Monday, June 28, 2010

too much of a good thing

is a really, really good thing. Last week combined two of my favorite things: baking and wedding (and baking for a wedding)! Oh, and birthday: the mid-20s have officially arrived, and I'm a little frightened but resolving to deal with it.

Wedding baking part 1: horseshoe palmiers

Yeah, these did not turn out as planned. I need me some Dufour Pastry to make these the proper, buttery way.

Despite the fact that they look like rapidly unraveling butterflies, Sammy wants in all the same.

Here's part 2: mini chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel frosting. Whereas part 1 was mostly failure, part 2 was mostly success, minus the repeat incident of neglecting to add sugar to the chocolate cake. Twice in four months?! Someone needs to revoke my hypothetical chocolate cupcake baking license. At any rate, batch #2 turned out just fine, and the salted caramel frosting was super yummy salty-sweet goodness.

Mascarpone brownies also emerged from the oven this week, as did berry buttermilk cake and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. What can I say? When baking for important events, you want to pull out the very best (which occasionally makes your kitchen look like this)

Surprisingly, the most lauded baked good of the week were these...

Mmmmmhmmmm. These coconut bars hit all the right notes: snappy crust, nutty middle, a wonderfully textured topping. A note: the recipe is from America's Test Kitchen, which means that they've already done all the grunt work for you, tweaking the recipe and such. What's written below is practically perfect in every way. Need I say more?

Coconut Pecan Bars
(adapted slightly from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2010)

Place an oven rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 350. Line a 9x13 pan with foil and spray with Pam (I used the kind that has flour in it)

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar (they call for dark; I used light)
1/2 cup pecans
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes and chilled

In a food processor, process the flour, sugar, pecans, and salt until the pecans are coarsely ground, 10-15 seconds. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse meal, 10-15 pulses. Press the mixture firmly into the prepared pan. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while you make the topping and middle.

1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded or flaked coconut
1 cup cream of coconut (you can find this in the liquor aisle by the stuff used to make pina coladas)

In a smallish bowl, stir together the shredded coconut and cream of coconut.

2 eggs
3/4 cup brown sugar (again they call for dark; I used light)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla, and salt until smooth. Stir in the pecans, then pour the filling over the cooled crust. Dollop spoonfuls of the coconut topping over the top, and attempt to spread it evenly.

Bake until the topping is golden brown, 35-40 minutes. (Inevitably some of it will look kind of patchy and pale, but that's okay. Aim for some dark golden brown patches; that's good enough.) Cool on the same wire rack for 2 hours. Cut into bars and eat!! (These keep remarkably well for a number of days, either at room temperature or in the refrigerator.)

I was especially surprised because I used to hate coconut but I really love it now. Really really. As I referenced in last week's post...don't be surprised if all of a sudden coconut magically appears in your life to solve lots of your problems. The book calls these "dream bars", and for the record...yes, they are dreamy indeed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

fear and loathing in the kitchen

Today I thought I'd talk a little about things that used to scare me.

Frosting cupcakes used to scare me. There is such an intimidating aura built up around them...not for you? Maybe? The fact that I am slightly perfectionistic when it comes to cupcakes could have a little something to do with it. 

But when you plop a huge dollop of frosting on a pretty cupcake...

And then spread it around with an icing spatula...

And then dunk it in coconut...

You're pretty much good to go. 

Then you'll do it again and again and again because it's fun and because people like to eat lime yogurt cupcakes with lime cream cheese frosting. Topped with coconut, of course. Oh, Stephanie from the past...if only you knew what a silly thing it is to fret about cupcakes. When faced with harrowing life questions from now on, I'm going to respond with "coconut". 

What should I be doing with my life? Coconut. What should I wear tomorrow? Coconut. Can I take a nap now? Coconut.

Coconut logic is flawless. 

The last time I wrote about madeleines, I had no camera battery, so showing them to you never happened. I used to loathe making these because they never turned out well. 

But now I can crank them out like an old pro, even early on a Saturday morning. There is no secret, I don't think. Practice is good, extending grace to yourself when mistakes surface is even better. You'll get there!

These cookies freaked me out for a little while as well! They started falling apart a little bit as I was slicing the dough, but a little time spent warming up on the counter should do the trick. Deeply chocolaty and with a salty bite, Dorie's neighbor dubbed these "World Peace Cookies"...he may be on to something here, given that I am sitting here grinning like a fool as I remember how these touch my cookie heart.

World Peace Cookies
(adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

1 1/4 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder (I used Dutch processed)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
11 tablespoons butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda together.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add the brown and white sugars, salt, and vanilla and beat for 2 minutes.

Turn off the mixer and dump in the flour mixture. Throw a kitchen towel over the bowl so stuff doesn't go flying everywhere (cocoa powder, while delightful, is unpleasant when inadvertently inhaled) and pulse the mixer maybe 5 times, 1-2 seconds at a time. Take a peek and see if the flour is mostly mixed in.  If so, take the towel off and stir just until the flour disappears. Throw in the chocolate pieces and stir together just briefly.

Turn out the dough onto a surface and gather it into a cohesive ball. Divide in two, then shape each section of dough into a 1 1/2 inch diameter log. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for 30 minutes or refrigerate up to 3 days. (You just need the dough to get colder so it'll stay together.)

When you're ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a knife, slice dough logs into 1/2 inch thick cookies. If they start falling apart, you can try to warm the logs with your hands or just let them warm themselves up on the counter. Chocolate bits may fall off the cookies; just pat them back in. 

Place on sheets (you can pack them in close; they don't spread much) and bake one sheet at a time for 10-12 minutes. Let cool on baking rack before digging in; they're truly better at room temperature.

I'm pretty sure some of you out there have your own cookie recipes that could bring about world peace (give or take an errant nation or two)...I'm asking (nicely). Please share! You know mine.

Monday, June 14, 2010

fashionably cake

I won't say it was the hardest thing, but definitely one of the sticky points of living in Asia last year was the fact that my baking adventures were limited by our toaster oven (capacity: 6 cookies), a general lack of baking pans in the region (save a gutsy trip Jena made to the other side of town to scavenge for appropriate bakeware for Thanksgiving casseroles), and hardly any measuring cups or spoons (I used the teeny measuring cup that came with our ancient rice cooker--learned later it is not a real American cup, much to my horror). We still managed to bake stuff, but I would inwardly pray/cringe every time I would throw what I hoped was a half-teaspoon's worth of baking powder into some would-be pancakes. "Close enough!" was my motto, although I can't bear to use it now.

So when this raspberry buttermilk cake (RIP Gourmet Magazine) made the rounds last June, I dutifully bookmarked it, but the dearth of berries in Asia prevented me from actually baking it. I promptly forgot about it.

Last week this recipe re-sailed into my life via our weekly CSA newsletter! I just about ran to the farmers' market downtown to get me some berries, vowing to not let another year pass before baking the cake. Berry buttermilk cake...mine mine all mine. Tender and not too sweet, this cake is equally good eaten just out of the oven or while stumbling around the kitchen in the morning searching for the coffee (note: it is in the same place every day; I am just not a morning person). It's almost embarrassingly easy to throw together, a fantastic use of summer berries, and will delight pretty much anyone who is lucky enough to get a slice.

I have a feeling it's going to be showing up on a regular basis all season long.

Berry Buttermilk Cake
(adapted from the June 2009 issue of Gourmet)

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/4 cup (a half stick) of butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk (I squeezed the juice from half a lime into a liquid measuring cup, then added half & half until it reached the 1/2 cup mark and let it sit for 10 minutes until curdly)
1 cup berries of your choice (I used blackberries and strawberries because (gasp!) I do not love raspberries)

Preheat oven to 400. Grease and flour an 8 or 9 inch square or round baking dish.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a medium bowl for a hand mixer), cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla and egg.

Turn the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the buttermilk (2 parts) (mixing should begin and end on flour). Don't overmix! You want the cake to be tender.

Scrape the batter into your prepared pan, then scatter the berries over the top. (Hint: if you use raspberries, place them so the open part is facing up. This will prevent them from sinking all the way to the bottom. Have not yet figured out how to prevent the other kinds of berries from sinking, but this is purely an aesthetic issue.) Sprinkle an additional 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar over the top for a crunchy crust.

Bake for 20-25 minutes. Cake is ready when golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out mostly clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for a few minutes: you can then invert onto a plate or eat out of the pan (the second is my preferred method).

PS: I recently added a list of my favorite food blogs to the right over there, so peruse at your leisure: each is a heavy dose of inspiration for me. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

the one in which stephanie is too tired to think of a clever title

This makes my 5th post on cupcakes. Oh gosh. I don't want you to think I'm like, you know, obsessed. I am a normal person, and I have a normal level of fondness for cupcakes. Actually, given that this nation is pretty much in love with cupcakes, I'm not even sure where my feelings for cupcakes fall on the continuum, but I can't help it. They're just so ubiquitous. Oh, and cute. And perfectly portioned. Unlike cakes, you never have to worry whether you're cutting the slice too big or too small. Everyone has the same size. (That is, unless you take two. PS: if your choice is one cupcake or two cupcakes...come ON. You know what to do.)

Once upon a time (aka last weekend) I baked 8 dozen cupcakes. Just so we're clear: the most I've ever done, ever. They were all for a newly minted 4 year old. Her party was Little Mermaid-themed, which was funny to me because when I was 4 (almost 20 years ago...okay you can stop doing the math now) the movie had just come out, and I spent my days combing my hair with a fork and wishing I could grow a green tail. Oh, how times have changed.

The specs: chocolate cake (the Dutch cocoa makes it look almost black!), vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. After frosting les cupcakes, I was out a Costco-sized block of butter (that's 4 pounds!) and 28 egg whites. Meaning...I have 28 egg yolks hanging out in the fridge, doing their thing. Help? I can only feed so much creme brulee and tiramisu and lemon curd to the people around me before they start screaming "Are you trying to kill me?" every time I accost them with something egg yolky. Suggestions for anything else that uses up copious amounts of egg yolks?

The cupcakes hung around in cute cupcake trees for a while. Flounder and Sebastian, I regret to inform you that you are about to be tossed on the ground by a hungry preschooler. It happens.

Birthday girl attacks her cupcake. Within a matter of mere mouthfuls, she reached for her second one. (See what I mean about choosing two cupcakes over one?) A girl after my own heart, I say.

Sorry this is short. (It's Saturday) and I need to go lay down. 96 cupcakes can really take it out of you. It doesn't help that I woke up at 5 am in a cold sweat--I had dreamt that someone had stolen my frosting! I know, the thought is insane. And now I've told you the content of 95% of my dreams. I should go.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

life is like a tree of cherries/truck of tacos/box of cupcakes

This was supposed to be a very emo post. You see, it is almost summer now, and there is ONE thing I get excited about at the beginning of every summer: CHERRIES. I love them, I love them, I love them. It is imperative for lovers of cherries to be acutely aware of the weather patterns surrounding the time when the cherries start to ripen. Put simply, rain causes cherries to split. Split cherries equal rotten cherries. Rotten cherries do not a happy Stephanie make. The nutshell sob story: last week, rain predicted. I ran out to our tiny cherry tree (long story, will tell later) and reverently plucked off those tiny, not-yet-fully-ripened cherries as the rain came down in sheets. Later I ate them, scowling the whole time, because I knew that an extra week spent on the tree would mean everything for them in terms of flavor, sweetness, even aesthetics (preemie cherries just aren't nearly as pretty). More pouting. But then...M (of beer bread fame) called and asked for help with ridding her backyard cherry tree of its fruit before her cherries split. Bolted for the car. Marveled at her beautiful, old tree dripping with beautiful, ripe Bing cherries. Picked 22 pounds of cherries in an hour, hoisted the bags on my back, and drove home, spitting pits out the window along the way. Things I learned:
  • Don't cry over split cherries.
  • I'm a really fast cherry picker.
  • Cherries from other peoples' trees can taste even better than the ones from my own...especially when obtained for the low low price of free. (All of these have been earthshattering for you, I hope.)

(I had a lot of photos to show you comparing puny tree to amazing, overflowing with cherries tree, but I am dissatisfied with them (anyone out there know the trick to photographing fruit in trees successfully?), so here's this. Delish cherries in my hand. Did I mention that I love cherries?!)

And now...onto LA! Yeah...I totally went to LA last weekend and took me until now to write about it. Don't be angry; look at these pretty pictures instead!

After stumbling around Venice Beach for what seemed like 50 billion hours with grumbly tummies, this truck appeared like a mirage. Taco truck! we cheered. Upon closer was the Flying Pig Truck which specializes in Asian inspired taco heaven. HEAVEN, I tell you!

My pick, a pork belly bao. OH. GOSH. Note to self: should probably ease up a little on the pork belly. Ate it thrice over the course of the weekend...oh wait, THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH PORK BELLY. I apologize. And I will never let up on the pork belly.

Dpie's pick: tamarind duck confit taco. Oh, did you just say something? I was too busy getting lost in the seductive allure of duck.

I think this was spicy pork. Mmmm...hi cute taco.

(Has this post gotten too long? Does it look like I care?) Round #685: cupcake wars. We pitted Sprinkles against Crumbs...and giant cupcake came out to play. Just kidding. We totally didn't get this one. But really, how cute is it?!)

We took them to a park across the street, and the showdown began.

Crumbs red velvet cupcake (and Oreo cupcake to the right).

Sprinkles dark chocolate cupcake...I want to marry this cupcake. Please? I will be good to you, I promise. We could live in Beverly Hills right by the motherland...

The aftermath. Sprinkles won, in case you were wondering. For me, it was barely a contest.

Last stop: ramen in Little Tokyo at Daikokuya. Check out the steam mysteriously occluding a clear view of the bowl. A nice savory last note to balance out the extreme cupcake madness from the previous day.

PS: Jena, thanks so much for guest blogging last week!! By the way, if you thought she was joking about sending chow chow to you, she's totally not. Get your addresses in quick before it's all gone!