March 30, 2013

Biscuit sandwich cookies with chocolate fudge filling (and other possibilities)

I got the notion to make some sandwich cookies the other day.  It's still not my favorite thing to do but I'm a little less reluctant to make roll-out cookies now that I've had a bit more experience and practice.  These biscuit sandwich cookies (one of Martha's recipes) have been on my list of things to bake for a while.  So armed with some extra heavy cream in the fridge, I thought it was time to make it happen.
No doubt, making roll-out and sandwich cookies take a little extra effort.  But I hauled out my food processor and dusted off my rolling pin to give these a go.  The dough comes together quickly and is fairly easy to roll out.  But in typical form, I didn't roll my cookies as thin as they should be (rolling dough to 1/16th of an inch thickness is beyond my ability and patience level) and since the dough was sticking to my parchment paper, I needed to chill the rolled dough before I could remove the cut-outs from the sheet. 
I don't know about you but whenever I'm make anything that involves cookie cutters, I can't resist the heart shape...
My sandwich cookies aren't nearly as thin or as chic as Martha's but I fully expected that.  And even though my favorite kinds of cookies are generally the chewy, soft, gooey kind, I like a nice crispy one once in a while too.  And the best part about a sandwich cookie must be the promise of a rich filling to be discovered within.  I may have wanted to make these for the filling alone.

I decided to join these biscuit cookies with a chocolate fudge filling.  Of course, for me, it must be chocolate in some form!  Maybe I was thinking about how much I loved E.L. Fudge cookies as a kid or maybe it was the frugal side of me wanting to use up the extra condensed milk I had on hand (after making mango sago) but, either way, chocolate fudge called out to me.
Similar to ganache, the fudge filling will set up as it cools
The original recipe actually pairs the cookies with melted milk chocolate (a good option since the cookies themselves are not very sweet) and suggests Nutella as a quick substitute.  Both are excellent possibilities and I can't help but think of a number of other choices as far as the filling goes.  Think: smooth peanut butter, melted dark chocolate (if you want to keep the overall cookie less sweet), ganache, some kind of jam, lemon curd, or even a buttercream (though that's not my thing) or a swipe of chestnut cream.
The cookies by themselves are buttery but not to the degree of Punitions or shortbread cookies, with a slightly salty bite.  Not being very sweet or overwhelming in flavor, I think the cookies paired very well with the fudge filling, which is somewhat sweeter than ganache.
That's the neat thing about homemade things; you can customize it to your own liking.  Whatever you choose to fill your biscuit sandwich cookies with, who doesn't love picking up a sandwich cookie, twisting it open, and licking the center?

March 26, 2013

Cocoa brownies

As I was blathering on about brownies the other day, I realized something was glaringly missing from my repertoire...cocoa-based brownies!  As in the kind made with cocoa instead of some kind of chocolate.
To paraphrase chocolate and baking expert, Alice Medrich, everyone should have more than one brownie recipe in their repertoire, and cocoa should be one of them because it's easy to work with and provides deep chocolate flavor.  I listen to the experts and since I'd never made cocoa brownies before, I had to correct my oversight.

In my search, it seemed like *the* definitive cocoa brownie recipe is one developed by Alice Medrich herself and that's what I went with.  This recipe reminds me of the Scharffen Berger brownies (Ms. Medrich does work with the company), where a good, thorough mixing of the batter is key.  The major difference between the recipes is while those brownies are made with bittersweet chocolate, this one is built on cocoa. 

Since you start with unsweetened cocoa powder, you literally add back the fat (butter) and sugar that otherwise already exists - to varying degrees - in chocolate (cocoa butter and sugar).  So don't be alarmed if, like me, you can't help but notice there's more butter and sugar called for here than you might be used to with other brownie recipes.
I used Dutch-process cocoa because that's what I have on hand and it's the kind I use regularly but I hear that natural cocoa actually brings an even greater depth of chocolate flavor to these cocoa brownies than its darker counterpart.  If anyone can confirm this, I'd love to know (and give the natural cocoa version a try down the road).  [*See update at end of post]

These dark brownies are dense, yet moist and soft.  They're creamy in the center yet chewy (I dare say they're chewier than the chewy brownie recipe I just tried).  And I learned that using cocoa does, in fact, make a brownie with plenty of chocolate flavor.  In fact, it's a seriously deep flavor that I think is rather unique.  I feel like I'd be able to tell a cocoa brownie from a chocolate one because there's a different level of intensity and flavor to it somehow.
I'm glad that when it comes to brownies, we don't have to pick favorites.  What's not to love, right?  There are a lot of good versions out there, each with its own set of characteristics and selling point.  But Alice Medrich is right - a cocoa brownie is a good one to have among your brownie arsenal.  These stand up on their own, plus, you never know when you need/want brownies and find yourself without dark chocolate in the house. 

March 21, 2013

Macarons with mint chocolate ganache

I haven't made macarons in months and not since I replaced my oven so I thought it was time to make a batch.  After all, I wouldn't want my Le Cordon Bleu training to go to waste.  Ha!  I'm just kidding about that!!  I did take a class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris but it was just for fun, and just one short macaron-making class for beginners.  We took that trip right around this time last year and thinking about it always puts a smile on my face (as well as makes me hungry).
So I decided to make macarons with mint chocolate ganache.  I started with basic almond macaron shells, tinted them lightly in green to hint at the peppermint chocolate ganache filling within.  I love the classic combination of chocolate and mint, and the cooling sensation from peppermint so I flavored my chocolate ganache with peppermint extract.  You could also use a bar of mint chocolate instead.
Well, I was definitely a little rusty!  These macarons were far from my best work (though my body of work isn't all that extensive to begin with) but I've learned - particularly with macarons - not to let perfection be the enemy of the good.  Through trial and error, I've figured out that while making macarons isn't as impossible as I first thought, it can be a little unpredictable.   Regardless, the results are usually very delicious, and the flavor of these did not disappoint us one bit!
I hadn't had a macaron in a few months (for a while, I kind of OD'ed on them) and one bite reminded me of why I adore them so much.  It's a taste and textural thing.  They're slightly crisp on contact until that outer layer shatters to reveal a chewy yet soft center that's stuffed with chocolate ganache (mint chocolate in this case).  The slight grittiness from the ground almonds makes them all the more interesting and tasty.
I made a few mistakes with this batch of macarons.  The first is something I can't seem to resist doing and that's making my macarons too big!   The more serious offense, however, was over-mixing by a few strokes so that the batter was thinner than it should have been.  And as I mentioned, I was using my new oven, which seems hotter than the old one.  As a result of all these factors, the feet on my macarons flared out too much and the tops browned more than I wanted (I think trying to tint macarons just *lightly* is tricky because of that).  Ironically though, I didn't have as much of a problem with hallow shells as I usually do.  The middle of these cookies actually looked quite lovely with their pure green hue but no one would stop eating them long enough for me to take a picture!
I've come to expect curveballs when making macarons.  I seriously think you need to make them pretty regularly to keep up with the rhythm of it.  It can sense your fear and doubts if you have any (please excuse me for being overly dramatic today).
That said, I really do love my homemade macarons!  While most people will tell you to refrigerate your filled macarons at least overnight before eating so that the flavors meld and the centers soften, we like them any way and time.  My family and I prefer our macarons chewy so we don't mind eating them straight away.
I'm glad to have completed this inaugural batch of macarons in my new oven.  Hopefully, I'll do better with the next batch (my little one and I figure we'll make chocolate again next).

To see some of my past - somewhat more successful - macaron making attempts, please click on...

March 16, 2013

Mock mocha frap and homemade chocolate syrup

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
I sure hope Starbucks feels that way because I want to talk about a homemade version of my favorite frozen coffee beverage: the Mocha Frappuccino®.  I call it my "mock frap".  It's not exactly Starbucks, of course, but it is very close and totally delicious!  Warm weather - and even summer - will be here eventually and I plan to put my blender to work making these, not that I haven't already!  In fact, I've been making a ton of these and saving a bundle!

Being a creature of habit and loyal to my favorite things, I usually go to Starbucks 3-4 times a week.  You're either a fan or you're not and I, personally, love Starbucks.  When I go, I order a Mocha Frappuccino® Light almost religiously.  That, and a turkey bacon sandwich, is close to an ideal breakfast for me.  Once in a blue moon, I might go "wild" and order a cappuccino or a plain coffee, maybe even a hot chocolate, but the mocha frap light has been my drink for years and something I want even during the frigid winter months.  Given how much I love chocolate, it's probably not surprising that I favor the combination of chocolate and coffee in this thick, cold, drinkable form.
Homemade! A ham & fried egg sandwich is my favorite but I also like a simple english muffin with peanut-butter (or Nutella) in the morning
The only downside to my love of those fraps is, well, the cost.  Throwing down almost five bucks for a coffee drink is a pretty steep way to start the day.  When I got a blender this past Christmas (yes, I am the girl who actually wants the toaster and blender for Christmas!), making a mock version of my favorite mocha beverage was something I wanted to try. 

Honestly, I did not expect to like the homemade version.  I thought I'd try it once to satisfy my curiosity and that would probably be that.  That's pretty much what happened with my bubble tea DIY project (though I should probably re-visit that).  So you can imagine my surprise when I tried this and it turned out to be really, really well!
Major difference between this and the real thing is I'm not using Starbucks syrup so the flavor is a little different.  I think it tastes great, just not identical to Starbucks.  With homemade, I think you can taste the coffee more distinctly.  If you want to get even closer to the real thing, Starbucks actually sells a mocha powder that I assume is used for the mocha frap. 

Texturally, the homemade version isn't quite as thick and does tend to separate.  If you want to fix that, I hear that adding some dry pectin or a pinch of xantham gum will do the trick.  I haven't tried that since I'm inclined to keep it as "pure" as possible (I'm no expert on xantham gum beyond knowing it's a thickener and often used in gluten-free baking and packaged foods).  I also don't mind just stirring it up, and since I drink mine pretty quickly, I'm not too concerned about it separating.  I like mine "light", using skim milk, but you could use any kind of milk you want (I like 1% milk also).
I started this with a homemade chocolate syrup.  Does that sound like too much work already?  It's really not.  All it takes to make a homemade chocolate syrup is unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, a pinch of salt, water, and a dash of vanilla extract.  Stir and bring it to a boil and you have syrup to stock away in your fridge for this mock-frap or for chocolate milk, chocolate milk shakesegg creams, and what have you!

If you're not sold on the idea, just use store-bought chocolate syrup!

To make the mock-frap is simply a matter of throwing some brewed coffee (I've even used instant!), a bit of the chocolate syrup, sugar, milk, and ice into a blender.  A blitz and then pour it into your waiting glass and enjoy!
With a little advance planning (i.e., chocolate syrup and some brewed coffee in the fridge), it's really easy to whip up one or a few of these.  In the last couple of weeks, I've saved quite a few dollars and trips to Starbucks.  That said, however, Starbucks doesn't have to worry about losing my business entirely.  There's no denying the convenience of having someone else do the work.  More importantly, I enjoy sitting down at a local Starbucks with my husband or a good friend, just catching up and having a drink and a snack.  I love that Starbucks brought a bit of that cafe culture to America.

March 12, 2013

Banana chocolate chip muffins - chiffon style

These muffins are a great little sweet treat for the morning or any time of day.  A cross between muffin and chiffon cake, they are not very sweet and a bit like a lightened up banana muffin.  Chocolate chips complement the banana flavor and add a nice richness.
I wanted to try this recipe because I adore a good banana muffin and anything with chocolate (this banana bread is the perfect example of that greatness)!  A recipe that starts off that way is bound to be good.  But the thing that really intrigued me was the chiffon cake slant to these because chiffon cake is one of my favorite everyday cakes to eat!

Originally, this recipe makes banana chocolate chip cupcakes.  The line between cupcakes and muffins can be blurry but I think it's fair to call these muffins because I've omitted the original chocolate cream cheese frosting from them.  And like other muffin or quick bread batters, most of the ingredients are simply combined together in a bowl.  To get the airy, signature chiffon cake texture, you do whip egg whites separately and fold it into the batter.  That extra effort gives you a fluffy chiffon cake-muffin, with all the delicious banana muffin fragrance and flavor you're used to.
The recipe comes from the Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook.  If you watch Paula Deen, you might be familiar with this bakery and its owners based in Savannah.  I really like the visuals, the layout, of this cookbook.  It has a clean, easy-to-read, retro yet contemporary feel to it.

These muffins have less sugar in them than many other banana muffin recipes and not a lot of oil either (though the result is still moist yet light).  I like them just like that, as a breakfast sweet or a mid-afternoon or even after dinner treat.

The chocolate chips add another great flavor and a little texture without needing frosting, in my opinion.  I used mini chocolate chips so that there's a bit in every bite.  I also did that because of how well they work in the double chocolate muffins I discovered a few months ago (those muffins are sooo good and easy to make; I've been making them whenever we want a simple chocolate cake fix).

There's only one problem with these banana chiffon muffins: they taste so light, you can easily put away 2 or 3 at a time!  It's a good thing the full recipe makes 2 dozen.  I divided the recipe in half but the three of us had no problems polishing off our dozen in no time.  I was good and only had one per sitting.  I cannot say the same for my husband.

March 8, 2013

Flat & chewy dark chocolate chip cookies

I never get tired of making cookies.  They're just easy, and the gratification is practically instant because it happens every step of the way for me - from the prepping and mixing, to baking, to eating and sharing.  And when snow is falling outside and the sight of Spring seems far, far away, why not get in the kitchen and bake some cookies.  

When you think of cookies, there's always the American icon: the chocolate chip cookie. There are countless variations and you probably have your favorite already but I think there's always cause to try another recipe if only for an excuse to sample more chocolate chip cookies!
My favorite kind of chocolate chip cookie is soft and chewy, preferably fresh from the oven and cooled just enough to handle but still warm and soft in the center, with a bit of crispness at the edges.  I like a little bit of nuts thrown in for texture and taste but I often make plain ones since my 7-year old appears to be a purist.  Sometimes we compromise by adding oatmeal.

Last summer, I tried a thin and chewy chocolate chip cookie by making Pioneer Woman's malted milk chocolate cookies.  They were seriously delicious, exceeding my expectations, and so perfect for ice cream sandwiches.  This cookie recipe here is very similar to that.  It is likewise thin (or flat), soft, and wonderfully chewy.  But instead of milk chocolate, it's pure dark chocolate this time.

I could have tweaked that malted milk chocolate cookie recipe by omitting the malt and swapping out the chocolate but I wanted to try the recipe in The Perfect Finish by White House executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses.  This book grabbed by attention in part because it's co-written with Melissa Clark of the New York Times and because I've still got the White House gingerbread house on my mind since hearing about it during Christmas!  
Next time someone asks me what kind of chocolate chip cookie I like, I'll have to add these flat, soft, and chewy kind to my list because they are quickly becoming a favorite.  I love how the cookie dough puffs up while baking and settles down as it cools to create a slightly crisp, caramelized edge surrounding the soft and chewy center.  This type of cookie also keeps very well and I don't feel the need to microwave/warm them up before eating straight from the cookie jar.

I had to make ice cream sandwiches with these cookies (hey, we can pretend it's warm outside!) because this type of flat, soft cookie is just excellent for it.  I love how the cookies stay soft - and so easy to eat - even after freezing.

I think this cookie dough would be great with some chopped toasted nuts added in or some ground up oatmeal in place of some of the flour for a little added texture.  No matter how you shake it up, just make sure you use some to make ice cream sandwiches!

March 4, 2013

Vanilla bean cupcakes with buttercream frosting for Spring

Possibly because of Sandy, this feels like one of the longest winters in recent memory.  But we've made it to March and even though it's still cold and technically winter, I feel like Spring is finally coming!  I'm so ready to pack away my scarfs and break out the sandals.  I don't know how I was ever the girl who loved the cold and loathed zipping up her jacket.  Getting older teaches you that some things - even about yourself, or maybe particularly about yourself - do change.
I was in the mood for some color.  Seriously, I've taken to painting my nails a bright red lately just to brighten things up.  So even though you might very easily mistake my fingertips for those of a little girl's (i.e., short and stubby), it makes me smile when I look down and see that splash of crimson against all the gray everywhere.
I thought I'd inject a touch of color into dessert as well, with these cupcakes.  You might know that I far prefer chocolate over anything else despite its lackluster color.  However, (red nail polish aside) I have a soft spot for pastel hues - those Easter colors that conjure up images of Spring and egg hunts.  I just love seeing all those chocolate Easter eggs wrapped up in shiny pastel foil at the stores right now.
The recipe for these vanilla cupcakes with buttercream frosting comes from Hummingbird Bakery.  Funny enough, I actually pulled the recipe off the back of a set of note cards I bought recently.  But I actually first saw them on Joy the Baker (very slight difference vs. the recipe on the card) a very long time ago and remember them because of how much I liked the colors.

There was also another great thing about these cupcakes that I never forgot: it only takes one stick of butter for almost-a-dozen cupcakes and frosting combined!  I say *almost* a dozen because I found the recipe made enough batter for 11 full cupcakes; you could stretch it to an even dozen if you don't mind them a bit less generous.  Either way, I think the one-stick of butter proposition here is a very attractive one.  I am all for lighter options wherever possible and I thought these were excellent vanilla cupcakes that I'd like to eat again or bake as a whole cake.  (I have to admit I prefer to make whole cakes as opposed to cupcakes, which take forever for me to frost!)
I did make a little addition to these cupcakes by adding the seeds of half a vanilla bean into the batter.  As unlikely as it sounds, I actually have more vanilla beans on hand than I know what to do with.  I bought a bunch (on sale) last summer when I first started making vanilla ice cream.  I figured a little added vanilla punch would do no harm here. 

I liked the little specks of vanilla bean seeds within these fluffy and moist cupcakes.  The cake is not very sweet - it just tastes like a fragrant vanilla bean cupcake where the flavors of egg, milk, and vanilla shine through.  I'm all about the cake and no expert on buttercream (nor a fan of it, frankly) unless there's chocolate involved so I can't say much about the basic confectioners' sugar-based frosting beyond that the kids happily lapped it up in typical form.
These cupcakes are my welcome to Spring.  They also helped us celebrate my niece's 6th birthday over the weekend (the pink ones were for her)!  She is actually not a fan of sweets and desserts for the most part, more partial to fruit and crunchy-salty combinations, but she is a great helper in the kitchen!  And I am thrilled to say she actually polished off an entire cupcake after dinner (very unlike her and even after a substantial buffet meal) and wanted to take a couple home with her!  She told me she really liked the cake part, though I noticed none of the frosting remained either.  Would I tell you if she didn't like it?  Yes, I would.  And I definitely can't credit my baking because I've yet to turn her into a chocolate cake fan so I think kudos goes to the Hummingbird bakery recipe.
And let's not forget Easter coming up.  My little guy really looks forward to the Easter Bunny's annual visit.  When I think Easter, I think of my favorite little treat, the Cadbury mini eggs because, well, everything has to do with food!  I've always wanted to pile these eggs on top of a chocolate cake a la Nigella or use them to decorate some colorful cupcakes so I can now check one of those things off my list.

March 1, 2013

Ramblings, with a side of brownies

What is your favorite dessert?  You've probably been asked before at some point...Are you able to answer it?  When the question came up, my first inclination was to say there's no way I can pick just one!  We all crave different things at different times and, frankly, there is way too much deliciousness out there to limit anything.

But it does get you thinking...If I really had to pick, what would it be?  My first thought was: ice cream!  If I didn't have to worry about my waistline, I'd eat lots of ice cream each and every day!  Chocolate, mint chocolate chip, with lots of crunchy nuts...

But when I thought more about it, my brain went right to molten chocolate cake, with vanilla ice cream.  There is something truly magical about the liquid pool of warm chocolate that flows from this cake that mixes perfectly with the cold ice cream on your tongue.  I guess I may be cheating by incorporating two desserts into one but they belong together.

Now although the molten cake is well established for me, I got to thinking about my next favorite thing and it dawned on me that it must be...good old-fashioned brownies.  It is an old friend, for sure.  Ideally, the brownie would be warm, served (again) with vanilla ice cream.  I rarely eat vanilla ice cream on its own but it is the perfect partner to chocolate desserts, isn't it?
I have not inhaled a brownie I didn't appreciate, including those that come at the end of a kids' meal.  And I didn't fail to notice that my two favorite picks are very similar.  The brownies and ice cream is almost like the predecessor, more accessible/approachable cousin of the two.  If I'd never met the molten cake, maybe my heart would still belong to the brownie...

Long ago when we were dating, my husband and I used to eat at Uno all the time.  We'd order almost the same things every time: buffalo wings or pizza skins (sometimes both) to start, then, almost invariably, fettucine alfredo with chicken and broccoli for me and chicken spinoccoli or something else for my husband (he was/is the more adventurous of the two of us).  And we would always end the meal by sharing the brownie bowl.  Warm brownie, vanilla ice cream, fudge know what I'm talking about!

Don't I wish we could still eat like that on a regular basis!  In fact, we hadn't eaten at Uno (or "Uno's" as we call it) in years - as in at least 7 years since our son was born.  I'm not altogether sure why but what probably got me thinking about all this was we finally ate at Uno again a couple of weeks ago.  Over a long weekend, we took an extended-family trip to an indoor water park.  For dinner that night, we saw an Uno across the street and decided to go.  There were 5 kids in our group, who got to make their own pizzas and get the Uno experience for the first time (it was a hit).  For my husband and I, we marveled that the menu was the same - if anything, the portions seemed even bigger than we remembered - and the buffalo wings were just as good as ever. 

We capped off that meal with mini desserts - for me, the brownie bowl!  I don't know what it is but once I had dessert, my body relaxed and I finally felt satisfied.  Sure, maybe the brownie didn't have a ton of chocolate flavor, but somehow the combination of warm brownie, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce hits the spot no matter what.  (If you ever go to a Houstons, I recommend the warm five-nut brownie that comes with vanilla ice cream.)
I remember fondly making my first pan of brownies at a friend's house when I was barely a teenager.  And I used to make brownies from the box all the time before I started cooking and baking from scratch.  As good as homemade is, I'd forgotten the one great thing about the boxed mix - how chewy the brownies are.  Remember those super chewy edges - the reason why those funny looking brownie edge pans were born?  So this whole walk down memory lane lead me into trying the America's Test Kitchen recipe for chewy brownies.

I won't bore you with all the science behind what they discovered (since I only understand the basics myself) but supposedly, a lower ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat is key.  That is, you use more oil as opposed to butter.  There are other nuances but I'll leave the explanations to the experts.  It makes sense when you consider that we never added butter to those supermarket box mixes, just oil and eggs. 
Now, to talk about this recipe, my brownies were not as chewy as I expected or remember the box versions being.  As always, I give my honest experience and takeaway.  Because they're clearly billed as "chewy", I was expecting stick-to-your-teeth kind of chewiness - or something close to it.  Maybe it was me but these were definitely fudgy, with crisp and just slightly chewy edges.  I wouldn't take a bite and say "wow, these are really chewy brownies!"  And I did cool them thoroughly before slicing or tasting them - a good 2 1/2 hours  - as the recipe says is a must.

The combination of taste and texture did remind me of a really good box mix brownie though.  Actually, to be fair, it's much better than a brownie mix as far as flavor goes.  But maybe because it was on my mind or because it does have a slightly milder flavor than other brownies I've baked from scratch, it reminded me of those box mixes I proudly whipped up back in the day.

My taste has changed a bit since I baked that first batch of brownies with my school friend long ago.  Now, I look for fudginess with a bit of chew and I want deep chocolate flavor.  If you're the same way, let me point you to this recipe: here (it's in cake form but you could simply bake it in a square pan and forgo the frosting).  That said, however, we had no problems gobbling up this batch of brownies and I most certainly appreciated it.


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