Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TWD: Chockablock Cookies

I know this happens to everyone who has baked along with TWD for any length of time. You get to the recipe of the week. You think "I would never in a zillion years make this on my own." Then you read the recipe more closely and think "there is no possible way that (x flavor plus y flavor plus z flavor) can be good together." Followed by "I will half the recipe and give these to A, and explain that I only made these for my baking club and would not have picked this recipe on my own, and then thank A for being such a good sport and eating them for me."

And then you taste the recipe and are amazed at how good it is, and equally amazed that you doubted Dorie for even a second, because you should really know better by now. Such was the case with this week's TWD pick, Chockablock Cookies, chosen by Mary of Popsicles and Sandy Feet (I can tell I'd like Mary just from her blog name!). The ingredient list for these cookies? Molasses, chocolate chips, oats, coconut, dried fruit. Even though I'm no longer a committed coconut hater, I was one for too long to ever feel genuine happiness when I see it on the ingredient list in a recipe. Same thing with molasses - I like, even love, several recipes I've made with molasses as a prominent ingredient, but I still can't feel the enthusiasm when it's time to bake with it. Chocolate chips are fine and dried fruit is fine, but not together. All in all, there just seemed to be way too much going on in these cookies for me to possibly like them.

I made them last Monday afternoon, before my photography class on Monday night [IMPORTANT NOTE: please do not expect my food pictures to improve just because I am taking a photography class. While I feel like my pictures of my children have indeed gotten a little better, food photography continues to stump me. You would think that a cookie would be easier to photograph than a two year old because the cookie doesn't run away from you, but you'd be wrong. To the many talented food photographers out there -- I bow to you].

Anyway, so I made these to bring to my photography class, the one group of people in my life on whom I had not yet tried to pawn off baked goods. Actually, that's not completely true, given that Heather, Amanda and I make up a full 1/3d of the class, and I've definitely pawned off baked goods on Heather and Amanda before. The class seemed to genuinely love these cookies (and seemed to be genuinely shocked that I baked cookies to share with the class. If only they knew! If they are not careful, I may collect their home addresses and start delivering baked goods to them weekly.)

When I was in law school, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I would sit in the back row of class and do the crossword puzzle. I've often wondered how today's law students manage to get through Corporations. It must be so much easier for the kids today, in the days of wireless internet and iPhones, than it was back in my day, when we had to hike uphill to class in the snow at 7 a.m. and rely on nothing but a tall cup of day-old coffee and the Cavalier Daily crossword puzzle to keep us awake. I got a taste of the life of the modern student while sitting in photography class last week, as the teacher was up in the front of the classroom explaining that "There are just three certainties in life. Death. Taxes. And an 18% gray image tone from a normally exposed simple subject."

To: Cathy and Heather
From: Amanda
Subject: Do y'all think

He looks like Albert Einstein tonight?

Sent from my iPhone


To: Amanda and Heather
From: Cathy
Subject: Re: Do y'all think

OMG yes. Totally thought that last week too. It's uncanny.

Sent from my iPhone


But the most gratifying electronic note I got passed during class on Monday was from Heather, who has almost two year old triplets and is pregnant with her fourth child, Penelope, due this summer. Heather sent me this message shortly after eating a chockablock cookie:


To: Cathy
From: Heather
Subject: Penelope likes the cookies

Sent from my iPhone


If these cookies are good enough for Penelope, they are good enough for me. I did not expect to enjoy these, but I loved them. If you would have told me two years ago that I would make, and savor, a molasses coconut oat chocolate raisin cookie, I would have thought you'd been smoking the coconut. I officially no longer trust my own judgment about whether a recipe is worth making or not.

Thanks for the excellent pick, Mary!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TWD: Sweet Cream Biscuits

Melissa at Love at First Bite chose this week's TWD recipe, Sweet Cream Biscuits. I really enjoy baking breakfast treats more than anything else. I don't think there is anything better than waking up (or, in my personal situation, waking other people up) to the smell of freshly baked blueberry muffins, or cinnamon scones, or coffee cake. It makes the day seem a little more special, right from the beginning.

These biscuits are simple to whip up, because there is no butter in the recipe, and therefore there is no need to cut butter into the flour. Flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and cream - that's it. I rolled my dough to the 1/2 inch thickness that Dorie recommends, cut them with a 2" cutter, and froze them unbaked.

I know going in that certain baking activities are fraught with danger, so I can do the requisite hand-wringing ahead of time. The sugar may not carmelize. The custard may not thicken. The egg whites may get under whipped. The egg whites may get over whipped. But strangely, I had no idea until I read the P&Q that I should be worrying about whether my biscuits would rise. I suppose that any time I use baking powder I have a fleeting thought that maybe it's lost its magic, but I did not have any specific worry about my biscuits. So I blissfully mixed and cut and froze these just a few days after the April recipes were posted (i.e., well before the P&Q was up) and baked them one Sunday morning while we had friends visiting us from out of town.

And they rose like champs!

Everybody devoured these. They got eaten with, inter alia, butter, bacon, jam, and eggs (not all at the same time) and were universally adored.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I learned that I was really lucky that my biscuits rose the first time. Since they were such a hit when I made them, I decided to try them again to see if my success was just a fluke. Usually if there is baking trouble to be had, I will have it, and it felt much more natural for me to head into a recipe with an acute fear of failure. Second go-round I decided to make minis using my 1.5" cutters. And once again, they rose! (See proof at top of post).

One by one my bed-headed kids padded down the stairs and ate biscuits:

I pretty much spent the whole morning spreading butter or jelly on tiny biscuits. They couldn't get enough of them. These are a big hit around here, to put it mildly. I can only hope my biscuit-rising hot streak continues, because these are simple to make, light and flaky, delicious, and hugely popular with my family.

Thanks for the great pick, Melissa!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

TWD: Swedish Visiting Cake

I'm twenty months into (mostly) weekly baking and blogging, and, much as I enjoy it, it can get a little tiring at times. Every once in a while we just get sweeted out around here, plain and simple, and the thought of baking another cake seems outrageous. Giving the goodies away sounds good in theory, but unless you're friends with the high school swim team (know anyone, Kayte?), even my most enthusiastic sweets recipients experience dessert fatigue after a while. Plus, it seems like everyone is watching some combination of sugar/fat/calories/carbs, while I'm a big proponent of "everything in moderation" myself, I certainly don't want to be the evil temptress sabotaging anyone's dietary efforts by showing up at their door with a bundt cake. Then there is the blogging part -- while I suppose it's not technically necessary to come up with new ways to say "I liked the cookies!" every week, if one is inclined to do so, well, that gets difficult after a while. New adjectives really need to be invented to do Dorie's desserts justice, but until then, some of us will stare at the computer and think: "this tart was fabulous. No, I already said the crust was fabulous. Maybe, this tart was most excellent! No, too Wayne and Garth. This tart was superb?"

But one aspect of blogging with Tuesdays with Dorie that has never gotten tiring for me is getting to know many great people, including Nancy of The Dogs Eat the Crumbs, who chose this week's recipe. Nancy and I realized early on that we share an alma mater (wahoowa!!), we're both born and raised Northerners living in the Southeast, and we both have husbands who don't eat chocolate. Clearly we were destined to be blog friends. Nancy's blog is wonderful (fabulous? superb? -- All of the above). Her posts are consistently detailed, informative and fun, and her pictures are beautiful. And wow, can she ever pick recipes!

Nancy chose the Swedish Visiting Cake, which Dorie tells us was traditionally brought by Swedish women when they visited one another. The cake is supposedly so quick to make that you could start making it when you see guests coming up the road, and it will be done by the time they arrive at your door.

We were not expecting any Swedish visitors this month (other than a Hanna Andersson package or two), so I decided to try the cake out on a Missourian visitor, a North Carolinian visitor, and a couple of Alabamian visitors. Also, I kind of cheated and made the cake early in the day that I knew our visitors were coming, rather than waiting until I actually saw them coming up the road. So I didn't really test "up the road/cake ready" speed claim.

No doubt this is a fast cake to make, though. And it's all made in one bowl! Rub lemon zest into sugar (a great Dorie trick - really brings out the lemon flavor); whisk in eggs, salt and vanilla and almond extract. (As an aside, Dorie says that the extracts are optional, but I feel like the almond extract makes this cake, and I will definitely use it every time). Mix in the flour, then fold in a stick of melted and cooled butter. And that's it! Impossibly quick and easy! Bake it in a 9" cast iron skillet for 25 or 30 minutes.

The first time I made this, I was a little worried it was going to be too thin. There is no leavener in the cake, so it wasn't going to rise much. And it is a thin cake. But once I tasted it, all worries flew out the window. This is an AMAZING cake! It's sweet but not overwhelmingly so, with an irresistible almond flavor. I think the texture is almost a combination of a cake and a blondie. It has a little chew to it, kind of like a blondie, but it also has a softness and a moistness that is more cakeish. David (who also loved the cake) told me not once, not twice, but at least three times over the course of two of these cakes that the texture reminded him of cornbread. And as I told him, that kind of remark makes me reluctant to ask him what he thinks about these desserts ever again, because this is NOTHING like cornbread. Cornbread is dry and crumbly and this cake is neither. I THINK what he was trying to get at was the cake was dense like cornbread, as opposed to being a light and airy cake? In any event, we may not agree about how best to describe the texture, but we both agree that this cake is incredible. Our visitors seemed to love it as well.

This is one of my favorite TWD recipes yet. It's delicious; it works as a dessert or as a snack cake; and it is insanely quick and easy to make. I won't just say I'll make this again and again -- I already HAVE made this again and again (and I'll continue to). Our first visitors (Missouri and Missouri-via-North Carolina) liked this so much that I made it again for the second wave of visitors (Alabama). It's a safe bet that any regular visitors to this house will have this cake sooner or later. Thanks Nancy for the great pick!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

TWD: Mocha Walnut Bundt Bunny Cake

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe is Mocha Walnut Bundt cake. Since my special occasion dessert selections have a strange tendency to track the TWD calendar, I decided to make this cake for Easter. And seeing as I have this bunny pan, and a 7, 5 and 2 year old in the house, I opted to skip the bundt and go with the more whimsical bunny. This was my second bunny cake, but my first marble cake. How I've managed to go twenty months in TWD without marbling anything boggles my mind.

The vanilla cake batter that forms the basis of the entire cake includes ground walnuts. They add a little something something to the cake without making it overly nutty. A little less than half of the batter is added to a melted chocolate/coffee mixture to create the "mocha" portion.

I tried to marble:

I realize that "marble" in this context is a verb that suggests considerably more movement that what is seen here. I'll have to work on my marbling next time I'm making a cake that doesn't involve floppy ears and a cottontail.

I wasn't quite sure how long to bake the cake. I swear that the Joy of Baking site has conversions for every conceivable pan size except for three dimensional bunnies. I decided to start out at 30 minutes and go from there. The center (torso) was way underdone at 30 minutes. I kept adding 5 minute intervals and finally took the cake out after about 45 minutes.

Depanning went smoothly - whew!

I made Dorie's bittersweet ganache to hold the two bunny halves together. It worked, to my great relief (and was really delicious with the cake!)

As for decorating, the materials that came with the cake suggest three options:

Ding ding ding! Why yes, I went with door #3, the confectioners' sugar bunny. Unfortunately, although dusting always sounds easy in theory, I have a really hard time with it. I just don't know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em when it comes to powdered sugar dusting, which my sweet husband likened to an artist who just can't stop dabbing paint. Well, he had the "just can't stop" part right, anyway. So unfortunately, it looked a little bit like a snow-covered bunny:

I wasn't sure quite what to do when it came time to cut the cake. I was as intimidated as I am when facing a whole chicken. I decided that typical chocolate bunny rules (first ears, then face, etc.) did not apply to a bunny cake. I started with the tail and cut it in slices, as if it were a loaf cake. That worked fine and wasn't terribly messy. Then I got to the head, checked to make sure there were no children in the room, got on my Mr. McGregor and chopped off the bunny head. I then removed the ears for good measure.

For reasons that I still don't quite understand, I left the head (i.e., two head halves) and the ears (i.e., two separate floppy ears) on the serving plate. As I'm sure is self-evident to you bakers, the head is essentially a muffin that has been baked for 45 minutes, and the ears are mini muffins that have been baked for 45 minutes. So those suckers were inevitably going to be overbaked, and not just a little bit. Clearly I should have thrown them out, but subconsciously, I guess I figured it was the slices that looked most appealing, so people would just naturally grab the slices. So I was horrified to see one person walk by with a bunny head half on the plate, and then another, and then someone else walked by with a floppy ear, and then someone else passed by with the other ear. Four plates, four overdone bunny head parts. I wasn't sure what to do at that point -- I'm pretty sure Emily Post does not cover what to do when family members serve themselves well-done bunny head cake parts that you stupidly left on the serving platter at Easter dinner -- so I just decided to not say anything. Still, I was so angry at myself - I survived the mixing, the marbling, the baking, the getting-the-bunny-out-of-the-pan, the making-the-ganache-thick-enough-to-hold-the-bunny-halves-together; the bunny assembly, the confectioner's sugar, the installation of the edible grass; and the transportation of said cake on my lap across the neighborhood in one piece ONLY TO SERVE SECTIONS OF THE CAKE THAT WERE, AT A MINIMUM, 90% OVERDONE.

I served myself an actual slice of cake, so I feel like I have a pretty good sense about how the cake really tasted. I did not seek or receive additional feedback about the cake - possibly because it was a fun, busy day with lots of activity, and everyone quickly moved from dessert to the next fun thing, and possibly because people literally could not speak after choking down the dried out, seared bunny head pieces. But nobody is more critical about my desserts than I am, and I can say with confidence that the center of the bunny cake (i.e., the bunny torso) was delicious. Even these slices were a wee bit overdone though - I probably should have taken it out about 5 minutes sooner. So I can't even imagine how awful the head and ears must have been. (Let it go Cathy. Let it go.) But the flavor (of the torso) was wonderful, and the texture was dense, rich and moist. I will make this cake again. Not in a bunny pan, though.

Erin of When In Doubt, Leave it at 350 (great advice!) chose the Mocha Walnut Bundt cake. Thanks for the delicious pick, Erin!
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