Thursday, March 31, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "Your Culinary Delight"

Photo by Katya
Second Dinner

Katya did not actually get to taste the beautiful cake that she decorated at her parents' house with her parents' spring flowers, but her blog is a good read anyway, filled with quotes from Deadwood, a photo of a bird's nest made for a bird-size Homer Simpson, and the observation that caramel buttercream with "bits of chewy caramel" in the finished product is probably a good thing.  I concur.  The people at whose dinner this cake ended up are the ones who called it a culinary delight, and I concur there too.

Faithy was also deprived of a chance to sample her own culinary masterpiece.  (Don't worry--it's not a trend.  I think everyone else ate a slice or two.)  Which is too bad, because she could only guess at how her substitution of caramel whipped cream for the caramel buttercream worked with the cake.  It looked beautiful, topped with the chocolate glaze that many of us considered optional.  Even though the cake was snatched out from under her and whisked away while she was left with porridge for dinner (I'm making it up about the porridge), she did get to eat the cake scraps and a few nibbles of caramel whipped cream.  They were "very yummy" and "very good," respectively.

When Vicki made this cake, she couldn't get Bradley Cooper out of her head.  Well, he is pretty cute, but she was really just thinking of him as the chef in Burnt, who decorates a cake by blowing gold dust over chocolate lacquer.

So naturally she wanted to try it too.  "It's not as easy as it looks," but "so fun!"  Aside from blowing gold dust, how was the cake itself?  "Definitely a cake for a special occasion," but "very sweet, light, and airy.  And wickedly delicious."  

Let us admit here that, as Jen said, this cake is "neither quick nor easy."  In fact, it's an all-day project, what with the various steps and the various cooling periods.  In fact, as Jen was making the cake, she "proclaimed, 'I will never make this again!'"  But after she tasted it, she began to relent.  Not entirely, but she's now at the point where she says she might make it again "after [she] forget[s] how long 5 hours can be.  It was really very delicious."  Wouldn't it be nice to have a personal chef to whom you could say, "I think it would be nice to have the FloRo Elegance cake for dessert tonight," and the chef would say, "I think so too, madam."

Rosa would make a great candidate for a personal chef (although I don't think she's interested in the job).  The more complicated the recipe, the better she likes it.  She baked her cake in 8-inch pans so they were tall enough to split, and she added coffee liqueur to the buttercream for another layer of flavor.  Then, after she made the buttercream and the lacquer, she also piped whipped cream decorations on the top and bottom of the cake.  As her blog says, "simply delicious!"

Kristina subtitled her post "Or something Kristina more or less made up," so naturally my interest was piqued.  It turned out that she hadn't exactly made it up, but had sort of merged two recipes.  She made the chocolate cake according to the recipe, but instead of making the caramel buttercream, she used the mixture from Step 1 of the Dutch Pecan Sandies recipe we made a few weeks ago.  When she made the cookies, she tasted the batter at that point and just wanted to eat it.  It tasted like buttercream, looked like buttercream, so why not use it as buttercream?  Inventive, yes?  She turned out to be not completely happy with the result, although she still thought the flavors were incredible, but "only good in small doses."  But the cake--well the cake is as good as Mom's--"high praise indeed."  Kristina's post also includes a photo of an old handwritten recipe for Burnt Leather Cake,  Sounds unappetizing, but it's also known as burnt sugar cake and was very popular at the turn of the (20th) century.  Oh, here's a link to an article by Marion Cunningham about updating the Burnt Leather Cake.  

Rachel thought the recipe looked "daunting," but felt better after she saw that the lacquer glaze was optional.  "I decided I could handle a multi-part cake and multi-step frosting if I could stop when I was done with them."  Rachel is smart about using the resting times--go out for lunch with your daughter is one nice thing to do.  So is getting a pedicure, but I don't know whether Rachel did that.  I do know that she improvised a double boiler with a gadget called the Staybowlizer.  Really!  And it worked.  Rachel's "soft caramel" turned out to be hard caramel.  But, again, Rachel was not daunted--just flavor it with lemon curd instead of caramel, and all will be well.  "Bonus:  homemade caramels."

Next week:  a recipe I've not been looking forward to, since it's a combination of my least favorite dessert (meringues) and my least favorite technique (piping).  Put them together and you have Meringue Birch Twigs.  I'll admit that they look stunning (if done right).  I hope some of you brilliant decorators do these so we can see how they're meant to be done.

And in the what-was-I-thinking category, in two weeks we have another chocolate layer cake.  All I can say is that I've moved recipes around a lot and, when I do, there's always some oddity that I didn't notice.  But by then, you'll have eaten up all your FloRo Elegance cake, and your family and friends will be wanting more chocolate cake.  Fortunately, you'll be able to oblige them.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Chocolate FloRo Elegance with Caramel Buttercream

When I started getting the ingredients out for this recipe, Jim asked me if it was one of those recipes that everyone was going to complain about.  "I don't think so," I said.  "There are some steps involved, but it doesn't look too complicated."  Eight hours later, I told him there might be some complaining.  The cake itself isn't difficult, but the buttercream is a little tricky.  (I bobbled it).  And by the end of eight hours, my kitchen looked like the DEA had done a thorough search of all my kitchen supplies.  But is it good?  Oh my, yes.

With the dark, unsweetened chocolate, the cocoa, and the black coffee, I expected a darker chocolate cake, but it ended up looking more like a traditional German chocolate cake than a chocolate cake.

You can see that even adding the cup of strong coffee mixed with cocoa barely shifts the color.  If goes from light brown to very light medium brown.  This is not bad--it just came as a surprise.

But it looks as rich and thick as a cake made with a cup of sour cream should look.

I love the color of the caramelizing sugar.  I dithered for a while about whether the color on the left was "dark amber" or just amber.  By the time I stopped dithering, more of it was the color on the right, which was definitely dark amber.  Maybe too dark?  The buttercream turned out to be darker than I thought it would be, just to add further confusion.

What I did wrong with the caramel:  instead of putting it in the refrigerator for just 45 miinutes, I forgot about it and left it in for 3 or 4 hours.  By then it was rock-solid and needed to be zapped to get it to a pourable consistency again.  That made it both too hot to mix well, and too dark.

By the time I'd made the caramel and the white chocolate custard base, I'm not sure I had a single clean bowl in the house.  I had to get my spare stand mixer bowl to complete the buttercream.

So much richness!

I didn't weigh the cake batter, so the top layer was noticeably taller than the bottom layer.  I don't know why I didn't weigh it.

I'm pretty sure that I've mentioned before that if a step is considered optional, there's a pretty good chance I'll ignore it.  Hence I skipped the optional lacquer glaze and substituted opening a bag of precious Valrhona perles and sprinkling them atop.  Much easier.

There are specks and spots of caramel that didn't get completely mixed into the buttercream, but it was after 10:00 when I got to this stage, so I didn't really care.

Next day.  I cut a hefty slice of cake for Jim to photograph (and eat).

My piece is smaller.

Flo and Rose are a good combo.  Rose's descriptive words are very apt:  "buttery, mellow, airy, and moist."  For fans of moist cakes, this will be heaven.  I didn't think it was very bittersweet, and, in fact, it did not taste intensely chocolate.  But that may be because the caramel buttercream was so spectacularly rich and flavorful that the chocolate paled in comparison.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "The house smelled so wonderful as the bread baked away."

Photo by Tony
One Crumb at a Thyme

Two questions came up in this week's baking:  the first, a more intellectual question: what makes a babka a babka?  And the second, a more practical one:  which filling should I make?  Wikipedia, not surprisingly, has a lot to say about babkas, including that there is a Christian babka and a Jewish babka.  Bon Appetit did a recent cover story on babkas, but I kind of lost faith in the scholarliness of the article when it compared babka to Taylor Swift.  And, of course, who can think of babka without thinking of Seinfeld?

Perhaps following Elaine's dictum that anything other than chocolate is a "lesser babka," most Alpha Bakers, including Tony, opted for the chocolate almond schmear filling.  But this had its own problems--the recipe calls for one cup of cake crumbs, "fresh or stale."  Say what?  In my house, fresh cake gets eaten before it goes stale.  And no one seemed to have cake crumbs lying around. Tony bought some chocolate cupcakes for the crumbs, and forced himself to eat a cupcake for "quality control."  Oh, the sacrifices we bakers are forced to make.

Nancy, who also baked the chocolate version, drew this lesson from the project:  "You can get away with a good bit of sloppiness and still have a wonderful bread at the end."  That lesson must be why bread is my favorite thing to bake.  Nancy's "sloppiness" wasn't that serious, though.  It simply involved giving the bread a "mistaken second rise," using all King Arthur bread flour, and forgetting to add the vanilla--not huge mistakes.  Anyway, to make up for it, she suggested using leftover challah instead of leftover cake crumbs.  Since I freeze bread to toast it, and I'll bet a lot of you do too, you're much more likely to have spare challah than spare cake.  She opted for chocolate "because, well, chocolate."  Can you imagine if chocolate had never been discovered and you just last week ate your first bite?  I wonder if we'd be telling our friends that they must try this weird flavor called chocolate.  

We Alpha Bakers can be quite clever.  Faithy wanted to make the chocolate filling, but had just eaten the last two pieces of leftover pound cake (What?  Who has leftover pound cake?) and she had also left her almond paste in the office refrigerator.  (???)  But she did have some leftover mini Bretons, which were almond-flavored and cake-like.  Done and done.  Her verdict:  "Overall, I like this bread.  However, I find that it doesn't keep well doesn't taste as good as when it is freshly baked."  Faithy, it lasts very well in the freezer.  As I was reading all the posts on babka, I had to keep fighting the urge to take a piece out of the freezer, thaw it, and eat it.  I pushed temptation away.  And then I just couldn't do it any more.

Babka has two affection names in the Evil Cake Lady household:  Cakebread (or Breadcake) and Swirlybread.  Both of those names are more evocative than babka.  And if grown people can get credit for coming up with the name Cro-Nut, I'd like to be the first to congratulate Eliot for his descriptive Swirlybread.  Jen made the chocolate filling, (no word on where the cake crumbs came from).  When the bread was out of the oven, looking so glorious, she asked permission of other Alpha Bakers to dig in right now instead of waiting for the bread to cool.  Permission DENIED, Private!  So she waited, and (reportedly) was glad she did.  Sometimes a case can be made for self-discipline.

Catherine is no doubt the only person who made the babka to take to the office for their Harmony Day Celebration.  We could certainly use a Harmony Day in the U.S. but it's unlikely to happen because we're all too angry.  You're really supposed to bring a food that exemplifies the food of your ancestors, and Catherine allowed as how babka really wasn't the food of her ancestors, but really, who cares?  As long as you get to eat babka.  No cake crumbs for Catherine, but she used almond crumbs.  And Marzipan.  And she didn't swear while she was making this bread/cake.  I believe that she was feeling very harmonious.  

Katya has made this babka twice:  once with the almond filling, which was "delicious," and was promptly devoured by her co-workers.  She baked the chocolate-filled babka for Thanksgiving, and her guests did not eat it "quite as voraciously" as the almond-filled one was eaten, but it was Thanksgiving weekend, when there's too much of every kind of food available.  Katya herself is partial to "the richer and sweeter charms of the Zabar-style stuff," and she is unconvinced that Rose's "great filled brioche" is the real thing.  I have a feeling that there are as many "real" babka recipes as there are real baking grandmothers.

Vicki opted for the almond filling, although she made this rather cryptic remark about it.  "An unopened box of almond paste does not have an indefinite shelf life."  Probably only the people who actually tasted Vicki's babka may feel an urgent need to know whether she just shrugged and used the almond paste well paste its "use by" date or whether she sighed and bought a new box.  I'm sure she made the right decision.  This bread was a turning point for Vicki--the day when baking bread turned into just another baking project, like cake or cookies, and not a heart-stopping ordeal.  Congratulations!  And congratulations on the fine-looking, swirly piece of almond babka.

Kim also chose the almond filling, even though she's "not much of a fan of almond paste."  "But mixed with Muscovado and cinnamon--I'm putty."  This was exactly the kind of baking that makes Kim a baker.  "It was so delicious.  I wanted to share it with everyone, not to get rid of it, but to show why I love to bake and what kind of sweetness rings my bell."  Well said, Kim.  Even the seam bursting open and spewing forth almond filling didn't faze her.  And it shouldn't have, because it still turned out to be an exceptionally beautiful loaf of bread.

And Jenn also decided to fill her half-recipe of babka with almond filling.  Jenn was "crazy enough" (her words, though I don't disagree) to make her babka on the same day as she made the Pecan Sandies, and she included one photo of a mass of dirty dishes in the sink.  But she loves baking bread, so her double baking project ended up not feeling too stressful.  Jenn loved the almond filling, although she thought it looked a little gross.  But looks can be deceiving and this sweet, nutty filling turned out to be anything but gross.  With its "brown and perfect" crust, this bread was a winner.

As you may know by now, "babka" is a diminutive of "babushka," Russian for grandmother.  Kristina was told by a guy at work that babka was a rude way of referring to a grandmother in Russian.  But after making Kristina feel guilty for her lack of "cultural sensitity," Sergey proceeded to eat his share, which was "greatly appreciated."  The apricot filling was tarter than Kristina expected, but after she got over her initial surprise, she "really enjoyed it" and now wants to try all the rest of the fillings.  I think she should only share with Sergey if it's Harmony Day.

Rachel chose the apricot cream cheese filling by process of elimination.  She had planned to make the almond filling, but had made too many nutty things lately.  And the chocolate?  Still the almond problem,  and "where would I get cake crumbs?"  But the apricot cream cheese turned out to be fabulous, and, in the process of being made, justified Rachel's long-ago decision to buy a "funky hand-crank chopper," which turned out to be just the thing to chop up softened apricots.  "Even prettier when you cut into it.  We're set for breakfast this week!"  I love our little band of baking brothers and sisters who all get to eat homemade babka for breakfast!

Next week:  a chocolate cake that represents the best of both Rose and Flo Braker.  You can't get much better than that.  Even if you don't want to bake a chocolate cake (although why wouldn't you?), you should still try the caramel buttercream.  If you like caramel, you'll find it doesn't get much better than this.

The following week, we'll try our hand at making meringue birch twigs.  I know that some of you, who have excellent piping skills and like meringues, have been looking forward to these.  To make them exactly by the book, you should find some "fine-quality raspberry flavoring."  It may not be easy to find this; fortunately, you're allowed to substitute with "flavoring of your choice."

Thanks for being so prompt this week with your posts, allowing me to post the roundup on Wednesday morning!

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Katya says this is not real babka.  I can't really express an opinion on that (and how I hate not being able to express an opinion!), but I've heard many times--many, many times from transplanted New Yorkers--that you can't get a decent bagel in Minnesota.  I've tasted babka only one other place--a bakery in Edina, MN.  Edina is known as one of the most homogeneous suburbs in Minneapolis (not to mention a frequent answer in crossword puzzles), and I'd be the first to admit that their babka, while quite good, might not be the same kind of babka you'd pick up in a New York deli.  My point, though, is that while this might not be the babka of your childhood, it's awfully good.  And maybe your childhood babka wasn't as good as you remember it being.  My own childhood favorite was a Velveeta sandwich on soft white bread slathered with Miracle Whip and made healthy with a big, crisp piece of Iceberg lettuce.

I'll confess that when I first took a look at the recipe, I groaned as I was turning all those pages.  Then I realized it was a pretty simple, if sticky, dough, and that most of the pages were giving directions for variations on the sweet almond filling.  I decided to do the almond filling, although I felt a strong pull toward the chocolate schmear.  (And by the way, maybe someone from New York can tell me why it's an almond filling, but a a chocolate schmear).  What turns a filling into a schmear?

Back to the subject at hand.  The dough is easier and not as sticky as brioche, and you can choose to make it with minimal time in the refrigerator or you can overnight it.  I was able to make mine in one day.

I found the dough to be sticky, but not "unmercifully" so.  Again, easier to work with than brioche.

Folding the corners of the dough toward the center to make a circle (or a square).  This is one of the times you can opt for a short or a long rise.  It was getting late, but I didn't want to fool around with this before breakfast.  I wanted to be able to slice an already baked and cooled babka for said breakfast.

Bread dough is one of my favorite things to work with, but it's always white, beige, or brown.  And always being pushed down.  Not like the sweet gloriousness of butter, sugar, and golden syrup.  But if man (and woman) can't live on bread alone, they for sure can't live on almond filling alone.  It would soon seem cloyingly sweet.  But a little is a very good thing.

The almond filling in a bowl and the almond filling being spread on the dough.

If schmear just means smear, which I think is pretty accurate, this almond spread would seem to be a schmear.  Maybe there's more to it than that.  Or maybe I'm just overthinking it.  To make up for not having an opinion on whether this is a true babka.

Well, enough of that.  This pan is one that Woody brought me at some point when he was cleaning out his kitchen.  It has "1000" written on it in indelible pen.  I have no idea what that means.  Capacity?  Woody's sorting system?  The pan is awfully big.  The directions say there should be about two inches between the top of the dough and the top of the pan.  That's way more than two inches.  But the dough feels right, so I'm not worried.

And it came out of the oven high and handsome.  The extravagant amount of butter brushed on the outside of the bread lends its flavor to the bread, softens it, and makes it glisten.  A butter trifecta!

I had one piece for breakfast, along with yogurt and berries.  The yogurt and berries were the healthy part.  That would have been perfect, but I decided I wanted a second piece of babka.  That was a mistake.  I could no longer fool myself that I was eating moderately.  Also what tasted just right in one piece became way too sweet in two pieces.

JJ came over in the afternoon.  I put some slices out on a plate and put them on the coffee table.  He asked me what that "brown stuff" was.  I told him it was bread that tasted sweet.  He heard "bread" and "sweet," and scarfed down a piece, rubbed his belly, and said, "yum."  I guess he thinks it's authentic babka.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "Extremely Fragile-icious"

Photo by Orin
Orin's Goodies

Reading Orin's blog makes me, once again, reflect on the difference between a true baker and a recipe follower.  Orin is a true baker--one who carefully reads the recipe, sees the pitfalls ahead and figures out how to deal with them, and then adapts to her own needs.  For instance.  Well, first of all, she already has a big batch of brown butter made and stored ahead of time.  That is impressive in itself.  
Then, she could tell just by looking at the dough that it would be a "challenge," and she didn't even bother with a rolling pin--just used the palm of her hand to coax the dough into a circle.  Then, what really impressed me was--after hiding the cookies from her fiance, she decided to use them for the crust for a cheesecake, reducing the amount of butter in the crust recipe to allow for the buttery cookies, and it was a beautiful success.  Go to her blog to see these cookies morphed into a cheesecake crust.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a recipe follower, although sometimes not following the recipe can lead to great results.  Jen knew from reading the recipe that these cookies were going to make her tear her hair out, and they did.  "This cookie tried my patience and almost made me hate it, but the end product is so delicious and addicting that I may just make them again.  No promises."  Instead of rolling them out with a pin, Jen rolled the dough into logs, froze them, and sliced the dough into coins.  It went pretty well except for the first batch, which she tried to slice while they were still frozen.  The dough rebelled.  And took forever to bake.  But once they were done, she and Eliot ate one, "then another.  Then another."  "Amazing."

Faithy also tried Jen's trick of rolling the cookies into logs.  It's been very hot in Singapore lately, so Faithy had been planning to sit out this recipe--it just wasn't the weather for rolling out sticky, fragile cookie dough.  And it worked!  Faithy is also a person who just happens to have  a few tubs of clarified butter in the freezer.  "Just the right amount of sweetness and spice....  And now I know why these cookies are called Sandies, because the texture is very sandy ... in a good way."

According to Catherine, "everything is better in a star shape.  This is a universal truth."  And to think I don't even have any star-shaped cookie cutters--what a loss I've been suffering all these years!  But not Catherine.  At least partly because of the shape, these cookies were "a definite hit."  "Delicately crunchy, very sandy, nutty flavoured and perfumed with cinnamon and a mix of sugars.  They got a thumbs up all round from my taste-testers."  When a friend asked her if they were hard to make, she quickly assured her they were not, but then thought about making the beurre noisette, and refrigerating, then freezing the dough, and rolling them out...  But "if you've ever made a 9-pages-of-instructions, behemoth cheesecake, cake and buttercream extravaganza, then starry biscuits are somewhat of a doddle in comparison."  Alles ist relativ.

To Aimee, "this recipe proves that your freezer is a baking tool."  I never thought of it that way, but she's absolutely right.  Without some freezer time, these cookies wouldn't be ready for oven time.  The notion of pecan sandies brought back some happy childhood memories for Aimee.  "As a kid I was a big fan of pecan sandies that the elves baked in their tree".  [Wonder if they had a freezer in their tree too?] "They were also one of the very few packaged cookies that my mom would buy, probably because my dad liked them, too.  Only if she had a triple coupon, though."  As it turned out, these sandies were even better than elf-baked.  "Tender and crunchy, nutty and buttery, cinnamon and pecan, so good."

Rachel's mom also kept the elvish cookies around the house because her dad liked them so much.  Unfortunately for the elves, this version "blows the Keebler version out of the water."  "Sweet and salty and rich and nutty, the dam dough kept breaking off at the edges, and I had no choice but to eat the bits that were too tiny to press back into the main piece."  Poor Rachel.  But, inevitably, some of the dough actually made its way into cookies.  "Most excellent cookies, if I do say so myself."

To Rosa, these  "flavorful and fragile" cookies were "dangerous."  Again, in a good way.  Instead of rolling them out, Rosa just used a small ice cream scoop to put the dough on a baking sheet, and flattened them a bit with her hand.  She didn't even chill the dough!  She also didn't coat the cookies with sugar because she thought they had enough sugar in the dough itself.  And the result?  "These flavorful and fragile cookies are ... a perfect balance of sugar, spice, and salt that makes you take more than one and then another."

In honor of Pi Day, Vicki miraculously turned her cookies into pie (well, at least a kind of tart).  She claimed it wasn't inspiration but desperation that brought her to the pie.  Her new mini Cuisinart Plus didn't want to incorporate the flour, so she threw the dough into a tart pan, pressed it down, and "scored and sugared the top, like British shortbread, chilled and baked."  Vicki also compared these sandies with the elfin kind.  Again, the elves lost.  I think that Vicki's experiment proves that this dough is very versatile, and not nearly as finicky as it appears.

Kristina says she "messed up the recipe at least twice," but the cookies still disappeared rapidly at two birthday parties she attended.  Kristina came "this close" to stopping the recipe when she tasted the dough at the "buttercream" stage, and just eating that.  But she didn't.  She said she over-processed the pecans, so they were more like "pecan flour" than chopped pecans, and she mistakenly coated the cookies with a mixture of granulated sugar, turbinado sugar, and cinnamon instead of sprinkling the turbinado sugar on top.  But the cookies were still "delicious."  Still, she can't get that "buttercream" mixture out of her head.

Kim's biggest challenge was trying to figure out how thick 3/8 of in inch was.  Luckily, she has some pastry wands that helped her "mathematically challenged" brain understand that 3/8" was almost a half-inch--a very thick dough to roll out!  She ended up with only about 24 cookies, and, although she wanted to save some for guests, kept eating just one more.  She figured she just might have to make another batch.  "Or two more batches?" of these "quintessential Pecan Sandies."

Jenn almost didn't bake these cookies.  She was not impressed when she saw them on the schedule.  Rolled cookies?  Ugh.  Too "high maintenance."  "You roll it out, cut it, move it to the baking pan, then if the dough gets too soft, it needs to be refrigerated before it can be rolled out again."  So why did she decide to make these pesky cookies?  Two words:  "beurre noisette."  And she liked working with the dough, even though, as predicted, these cookies were high maintenance.  "The smell of pecans, muscovado sugar, and beurre noisette together created a very intoxicating smell."  And yes, she would make them again.

Next week:  it's going to be hard for the next recipe to live up to the raves for pecan sandies.  But my guess is that Rose's babka might be the just the thing to do it.  I've been looking forward to this recipe ever since I got the book.  And so many choices for the filling!  I'm going to try the almond, but the chocolate schmear sounds tempting.  I hope we end up getting reviews of them all.

I'm going to Florida for a beach (or rain) vacation next week, so the roundup will either be posted early (probably Wednesday).

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Dutch Pecan Sandies

I really liked these cookies.  So delicate, light, and delicious.  I wish someone would make them for me once a month so I could get a regular fix because I don't know if I'll ever get around to making them again.  When I first read the recipe and saw the complicated directions for freezing multiple times, I figured that these weren't going to be cookies you could just slap together and slide into the oven.  And I was right.

They were really not hard to make.  They started with beurre noisette, and, as usual, I chickened out before the butter got a nice, nutty brown, but the solids were dark brown, and I was afraid of ending up with burned butter.  But it still had a deep flavor.  Add the butter to a mix of three sugars, and you get this rich-looking, creamy batter.

Mix everything up, shape into discs, and refrigerate for a while.

I took mine out of the refrigerator after about eight hours and let it warm up for about 15 minutes before I started rolling it out.  That was when the trouble started.  Instead of rolling out into a flat piece of dough, it crumbled.  I scooped it up, formed it into another disc, and let it warm some more.

Last week, when Rose and Woody were here preparing for a pie-baking demonstration at Minneapolis-based Nordic Ware, I got to sit back and watch them both work.  Rose said that she's always been "craftsy," by which she meant that she enjoys working with her hands.  Whether she's working with pie dough or knitting, she's calm and relaxed.  Woody too, although his handiwork leans more toward problem solving and gizmo creating than meditation.  Neither of them treated pie crust like the enemy.

So when rolling the dough, I tried to channel both Rose and Woody.  I didn't curse the dough, I tenderly patched the cracks.  When the formed cookies fell apart, I just placed the malformed dough back on the pile of rejects dough scraps.  I followed directions precisely, and moved cookies back and forth from the freezer.

Well, that didn't last long.  After the first tray of cookies, I decided I just wanted to be done with the cookies and so I gave up on trying to follow Rose's zen technique, or Woody's let's-make-this-work optimism.  My kitchen again became a battleground, with me on the losing side.

Still, it could have been worse.  Most of the cookies stayed in one piece and ended up more or less in the scalloped shape of the cookie cutter.  Most of them went from counter to cookie sheet in one piece.

And almost all of them came out of the oven in one piece too.  They would have looked even nicer if I had sprinkled them with the suggested demerara sugar, which would have been sparklier and less fine.

It took a while before they made it from the cookie sheet to the cooling rack, because I was afraid to touch the fragile little bits of dough.  I didn't transfer them until they were almost cool, and waited a few more hours to put them in the cookie tin.  By that time, there weren't quite as many to transfer.  I had already eaten more than my allotted one cookie--they are so good!  And Jim had eaten a few too, although he's still trying to finish the cherry pie that Rose and Woody made.

I found that it's about as hard to change your baking persona as it is to change your entire personality. But I really did enjoy those 10 minutes of zen, when I was pretending to be RLB baking cookies in my kitchen.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "Cupcakes that would win Cupcake Wars"

Photo by Aimee
Food Geekette

Except for a few curmudgeons, who doesn't love cupcakes?  They're more fun to eat than a slice of cake--forks are optional, and you get the same amount of frosting (just the right amount) with every bite.  Besides, you hardly ever see a cupcake with fondant on it.  

Maybe the hardest part of making these cupcakes was finding organic coconut oil.  Aimee looked in a lot of supermarkets and finally located an all-natural Australian coconut paste that worked well.  (She said she was relieved that she didn't have to drive to another county, which I read as "drive to another country," and I was silently relieved for Aimee not to have to drive to Australia."  Aimee also opted to make the buttercream, which is more difficult than the ganache, but worked out well even though she only used one egg white.  "And ... there are no more left.  We ate the last of them for dessert tonight.  I call that recipe success."

Faithy made the most unusual variation of these cupcakes.  Hers were a stunning green because she added pandan paste (not, she assured us, because she was celebrating St. Patrick's Day early).  Then she scooped out some of the cake and filled them with coconut custard cream.  She "really liked" this pairing:  "not too sweet and not too coconutty either."  Good to have you back after your root canal nightmare!

Vicki laced her cupcakes with a thoughtful essay on sugar.  Although she's a tea-and-cookie (two lumps, please) kind of gal, she's giving up sugar except for the weekly treat provided by Rose, trying to make dessert a rare treat, rather than an expected part of a meal.  We can be grateful that Rose's taste in sweets leans toward the less-sweet part of the sugar spectrum.  For her once a week treat this week, Vicki made the coconut silk meringue buttercream instead of the ganache, and said that "a cupcake never tasted so good."

Nancy recalled that when she made the Southern (Manhattan) Coconut Cake (the base recipe for these cuipcakes) from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, she had made them as cupcakes.  Therefore, she decided to downsize one more notch, and turn these cupcakes into mini-cupcakes.  She liked them as minis (plain or frosted) but thought that the flavor of the ganache became a little more dominant that way.  Not that chocolate dominance is a bad thing, but she would have preferred more balance with the coconut.

Luckily enough, Rachel had been "in the mood for an old-fashioned layer cake with coconut frosting," so she was feeling pretty good when she saw this week's cake.  Not only did she like the cupcakes, but she also learned a thing or two.  She found out that if you beat egg whites in a 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup, you don't "decorate the furniture with flying egg white."  Certainly a good thing to know.  Less happily, she learned that if you take a phone call from a friend while your coconut is toasting in the oven, you may end up with "blackened coconut."  If you have extra coconut, though, there's little harm done.

Kristina observed that these "yummy" cupcakes started out with some pretty ugly coconut milk, which looked "slightly grey and watery" even after being whisked to get rid of lumps of "chunky solidified coconut oil."  She got "rave reviews" when she took the cupcakes to her office, including one person who praised these cupcakes for their "coconut taste" without the "horrible coconut texture."

Surprisingly (to me anyway), Kim says she's not much of a cupcake maker.  Despite her prowess at making cookies, she doesn't much care for baking cakes in bite-size form (there's a bakery for that in her town).  When cupcakes came up on the rotation, she had to "stock up on supplies" and "set her mind to making them."  But she must have done something right, because when her sweet-averse friends came for dinner, they not only ate the cupcakes for dessert but asked if they could take some home with them.

"Who doesn't like cupcakes?", I asked in my introduction.  A friend of Jenn's, for one.  Why?  "They're individually sized, with frosting on top and stuff"--that her friend's explanation.  Well, she's Jenn's friend, so I'm sure she's a lovely person, but that makes no sense.  Her loss anyway, because she didn't get one of these beautiful cupcakes, which surprised Jenn with their goodness, seeing as how the ganache is milk chocolate, not her favorite.  And she still has three in the freezer!  (I put four of mine in the freezer too, intending to share them with Rose and Woody while they were here, but somehow I forgot).

Katya made her cupcakes for Nacho Friday, a "sacred institution," where they were "delicious and a huge hit."  As mini cupcakes, they really were barely more than a biteful, as a two-year-old girl noticed.  When her request for a second cupcake was turned down, she cried, "But I like two cupcakes...."  I suppose it's good in general that our toddler edges get sanded down by the time we reach adulthood, but there's something charming about the announcement, "I like two..." instead of the adult's, "I couldn't possibly...."

Rosa went all out--she made milk chocolate ganache AND the coconut meringue buttercream AND chocolate curls.  The shiny ganache went on first, followed by a puff of buttercream, with a chocolate curl in the middle of the buttercream.  A beautiful cupcake.  Rosa claims that the cupcakes don't look "perfect," but they look pretty close to perfect to my eyes.

I'm always learning new words from Catherine.  This week it was "fairy cakes," which are simply cupcakes but sound more gnomish.  As Catherine noted, as long as you "avert your eyes" from the silky meringue buttercream recipe, you're in "quick and easy" territory.  These "very delicious" fairy cakes look pretty and festive in Catherine's mix of colorful striped or polka-dotted cupcake liners.  Or are they fairy cake liners?  She took them to work, where they made a welcome addition to morning tea.

And yay!  Jen has managed to unpack enough boxes to bake some cupcakes.  "So easy to make that I couldn't find an excuse to skip them."  Rather than frost them with a spatula, she simply dipped the cupcakes in the ganache.  The pictures look gorgeous, but Jen noticed that the ganache was "slightly bubbly."  Oh well, "good thing I'm not a professional."  I think this is going to become my mantra.  Oh, and happy birthday to two-year-old Eliot!

Next week:  The Dutch Pecan Sandies.  I first read this as "Dutch Pecan Sandies," and thought we were going to get a recipe from the Netherlands.  Such recipes are usually hard to come by, unless you live at Hanaa the Baker's house.  But no.  They're simply a recipe from a New York recipe called "The Dutch," which may or may not have anything to do with Dutch cooking.  Regardless, I love pecan sandies, and am looking forward to baking these this weekend, even though the temperature is supposed to be in the 60's.  In Minnesota!  In March!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Coconut Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Ganache

I've baked every week for over a year now, and I have my rules about what to do with the resulting onslaught of calorie-laden delights.  Rule 1:  I get to have one piece of everything I bake.  Rule 2:  Unless it's something that won't severely tempt me to eat more, I get it out of the house.  If it's just normally tempting, I tell Jim he can eat all the rest of it, which is almost as good as getting it out of the house because I've already promised it to him.  (And may I just add that despite this routine, and despite the fact that I exercise more than Jim does, his #1 weight complaint is that he loses weight without trying.  As you may imagine, I am not very sympathetic with this "Why do I stay thin?" lament.)  Thank you, I feel better now.
Anyway, I ate two of these cupcakes.  That's how much I like them.

This coconut oil isn't the kind that Rose recommends, but I got it at a ritzy baking store, and it was very expensive for this tiny amount, and it smells like real coconut, not coconut room freshener.

Organic coconut milk, which also smells like coconut.  My daughters laugh at my penchant for buying anything labeled organic.  My younger daughter claims that her children can tell the difference between organic and ordinary food, and they don't like organic.  I have my own opinions about this, which I don't share.

When I saw the instruction to let the muffins stand in the muffin tin for 20 minutes to assure a rounded top, I wondered what would happen if I didn't.  But I did, and the muffins were already poured into the tin, so there was no chance to experiment.  Perhaps these are a little too rounded, since they look more like a hillock than a cupcake.

Image result for hillock
This is a hillock.

I had forgotten that Rose's milk chocolate ganache is made of a mix of dark and white chocolate, which somehow tastes more chocolatey than it would if it were made just of milk chocolate.  Even after sitting at room temperature for three hours, it was still too liquid to use as icing, so I put it in the refrigerator and checked every 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, I toasted the coconut, which made it very delicious.  Jim claims not to like coconut, but he liked these cupcakes too.  He doesn't like the chewy texture, but toasted coconut has a crispy texture, so there was nothing to dislike.

I'm usually not very good at frosting and decorating because that requires more than just following directions and weighing ingredients, but these were very easy to frost.

And the coconut sprinkled so nicely over the ganache that they all looked very sweet, and less like hillocks.  I still have some leftover ganache in the refrigerator and I also have a small baggie of leftover toasted coconut.  I just had the idea to shape the ganache into little balls and roll them in the coconut.  If they taste as good as I think they will, I may have to eat two of them.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Midweek Roundup: "Absolutely delightful and delicious"

Photo by Maggie
Simply Delicious

I'm sure you all remember Rosa Maggie from the beginning of the Alpha Bakers.  I asked her if she would consider coming back to the Alphas because she has still been baking many of the assignments, and her end results are stunning.  She graciously agreed, and here she is, with her photo of the week.  I admire the people who took the time to caramelize some hazelnuts for a very beautiful decor (at my house, anything labelled "optional" might as well be labelled "stay away").  Maggie has another great picture of dribbling the caramel over the nuts, which are attached to wooden sticks, which are, in turn, placed at the end of the counter so any caramel that misses its target lends on a newspapered floor.

Kim also caramelized some hazelnuts for the decor (please don't tell me I was the only one to lazy to do it).  She made hers by sticking one end of a toothpick into the nuts and the other end into a lemon, to stabilize them.  The caramel dripped down the nuts in spots, and hardened mid-drip, for a stained glass effect.  I do like admiring the technique of something I'm never going to do.  Kim was trying her best to give her old food processor so much to do that it would givie up the ghost, but sadly for her, her attempted food-processorcide didn't work.

Bless her heart, Rachel did not caramelize the hazelnuts (although her daughter did decorate the top wiuth a starburst stencil).  Rachel's description is so good I'll just quote it:  "My thought on biting into this tart was, 'it could totally be something I paid ridiculous amounts for at a bakery."  It not only tasted that good, it felt that luxurious.  The unctuous give of the ganache, the light, rich, nutty filling, and the solft, sweet and nutty crust contrasted with and complemented one another, each providing something the other lacked, while bringing out their best qualities all around."  Rachel's only mishap was trying to whip cream in a wide, shallow bowl.  Let's just say her cupboards have never been creamier.

Oh, hurray, Kristina's tart is topped just with the smooth, shiny ganache with nary a caramelized anything in sight.  Pure chocolate luxury.  Kristina, having already made Rose's famous peanut butter mousse tart and who is an experienced baker anyway, knows what she can get away with substituting.  Since she was feeding people who had already experienced the peanut butter tart delightfulness, she knew they wouldn't fall apart if she substituted peanut butter for some of the hazelnut praline paste.  And she figured no one would know the difference if she substituted a chocolate sea salt caramel liqueur for the recommended Frangelico.  She was rewarded on Twitter with a mention of "that chocolate hazelnut peanut butter deliciousness."  And by the fact that no one requested "just a sliver."

Catherine was thankful that the "cooking gods" were on her side this week because chocolate and hazelnut "are one of [her] favourite food matches," and this match was made in heaven.  Even though she had to make her own praline, had to add back some sugar that didn't stay in the blender, and had a "fluctuating" oven, the end result was "absolutely delicious," and not at all "tricky or time consuming."  

Vicki was disappointed in the flavor of her tart, but acknowledged that she might have been doing too many things at one time.  She was in the midst of skinning the hazelnuts when her doorbell rang and in came three grandchildren (accompanied by their mother).  Vicki popped them in the oven (for one awful moment, I thought she meant that she popped her grandchildren in the oven, Hansel and Gretel style, but no, it was the hazelnuts that went into the oven).  Then she got a phone call.  Moral of the story:  "not turning on the timer is a sure way to over brown hazelnuts."  Or maybe the moral of the story is not to be so popular that everyone is always wanting to talk to you.

Next week:  Another week that's not officially Quick & Easy but is still quick and easy.  Coconut cupcakes with milk chocolate ganache.  You may not have coconut extract or coconut milk on hand, and you may have used up all your whipping cream.  Other than that, you're probably all set, and these are definitely worth the minimal amount of effort to bake the cupcakes and make the ganache.