May 9, 2013

The Results Are In- Kinda..

   We've all heard it. "Nobody's perfect." And I think it's safe to say it’s a pretty darn near foolproof principle. Little did I know that that exact same concept applies to none other than chocolate chip cookies. I expected to take my cookie poll, copy down results, and have a definite winner; that was that. It turns out, though; I didn't take into account the different preferences of people, especially those who take their cookies very seriously, like me. The traits of my personal favorite cookie may not parallel those of others'- some loved a hint of sea salt, some hated it; some like chewy, others crisp- it's never going to be a unanimous result.
   It actually seemed as though the majority of favorite cookies came from batch #1, the first four recipes. By the numbers, it seemed that chewy, giant, and fluffy from the first batch almost tied for first, and from batch two, almost all the cookies showed a love/hate relationship with the testers. The crispy prevailed though, according to my dear grandma, and we don't take her opinion lightly.
    So here's the thing- I lied. Not on purpose, pinky promise, but I realized there isn't such thing as the perfect chocolate chip cookie. If I think I find my favorite recipe, it could still be everyone else's least favorite. The search is still on for now, if not for the perfect cookie, the nearest-perfect. Please comment if you have any ideas, I'm heading straight back to the drawing board on this one!

Apr 24, 2013

The Great Cookie Quest: Round 1 Results

The moment we've all been waiting for. Ladies and gentleman: the results are in.
 As you may recall, the cookielympics I attempted to orchestrate had 4 contenders: chewy, giant, fluffy, and brown butter. The feedback I revived was not as unanimous as I'd expected, but it showed me that I might be able to combine different elements of each cookie into one ultra cookie. Here's what I gathered from the opinions of my first-class tasting squad and myself:
Brown butter: the brown butter cookies seemed to get the short end of the stick- it was not as traditional a cookie as some expected, but for some that was what made it the winner. They didn't spread as much, and they rose more than others. The word crumbly comes to mind, but not as much hard and crisp. The brown butter contributed to an overall deeper, almost "butterscotch-y" flavor.
Chewy- The chewy cookies received the best overall feedback. They’re definitely the best for fans of the under-baked center (such as myself) but the flavor wasn’t as developed as, say, the brown butter cookies. The consistency is decadent and their size offers the perfect small snack (and it means you can have more without being called out).  
Giant- Hands-down this would be my personal choice as the perfect big cookie- even, the edges not too crisp the center not too under baked. Probably my personal favorite and a tie with the fluffy cookie for the best milk-dipper- A perfect after-meal snack.
Fluffy- For a more “gourmet” genre of cookie, this would be the best. The lightness of the ingredients offers a great texture that allows you to taste each flavor without it being too strong. Also great for milk-dipping, and has a nice a crisp edge, if that’s your thing- The best contender for a midnight snack, if you ask me.
I’m now working on the touch-ups for round two, basically a combination of the giant and chewy genres, I’ve got some high hopes for these… stay tuned boys and girls.

Apr 15, 2013

The REAL Pursuit of Happiness

We all dream of it; late at night, in our fantasies, life’s ultimate offering: the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I know this isn’t the first chocolate chip cookie investigation, nor will it be the last, but it is a quest I’ve always dreamed of venturing on. I know this is something a teenager should not be this excited about, but my lack of a social life makes this all the more thrilling. I’m planning on doing a two-part experimentation ultimately pursuing the ultimate, perfect, milk-dipping worthy chocolate chip cookie.
Part A of the testing will include four different recipes from around the web, adapted when needed, that exploit, in my opinion, the four genres of cookies: flat and crispily caramelized, chewy and bordering under-baked,  fluffy and soft-textured, and lastly... the giant, crunchy yet chewy, chocolate chunk  cookie.
After condensing my research and adapting where necessary, I’ve got my four base recipes:
1.        For the first, I’m using a brown-butter base, melted instead of the traditional creamed butter, more white sugar than brown (white sugar makes it crispier, brown sugar chewier), and less flour .
2.       For the chewy, I’ll basically the opposite- more brown sugars, creamed butter, drop the baking temperature to 325 and most likely the normal amount of flour.
3.       For fluffy, bakers advise using cornstarch instead of baking soda or powder as the leavener, and I’m also going to use one extra egg along with cake flour in place of all-purpose.
4.       The giant will be a mix of the crispy and chewy, large amounts of chocolate (always a good idea) and 1/3-cup scoops of dough.
Part B will take the winner of this experiment and delve into the deep roots of the ingredients, hopefully yielding the perfect and most incredible chocolate cookie ever made…. But we’ll get to that part later.
I’m way too excited for this. I know, I need to get out more, blah, blah, blah, but hopefully my passion for fantastic chocolate chip cookies (and cookies in general) will jumpstart the revolution that could make or break my entire career- based on this one recipe. You never know.
Stay tuned, kids. Wish me luck!

Apr 6, 2013

It's Carrot Cake Time

   Spring means Easter...Easter means bunnies… bunnies mean carrots… and carrots mean carrot cake. Carrot cake is one of my favorites if not for the moist and deliciously flavorful cake, for the decadent cream cheese frosting that traditionally envelops it. I’ve been so intimidated by the (legacy) of carrot cake, that I’ve never looked at an actual recipe to try and make it. I knew about the pineapple, coconut, walnuts and (believe it or not) carrots that most people don’t realize are used in the cake, but I’d always assumed that making carrot cake was a tedious and challenging task manageable only for the greatest southern chefs. Little did I know, carrot cake is really not as unwieldy of a task as I’d imagined. It was actually quite simple.
    I found a great recipe from AllRecipes, and with a few minuscule changes I’m sharing it with you. The frosting is a pretty traditional cream cheese frosting, except I subbed the seeds of one vanilla bean for 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. If you don’t have a vanilla bean, go ahead and do the extract, it won’t change a thing (except you don’t see the flecks of the seeds in the frosting, which looks pretty cool).
    Honestly, the only thing you can do wrong is to do it half-heartedly- if you want the real deal, peel and shred the carrots, toast the almonds, use fresh ingredients, and do every step, there really aren’t that many. For the carrots, a 2-lb pound bag of carrots was just enough- I peeled them and shredded them in my food processor, but a grater would work just as well. Use fresh carrots- trust me it’s worth it! If you wish to have a smoother-textured cake, you can puree the pineapple before mixing it in, but I Prefer them as they are in the can. And last- please, PLEASE, make sure the walnuts cool completely before adding them.
     If you like a lot of frosting, I’d do 1 ½ of the frosting recipe (that’s 2 ½ packs of cream cheese, 1 ½ sticks of butter, etc, except stick with 1 vanilla bean), but I like to coat the outside with walnuts, so it wasn’t really necessary. If you’re not sure if you want more or not, go for the 1 ½, it can’t hurt to have more!
Carrot Cake
2 cups AP flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
¼ tsp ground cloves
3 eggs
¾ cup buttermilk
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 ¾ cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flaked coconut
2 cups (tight-packed) shredded carrots
1 ½ cup chopped walnuts (plus extra for garnish-optional)
1 (8-oz) can crushed pineapple with juice
  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease and flour two 9-in rounds.
  2. Spread the walnuts on a cookie sheet and toast in the preheated oven, about 8 minutes, or until you can smell them in the kitchen- check every few minutes, they go from browned to burned in no time! When they’re done, remove them from the pan (dump them onto a paper towel or a dish cloth) to cool, and set aside.
  3.  In a large bowl, sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, oil, sugar, and vanilla, mix well, then add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Beat until smooth and combined.
  5. In separate bowl, combine carrots, coconut, COOLED walnuts, and crushed pineapple.
  6. Use a large wooden spoon to fold the carrot mixture into batter.
  7. Pour into prepared pans, bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, until the center is form and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  8. Cool and layer with cream cheese frosting (or whichever frosting you wish).
Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting
2( 8 oz) packages cream cheese softened
1 stick butter
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
1 vanilla bean
1. In a medium bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter until creamy. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean and beat in, then gradually beat in the confectioners' sugar. Store in the refrigerator after use.

Mar 27, 2013

The Choco-coma: The Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Some desserts are pretty customary, everyone has a recipe, or their great-great grandma does, and it works for them. The first things that come to my mind are chocolate chip cookies, brownies, apple pie, and –oh yes- chocolate cake.

You could say chocolate cake is my thing, my weakness, the staple midnight craving. I really like chocolate, I actually brutally dislike it when people use the term, “too much chocolate,” or “it’s too rich.” Well if you’re one of those people, this just isn’t the cake for you. About that, I’m really sorry and I’d be happy to conjure a more “mild” cake, but for now you might just have to excuse yourself.

This is a tri-layer, bi-filling, universal sign of sweet surrender. Weight watchers might have to take a sick day for this one. It starts with a moist chocolate cake made with a dark coffee to really round out all of the flavors of the cake. The cake itself isn’t as chocolate-y as one would presume, but the ganache crumb-coat and filling more than makes up for that, I assure you.

Ganache is a chocolate topping or filling that can be used for a whole bunch of fun stuff; truffles, ice cream cake, and sometimes the “fudge topping” on those mouth-watering bakery brownies. Ganache, in all of its glory, is actually incredibly simple to make: near-boiling heavy cream is poured over chocolate, allowed to sit at room temperature for a few minutes, and whisked to smoothness. If you melt chocolate in the microwave, you run the risk of the chocolate seizing up- that’s when it goes from smooth, liquid chocolate to a strange-textured clump of weird. We don’t like that, so we use the other method.

The buttercream frosting, though it may be cheating, is basically whipped buttercream and chocolate ganache. It works for this cake because a delicious contrast of dark chocolate for the ganache and milk chocolate for the buttercream complements the bold coffee laced in the cake. The buttercream is pretty simple to make as well, but it may be better to make it a day in advance. Ganache has to cool at room temperature, at least the first time, and then refrigerated. If you make this a day in advance, you can beat in the cooled ganache the next morning into the buttercream base and you’ve saved yourself a whole lotta waiting.

As for the cake, it is almost the exact same recipe I used for the Cookie Dough Cupcakes in an older post. It’s a great, versatile recipe, and perfect for this cake. As for any cake, I would suggest making it at least a day in advance, as cake gets yummier with time. Refrigerate it prior to slicing, and pull it out about one hour before you serve it.

Just a fair warning: you may need some milk on stand-by, this one’s a doozy.

2 cups white sugar                                               
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
1/3 cup finely chopped milk chocolate
¼ cup mayonnaise
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour three 9 or 8-inch round cake pans.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in the center (a crater) and add the eggs, vanilla, oil, and milk. Beat for 2 minutes at medium speed, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl. Stir in boiling water (with instant coffee, if you wish) gradually, about 1/5 at a time, with a whisk.
  3. Once consistent, fold in chocolate and mayonnaise with a rubber spatula. Fill the pans as evenly as you can and bake in preheated oven for 17 minutes, check done-ness with a toothpick, and put them back in for 2 minutes if the toothpick doesn't come out clean. Let them cool to room temperature then place them in the freezer.
9 oz chopped bittersweet/dark chocolate, chopped (NOT chips)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
  1. Place the chocolate into a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, watching very carefully because if it boils for a few seconds, it will boil out of the pot. When the cream has come to a boil, pour over the chopped chocolate, and whisk until smooth.
  2. Allow the ganache to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
8 oz finely chopped dark chocolate
8 oz finely chopped milk chocolate
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons corn syrup
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened, cut into cubes
  1. Place both the chopped bittersweet and milk chocolates into a mixing bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan, bring heavy cream and corn syrup to a boil. Take off the heat and pour over chocolate. Let stand for 2 to 3 minutes.
  3. Starting in the center, whisk towards the edges of the bowl until the chocolate is smooth. Let cool at room temperature.
  4. Beat the cooled ganache at medium speed and gradually add butter until the frosting is smooth and silky.
  1.  Take your three cooled cake rounds out of the freezer or refrigerator and set them aside. Loosen each cake from the pan with a knife and tap the sides and bottom until the cake is no longer attached to the pan. Flip the cake into the palm of your hand and back onto a level surface- I’d suggest a cutting board.
  2. When you have all three rounds out, determine which will be your top, middle and bottom. You want your bottom layer to be the thickest, most stable, and flat on the bottom. The one that is the most butchered- maybe some of the bottom stuck to the pan or the top has a big dome- and you want your top layer to be the prettiest and flattest on top.
  3. Use a sharp serrated knife to level the three cakes, and save the scraps for some much-needed ‘You Did It!’ cake balls at the end (check out my Pumpkin Maple Cake Balls post for strategy). Take your bottom layer and slide it onto whatever your serving plate will be, there’s no going back once you layer this bad boy (some people put strips of wax paper under the cake to catch crumbs while layering and pull them out for presentation, I always forget to do that).
  4. Take a rubber spatula and put a dollop of ganache- it should be room temperature, spreadable yet not runny, about the consistency of marshmallow fluff or Nutella- on your first layer and smooth it ALMOST to the edges of the cake. Next, do the same with about 1/3 of the buttercream. The ratio of buttercream to ganache on top of the layers should be about two-to-one, more buttercream than ganache. If you’re feeling extra-snazzy, sprinkle some mini chocolate chips or chopped chocolate in between layers.
  5. Stack your designated middle layer on top of the first and repeat the last step. If any filling squeezes out the sides run your spatula around the edge to smooth it back into the gap.
  6. For your top and final layer, stack it on the other two layers, smoothing again if any filling comes out. Take a nice heap of ganache and spread a thin layer on the surface of the cake. As you near the edge, spread the excess ganache from the top on the sides so the entire surface is thinly-coated and any gaps in between layers are filled in with ganache. It should look like a nice, smooth, consistently-textured cylinder, and a tasty one at that (see picture) .
7. Put your cake in the freezer and allow the ganache to harden (it doesn't come off with a light touch). When the ganache is ready, pull the cake out and spread the rest of the buttercream on the outside over the ganache. You can decorate it from here, maybe pat the sides with chocolate chips or crumbs, piping on ganache, go crazy.
**Cake should be refrigerated if you don’t plan to serve it right away (which I suggest; cake is always better the next day).
This is the Ganache crumb-coat

Mar 9, 2013

To Crust or Not to Crust

Pie crust is usually deemed a very intimidating feat. It can be used for pies, tarts, cookies, gallettes, turnovers, basically anything with a pastry shell.  What most people don’t know is that it’s not making the crust that’s the hard part, its making a good crust. In most traditional crust recipes, you’ll come across flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, cold butter, and ice cold water, give or take a couple ingredients depending on your recipe.

One thing you must know: when they say “cold,” they mean it. Ideally, you want everything to be cold, but NOT frozen; I’m talking the water, the butter, the dry ingredients, and even the “tools” you’re using to make the crust, be it a food processor, two forks, a pastry blender, or whatever else you can think of. The reason for this is that any warmth (for instance, using your hands to mix) used in making the dough will warm up the butter and take away the flakiness, the most important aspect or your crust. When the crust is baking, the butter melts in the dough leaving tiny pockets of air that the crust will form around, and thus we have our beautiful, flakey crust. If you use room temperature butter, a warm blade of a food processor, or even knead your dough on a semi-warm surface, it could ruin your crust. Flakiness is also the motive for being so careful when you cut the butter into the dough, the method that keeps the butter in clumps versus completely consistent, aka flakiness.

Using a food processor is a lot easier than mixing by hand, but most pastry buffs would scoff at the thought. If you choose to use the processor though, you have to pulse in two-second increments to make sure you don’t cut the butter down too small. At this stage, you’ve added all but the water and your dough will look like coarse crumbs, around the size of peppercorns, maybe a little bigger. When you add in your ICE COLD water, it will bring the dough together just enough to where you can form a ball, but still keep those small chunks of butter intact.

Recipes usually have you knead the dough just until it is combined, roll it into a ball, flatten it into a disc, and cover and refrigerate it. Ladies and gents: this is no small detail; rather it’s just as important as adding flour or using an oven. You really should chill the dough, just like you should chill cookie dough. No one wants to do it, I know, but it is so worth it. I’d suggest chilling it at least an hour, but no more than 3 days.

Once your dough is nice and chilly, take it out of the fridge and set it aside. Prepare a work surface that is clean, flat, and generously dusted with flour. Put your dough right in the middle, flour your rolling pin, and begin to roll out the dough evenly, rolling maybe twice in one direction then spinning the dough around and repeating. If the dough cracks while rolling it out, don’t try to be a hero and mend it with your fingers; fold it over and roll that side back out. Until you have a nice circle, be consistent with sides, thickness, and pressure on the rolling pin. Once the dough is rolled out about ¼ to 1/5 of an inch thick, sprinkle a little flour on the top and fold one end of the dough over the rolling pin (when you pick up the rolling pin, the two sides should hang down draped over the pin like a saddle). Pick up the pin and bring the dough over to your pan, reroll the dough off the pin and on your pan so it loosely takes the shape. Using your fingers or a curved object (like a 1-cup dry measure) gently press the dough into the pan and shape it around any edging the pan may have. Just remember not to do too much with your hands, or it can prevent the precious flakiness!

From there, your recipe should be able to help you out. Comment if you have any questions and have fun baking!

Feb 26, 2013

The Ultimate 2-in-1

    It really doesn’t get much better than chocolate cake. Who doesn’t love moist, fantastic, choctastic chocolate cake, right? But when you put cookie dough in said chocolate cake, the bar was just raised through the roof. Oh yeah, that’s right. Cookie dough. And don’t even try to pull that “you can’t eat raw egg” stuff, because it’s eggless.
    Here are some key tips to keep in mind when using “raw” cookie dough in desserts:
-Less flour is usually better, but it depends on the consistency you wish to reach.
-Mini chocolate chips are better for cookie dough fillings/frosting and regular-sized chips for layers or toppings of cookie dough.
-Cookie dough rocks so don’t be shy with the portions.
    I picked chocolate cake for this because the cake brings out the mini chocolate chips more than a vanilla cake would. The cupcakes were baked, let sit for a day (it makes them ten times better), then cored and stuffed with the cookie dough. They were frosted with a cookie dough buttercream and topped with more mini chocolate chips, just ‘cause.
  When you make the cupcake batter, it will seem too soupy- don’t question it. See if you can get your hands on some crazy awesome cupcake cups like I did, then fill the cups 2/3 full and bake them at 350, like the recipe says. If you really want to impress people, though, drop the oven temp to 325 after ten minutes. This will keep your cupcakes from getting too dry on top, while staying fluffy and delicious. For a stronger flavor, mix one tablespoon of instant coffee into the boiling water before adding it to the batter.
2 cups white sugar
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
1/3 cup coarsely chopped milk chocolate
¼ cup mayonnaise
1.       Preheat oven to 350F. Line 2 cupcake pans with baking cups.
2.       In a large bowl, sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in the center (a crater) and add the eggs, vanilla, oil, and milk. Beat for 2 minutes at medium speed, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl. Stir in boiling water (with instant coffee, if you wish) gradually, about 1/5 at a time, with a whisk.
3.       Once consistent, fold in chocolate and mayonnaise with a rubber spatula. Fill the cups about 2/3 full, and bake in preheated oven for 13 minutes, check doneness with a toothpick,  and put them back in for 2 minutes if the toothpick doesn’t come out clean.  Let them cool.
Cookie Dough Filling/Frosting
¾ cup melted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons milk
1 cup mini chocolate chips
***(Additional ingredients)
1 stick butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 ½ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
1.       Beat butter and sugars until a light caramel color, 1-2 minutes. Beat in vanilla, salt, and flour until consistent, then add milk. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand.
2.       Divide the dough in half; put one half to the side (this is for the buttercream).  Using a small knife cut out a cone-shape from the cupcakes, about 2/3 inch deep (you can save the scraps for AMAZING cake balls at the end). Fill the hole with cookie dough and put in the refrigerator.  Do this for each cupcake. If you run out of dough, you can take some from the dough you set aside, but make sure you’re not taking too much. If there’s leftover dough from the first step, just add it to the other half for buttercream.
3.       In a large bowl, cream the butter and cream cheese until fluffy, then beat in the confectioners’ sugar, then milk and vanilla. Add in the leftover dough and beat until consistent. Add extra chocolate chips if you wish (I wished). Frost the cupcakes to your heart’s desire (or just eat the frosting and say you forgot to make it).