Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fluffy Pumpkin Muffins with Coconut and Pecans . . . Get a Handle on Your Pumpkin!

A few weeks ago rumors circulated that there might be a pumpkin shortage again this fall. Did you hear that, too? I'd expected that might be true for some of the storm-battered eastern states, but I decided to check the Michigan State University agricultural extension service site and here's what it said, "Reports of lower than average yields of pumpkins are coming in, but the quality of the fruit and 'handles' is excellent." 

Isn't it cute how they refer to the pumpkin stems as "handles"? Pumpkin farmers must be fairly whimsical folks, don't you think?

Anyway, whenever I happen to meander down the baking aisle this time of year I try to remember to grab one or two of the plump orange cans. Can't let October slide by without producing at least one batch of really good pumpkin muffins.

In light of that, I thought I'd take the opportunity to try out a slightly adapted version of the pumpkin muffins in Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Even if I've mentioned this book to you in the past, I have to say again how sumptuous it is. It's a large, lush book with recipes that are not only well written, but simply-structured. Nothing real way out and exotic, just page after page of enduringly appealing recipes. And even if you never bake one thing from it (but why would you not?), it's pretty enough to live on your coffee table.

For these muffins, I followed Levine's basic recipe but decided to omit the raisins and sunflower seeds altogether (my younger son, Nathan, heaves a pathetic sigh whenever I add raisins to anything), added in some chopped sweetened coconut and pecans instead, slightly increased the amount of salt, and reworded the instructions. The assembly process is not like that of a typical quick bread, but more reminiscent of the way you'd assemble batter for a butter-based cake. You'll definitely need your mixer. These muffins puff up beautifully and aren't overly sweet. They call for pastry flour, which can be tricky to find though I see it with increasing frequency in gourmet markets and in health food stores, and superfine sugar, which seems to be more readily available now in regular supermarkets (the kind I buy comes in a paper carton). I assume these muffins would still be really good even if made with all-purpose flour and regular granulated sugar.

Pumpkin Muffins with Coconut and Pecans

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

Yield: At least 12 generous regular-size muffins, or at least 24 minis

Preheat oven to 400. Grease, butter, spray with vegetable spray, or use paper liners in a 12-cup muffin pan or a 24-cup mini-muffin pan. (I just used paper liners for mine, but I sprayed the top of the pan--not the cups--so the muffin tops wouldn't stick.)

3 and 2/3 cups pastry flour, sifted
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
scant 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt (Or use kosher salt.)
1 stick unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 and 1/3 cups superfine sugar
4 eggs, large, at room temperature, and lightly beaten
One 15-oz. can of solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

Mix together the coconut and pecans. Roughly chop them on a cutting board, not too finely. Separate out 1/4 cup to sprinkle over the unbaked muffins.

In the large bowl of your mixer, beat the butter on high speed for approximately one minute, until it looks creamy. Slowly add in the sugar, still on high speed, and beat until its color lightens and it looks kind of fluffy; this should take about 5 minutes. Be sure to stop and scrape bowl and beaters periodically.

Add in the eggs gradually, beating until well combined. On low speed, add in the pumpkin. Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled. Still on low speed, add the flour in thirds, beating just until smooth. Pour in the 3/4 cup of chopped coconut and pecans pieces and blend just until evenly combined.

Using a portion scoop (an ice cream type scoop), divide the batter evenly into your muffin cups, mounding it high. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup coconut-pecan pieces over the tops.

Bake at 400 degrees, on the middle rack of your oven, for 10 minutes; lower the temperature to 375 and continue baking--perhaps 10 to 15 more minutes--until the muffin tops are nicely golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the muffins comes out clean.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chocolate-Almond Filled Coffee Braid . . . and that Music in the Distance

A few days ago, as I sat in the same spot where I am now, windows open and the cool autumn air breezing in, I could hear my younger son's high school marching band practicing in the distance. They were already outside the school at 8 a.m., their band class well underway, polishing things up for their next performance. Though at least half a mile east of my house, I could clearly hear the telltale thump of the percussion players and the brassy wail of the trumpets.

I love this kind of thing.

I love the fact that I live in a city small and compact enough that this is even possible. From the other direction, to the northwest just a couple of blocks, I can also hear little kids squealing at recess later in the day, outside of the elementary school my boys attended years ago. Then, each evening precisely at 6pm, bells reliably ring out from a church nearby. It's a cozy feeling.

This comparatively tiny community that we occupy just north of Detroit is, in fact, remarkably unlike the huge suburb where I grew up, which was sprawling and seemed to me, back then at least, to be a rather characterless place that had no discernible center.

It's comforting living in a small place, especially when bigger cities and all they offer aren't far away. You never have to feel lost here, either literally or figuratively. It's practically impossible to go outside without seeing someone you know well enough to chat with or, at the very least, someone you recognize. This little metropolis isn't fancy by any means but, as corny and cliche as this must sound, it's loaded with heart.

And what does that preamble have to do with today's recipe? Well, if I hadn't been alone in my kitchen with the windows open, working quietly on this chocolate almond braid, I wouldn't have heard that music or the joyous shrieks and squeals later in the day. Nor would I have had yet another opportunity to experience the simple satisfaction of actually liking where I live.

And, so, once more I realize that baking offers benefits beyond the obvious. It can be calming and contemplative, sort of like gardening or taking a long walk. I don't think it would be stretching it to say that I find the activity of baking restorative. I seem to turn to it for all sorts of reasons.

Is it like that for you, too?

About this recipe . . .

Remember the collapse of that giant bookshelf I told you about in my last post? That event catalyzed my husband and I to do long overdue sorting, discarding, and reorganizing. (Let's just say the garbage man must be wondering what the heck happened around here, and my paper shredder is considering joining a labor union.) Anyway, while sorting this and that, I found a faded magazine clipping bearing this recipe among a pile of stuff I'd saved in an old file cabinet. From the February 1989 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, this is the kind of baked good that many such magazines don't seem to print anymore. It's beautifully old-fashioned, like something one of your favorite aunts would famously bring to big family parties when you were a kid. It's a not-too-sweet yeast bread filled with a mixture made of cream cheese, almond paste, and semi-sweet chocolate.

I changed very little in the recipe, but substantially reworded it to reflect exactly how I customized its preparation. I used an instant yeast specifically designed for rich, sweet doughs vs. regular active dry yeast (though I have no doubt it would be fine with the latter). Part of my almond paste was homemade vs. purchased, because I only had about 5 oz. of the store-bought stuff on hand. (I do think professionally produced almond paste tastes better, is more concentrated, and has better texture and color than most homemade versions. I haven't yet perfected making the stuff at home.)

Beware: This makes a really large loaf! You will get at least 16 very generous slices out of this baby, easy. And it's not shaped into a real braid--it's just a faux braid, so don't get scared; it's really easy to make. The loaf I made was probably 18" long and 7" wide, after baking. Next time, I might cut the dough in half and make two smaller loaves, though the big loaf is certainly impressive in its own enormous way!

Chocolate-Almond Coffee Braid
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Makes one large 18" loaf (at least 16 thick slices).

For the dough:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher.)
1 and 3/4 tsp. instant yeast (I always use instant, but it's fine to use 1 pkt. active dry yeast instead.)
Approx. 5 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
3/4 cup milk (I used 2 percent.)
5 Tbsp. butter, unsalted
2 eggs, large

1 egg white (to mix with water and brush on the unbaked loaf)
2 oz. semi-sweet baking chocolate (to melt and drizzle on the baked loaf)

For the chocolate-almond filling
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
7 to 8 oz. almond paste (not the same thing as marzipan, just fyi!)
1 egg yolk
3 oz. of semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped into very small pieces

For the streusel topping: 
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp. sliced almonds

To prepare the dough:

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on low speed, combine the sugar, salt, yeast, and 1 cup of the flour.

In a microwave safe bowl, or on the stove top in a saucepan, slightly warm the milk, butter, and 1/4 cup of water until just lukewarm. You don't need to fully melt the butter. With the mixer on low speed, pour the liquid into the dry ingredients; beat only until blended. Now at medium speed, beat for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape now and then. Beat in the eggs, along with 2 more cups of the flour; blend for 2 minutes.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add in 1 and 1/2 cups more of the flour, stirring by hand with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk (I love my dough whisk). The dough will be pretty soft.

Flour your work surface and dump the dough onto it.

Keep 1/2 cup of flour close at hand. Knead the dough until its texture is smooth and elastic, adding more flour to your surface and to the dough as needed; this could take up to ten minutes. (If you decide to do this step on your mixer, using the dough hook, cut the kneading time in half. Be watchful, in any case, not to overwork the dough. You'll know you've gone too far if the dough suddenly seems slack, lifeless, and lacks elasticity; if this happens, the dough can't be salvaged and there is nothing to be done but to start over. Over-mixing is more likely to occur with a rich dough like this than with a lean dough like that for a simple white bread.)

Round the dough into a ball and place it into a well-greased or oiled bowl, or spray the bowl with vegetable oil spray, like Pam--that's what I use. Turn the ball over in the bowl so it's coated. Spray/grease a sheet of plastic wrap on one side and put that, sprayed side down, over the bowl.

Cover the whole thing with a lightweight dish towel and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise. The dough should approximately double in size within about one hour.

While the dough is rising, make the chocolate-almond filling and the streusel. 

To make the chocolate-almond filling:
Put the cream cheese, almond paste (broken into chunks), and 1 egg yolk into the large bowl of your mixer. Using the paddle attachment, blend together until on low speed until the mixture smooths out. Add  the chopped chocolate and blend it in. Store the filling in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

To make the streusel:
Mix the flour, sugar, and butter together in a small bowl using your fingers. You want the streusel to look like big, coarse, uneven crumbs. Add in the sliced almonds last, being careful not to break all them into bits. Store the streusel in the fridge until ready to use.

When the dough has doubled in size: 
Dump the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and press it firmly but gently with the palms of your hands. You are just trying to deflate it (or "de-gas" it as a baking teacher would tell you!). Lightly cover the deflated dough with the greased plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

Prepare your workspace for rolling out the dough. You can roll it right on a large baking sheet if you prefer, but I wanted to roll out my dough on the piece of parchment on which it would actually bake (you can then just slide the whole thing, paper and all, right onto your baking sheet). To keep the parchment from sliding around, I clipped the edge of it to my worktable with a big, strong, binder clip.

Flour your rolling pin. Put the rested dough onto your surface and roll the dough into a rounded rectangle about 16" long and 12" wide.

Remove your filling from the fridge, give it a good stir, and spread all of it in a 4" strip down the center of the dough, lengthwise.

Using a pizza/pastry wheel, cut slits in the dough on each side, almost up to the point of the filling (the strips created by the slits can be narrow or wide, as you prefer; my strips were slightly over 1/2" wide).

Then, starting at the top, lifting the strips one by one alternately from each side, fold them over the filling. Do this for the whole length of the loaf, then pinch the two far ends tightly closed with your fingers.

Cover the loaf again with greased/sprayed plastic wrap and cover it with the dish towel. Let it rise again (ie., let it "proof") in a warm spot; this time for 30 minutes. It will expand, but not necessarily by much. Don't wait for it to double in size.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix the egg white in a little bowl with a tablespoon or two of water. Using a pastry brush, gently and lightly coat the unbaked loaf when it's done proofing (that is, when it's done with its final rise).

Sprinkle all of the streusel evenly in a strip down the center length of the loaf.

Bake the loaf on a large sheet pan (it will expand in the oven, so plan accordingly!) for about 30 minutes, until it's golden all over. Check it about 20 minutes into the baking time and, if it's browning quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Also, reverse the pan from back to front for more even heat and color.

When the loaf is done, let it cool on the pan for a few minutes, then move it to a cooling rack. When the loaf is cooled, melt the semi-sweet chocolate carefully in the microwave (chocolate burns really quickly), and pour it into a zip-lock sandwich bag. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut an extremely tiny hole in one of the corners of the bag. Cut it just enough to let a dinky little stream of chocolate flow through when you squeeze the bag. Drizzle the chocolate back and forth over the entire loaf.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

English Apple Shortcake with Brown Sugar & Cream-Cheese Crust . . .

Household circumstances sometimes have a way of forcing your hand. You know what I mean. There's the long front hedge bordering your neighbor's driveway, so shaggy at times it demands to be trimmed lest it bring shame upon the family. There's the faucet that gasps and yawns and refuses to put in an honest day's work until the plumber is finally called in.

And, this morning, there was the problem of the ignored bookshelf. I'm talking about the big 7x4-footer with six really deep shelves. It was barely 9 a.m. when that thing finally gave up the ghost, collapsing under its burden with a mighty crash.

I was in the basement, romancing the ironing board again, when thunder rumbled above my head. Instantly I knew what had happened. I'd been expecting just such a catastrophe. I merely nodded to myself in acknowledgment and kept on ironing. I'd confront the monster soon enough.

The warning signs had been staring me in the face for months, but I'd ignored them. I'd ignored the obscenely overladen shelves, each one sagging in the middle like a tired mule. I'd ignored the fact that the brackets holding up each shelf were pathetically inadequate even to my untrained eye.

Eventually I trudged upstairs and stood there silently, gazing in resigned disgust at the aftermath. Books that had been packed together sardine-style had thunked to the floor willy nilly, a few stragglers still plummeting now and then in solidarity.

The resulting pile was about 18" deep, easily six feet wide, and thoroughly impassable. It was the Niagara Falls of literature. I thanked the fates that my husband hadn't had to face this right before heading off to work. It would have been too much for him. There would have been copious cussing. Better it happened this way.

About this recipe . . . 

As in so much of life, such mishaps often reveal their own silver lining. As I was sorting and stacking the  victims, one volume fell open at my feet and a particular page caught my eye. It was The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater. (Slater, in case you're unfamiliar, is a British food writer and a passionate home cook.) I sat down amidst the destruction and read through  the recipe that inspired today's dessert.

I made a few small changes to Slater's formula and ended up with something wonderful. Instead of using Bramley apples (which I've never seen in Michigan), I used Sweet Tango apples; they're firm, crunchy, and they'll make you pucker. Instead of turbinado sugar in the crust dough, I used light brown sugar, and I subbed some cream cheese for part of the butter, also adding in a generous pinch of kosher salt. I added a mixture of superfine- and light brown sugars to lightly caramelize the simmering apples, instead of just using a very small amount of superfine alone. We served this with a dollop of delicately sweetened whipped cream on top. Especially when served slightly warm, this makes for a comforting and rustic dessert.

English Apple Shortcake with Brown Sugar & Cream-Cheese Crust

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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a metal baking sheet in the oven to heat up. Butter a 9" or 10" pie, cake, casserole, or quiche pan.

For the crust:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, large, at cool room temperature
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
1 and 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 generous pinch kosher salt

For the filling:

2 and 3/4 lbs. firm, tart, and sweet apples (I recommend Sweet Tango or Honey Crisp apples.)
half of a lemon
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar

For the top of the crust, before baking:

A couple tablespoons of milk, half & half, or cream
2 Tbsp. superfine sugar

Peel and core all of the apples, and slice them as you would for apple pie (I made my slices at least 1/4" thick). Put the slices into a big bowl of cold water and squeeze the lemon-half over them; this will help keep them from turning brown while you're preparing the crust. Set the bowl aside.

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the large bowl of your mixer, on medium speed, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and brown sugar for a few minutes, until light and fluffy. Blend in the egg.

On low speed, add in the dry ingredients and blend until combined.

Dump the dough, which will be very soft, onto a heavily floured surface (do not skimp on the flour!).

Flour your hands, and knead the dough a few times, just for a minute or so, until it's smooth.

Divide the dough into two equal parts. Use a rolling pin to roll out half the dough; it will be thick. Carefully transfer the rolled out dough into the buttered pan and press it gently into the corners. It doesn't have to look perfect. Wrap up the second piece of dough in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge along with the dough-lined pan, while you finish prepping the apples.

Drain the apples in a colander. Heat a large frying/saute pan, and add the 4 Tbsp. of butter. Toss the apple slices into the hot butter and let them simmer over medium heat until the butter looks frothy and the apples start to just soften around the edges, stirring now and then.

Raise the heat and sprinkle the 1/4 superfine sugar and 1/3 cup light brown sugar over the apples. Cook the apples until they just begin to caramelize; they should be slightly soft and have taken on a deeper yellow color. Take the pan off the heat.

Remove the second dough half from the fridge and roll it out as you did the first piece.

Remove the dough-lined pan from the fridge. Spoon the apple slices into the dough-lined pan.

Carefully place the top crust over that.

Pinch the edges closed.

Use a pastry brush to coat the top crust with milk or cream, but don't brush it on the outer edge (that'll be the first area to burn). Sprinkle liberally with superfine sugar.

Bake the shortcake for up to about 40 minutes, or until it's fully golden and feels firm. Let the finished shortcake cool on a rack until it's no longer hot.

Good served warm or cold, with sweetened whipped cream.

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