Category Archives: baking

Mini Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

and tri-color candied citrus zest

The Fine Line Between Bread and Cake

Quiz!

1) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated carrot, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B) Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

2) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated zucchini, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

If you answered C or D, I admire your attempt to make sense of a senseless world, but you get no points from me. If you chose E, I like where your priorities are, but I think you’re still wrong. For most Americans most of the time, #1 is carrot cake and #2 is zucchini bread, regardless of the ingredient proportions or method. It’s true that cake has generally come to refer to sweeter baked goods and bread to less-sweet ones, but that doesn’t seem to matter in the case of these grated-vegetable cake/breads. If it did, the inclusion of chocolate chips would make probably push you in the “cake” direction, but there are dozens of chocolate chip zucchini “bread” recipes and others that make the whole loaf chocolate, but are still named “bread.” Both probably fall into the categories of “quick bread” or “snack cake” but there’s no fixed culinary meaning for either of those categories either.

Anyhow, I blame whatever historical contingency landed chemically-leavened grated-carrot-containing baked objects in the “cake” bin and chemically-leavened grated-zucchini-containing baked objects in the “bread” bin for my failure to realize until now that the latter could also achieve its apotheosis under a mantle of sweetened cream cheese. And maybe I was too quick to dismiss answer E, because as soon as I realized I could frost what I would normally call zucchini bread, I was suddenly inclined to call it “cake.” In further naming hijinks, without the frosting, I’m pretty sure these become “muffins.” Right?

many tasty little muffins

Not The Answer to Zucchini Excess

My garden was the victim of serious neglect this year, so I’m not facing the Great Zucchini Glut of a typical July-August. If I were, I’d probably be knee-deep in fritters and garlicky almond sautés and wouldn’t waste my time with recipes like this, which use a pretty pathetic amount of zucchini. 2 cups? Please. A moderately-neglected garden can produce that much in the average Olympics break between NBC commercial broadcasts. This is also why recipes for zucchini bread so often describe the squash flavor as “delicate.” That means you really can’t taste the squash at all, but that’s a probably a good thing unless you’re into baked goods that taste like bitter, watery mush.

The grated squash adds some moisture, a hint of green (or yellow, depending on the color of your squash), and maybe a vague nutritional halo to the cake part. The brown sugar and vanilla in the frosting give it a kind of caramelly flavor, much like taffy apple dip. The citrus zest on top is mostly for color, but also adds a little sweet and sour crunch. If any or all of those things sound appealing and you have a solitary medium-sized summer squash you don’t know what to do with (or one or two little ones), this could be the recipe for you.

the citrus zest defintely makes it prettier, but it's really all about the cream cheese frosting

Recipe: Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Taste of Home, Ian Young via Martha Stewart, and ThatsSoYummy)

Ingredients

Cupcakes:

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour I used these two which was probably a little more than 2 cups, beer bottle for scale
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 medium or 2 small zucchini, shredded (1 1/2 – 2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup oil or melted butter
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins (optional) candying zest--this was a triple batch with 2 oranges, 3 lemons, and 2 limes

Frosting:

  • 4 oz (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened  
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup light-brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Candied Citrus Zest

  • zest of 2-3 lemons, limes, and/or oranges
  • 1/3 cup water (plus much more for blanching zest)
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons more for sparkle

Method

Cupcakes:

1. Optional: if using currants or raisins, soak them in the orange juice (with a splash of booze, if you like) for a few hours or overnight.

currants submerged in the orange juice with a splash of cognac after 4-5 hours of soaking, all plumped up

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin tins or coat with cooking spray or butter.

3. Whisk together the flour, sugars, spices, salt, and baking powder.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, vanilla, shredded zucchini, and currants or raisins with the soaking liquid (if using). Add this mixture to the flour and stir just until combined.

4. Fill prepared muffin tins approximately 2/3 full.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes (18-22 minutes for standard muffin tins, 45-60 min in a standard loaf pan), until a tester comes out clean or the centers are at least 190F.

6. Let cool in pans 5-10 min, turn out of pans and continue cooling on racks for at least an hour before frosting.

Frosting:

1. Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment or a spatula and lots of energy, beat the softened cream cheese until it’s soft and airy (3-5 minutes).

2. Add the softened butter and beat until evenly combined.

3. Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. It may be a little gritty at first, just keep beating and the sugar will dissolve.

4. Optional: add powdered sugar if desired to increase sweetness or to make it stiffer for piping.

5. Pipe or spread onto cooled cupcakes. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

I just dipped the cupcakes in the frosting and swirled them around a little--much faster than piping. The extra makes a great dip for strawberries or apple slices.frosted but not yet zested

Candied Zest:

1. Peel fruits, minimizing white pith. Cut into shapes or strips as desired

this keeps well for a long time, so I made a big batch with 2 oranges, 3 small lemons, 2 limes; some people try to get all the white pith off, but I think blanching takes care of the bitterness cut into little strips, which is a little painstaking. could also use a zester that takes strips automatically to make it faster

2. Put peel in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 7-10 minutes and drain. Taste and repeat if desired. More blanching = less bitterness, but also less flavor.

3. Return the blanched peel to the pot and add sugar and water in saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peel is translucent, 10-15 minutes. Remove peel pieces and separate onto waxed paper to let cool.

4. Optional: after 20-30 minutes, sprinkle with additional sugar and toss to coat. Continue to let dry 8-12 hours.

you can leave the zest unsugared, and then it'll look sort of glossy I prefer it with a little sparkle

Sourdough Cinnamon-Sugar Monkey Bread

sorry for the lack of items ot show scale...this is roughly the size of a standard angel food cake

Giant Interactive Sticky-Bun Hurrah!

Earlier this year, I posted the recipe for a savory cheesy garlic monkey bread, with a note about the name (to recap: it’s either a reference to the monkey puzzle tree or the process of assembling the loaf or the process or eating it, no one really knows). This one is more like what most people call “monkey bread,” with the pieces of dough covered in cinnamon and brown sugar, which caramelize in the oven until the whole thing resembles a giant sticky bun.

Most recipes start with refrigerated biscuit dough, which is a bit easier and quicker. However, if you have a sourdough starter that needs regular feeding & culling, you can use it to make a soft, slightly-sweet yeast-risen dough that works just as well. Depending on how active your starter is and how long you let the dough rise, the final product can have as much or as little sourdough flavor as you like (longer rise = more sour). I think a little tanginess is a nice counterpart to all the butter and sugar. Someone at the potluck I took this to asked if there was any alcohol in it, I think because the sourdough starter gives it a mildly boozy flavor. Speaking of which, adding a shot of whiskey or rum to the butter probably wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

I went with

Like basically all kinds of monkey bread, you assemble it by dipping small pieces of the dough in melted butter. In this version, the buttery pieces get a second coating of brown sugar and cinnamon (although you could substitute cardamom or ginger or cloves or whatever else you like—Alton Brown recommends rosemary). For a little extra sticky-sweetness, you can sprinkle a few tablespoons of brown sugar in the pan before filling it with bread. For a lot of extra sticky-sweetness, you can combine more brown sugar and melted butter and pour half in the bottom of the pan before filling it with the bread and the other half on top just before baking. If you want it sweeter still, you can drizzle the finished loaf with a powdered sugar glaze or cream cheese frosting. mini-loaf advantages: every piece is a "top"piece with lots of caramel

This recipe makes slightly too much for my tube pan, so I put the overflow in a regular loaf pan. Tube pans are ideal for monkey bread because they provide lots of surface area—fluted tube pans are even better. However, any kind of pan will work. You could use a 9×13 baking dish, or a few cake pans, or a large soufflé dish, or make individual serving-sized portions in muffin tins or ramekins, just adjust the baking time accordingly (see recipe).

Other combinations that might be tasty: rosemary & raisins with a lemony cream-cheese frosting, ginger and clove in addition to the cinnamon with tart apple pieces, cardamom with dried pear pieces & sliced almonds, maximum caramel with vanilla bean in place of the cinnamon and an extra pinch of salt, or Chinese five-spice with currants & walnuts. Nothing wrong with classic cinnamon, raisins & pecans, though.

this is a little misleading. there were more leftovers, but they stayed at the potluck I took this to; it does tend to disappear quickly

Recipe: Sourdough Cinnamon-Sugar Monkey Bread (adapted from Linda Wan, browneyedbaker, Alton Brown, and Smitten Kitchen)

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (100% hydration)*
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 cups all-purpose or bread flour (sub whole wheat, if desired)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar, honey, or other sweetener

*To substitute packaged yeast, dissolve 1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) of yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm water with the sugar and 1/4 cup flour. Let sit for 5-10 minutes or until frothy and then combine with the rest of the ingredients. Increase the flour to 4 1/2-5/12 cups

Coating:

  • 8 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (or other spices/herbs as desired)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Optional additions: 1/2-3/4 cup dried fruit and/or nuts, 2-3 Tablespoons extra brown sugar for lining pan

Sweeter options:

Maximum caramel topping:

  • 8 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar

Cream-cheese frosting:

  • 3 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 Tablespoons powdered sugar (plus more as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons milk (plus more as needed)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Powdered sugar glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons milk
  • 2 Tablespoons butter (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon flavor extract (optional)

Method:

1. Make Dough: Combine all the dough ingredients (only 3 cups of the flour at first) and mix until combined. Add more flour as necessary to form a dough that will clean the sides of the bowl and sticks to itself more than it sticks to you—I start mixing with a spoon, but finish with my hands. Continue mixing/kneading in the bowl for a few minutes, just until it’s evenly combined. You can turn it onto a floured surface and knead longer if you like, but it’s not necessary.

2. First Rise: Cover the bowl and let rise 2-24 hours (1-2 hours if using instant yeast), or until doubled. The rising time will depend on how active your starter is and how sour you want the dough to be. As soon as the dough is doubled in size, you can assemble the loaf; however, if you want a lot of sourdough flavor, you should let it rise at least 8-12 hours.

a nearly no-knead dough after ~12 hours

3. Prepare Pans: Generously butter your baking dish(es). Sprinkle with additional brown sugar or pour half of the “maximum caramel topping” into the bottom.

4. Assemble: Melt the butter for the coating in one bowl. Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt or other spices in another bowl. Divide the dough into pieces roughly the size of ping pong balls, either by pinching pieces off one by one, pressing the dough into a rectangle and cutting it crosswise with a knife or bench scraper, or forming a long rope and snipping pieces off with scissors. Roll each piece into a ball between the palms of your hands, dip it in the butter, roll it in the sugar & spice mixture, and the place them in the prepared pan(s) just barely touching each other or with a little space between them. If using fruit and nuts, sprinkle them in between the layers of dough balls.

if you use the cutting method, there will be some smaller pieces in the corners, which is fine--I like to put smaller pieces towards the inside of the tube pan and larger ones on the outside

5. Second Rise: Cover the pans and let rise 2-8 hours, or until doubled in size again. Alternatively, refrigerate for up to 24 hours and remove from cold storage 1-2 hours before baking to return to room temperature.

assembled risen again

6. Bake: Preheat the oven to 350F for 15-20 minutes. Uncover the risen dough. If using “maximum caramel topping, pour the remaining half over the risen dough. Bake for 15-50 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. Smaller portions/more surface area = less baking time, larger vessel/less surface area = more baking time. Individual servings in muffin tins may only take about 15-18 minutes. The single layer in my regular loaf pan took 20 minutes. Two layers in a 9×13 pan will probably take around 30-35 minutes. My tube pan with three layers took 45 minutes. A very large soufflé dish may take 50 minutes or longer. It’s done when the top is very brown and the internal temperature is 190F or a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

7. Invert: Let cool in the pans, on a rack if desired, for 5-10 minutes. Gently cut around the edges of the pan(s) with a knife, and then invert onto a serving plate. If icing, combine the ingredients for your desired topping and drizzle with a spoon or from a plastic zip-top bag with one corner snipped off.  

this is why you do not fill the tube pan to the top just inverted, ready to serve, and I think it's pretty even without icing

Chocolate Stout Cupcakes with Irish Whiskey Buttercream, St. Patrick’s Day, and Racism

A most astonishing thing
Seventy years have I lived;

(Hurrah for the flowers of Spring
For Spring is here again.)
                                  -WB Yeats

Apparently I only make cupcakes with booze in them.

A Missed Opportunity…

car bomb ingredients; kaluha has been dropped from most people's version. image from Sgt Mac's BarA friend sent me this recipe and actually offered to pay me to make it (as if that would be necessary). Even though I didn’t take him up on the cash, the offer somehow short-circuited my typical urge to tweak. I felt like I was “on assignment,” so it wasn’t until I was dusting the tops with cocoa powder and watching the caramel sauce cool that I realized I’d missed an opportunity to make another cocktail in cupcake form. If only I’d thought of it sooner, I could have come up with some kind of Irish Cream element, and these could have been Car Bomb Cupcakes.

An Irish Cream fudge or custard filling? Or maybe I could have added Bailey’s to the frosting along with the whisky, so the topping would mimic the shot traditionally dropped into the Guinness. Of course I would not have been the first person to come up with this idea.

…to Offend Someone?

Maybe it’s better that I didn’t go that route, though. Apparently some people find the “car bomb” name offensive because it seems to celebrate the violent tactics used by the IRA. The Connecticut bartender who claims to have invented the drink initially called his Bailey’s, Kaluha, and Jameson shot the “Grandfather” in honor of the “many grandfathers in Irish history.” It became known as the “IRA” because of the way Bailey’s bubbles up when you add whisky to it.* From there, it was a short conceptual leap to “car bomb” when he dropped it in a glass of Guinness on St. Patrick’s day in 1979.

No longer available, unclear if that's due to complaints or not. I’m sure Charles B. Oat meant no disrespect, he was just celebrating the holiday commemorating the death of the sainted Catholic Bishop who supposedly converted many Irish pagans by using shamrocks to illustrate the holy trinity the way most Americans do: with copious amounts of alcohol. Of course, that upsets some people, too, as seen in the recent controversy over American Apparel’s St. Patrick’s Day-themed merchandise, including shirts reading: “Kiss Me, I’m Drunk. Or Irish. Or Whatever.”   

The lack of malice doesn’t automatically exonerate American Apparel or the many people who will spend this Saturday drinking too many car bombs or green Budweiser. But I think the people who claim that American St. Patrick’s day celebrations perpetuate a hurtful “Drunken Paddy” stereotype or otherwise show disrespect for Irish people might be mistaken about how “Irish” anyone really thinks green beer and “car bombs” are. Sure, contemporary St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are inevitably mired in the complex history of racial politics and European imperialism. The fact that lots of Americans are really over-eager to identify with the one (now-) white ethnic group they know of that experienced overt racism and colonization is kind of bizarre and yet totally understandable. But the idea that it’s racist seems to imply that the widespread practice of wearing green while participating in an otherwise-unextraordinary early Spring bacchanalia actually bears some relationship to how people really think about or act towards Irish people.

The American Apparel shirt doesn’t mock Irish people so much as it mocks people who pretend to be Irish once a year while drinking until they do something stupid. It’s only offensive if you think there really is something characteristically Irish about drinking to excess. Similarly, the name “car bomb” is only offensive if you think there really is something uniquely Irish about vehicle-borne explosives or dropping Baileys in Guinness and chugging it before it curdles. I think the “Irishness” being performed and celebrated on March 17 bears about as much relation to Irishness as eating at Olive Garden has to Italianness. The American enthusiasm for consuming vast quantities of beer and breadsticks in the name of celebrating an ethnic heritage—whether their own or someone else’s—seems pretty innocent to me.**

Disclaimer: the lepruchan on the bottle is not meant to represent all Irish people or all people named Steve who have nieces and/or nephews, nor to imply that all Irish people or Uncles Steve wear green suits habitually or drink or even *like* Stout beer brewed in the style associated with Ireland, although it's not exclusive to Ireland, nor should it imply that they like any other kind of beer or alcholic beverages much, or at least not any more than anyone else does. Back to the subject of cupcakes after the jump…

*Does this actually happen? Why would whisky added to a liqueur that’s basically just a blend of cream and whisky with a few other flavorings bubble?

**On the other hand, I also tend to think that if someone tells you something you’re doing offends them, you should probably consider stopping it. I’m looking at you, University of Illinois fans who won’t let go of the Chief. On the other other hand, if there’s a clear and obvious distinction between offensive practices that perpetuate racial or ethnic stereotypes and hurt people’s feelings and inoffensive ones that benignly reference or perhaps even positively celebrate invented identities and traditions, I don’t know what it is.

Boo, Crystallized CaramelThey were reasonably pretty before the drizzle. Alas.

Instead of something Irish Cream-related, the third element in the original recipe I followed was a brown sugar caramel. Unfortunately, it crystallized and got clumpy before it was cool enough to drizzle. I followed the recipe exactly, even though I had misgivings, knowing how finicky caramel can be. But the recipe didn’t mention washing the sides of the pot with water or making sure you stop stirring at some point, and the brown sugar made it hard to go by visual cues. So, if you want a smooth, pretty amber drizzle instead of something vaguely excremental, I’d try another recipe—perhaps this one if you wanted to keep it vegan. The agave nectar probably works like the corn syrup that helps prevent crystallization in many normal recipes. Or you could amp up the Irish Whisky flavor by subbing that for the bourbon in a recipe like this.

Verdict

Honestly, these basically tasted like chocolate cupcakes with super-sweet vanilla buttercream. The flavor of the stout in the cake part came through a little, but the whiskey barely at all. So although they certainly sound like they’re in the spirit of the coming holiday, their “Irishness” might require some explanation, a bit like a bad Halloween costume. If I make them again, I’ll frost them with a meringe-based buttercream flavored with Irish Cream and drizzle them with a different caramel recipe, probably spiked with Irish whiskey. And maybe I’ll call them “Grandfather bomb cupcakes.” 

Recipe: Chocolate Stout Cupcakes with Whiskey Buttercream (from Chef Chloe)

Ingredients:

with no extended butter-creaming or egg-beating, this is one of the easiest cupcake recipes I've ever madeCupcakes
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup stout beer (I used Short’s Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout)
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons white or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
ButtercreamJameson or Powers or whatever your favorite Irish whisky is would also work fine here
  • 1 cup shortening or margarine, at room temperature (vegan if desired)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 to 5 tablespoons milk (vegan if desired)
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons Irish whiskey
Caramel
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ cup margarine (vegan if desired, like Earth Balance)
  • 4 teaspoons milk (vegan if desired)

Method:

For the cupcakes:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and line regular cupcake pans with 14-16 liners (I used 14 as called for, but they overflowed the cups a bit and then sank, so I would do 16 next time.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the stout, oil, vinegar, and vanilla. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and whisk until just combined. Batter may be lumpy—that’s okay. Don’t over-mix or you’ll get too much gluten development and they’ll be tough and/or they’ll be flat because you deflated some of the leavening that begins as soon as the baking soda mixes with the liquid and acid.

3. Fill the lined cupcake tins between half and two-thirds full. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcake comes out clean with a few crumbs clinging to it. Cool the cupcakes completely before frosting.

slightly fallen. probably means the cups were filled too full.

For the buttercream:

1. Beat the shortening or margarine (or other solid fat at room temperature) until smooth. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time and mix until combined. Add the milk 1 Tablespoon at at time until it reaches a spreadable consistency. Add the whiskey, 1 teaspoon at a time, until you achieve the desired taste. Beat on high for 2 more minutes until very light and fluffy.

2. If your cupcakes also fell, you can level the top with frosting if desired. To decorate with a soft-serve style swirl, transfer the frosting to a piping bag or zip-top bag with a corner snipped off, and pipe in a spiral, starting on the outside edge and working towards the center.

3. Dust the top with cocoa powder if desired—I put about a teaspoon of cocoa in a fine mesh sieve and then hold the sieve over the frosted cupcakes and tap the side of the basket with the spoon.

It's possible that I undercooked or overcooked the caramel? Based on this recipe,it's impossible to tell. Really, just don't use this part of this recipe, please.For the (gritty, crystallized) caramel:

1. Combine the brown sugar, margarine, and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until it  comes together.

2. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 1-2 more minutes, until it begins to boil. Remove from the heat.

3. Let cool slightly and transfer to a ziptop bag and drizzle over the cupcakes.

Garlic Naan: Smoke Yourself Out of Your Kitchen, Deliciously

hey, January is a great time for your annual smoke detector test, right?

Naan Without a Tandoor

As I’ve written about before, the closest I’ve gotten to recreating the kind of bubbly, poufy flatbread you get at Indian restaurants is by cooking it on cast iron preheated on the stovetop as hot as it will possibly go. That gives you the charred surface and pale, pillowy edges. Oven baking turns the same dough into pita—too done all over, but not blackened anywhere.

The downside is that if you get your cast iron hot enough to cook naan and then brush it with ghee or oil, which you must do to prevent the dough from sticking, you’re going to generate a lot of smoke. So unless you have a miraculous kitchen fan or really like eating in smoky rooms, you might want to save this for a potluck or dinner party that someone else is hosting.

It’s pretty quick once you get cooking, especially if you have a griddle or two pots so you can cook two pieces at a time. The thirty seconds each piece takes to cook on one side is just long enough to roll out the next piece. In less than ten minutes, you can have the whole batch done and be out the door. And hopefully by the time you get home, the smoke will have cleared.

Pouf!

Recipe: Garlic Naan (adapted from All Recipes and my sourdough naan recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (.25 ounce, about 2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry or instant yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (follow temperature directions on the yeast package)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk or yogurt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic (I would double or triple this next time—the garlic flavor was pretty subtle)
  • 1/4 cup oil or melted butter
  • 1 t. kalonji/nigella/black onion seeds (optional)

Method:

1. Dissolve the yeast and 1 Tablespoon of the sugar in the water and let stand until frothy (5-10 minutes). If it doesn’t get frothy, the yeast is dead or your water was too hot and you should start over with new yeast.

just after dissolving the sugar and yeast in water after 10 minutes

2. Whisk together 3 cups of the flour with the salt and baking soda. Add that mixture and the rest of the sugar, the milk or yogurt, egg, garlic, and nigella seeds to the proofed yeast and stir until combined. Add as much flour as necessary to make a smooth dough that you can knead without it sticking to you too much.

3. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes—as with pizza, you need a lot of gluten to make the dough stretchy enough to roll out thinly without tearing.

4. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turn to coat the entire surface in oil, and let rise at least an hour or until doubled in size (you can leave it for much longer if you want—probably up to 24 hours—or refrigerate it for up to a week at this stage; just let it come to room temperature before baking).

just after kneading about 3 hours later--it probably looked like this an hour later too, but I had 3 hours of other stuff to do before I got back to it.

5. Preheat something cast-iron or stone with at flat surface at least 10” in diameter on your stovetop (a skillet, pot, baking stone, etc.) on the hottest setting. Meanwhile, pinch off portions of dough about the size of an egg and roll into smooth rounds (you should have between 12 and 16).

okay, maybe a little bigger than a chicken egg. think duck egg. they'll shrink up a bit after rolling them up, and they'll be delicious whether they look like perfect circles or the state of west virginia

6. One at a time, roll each ball into a circle approximately 1/4” thick, brush the cast iron surface with oil or melted butter/lard/ghee, and place the circle of dough on the grill. Let it cook until deeply browned (anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how hot your cooking surface is). Brush the raw side with more melted butter or oil, flip it over, and cook for another 30 seconds to 3 minutes, or until it’s cooked through.

Holy Crap, it’s Christmas! Cookies Part II: Soft Molasses Cookies

warm spiced cookies + a $5 bottle of blanc de blancs (thanks trader joe!) = enough holiday spirit to finally get around to decorating the tree

The Lovechild of a Gingerbread Man and a Snickerdoodle

Most of my Christmas standards are things I make because other people like them or because they’re my grandma’s recipes. In some ways, isn’t Christmas really all about grandmas? These are the one exception. They’re the cookies I make because I like them.

you could use cinnamon sugar if you want, but there's plenty of cinnamon in the dough and with the molasses making the dough darker, I'm not sure it would have much of a visual effectTexturally, they’re almost identical to snickerdoodles—they have the same ratio of butter : sugar : flour :  eggs and they’re also rolled in sugar before baking, so the outside gets crackly and has a little crunch. But flavor-wise, they’re all gingerbread: molasses and cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger and cloves. You can imagine how they smell as they bake.

The best part about these cookies is that if you don’t over-bake them, they turn out amazingly soft. And they stay that way even after they cool, even if you don’t store them in a perfectly airtight container, even if you want to make them a week before Christmas and savor them until New Year’s Day. I think it must be because of the little bit of oil in the dough. It does make them a little more prone to falling apart, but I think that’s a small price to pay for enduring just-out-of-the-oven softness.

If you like the kind of gingerbread that bites back, you might want to double all the spices. I think they’re  perfect as is: as much butter as you can possibly get into a cookie without it melting into a puddle of goo (which they occasionally do anyway, as you can see at approximately 3 o’clock in the picture above), just enough molasses and spices to be festive without getting too overbearing, and a little sparkle from the sugary coating. They’re also the easiest part of this year’s pared-down cookie assortment.

I don't know why they look so much darker here than above. Same cookies, I swear. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Recipe: Soft Molasses Cookies (from JoyofBaking.com)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flourI would not use blackstrap molasses. Also, whatever kind of measuring device you use, spray it with non-stick cooking spray first and you'll save yourself a lot of fuss.
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon regular)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil (I used peanut)
  • 1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup white sugar (for rolling)

Method:

1. Whisk the dry ingredients together (flour, soda, salt, & spices).

2. Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes with a stand or hand mixer, 5-10 minutes arm power).

3. Add the oil, molasses, egg, and vanilla to the butter mixture and beat until fully incorporated.

4. Add the flour mixture and stir just until fully incorporated.butter and brown sugar, beaten until light and fluffy

5. Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to a week.

6. Preheat the oven to 375 and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Put the white sugar in a bowl. Shape the cookies by pinching off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut, rolling them between your palms until they form smooth balls, and coating them in the sugar.

8. Using something with a flat bottom, like a drinking glass, flatten the balls slightly.

squish. also, this glass wants scotch.

9. Bake for 9-10 minutes, or until the tops of the cookies are crinkled but barely dry. They will look a little underdone.

10. Let them cool on the pans for about 10 minutes and then remove them to a cooling rack or paper towels to cool completely. Store any that don’t get eaten immediately in an airtight container.

Margaritas in Cupcake Form

Note: There are about 8 million entries I want to write. If I haven’t addressed your question or posted the recipe for that thing you liked—sorry. I probably haven’t forgotten about it. I just had a dissertation to finish, a wedding to plan, a honeymoon to go on, a book chapter to write, and three new classes to create. There’s no way I will get to all of the entries on my to-do list before the semester begins. In the meantime: have a cupcake recipe.

the buttercream was a little too soft and my hands a little to warm for perfectly pretty piping. whatever. they looked homemade, which they were.

TeacherPatti hosted a fiesta-themed cookout for the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers last weekend, and I decided tor take margarita-flavored cupcakes. Which are basically just lime cupcakes spiked with tequila and triple sec (or Cointreau, because that’s what I had on hand. If you really wanted to get fancy you could use Grand Marnier).

I used Brown Eyed Baker’s recipe, adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride, because BEB added booze to the batter and I’m also of the "More booze = better” school of baking. However, I’m not sure it mattered, as the tequila flavor didn’t come through in the cakes much. Not to worry: there’s more tequila and triple sec brushed on top after baking, and still more in the frosting. So this is probably not the recipe to make for a kid’s birthday party or playdate, unless your intention is to mellow the rugrats out a bit.

BEB used a classic American buttercream, but I opted for the original CFB choice of a Swiss buttercream. The former is just softened butter whipped with powdered sugar, which is what you get on most bakery cakes. The latter begins with egg whites and sugar cooked on the stovetop and then whipped into an airy meringue, which you gradually add softened butter to, bit by bit, until it forms an airy emulsion. It’s silkier, richer, and much less sweet than American buttercream. For these cupcakes, it also gets a splash of lime juice, tequila, and triple sec. I halved the recipe below because the full recipe made more than twice as much as I needed.

To further boost the margarita mimic factor, I made a “rim” around the top of each cupcake with coarse salt & sugar before piping the frosting in the middle and I topped them with slices of candied lime.

Whole slices might have had more structural integrity. Another option: just candy the peel and make shapes or curls.

Needs More Tequila

If I make them again, I’ll use a tequila with a stronger flavor. Hornitos silver turned out to be a little too smooth. Their resposado might have worked, and classic Cuervo Gold probably would have been okay, too. This is definitely not the place for sipping-quality tequila, for much the same reason that it’s usually foolish to cook with expensive wine.

I’ll also let cut the limes differently and let them simmer in the simple syrup longer. This time, I cut them in half and then into thin slices, and they kind of fell apart in the blanching and candying process. I removed them from the simple syrup before the pith was completely translucent because I was afraid I was going to end up with just candied lime rinds. As a result, they were kind of bitter—which I enjoy, but I know not everyone does. Next time: full round slices for candying. I’ll cut them in half before using them

Despite the subtlety of the tequila and the bitterness of the candied limes, the MLFBs seemed to enjoy them—several described it as a “nice adult cupcake.” And that’s not just because of the tequila. Unlike most cupcakes, these are not overly sweet, dominated instead by the richness of the butter and the tartness of the lime. Nice ending for a smoky, spicy meal.

even before being brushed with tequila, these were super moist. nice base recipe.

Recipe: Margarita Cupcakes (from Brown Eyed Baker)
makes 24 cupcakes

Ingredients

For the liquor:

  • 6 Tablespoons tequila (Sauza Hornitos or your favorite inexpensive brand)
  • 2 Tablespoons Grand Mariner, Cointreau or other orange liqueur

For the cupcakes:I wonder if the candied limes would have stayed a brighter green if I'd blanched them for less time...

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs (room temp)
  • zest and juice of 3 large limes
  • 1/4 cup liquor
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1-2 Tablespoons liquor for brushing

For the frosting:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 egg whites
  • 12 you kind of need a whole bag of limes for this recipeTablespoons butter, softened
  • 1-2 Tablespoons lime juice (zest before juicing if desired for garnishing)
  • 1-2 Tablespoons liquor

For the candied limes:

  • 2 large or 4 small limes
  • 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup water

For the salty-sugar rim:

  • 2 Tablespoons sanding sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Method

To candy the limes:

Slice thinly, and blanche in boiling water—meaning, boil some water, drop the slices in, let them simmer for 2 minutes, and then drain them well. Next, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water  in the same pot and bring the mixture to a simmer. Return the blanched lime slices to the pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the white pith looks translucent. Place the slices on a cooling rack and let dry for about an hour. Toss with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar and spread on waxed paper. Let dry overnight or at least another 6-8 hours. Store in an airtight container.  blanching

I'm not sure if there's a way to keep them bright & green...maybe an oven candying method?

For the cupcakes:

1. Preheat the oven to 325F. Either grease and flour muffin tins or line them with cups.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar for at least 5 minutes with an electric mixer (or 10 minutes by hand with a whisk), until fluffy and lightened in color. The sugar cuts through the butter and helps aerate it, which is part of what leavens the cake, so don’t skip or shorten this step.

butter before whipping--golden and dense butter after whipping: almost white, fluffy and increased volume

4. Add the eggs to the whipped butter one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition.

5. Add the lime zest, juice, vanilla, and liquor. Mix until combined. Don’t worry if it looks curdled.

at some points, it may look lumpy or curdled but it will smooth out the last addition of flour

6. Alternate adding the dry ingredients and buttermilk, starting and ending with dry—first, 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 the buttermilk, then another 1/3 of the dry, then the second 1/2 of the buttermilk, and lastly the remaining 1/3 dry. After each addition, stir just until combined. I like to do this part by hand with a spatula so as not to over-mix the batter, which will create gluten networks and make the cake tough.

7. Divide the batter between the prepared muffin tins—they should be about 2/3 full. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it.

8. Allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, and then remove and cool completely on a rack.

this was just a leetle too full--they rose over the edges and then fell a bit while cooling. But I was out of muffin tins as it was--you could maybe get as many as 28-30 cupcakes out of this recipe. a few overflowed a lot, but most just poufed above the papers and then sunk a little in the middle

For the frosting:

1. Fill a large pot or skillet with 1-2” water and heat to a simmer.

2. Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Hold the bowl over the simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160F.

the base of the bowl actually keeps the bowl out of the water, which is perfect--the meringue cooks slowly without curdling. alternately, you can use a pot that's small enough that the bowl just sits on top instead of all the way inside. after 10 minutes of whipping--a glossy, fluffy meringue

3. Attach the bowl to the mixer and beat at high speed with the whisk attachment until the mixture is cool and holds stiff, glossy peaks (about 10 minutes).

4. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the softened butter one tablespoon at a time. Beat each addition in fully before adding more. The mixture might seem to curdle or separate, just keep beating. You’re creating an emulsion, and sometimes it takes time to come together.

Buttercream troubleshooting: If you’ve added all the butter and beaten it for 20 minutes and it’s just not coming together, put the entire bowl in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes and then try beating it again. If that fails, scoop out about a cup, zap it in the microwave on high for 15-20 seconds, and then slowly pour the melted buttercream into the bowl while beating at medium speed with the whisk attachment.

5. Add 1 Tablespoon of the liquor and lime juice, beat until combined and taste. Add more of either or both if desired.

it doesn't increase in volume as you add butter--it seems like you're basically replacing the air in the meringue with butter

To Decorate:

1. Combine the sanding sugar and salt.

2. Brush the surface of each cupcake with some of the liquor mix.

3. Cover the center of the cupcakes with something that leaves just a small ring around the edge exposed, and sprinkle with the salty-sugar mix.tequila for brushing in the background, making the salty-sugar rim in the foregroundyou can adjust the ratio of salt:sugar to your taste

you could also just make a tequila-powdered sugar glaze and let the salty-sugar rim be the main decoration. and/or top with a whole slice of candied lime.

4. Either pipe or spoon the frosting into the center. Garnish with a piece of candied lime or fresh lime zest.cocktails as finger food!

Sourdough-risen Buns for Patties or Tubes

I assume fried onions would work about as well as fried shallots, but I've never tried because when you have fried shallots on hand, why would you ever buy fried onions?

Grill, Baby, Grill

Here’s to summer. To putting meat and meat-analogs on metal grates over fire until they have dark, charred lines and taste like smoke and sunburn. To cold lager beer and fresh berries and the smell of tomato vines. To small talk with neighbors over fences and sprinklers and not-small talk with friends over meals cooked and eaten outside. Get it while you can.

Twisting less crucial for tubes, I think. Still fun, though.

You can use just about any bread recipe for buns—just shape the dough into balls or logs and bake them for slightly less time than you would a whole loaf. But in case you’re looking for some additional tips or inspiration, here’s how I like to do it:

Buttery, Half-Whole Wheat, Twisty, and Topped with Shallots

I use a recipe pretty similar to the one I use for challah or dinner rolls, meaning it has a fairly high fat content and some egg in the dough, both of which make the rolls soft and rich (although not quite as buttery and decadent as brioche). I use about 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white flour so they have some wholesomeness and chew but still come out light and fluffy. I use milk or whey instead of water if I have either on hand—again for more softness and richness.

I'm not super precious about the shaping--you could probably make them much prettier if you were so inclined.For shaping, I divide the dough into balls the size of lemons and then divide each portion in half, roll those pieces into thin ropes and twist them together. For patties, I make the twist into a circle with one end tucked into the center on the bottom and one tucked into the center on the top. This is not just for aesthetics—it prevents the rolls from being overly thick in the middle. Because there are few things more disappointing in the burgers & brats realm than getting a bite that’s so bready you don’t taste the meat (or whatever else your patty/tube is composed of).

I brush them with an egg wash before baking so they get just a little glossy and brown and to help the toppings stick. My very favorite topping is crispy fried shallots, but sesame seeds or poppy seeds are pretty good, too.

Suggested Uses

Honestly, I prefer most burgers and sausages without a bun. A black bean burger topped with guacamole and tomato slices and a sunny side-up egg is probably one of my favorite meals, but I’d rather eat it with a knife and fork than sandwiched between two pieces of bread, no matter how good the bread is. However, if I had any room left in my belly after that, I might eat one of these for dessert—sliced in half, toasted lightly on the grill, brushed with some butter or mayonnaise or whatever else you got out for the corn on the cob and a sprinkle of salt. And they’re also a great vehicle for saucy braised meats like pulled pork or sloppy joes and summery sandwich fillings like egg salad or grilled veggies and cheese with pesto.

If they touch while baking, you can easily pull them apart. No big deal.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Buns (makes about 20 buns)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (1:1 flour: water)*
  • 1 cup milk, whey, or water 
  • 1/4 cup neutral-flavored oil or melted butter
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk in dough; 1 egg for brushing
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or other sweetener)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5-6 cups flour (any combination of white, whole wheat, or multigrain; if using a low-gluten flour like rye add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • optional: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fried shallots (or onions or garlic), grated hard cheeses, chopped sundried tomatoes, etc.

*If you want to substitute packaged yeast for the sourdough starter, increase the liquid to 2 1/2 cups and increase flour to 6 1/2-7 cups. Heat the liquid to 110-120F and whisk in 2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast and 2 Tablespoons of the sugar. Let sit 10-15 minutes before combining with the remaining ingredients.

Method:

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the starter, liquid, oil or butter, and egg.

2. Add the sugar, salt, and half of the flour and stir until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a dough. Gradually add as much of the remaining flour as needed until the dough becomes too stiff to stir.

dry ingredients added to the wet just starting to knead--a little scrappy and sticky

3. Dust a clean surface with flour and scrape the dough onto it. Begin to knead, adding flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to you. You want to add just enough flour to make the dough workable. If desired, cover the dough with the mixing bowl set upside down and let it rest for 15 minutes to let the flour absorb more of the moisture—that should make it less sticky and easier to knead.

4. Knead for 10-15 minutes, or until you feel like stopping. You don’t the kind of gluten networks that will form a baker’s windowpane for this kind of bread, but kneading it that long or longer wouldn’t hurt anything. The less you knead, the more uneven the crumb will be (you might see a variety of large and small air bubbles in the rolls); the more you knead, the more even it will be.

5. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the dough inside and turn so the whole surface is oiled. Cover and let rise 4+ hours or until doubled in size (1-2 hours for active dry or instant yeast). If you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor, let it rise for 8+ hours and/or after rising, put it in a zip-top bag and let it sit in the refrigerator for 24-72 hours before shaping and baking.

kneaded, oiled, ready to rise after an overnight rise--the sugar in the dough makes the yeast go a little crazy but there's no such thing as "over-risen" for the first rise. let it go as long as you want.

6. Punch the risen dough down in the middle and let rest 15 minutes. For regular-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a medium lemon or divide into 20 equal pieces (should be about 3.2 oz/90 g each). For smaller, slider-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a golf ball or divide into 36 pieces (around 1.75 oz/50 g).

For regular burger buns: shape each piece into a smooth ball,flatten until about 3/4 inches thick.

For hot-dog buns: rolls into a rope about 3/4 inch thick and 8” long. Slash once down the center or 2-3 times diagonally before baking, if desired

For twisty buns: divide each portion into 2 or 3 equal pieces, shape each piece into a rope about 8” long and twist or braid them and pinch the ends together. For kaiser rolls, make the twist into a circle and pinch the ends underneath.

Let rise again until doubled or almost the desired finished size, 2+ hours (30 min-1 hr if using active dry or instant yeast)

egg washed, topped, ready for the oven

7. Preheat the oven to 375F 30 minutes before baking. Whisk an egg with about 1 Tablespoon of water or milk and brush the tops of the buns. Just before baking, brush with the egg wash again and sprinkle with toppings.

8. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are beginning to brown and the internal temperature is between 190-200F.

Roasted Garlic & Mustard Sourdough Soft Pretzels

thinner ropes = bigger holes, higher ratio of crust: interior, better for noshing with beer & sausage; thinner rope = no holes, better for slicing and making pretzel roll sandwiches

When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown

A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.

Raw ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread! Baked ugly lumps of soapy tasting bread!

Ugly Lumps of Soapy-Tasting Bread
(not likely to be a family favorite)

Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*

I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.

I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.

Peeling roasted garlic is kind of a pain. I kind of wish you could just buy it in a tube, like tomato or anchovy paste. Maybe you can? I would be so on board with outsourcing this step to the food industry.        Mashed the garlic up with melted butter. This shows the before & after becasue I made two separate batches to see if I could tell the difference between mustard powder and prepared Dijon. I could not.

Simple roasted garlic: wrap head of garlic in foil, place in 400-500F oven for ~45 minutes

This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.

they split a little while baking, but I think that makes them rustic & attractive.

If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.

*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.

On Browning and Lye

some other time, i'll do a baking soda/ baked baking soda/ lye comparison. Egg wash only, Baking soda bath only, Baking soda bath + Egg wash

Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.

You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels. 

When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee

Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
  • 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
  • herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
  • oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
  • 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
  • 1 egg for egg wash
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)

Method:

1. If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.

2. Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.

3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.

4. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.

6. Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.

if the dough won't stick to itself, you can use a little egg wash to "glue" the strands togetherlots of theories on the origin of the shape--my favorite is that they were shaped like arms in prayer and given as a reward to children to encourage them to learn their catechism  like the "kosher" bagel, the pretzel was traditionally seen as a lenten food because it is traditionally made with no fat or egg in the dough

Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.

7. One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.

intially, the pretzels sunk to the bottom and occasionally stuck to the pot; just gently nudge them lose and they'll float to the surface the unboiled guy is hanging out up there in the left corner. I used a reddish kosher salt from somewhere in Utah

8. Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.

Dulce de Leche Macarons, Defense Catering Part II

If cupcakes were typically glazed with dulce de leche instead of piled high with too-sweet buttercream, I might feel differently about them.

According Bon Apetit, NPR, Salon, and The New York Post, macarons are “the new cupcake.” I, for one, welcome our new, smaller, less frosting-dominated confectionery overlords.

Unlike the American macaroon, usually composed mostly of shredded coconut, the French macaron is a little sandwich cookie made from two airy disks of sweetened almond meal and beaten egg whites stuck together with buttercream or jam. The meringue-like shells usually aren’t flavored, although they are often tinted to match the filling. Traditional filling flavors include vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, and  pistachio. I decided to fill mine with dulce de leche, which I prefer to even the most delicious cooked buttercream. Dulce de leche is basically the apotheosis of the Maillard reaction—milk cooked down with sugar until it forms a thick, sticky caramel. You can start with fresh milk if you prefer, but most people just use sweetened condensed milk.

I baked the dulce du leche in a water bath this time; in the past, I've used the dangerous boiling-a-whole-can method. Both detailed below.

If you cover the dish, you won't have to pull off the burned layer...if you forget, like I did, don't throw it away. That part is almost more delicious than the regular stuff. 

I used a recipe from Tartelette, which appeared to be studded with some kind of caramelized sugar. That turned out to be a praline. However, it wasn’t clear from the recipe when the almonds were supposed to be added to the sugar or in what form (whole? chopped? all it said was “not blanched”). For my first attempt, I added whole almonds to the praline, but once I chopped it up in a food processor as instructed, it just looked like regular chopped up almonds, not at all like Tartelette’s pictures. So I made a second hard caramel without the almonds. That looked right…but then, in the oven, the bits sprinkled on the macaron shells melted and made half of the shells collapse.

I later discovered a much more thorough write-up on all things macaron at Not So Humble Pie. In the future, I’ll use that recipe and skip sprinkling the shells with anything.

The shells, before baking. As they bake, the meringue rises up and forms the little ruffled "feet"

Anyhow, despite being half-collapsed, they were pretty delicious, although they are intensely sweet. You can make them significantly in advance of serving—the quality doesn’t begin to degrade noticeably for at least a few days. We’re still enjoying the leftovers, a full week after the defense. Also, any leftover dulce de leche is incredible on ice cream, pancakes, apple slices, or just licked off a spoon.

Recipe: Dulce de Leche Macarons (adapted from Tartelette)

For the praline sprinkle (if using):Whenever I'm blending powdered sugar, I cover the food processor bowl with plastic wrap so it doesn't billow out like smoke and coat the kitchen in stickyness

  • 2/3 cup sugar

For the dulce du leche:

  • 1 can sweetened condense milk
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 vanilla bean (or 1/4 t. vanilla bean paste)

For the macaron shells:

  • 3 egg whites
  • 50 g. granulated sugar
  • 200 g. powdered sugar
  • 110 g. almond meal

1. Place the sugar in a dry saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize. Cook to a light amber, and then spread on an oiled baking sheet. Let cool for about 10 minutes, and then break into pieces and whiz to a fine powder in a blender or food processor.

dry caramel cooking shards of praline in the food processor

2. If you feel like living dangerously, simply cover the unopened can of sweetened condensed milk with water and boil for 3-4 hours. Make sure to check the water level frequently—if the can gets too hot, it may explode. If there’s any air trapped in the can and it expands, it’ll explode anyway. Assuming no explosions happen, let the can cool, open it, and whisk in the salt and vanilla bean seeds.

Alternatively: poke 2 holes in one side of the can and place it in a pot with water up to 1” from the top of the can and simmer for about 2 hrs, adding water periodically to keep the can at least half-submerged. A washcloth placed under the can will keep it from rattling. Ditto with the whisking salt and vanilla bean in after it’s cool.

Or use the oven method: Preheat the oven to 425F. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a shallow pan and whisk in the salt and vanilla bean seeds. Cover that pan tightly with foil and place it in another larger pan. Pour enough water into the larger pan to rise at least halfway up the sides of the smaller pan, and bake for 1-1/2 hours, or until it’s as thick and dark as you want it. Whisk until smooth.

If you’re dumb like me and forget to cover the pan with foil, you’ll end up with a dark, blistered skin on top that you’ll have to skin off if you want your dulce de leche to be smooth and creamy.

3. Measure the powdered sugar and almond meal into the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Alternatively, just whisk them together by hand.

4. Whip the egg whites using electric beaters or a whisk. Gradually add the granulated sugar, continuing to beat until the mixture forms a glossy meringue. Beat just until there are semi-stiff peaks. You don’t want to overbeat the mixture to the point where it looks dry. Not So Humble Pie swears by hand-beating in a copper bowl. I used a KitchenAid and checked the mixture every 10-15 seconds once it looked thick and glossy. I stopped as soon as the peak formed by lifting up the beaters would stay standing up.

the peak folded over a bit, but the peak was stiff

4. Gently sprinkle 1/3 of the almond-powdered sugar mixture over the egg whites, and then fold in with a spatula just until almost combined. Use big strokes that scoop from the bottom of the bowl—you don’t want to deflate the egg white foam you’ve created too much. Repeat with the remaining two thirds of the almond meal—sprinkle and fold, sprinkle and fold, and then continue folding just until fully combined. It should flow like thick cream or pouring custard—if you spoon a little bit onto a plate, it should flatten into a smooth round on its own within 30 seconds with no peaks. If there are peaks that won’t flatten out, give the batter a few more turns with the spatula until it flows like magma.

5. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag or a ziploc with the tip cut off. Pipe little circles about the size of a quarter or a bit larger onto parchment-lined baking sheets.

6. Let the shells sit for 30-60 minutes, or until the tops are dry. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 290F.

7. Bake for 16-20 minutes, or until the shells are set. Watch carefully in the last minutes and remove them before they begin to brown. They should remain a tiny bit moist inside, like a mini version of pavlova.

8. Let cool completely, and then fill with dulce du leche (or whatever else you like).

Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies with Buttercream Frosting

A Modern Tradition

This my mother’s sugar cookie recipe, from her mother before her. I don’t know who my grandma got it from or when it acquired the name “old fashioned.” It can’t be older than mid-19th C. because it calls for chemical leaveners.These are not, however, the softest sugar cookies I've ever made. Click on the picture for the link to that recipe. The whole point of the sour cream is to provide an acid to react with the alkali baking soda and produce a tender, puffy cookie. That makes them completely unlike really “old-fashioned” cookies, which were usually unleavened and baked until they were completely hard and dry (for more on cookie history, see foodtimeline.com). However, now that chemical leaveners have been around long long enough to be part of recipes handed down for three generations or more, I suppose they can be “modern” and “old-fashioned” at the same time.

I like this particular recipe for Christmas cookies because it’s not as sweet or rich as most sugar cookie recipes—the ratio of fat : sugar : flour in the dough is 1: 1: 3. Compare that to the “Classic Sugar Cookies” in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, which are 1: 1: 2, or Dorie Greenspan’s Sablés, which are 4: 3: 8. I’d go with one of the other recipes if I were going to leave them plain or just sprinkle them with colored sugar before baking, but I think the slightly less-sweet base makes them a better vehicle for frosting.

Frosting presents bakers with something of a dilemma: either you can make something gorgeous, sleek, and stylish, or you can make something delicious. In the cake world, that dilemma is primarily represented by fondant vs. buttercream. In the cookie world, it’s largely royal icing vs. buttercream. Behold Royal Icing: 

If I thought I could actually do half as good a job as Olivia does, I admit I might be a little more conflicted. dorie greenspans cookies                           From the Kitchen of Olivia                                                  Chow.com

Even though those are really pretty, and royal icing also has the benefit of setting up hard enough to handle any amount of stacking or transport, when it’s a choice between butter or no butter, I’m almost always going to choose butter.

They're cute enough, right? Although the noses almost invariably get squashed before anyone can appreciate them. In retrospect, I probably should have done a garland on the tree instead of ornaments, which have a vaguely pox-like effect.

Buttercream Nationalism

There are basically two kinds of buttercream—cooked and uncooked. However, there are varying techniques, and they’re referred to by nation. Italian buttercream is made by beating egg whites to stiff peaks and then cooking them by gradually adding a hot sugar syrup. Then you add softened butter, which will initially look curdled as it mixes with the hot meringue but eventually emulsifies. Swiss buttercream is similar, but instead of drizzling in a syrup, you cook the meringue by holding it over boiling water while you beat the egg whites and sugar together. French buttercream is made using the same technique as Italian buttercream, but with yolks instead of whites (a base called pâte à bombe).

For cakes and fillings, cooked buttercreams can’t be beat. All three versions are smooth and airy, pipe like a dream, and—most importantly—are totally delicious. They’re kind of like a custard or mousse made with butter instead of cream. But they’re not great for cookie decorating because they’re not very firm at room temperature. They’ll harden if chilled (just like the butter they’re largely composed of), but you wouldn’t be able to stack them first—you’d have to refrigerate or freeze them in single layers, which is a pain. And you’d have to keep them chilled in order to transport them without the frosting melting into goo. I make these primarily to send them to people who live across the country, so I need something with a little more structural integrity.

If you don't want to bother with all the fussy details, a slightly thicker layer plus some sprinkles can look just as festive.

The usual answer for cookies is American buttercream, which is just butter and powdered sugar thinned with a little milk or cream and beaten until smooth. It’s acquired a bit of a bad reputation because most grocery store bakeries use that technique, but they substitute shortening for the butter. The result is the flavorless, waxy, tooth-achingly sweet frosting you get on most grocery store cakes, which usually gets eaten around or scraped aside and left on the plate. But the method isn’t really the problem, it’s the shortening and the ratio of sugar: fat. 

Most recipes for homemade American buttercream call for nearly 4 : 1 sugar: fat. I cut the sugar by more than half. That makes it a little softer at room temperature, and if you’re going to use piping bags, you have to use small portions in the decorating bag to prevent the heat from your hands from melting it. But once it air dries, it’s just hard enough to stack (gently). Depending on how elaborate and delicate your decorations are, and what kind of abuse they have to withstand, they might arrive at their destination slightly squashed, but at least they’ll still taste terrific. 

Recipe: Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
(makes approximately 3 dozen)

Ingredients:

  • Sour cream1/4 c. melted butter 
  • 1/4 c. melted shortening or lard
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (or 1 t. regular table salt)
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg or 1/2 t. cinnamon, or a dash of both
  • 1/2 c. sour cream

Method:

1. Pre-heat oven to 425F

2. Combine the melted fat, sugar, egg, and vanilla in one bowl. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3 additions, alternating with three dollops of sour cream. Stir until well combined.

4. Divide dough in half, and cover one half with plastic wrap. Roll the other out to approximately 1/4” thick and cut in desired shapes and place 1” apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

5. If you’re not planning to frost them, sprinkle them with coarse or colored sugar. Otherwise, leave plain. Bake 8-10 minutes or until just beginning to darken slightly at the edges.

christmas cookies 019christmas cookies 022 

Recipe: Vanilla Buttercream
(makes approximately 3 cups, which is enough to frost about 3 dozen cookies) 

christmas cookies 043Ingredients:

  • 20 T. butter, softened (2 1/2 sticks) 
  • 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • a pinch of table salt
  • 2 t. vanilla extract
  • 2 T. heavy cream

1. Using a stand mixer or a spatula, beat the butter until smooth and creamy—about 1 minute.

2. Add the salt and gradually add the sugar, beating slowly until incorporated. Add the vanilla and heavy cream and beat until combined.

3. Increase the speed to high and beat for 4-10 minutes, or until no lumps remain and it’s satiny smooth.