  What happened is a mystery to me, but I suspect that the butter for my cake might have been *too* room-IMG_1426temp and soft when I creamed it with the sugars, thus incorporating more air into the batter.  This allowed my cakes to puff up, then promptly collapse deep in the centers while baking in the oven.  Prior to frosting and per the recipe instructions, I did wrap and pop the layers into the freezer overnight as suggested prior to frosting, as the cake crumb was very, very delicate and needed some ‘firming up’.  This did, indeed, make slicing the layers horizontally a touch easier, though my knife did go through the tops of my cakes – darn it!  I sliced a little extra cake off the bottom, thicker layers and “patched” things up as I frosted the layers; you can see evidence of this in the cut slices of cake.  If this happens to you as well, don’t agonize over it too much – your cake is still bound to impress your friends with its height and many layers, trust me.

I loved that Baked suggests keeping the sides frosting-free to highlight the layers, and the smooth milk chocolate ganache spread across the top and dripping down the sides is a visually pleasing final touch.  I would suggest halving the ganache recipe.  I found that it made more than enough for topping this cake.  If you decide to make the full amount, I’m sure any extra would be wonderful heated up and poured over ice cream.

I have to be honest – with the many delicate layers of cake and all of the frosting and preparation, this recipe was a touch time-consuming and fussy.  I would pull this recipe out only if I randomly desired to make a show-stopping dessert for a given event, or if I received a special request for it.  My boyfriend Jake took one bite and immediately pronounced it the cake he wanted me to make for his birthday every year – which I answered with a slight groan (though I will happily make it for him, of course)!  I also didn’t initially find the cake to be visually appealing.  Perfectionist that I am, I’m a stickler for a dessert that looks good and then – damn!  – tastes fantastic as well.  When I shared initial photos of the cake on Facebook, however, I beheld a barrage of folks commenting that they wished they could be present to sink their forks into a piece right away, so I guess beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, even with desserts!

IMG_1432Overall, the combination of flavors in this cake is outstanding – try to get a bit of cake, buttercream, and ganache on your fork all at once.  You’ll love it.  You may even toss out your calorie counter for a day to enjoy just that one delicious slice of mile-high decadence. Treat yourself.  You’ve earned it.  Then take a walk or two around the block later.  :-)  If you’re not serving this up at a dinner party, wrap up individual pieces and deliver them to your neighbors on said walk!  They will adore you!

To try your own Mile-High Chocolate Cake, follow this link:

Mile-High Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

…and please visit the pages of my fellow bakers to view their beautiful cakes!

Now who will take this massive cake out of my fridge and off my hands before I keep nibbling at it—?

Next Baked Sunday Mornings Assignment (September 15) ~ Orange Almond Ricotta Cheesecake

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