Monday, December 24, 2012

Irish cream fudge

Irish cream fudge

I came across this idea while looking for something to bring to the office holiday potluck party. Ultimately, I decided against bringing something boozy to an office party... but I ended up making this anyway, 'cause I wanted to see how it would come out and thought of a few people who might like some as a gift.

Feeling sad at the holidays? Have a few pieces of this delicious fudge and you won't care. It's that potent and that sneaky -- I don't even like alcohol usually, but I was getting tipsy licking the bowl, 'cause pretty much none of the alcohol cooks off, plus the alcohol taste is very well hidden. It tastes like chocolate and the delicious flavor of Irish cream, and you don't taste any of the alcohol until right after you swallow (by which time you've probably got another piece shoved in your mouth anyway, 'cause it's really good).

So make this for your over-21 friends as a tasty, naughty treat. It's great for the holidays. And since it's Irish cream, it'd probably be pretty good for St. Patrick's Day, too. Plus, it's really simple to make.

Irish Cream Fudge
Adapted from Pass the Sushi

3 c semisweet chocolate chips
1 c white chocolate chips
1/4 c butter
3 c confectioners’ sugar
1 c Baileys Irish cream

1. Melt the chocolate chips and the butter in a large bowl in the microwave and stir together until smooth.
2. Stir in the Baileys, then the confectioners' sugar, until incorporated.
3. Spread in a parchment-lined 8-by-8 pan and chill until firm, then cut into pieces.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Molasses drops

Molasses drops

It's been a mad crush of a holiday season this year, but while a pile of presents sits here mocking me for not being wrapped, perhaps I should try to catch up here, at least a little bit.

I made these cookies as the result of a search for a ginger-free replacement for gingerbread cookies, since my brother-in-law is allergic to ginger and I planned to send him some -- I totally forgot last year, and he ended up having to give the gingerbread cookies away, and I didn't want that to happen again. Surprisingly, though, most molasses cookies seem to have ginger in them, too. But luckily, I found this one, which doesn't.

These came out pretty well. They're not cakey like your typical molasses cookies; instead, they're more chewy with a bit of crispness around the edges. I skipped the icing recipe that was suggested for it, as it was Crisco-based, and seriously, who makes icing with shortening? Eew! Instead, I used a simple powdered-sugar icing, which worked nicely.

Molasses Drops
From "The Complete Magnolia Bakery Cookbook"

2 c flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp allspice (yes, really, a tablespoon)
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 c butter, softened
3/4 c sugar
1 egg
1/4 c molasses

Confectioners' sugar
Small splash of vanilla, maybe a teaspoon or so

1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, allspice and cinnamon and set aside.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, then the molasses. Beat in the dry ingredients.
3. Form into 1-inch balls and place a couple of inches apart on a cookie sheet.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool on the pan 1 minute, then remove to a rack to cool.
5. Dump a bit of confectioners' sugar into a bowl, then add a small splash of vanilla. Whisk in milk, a bit at a time, until glaze-like in consistency -- if it gets too runny, just add more sugar.
6. Dip the tops of the cookies in icing and let sit until dried.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Rolo-stuffed chocolate cookies

Rolo-stuffed chocolate cookies
Last week, I went to the post office with five very large boxes (darn you, USPS, for not carrying the medium-sized ones I liked anymore!), containing a very large amount of cookies. Last weekend was my annual bout of holiday insanity: two straight days of almost nothing but cookie-baking (seriously, I actually forgot to plan meals in there -- if it wasn't for my husband reminding me to eat, I might not have).

Somehow, I made it through, despite getting a migraine Sunday that made me really, really miserable all day, not to mention eating up a lot of my valuable baking time with lying-in-bed-oh-god-make-it-stop time. It was actually a bit of a fight to get through this year's baking, and I put in some pretty long hours, and I probably wouldn't have pulled it off if not for the help and support of my dear husband.

I know, blah blah blah, get to the cookies.

These are totally worth you having to read my babbling, I promise. These are really, really awesome. I spent ages scouring the Internet for a recipe that would work for these that looked good and not like it would melt and spread all over, and I'm glad to say that it paid off. These were actually one of those rare recipes where you look at the pictures, and you think "this should work exactly how I want"... and then it does. They came out beautifully, and delicious, too! And the fun part is that they're so plain-looking -- I could have dressed them up a bit, but I decided that this would stand just fine as the kind of cookie that's boring on the outside but surprises you when you bit into it. :) You could shove anything into these, too -- I ran out of Rolos and made a few cookies with mini-Three Musketeers bars, and those came out yummy (though really big), too.

Cookies cooling on a rack

Rolo-Stuffed Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from SugarHero

2 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup cocoa
1 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 c brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
One bag of Rolos

1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and cocoa and set aside.
2. Cream together the butter and sugars. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Then, beat in the dry ingredients.
3. Grab about a tablespoon of dough and roll it into a 1-inch ball. Flatten out the ball, put a Rolo in the center and wrap the sides up the dough up around it, then roll it into a ball again, making sure the candy is covered.
4. Place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes, until the cookies have spread a bit, are puffed and no longer look raw.
5. Let the cookies cool on the pan for a couple of minutes, then remove them to a rack to cool.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas cake (Fruitcake)


Don't use the F-word. Don't say it. 'Cause nobody will want to eat this if you say that it's fruitcake.

Drat, I said it. But wait! I swear, this isn't like the stuff you know as fruitcake. There's not a shred of candied weirdness in here -- no neon cherries, no fluorescent... um, what the heck ARE those yellow and green things, anyway? Yeah, exactly. But this, this is made with real food, like raisins and dates and pecans and apricots. There's no booze, either, 'cause I don't like booze, and honestly, who wants a cake that's fermented, anyway? Eew.

If you hate fruitcake, try this recipe. Even if you like fruitcake, try it anyway, 'cause you might be surprised. :)
Ready for the oven Sliced and ready to eat

Edible Fruitcake

2/3 c butter, softened
6 tbsp brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
6 tbsp honey
1 c flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
4 tbsp half and half
1 c raisins
1 c chopped dates
6 ounces dried apricots, chopped
3 c pecans, chopped with some halves reserved for garnish

1. Cream together the butter, sugar, eggs and honey. Mix in the half and half.
2. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and spices in another bowl. Stir this into the wet ingredients.
3. Stir in the fruits and nuts.
4. Pour into two greased and floured loaf pans. Garnish with pecan halves.
5. Bake at 300 degrees, with a pan of water placed on the rack below, for 60 to 65 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
6. Let cool before removing from pans.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Candy corn sugar cookies

Candy corn sugar cookies

I'm sitting here at home, hunkered down, waiting for the "Frankenstorm" to arrive, bringing rain and high winds and probably power outages. I'm sitting here, waiting, and waiting, at home, not wanting to go out and get anything done, 'cause the storm might hit any time. And so, I'm baking today. At least if the power goes out, I'll have treats.

I was thinking last night, "gee, I was doing to bring cookies to work for Halloween... but if the power goes out before then, I won't be able to bake." And so, last night, with the canned goods and bottled water put away and the electronic devices charged, I made cookie dough. Better that the cookies be a day early, I thought, than that there be no cookies at all.

These came out both very cute and very tasty. The only issue I had is that I'd never worked with dried lemon peel before, but I didn't have any whole lemons in the house, so I used the dried, and guess I probably should have either tried to rehydrate it or just left it out; it made odd little spots in the cookies, not bad or offensive, just not pretty.

Cutting the dough Ready for the oven

Candy Corn Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Kathie Cooks

2 sticks butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 egg
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp salt
3 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
Yellow and orange gel colors (or just use red and yellow food coloring if it's all you have)
Maybe 1/4 c or so of extra sugar in a shallow dish or on a plate

1. Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, lemon juice and zest and salt. Then, beat in the flour and baking soda.
2. Divide the dough into thirds. Remove one third to a separate bowl.
3. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap, then press another third of the dough into the bottom of the pan.
4. Beat some yellow gel color into the dough left into the bowl until it's a nice yellow color. Press into the pan.
5. Return the last of the dough to the mixing bowl and beat in orange gel color (or a mix of red and yellow food coloring) until nicely orange. Press into the pan, fold the plastic wrap over the top and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
6. Turn the dough out onto a cutting board and unwrap. Slice width-wise into quarter-inch slices, then cut the slices into triangles.
7. Dip one side of each cookie into the extra sugar, then place sugar side up on a cookie sheet.
8. Bake at 375 for about 8 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom. Remove to a rack to cool.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Salted caramels

Salted caramels

I got my wedding photos back the other day, and it got me thinking about the wedding again, about how wonderful and perfect that weekend was. And one of the many awesome things was that the favors went over so well -- I made homemade salted caramels, tons of them, in one grueling day of boiling-cooling-cutting-wrapping-boiling, etc., etc., seven pans of candy and a whole day of work for me and my mom (she was my wrapping helper). They were a lot of work, but I wanted to put something I made into the wedding, something handmade by me.

And I totally pulled it off. Not only that, but I got raves about them from everyone, talking about how awesome they were and how much they wanted to steal other people's when they weren't looking -- now that's a complement. :) I got raves at work, too, when I took a test batch in to share. People were actually asking me when I got back from getting married, hey, was I going to make those awesome caramels again? Now that's a winning recipe.

So here it is, the caramel recipe that was such a hit at my wedding and earned raves from so many people. Enjoy. :)

Bubbling sugar Setting candy

Salted Caramels
From The Kitchn

1 c heavy cream
5 tbsp butter
2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
1/4 c water
Flaky sea salt (I used Maldon, pricey but pretty and high-quality, and it goes far)

1. Line an 8-by-8 pan with parchment, then spray it with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Put the cream, butter and sea salt into a bowl and microwave until melted and hot.
3. Meanwhile, put the sugar, corn syrup and water into a saucepan, turn the heat to medium-high and stir just until dissolved. Then, put the spoon down, put in a candy thermometer and boil until the temperature reaches 248 degrees.
4. Pour in the cream mixture, pick up the spoon again and start stirring. Simmer this mixture slowly, stirring constantly, until it reaches 248 degrees again.
5. Immediately pull the pan from the heat and pour the contents into the pan.
6. Sprinkle a liberal amount of flaky sea salt over the top. (Some of it will melt, but if you wait until the candy cools at all, the salt won't stick.)
7. Let set for 2 hours. Then, cut into pieces and wrap in candy-wrapping papers or parchment. I found that doing eight cuts one way and 12 the other left nicely sized pieces.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Baked pumpkin doughnuts

Baked pumpkin doughnuts

I'm back! Yay!

It's been way, WAY too long since I've had a chance to update here, or even since I've had a chance to bake anything. But I have a really good excuse: I got married. :)

So now that the wedding's over (awww), it's time to break in some of the awesome gifts we got, both the wedding ones and the ones from my bridal shower that I hadn't allowed myself to use until after the wedding (bad luck if you do, isn't it?).

The one I was most excited about using, of course, was the world's most awesome mixer:

Aw yeah, KitchenAid!

I have a KitchenAid! And it's so awesome! It's really, really pretty, too. But even more impressive was how well it mixed -- turn it on, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, all done! Wait, what? Already? Whoa! This thing's amazing. I can't wait to make more stuff with it. :)

The pan at the bottom there, filled with doughnut batter, that's new, too. It was a gift from a very kind coworker, completely unexpected and really nice of her. So I figured, what better way to thank her for the pan than to use it to make her something?

Of course, it's fall, prime baking season... and prime pumpkin-eating season. Already, I've been eating pumpkin pancakes like they're going out of style, and I had my first pumpkin latte in a long time the other day (and it was awesome, though the key, I've learned, is just to get the full-fat ones, 'cause the flavor is lacking when you try to slim them down). So when I came across this recipe while looking for baked doughnut possibilities, it sounded like a winner.

And a winner it was. And by that, I mean that I ate one, just to see if they were good (which I always do before giving away something I've never made before). And then I ate another, just to double-check, y'know, 'cause the first batch didn't have enough sugar on them, so maybe they tasted different now. And then... well, I don't have any good reason for the third one. That was just gluttony. After that, I had to pack up the rest, so I wouldn't keep eating them. Shame on me. But at least I can say for sure that they're good now. :)

Ready for the oven Mmmm, doughnuts

Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts
From King Arthur Flour

1/2 c oil
3 eggs
1 1/2 c sugar
1 1/2 c pumpkin puree
3/4 tsp cinnamon
Heaping 1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ginger
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 c plus 2 tbsp flour

1/2 c sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
Heaping 1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ginger

1. In the bowl of your mixer or a good-sized mixing bowl, dump in the oil, eggs, sugar, pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt and baking power. Beat until combined. Then, add the flour and beat until just combined.
2. Spoon the batter into the greased sections of a doughnut pan, making them nearly but not quite full.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. While they're baking, mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in a large zip-top bag.
4. Let the doughnuts sit in the pan for a minute or two, then dump them out of the pan and shake them, one at a time, in the sugar mixture. Remove to a cooling rack and let set until completely cool.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Good but not God

My Trader Joe's haul, sans the frozen falafel I forgot to put in this picture

The Capital Region's first Trader Joe's opened on Friday. From the reaction, you'd think it was a one-time-only visit by Jesus himself.

The hysteria must, of course, be all caused by outsiders and transplants to the area. I was curious to go there, true, but mostly because I wanted to know what the big damn deal was, why transplants to the area talked about this like it was the greatest thing that's ever happened to them, and why they actually make hour-and-a-half-plus road trips to the next nearest Trader Joe's to stock up on their wares. It's sort of like the reason why I stopped for lunch at an In 'n' Out the first time I went somewhere that had one -- I wanted to see what this thing was that people were talking about like it was the greatest thing ever. (In the case of In 'n' Out, it was totally overrated -- it was a fast-food burger, no better than any other, except made a little bit less appetizing because they print Bible verses on their packaging. I'll take my lunch dogma-free, thanks.)

So I went to the new Trader Joe's today, wanting to see what the fuss was about and sort of expecting to be underwhelmed, and two days later, it was still crowded. Strike 1 came when I was barely in the door: Why do they only have large shopping carts, no smaller ones like the nice, short, easy-to-maneuver ones at Hannaford? It doesn't affect the quality of their products or anything, but it does affect the shopping experience, 'cause it's less easy to shop with big, bulky carts (or those hopeless awkward little baskets with the handles). I decided to shun both options and load up my reusable shopping bags instead.

I have to say, hell really is other people. I totally understand people standing in the aisles, taking a long time to examine all of the offerings -- we've never had a Trader Joe's around here, and 80-plus-percent of their offerings are house-brand items of types we haven't always seen, so it requires some browsing to get familiar with their offerings. But do you seriously have to stand in front of something, then stay there ten minutes talking about something unrelated while blocking those shelves? Or stand thisclose to me while I'm looking at something, shoving yourself in between me and the shelf so you can look, too? But this is saying something about the people Trader Joe's attracted this weekend, not the store itself, so I digress.

Once I found my way through the crowd and started to get an idea of what and where things were, observations started to emerge:
  • Why are the organic bananas labeled "X cents each," but they're wrapped together in a bundle with tape, implying that the whole bunch is one unit and therefore one "each"? (We asked a store clerk to verify that this wasn't true, and it wasn't -- the price was per banana, not per tape-wrapped bunch.)
  • Why are there no "kiddie cereals"? Every offering they had was a grown-up, health-food kind. Surely, if they can make so many other products, they could figure out a tasty, all-natural knockoff of Lucky Charms or Cookie Crisp or Life. I like the healthy kinds, but y'know, sometimes, I want the sugary, kiddie kinds.
  • The variety of frozen foods was, indeed, impressive. They're also fairly expensive, but not much more so than similar offerings elsewhere, for the most part, though samosas at $3.69 for a box of six seemed outrageous. I know you can get them way cheaper at the Asian Supermarket.
  • It's so refreshing to be able to shop from a whole section of breads! There were all different kinds, scones, plain ol' sandwich breads, naan, everything, and no corn syrup! It's usually a struggle to find one loaf of bread that's not jammed full of artificial crap. Here, they're all good. I bought a loaf that was comparable to most high-priced loaves you'd find in a store, and it was both free of artificial junk and only $2.49, a total steal. The Trader Joe's philosophy is great, I have to say -- it's nice to know that everything you're buying is HFCS-free or all-natural or organic, ethical food without the junk fillers.
  • You can't do all of your shopping here -- they just don't have everything you'll need. There's almost nothing in the way of personal care items, and certain other things you'd find in a grocery store are either absent entirely or won't be present in the brand or variety or size you want. (Today, for instance, our grocery list included gelatin, which was nowhere to be had, not even the Jell-o type, and Scotch tape.)
  • Speaking of things they don't have, there's no deli counter. In fact, there are few options for things to put on a sandwich -- just some pre-packaged deli meats, two types of gourmet-type chicken salad and one packaged "egg white salad."
  • The milk and egg prices seemed really high. But y'know, after we made the required stop at Hannaford later on to get what Trader Joe's didn't have, I compared prices, and they weren't as bad as I'd thought. A half-gallon of 1 percent milk at Trader Joe's was $1.99; it was only $1.71 at Hannaford. But then again, Trader Joe's is "happy" milk; when you compare the price to, say, Battenkill Valley Creamery milk, local, "happy" milk, that's $2.69 at Hannaford. And eggs were $1.99 a dozen at Trader Joe's and only $1.78 at Hannaford -- but again, if you bought the cheapest "happy" eggs at Hannaford (I'm honestly not sure which type was the most accurate comparison here... cage-free? hormone-free? organic? I don't know the lingo), they were $2.79. So really, yes, you're paying more for milk and eggs at Trader Joe's, but not much more, only 20 cents or so, for a better-quality product. I could live with that. (I didn't buy either today, though, 'cause I didn't need them.)

I went up to the checkout, bracing myself for a really high bill, 'cause I'd picked up a whole bunch of stuff (though it was all practical, things I can eat for dinner and not snack foods -- and no "cookie butter," 'cause even if they hadn't been out of it, I've been trying to figure out a good use for it since I spotted the jars of Biscoff spread at Hannaford a year or so ago and still haven't justified buying some). And I was irked again, 'cause the layout of their checkout lanes is really awkward -- there are no conveyor belts or counter space, so you can't unload your bags or basket, which makes checking out slower and more cumbersome for the checkers, and they have this odd layout where you can't figure out what side of the counter the line is on, and it looked like they were stealing everyone's carts and running them behind the checkers and unloading them... it all seemed really oddly planned and awkward.

But y'know, the bill wasn't actually all that high; for the amount of meals I plan to get out of what I bought, it was pretty reasonable. And the food is pretty good, what we've eaten so far -- we had a frozen pizza for dinner that was tasty, and some cookies (my fiancé didn't avoid the junk food like I did), and the bread I got is pretty good.

My overall opinion? Trader Joe's is not everything its fans say, but that's because its most devoted fans treat it like it's a religious experience or something, and come on, it's not the second coming: It's a grocery store. In fact, it's a grocery store with a quite limited selection of the things you're likely to need, but on the flip side, what it does have is of good quality at a price that's pretty darned reasonable for that level of ethical standards.

The biggest complaint I have, actually, is that it's not closer to home: I like this place enough that I might actually consider shopping here every week, then making a quick stop on the way home for what Trader Joe's doesn't have, like we did today, except that I can't stand the thought of driving all the way to Albany every single week to get groceries, making a special trip all the way down there and back, when I have a good grocery store with everything I need in one stop right near my house. As it is, I'm bemoaning the fact that I don't already go down there every Sunday or Monday, and I'm wondering if, if nothing else, I can convince my fiancé to stop and pick me up a loaf of bread every week on his way home from work Monday night; that sounds like quite an imposition, but on the other hand, I'm just so excited to find good-quality, good-tasting, no-HFCS bread that's reasonably priced, too.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Good food for a bad day

When you're having a lousy day, what do you want to eat?

The menuMacaroni and cheese? Maybe a cheeseburger and some tater tots? Sure, that sounds good. But if you're having a really lousy day... do you really feel like cooking? Nah. Screw it. You're having a rough day. Why not let someone else cook? Why not... head to Comfort Kitchen in Saratoga Springs?

I was recently invited to a tasting event for area food bloggers at Comfort Kitchen, and overall, it was an enjoyable experience, and the food was both good and promising. I can pick a few nits, and I will, but let me just preface this by saying that all of my criticisms are small, and none of them would preclude me from recommending this place. (Apologies are in order at this point for the subpar photography -- the lighting there, while fine to dine by, is pretty awful for taking pictures.)

Tater totsFirst up were a couple of appetizers. The first offering was homemade tater tots. They were a bit rounder than the frozen ones we're all used to, but the flavor and texture were spot-on, with just a hint of rosemary to them. They were served with a bunch of different sauces: your standard mustard sauce, and blue cheese sauce, and a maple barbecue that was alright, and "awesome sauce," which was, indeed, pretty awesome, sort of like Russian dressing, but not quite, not really.

Veggie burger pattyThe second appetizer was mini veggie burger patties. They were a little tricky to eat served this way, bun-less -- I managed to half-drop mine trying to get it from platter to napkin. And I have to say, I was a little nervous about these, 'cause I've never eaten this sort of veggie burger, the black-bean-patty kind -- I've only ever tried the frozen kind that are trying to pretend they're real burgers, the soy-mushroom-nasty kind. But these? They were pretty good, really. I'm not sure if they're something I'd order, given that they have real burgers on the menu, too, but they had a good flavor, sort of like chickpeas, oddly (though I don't think there were chickpeas in there, just black beans and zucchini and maybe some other veggies I didn't catch).

Mini-cheeseburgersThen, it was onward to the main courses.

The first thing served here was mini-cheeseburgers. They were really, really good, perfectly crisp-but-juicy patties, soft buns, tasty toppings that didn't overwhelm the burger, real cheddar cheese and a little surprise -- I tasted something smoky, and sure enough, when I peeled off the bun, there were bacon crumbles on top of the cheese. These were meaty-delicious-awesome.

Here is actually a good time to mention something awesome about Comfort Kitchen: They get as many of their ingredients as possible from local farms, fresh providers, no pre-packed and overprocessed junk allowed in their kitchen. I could've said this at the beginning, 'cause it's a good selling point, but honestly, I don't care how locally sourced and fresh your ingredients are if the end product doesn't taste good. Knowing that what you're eating here comes from good, fresh sources is a nice bonus, though. For instance, the potatoes in their tater tots are from Sheldon Farms. And the meat in the hamburgers, the owner explained, is a customized mix that's fresh-ground for him every other day by the Meat House -- the burgers we ate, he said, were made with meat that was freshly ground three hours before.

Pulled pork mac and cheeseMac and cheeseThe second part of our main course was the ultimate comfort food: macaroni and cheese. There were two offerings, a plain version and one with pulled pork in it. The pulled pork version was really good, meaty and spicy and creamy and soft and, well, comforting. But the original version? I have to say, I had a small qualm here, 'cause while the texture of the sauce was spot-on, nicely creamy and not grainy at all, and in a good proportion to the amount of pasta and crumb topping (made from Rock Hill Bakehouse bread), the flavor was a bit bland. It needed salt -- or maybe a sharper cheese in the four-cheese blend, though that might negatively affect the texture. Really, it felt like a couple of shakes of salt would've been enough to elevate this from eh to awesome.

Strawberry shortcake ice cream sandwichThe final course was dessert, and there was a surprise in store: Strawberry ice cream sandwiches, modeled on Good Humor strawberry shortcake bars, complete with a crunchy strawberry crumble around the edges. The flavors here were phenomenal, especially that of the ice cream, made that afternoon with the last fresh strawberries at the farmers' market. The strawberry flavor just popped, bright and sweet, with big chunks of berries throughout. The cookies, however, while having a very good sugar cookie flavor, were too thick and crunchy for an ice cream sandwich. I wished that the cookies were thinner and softer, and a bit more of that amazing ice cream would've been nice, too. But all of the components here were very good -- the dish as a whole just needs a little tweaking.

Overall, I'd say there's a lot to like about Comfort Kitchen. My biggest complaint, and the only reason I'd tell someone not to go there, has nothing to do with the food: It's that they're probably not open when you'll want to go, 'cause their hours are short and centered around a conventional lunchtime. They're not open at all on Sundays, and the rest of the week, they're only open until 7 p.m., meaning that you're not likely to be able to make it there for dinner before they close (or at least, I'm not, even on my one weekday off, 'cause my fiancé works until 6ish in Albany). But if you can manage to get there when they're open, do, 'cause both the quality of food and the philosophy behind it are worth supporting.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Chocolate chip cookie bars (Blondies)

Chocolate chip cookie bars

What with all of the wedding planning obligations, I've scarcely had any time to bake, and I'm not terribly optimistic about that changing until after the wedding. But I did make time for one project recently, after a lovely bridal shower thrown for me by some wonderful friends. I wanted to do something for them to thank them for all of the work they did to make my shower amazing, so I found this recipe for "chocolate chip cookie bars."

Honestly, what's the difference between a chocolate chip cookie bar and a blondie? Pretty much nothing, really. They both have the same cookie base, generally speaking -- the major differences come with the shape (bars instead of drop cookies) and the mix-ins (sometimes blondies use white chips instead, or butterscotch chips). But the one thing this recipe doesn't share with any blondie recipe I've tried is that this recipe actually came out. The resulting bars looked and smelled awesome, and I had all I could do not to eat any (they were all for gifts, after all). ...Alright, I confess, I may not have eaten any that day, but I did make another batch a few days later, so I could eat one. And yes, they were damn tasty.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars/Blondies
Adapted from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

2 c and 2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
12 tbsp butter, melted and cooled a bit
1 c brown sugar
1/2 c sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 c chocolate chips
1 c chopped nuts or different chips (I used walnuts for one batch, peanut butter chips for another)

1. Line a 9-by-13 pan with foil, then spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray.
2. Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda and set aside.
3. Whisk together the butter and sugars, then whisk in the egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips and nuts (or other chips, etc.).
4. Dump the dough into the pan and press evenly into pan.
5. Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and slightly firm to the touch.
6. Place the pan on a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Using the foil as a sling, remove from the pan to a cutting board, peel back the foil and cut into bars.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: A la cart

Rice and bean burrito with avocado

Today, I get to hip you to a great new food outlet that you probably haven't heard of yet, 'cause it just opened a couple of weeks ago, and it's in Saugerties. But bear with me here, 'cause if you're in the area, it's totally worth it (and honestly, even if you're not in the area, it's only a few hours of driving and a few bucks in tolls to go check it out).

My fiancé peers inside the cart while chatting with the owner

On a recent sojourn south, we stopped by the Wholey Moly food cart, which is on Ulster Avenue outside of a hardware store -- from the north, get off of the Thruway at Saugerties, take a left and then another left onto Ulster Avenue, and it's just a little bit past the railroad tracks on the right.

The menu

The menu is small and reasonably priced. It's also mostly vegetarian so far. If you're a meat-eater, try to get there on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, when there's a special meat of the day on offer. But honestly, I'm a meat-eater, and I didn't really miss it here; I had a rice and bean burrito with avocado, and it was delicious, very flavorful and filling, stuffed with rice, black beans, tomato salsa, sour cream, shredded cheese and fresh avocado slices.

If I lived in the area, I'd probably eat here all of the time; the food is unpretentious, the flavors are delicious and the prices are more than fair. As it is, the Wholey Moly cart would make a great stop if you get hungry during a Thruway trip (and it's way tastier and cheaper than anything you'll find at a rest area, that's for sure).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Yes, my liège...

Liège waffle

To all of those who think that the only good place in New York to find good international food is New York City, I say ha, no, think again. The liège waffle, a Belgian treat known to few Americans (but sold by one notable food truck in NYC), has arrived in the village of Ballston Spa. And it is good... very good.

When Groupon had a deal for the Iron Roost, a new, waffle-focused cafe in Ballston Spa, I jumped at it, eager to find a new good breakfast spot (I'm always looking for those) and curious as heck about their menu, 'cause on it was a liège waffle (pronounced, at least by the counter staff, as "lee-AYj"), something I'd only heard about in foodie circles but had never seen on a menu, aside from the aforementioned NYC food truck. They're a largely novel food for Americans, and they sounded good, so I had to try one.

Of course, I couldn't just get one waffle; I had to try out a balanced meal (and after all, it was breakfast time, and I was hungry). So I got the "Southwestern Fiesta," sort of like a breakfast burrito but wrapped up in a savory waffle.


It was pretty tasty, and though the portion looked small (as did the side of home fries, which were adequately cooked), it was filling. I think this is one of those situations where we've become so accustomed to mammoth portions we can't finish that our sense of proportion is all out of whack; when this was delivered to our table, I thought, "hm, that's it?", but by the time I was done eating, I was pleasantly full.

But this trip was only sort of about filling my stomach with breakfast food. The real motivation here was the liège waffle.

So how was it?

Waffle nirvana

Really, really, really good. It was crispy and carmelized in all the right ways, without being burned, and the crunchy bits of pearl sugar created a nice textural contrast. There was a bit of spice going on in there, too, just a hint, nutmeg perhaps, something to create a warm depth of flavor without being blatant about it. It was delicious, and I was sad to eat the last bite and have it be gone.

Needless to say, I'm going to have to make this one of my regular breakfast spots. Perhaps you should, too.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cinnamon coffee cake

Cinnamon coffee cake

Sometimes, serendipity starts with laziness.

I was invited to a friend's house for breakfast recently, and not wanting to turn up empty-handed, I started searching about for coffee cake recipes. But while many looked good, all of them would require a trip to the store, because I didn't have either buttermilk or sour cream in the house. (Alright, I could've made clabbered milk, but like I said, I was feeling lazy.) This really didn't seem right to me: Surely, a basic coffee cake should be something you can pull together from your pantry, something fairly simple and made with things you already have in the house.

And then, I came across this recipe. And sure, it would take a little bit of extra work, what with the whipping of the egg whites, but it promised that the results would be worth it. And it's from the Pioneer Woman -- she usually knows her stuff.

The results, I must say, were delicious, even though I was really skeptical while putting it into and taking it out of the oven. For one, the amount of topping called for here is downright absurd (but oh, so delicious). And for another, while her cake rises up around the topping, creating a buckle-like effect, mine mostly stayed put underneath the topping -- the only thing I can think of is that my egg whites weren't whipped enough, because while I did whip them thoroughly, I think they might've fallen a bit by the time I added them. But y'know, it didn't matter. This cake still came out delicious. This recipe's a keeper.

Cinnamon Coffee Cake
Adapted from the Pioneer Woman

3/4 c butter, softened
2 c sugar
3 c flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 c milk
3 egg whites

3/4 c butter, softened
3/4 c flour
1 1/2 c brown sugar
2 tbsp cinnamon

1. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the flour mixture and the milk, a bit of each at a time, until combined. Then, gently fold in the beaten egg whites.
4. Scrape into a greased 9-by-13 pan.
5. Cut together the topping ingredients until crumbly, then sprinkle over the cake batter.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until no longer jiggly in the center. (I used the toothpick test to be sure.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cookie dough truffles

Cookie dough truffle

It seems to me like with the advent of summer (well, summer as we know it, anyway, much as the science books say it's still spring), people are craving all-American classics, judging by the amount of chocolate chip cookie recipes that have been going around online lately. And y'know, that did sound good. But these sounded even better: Chocolate chip cookie dough bites, no heating up the oven (and the house) necessary, and totally egg-free so they're safe to eat.

The only heating at all involved here is to melt candy coating for the outsides. Most people could just use the microwave, stopping frequently to stir. But most people probably don't have broken microwaves like I do. I had to rig up a double-boiler system. If you don't have a working microwave, either, put a little bit of water in a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer, then set a glass bowl (that's bigger than the top of the pan) inside the pan, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water. Put the candy coating in the bowl and stir occasionally until melted.

These are so worth making, 'cause they take minimal effort (even with the double-boiler) and are crazy delicious. I ate two before I cut myself off, and I could've probably just kept eating them until they were gone. Instead, I brought them to work, where my coworkers dubbed them "crack." :)

Cookie Dough Truffles
Adapted slightly from Bakerella

1/2 c butter, softened
1/4 c sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 c flour
1/2 c mini chocolate chips
Chocolate candy coating (or regular chocolate chips, though the candy coating is easier to work with)

1. Beat together the butter and the sugars until thoroughly combined. Beat in the milk, vanilla and salt. Beat in the flour on low until combined. Stir in the mini chocolate chips.
2. Roll into 1-inch balls and place on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. Pop the whole pan into the freezer for half an hour or so, until firm.
3. Melt the candy coating (or chocolate) in the microwave or using a double-boiler, then dip the balls into the coating and place on another cookie sheet lined with waxed paper.
4. Chill or freeze until set. If you wish, repeat the dipping process to get a thicker shell (I didn't bother).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Tour de Hard Ice Cream

Five very different kiddie-sized chocolate ice cream cones: from left, Farmer's Daughters', Ice Cream Man, Snowman, Mac's, Moxie's On Saturday, my fiancé and I sacrificed our waistlines in the name of science (yeah, that's it) at the Profussor's Tour de Hard Ice Cream.

We had a short list of flavors that would be available at all five stops, so we could do a side-by-side comparison: Butter pecan, chocolate, coffee, maple walnut, strawberry and vanilla. After much consideration, I went with chocolate. (My fiancé went with strawberry.)

Farmer's Daughters' The first stop was the Farmer’s Daughters’ Drive-In, on Route 29 east of Saratoga Springs. The chocolate ice cream here was ... well, it was chocolate ice cream. Honestly, it reminded me of the half-gallons of Sealtest my parents would get when I was little -- sorta chocolate-y but not a lot, and tasting a bit like freezer, with a few ice crystals. It was ho-hum ice cream. And they had an upcharge for a sugar cone, which I think it crap -- come on, there's no way that bulk-ordered sugar cones are so expensive that they need to charge extra for them.

Ice Cream Man Now that we had a baseline for our ratings, we headed to The Ice Cream Man in Greenwich. What a difference there was: This stuff was richly cocoa-y and had a thick texture reminiscent of Ben & Jerry's. It was so good that I ate it too quickly and gave myself an ice cream headache. And there was no upcharge for a sugar cone, and the cone itself had a sizeable portion of ice cream for just two bucks -- it was about the size of a regular "small" portion, except that this was the "kiddie" size. We've been there once before, and this is par for the course: the last time we went to The Ice Cream Man, I got a "small," and it filled a waffle cone!

The Snowman The next stop was a ways away, at the much-vaunted Snowman in Troy. The bloggers around here have talked this place up so much that I was sure it would be phenomenal. But instead, it kinda sucked. First off, they didn't even have sugar cones! What kind of ice cream place doesn't have sugar cones? That was just nuts. And this was the only place that didn't have any seating in the shade, no shade at all in fact, not a single awning or umbrella or anything. And to top it off, the ice cream was lousy -- the chocolate flavor was dusty and muted, and that's once I got past the odd sweet taste in the first few bites cause by the scooper not being rinsed off properly between my fiancé's strawberry dish and my cone. But it could have been worse. My ice cream was just bad, but his strawberry ice cream was aggressively bad, blatantly disgusting, sickly-sweet and almost bubblegum-like. We both threw ours out without finishing them. The only good thing I can say about The Snowman is that at least the ice cream was the cheapest of the day. Still, it was worth even less than that.

Mac's Our taste buds needed relief after that, but thankfully, we got it at Mac's Drive-In in Watervliet. Their ice cream was perhaps a little bit thinner, and the sugar cones, which they charged for (grrrr), seemed thinner as well -- mine cracked while I was eating the ice cream on top. But the ice cream had a good, if not great, cocoa flavor, and the price was reasonable. I'd stop here if I was nearby, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Moxie's And then, we headed over the river to Moxie's, which seemed like a straightforward and mostly-familiar trip on paper, yet we ended up getting lost on the way there anyway. At least we weren't the only ones who got lost, so that made it a bit better. But despite the fact that this place has also been hyped up a lot by area bloggers, it wasn't really worth finding. The ice cream lacked flavor, and there were clumps of cocoa powder in it that hadn't been mixed in properly. They charged extra for a sugar cone, too. The serving of ice cream was teeny. And to top it off, theirs was the most expensive cone of the day. What a rip-off.

The Ice Cream Man was the clear winner of the day, for both chocolate and strawberry, we concluded. As for the Profussor's compiled ratings, they largely agreed, though oddly enough, those who tasted butter pecan preferred The Snowman. Even a bad place can usually do something right, I guess. But as for us, I think we'll stick to The Ice Cream Man.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Strawberry-almond muffins

Strawberry-almond muffins

A friend of ours just had her first baby! So naturally, I volunteered to bake something for the new parents.

There's a special checklist when baking for new parents. Whatever you make should be at least sort of healthy, so you're adding nutrition to their busy day, not just empty, sugary calories (though some of those are nice, too). It should be non-caffeinated -- skip the espresso-laced recipes here. Skip the boozy ones, too, obviously. And whatever it is, it should be something you can eat with one hand while holding a squirmy baby in the other.

This recipe fit the bill quite nicely, not to mention that it let me use up some of the strawberries I had in the freezer. It's got wheat flour and nuts in it, good grains and protein, and it's not too sugary. Since it's the kind of recipe that provides options for what size and shape you want to create, I went with muffins, 'cause they're easy one-handed food.

I did run into one snafu making these, though it's not one you'll likely encounter: I popped the butter into the microwave to melt it, and seconds later, I heard odd, zapping-type noises. And then, I smelled burning. Apparently, our microwave has quit dying a slow, noisy death and given up the ghost entirely. And there I was, suddenly bereft, microwave-less, with a bowl of mostly-unmelted butter, not wanted to dirty a saucepan but not knowing how else to get it melted. I resorted to cracking the oven door while it was preheating and holding the bowl over the rising heat. I felt very much like a prairie wife, lost without my modern conveniences. And I started fervently hoping that somebody gets us a microwave as a wedding gift. ;)

Kitchen equipment travails aside, I'm not sure if I'd make these muffins a lot, 'cause they tasted very much like healthy food, all wheat and nuts and fruit. But they were pretty tasty and should be good fuel for the new mom and dad. :)

Strawberry-Almond Muffins
Adapted from Eating Well

1 1/2 c wheat flour
1 c regular all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 c buttermilk (or 1 c milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice, left to sit for a few minutes)
2/3 c brown sugar
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 c frozen strawberries, thawed slightly and cut up into chunks
1/2 c sliced almonds, chopped, plus more sliced almonds for topping

1. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt and set aside.
2. In another large bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, brown sugar, butter, oil, vanilla and almond extract. Add in the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Stir in the strawberries and almonds.
3. Spray muffin cups with cooking spray, then fill about two-thirds full with batter. Sprinkle sliced almonds on each.
4. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean.
5. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then remove and cool on a rack.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Better banana bread

Better banana bread

There's always room for improvement, especially when the initial outcome wasn't all that impressive. After this rare disappointment from Cooks Illustrated, I went back to the drawing board, looking for a better banana bread recipe. And now, I'm happy to say that I've found it.

Better still, this one has the potential to be a much healthier banana bread: The original recipe comes from Cooking Light and includes nonfat yogurt, while leaving out the fattening-but-delicious walnuts. But, well, I couldn't leave well enough alone, especially when I had some full-fat sour cream in the fridge that needed to be used up. I'm sure it would come out just as good with the yogurt, though, since they're both thick, slightly tart dairy products.

I still had a little trouble getting the middle of the loaf done before the outside burned, but there was only one little singed bit on the top by the time this one just barely reached doneness in the center. Careful monitoring of your loaf is key. And the results were well worth the effort.

Better Banana Bread
Adapted from Cooking Light

3 very ripe bananas
2 c flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 c sugar
1/4 c butter, softened
2 eggs
1/3 c sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 c chopped walnuts (or less, or none, to your taste)

1. Mash the bananas thoroughly and set aside.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, then the banana, sour cream and vanilla.
4. Beat in the flour mixture on low speed, half at a time, until just blended.
5. Stir in the nuts.
6. Scrape into a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
7. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, then remove from pan and cool completely on a rack

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Sponges for dinner

Clockwise from left, crispy shredded beef, rainbow chicken, luffa with soybeans and some white rice

The other night, my fiancé and I had dinner at Ala Shanghai, an area Chinese restaurant that specializes in Shanghainese cuisine.

It's amazing how many people don't realize that China, being a big place, has a lot of regional cuisines, much like America does, from New England clambakes to Southwestern chimichangas to Southern fried chicken and grits. Most of what we grew up eating as Chinese food is actually a really, really Americanized version of Cantonese or Hunanese food (for example, there's no such thing as General Tso's chicken in China). The authentic versions of those cuisines are definitely worth exploring, but there's a whole other world of Chinese food out there, too, and we're lucky to have a place nearby that does authentic (well, mostly) Shanghainese food.

The great thing about this place, too, is that they cook seasonally. Seasonal eating is always the best way to go; out-of-season foods just aren't as good, aren't as fresh and flavorful, and why eat substandard food? Why waste the calories?

There was one particular reason why I wanted to get to Ala Shanghai now, in the spring, and it's because I was intrigued by last spring's seasonal menu and heard that they'd brought it back. And on that menu are some things you'd never see on an American menu -- like, for instance, luffa (also commonly spelled as loofa).

Yes, like the bath sponge. Except no, not quite. If you harvest luffa in the spring, when it's very young, it's not dried out and coarse. At this stage, it's a green vegetable, totally edible, something that looks a bit like squash. I had to try it, 'cause as weird as it sounds, I'd heard that it was good. We ended up getting an order of luffa with soybeans to split.


So how was it? My first impression, oddly, was of a freshly mowed lawn; it seemed to taste like you'd imagine mown grass tasting, very, very green, but not in a bad way, more of an intriguing way. It was a flavor that was easy to get used to, and it had the texture and some of the flavor of zucchini as well. Also, it was served in a sauce that was astoundingly delicious — the sauce was very, very light, but it had the flavor of char, a straight-up grill sort of flavor, perhaps wok hei, the flavor of the wok it was cooked in. It was an eye-opening flavor experience and paired perfectly with the luffa and soybeans.

Of course, as long as we were there, we had to get some soup dumplings and an order of scallion pancake (both of which I'd highly recommend). And we both got entrees, too, aside from the order of luffa with soybeans that we decided to split. It was too much food, and we knew it, but hey, leftovers are always good. His rainbow chicken (strips of white-meat chicken cooked with strips of carrot, snow pea and bamboo) was intensely chicken-y and tasty, and my crispy shredded beef was sweet and savory in just the right way.

There aren't a whole lot of restaurants around here that are up to this level of cooking, that do one cuisine and do it very, very well, but Ala Shanghai is definitely among them. They do Chinese food like it's supposed to be done, with deep flavor and textural complements and contrasts.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pound cake

Pound cake

Y'know, there's nothing like company to get you off your lazy butt and back on track with household tasks.

When I told my fiancé that my mother would be coming over to visit and see some of the things for the wedding, he actually started picking up the living room a bit — considering that the place has literally never been clean since he first moved into it, never, not once, not even in the first week he lived there, this is really saying something. (I even put a clean apartment on my Christmas list this year. No dice — he wanted to buy me something instead, no matter how much I tried to explain how much I'd love a clean apartment instead.) I have to add, too, that my mom's not one of those hyper-critical types, either; she really, honestly doesn't care if the place is a bit messy, but for some reason, it bothered him enough to pick up a bit, and hey, I'm not complaining.

Me, on the other hand, I picked up a neglected household task, too. I decided that if Mom was coming over, I should bake something, some sort of afternoon dessert to follow the lunch I was taking her out for that day. I looked through my Pinterest to-bake board, and I found one baking staple that I hadn't tried yet but kept meaning to, and it would pair perfectly with the strawberries in my freezer, which really need to be used up since this year's strawberry season is fast approaching. It was a recipe for a basic vanilla pound cake.

This cake came out pretty good; I'd definitely keep this recipe in my repertoire (maybe with some chocolate chips thrown in next time?). The flavor was pretty subtle on its own, but it was pleasant and went nicely with macerated strawberries and some homemade whipped cream. It would be a good base for any fruit topping, or maybe an ice cream sundae, but it's also not bad as just a basic snacking cake.

My only complaint is a rather small one: Why do recipes for loaf-shaped foods always call for different-sized pans? Why is there no standard loaf size? I bought 9-by-5 pans for bread, and then I had to buy 8-by-4 pans for fruitcake, and now this recipe? It calls for 8.5-by-4.5, as if to spite me. So my cake came out a little on the short side, though still delicious, 'cause I used a 9-by-5 pan (better a bigger pan than the possibility of the batter overflowing all over the oven, I figured).

Pound Cake
Slightly adapted from Diana's Desserts

1 1/2 c flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
Insides of 1 vanilla bean (split lengthwise and scrape out with a knife)
2 eggs
1/2 c sour cream

1. Grease and flour a 8.5-by-4.5 or 9-by-5 loaf pan.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
3. Beat together the butter, sugar, vanilla and vanilla bean scrapings, then beat in the eggs.
4. Stir in half of the flour mixture, then the sour cream, then the rest of the flour mixture, just until combined.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth out with your spoon. Bake at 325 degrees for about 70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
6. Let cool in the pan 15 minutes, then run a butter knife around the sides of the cake, remove it from the pan and rest it on its side on a rack until cooled.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Lime sugar cookies

Lime sugar cookies

I'm headed to a tacos-and-tequila party tonight: It's a "Cuatro de Mayo" party, being thrown by someone who doesn't believe in waiting until Saturday to party. I'm not really a partier, but then again, I don't really get invited to parties, so I figure that when I do get invited, I should try to go.

So it's a Mexican-themed party, and we're expected to bring something, perhaps a bottle of tequila, perhaps something else edible or drinkable. Obviously, I decided to bake something for dessert. But what? I don't really know any Mexican desserts. There really aren't that many, aside from flan and churros, both of which have downsides as far as being party food. So I decided to think outside the box a bit, and what I came up with was this: There will be tequila at the party. What goes with tequila? Doesn't lime go with tequila? Lime is in margaritas, isn't it? Lime it is, then.

I turned up this recipe for lime sugar cookies and decided to give it a go, figuring that I'd end up with a nice sweet treat to pair with both tacos and tequila. As it turns out, they aren't as lime-y as I'd hoped, but they're still tasty, mostly a nice sugar cookie but with a hint of lime at the finish. I'd make them again, but I might try to find lime extract to bump up the lime flavor, or I might just leave it out altogether and make plain sugar cookies.

Lime Sugar Cookies
Adapted from My Baking Addiction

2 3/4 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c butter, softened
1 1/2 c sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
Zest of a lime
3 tbsp lime juice
1/4 c sugar for rolling

1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
2. Beat together the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg, vanilla, zest and juice. Stir in the flour mixture until combined.
3. Take a rounded teaspoon of dough at a time, form it into a ball, roll in sugar and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, an inch and a half apart.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes, until lightly browned. Let sit on pan 2 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack.

Peanut butter cup brownies

Peanut butter cup brownies

Sometimes, you have this grand, elaborate plan to make something that'll perfectly fit the occasion, something fancy that will really impress, or something that's seasonal or fits with a theme. And sometimes, you just need to come up with something simple that'll please a crowd, and you don't have a lot of time to think about it.

I had a bunch of mini peanut butter cups in the fridge that I'd stockpiled from post-Easter sales. Everybody likes peanut butter cups. So I plugged in "peanut butter cup" on Pinterest, my new best friend as far as the Interwebs goes. And I found these. And they were, indeed, crowd-pleasers: one person called them "crack," and another said "you're evil -- I can't stop eating these!"

One big, huge warning before you make these, though: Cut strips of parchment wider than the muffin cups and lay them inside each cup before you put in the batter (just plop the batter on top to make the strip fall into the cup). DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Or you will end up crying and swearing, like I was, as you scrape half-brownies out of the pan and throw them away, 'cause no matter how nonstick your pan is, these will not want to come out in one piece -- the tops will peel off in your hand, leaving the rest stubbornly sitting in the pan. And my pan is super-slippery, the type of pan that I usually don't even need to grease, 'cause stuff just slides right out of it. Trust me, just use the parchment strips: You'll end up with little parchment slings that you can pull to get the brownies out.

Peanut Butter Cup Brownies
Adapted from Savory Sweet Life

3/4 c butter
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 c flour
1/2 c cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
Around 40 mini peanut butter cups, unwrapped

1. Melt the butter in a large bowl. Mix in the sugars, vanilla and eggs. Then, stir in the flour, cocoa and salt.
2. Grease your mini muffin pan. Cut little strips out of parchment paper, about a centimeter wide and long enough to put inside your mini muffin cups and have some hanging out over the edges.
3. For each muffin cup, hold a strip of parchment over the cup, then plop about a teaspoon of the batter onto it to push it down into the cup. Fill the cups only about two-thirds full of batter.
4. Place a peanut butter cup into each muffin cup and push down until the top of it is level with the top of the batter.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove them from the pan by pulling on the ends of the parchment strips, peel off the parchment and place them on a cooling rack.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Oatmeal-raisin-nut cookies

Oatmeal-raisin-nut cookies

Y'know, nobody told me that wedding planning would take all of my free time. But it's ridiculous how booked my calendar has gotten -- and when you're this busy, there's not enough time to contemplate fun hobbies like baking. I'll need to change that, though, if for no other reason than that there are a few events coming up soon for which I'm obligated to bake something.

Alright, confession time: I did bake one thing since the last time I posted. It was an orange angel food cake for Easter, and it proved disappointing -- while it tasted alright, the texture was just off, the crumb too uneven and a bit too chewy. This experiment taught me that if you already have a good recipe for something, you probably shouldn't reinvent the wheel. I might make an orange angel food cake again, but next time, I'd just modify this recipe to add orange flavor.

That failure sort of reminded me of my mission when I started this blog, though. It wasn't about making whatever fancy or trendy recipe I came across (though there's nothing wrong with that necessarily) -- it was about establishing a baseline, finding good, solid recipes for basic things that I (and you) can turn to again and again whenever I need to make a cake, or some cookies, or what have you. And while I've found a few good ones, there are still a lot of basic things that I don't have my own recipes for -- like pound cake, and great biscuits (not just passable ones), and really good white bread.

And oatmeal cookies. Yes, those, too. I have plenty of cookie recipes, some of them old standbys by now, but the one basic cookie I hadn't made yet was oatmeal.

The hardest part of making these was deciding where to start, what sort of cookie I wanted to end up with. A chewy oatmeal cookie was a given, but aside from that, the options were dizzying: oatmeal raisin? Oatmeal chocolate chip? Oatmeal peanut butter chip? Oatmeal-pecan-white chocolate-coconut? Ultimately, I decided to stick with a classic, or close to it, anyway -- I went with the standard oatmeal-raisin, but as luck would have it, the recipe I ended up basing mine on included walnuts, which I'd already been thinking of throwing in.

These came out pretty good, though a bit small (you'll want them small so you get a decent number of them and so they cook properly all the way through). Also, I discovered that while warm chocolate chip cookies are great, warm oatmeal cookies fall flat -- they were vastly better the next day than fresh from the oven.

Oatmeal-Raisin-Nut Cookies
Adapted from a Smitten Kitchen recipe

1/2 c butter, softened
2/3 c light brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
3/4 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon (I scaled this back a bit 'cause I was using strong Tung Hing cinnamon; next time, I'd use more)
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 c rolled oats
1/2 c raisins
1/2 c chopped walnuts

1. Beat together the butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla until thoroughly combined.
2. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Stir into the butter mixture.
3. Stir in the oats, raisins and nuts.
4. Form into medium-sized mounds (mine were maybe an inch and a half or so wide -- I don't own a cookie scoop, so I just sort of made what looked like a reasonable size to me) and place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, until the edges are browned but the centers still look underdone. Let sit on the pan for 5 minutes, then remove to a rack and cool completely.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cinnamon-cocoa meringues

Cinnamon-cocoa meringues

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when life gives you not one but two lousy recipes for lemon curd (of which we shall never speak again -- maybe someday, I'll muster the enthusiasm to try making it again, but not soon), causing you to waste six egg yolks... well, at least you can make something good with the whites.

Finding this recipe was actually perfect timing, too, 'cause we'd only had a Penzeys open around here for one day before I was there, buying ridiculous amounts of stuff, including what ended up to be four different kinds of cinnamon. Good thing I like cinnamon, but I definitely need to come up with more uses for it now.

These came out pretty good, but I'm not sure if they're something I'd want to eat all the time. And I'd cut back further on the cinnamon next time -- I knew to use less than the recipe said, 'cause I'm using fresh, good-quality stuff, but I also used one of the hotter kinds (China Tung Hing), so it was still a bit much. Also, I had an awful time trying to figure out when these were done. I ultimately just went ahead and overbaked them, erring on the side of caution, 'cause they're on low heat anyway, so it's not like they'll burn soon, but you definitely want them nicely dry, not sticky in the centers.

Cinnamon-Cocoa Meringues
Adapted from Eating Well

3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 c sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp cocoa
1 tbsp cinnamon (or much less if you're using high-quality stuff)

1. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on high until soft peaks form when you turn off the mixer and pick up the beaters. Beat in the sugar a bit at a time until combined, then continue to beat until stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla, then the cinnamon and cocoa.
2. Drop 1 1/2-inch-wide mounds a half-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
3. Bake at 200 degrees (yes, that's not a typo) until dry and crisp, about an hour and a half (or longer if you made your meringues too big, like I probably did).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Albany Cupcake-Off

I think it's time to acknowledge that sometimes, interesting food-related stuff happens that's not directly tied to me baking something. And so, I've added a new entry tag: "Out of the Kitchen." And I can't think of a better way to start off my non-recipe entries (of which I assure you there won't be a whole lot -- this will still be primarily a baking blog) than with an event I was part of today: a blind tasting of area cupcakeries' offerings.

The competition has been pretty fierce around here between the four major cupcake bakeries. There's Coccadotts, best known as either the people who failed miserably on "Cupcake Wars" (and got a lot of flack afterwards for it) or the people who recently got a lot of publicity for making Buffalo wing cupcakes. There's Bettie's, which you can't miss, with their multiple outlets (at least three, last I knew) and two cupcake trucks and massive publicity everywhere you go. There's Sweet Temptations, now in two locations and with one truck. And there's Fluffalicious, which started out as a truck and only recently opened a shop of their own.

But while all of them have their fans and detractors, who really has the best cupcake? I was determined to find out, and after planting a bug in the ear of the Profussor, who has set up quite a few head-to-head food comparisons like this, we had our answer.

Many precautions were taken, because the cupcake business can be cutthroat around here. The orders were placed anonymously, just an order for a party or something, no mention given of our true intent. All participants were sworn to secrecy, not allowed to say anything about the event in public in case a bakery were to find out and somehow game the system, make sure that we had extra-good cupcakes just for us, when what we wanted was to find a fair answer: If you walked into one of these places off the street, right now, where would you get the best cupcake? And to remove our own biases, we tested them blind, with only a few organizers on the other end of the room knowing whose cakes went on plates labeled A, B, C and D.

At high noon, we gathered and prepared for the tasting, which included water and cold milk to wash down the cakes.

Milk and water

First up was the vanilla round: Yellow cupcakes with vanilla frosting.

Round 1, Vanilla/vanilla

Cupcake A stood out for being almost shortcake-like, with a whipped-cream-like, non-gritty frosting that had a pleasant vanilla flavor and a fairly good cake. Cupcake D's frosting wasn't so good, awfully greasy-tasting, but their cake was buttery and moist and delicious.

Meanwhile, Cupcake C's frosting tasted chemical-y and buttery in the bad way, like a stick of butter, while their cake tasted mostly like cake flour, like the chemicals used to give cake flour its texture. And Cupcake B was just wretched -- the frosting tasted like Crisco and chemicals, and the cake was about the same, artificial-tasting and just awful. Even the sprinkles were bad; for some odd reason, they tasted like black pepper. You could actually do a little better to buy a box of cheap cake mix and a jar of frosting at the grocery store than to eat this one. We also noticed that B was the smallest cupcake, but considering how bad it was, that might've been a blessing.

So much for "yay, we get to eat cupcakes!" Clearly, they were not all created equal. Onward to round two: Chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting.

Round 2, Chocolate/chocolate

Again, A stood out, this time for being the only one that tasted like chocolate: the frosting had a clear cocoa taste, while the cake also tasted like chocolate cake. D was so-so, not offensive but not chocolate-y, either. C's frosting had a hard crust on top, like it had been sitting around for a while, and its cake was even worse: it was beyond dry into full-on tough, actually hard for me to cut through with a knife, and it tasted about the same, dry and awful. But B was again the worst, tasting like chemicals and grease instead of like cake.

Round three was the specialty-flavor round, and we went with the most popular one across all four shops: Peanut butter cup.

Round 3, Peanut butter cup

A faltered a bit in this round -- it was pretty much the same as the chocolate/chocolate one in the previous round, except for a scant peanut butter filling (which I think was tasty, but I can't be sure 'cause there was so little of it). C actually redeemed itself a little bit here, 'cause while their cake was again very dry and lacking in flavor, the frosting was the best of the bunch, very peanut-y. D was slightly peanut-y in the frosting but sort of greasy and overall unimpressive. And B, well, by this point, I actually resented that I had to put this in my mouth, and when I got a taste of their frosting, I actually made a face -- again, it was all Crisco and chemicals, as was the cake.

You shouldn't actually dread eating a cupcake, but with bakery B's, I did. They were so bad, across the board, so chemical-y and artificial-tasting and lacking in any good flavor at all, that I was actually offended by them. How does bakery B get away with selling these? How do they have the nerve to charge people money for such wretchedly bad cupcakes? Don't they have any taste buds to know how much theirs suck? Do they have no shame?

After much eating and thinking, we turned in our score sheets, and then, we were told the identities of the bakeries we'd been eating from...

The cupcake carnage

Bakery A was Fluffalicious.
Bakery D, which I'd say was my second-favorite (and my favorite yellow cake), was Coccadotts.
Bakery C was Bettie's.
Bakery B was Sweet Temptations.

After the big reveal, the ratings of bakery C made sense to me, 'cause I have tried their cupcakes a couple of times and have always found them to be very dry and not very good in flavor (which is why I stopped eating theirs). I was open to them being the winner, because it was a blind test and I could've been surprised, but I wasn't -- all of the added locations and cute pink ads and double-decker buses in the world can't save a dry, lousy cupcake.

As for Sweet Temptations, I just don't understand how someone can run a shop specializing in cupcakes and make ones that are that horribly bad, then put their name on them and charge people money for them. They were just that bad. I mean, before they opened, didn't they ever eat a cupcake before, ever notice that they're not supposed to taste like grease and chemicals? How do they have the nerve to sell this crap? As for the second obvious question, why do people buy them, I'd guess it's simply because they have no basis for comparison at the time, because it's a cupcake, if not a good cupcake. For that matter, I've eaten one of their cakes before, and I don't remember it being so bad, but not good, either. I almost think it's one of those things where if you buy one of theirs and think, "gee, this isn't very good," you might second-guess yourself, "but they're cupcake bakers, this is what they do, they're professionals... maybe I'm just not appreciating the goodness of this cupcake, 'cause if they run a cupcake shop, they must make good cakes, right?"

(Further reading: The Profussor's recap with scoring breakdowns.)