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.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Figgy pudding

Figgy Pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding,
now bring us some figgy pudding,
now bring us some figgy pudding ...

There. I brought some. You can stop singing now. :)

For years, we've all been singing these lines at Christmastime, but has anyone ever actually had a figgy pudding? The answer is usually no. It's an obscure dish, an old British dessert, not a pudding at all, even, but a steamed cake (the British use the word "pudding" to mean "dessert," hence the confusion).

So when I saw this recipe in "The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook," I had to try it. I even bought a proper pudding mold to cook it in (I know, I don't usually buy uni-taskers, but I wanted to do it up properly, and besides, if the recipe was good, maybe I'd make it for years to come).

The verdict? Figgy pudding is quite good, definitely deserving of a place on our holiday table. It's sort of like a fruitcake, but without the booze and the fake fruits -- instead, it's filled with chopped figs. If you like figs, you'll probably like this a lot. I'm sure I'll be bringing the figgy pudding again in the future.

Figgy Pudding
From "The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook"

Softened butter for the pan
1 1/2 c water
3/4 pound dried figs, stems removed, cut into small bits
3 tbsp orange liqueur
1 1/2 c flour
1 tbsp cocoa
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
2/3 c sugar
1/3 c brown sugar
8 tbsp butter, melted
1 1/2 c plain bread crumbs

1. Place a roasting pan mostly full of water in a 350 degree oven. Generously butter your pudding mold (or a tube pan, if you don't have a pudding mold).
2. In a small saucepan, bring the water and figs to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange liqueur (don't drain the pan).
3. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
4. In a larger bowl, beat together the eggs and sugars. Beat in the butter and bread crumbs. Stir in the figs and their liquid, then the dry ingredients.
5. Scrape into the pudding mold and put on the lid. (If using a tube pan, cover the top with foil and place a pot lid on top, so it's well sealed.)
6. Place the pan into the roasting pan of water in the oven and bake for about 2 hours, until the pudding is firm and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.
7. Cool the pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a spatula around the inside and invert onto a serving platter. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream or crème anglaise.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Buckeye cookies

Buckeye Cookies

I did a similar cookie to these last year, Rolo-stuffed cookies. But knowing how popular the combination of chocolate and peanut butter is, I couldn't resist trying these.

I made a few modifications to the instructions for these, but they came out great. The only thing I wasn't thrilled with was that I didn't think the cookie part was quite chocolatey enough; next time, I'll use the cookie from the Rolo-stuffed ones and see if I like that better. But I imagine even as-is, these ought to go over well with the Reeses-lovers in your life.

Baked cookies

Buckeye Cookies
Adapted from Baking and Mistaking

3/4 c confectioners' sugar
3/4 c peanut butter

1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
1/4 c peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 c cocoa
1/2 tsp baking soda

1. Mix together the confectioners' sugar and peanut butter. Form into marble-sized balls, place on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper and freeze until firm (they'll be easier to work with this way).
2. Beat the butter, sugars and peanut butter together. Beat in the vanilla and egg. Beat in the flour, cocoa and baking soda just until blended.
3. Take the centers out of the freezer. Grab a tablespoon or so of dough, roll it into a ball and flatten it. Tuck a peanut butter center in the middle and wrap the dough around it, re-rolling it between your hands until you can't see any of the peanut butter. Flatten it a bit between your palms. Repeat with the rest of the dough and centers.
4. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes or so, until the cookies look dry and just begin to crack. Cool.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Peppermint pinwheels

Peppermint Pinwheels

Christmas cookies aren't just your ordinary cookies. They're the special ones, the complicated ones, the show-stoppers that you only have the energy to make once a year. When I saw these pretty, minty cookies, I knew they fit the bill perfectly.

Making them was a bit of a chore -- I had to make a few changes to the original recipe's directions to get them to come out alright. What I ended up with was a very pretty, shortbread-like cookie with a hint of peppermint and crunchy, candy-coated edges, a really nice cookie for dunking in a cup of hot cocoa. I don't think I'd make them a lot, but I might make them again sometime, maybe in a few years.

Peppermint Pinwheels
Adapted from The Shine Project

2 1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 egg
3 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp peppermint extract
Red gel food coloring
Lots of white nonpareil sprinkles

1. Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
2. Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, milk, vanilla and peppermint extract. Gradually beat in the dry ingredients until combined.
3. Take half of the dough out of the bowl and set aside. To the other half, add red gel color, kneading it in with your hands until you get a nice, bright red dough. (Wash your hands -- they'll be really red at this point, probably.)
4. Roll out the white dough on a sheet of waxed paper into a large rectangle that's about a quarter-inch thick. Repeat this step with the red dough.
5. Flip the white dough over on top of the red dough and pull off the waxed paper. Roll them both together, starting from one of the wider ends of the rectangle and removing the waxed paper as you go.
6. Go find an empty wrapping-paper tube and cut a slit up the side. Cut the length to the length of your roll of cookie dough.
7. Wrap your dough log in plastic wrap, then place it inside the wrapping-paper tube (pry open the slit you cut to help with this). Place the whole thing in the fridge to chill for at least an hour.
8. Pull out your dough and pull it out of one side of the tube, pulling off the plastic as you go, and cut it into half-inch-wide slices.
9. Dump out the sprinkles into a wide dish. Roll the edges of each slice of dough in a little bit of water, then roll in the sprinkles. Place on a cookie sheet about an inch apart.
10. Bake at 375 degrees for about 10-15 minutes, until the cookies are set and dry-looking and the bottoms are lightly golden. Cool on a rack.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cardamom crescents

Cardamom Crescents

Welcome to Cookiegeddon 2013, in which I spend an entire weekend in the kitchen making cookies, most of which I've never made before.

This year, I made five kinds, two of which I'd actually made before: Linzer cookies and Egg nog-pecan cookies (which weren't entirely new but were new to this year, since the first time I'd ever made them was only a couple of weeks ago). I'll do my best to post about the other three before Christmas, starting with this post: Cardamom crescents.

I'd actually come across this recipe a few years ago, but it never quite seemed like the right time to make it: I try to balance out my cookie offerings between the different flavor profiles, fruity and chocolatey and spicy and such, and it seemed like I always had another spiced option that I wanted to try more. But this year, I finally got around to these, and I'm glad I hung onto that recipe all of this time.

They're a lot like my Russian teacakes, except that they're spiced with cardamom and formed into crescent shapes. The shaping of them was really the hardest part here: Sure, they look extra-festive and fancy, but making a moon shape for each one, while carefully ensuring that there were no absolutely cracks in a rather crack-prone dough ('cause I knew any cracks would lead to pieces breaking off when I tried to roll them in sugar later), was a painstaking process to be sure. The work paid off, though, in a decently large number of really fancy-looking, exotically spiced cookies, just the thing to go with a cup of tea at Christmastime. I'll probably end up making these again in the future, 'cause the taste was worth the work -- though if I'm feeling lazy, I might just make them into balls instead of moons.

Cardamom Crescents
From Epicurious

2 1/2 c flour
3/4 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c confectioners' sugar
1 c chopped pecans
1 c butter, softened
1 tbsp vanilla
Extra confectioners' sugar for rolling

1. Whisk together the flour, cardamom, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.
2. In a food processor, pulse the confectioner's sugar and pecans together until the mixture is the texture of coarse meal.
3. Beat the butter and vanilla together. Beat in the nut mixture, then the dry ingredients. Knead the dough together a bit if you need to.
4. Take a tablespoon at a time, roll it between your palms a little to make it a bit log-shaped, then pinch and taper the ends, bending it a bit in the middle, to form a crescent moon shape. Carefully press together any cracks that form -- otherwise, these will be weak spots in your cookie that will tend to break off later on.
5. Place an inch apart on a baking sheet, then bake at 350 degrees for about 12-15 minutes, until the bottoms are golden.
6. Immediately roll in confectioners' sugar, then place on a rack to cool. Once cooled, re-roll in the sugar.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Out of the Kitchen: The Holy Grail of dim sum

Dim sum and chow fun at Rain

My quest is over. I have finally found the Holy Grail of dim sum in the Capital Region.

For years, I've been looking for a place around here with good dim sum — ALL of it. That means perfectly cooked har gow, and tasty sesame balls, and baked pork buns, which are usually where places around here fall short: Only one place I've tried has baked buns consistently available, but the rest of their dim sum sucks.

So the other day, when my husband decided that we should go check out Rain, a new Cantonese place in Albany, I was up for it, cautiously hopeful that maybe this would be the good place, the place with a full slate of well-prepared Cantonese dim sum.

And the clouds parted, and the sun shone down, and I swear I heard angels singing as I bit into their beautiful, juicy, meat-filled baked pork buns. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating — but these are the best damn baked pork buns I've had in the area, hands down.

And better, it wasn't only the pork buns that were good. The har gow was perhaps a teeny bit thick-skinned but nicely chewy and filled with succulent shrimp pieces. The sesame balls were warm and crispy-chewy and filled with what I think was lotus seed paste, very yummy. The dan tats were flaky on the outside, eggy on the inside, just right. The cheung fun were great as well, meat-filled and perfectly cooked. And the sui mai were some of the best I've had.

We got an order of beef chow fun, too, just to see how they did on a regular noodle dish, and we weren't disappointed. The noodles were cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness, and the beef itself was intensely flavored, marinated with something, I'm sure, but better than most beef I've had in a Chinese noodle dish. One odd quirk: They asked whether we wanted our noodles dry or with gravy, which is an option neither of us had ever seen before (and we have plenty of experience with authentic Chinese food). It turns out that "dry" isn't dry at all: It's the usual way you'd expect to get it, seasoned lightly and with plenty of wok char adding to the delicious flavor of the dish. The "gravy" is a brown sauce, which sounded... sort of gross on a noodle dish, really, but I guess somebody must like it that way, since they offer it.

Anyway, I know where I'm going for dim sum from now on. Rain has lots of options, and they're all top-notch. I've found my Holy Grail of Cantonese food, for sure.