May 27, 2014

Brownie vs. Brownie (cocoa vs. unsweetened chocolate)

The topic is brownies today!  I've had this urge to taste test two particular brownie recipes side-by-side to see which my family and I really like best.  Like all of my whims that keep bugging me until I do it, I finally went ahead with my crazy little taste test recently.  My family and I have a thing for doing little informal taste tests - okay, it's more like I have a thing for it and they go along with me, but we do have fun with it.
My brownie face-off: Cocoa Brownies vs. Unsweetened Chocolate Brownies
Now...for a chocoholic like me, brownies are an indulgence that rarely lets me down.  So I've made - and enjoyed - more than a few brownie recipes.  They're always enjoyable and I can't say I've been particularly loyal to any specific recipe...until I made Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies last year.  Since then, those have become something like our "house" brownies, if you will.  The boys (my husband and the little guy) love them.  And truly, those brownies made from cocoa powder makes for incredibly deep chocolate-flavor, with a great dense, moist, and slightly chewy texture.  Topped with a little vanilla ice cream (because I like ice cream with everything), it is heaven!
That said, every time I make those cocoa brownies, I remind the boys about the other great brownie recipe.  I tell them: "you know, the ones made with unsweetened chocolate...the one I used for the ice cream cake?"  They were not so convinced that the brownies made from a starting base of unsweetened chocolate was better than their favorite cocoa-based ones but for whatever reason, I kept remembering that I personally adored those.  So why not settle this with a fun little taste test?

I may have gotten a little carried away with my experiment once I got started but obviously, this was totally informal and all in good fun!

Brownie A:  Cocoa-based Brownies

So in one corner, we have those cocoa brownies (here for: my original post).  Made on a foundation of unsweetened cocoa powder, you literally add back and control the fat and sugar put back in.  You end up with incredible depth of chocolate flavor - surprisingly so, I think.    
The Cocoa Brownies
And in terms of texture, you have a dense, fudgy brownie with soft centers and a thin crackly, shiny crust.  It has a beautifully dark color.  Interestingly, I make these using natural cocoa powder.  I typically go with Dutch-process most of the time for baking but stock my pantry with natural cocoa powder just for this recipe.  I first made the recipe using Dutch-process (call it another taste test!) but after we tried it with natural, we were really surprised to find that natural cocoa powder made for an even more chocolaty brownie! 
I actually use natural cocoa powder to make these super dark cocoa based brownies
This contender never fails to elicit "mmmm's..." out of the fellas in my house and I love it myself.  I bake some and stock a few in the freezer and it is always a welcomed treat.  In other words, this was the brownie to beat!
Not only do they look chocolaty, they also smell insanely chocolaty

Brownie B:  Unsweetened Chocolate Brownies

Now when I think of chocolate desserts with a serious, deep chocolate flavor, I personally don't think of cocoa powder but of unsweetened chocolate.  Ironically, while I've made this brownie recipe a couple of times, I've never made them the traditional way in a square pan until this taste test.  I've baked it in the round as a cake and used it last year as the base for my son's birthday ice cream cake.
The Brownies made with Unsweetened Chocolate 
These brownies have serious street cred.  They are Deb's (Smitten Kitchen) favorite brownies.  I don't take that lightly and having eaten them a couple of times, I remember how much I liked them.  I remembered the very centers having a unique chocolate flavor that was hard to describe so if I was to pit one brownie recipe against the boys' favorite cocoa ones, these were it!
These brownies made with unsweetened chocolate are lighter colored, have a slightly thicker crust, and are less dense than the cocoa ones.
These brownies do not have any cocoa in them.  They are most definitely moist and have a somewhat lighter, less-dense texture to them than the cocoa version.  I find the upper crust a bit thicker and crunchier than the cocoa version but it's less chewy in comparison.

Both Brownies

Both of these brownies are very easy to make.  I made them both in the same 8-inch square pan, essentially one after the other.  I tried to take them both out around the same parameter of done-ness, meaning they were set but a tad under-cooked to ensure fudginess.  No one wants dry brownies.

When I think about it, I suppose it makes sense that I personally like both of these brownies and thought of one with the other.  Both of them take you to a purer form of chocolate as a starting point.  With unsweetened cocoa, you literally control and add back the fat (butter) and sugar yourself.  There is cocoa butter in unsweetened chocolate but it definitely still gives you a deeper chocolate essence and more control than using semi or bittersweet.

The Taste Test

To sum it up, we tasted the two brownies!  The small informal group of taste-testers included two 8 year old boys (my son and a friend of his who was here for a playdate), my husband, and myself.  This is hardly scientific, folks.

So what do you think?  Have you had these brownies, or do you have a particular favorite or a "house brownie" recipe of your own?  For us, there was a clear, decisive winner in this little taste test and it was...

May 22, 2014

One big oven-baked skillet pancake

I think I found another genius pancake recipe!  Memorial Day weekend is coming up (how did that sneak up on us!) so I'm thinking there could well be cookouts and picnics in your near future.  But let's also talk breakfast - of the sit-down, leisurely variety.  This is not a dutch baby (which is quite possibly one of the most delicious sweet things to consume for breakfast) but a similar idea.  You know how much I love letting the oven do most of the work, for so many reasons, and this is the same idea.  Instead of flipping pancakes on the griddle, make one big one in a skillet, bake it up, then slice and serve!
I saw this in the recent May 2014 issue of Martha Stewart Living; the theme of the feature was "better basic recipes", taking a new spin of ten classic favorites.  I liked the whole premise and their oven-baked blueberry pancake recipe was the one that really caught my eye given my love of oven-baked shortcuts and of leisurely weekend breakfasts and brunch with my fellas.  

I omitted the blueberries in my version because my son would not approve (you can serve fruit on the side) and I slightly scaled down the amount of sugar and butter in the recipe.  It turned out great!
I am so glad I tried the recipe!  I was worried I wouldn't get a moist pancake doing it this way, in one large skillet, but the center turned out soft and moist - perfectly delicious. 

Baking the pancake in a cast iron skillet (instead of a non-stick skillet, which you could also use) offers a couple of bonus benefits.  The cast iron pan retains heat so well that the pancake(s) stays warm for a while.  Even after patiently letting me finish with picture-taking, we all still sat down to warm wedges of our pancakes.  And...if you're a fan of cornbread - this is your pancake!  The edges and bottom of this skillet pancake turns out golden and crusts, reminiscent of cornbread, and you end up with something like a soft pancake-skillet cornbread hybrid!  
That cornbread factor might not appeal to everyone.  Our little one would prefer his pancake completely baby-soft all the way through if given a choice but my husband and I really enjoyed the slight textural difference between the slightly crisp edge/bottom and the soft interior.
My husband and I also agree that this is a great recipe for brunch with a group.  When you want to have a combination of savory and sweet and put out a spread, a large pancake like this, that keeps warm and that people can slice to their desired portion, is a great thing.

So I've now added another great pancake recipe to my repertoire and I'll be taking advantage of this shortcut often!

May 18, 2014

Vanilla layer cake with chocolate buttercream frosting

Let's start the week off with cake, shall we?  At least we'll kick it off by looking at cake.  That's really all I did because I made this vanilla layer cake with chocolate buttercream for my son's school fair this weekend.  
The cake is a double recipe of the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes.  Last time I made them, I was impressed by their flavor as well as moist and fluffy texture using a relatively small amount of butter (3 tablespoons for a dozen cupcakes).  It's an easy, tasty vanilla cake recipe that I was happy to whip up again.

I thought I'd pair the vanilla cake with an easy chocolate buttercream.  You can't go wrong covering all the bases with both chocolate and vanilla, right?  
Once again, making this cake reminded me that frosting/decorating layer cakes is not my thing.  I had some vague notion to pipe something on top of the cake but it just didn't work out.  I think it took me longer to figure out (more like "fix") the decoration (if you can call it that!) than to make and bake the cake layers.  In any case, I believe this is the time when we bring out words like "rustic" and "homemade" to describe the effort.  Regardless of how a cake ends up looking, there's still always something special and rewarding about creating a homemade one from scratch.
I had to sneak off a bit of the batter and make an extra cupcake (okay, two cupcakes) for my fellas.  That way, we get to taste test and make sure everything is alright.
Have a great week ahead!

May 14, 2014

Chana (chickpea) masala

I'd call 2014 my year of playing with spices when it comes to cooking.  I've enjoyed learning to incorporate some spice - such as turmeric, chili and curry powders, garam masala, paprika, cumin, and coriander - into my food.  I have much to learn and try, but the small steps of expanding my spice pantry have widened my palate and made eating vegetables and legumes more interesting.
A spicy bowl of chickpeas - cooked with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and plenty of spices, finished with lemon juice
Recently, I took some of my spices and made chana masala, a dish of chickpeas cooked with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and plenty of spices to give it a good kick.  I learned about a new spice, amchoor powder, or a dried unripe mango powder, that's typically used in this dish to give it a citrus or sour note.  I substituted with lemon juice but it's good to learn something new and I've tucked it into my memory bank for now.  I actually walked around Penzeys recently but didn't find it; next time, I'll have to look harder to satisfy my curiosity.
I think playing with spices naturally leads me to Indian cuisine, which I am a big fan of.  I love meat dishes and curries but I was inspired to make this particular vegetarian dish after attending an Indian wedding recently.  The wedding was a blast - great music and a joyful vibe in the air that I just want to soak myself in.  The food at the wedding was vegetarian and reminded me, once again, how flavorful and satisfying vegetarian food can be when complimented and heightened with spices. Some fragrant rice and naan on the side doesn't hurt either.

This chana masala is somewhat similar to the Moroccan chickpea stew I made recently but it packs more heat.  I never thought I'd be a fan of chickpeas but its mild flavor and hearty texture makes it so great for pairing with spice.  When I first tasted my finished dish, my lips were on fire!  But it's amazing how quickly our taste-buds adjust.  Once it cooled a bit, it was a lot less spicy.  I also served it with brown rice to offset some of the heat and turn it into a meal.
A dollop of cool, thick yogurt would be nice here.  Given how great avocados are right now, I also enjoyed leftovers with cubes of soft, ripe avocado.

May 12, 2014

Whole wheat banana wheat germ muffins with chocolate chips

A month or two ago, I bought a fresh bag of wheat germ to make these blueberry-banana muffins for my husband.  He really enjoys a good breakfast muffin every so often!  I won't say I was left holding the bag but I did wonder what else I could do with all the leftover wheat germ since I hate to waste and always have this burning desire to make use of everything (at least, before their expiration date). I got lucky and spotted this whole wheat banana wheat germ muffin recipe that really caught my eye.
These muffins are made with whole wheat flour and wheat germ, sweetened with honey.  Chocolate chips (somewhat) optional.
It helped that the muffins I spotted were beautiful (with puffy domed tops that I was not able to achieve likely due to my over-zealousness when it comes to adding bananas) and had a Nutella swirl on top to boot (as you can see, I opted for miniature chocolate chips).  The other major selling point was how wholesome these muffins are...dare I say these actually qualify as healthy muffins?

When I say "healthy", I mean they are made with whole wheat flour (I like to use white whole wheat) and wheat germ.  That's it - no other flours.  Aside from the bananas, they are simply sweetened with honey.  There's a bit of canola oil involved, and I opted to include some chocolate chips just to make sure I wasn't being too virtuous.
I can be a little too generous with my banana muffins were super moist
I was a little skeptical about the whole wheat flour-wheat germ combo going in but I couldn't resist such a potentially great use of my bag of wheat germ.  And you know what?  These are some good muffins!  They turned out flavorful and very moist - all the more so since I was a little heavy-handed with the mashed bananas.  Though that meant I ended up with rather sunken muffin tops, you won't find us complaining about too much moisture in a muffin!

My husband enjoyed these and even the picky 8-year old was a fan, and he can be rather picky about his banana muffins!  I'm glad he liked these because they are far less sweet and much healthier than his favorite banana muffins.  I would be happy to make these often and feel good about having them for a quick breakfast.  I hope you give it a try if you're a fan of muffins or if, like me, you find yourself with some wheat germ on hand that you need a good use for!

May 7, 2014

Chocolate-almond meringue torte

Happy upcoming Mother's Day!  I thought a cake post would be appropriate because I wish all the lovely moms (and moms-to-be) out there a sweet day filled with happiness and treats.
Last April, I discovered this incredible chocolate-hazelnut meringue cake via Smitten Kitchen.  I couldn't stop going on and on about it because it was love at first sight and then making and tasting it confirmed my instincts.  That was the hazelnut version, which we've thoroughly enjoyed a couple of times.  This time, I decided to make an almond version.  
I adore anything with almonds and it seems to run in the family.  The little guy, who may not be a fan of the crunchy nuts alone, seems to judge all good desserts by how much they taste like almond paste or tri-color cookies.  His reaction to this was: "mmm...tastes like almond paste!" Translation: "this is good!"

If you love nutty, soft, chewy meringue, slicked with bittersweet chocolate in between creamy pillows of sweetened - in this case, almond-flavored - whipped cream, you will love this!  This cake is like a layered dacquoise you might find at European-style bakeries but what I love is it's a whole lot easier to make.  I like making a more manageable 6-inch version; the only downside is not having more of this to eat because it really goes down easy, especially with a cup of coffee on the side for the adults.
This almond version was even easier to make than the hazelnut one.  I used almond meal so I skipped the steps of toasting and grinding the nuts myself.  The meringue layers browned less and took slightly longer to bake but it all comes together to become a lovely, soft almond cake, interspersed with dark chocolate and filled with almond-flavored whipped cream.  I love a chance to break out the almond extract!  Call me crazy but sometimes, I just want to take the bottle out and give it a good sniff.  
I highly recommend this cake, whether you go with hazelnuts or this almond version, and for whatever occasion.  I actually made this cake recently to celebrate a milestone for my husband and I.  We take any chance we can to celebrate...and eat cake!  We both agree that the hazelnut version packs a bigger punch, a larger "wow", if you will.  For chocolate-hazelnut fans, it is truly a knockout.  This almond version is milder, the more subtle cake between the two.  It may not be quite as flashy as the hazelnut cake but it is quite delicious!  Either way and no matter what version you choose, you won't regret making and eating it!

May 4, 2014

Easy "paella"

I thought it was time to break up the sugar rush with a little savory interlude today.  I still find it hard to photograph and blog about savory food; I think, mostly, I'm too impatient for everybody to dig into the hot food and eat!  Since I usually cook family dinners, there's also the deterrent in the form of no natural lighting.  But enough complaining, let's talk about a nice one-skillet dinner.
An easy "paella": rice, kielbasa sausage, shrimp, and peas cooked with tomatoes, broth and spices
To me, this is a little pan of comfort food, hearty but really not too heavy.  Along with some vegetables (roasted brussels sprouts in my case), it was a welcomed meal on a chilly spring day.  It's an easy "paella", and I leave the paella in quotation marks and call it that loosely because this is a shortcut, everyday at-home kind of version that can be placed on the dinner table in under an hour.  

I'll tell you right off the bat, there's no saffron in this "paella".  That might be heresy to some if we're talking the real thing; you can easily add it if you want but I prefer to save my precious saffron for absolute necessity.  The great thing is you can take this base and keep it simple, or take it to a more authentic place if you like.  In this particular pan, I went with convenience and speed.  I used turkey kielbasa and shrimp.  You could start with some chicken or go with another type of sausage, even track down some chorizo if you're inclined.  Next time, I'd love to work in some mixed seafood.  

It was easy enough to toss all this together in one pan for a recent dinner.  For me, a big dish of flavorful rice like this - no matter what you call it - is sheer comfort food.  

May 1, 2014

Homemade Oreos (via Flour Bakery)

A couple of weeks ago, when we took a brief road trip to Boston, I made sure we finally visited Flour Bakery.  I've wanted to go for a long time, after hearing so much about it and baking a few things from the first book that I really enjoyed (like these divine milk chocolate hazelnut cookies).  So my husband put it on the itinerary and it worked out perfectly because after visiting the MIT museum in Cambridge, we walked about a block over to one of Flour's 4 locations for lunch.
Replicating Flour Bakery's homemade oreo cookies, filled with vanilla bean cream
Judging by the serious crowd and lines when we walked in, I had a feeling it was going to be good.  I quickly got on line while my fellas somehow nabbed a few seats at the counter.  I ordered lunch and picked out a few sweets that I thought we'd like to try.  

A filled bakery case makes me so happy and I wanted to get one of everything but managed to restrain myself.  One thing I saw right away that I knew my son would want was the "Oreo" cookie. The little one is a big fan of the Oreo.
At Flour Bakery: their homemade Oreos (in the center of the photo), tinted for Easter.  I got the green mint for my son (other colors were vanilla-flavored)
After ordering and waiting another 20 minutes or so for our food, I can tell you it was worth it.  The salad and sandwiches were fresh and tasty, and the chocolate chip cookie and slice of hazelnut-almond dacquoise that we had were so good.  Their baked goods are real treats, made with real ingredients, done right and packed with flavor and texture.  My little guy adored his oreo cookie.  I stole a bite and it was really good - the cookie was very chocolaty for a change.  So seeing that gleam in the little one's eye and the adoration he had for that cookie, I wanted to make it for him myself back home.  I remembered the recipe in the book but what I didn't realize was how surprisingly easy it is.
I love the beginnings of a baking project that involves chocolate!
I fully expected these to be a pain to make but that's not the case. The cookies themselves are actually made by simple, old-fashioned, mixing - you might need a few bowls but no stand mixer even necessary at this step.  Once the dough comes together, you let it sit an hour, roll it into a log, and let it chill to firm up before slicing and baking.  

The filling is a simple vanilla cream mixed in the stand mixer.  If you want to, you could even do it by hand but that's a bit too hands-on for me!  I decided to use vanilla beans instead of extract, and you could easily switch up the flavor by adding, say, peppermint extract, or color it using food coloring if you're in the mood.  The great thing is both the cookies and the filling can be made in advance.
Vanilla bean cream filling for the homemade oreos
Personally, I like these cookies a whole lot just plain.  They are so good - crisp (not super crunchy) and full of dark cocoa flavor with a hint of salt.  They remind me of world peace cookies.  But for kids, like my son, you can't go without the cream filling!
Your house will smell intoxicating as these cookies bake.  They are really good, just plain.
My son, and my husband, were happy with this baking session inspired by our visit to Flour Bakery.  I had fun making them and learned that sandwich cookies like these can be relatively easy to make. And I really love making and eating something at home that conjures up a memory.  When I see/make/eat these homemade oreos, I'll think of our short spring break road trip - the one we took after the winter that we thought would never end!


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