Saturday, August 29, 2009

Did I Really Make That Baguette? . . . Yes Jane, You Really Did!

You may recall, as I've mentioned it once or twice in the past, that I'm not much of a yeast baker at all. My confidence level with any sort of baked goods requiring yeast has always been slightly below sea level. This is a little odd, seeing that my mother baked yeast breads with spectacular success for decades and I, of course, watched her many, many times. But let's face it . . . sometimes the apple does fall a bit far from the tree. Lately, though, I find myself with the desire to just plunge in and face my fear, and today's delicious baguette helped to boost my sagging confidence significantly.

Because this recipe is becoming extremely well known among home bakers, and because there are many details and bakers' reviews you might like to read should you decide to try it, I am just going to link to it rather than rewrite it in this post. It's the King Arthur Flour website's version of the "Almost No Knead Baguette" recipe that hails from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I don't yet own this book, nor have I ever even looked for it at the library, but after today's success with the aforementioned baguette, I might just have to shell out real cash-money to procure my own copy.

This is the easiest recipe, and the results were really good, especially for a first timer. It's the type of bread dough that you can leave in your fridge literally for days, and take portions of it out to let rise and bake as you need it. Supposedly, the bread's flavor and texture improves the longer it hangs around in the fridge. (That's some kinda miracle, I'm tellin' ya.) I made the dough on Thursday and used about one third of it to make a test baguette this afternoon. Dear readers: It smelled like real French bread! Its taste and texture were just right, and my family confirmed this by helping to eat it up. No, I wasn't hallucinating. It wasn't a dream. I felt like squealing, "Victory is mine!" from the front porch. But I controlled myself, and just smiled a lot instead.

Tomorrow is Sunday and my husband and I plan to try making Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon recipe (yeah, yeah, I know, just like the thousands of other folks out there who've recently seen the film "Julie & Julia"--but hey, you guys know I never claimed to be original!). A recipe like that is really more in his ballpark than mine, so I kind of hope he takes the reins as I tend to destroy meat unintentionally. While he's herding the boeuf, I will make another baguette tomorrow, to accompany that legendary dish. We'll see how it all turns out. I hope it's divine.

Anyway, I just wanted to share my pictures of the bread with you, and to urge you to think about trying the recipe, if you're at all like me . . . that is, if you've been a complete yeast-wimp for years and you're finally trying to get up the nerve to bust out. Was the bread perfect? No, of course not perfect, but that's okay. Afterall, perfection can be so boring. And this lovely little baguette was anything but boring.


P.S. The blog writer of Passionate About Baking recently made this bread too, and her glowing report, which I read earlier this week, helped give me the final incentive to give it a whirl. Many thanks to you, Deeba!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cream Cheese Blondies . . . with Milk and Dark Chocolate Chips and Honey Roasted Almonds

It's a quiet, rainy Wednesday morning here in Berkley, Michigan. My 13 year old son's skateboarding camp has been cancelled for the day, so I let him sleep in. He just rolled out of bed, at his leisure. (I guess skateboarders don't ever like to skate in the rain--something about ruining the "grip tape," according to my little resident expert.) My older son, the 16 year old, is still snoozing. He's a lifeguard at an outdoor pool and I have a feeling, what with the soggy weather, that the pool will be closed. Only a couple more weeks until school starts again for the boys, and for me.

I'm looking forward to it because, though I enjoy and appreciate the lack of structure that summer brings, I also think that I function better overall when I'm adhering to a more predictable schedule. I just start to feel more productive and on top of things once autumn rolls around again. Something about fall, here in Michigan, is particularly appealing. Aside from the cooler temperature, the air is just different somehow and so is the daylight. Is it like that everywhere? I don't know . . .

It seems to be ingrained for a lot of adults that autumn still signals the beginning of a new year, don't you think? We were so well indoctrinated to think that way as kids. Makes a person want to go out and buy a whole box of those wonderful, orangy-yellow, Ticonderoga pencils, doesn't it? I love those--they just smell like childhood. And a couple of big spiral-bound notebooks. Maybe a new Pink Pearl eraser too. There's something alluring about the idea of a bright blank page in front of you, with lots of freshly sharpened pencils close at hand, and that cute, rubbery, pink eraser standing by.
One thing I don't like about school starting? Packing lunches. Which somehow or other brings me to the blondies . . .

There are loads of recipes out there for blondies with just about every variation you can think of. And yet, when I was attempting to choose one such recipe yesterday, I couldn't locate what I felt was the perfect specimen. Aside from all the potential "add-ins" (nuts, chips, dried fruit, coconut, various flavorings, even enhancements like rum, etc.) I was more concerned with the dough itself. Some doughs require chemical leavening and some don't, while some contain eggs and others don't. Some require melted butter and some solid butter or shortening. And so on and so forth. Sitting amidst a small field of open cookbooks, I finally decided I'd better just devise my own recipe, so that's what I did.

And, lo and behold, it was good.

Cream Cheese Blondies with Milk and Dark Chocolate Chips, and Honey Roasted Almonds

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

10 Tbsp. of unsalted butter, softened (one stick, plus 2 Tbsp.)
3 oz. of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups All Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk chocolate chips
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips (bittersweet)
3/4 cup honey-roasted almonds, coarsely chopped

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 8" x 8" pans with parchment so it overhangs two opposite sides (you'll lift out the cooled blondies by those "handles") . Spray the parchment and the two bare sides of the pans with baking spray, or grease the parchment and the two bare sides of the

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixer bowl, using the paddle attachment, on medium-low speed, cream the butter, cream cheese, and brown sugar until very well blended and smooth; about two minutes or so. Scrape the bowl and paddle.

Add in the eggs and vanilla extract, beating on medium until well combined and smooth.

Add in the flour mixture gradually on lowest speed, beating just until blended.

Add in the chocolate chips and nuts on lowest speed just until mixed in.

Divide the dough evenly between the two pans and smooth it out with a spatula.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Check the blondies early to make sure they're not overbrowning; cover lightly with foil if they are. Remove them from oven when they're golden all over the top and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool the blondies in their pans on a rack for about 20 minutes. Lift them out of the pans using the parchment handles, and cool them further, still on the paper, on the rack.

When they're completely cool, cut them with a really sharp knife.

Okay, now taste one of the blondies, and be happy.

(If you'd like to comment on this post or to read any existing comments, click on the purple COMMENTS below!)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Retro Desserts, Part I : The American Dream of Banana Cream

Banana cream pie is not what you might call a fashionable dessert. It contains no exotic ingredients, requires knowledge of no arcane methodologies for its preparation, and--God knows-- it's not low in either fat or calories. And yet, despite all of those factors, a hefty percentage of casual American restaurants still offer it on their menus. Why? Besides its obvious creamy lusciousness, there must be something more behind its perennial appeal. Personally, I think it's due to a pervasive nostalgic yearning. Let's call it Go to the Diner for a Piece of Pie Syndrome. Enjoying a nice slice of a traditional cream pie, especially if we're under the impression it's been made from scratch, satisfies a deeply rooted need of ours to believe that the Soul of Americana still thrives, despite fierce odds. Afterall, if little restaurants from coast to coast are still crankin' out the cream pies, then I guess everything can't be all bad, can it?

Banana cream pie even looks comfortingly retro, don't you think? There's all that soft, fluffy, whipped cream on the top. That's all, just whipped cream. No fancy spun-sugar garnishes. No bittersweet curls carved from chunks of pricey European chocolate. And I could be wrong, but as far as I know, there is no dessert wine that exists solely in order to be paired with it. Banana cream pie is humble. It doesn't discriminate. I'd wager it will never be the focus of a full-blown Food Network Challenge, but that's okay because you see . . . it doesn't care. Banana cream pie didn't seek fame; fame sought the banana cream pie.

And so begins a series of periodic posts I plan to do on retro desserts. That is, desserts that don't even come close to fitting into the ultra-modern mold but that still persist within the American psyche. What kind of stuff am I talking about? Well, maybe things like classic devil's food cake with chocolate frosting, Boston cream pie, chocolate bread pudding, cherries jubilee on vanilla ice cream, and so on. Maybe even baked Alaska, if that's not pushing the anachronistic envelope too much. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Because I could really use some. I'd like to have a good-sized list to choose from. Let me know if you think of anything, okay? Seriously. :)

So now for today's recipes. There are actually two--one for the pastry cream, and one for the crust, which I made out of the crumbs of homemade cookies. The pastry cream recipe is from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion cookbook, and it's a very good one. I wouldn't hesitate to use it again. The cookie recipe, which I've included below directly after the pie recipe, is from the book Cookie Craft by Peterson and Fryer. It's the recipe I typically use if I am making the type of cookies that will be elaborately decorated. These cookies, ground into crumbs, are perfect for pie crust because they're not very sweet (thus I hesitate to call them sugar cookies, though that is in fact what they're called), they're very firm (these babies are built to be tough), and they have very little moisture.

If I do say so myself, my pie turned out to be extremely delicious. One might say it was a stark raving success, and that's the best kind of success to have in the kitchen.

Banana Cream Pie with Cookie-Crumb Crust

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a 9" pie plate.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
2 cups whole milk (I didn't have whole so I used 1 cup 2-percent milk and 1 cup heavy cream)
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract or almond extract (I used vanilla)

3 medium-sized bananas, cut into pieces that are sliced on an angle (the recipe said 2 medium but I found that wasn't enough)

Enough cookies to yield 2 cups of crumbs
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

To make the crust:

Place several cookies, broken into small pieces, into bowl of food processor. Pulse repeatedly until they're the proper consistency (not too finely; you don't want them to be like paste!).

In a medium bowl, place the cookie crumbs, confectioner's sugar and mix together.

Add in the melted butter and mix well with a fork until all the crumbs are a bit moistened.

Pour the buttery crumbs into your pie plate. Press them down evenly in the pan, and up the sides.

Bake the crust for approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Check the crust early to make it's not getting brown. You just want it to be golden. Set aside the baked crust to cool.

To make the pastry cream:

In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, cornstarch, salt, and eggs.

In a medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, bring the milk/cream to a boil.

Add the hot milk/cream to the egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly to ensure smoothness. Pour the liquid back into the saucepan and return it to the stove; bring it back to a boil. Stir continually with the whisk (if you don't, you'll get undesirable lumps!).

The pastry cream will thicken quickly. When you see it start to boil in the center, immediately remove it from the heat.

Add in the butter and vanilla and stir until smooth. Set aside.

To assemble the pie:

Place the sliced banana pieces in the pie shell in concentric circles, more or less.

Spoon or pour the warm pastry cream over the bananas and smooth out the top.

Cover the top with plastic wrap; the wrap should touch the pastry cream to help prevent a skin from forming.

Refrigerate the pie for at least a couple of hours before serving. If you like, top it with sweetened or unsweetened whipped cream.

Recipe for Sugar Cookies (to use as crumbs for pie-crust)

3 cups All Purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg 2 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside. Using mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using the paddle attachment. Add the vanilla. On low speed, add in the flour mixture gradually, mixing until the two are thoroughly blended.

Chill the dough. Roll sections of dough out to about 1/4 inch thickness (or thinner if you prefer; adjust baking time accordingly if thinner). Bake on parchment covered cookie sheets, on middle oven rack, at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes--not until golden brown all over. They should just be light golden on the bottom. Cool on sheet for a few minutes, then remove from sheets to finish cooling on racks.

(If you'd like to comment on this post or to read any existing comments, click on the purple COMMENTS below!)

Recipe full disclosure! Besides any changes mentioned in the post above, the only other change I made to the recipes was to reword the instructions for clarity.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Peachy Oatmeal Bars . . .

Peaches, not unlike other foods, have been known to loom rather large in our vocabulary. To wit: "She's just a peach of a gal" . . . or . . . "What?! The plumber's not coming until tomorrow?? Oh great. That's just peachy." And, not uncommonly, "The bridesmaids wore the absolute loveliest shade of peach."

Some believe there's a Chinese proverb that confirms our fondness for the fruit's consummate deliciousness: "Rather one bite of a peach than eat a basketful of apricots." That's saying a lot as apricots, too, can be quite tasty, and are certainly adorable in and of themselves. The late novelist W. Somerset Maugham is reported to have remarked, "In Hollywood, the women are all peaches. It makes one long for an apple occasionally." And what about this charming comment, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "It is the soundness of the bones that ultimates itself in the peach-bloom complexion." (Leave it to Ralph to make "ultimate" into a verb . . . that guy was one of a kind.)

The peach's worthiness thus reiterated, we once again express deep and undying affection through our humble and heartfelt culinary efforts--Peachy Oatmeal Bars. Simple though they are, the forte of peachy oatmeal bars is that they make the most of the ripe fruit's flavor without disguising it amidst too much sweetness. Best eaten the day they're made, they are still delicious the second day, especially if they've been refrigerated. Because they're not too rich at all, they make a nice breakfast treat. Then again, if it's dessert you're after, they go smashingly well with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

(Look, below, at that half-peeled peach . . . it's just been blanched . . . the colors are just so pretty, don't you think?)

Peachy Oatmeal Bars

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9" by 13" pan.

For the crust and topping:

1 cup All Purpose flour (bleached or unbleached, either is fine)
3/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
2 and 1/2 cups quick oats
2 Tbsp. orange juice

For the filling:

1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 Tbsp. AP flour
1/8 tsp. salt
3 and 1/2 cups of fresh, ripe, chopped peaches
1 Tbsp. lemon juice

* * * *

To prepare the crust and topping, place the flour, brown sugar, and salt in the large bowl of a food processor, and pulse a couple of times just to combine.

Add the butter cubes and pulse about six times to form coarse crumbs.

Add in the oats and pulse three more times. Remove 1 and 1/2 cups of this mixture and set it aside (this is the portion that will be used for your topping).

Add the orange juice to the remaining oat mixture in the food processor bowl and pulse four times, just to moisten.

Pour the mixture into your greased pan, spread it out and press it down firmly and evenly to form the crust.

To prepare the filling, in a large bowl, whisk the brown sugar, flour, and salt. Add in the peach chunks and lemon juice.

Toss gently until the fruit's coated. Spread the filling out evenly over the crust.

Sprinkle the reserved crumb mixture evenly over the top of the fruit. Don't pat it down.

Bake until the top begins to get golden, about 35 minutes or so.

Cool the pan on a rack (it'll take a couple of hours to cool completely). Cut the bars when cool. If they're not going to be all eaten up the first day, store them, well covered, in the fridge.


Recipe full disclosure!
This recipe was adapted from one published in Family Fun magazine earlier this summer. The original recipe was called "Oatmeal Berry Breakfast Bars." I changed the recipe by using only light brown sugar, using peaches instead of raspberries, by adding slightly more salt to the filling, and by rewording the instructions.

(If you'd like to comment on this post or read any existing comments, just click on the purple COMMENTS below!)