Apr 05 2013

A Baker’s Secret Ingredients

I have a number of little secret tips and tricks in my arsenal that I’ll use to kick a dish up another level or two. I mention them individually in recipes, but I figured a post with some of them listed out could be helpful. These are all small adjustments you can make to almost any recipe, I’d just recommend thinking through what you’re adding, what result you’re looking for, and not change TOO much at any given time.

Note – most of the product links go to King Arthur Flour’s website because I am a huge fan, but I HIGHLY recommend price comparison shopping before deciding where to purchase.

  • Dutch Processed Cocoa – “Dutched” cocoa powder is darker and has a deeper flavor than regular American cocoa powder, as well as a much higher acidity level (for the nerds among us, I believe it’s around 7.5 for dutch to 3.5 for American, which is a big difference). If a recipe specifies a certain type of cocoa, it probably does so for a reason, due to the higher acidity of dutched powder, other ingredients have to be altered in order to make it work. I personally tend to only use dutch cocoa, I simply like the taste a lot better, and always question why a recipe would want to use anything else.
  • Espresso Powder – You can buy actual espresso powder intended for baking, or use instant coffee granules or plain old brewed coffee. Coffee makes anything chocolate taste more chocolate-y. So, next time you’re not happy with how chocolate your brownies are, instead of adding more cocoa powder, add some coffee! You won’t taste the coffee, but you will get a nice, dark chocolate flavor.
  • Extracts – Every baker has to own at least one bottle of real vanilla. I don’t mean that you have to go buy madagascar hand scraped fancy schmancy “plucked by babies and cleaned by angels” vanilla (although I do think high end vanilla can be well worth it), but you do have to at least get McCormick’s grocery store real vanilla (not this stuff!) vanilla. Yes, it’s much more expensive. But think about it…imitation vanilla extract is a by-product of wood working and paper mills. Real vanilla comes from a plant. Even if taste wasn’t an issue, that alone should help you decide to use the real stuff, but the taste really is the reason. Real vanilla blows imitation away, there is absolutely no comparison.
  • Don’t stop the extract journey with just vanilla! There are more flavors out there to play with. A teeny bit of almond extract in vanilla cakes and frostings will have people wondering why it tastes SO good. Peppermint (I prefer oil, but extract works too) makes your chocolate and vanilla desserts extra special. Orange, lemon, butterscotch…. I also have a couple “special” bakers emulsions I love to play with – Buttery Sweet Dough flavor is a nice way to make something taste a bit buttery without actually getting the calorie hit of butter, and Princess Flavoring adds that citrusy flavor you taste in bakeries but can’t ever identify. Ya know, the one that just tastes GOOD. I also love it in white sugar glazes, I can’t explain why.
  • Buttermilk – Seriously. Nearly all of my cakes, doughnuts and muffins use buttermilk instead of milk, and always powder. I like the powder because I never have buttermilk around – who uses it for anything other than baking – and powdered milk has been proven (by America’s Test Kitchen) to work just as well as scalded liquid in all baked goods.  Buttermilk will give a thicker, fluffier, softer crumb from buttermilk, and gives doughnuts that back of the throat homey taste that nothing else seems to include.
  • White Whole Wheat Flour - why is this a secret ingredient? Because even my white bread tends to include a little bit of whole wheat flour for flavor. Just a couple of tablespoons will give the bread a nice wheaty flavor that white flour alone cannot convey, and white whole wheat hides the fact that it’s in there even better than the brown stuff.

These are all tiny changes you can make to established recipes you have that will make a big impact. Give them a try, see what you like, and always, have fun baking!!

Apr 02 2013

Simple and Easy No Knead Pizza Dough

..it's easier than you think!

Basic pizza with mozzarella, ham, and fresh tomatoes.

Mmmm. Pizza.

I love pizza, and have very high standards. So when I decided I wanted to put together a ‘regular home pizza dough’ recipe, it had a lot of requirements to fulfill. It had to taste amazingly yummy, be flexible enough to used with any toppings in any pizza-like application, be refrigerator stable for days at any point in the recipe (sponge or dough), and easy/simple to throw together…a lot to ask from one recipe.

I think, after much tweaking, I finally have a recipe that fits the bill. It is “simple and easy” because it’s no knead, and really only requires a couple of minutes mixing at two points in time that can be done hours and hours (up to 24!) apart. All done by hand, in one bowl, no mess to make. And once the dough is put together, it is fine in the fridge for another few days before needing to be baked. Gotta love that.

I’ll have another entry actually about pizza toppings – but for now, just a note. Anything goes for toppings. Pizza can be something I’ll just throw together for dinner to use up leftovers, or something extremely extravagant and luxurious I’ll plan an event around. What goes on your pizza is really only as limited as your imagination, and once I let mine go wild, I definitely came up with some doozies. One disaster I’ll share so you don’t try it yourself – homemade, fried chicken nugget pizza with ranch dressing. It sounded much better than it tasted!

Simple and Easy No Knead Pizza Dough

Sponge:

Mix this up at least 4 hours before beginning the dough, and as many as 2 days before, store, loosely covered, at room temperature until using. 00 Flour is preferred, AP flour is acceptable, bread flour only works if you’re going to make this a pan, thicker crust pizza.

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup flour
sprinkle of (instant or active) yeast

Dough:

1 tsp yeast
all of the sponge
1/2 – 3/4 cup water
1 1/2 cup flour
salt

You’re looking for a pretty wet dough, not sticky, but definitely wet. I use what’s probably somewhere around 5/8ths of a cup most of the time.

Now here’s the weird part with this recipe. DO NOT KNEAD. Really. Don’t knead the dough at all. Really. Mix it until it looks mostly together, then you’re done. Coat your container and hands very well with olive oil, and plop the dough in. Cover. This dough will not pass the window pane test, and you don’t want it to – you do not want gluten development.

The dough will need to rest for 45 minutes before being shaped. If you’re going to use it within 2 hours, leave it on the counter. If not, put it in the refrigerator, remove about an hour before shaping. It can stay in the fridge for 3 days or so with no problems, and will most likely be usable after a week, but that’s pushing it (I’ve done it once or twice, don’t really recommend it).

When you’re ready to bake, cover your hands and counter with olive oil, and gently stretch the dough into shape. It will be very, very pliable – remember, you didn’t knead, so there is very little gluten development – so be careful.

This dough will make a very typical New York style thin-crust pizza, if you ever wanted to know how to get paper-thin dough, this is how. I personally like to pack on toppings too much for paper thin pizza, so I have to be very careful at this stage not to get the dough too thin…once stretched, it’s stretched, and if torn, it will be far too oily to come back together.

Now you can either top and bake the pizza right away, or let it rise for 45 minutes or so for a thicker crust pizza. I let the dough rise longer if I’m using heavier toppings, and bake right away if I’m doing a basic cheese pizza.

When you’re ready – add your desired toppings and bake at 500 (450′s ok if you’re not comfortable with your oven at 500) for 10-15 minutes, on a baking stone if you have. Let cool for a few minutes after removing from the oven (no burning your mouth with hot cheese), then enjoy!!

Same dough – stuffed veggie pizza!

 

 

Nov 06 2012

Go vote!!

Just a quick reminder for everyone in the US today – get out and vote. This election is going to be a close one, make sure your voice is heard!

Dec 09 2011

Chocolate Peppermint Cupcakes

Want the recipe for these yummy chocolate peppermint cupcakes? I am today’s guest blogger over at Frosting for the Cause – please head over there to check it out!

Dec 07 2011

Fun with Macarons

Starting to make macarons was a lot like when I started to bake bread. I knew there was a huge wealth of knowledge out there, but how far did I have to bother learning before jumping in?

One positive point (or at least, I consider it positive) that macarons have going for them: in bread baking, there are elements that we consider “perfection” – crunchy crust, open crumb, for example. But those “perfect elements” change depending on what type of bread you’re baking. I love that about bread baking, but it’s intimidating as a newbie….how do you know if your soft, chewy crust is “perfect” for the recipe you’re using?

By contrast, there is a true definition of a perfect French macaron. Macarons do have to have filling, and there is “traditional” filling, but there isn’t so much right and wrong as there is with the macarons themselves. According to a multitude of sources, a perfect macaron should be:

- Light in color, not browned on the top or edges.

- Not cracked in any way.

- Sandwiched with some type of filling, buttercream is traditional, I personally prefer ganache.

- When bitten into, the outside shell should crack, but not shatter, giving way to a slightly chewy meringue-y center.

- It should not be very thick, and most of its height should be composed of the foot. This is the place where I most often see bakeries diverging from what thins are “supposed to be.” EVERYTHING I read says macarons should be thin. Everything I see is thick, including the “best of NY” Ladueree macarons my father brought me to sample over Thanksgiving.

A big thing to keep in mind is that macarons are classic French pastries. French pastry will drive people crazy. A lot of what they do is dictated by law, the rules behind the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France are wonderfully insane, and even THEY consider macarons to be the pinnacle of what they do.

That doesn’t mean that it’s hard to make a macaron. It really isn’t. Even the cracked ones with air bubbles, cracks, and no feet are still macarons, and as long as you can get them off the pan, they’re probably still just as yummy and edible. But they are not French pastry perfection. And that’s where the crazy-making comes in.

So instead of giving an actual recipe, I’ll link to some of my favorites below, and just give some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. Learn from my mistakes!

  • YouTube is your friend. I cannot imagine trying to learn how to do this without having watched as many videos as I did of people making macarons. The best way to understand what the meringue should look like, what the almond/sugar mix should look like, and when to stop mixing the batter is to watch. Articles online help as well, I’ll link some of the most helpful at the end of this post.
  • If baking with the oven door open, as you should be, GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN WHILE BAKING. It isn’t entirely ridiculous when you think about it – your oven door is open, therefore susceptible to drafts. Swooshing around the kitchen, possibly opening and closing a microwave door directly over the oven, or opening a refrigerator door, is causing air to move around the kitchen and into the open oven. A strong enough draft can cause enough of a temperature shift to crack the macarons. It took me 3 batches to figure this out.
  • No matter what method you use, you are essentially making a meringue and collapsing it around very dry ingredients (powdered sugar and almond meal). You cannot have a very dry, ‘can be held over your head forever and ever without moving’ meringue and expect it to have enough liquid left to properly incorporate the dry ingredients. The meringue needs to be a little beyond soft peaks, but not solid stiff, it should still bend a bit.
  • Mixing. Well, folding. This is the most important part of making macarons, and the difference between perfect and broken macarons can be as few as 10 extra folds. People say you should mix it no more than 50 times, no more than 80, 28…numbers are all over, since I suspect the choices made elsewhere in the process (what type of meringue, are any dry ingredients incorporated already, etc.) will change this number, as will your own arm strength and technique for folding. For me, at least, I see the batter change around turn 20. From there I’m watching it very carefully as I fold, basically just thinning it out a little bit more, and I generally end up around 30. I have been going by the advice that it should take 10 seconds for a drop of the batter to lose its peak….this advice differs greatly depending on who you talk to – I’ve seen recipes that advise pushing down the peaks after piping the cookies. I never, ever have peaks.
  • You don’t need to be delicate with the mixing either, one pastry chef I saw said to “beat the shit out of it.” Beat it, while carefully folding everything together.
  • Oven temperature is crucial. I don’t really believe an oven thermometer is necessary so much as paying attention to exactly what the right setting on your own oven is. For me, it’s just a smidge above 300. If I go as high as 325 I end up with cracked shells.

And last but not least, here are some great links where you can learn all you ever wanted to and more about macarons!

Serious Eats: Macarons – This is my macaron recipe of choice right now, and has the easiest meringue preparation. I will definitely play with other types in the future, but for now – this works great.

David Lebovitz’s French Chocolate Macarons David Lebovitz is a fantastic resource for all things French, and macarons are no exception. While I don’t use his method, I did use his proportions when I made chocolate macarons (but ultimately decided I prefer using food coloring, cocoa powder makes things too chewy).

Syrup & Tang, La Macaronicite This is a series of blog posts that go over all of the different methods for making macarons in great detail. I read this multiple times before deciding on my own strategy.

Tartelette http://www.tarteletteblog.com/2008/06/snickers-macarons.html Yet another macaron recipe. I love this blog in general, so of course I went reading up on macarons there.

Almost Foolproof Macarons Another recipe that’s good reading, this time with pics and geeky details.

Happy baking!!

 

Nov 30 2011

Basic White Bread Recipe & Some Food Porn

In case you didn’t get enough food over the holidays, I finally uploaded a whole bunch of baking related pictures to Flickr. Some of them are fairly old (my “standard” mushroom/cheese pizza is much better looking these days), and some of them will end up in blog entries over the next couple of weeks with recipes and more information. I’ve become quite obsessed with macarons as of late, and definitely have a slightly embarrassing backlog of unpublished recipes to catch up on.

For now, I think it’d be fun to revisit a classic. Just plain, old, what I call “utility” bread. My daily bread, basically. I make this with up to 75% whole wheat bread, and will throw in milk, olive oil, sugar/splenda/honey, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds….whatever I want to change it. It’s different enough now than the last time I shared my basic recipe that I think it’s worth giving again. I’m sure I’ll always be improving upon this. So this is my best basic…for now.

Basic White Bread

3 cups of bread flour
1 1/2 – 3/4 cups of lukewarm water
1 heaping tsp yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt

Mix all of the ingredients, and knead for about 10-15 minutes. Cover and allow to triple in size, this should take about 1 1/2 hrs.

At this point, you can throw the dough in the fridge and shape/bake as desired, or go ahead and shape it all now. Allow to rise into final shape, slash, and bake in a well heated 450 oven for 20-25 minutes. It will get dark and brown – this is due to the high salt content and intentional. Cover the top with foil if really concerned about burning, but it’s unlikely that will happen.

Bread is done when it sounds hollow when thumped, and should crackle when removed from the oven. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing, and enjoy!!

Oct 05 2011

Thank You Steve Jobs

Boing Boing 10/5/11

I feel like I should be writing something hugely prolific and deep, but I kinda like what I wrote on twitter a little earlier tonight…

I originally started typing out how I wrote my first program in basic on an Apple ][c, how I never could have imagined what was about to grow out what I was looking at on that little computer, how mind blowing it is for me at times to think that without computers the vast majority of my world, and at the very least, my job wouldn’t exist.

Although I hate quoting myself, what I said on Twitter really explains how I feel about Steve Jobs very well. While I couldn’t imagine my life without my iPod, and would miss my iPad if it disappeared tomorrow, it’s the expansion of my world that I love Steve Jobs for. So for that…

Thank you Steve for giving me a career that didn’t exist when I was a kid.

RIP.

Apr 19 2011

Lemon Cranberry Muffins

I love to make muffins. They’re quick, easy, and can take on just about any flavor you want to throw into them. They can be healthy or unhealthy, sweet or savory, and, no matter how complicated you make them, they never take more than 15 minutes to mix up.

Lemon Cranberry Muffins

So, after making the Whoopie Pies with my coworker’s lemons, I decided to use up some more of them in some muffins. This recipe is my standard muffin formula, adjusted for the lemon/cranberry mix.

Ingredients:

* 2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 tablespoon baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 3/4 cup sugar
* 1 lemon, zest of
* 1 lemon, juice of
* 1 cup dried cranberries
* 1/4 cup buttermilk powder
* 1 cup water
* 1 egg
* 1/4 cup oil
* for glaze: 1 cup powdered sugar, 2-3 tbl milk, icing coloring as desired

Mix up the wet ingredients, add the dry ingredients. Pour into greased or lined muffin tins, bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.

Mix together the sugar and milk for the glaze, add coloring as needed. Remember how I mentioned in my last post you need to be careful with gel colors? Yeah, well, you can see the results here in the muffin glaze. PATIENCE is the important word when coloring anything. Only add a little bit of color at a time. I wasn’t particularly patient, threw in a glob of gel, and this is what I ended up with. Oops.

Wait for the muffins to cool off, then drizzle the glaze over the tops for a little extra sweet shine.

 

Lemon Cranberry Muffins 

These muffins will keep for at least a week in a bag at room temp, or even longer in the freezer (if frozen, nuke ‘em for a minute or so to defrost, they’ll be fine).

Enjoy!!

Apr 14 2011

Lovely Lemon Whoopie Pies

Lemon Whoopie PieOne of my coworkers brought in some fresh picked organic lemons from his backyard, and I couldn’t resist bringing a bunch of lemons home to do some baking. After all, what’s more perfect for spring, sunny weather than lemons?

I’ve been reading whoopie pie recipes left and right in various baking blogs lately, and had been looking for an opportunity to try to make some myself. I started with a basic lemon cake recipe, and adapted it from there.

Ingredients:

2 cups AP flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1/4 cup dried buttermilk
1/2 cup flour
2 tsp lemon rind/shredded peel
2 tablespoons lemon juice

For frosting:

6 oz cream cheese (softened)
1/2 cup butter (softened)
1 tsp lemon rind/peel
2 tsp lemon juice
4 cups powdered sugar

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 325.

Measure out the 2 cups of sugar into a bowl. Grate the lemon rind directly into the sugar. Mix (I use a plastic container with a lid and just shake). Set aside. You can do this in advance of baking – the longer you let the rind and sugar sit, the better. Shake the container every so often to encourage those lemon oils to go into the sugar.

Mix together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and buttermilk powder, set aside.

Cream the now lemony sugar together with the butter until fluffy. Add the lemon juice, then the flour mixture. Slowly add the water until you get a thickish batter, feel free to use less of the water if you want thicker pies.

lemons
Yum, lemons!

To bake:

Drop the batter by the teaspoon onto a cookie sheet. These will spread – a lot – I could only really bake 6 or so at a time on a full size sheet. The larger the batter drop the larger the cookie will be widthwise, you will not get more thickness by using more batter (use less water for that).

Bake for 8-11 minutes, remove to a rack to cool. The “cookies” should be slightly brown around the edges, but still mostly yellow. When the cookies come out of the oven, sprinkle the tops of the cookies with yellow sanding sugar (or other coarse, decorating sugar) if desired for a little crunch and sparkle.

The icing:

Mix together the cream cheese, lemon, and butter until fluffy. Add the powdered sugar a cup at a time until the desired stiffness is achieved. If desired, add yellow coloring gel at this point. Be careful with icing, a little goes a very long way! I got the color right on the icing for the whoopie pies, but…as you’ll see…I kind of made neon day-glo glaze for the muffins. Oopsies, you can laugh at me in the next post.

To assemble: Easy as pie. Once the cookies have cooled, take one, spread icing on the flat side with a knife or offset spatula. Top with another cookie, flat side down. You can get fancy with piping if you want, I did for a little while, but the results are barely visible and not really worth the extra effort.

Let the cookies sit for another hour or so for the icing to set and the cake to firm up, then dig in!

Yield fully depends on how big you make the cookies – I’d guestimate I got about 20-something cookies out of this batch. The icing was the perfect amount.

Lemon Whoopie Pie
Aren’t they pretty?

Apr 04 2011

What I’m Baking…

At least 2-3 times a week, I am baking something or another. It tends to be a combination of food for dinner and some kind of “fun” stuff to feed my boyfriend, his kids, or the office. I don’t keep track of my experiments as well as I should, so I figure I might as well write stuff up in here.

I had intended to take pictures of what I baked for this entry, but totally forgot – look for those next time!

This week’s adventures have been:

Pizza.

I have an ongoing quest for the perfect pizza. There is my personal favorite pizza to eat (thick crust and crunchy), the pizza I aspire to bake (thin crust neopolitan), and then the pizza those around me most like (thick crust and bready). Trying to find a good balance between the three hasn’t been easy.

This week’s pizza experiment was definitely one of the best results yet. I’ve recently been experimenting with 00 italian flour, which I have to say, I should have done a long time ago. I used a 60% hydration dough, all 00 Flour, and it blew up on the second rise (I was making thick crust pizza), falling off the sides of the pizza pan. Instead of cutting the dough, I folded it over the toppings back on itself, which resulted in a stuffed crust kind of pizza. It was amazing! Chewy, crunchy, yummy crust, and the cheese and toppings hidden in there were awesome. I will absolutely be making it again this week, and take pictures.

Snickerdoodles.

I’d done one of my “ask person what their favorite junk food is” things the weekend before, and was told snickerdoodles. This is my go-to Snickerdoodles recipe, with some tweaking. I used all butter, since I don’t particularly like baking with shortening unless there’s a very good reason to do so. I also added extra vanilla to the cookies. I didn’t add cinnamon, which I should have (and usually do), simply because I forgot. So if you make this recipe, I highly recommend adding another teaspoon or so of cinnamon to the dough, otherwise all of the cinnamon-y sugar taste has to come from the coating.

Honey Wheat Bread.

Every couple of months I place an order from King Arthur Flour, and happily spend the next couple of months playing with new ingredients. This time around among the playthings I bought was a honey bread base. I experimented with bread bases way back when I first started baking, but at the time decided I needed to master “normal” ingredients before branching out into add-ins and funky flours. The honey base adds a touch of honey (obviously), spelt flour, gluten, and some seeds to any bread. I added it into a whole wheat recipe I use (2/3rds whole wheat flour, 1/3 bread, 50% hydration) along with some salt and honey (for happy yeast and flavor). It was…ok. I’m still not sold on the usefulness of bread bases and think I could probably make my own just as well with minimal effort (and customized for me), but it is a nice way to “kick up” a basic whole wheat. A lot of what I got from KAF this time around was specifically for whole wheat bread baking, so expect a lot of “I tried this…” type stuff. No recipe to share due to the use of the custom ingredient.

I also tried making two low-fat, sugar-free versions of the mug cakes (one chocolate cake, one vanilla lemon almond yellow cake) that have been spinning their way around the internet. Nothing worth sharing yet, but suffice to say – eggs make them too eggy/soufflee-ish, and extracts/flavorings do not do enough actual flavoring for a “cake” like this – stick with chocolate. The results haven’t been terrible, but I need to do some more tinkering before I can truly call this a good, quick, diet-friendly cake, which is what I’m trying to achieve.

This week: I have a big batch of french dough in the refrigerator (which had taken on a life of its own when I looked at it this morning, will be interesting to see what state it’s in later today). I want to repeat the pizza experiment from last week and see if it can be replicated. And I have some pre-party baking for the freezer to do. I’m thinking simple chocolate fudge brownies, and maybe Jacques Torres’ New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe, since it’s a slightly “kicked up” version of a cookie. I’d wanted to do some playing around with filled brownies (marshmallow filled, in particular), but I suspect marshmallows won’t do very well in the freezer, and I’m probably better off waiting until I won’t have to freeze. I’m also considering making a cinnamon sugar pull apart bread or monkey bread, inspired by Annie’s pull apart bread recipe.

We’ll see, though. I always start the week thinking I know what I’m going to be baking, then as the week goes on a combination of what I feel like doing and what just seems to happen as I pull recipes together mutates things a bit.

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