Monday, October 13, 2014

Product Review: A Plethora of Peculiar Popcorns

Bags of Kernel Encore popcorn
More bags of popcorn Still more bags of popcorn

It's October, the season of goblins and ghouls, and so it's probably a fitting time to resurrect this zombie of a blog.

Honestly, for the past too-many months, I've been too tired and too busy to bake much at all, let alone new stuff I haven't blogged about yet. Pregnancy will do that to you, apparently. But today, I had the opportunity to try a whole bunch of interesting popcorns courtesy of Kernel Encore, so I thought I'd share my thoughts. (Full disclosure: All of the popcorn was provided for free, but it was given with no expectation of a good review or even any review at all.)

I had the opportunity to choose from a dizzying array of flavors, from the typical (caramel, cheddar, and the like) to the downright odd (like beer, cheesecake, and pizza). I was given one bag, but I ended up being offered samples from a few others, too, so I could get a good idea of their range of flavors and the quality of their product.

Maple popcorn

Here are my thoughts on the flavors I tried:

An array of popcorn samples Garlic Parmesan: The flavor of this one was a bit subtle overall, but it had a nice, genuine garlic flavor without being too pungent, and the saltiness of the Parmesan, while muted, was a nice backdrop. The earthiness of the garlic definitely complimented the flavor of the popcorn itself quite nicely.
Pumpkin Pie: It's so hard to get the flavor of pumpkin pie right in anything that's not, well, pie, and this flavor was about par for the course as far as pumpkin-flavored foods go. It was very gingery with a little bit of clove to keep it from being too astringent. It also tasted a little bit candied and artificial.
Salsa & Queso: This flavor was probably the biggest disappointment flavor-wise. It lacked either the brightness of actual salsa or the sharpness or creaminess of cheese; it was pretty bland overall.
Dark Chocolate Drizzle: Oddly, this variety suffered texturally more than anything else. While the dark chocolate flavor was quite nice, with just a hint of saltiness to perk up the flavor, the popcorn itself was a tad stale.
Bananas Foster: The flavor of this one was overwhelmingly that of banana-flavored candy, rather than a true banana, mixed with a hint of rum in the background.
Maple: I'd hoped that this one would taste like grade B syrup, but instead, the maple flavor was rather subdued. It didn't have that cloying pancake-syrup flavor, but the overall impression was a little bit like French toast and a little bit like your standard caramel corn, just slightly different.

Would I spend any of my own money on these? It depends. I'm not a huge buyer of flavored, pre-popped popcorn, but if I was out in a store somewhere and came across, say, the garlic Parmesan flavor, I might pick some up if I was in the mood for it. I did feel, though, that some of these flavors would've benefited from an extra mix-in: The maple, for instance, would've really stood out if it was maple-pecan instead. That said, with their wide variety of flavors and their different packaging options, these would probably make a really cool and unique wedding or party favor for popcorn enthusiasts.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Chocolate cream pie

Chocolate cream pie

I took a new job fairly recently, and I was excited to have some new coworkers to bake for. In fact, since I work in a small department now, I thought that maybe I'd bake something for each coworker's birthday. So nonchalantly, I asked all of them one day what their favorite birthday cake was. What I didn't really expect was "I don't really like cake." But alright, my husband's like that... pie, then, that should be fine, right? Well, no, not for my boss, who said that he doesn't like pie unless it has a non-fruity filling, like pumpkin pie or pudding pie. And oh, he really likes pudding.

Thank goodness for Baking Illustrated. It seldom lets me down, so despite the fact that I'd never tried to make chocolate cream pie before, I went for it. It's entirely scratch-made except for the cookies in the crust -- I would've made those, too, but the recipe said not to, that using whole Oreos was actually the best bet.

I have to say, this came out pretty damned good. The only thing I did wrong, really, was that I was so concerned about getting the crumbs to go up the sides of the pan that the bottom crust ended up a bit too thin -- but the filling was just firm enough to serve without that being an issue. It was delicious. And best of all, my boss was so thrilled that I'd made it for him that he literally did his happy dance -- that kinda made my whole week right there. :) (It did mean, though, that I didn't get a nice photo of the pie sliced, 'cause he massacred it pretty quickly. :) )

Chocolate Cream Pie
From Baking Illustrated

16 whole Oreos
2 tbsp melted butter

2 1/2 c half-and-half
Pinch of salt
1/3 c sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
6 egg yolks, room temperature
6 tbsp cold butter, cut into chunks
6 oz semisweet chocolate, cut or broken into chunks
1 oz unsweetened chocolate, cut or broken into chunks
1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 c heavy cream, cold
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla

1. Pulse the Oreos in a food processor until broken up, then process until the crumbs are uniformly fine.
2. Pour the crumbs into a bowl, then pour in the melted butter and combine thoroughly with your fingers. Press crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a pie plate.
3. Chill the crust for 20 minutes to firm up the crumbs, then bake at 350 degrees until fragrant and set, about 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
4. In a saucepan, bring the half-and-half, salt, and 3 tbsp of the sugar to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
5. While that's coming to a simmer, combine the rest of the sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl. Then, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks thoroughly, about 30 seconds. When the half-and-half mixture is near a simmer, sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the egg yolks and whisk until the mixture is glossy and the sugar has begun to dissolve.
6. Slowly drizzle about a half-cup of the hot half-and-half over the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Continue to slowly whisk in the half-and-half until the egg mixture is warm, then slowly whisk this mixture back into the pan. Return the pan to a simmer, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and glossy and bubbles start to form and burst on the surface.
7. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until incorporated; then, whisk in the chocolates and whisk until fully combined. Whisk in the vanilla, then immediately pour the mixture into a mesh strainer that has been set over a bowl.
8. Scrape the strained filling into the crust, smooth out the top with a spatula, then place a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the pie, pressing it down so it makes direct contact with the filling.
9. Chill until firm, at least 3 hours.
10. Whip the cream and sugar to soft peaks, then add the vanilla. Continue to whip at high speed to barely stiff peaks. Spread over the pie. Top with chocolate shavings if desired. Serve immediately.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Hummingbird cake

Slice of cake

Sometimes, life gets in the way of blogging, and sometimes, it just drives a big ol' truck full of bricks in front of you and says "uh-uh, nope, nice try, maybe later." That's certainly been true lately -- I did a bunch of baking in the second half of April, but I could barely fit in the baking, let alone the writing about it, around preparations for our big trip so my husband could run the Big Sur Marathon. But we got it all done, and we made it out there, and he did it, hurray!!! ...And then I brought back the West Coast Plague, so I've been in bed most of the week.

But anyway, enough about that, 'cause you're not here to read about me. You want to know about cake. I made this cake for Easter, having never ever eaten hummingbird cake before, let alone made one. It came out pretty good, though -- it's a lot like banana-nut bread, except in a lighter cake form, with cream-cheese frosting, and with occasional bites that are extra-sweet-and-yummy from the pineapple (it's subtle, but it's in there). I don't have a lot of reasons to make a layer cake, but I'd certainly keep this one in the rotation -- it was a nice chance of pace from the usual chocolate or vanilla.

Cake Cut cake

Hummingbird Cake
From Cook's Country

16 oz canned crushed pineapple in juice
3 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 c sugar
3 eggs
1 c vegetable oil
4 overripe bananas, mashed
1 1/2 c chopped pecans
2 tsp vanilla

20 tbsp butter, softened
5 c confectioners' sugar
2 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
20 oz cream cheese, cut into chunks
1/2 c chopped pecans

1. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
2. Over a saucepan, drain the pineapple well in a mesh strainer. Cook the juice over medium heat until reduced to a third of a cup and set aside.
3. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and eggs. Whisk in the oil. Stir in the bananas, pecans, vanilla, pineapple and pineapple juice. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined.
5. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes, until toothpicks come out clean. Let cool in pans on racks for 20 minutes, then de-pan and cool completely.
6. Beat together the butter, confectioners' sugar, vanilla and salt until smooth, scraping down the bowl as needed. Beat in the cream cheese a bit at a time, then beat for a couple of minutes, until thoroughly combined.
7. Level off the cake layers with a large serrated knife if necessary, then frost. Top with remaining chopped pecans.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Irish-American soda bread

Irish-American soda bread

Sometimes, life gets in the way of the good stuff... like baking.

I tried to take up jogging this year -- good exercise, get healthy, lose some weight, yeah, great plan. And it looked like it was going pretty well... until late February, when I sprained my foot on a treadmill. I ended up on crutches for a week and a half, and then in a walking cast, and then weaning down to just a limp, and now, I've finally gotten rid of the limp, thanks to my awesome physical therapist, and I'm working on strengthening my ankle and hips and training myself to stand and walk correctly (who knew you could be doing such basic things incorrectly your whole life?), and I'm hoping to be able to walk and then jog again soon.

But what does this have to do with baking? Well, if you can't stand for long periods of time, or you can hold yourself up on crutches but can't carry anything across the kitchen 'cause you need both hands to hobble around, no baking happens. So I haven't been making a whole lot lately. But I did manage to try out a new soda bread recipe recently, while my husband and I were putting together a "late-Patrick's Day" dinner for ourselves, a week or so after the holiday. And this is the first soda bread recipe I've made that I actually liked, so I thought I'd share it.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, yes, I know this isn't an authentic Irish recipe. Authentic Irish soda bread is... bland. It's bread, a basic, boring bread you can use to sop up the juices from an Irish stew. This is Irish-American soda bread, bastardized from the Irish but really quite tasty. There wouldn't be raisins in authentic soda bread, and there definitely wouldn't be orange zest... but hey, we all eat General Tso's chicken, and that's not authentic Chinese food, but it's still tasty. As long as you don't try to pass off something as authentic when it isn't, I don't see the problem.

Irish-American Soda Bread
Adapted from Ina Garten

4 c flour
4 tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, cut into small chunks
1 3/4 c buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp orange zest
1 c raisins or currants

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and butter. Turn on the mixer to low speed and walk away for a while, until the butter is thoroughly mixed in and you don't see any chunks of it remaining. (You could probably do this with a hand mixer or a pastry blender, but I imagine it would take way longer. Or you could do it in a food processor, if you don't mind the annoyance of having to wash the processor when you're done.)
2. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, egg and orange zest and whisk together. Pour this into the mixer and mix to combine.
3. In a bowl, mix the raisins with a couple of tablespoons of flour, just to get them coated. Mix these into the dough.
4. Dump the dough out onto a floured surface and knead a bit, just until it comes together.
5. Form the dough into a ball and place it on a sheet pan. Cut an X in the top with a knife.
6. Bake at 375 degrees for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the loaf makes a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of it.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Chinese almond cookies

Chinese Almond Cookies

Gung hei fat choy!

It's Chinese New Year today, and in honor of the occasion, I decided to try making these Chinese almond cookies. They came out pretty yummy, and my husband taste-tested them for me to make sure they were good, since he's had them before and I hadn't.

They're supposed to look like gold coins, I believe, which is why the recipe calls for an egg wash. The only thing I might do differently when I make these again, though, is look for almond flour -- I couldn't find any when I was out shopping, so I used almond meal, which leaves the skins on the almonds, hence their speckled appearance. If I can find almond flour, that should eliminate that and make them a bit prettier. But if not, hey, they still taste pretty good.

Happy Year of the Horse, everyone!

Bowl of dough Forming the cookies

Chinese Almond Cookies
Adapted from Simply Recipes

1 1/3 almond flour or almond meal
Pinch of salt
1 c butter, softened
1 egg
1 tsp almond extract
1 3/4 c flour
1 c plus 2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
Sliced almonds
1 egg (for egg wash)

1. Beat together the almond flour/meal, salt and butter until combined. Beat in the egg and almond extract.
2. Whisk together the flour, sugar and baking soda in another bowl, then beat or stir into the first bowl until combined.
3. Wrap the bowl and chill for an hour or two.
4. Form the dough into 3/4-inch balls and flatten them a bit with your hands. Place them on a cookie sheet, then press one almond slice into the center of each.
5. Beat the remaining egg well, then brush the tops of the cookies with the beaten egg.
6. Bake at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Leave the cookies on the pan until cool.