Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Big Things from Small Kitchens

During my stint in grad school, while living in Boston, I'd do just about anything to get out of writing a paper or preparing for my Master's recital (hmmm...maybe I should have taken that as a hint that I was just not that into my degree program, vocal performance). Unfortunately, I didn't start my baking mania until after I left the apartment that had a large kitchen. No, that started when I had a kitchen as small as a hall closet. One of my grad school friends had a roommate who made delicious biscotti. I wasn't bold enough to ask her for her recipe, but instead mentioned it to my favorite baking teacher, my mom. She found recipe after recipe and sent them to me. So, on my one-foot-square countertop, I made my first batch of biscotti. And, fell in love.

The recipe I prefer is really a mandelbrot (the Jewish version of biscotti, which literally means 'almond bread', since almond was the original flavoring in this crispy treat). Mandelbrot has only eggs in it to hold it together, while biscotti tends to also include butter or oil, which make them a little more like dried out cake or bread. While this is a lovely texture, I find that they leave more soggy crumbs in the bottom of my teacup than I like. If you're looking for a good biscotti recipe, I like to explore Allrecipes.com for something that fits my needs (allrecipes.com biscotti recipes). I love checking out the reviews for other bakers' comments to determine if it's a good recipe or not.

I've moved several times over the years, from Boston, back home to Minnesota, with apartments and homes all over the Twin Cities, only to end up with yet another small kitchen (see the photo above, with the 'friendly sink' of warm, soapy water). This time, my counter could have more than 4-square-feet of space, if only I didn't clutter it up with a toaster, a big jar full of utentils and a cluster of unwashed dishes (usually teacups from the day before). I'm right back to where I started, then, with one-square-foot of space in which to make my mark on the baking world.

The recipe that follows is from my early Bramblewood days, when I was mainly delivering to coffee shops. One of the shops decided to do a dunk test, with my biscotti up against another popular biscotti, dipped for a good dunk in a cup of joe. While both held a nice amount of coffee, mine didn't leave as many crumbs as the other biscotti. Again, even though their biscotti was delicious, it had that cakier texture that crumbles more easily under super-dunking conditions. Not that my biscotti is break-your-teeth hard; rather, it is dense and crispy.

Cherry Apricot Biscotti
3/4 cup chopped dried tart cherries (or craisins)
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1 1/2 tsp orange extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp fresh orange zest

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine cherries, apricots and orange extract. In a mixing bowl, place flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, orange zest and fruit mixture. Stir to combine. In the fruit mixture bowl, beat eggs and vanilla lightly. Blend the eggs and vanilla into the dry mixture.

Turn dough onto a well-floured surface. Lightly knead dough to form a smooth surface and cut into two equal portions. Elongate dough to form two long logs. Transfer to a parchment covered baking sheet and flatten logs to one-inch high and 4-inches wide.

Bake for 40 minutes, until light golden. Dough should spring back to the touch.

Cool for 5 minutes, until cool enough to handle (do not cool completely, though, since it will be tougher to cut). Transfer to a cutting board. With a sharp, serrated knife, cut each loaf into 1/2 inch slices.

Place biscotti, sliced side up, on the baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes more, or until golden brown. Flip the biscotti halfway through the baking time. They will still be soft when they come out of the oven - they'll harden as they cool.

Store in an airtight container. If they soften (due to humidity), bake at 350 for a few minutes to crisp them up.

Yield: around 36 biscotti

Variation: Triple Chocolate Biscotti. Instead of fruit, orange extract and zest, add 1 1/2 cups toasted and slightly chopped almonds,1 1/4 cups slightly chopped chocolate chips, and 2 tbsp really good cocoa powder. After they are twice-baked and cooled, dip them in melted chocolate.

A quick tip for melting chocolate chips: place the chips in a bowl and microwave on 50% power for one minute, then stir. Continue microwaving in 30 second increments, until the chips can barely hold their shape. Remove and stir until smooth. Throw in a small handful of chocolate chips to bring it to the right temperature. Any water that accidently gets into the chocolate at this point will cause it to seize, and you won't be able to fix it (but you could add cream and turn it into sauce for ice cream!). Also, the almonds really should be toasted prior to baking with them. They have so much more flavor and crunch than their softer, raw predecessors.

So, if you're thinking your kitchen is too small or that you don't have the skills to bake or any other excuse that might keep you from making these easy, satifying biscotti, take a look at the picture at the top of this blog post. Because, I started small in so many ways and now big things come from that small kitchen.

P.S. Just so you know, I did finish graduate school and am the proud holder of a Master's Degree in Vocal Performance from New England Conservatory. Fat lot of good it did me. I still ended up baking...and happier for it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Makin' Whoopie......Pies

It's hard not to pay attention to foodie trends when your life is all about food, like mine, most of the time. And, in the Midwest, we seem to join those trends part way through the game. So, what's new and exciting to us might be old news to our coastal friends. Cupcakes have been at the forefront for the last few years (trend spotters should already know that cupcakes exploded onto the scene in 2003, with the opening of Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, CA). Here in the Twin Cities, where the trend has been very strong for a few years,we have no less than a dozen bakeries featuring the single-serving sweet treat. (Here's a great article from Slate.com on the cupcake bubble, written in 2009, a lifetime ago when talking about fads: http://www.slate.com/id/2227216/)  

French macarons have been tres chic for several years, too. Personally, I've been hoping for a Coconut Macaroon renaissance, myself, and have seen them showing up at many local bakeries. But, maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to those little toasty delights since I've been immersed in them for the last year.

Whoopie Pies have been around since the 1930's, if stories out of Maine are to be believed. Or, are they originally from Pennsylvania? Or Ohio? No matter where they originated, they're here and they're teeth-achingly sweet and super easy. They're not quite a cookie, but are best described as two little mounds of cake with frosting in between. 

I recently picked up a new cookbook, whoopie pies by Sarah Billingsley and Amy Treadwell (Chronicle Books, 2010) and tried the recipe for chocolate whoopie pies. I ended up varying the recipe, since I found the cake a little dry. Their combinations are interesting, though, and there are quite a few recipes to try. The traditional filling is made of Marshmallow Fluff, Crisco, and powdered sugar (find the recipe in the book above), but I love buttercream frosting. As long as it's fairly stiff, any frosting will work. I'm not always a fan of frosting, so I sometimes to eat the little cakes all alone.

Here's my version:

Chocolate Whoopie Pies
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 unsweetened cocoa powder (I like the cocoa from Trader Joes)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, room temperature (I use salted butter - I know, I know, not what a real pastry chef would use!)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (I use canola)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1tsp vanilla
1 tsp white vinegar
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 . Line 2 pans with parchment paper.

Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Stir with a wisk or sift to remove clumps. In the work bowl of a mixer, beat butter and oil until combined. Then add brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes. 

Add the vinegar and half the flour mixture. Beat on low and add half the milk. Beat until just combined and scrape down the beater and the bowl. Add the rest of the flour and the milk. Beat on low until combined. Don't beat on high, as this will add air pockets. Let the batter rest for 5 minutes.

Drop by spoonful, or for best results, use a small ice cream scoop. You can even fill a pastry bag and squeeze more than a half dollar sized amount on the parchment paper. There should be at least 2 inches between each dollop. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until they spring back to the touch. Cool before filling.

Buttercream Filling
3 cups powdered sugar
1 stick butter, room temperature (again, I love salted butter for this)
3-4 tbsp heavy whipping cream (milk works, too - it just won't be as stiff)
1 tsp vanilla, or any flavoring you like (almond, rose flower, orange flower, peppermint)

In a medium size bowl, use a hand mixer (or a stand mixer) to mix the powdered sugar and the butter together (be careful not to turn it on too high or you'll be covered in white!). Add 3 tbsp of cream and vanilla and beat until smooth. Add the last tablespoon of cream if the filling is too thick. The easiest way to put the filling on the cakes is to put it in a thick plastic bag (like a Ziploc freezer bag), squeeze it towards one corner, cut the corner so the opening is about 1/2 inch wide, and squeeze gently (the sides will split, if you're not careful. Been there, done that).

The variations I have in the photo are Coconut Rose Buttercream and Malted Milk Buttercream. For the first one, I added sweetened shredded coconut, a pinch of dried, roughly ground rose petals (only use rose petals that haven't been anywhere near pestisides or other nasty non-food sprays - best to get some at a co-op) and about a tablespoon of rose water. If you want to be a coconut purist, use coconut milk instead of cream. For the Malted Milk Buttercream, I added a few tablespoons of Carnation Malted Milk (you can use the plain or chocolate version, or you can use Ovaltine). There are recipes for these and others in the whoopie pies cookbook.

To Assemble:
Turn half of the cakes bottom side up. Squeeze enough frosting on to cover the bottom (I work in a slight spiral to cover the surface). Top with another cake and gently press so the filling shows at the edges. If you want, roll the sides in toasted coconut or mini chocolate chips.

Share your yummy treats with friends, co-workers and neighbors, or hoard them all to yourself (that's fine with me. I like to know I'm not the only one not sharing). But, be sure to eat them up quickly. They don't have a long shelf-life. I'm in the process of testing one of my whoopie pies in the freezer to see how it holds up. I even have some plain cakes in there, which I'll defrost and then fill with fresh frosting at a later date, when I need a sweet treat. Which means, they'll be in the freezer just long enough to get solid before I yank back them out. I'm sure the fresh ones won't be around for long.