Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Baking class. Uh-huh. (and lemon curd tarts and tartlets)

That's right: I'm in a baking class.  It's super fun.  I've been waiting to sign up for one of these since the summer when I was in the thick of my dissertation and had absolutely no business even thinking about signing up for a baking class.

Turns out, getting into baking class isn't easy.  This school is so popular, you've got to sign up even months in advance to get a spot - at least, if you can't go to any of the classes given on weekday mornings and need to hold out for an evening or weekend one.

I really like baking class.  The first week we learned to make cream puffs.  One of the students in my class made these gorgeous cream puff swans.  You can see the cream puffs I made in the back.  They're the round ones with white icing drizzled over the top.  That's amaretto icing, by the way. 

The next week we made tarts and pies.  These lemon curd tartlets were what appealed to me.  Here's some of what I learned.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

November rose?

What??  What is this guy doing out in the middle of November - and in New England, no less??  What's going on?

Spotted last Saturday on my way home from baking class, where I mixed, kneaded, and baked bread for the first time ever.

More on baking class soon.  In the meantime,

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Autumn Return: Orchids, weddings, cupcakes, and more

Dear friends, It has been a LONG time.  More than two months, in fact.  The Kitchen in the Yard has been on a rather extended vacation while I finished my degree and started new work this fall. 

So, yes!  That means I am a doctor now!  A research doctor - not the medical kind, mind you.

All the foodie-ness of this blog has been a saving grace for the past 10 1/2 months since I started posting, and perhaps especially during major crunch times with my dissertation since about April (e.g., when I was really tired, there were times I would tell myself: "As soon as you complete X part of this article, you can edit some photos and write a post!).  I did, in fact, finish the entire dissertation in that time and submitted the final version in early October.  Then all manner of life kicked in and it was time to start new work (more research training), buy a car (I haven't owned a car for almost 8 years!), and get used to many new routines.  

But now it's time for us to catch up.

In my memories of these very recent past few months, working on the dissertation definitely dominates.  However, other things happened, too.  Here are some of the highlights of the past few months since my last post.

Babysitting my friend Megan's orchids while she was between apartments early this past summer.  Having these around was so great, it tempted me to get some of my own.  But let's face it; my track record with plants is absolutely terrible, and that's why I no longer have any in my home - they have all gone to a better place.  Good thing Megan found a suitable home for herself and these, and took them back before too long.

Picking tomatoes in my aunt's garden in Lancaster, PA in August.  Gorgeous, aren't they?  These are all different types of tomatoes!

Stopping by random farm stands in Lancaster County, where lovely blooms, fresh vegetables, and home-baked treats were being sold by a rather eccentric city lady newly relocated to the country.  I love characters like these, and the tarts she'd baked were delicious!

Baking the wedding cupcakes for my dear friends Anna and Willie, who got married in August.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rustic Cherry Tarts in Cardamom Pastry

Remember these?  This is the bowl of halved, and then slightly sugared cherries that resulted from my kitchen exploits last week, as I figured out how to prepare cherries for tarts using the materials I happened to have on hand in my kitchen.

I did, indeed, actually make those tarts later that day, using a concoction of flavors that's been in my head for months now.  Basically the combination of cherry and cardamom.

Cardamom, you are a complicated spice and I must admit that I don't fully understand you right now.  You have an exotic name, and I rather like your speckled-y soft appearance, and your scent, like a flower's, then like a medicine's, then sweet, then spicy ... well - it's all very intriguing.  And I can't quite figure it out, but I want to spend some time with you and find out more.   

These tarts look simple enough, right?  Make a pate brise, toss some cherries in the center and fold into tarts, right?

What what made these really special, though, was the little hint of that je ne sais quoi, aka cardamom that was in them.  Okay, and a little nutmeg, too.  Not to mention all that butter.  Sigh.

Anyway, I just want to share.

I started off with an adapted recipe for the pastry that I found on the blog Secret Ingredient.  As usual, I posted the whole recipe below in case any of ya'll want to try it out.      

Monday, August 15, 2011

How to Halve and Pit Cherries, in inventive urban kitchen fashion

Cherries are in season, and I've had a hankering for cherry tarts for a while now.

I think it's something to do with my oft-resurfacing desire for the currant pies and tarts of my adolescence in Eastern Europe, and I can never find those in this country.  Cherries are kind of similar in flavor ... not to knock fresh American cherries, which are, of course, delicious in their own right.

Anyway, I found myself with all this going on inside, plus a big sieve full of cherries in my refrigerator today, and I decided it was time.

Yet a problem arose, a problem I have fairly often, and that is that I had this food in mind to make, but realized that I didn't really have all the kitchen tools to use that would make creating the food the most straightforward process.  I credit this to the rather haphazard way that my kitchen has been stocked.  Basically, when I'm going to make something new, I a) buy the materials I need and add them to my stockpile, as long as said materials aren't too hefty for my graduate student budget, b) improvise with what I have if I can research or invent an alternative solution (which has produced knowledge about a host of foods in the pantry that could be used as pastry weights, for example), or c) make something else if options a) and b) aren't feasible.

I know you can get an actual cherry-pitting device which seems to make doing the task super easy.  But do you think I have that very specific device for a fruit that's only in season for barely a few weeks every year?  Of course not.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Willie's Guacamole, and a little pico de gallo

Everyone!  I want to share something with the big wide world today.  It's this guacamole.

It is so good.  And I'm not patting myself on the back saying that, either, because I didn't make it - my friend Willie did.

Imagine that last time you felt just so, so famished, like you needed to eat a bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and fries to stick to that empty stomach ... (Oh, am I the only one who gets that??).  That's how a bunch of Willie's and my friends felt after a day of gallivanting around town in Maine while we were up there on a long weekend together last year.

We came back to the house to find a huge bowl of fresh guacamole that Willie and Anna had just made, along with a creamy potato-beet salad (another recipe for another time), which were supposed to be for dinner a few hours later.  But we ate all of it in practically no time at all.  Anna and Willie were nice and just let us all have at it.     

Willie tells me that his mom in El Salvador used to make guacamole this way, and that's how it started.  They used to use an herb that grew in their garden in El Salvador, which he's never seen here in the U.S.  But the cilantro seems to work well, here, as a substitute.  

This year in Maine Willie was nice enough to give me a guacamole-making lesson (let's face it - I'd been waiting on it for a year), now formally documented in this post.  Here goes.  Tell me if you love this guacamole as much as my crowd does. 

You're going to need 5 avocados, 2 medium-large tomatoes, a bunch of cilantro, 1 large red onion, 6 hard-boiled eggs, 2 radishes, 1 small jalapeno pepper, 1 lime (or lemon if you forget to buy a lime like we did), and some salt and pepper.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Grilled Honey Peaches with Honey Mascarpone

Oh boy, I really had one of those days yesterday.  And I could have told you that at 7am that morning, too, that's the really sad part.  Lack of sleep, failures of technology, one thing after another, blah blah blah.  I won't bore you with the details. Let's just say it wasn't the best day I ever had. 

The one redeeming thing is that I have a few moments right now to write about these honey peaches with honey-ed up mascarpone.  Which is also writing about the very first time I stood in front of a grill and cooked something.  It's true!  First time ever. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Letters from Maine on Independence Day Weekend (and Baking and Boiling, Etc.)

I went to Maine for my 4th of July vacation.  It was great.  It was a long-ish road from Cambridge to Port Clyde, but of course, it's all okay when the company's good.  Which it was.

Hurry up, traffic and traffic lights; we're trying to be on vacation here. 

When I saw the sky looking like this over the bridge on the edge of Wiscasset, I was pretty sure I was on the right road, heading in the right direction.  Away from the city, basically.  And especially - away from my office.  It was time for a change of scene.

Within about 15 minutes of arriving to the cottage in Maine - and that includes the time it took to unload our stuff from the car - I was browning butter for this banana-strawberry bread I read about on the Joy the Baker blog a few weeks ago.

Around the time I was mixing the browned butter with the yogurt and eggs and whatnot, I thought about adding a light crumb crust to the top before putting those sliced strawberries where they are and popping the whole thing into the oven.  And so that's what I did.  (3 Tbsp. cold butter, 1/4 c. four, 1/3 c. brown sugar, all crumbled up and sprinkled on top of the bread batter).  It made those strawberries deliciously sweet and crunchy.  I'd add even more strawberries and crumb crust next time.   

Then what?  Oh yes, then it was time to eat a lobster roll and fries on the dock at the Dip Net (restaurant)/Port Clyde General Store.  And also these delicious mashed potatoes with corn in them, which I sampled from Eliza's plate.  And to meet up with Jerome and Lindsay and baby Logan, who drove all the way from Montreal to spend the weekend with us.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Citrus-y Fruit Salad

Summer time: time for fruit salad.  I love fruit salad.  So many delicious flavors.  And I think it's even better if you leave it for a few hours, or overnight, and let some of those juices come together.

More often than not I'm peeling an orange to eat after a meal, or grabbing a pink lady apple for snack later.  But I guess it's the right time to pull things together a little more when friends will be eating fruit with you.  It's simply a matter of chopping up fruit, but I like the combination of ruby red grapefruit and orange segments in here.  I think grapefruit and orange is always a good idea.  And the watermelon chunks don't hurt, either.

This salad was good for about 10 servings.

2 ruby red grapefruits
2 oranges
2 cups red grapes
1/8 watermelon, cut into chunks (I used half of a quarter watermelon I got that way at the grocery store)
2 peaches
3/4 cup diced strawberries

Squeeze the juice of one lemon over the fruit for an extra zesty flavor.

Happy 4th of July!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Butternut Soup with White Beans and Cilantro

I had such a delicious soup a few weeks ago.  It can be pretty socially fluid around here, with so many students in Boston who come and go at various times during the year.  Some friends got together for dinner before a few were leaving town for the summer, and Dan Nystedt cooked up a fantastic dinner for us ... including this soup. Usually pureed soups don't do much for me, but this one was so flavorful and had this little spicy kick to it.  Awesome.  So here it is. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Make Fresh Whipped Cream (The Real Deal)

Okay - and I know this is going to sound weird - but I like whipping cream.  I mean, I like the process of whipping liquid, heavy cream into the stuff you put on ice cream and cobbler and pie and brownie sundaes and chewy chocolate cake, and sometimes jello.  If you eat jello.  That's what I'm talking about.  Why don't I just get the stuff in the can that squirts out like piped frosting?  Don't get me started.  And don't get me wrong, either; there is a time and a place for the whipped cream in a can, just as there is a time and a place for cool whip in the plastic container.  I ate that stuff on jello salads many times as a kid, and I'd do it again.  But there's nothing you can tell me that will convince me that there's any real substitute for freshly whipped cream, like the stuff on this strawberry shortcake below.
Strawberry shortcake (with shortbread and whipped cream)
I think the thing that really put fresh whipped cream on the map for me was when Herrell's was still selling ice cream in Harvard Square and I was eating hot fudge sundaes for dinner on a regular basis one summer a few years ago.  I still haven't had any hot fudge that has the same addictive quality as Herrell's hot fudge, and I'm losing hope that I ever will now that Herrell's in Harvard Square is no longer.  But the whipped cream!  Those kids behind the ice cream counter would spoon whipped cream onto the sundae straight out of a bowl.  And it was delicious!

For a while I had no idea why it was so good.  I don't think I had ever really had fresh whipped cream before, sad as that sounds ... and it sounds sad because it *was* sad - very, very sad.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Breakfast on a Rainy Day (or, Buttered Toast & Jam)

So, now is the time of year when the academic year closes, students move out of the dorm, the campus dining halls shut down, and I'm left to make my own meals ... more or less when my life starts resembling that of a regular adult's just a little bit more than usual.  It's also the time of my life when I am doing little else but sitting in my home or my office working on my dissertation, and I'm not doing any very involved baking or cooking at all.  And it's also a week when it's been rainy and cold, when hot coffee and warm, buttered toast sound especially perfect.  Some of the most delicious things don't require much to make happen.    

So here are the two big, fat slices of toasted semolina bread I ate for breakfast this morning, just out of the toaster oven.  In the process of getting buttered.  With the very cold butter straight from the refrigerator that needs to melt a little on the warm toast before it can be spread.  

And here is the very buttery toast ... oops, some of the crust  broke off in the process of buttering.  And hey, those seeds really make it happen.  Check out that sesame on the crust.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Berries & Buttercream, Chocolate &Ginger

Remember these cupcakes?

The ones you see in this photo are actually a twist on the ones from a posting of chocolate cupcakes from a few weeks ago, even though those three in the top row look just the same on the outside.  The chocolate cupcakes are from the same Martha Stewart recipe as in the other posts.  And yes, there are also blackberries on these, just like before.

However, there are two new things here.  One, I diced up some candied ginger and sprinkled it around the blackberry.  I think this combination worked really well for these reasons:

Berries + ginger = delicious
Berries + chocolate = delicious
Berries + buttercream = delicious!

This is something I started thinking about a while ago ... when do you ever get to eat fresh berries with buttercream?  Basically never, right?  It seems like berries tend to get paired with lighter cakes, whipped cream, or else put in tarts and pies.   Which, of course, are also delicious.  But the combination of the buttercream and berries really worked ... I think it's that concept of having something light and fresh cut through the rich, dense feel and flavor of the cake and buttercream.  And the ginger just brought out new flavors, too.  I really, really like the combination of flavors here.

Okay, the second new thing, which you can't see, is that these chocolate cupcakes are filled with whipped chocolate ganache - the same stuff swirled on top of the previous posting's cupcakes as a frosting.  Think: Hostess Cupcake ... only more super duper.  And while I'm not going to take the time to write about this right now, all those nasty yet amazing Hostess cupcakes I ate in junior high and then didn't touch again until a few months ago - on a strange and weird whim of sorts, but I'll get to that another time - really have proved inspirational recently, what with all of these posts on cupcakes and frosting and filling and blah blah blah. 

Anyway ... filling the cupcakes adds another step of preparation, and therefore time, but it's not difficult.  I just fitted a pastry bag with a tip that had the largest opening I could find, then I stuck the tip into the top of the cupcake and squeezed the ganache into the cupcake.  The cake is light enough that it expands to fit the ganache; no need to cut out a part of the cupcake to make room.  The top will look a little messy, but you cover it with the frosting so no one is any the wiser ... except all of you reading this since I just spilled the beans.  Smile.  Just the way you serve them up. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quiche with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Sage, Red Onion, and Goat Cheese

Photo: Dan Nystedt
I am such a huge fan of quiche.  It was on the regular menu in my house when I was a kid; maybe that's where it started.  And then in college, one of my favorite spots was a little restaurant in Hyde Park, somewhere around 53rd St. and E. Hyde Park Blvd. (does anyone remember the name of this place?  I think it was within a few doors of Mellow Yellow), where you could get quiche as a meal, with fresh fruit on the side.  Now as a grad student in Cambridge the delicious quiche at Crema Cafe has powered many a morning (or afternoon) of work, when I pick up a piece to go on my way to my office.

Although as far as doing actual baking goes, my gateway baked good was apple pie, after I got so absorbed with that I started thinking about what else would require pastry to cook ... and ta-da, quiche was back on the menu. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pre-Baking Quiche/Pie Crust: How-To

Photo 1: Rolled-out pastry dough
New Photography ... 

Eeesh, it's rough when your photographer friend who's been taking the photos posted on your blog has a life and can't be available at all hours of the day and night for taking beautiful photos at the random times you decide to cook.  And then you decide to try to take matters into your own hands, using a little point-and-shoot deal that you're trying on for size after not owning a camera for the last 3 years, and even before that one got stolen back then you didn't know much about technology and photography anyway.

In light of that, I thought it made sense to do a post with photos better for their explanatory rather than aesthetic value, while I figure out how my camera works and try to learn something about taking photos.    

Homemade Vs. Pre-made Crusts

I made a quiche with roasted sweet potatoes and sage last week, which I'll post about soon.  But in order to make a quiche, you need a pastry crust.

When I first started this baking frenzy I've been in for the last year and a half, quiche was one of my favorite things to make.  I caught sight of Elise Bauer's recipe for a carmelized onion quiche, and I couldn't even tell you how many times I made it.  It is delicious.  It was good for other people, too; one friend requested it while she was recovering from surgery and I stayed up late one night baking one to hand-deliver the following day.

Photo 2: Forming the pastry
But the thing about making a crust for quiche is that it is SO time-consuming.  First you mix the dough.  Then it has to chill.  Then you roll it out.  Then you have to form the ridges along the sides.  Then you have to pre-bake it, first using pastry weights, then just on its own.  And that requires either having pastry weights on hand, or figuring out a good substitute.  And only then can you actually put the custard inside it and bake the actual quiche.  It takes SO LONG.

So this new year I resolved to test out some pre-made crusts and see whether I could get a decent enough result.

My neighborhood grocery store has a pretty pathetic supply of pre-made crusts, so maybe twice I made quiche using those crusts that come already made and formed inside an aluminum pie tin.  Those were okay and didn't stop me or anyone else from eating the quiche, but you could really taste that the crust wasn't homemade.  Plus, they look pretty industrial, too, since the edges are kind of pressed into the pan and a little too uniform to have been made by hand.  And it's usually a bummer to me when food isn't pretty ... especially a quiche, which can be really gorgeous.

My next stop was to try pie crusts from Trader Joe's, which are what you see in these photos.  These come already rolled out, folded in the wax paper you see in the first photo (you can see the lines where it was folded up).  These aren't pre-baked like the ones in the aluminum tins are, but they do cut out the first few steps, which can take about an hour once you factor in chilling the dough you've mixed.(I know that other companies make frozen pie crusts like these, and I've seen them at other grocery stores.  So don't think it has to be Trader Joe's ... hopefully your neighborhood grocery store is more well-stocked than mine in this area).

Baking the Crust, Step by Step

Photo 3: Pre-baking the pastry with weights
It was simple to unwrap the pastry (Photo1), place it in the dish and form the ridges along the sides that you see in Photo 2, above.

Then for the pre-baking (also referred to as blind baking).  Sheesh, I really should get some pastry weights, for all the times I find myself trying to pre-bake a crust and having to scavenge around my kitchen for something to use for this.  Beans work great, but I guess I must have used those up.  I've used rice, too, but rice seems to have a way of escaping the parchment paper and sticking itself to the crust at some point in the process, then you have to tediously try to pull grains of rice off the crust without messing up the pastry.  Plus, on this occasion I didn't seem to have any rice, even so.  What I did have was a bag of dried split peas, which you can see in Photo 3.  These worked perfectly well, plus I liked the color!

I cut a large square of parchment paper from a roll, placed it over the formed crust, then trimmed the corners so that it became a circular shape.  You can see some slits along the sides of the paper; I cut these so that I could press the paper into the crust.  I  like to keep some of the edges of the paper so that I can fold them over the sides of the pie dish as the crust cooks.  This way the sides of the pastry are covered and don't brown more than the rest of it.  

Photo 4: The finished, pre-baked crust
After filling the parchment-lined pastry with the dried split peas, I cooked the crust at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.  Then I removed the crust from the oven and lifted out the the whole parchment-paper-split-peas ensemble at once by lifting it up by the sides of the parchment paper.  You want to be careful here, because you want to see that the crust is somewhat cooked - e.g., it's not still that completely dough-y texture, but rather is starting to look a bit flaky.  If you remove the paper and weights too early, when the dough hasn't cooked much, the dough will slip down the sides of the pan as it cooks without any filling in it, and you'll end up with a crust that tastes fine but which has short sides - more like the shape of a tart crust.  I've gotten a few questions about this issue (e.g., how to make sure the pie crust doesn't slip down the sides of the pan during the pre-baking phase) and I think it's generally an issue with not letting the crust bake enough before taking out the weights, rather than any issue with a particular recipe.  

Before putting the crust back in the oven without the weights, I poked holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with the tines of a fork, to allow air to escape as the pastry bakes.  You can leave the crust in the oven for another 10-15 minutes, or until it's golden brown.  The edges brown up a little more as the quiche is baking, so you don't want it to get too brown before you add the custard.  You can see the finished product in Photo 4.  I thought this crust actually tasted pretty close to a homemade one, especially since the texture and appearance could pass. 

More on the quiche filling to come soon!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cinnamon Streusel Easter Cake

I now interrupt this succession of posts about cupcakes to write about a cake that's kind of special to me, the cinnamon streusel Easter cake you see in the photo above.

When I was a teenager, my family lived in Russia for several years.  Around Easter-time (according to the Russian Orthodox calendar), any store around that sold food would be selling traditional Easter cakes called kulich.  They taste like something between a bread and a cake; a little bit sweet because they generally have raisins or other dried fruit in them, but not overly so.  My sister tells me she remembers the first time we bought one, at a kiosk we passed one Sunday on our way home from church (Christian, but not Orthodox).  The cakes are baked in tall cylindrical pans (resembling a coffee can), so as the top rounds as it bakes the shape is reminiscent of the round domes on top of many Russian Orthodox churches.  The blog Bluestocking has some great descriptions and photos of the cakes and the process of making one.

I don't think I'd thought about these cakes for years, but last Easter I had lots of memories of them - seeing them in stores in the neighborhood I lived in as a teenager, eating toasted, buttered slices for breakfast - and so I baked a cake that reminded me of them.  The one here is a much sweeter cake than the ones I ate in Russia as a kid, but it's round and a little bit tall like the traditional ones, and has the sweetness of spices and raisins in it, just like the ones I remember.  While I wasn't successful in doing it with this cake, the traditional cakes have the letters "XB" stamped on the side or top of the cake.  It stands for "Christ is Risen" (in Russian: xристос воскрес), in English the equivalent of writing "CR" on the cake.  I tried to make the letters with raisins and the frosting, but alas, the glaze wasn't quite thick enough to make the raisins stick (next year!).  Anyhow, here's the recipe, adapted from Ina Garten's Sour Cream Coffee Cake:      

Ingredients for the cake:
  • 12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs 
  • 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cups sour cream
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
Ingredients for the streusel:
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 3/4 cup golden raisins (optional)
Ingredients for the glaze:
  • 3/4 cup confectioners sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp. heavy cream
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease and flour a 10-inch springform pan. 
  2. Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer, for 4-5 minutes until light.  
  3. Add the eggs 1 at a time, then add the vanilla and sour cream. 
  4. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Finish stirring with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed. 
  5. For the streusel, place the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and butter in a bowl and pinch together with your fingers until it forms a crumble. Mix in the raisins, if desired. 
  6. Spoon half the batter into the pan and spread it out with a knife. Sprinkle with 3/4 of the streusel. See the first small photo on the right for how it looks when it comes out of the oven. 
  7. Spoon the rest of the batter in the pan, spread it out, and scatter the remaining streusel on top. Bake for 30 minutes, or until top of cake is golden brown.  Place foil on top of cake to cover it, then bake an additional 50-60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.  Note: I adapted this recipe from a recipe for a cake in a tube pan, so it takes quite a lot longer to bake than the original recipe - which I know is kind of a pain.  I'm going to try to work this part out next time around.  You could try cooking at a slightly higher temperature and just keep checking on the cake to monitor it.
  8. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes, or until the cake is cool to the touch.  Carefully transfer the cake, streusel side up, onto a serving plate.  With the springform pan, I just remove the side of the pan and keep the cake in the base when I put it on a prettier serving plate. 
  9. Whisk the confectioners' sugar, maple syrup together, and cream together, adding a few drops of extra syrup or cream if necessary, to make the glaze runny. Drizzle as much as you like over the cake with a fork or spoon.  The second small photo on the right shows how the cake looks when the glaze has cooled.  
I've still got one more cupcake variation to post about; that'll be on here soon, too. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lemon Buttercake/Vanilla Buttercream & Chocolate/Whipped Ganache

More on cupcakes!  There are basically two types of cupcakes here:

Chocolate cupcake with whipped chocolate ganache

These are the same chocolate cupcakes I posted about earlier, using a recipe from Martha Stewart's site.  The whipped chocolate ganache makes these really, really rich for the real chocolate lovers out there ...

I used a ganache recipe from Savory Sweet Life, which has great instructions and photos so you can make sure you're doing it right as you make it.  I cooled the ganache in my refrigerator when I went to work on the buttercream frosting and finished baking the cupcakes, and then I whipped it up with a hand mixer.  Then I put the whipped ganache into a disposable pastry bag fitted with a tip, just as I did with the buttercream, and layered the cupcakes with it.

After you whip the ganache, it's important to get it on the cupcakes fairly quickly.  It begins to harden after 15 minutes or so, and just becomes difficult to handle (I learned this through experience with these cupcakes, and needed to warm up the whipped ganache and then whip it briefly again to even out the texture ... not ideal).  

In my next post, I'm going to write a bit about filling the cupcakes.  For these chocolate ones I filled some of them with the same whipped chocolate ganache that they're frosted with here, so they were super-duper chocolate-y.  But the ganache itself is quite rich and I think it's plenty just to use it as a frosting, depending on your taste, of course.  Anyhow, I'll get back to this in the next post, though, because filling these things can make them pretty awesome. 

Lemon butter cake with vanilla buttercream frosting 

For the yellow cupcakes, I used a recipe for butter cake that I actually wasn't a huge fan of in the end, so I'm not going to post it here.  If I were to do these again, I would find a yellow cake recipe (not butter cake) and use that instead ... in a pinch, I might even just use a yellow cake mix ... but, sshhhhhhh.

What I would still do, which I did for the cupcakes pictured here and in the photo in the last post, is add a Tbsp of fresh lemon juice and a Tbsp of minced lemon zest to the batter.  This is an amount that gives the cake a subtle lemon-y taste without being overpowering.

I didn't fill these cupcakes like I did the chocolate ones you'll see/read about in my next post, partly because of time and party because I couldn't quite decide what to fill them with.  Some options: Add lemon zest to the buttercream and fill it with that, lemon mousse, vanilla pudding.  Another option that just occurred to me is to make some type of berry mousse or whipped cream ... with just a subtle berry flavor so that it's complementary with the lemon in the cake.  The research and development team will keep working on this one :).

I used the same vanilla buttercream recipe I used for the chocolate-blackberry cupcakes ... and as you can see in the photo, I also used blackberries in the center (I also placed raspberries in the center of some of them).  Then I used a lemon zester to create the threads of lemon you see on top.  Just remember to put the berry and the lemon zest on top of the cupcake pretty quickly after frosting it; you need to press those into the frosting slightly and you want to be sure that the frosting is still soft enough that that's easy to do. 

One more posting on cupcakes to come ...

(Photo: Dan Nystedt)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cupcakes in Black and White

Stay tuned for a posting to come about these cupcakes: whipped chocolate ganache, vanilla buttercream, lemon butter cake, raspberries, blackberries, lemon zest ... coming up soon!


(Photo: Dan Nystedt)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Chocolate/Blackberry Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

I've been getting crazy about cupcakes recently.  I know they've become something of a fad in the last few years, but to be honest, I haven't really understood how there are entire stores devoted to selling these compact sweets.  What's the big deal? 

However, my friend Christina's recent birthday seems to have tipped off a new baking obsession - even rivaling my fixation on pie! - focused on these very cakes.  I made my first batch for her birthday in March, and the photos you see here are the second batch I made the following week.

I used Martha Stewart's recipe for chocolate cupcakes, which produces a very moist, rich cake without too much trouble.   

I didn't realize that craft stores carry loads of baking supplies, but they do.  And that's where I found these cupcake papers and the cake decorating tools I used for the frosting.  (Thanks, Mom!)

The vanilla buttercream icing is adapted from a recipe I found on the Food Network site.  The one adaptation I made is that I used unsalted butter, and mixed 1/4 tsp. salt to the sugar before I blended it with the butter.  It produced an icing that was delicious as well as easy to use for decorating.

After the cupcakes were cooled, I put the icing in a disposable pastry bag fitted with a tip and used that to apply the icing.  Then I put a fresh blackberry in the center in each cake, and voila.

I've made a few different types of cupcakes since then, which I'll be posting soon.

One last note: you can't really see it in this close-up photo, but the mauve color in the background is actually a pew at my church!  Incidentally, I brought these cupcakes in celebration of one of the pastors being ordained recently, and we loaded these onto a plate found in the church kitchen and photographed them on the church pew. 

(Photo: Dan Nystedt)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bananas, Caramel, and Cream

Valentine's Day was more than a week ago already, but it's not too late to make heart-shaped desserts!  (I realize that to some, heart-shaped anything is a bit too corny ... but I just couldn't help myself.  Sorry). 

What you see in the red bowl has become my favorite dessert of late.  I'm not sure what to call it yet (let me know if you have any ideas) ... in the absence of a name I'm happy with right now, I'm just going to call it what it is - Bananas, Caramel, and Cream.  I've made this for multiple dinner parties, small group gatherings, and I made a gluten-free version for my friend Eliza's birthday a few months ago, and it's always come off well.  I hope you enjoy it, too, if you make it.

Part 1:  The Cookies
I use Martha Stewart's recipe for Chewy Molasses-Spice Cookies.  I love these cookies and don't change a thing about the recipe ... well, except in the case pictured, I used a pan with heart-shaped molds to create the heart-shaped cookies you see.  But other times I've made the traditional circular cookies and those are also terrific ... not to mention a bit faster to make.  If you use the heart-shaped pan, you just want to make sure not to fill the molds too high - I'd say they should be filled only about half-way; otherwise the cookies rise too much and lose their shape.  You also want to press the dough into the molds slightly so that they keep the heart-shape as they bake.  Click here to see the pan I used.

Part 2: The Caramel
The recipe I use is:
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 

Step 1: You want to have all the ingredients out and ready before you start; you'll have to add ingredients quickly to make this work.  You may also want to wear long sleeves and/or thick gloves/oven mitts; the sugar gets very, very hot and can splatter a little as you stir.

Step 2: Put the sugar in a thick-bottomed pan and heat on medium-high heat.  The point is to melt this down until it's completely liquid and amber-colored.  This can take a while (15-20 minutes) so be patient.  At first it will seem like nothing is happening, but then you'll see the sugar on the bottom of the pan starting to liquify.  Stir the sugar enough so that it doesn't burn and keep stirring until the sugar is completely melted and amber (caramel!) colored.  You can stop stirring when the sugar actually comes to a boil. 

**Very important!!**: I've had to start this recipe over more than once because I didn't wait long enough for the sugar to melt.  It gets to a point that it starts to boil and looks pretty liquid-y, and you'll think it's ready for adding the butter and the cream.  But wait!  Is it a rich, amber color?  As you stir it, is it not just not-solid-anymore, and not just a creamy-textured liquid, but actually a runny, spatter-y liquid?  If the latter, then you're ready to add the butter and cream!

Step 3: When the sugar is totally liquid, and that beautiful rich amber color, add the butter and the cinnamon.  Stir as you do this until the butter has completely melted into the liquid sugar.  You want to stir thoroughly and quickly so that the butter actually incorporates into the sugar; this doesn't happen immediately.

Step 4: When the butter is incorporated, take the pan off the heat.  I take Elise Bauer's advice to count to three, then add the cream all at once.  Adding the butter and cream makes this mixture bubble up, so don't worry and be careful as it does so.

Step 5: Keep whisking or stirring until the caramel is completely smooth.  I pour the caramel into two small glass jars, but another glass receptacle can also do.  If you cool the caramel before you serve it, it thickens, so you'll want to heat it up before serving.

Simply Recipes has a similar recipe that you can also check out, and there are links there to another site with more detailed advice on making caramel.  The really major thing with making caramel, though, at least that I've found, is to really make sure you cook the sugar long enough (see **Very Important!** section above!) before adding the other ingredients.  If you don't, the butter and cream won't incorporate and you'll end up with a big lumpy mess in a pan .. believe me, this has been my situation twice now.   

Also, the hint of cinnamon in the recipe above makes the dish even more aromatic, and is absolutely delicious with the cream and bananas.

Part 3: The Bananas

Cut a banana in half, then julienne each half separately.  The slices from one half will go in one dessert.

Part 4: The Assembly!

You can do this one of two ways.  When I make the regular circular cookies, I put one or two of those on the bottom of the dish to start.  Then I splay the slices of banana across them, put a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top of that, then drizzle the caramel across the top.

The way you see in the photo above is that I put the bananas on the bottom and the cookies on the side ... that was just because the cookies were pretty against the red bowl my cousin Kate got me.  So suit yourself on this one.  ... And most of all, enjoy this stuff!

... Now that I've written all of this out I see that this dessert probably seems like a real pain to make - so many steps!  But once you do it once it's not as big a big deal ... the cookies are pretty easy to make and once you've got that caramel sauce whisked up, you're going to be one happy camper, trust me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Savory Tart with Green Beans, Cheddar, and Parmesan

On to the savory tart ...(by the way, kudos to my friend Sarah for styling this first photo with the rolling pin - a gift from my cousin Kate - that I used to roll out the pastry!).

Oh, Seasonal Vegetables
I made a version of this with broccoli florets earlier in the winter and it got rave reviews from friends, so of course I had to make it again.  There are basically 3 essentials.  First, puff pastry, which you can make yourself, or do what I did and buy it in the frozen food section of your local grocery store.  I'm very, very into pastry and I don't think I could have done a better job than the people at Pepperidge Farm with this one.  Second, some good cheese.  Third, whatever seasonal vegetable you feel like eating.  I'm a grad student, so for me whatever vegetable is cheapest often also seems to be the most appetizing.  Earlier in the winter broccoli was among the least expensive vegetables in the produce section; this time around green beans were on special so there it was.

Choosing the Right Cheese
I think with a fairly mild-tasting vegetable like green beans, it's key to use a cheese with at least a little bit of a kick ... here I used the sharpest cheddar I could find, and then sprinkled some parmesan on top of that for a little more flavor.  You won't go wrong if you mix two or even three cheeses together.  I think romano would also be a great cheese for this.  I'd avoid milder cheddar or havarti, that sort of thing.

The assembly is pretty easy: bake up the puff pastry according to the instructions on the package, first.  Grate the cheese and pop the stems off of the green beans, set them all aside.  Have some salt and pepper handy, preferably sea salt and peppercorns that you can grind right on to the tart after you've assembled it.

Is Any Recipe Complete Without a Secret Ingredient?
Now here is one secret ingredient that I didn't mention earlier: the garlic butter.  Friends, you will not be sorry if you take the time to do this next step, even though you can't see the results in these photos.

I pressed, minced, and crushed about 3 cloves of garlic and added it to 2 tablespoons of melted butter in a small dish.  Then I brushed the pre-baked puff pastry with it before adding the cheese or green beans.  Ideally I would use a pastry brush for this; I didn't have one at the time so I just used a spoon and did my best to distribute the garlic butter evenly over the pastry.

Putting It All Together
After that, I spread the grated cheese over the pastry, leaving just the edges to bake up plain, like you can see in the photo, and saved just a little bit of parmesan to sprinkle on top of the beans.  Next, I arranged the beans horizontally in two columns across the pastry.  I find this kind of assembly fun, actually; it's so orderly, doesn't take long, and looks beautiful when it's done.  After the beans were all in order, I drizzled about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over the beans, lengthwise down the pan.  You can do this pretty sparingly; it's not like we don't already have pastry, butter, and cheese in this thing.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The finishing touches: I sprinkled the little bit of remaining cheese over the beans - but just a tiny bit to add some texture to the top, nothing that will distract from the overall look of the beans in their rows.  Then I ground sea salt (just a little) over the beans, and did the same with the pepper.  I put the whole thing back in the oven and cooked it for about 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees ... you want the cheese to be melted and the beans to be softened but still crispy.  And you also want the pastry to be a lovely shade of golden brown.  So we can't take the pastry out before that's all the case.  I was reaching over my friends Sarah and Jared multiple times to open and shut the oven to check on this, while they were doing all manner of soup-stirring, cheese-grating, and dish-washing while I rushed around my place trying to tidy up before the rest of our neighborhood group arrived for dinner.  (If we all had friends like these, our collective weltschmerz would be lessened considerably).  

Beautiful, Beautiful
My friend Dan Nystedt took this photo, as he did the others posted, and I love how he captured that bit of glistening black pepper on top of the green beans, and the slight, slight wrinkling of the green beans after they'd been in the oven.  The little bit of olive oil brushed over the top helps that to happen; the flavors to soak together and the beans to soften.

If any of you try this with other vegetables or cheeses, tell me if you happen upon any amazing combinations!

Chocolate- Dipped Shortbread with Dried Sour Cherries and Lavender

Mmmm, shortbread.  For some reason I really had the urge to make a pan of shortbread some time in early December, although I'd never made it before that point.  The thing about shortbread is that it's really very simple to make, but it does take about an hour, sometimes a bit more, to bake, so it can be a little time-consuming.  But there's something about the simplicity of it, like the ornamentation of dipping the cookie in chocolate, that I find appealing and kind of beautiful.  So I've made it a few times since then.  In this case I also added dried sour cherries and lavender.  I love the combination of textures, colors and flavors in this cookie: the classic combination of chocolate and cherry, the fragrance of the lavender overlaying the piquant fruitiness of the cherry, the chewy cherry pieces in the crispy cookie and hard chocolate, the tiny flecks of lavender across the golden shortbread, the delicate flavor the lavender brings to an otherwise fairly dense dessert.  

I made the shortbread pictured above for the Christmas dinner with the neighborhood group, where we also ate the barley leek soup with dill and parmesan.

The Cherries
I started out with Martha Stewart's recipe for basic shortbread.  I added about half a cup of dried sour cherries (delicious!), which I chopped up roughly using a large knife.  I wanted the cherry pieces to be small enough that they would be scattered throughout each cookie and wouldn't make the cookies too difficult to slice, but large enough that there would be a clear burst of flavor when biting into one, and also large enough that they visibly looked like cherries and not just colorful flecks when you see them displayed.  I think this visual aspect is really important.

Aunt Sylvie's Garden: Lavender in the Cookie 
Then I had an inspiration - with some trepidation, to be sure - to add some lavender to this mix.  Burdick's Chocolatier on Brattle St. makes really delightful French macarons with lavender, and that's probably one taste and color I had in my head while mixing this shortbread.  I had a little bag of lavender buds from my Aunt Sylvie's garden in Seattle, which she gave me to bake with when I visited last February.  I minced the lavender buds, about as finely as I could.  Then I sifted them to get rid of the chaff of the bud, leaving just tiny pieces of fragrant lavender.  To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how much I put in because I mixed it until it looked right to me, which was when I could clearly see the flecks of lavender in the dough but hoping I hadn't put in so much that the taste would be overwhelming and people would feel like they were eating flowers when they bit into a cookie.  I think it was about 2 tablespoons of the sifted lavender.

I forgot to do this this time, but if I baked this cookie again I would poke two sets of holes in the top of each cookie using a fork, for added ornamentation.

I melted a bar of Cadbury's dark chocolate in a bowl, which I bought across the street at the Harvard Square CVS, and used that to dip each cookie.  I placed a sheet of wax paper on a cookie sheet and set the chocolate-dipped cookies on it, then put the full sheet in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes so the chocolate could firm up.  It's got to be a little bizarre how satisfying I find this step to be, seeing the chocolate become smooth and firm, the finishing touch on this dessert.    

The Results
Truly, when I first tasted one of these cookies, I was afraid I'd put a bit too much lavender in - the scent was pretty strong and I think it jolted me a bit at first.  But then every last cookie was gone by the time my guests left.  There is a certain unusual-ness, an unexpected delicateness, about this cookie that may catch you off-guard at first, but I think overall the combination is a winner and I plan to make these again before too long.  

A note on sugar and cookie texture:
When I've made this recipe before I used brown sugar for half the sugar called for, just because I like the taste of brown sugar ... and maybe also because I like to change it up ... but I noticed that in the batch pictured, which I made with just white sugar, the dough consistency was drier and the cookie itself was crispier.  In the batches made with brown sugar, the dough was more moist, and the cookie was a bit softer.  I realized that's probably because of the molasses in brown sugar, which added moisture to the dough - I didn't think about that when I substituted it.  So when I make this recipe again, I'll probably use brown sugar but may try adding just a bit more flour to offset the moisture and see how that turns out.  The softer cookie was actually nice, too, though - I guess it just depends on your preference.

Barley Leek Soup With Dill and Parmesan

This is the soup that came to me in a revelation during the sermon at church the week before Christmas (apparently I was saying this a lot, because I heard one of the friends who came for dinner the night I served this say to another, "She loves to say that!").  There I was, sitting in the church pew on Sunday evening with Sarah, Dan, and Jared, when I started thinking about how warm and home-ey some barley soup would be ... first, when do I ever get to eat barley?  Hardly ever.  It may or may not be a so-called superfood like quinoa, but it's still fantastically nutritious, hearty, and the chewy, nutty flavor and texture are pretty unique and delicious.

I could cook the barley in vegetable broth, then slice leeks into wide chunks (see the translucent slice in the left photo), and sautee them just briefly in a tablespoon of olive oil before adding them to the broth and barley.  Then I could add lots of fresh dill, a pinch of pepper, a dash of nutmeg, some grated parmesan, and voila; there you have it.  Taste-tested and approved by Dan T on Monday night, and the rest consumed by the neighborhood group on Tuesday night. Some of us sprinkled a little more grated parmesan on top after we'd ladled the soup into the bowls.  Next up: the other parts of the menu from the same night.  Stay tuned. 

P.S. Note the sushi mat being used as a placemat for the soup ... this was a fantastic Christmas gift from one of my freshmen students. I've never made sushi before and honestly, it sounds a little intimidating right now, but all I need now is knowledge to add to my tools and sushi may be posted on this site yet.