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Archive for the ‘Baking with Julia’ Category

There are few things I love more than gingerbread. Since I’m not much of a “dessert person,” the savory part of me loves the rebellious combination of spicy ginger and black pepper with sugar and molasses. For me, this is dessert, perfected, and I was thrilled to see it come up as this week’s TWD baking assignment.

gingerbread

There are about a million different ways to make gingerbread, each with varying degrees and combination of spice. This recipe was very straight-forward, focusing on the simple ginger flavor, using ground and fresh ginger and a bit of black pepper to boost the heat. Then there were two unexpected additions: instant espresso and cocoa powder. I was surprised to be including these ingredients, but each provided a pleasant bitterness and grounded what could have been a too-sweet recipe. (check out the full recipe here)

I love how easy this batter comes together — a quick mix of wet and dry ingredients and you are on your way to the oven. Don’t worry if your batter is lumpy — that’s normal and lends to an airy cake in the end.  I decided to make mine into one 9-inch cake but if I were serving it at a party, I would do mini cakes for sure so that every got an equal amount of crispy-cake-edge and moist-sticky-cake-inside.  Either way, this is such a simple cake and should definitely be your dessert staple this holiday season. It’s full of winter spices, makes your house smell amazing and tastes perfect paired with a mug of hot apple cider (with or without a splash of bourbon).

gingerbread - batter

In the end this cake had a lovely sharp bite — the combination of the spicy and bitter ingredients made for a very “grown-up” gingerbread. Perhaps a challenge for someone expecting a very sweet and only slightly gingery cake, but I loved it. Next time I would add a bit of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg and a pinch of cardamom to give a bit more depth to the spicy flavor….but mostly because I look for any excuse to add cinnamon and cardamom to desserts.

While the cake is delicious on it’s own, it begs for a bit of something creamy on top to cut through the spice. My favorite choice: some Greek yogurt flavored with a bit of honey and lemon zest. Gingerbread AND Greek yogurt — now I’ve got two of my favorite things on one plate. Life is good 🙂

Happy Holidays!

 

 

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This is the kind of recipe that gives you faith in yourself as a baker, that makes you feel confident and sure in the kitchen and officially puts you in the camp of people who “just whip up a little something” when friends come over for Brunch. And thank goodness it is, because after last month’s bagel experiment, I was questioning whether I would continue with TWD. But then I remembered that this is a journey, that I’m becoming a better baker and that if I can throw together something as delicious and easy as these Buttermilk Crumb Muffins I must be doing something right (go here for the full recipe).

You have to love a recipe that requires nothing more than a bowl, a spoon and a baking pan. Usually I wouldn’t be able to restrain my impulse to tinker with a new recipe, adding a bit of this and a little of that. But this time I was in the midst of a busy week and was so happy to see this simple recipe that I made it to the letter and couldn’t have been happier.

Despite it’s ease, this recipe has some really smart take-away lessons:

(1.) Pull back some of the dry mixture to use as a crumble topping — it’s the best part and I love the idea that I don’t have to make a separate crumble topping.

(2.) When you are making muffins and don’t have enough batter to fill all the tins, fill any empty muffin tin 1/2 way up with water so that you whole pan cooks evenly. Brilliant!!

(3.) Although this recipe calls only for shortening and the muffins turned out light and crumbly as a result, I think they could have used the flavor boost of butter or olive oil. I find most all-shortening baked good recipes to be a bit bland and prefer to swap out at least some of the shortening with butter or olive oil whenever possible — both of these full-flavor fats lend to more complex flavors in the finished product.

Speaking of next time, although these muffins were light and tasty and the perfect simple treat in a busy work week, I will certainly make some additions in the future. Perhaps dried cherries and toasted almonds, or diced pear and ground cardamom, or chopped banana chips and bittersweet chocolate….the possibilities are endless….I think these are going to be a new staple on our brunch catering menu.

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Some things are a labor of love. And some things are just a labor. After doing this week’s TWD baking assignment, I’ve decided bagels are the latter. Don’t get me wrong — I love bagels and the ones I made were delicious. But were they more delicious than the fresh bagels I get on Sundays at my local shop? Not really. In the end, this should be chalked up as one of those projects done by people who really love making bread. I’m afraid I’m not one of those people.

All that being said, I am proud of myself for giving this “project” a go. After a first read-through of the recipe (find it here) I was pretty scared and considering skipping this round all together. There were just so many steps and in my experience lots of steps does not always make for a better recipes. So I put it off. And procrastinated some more. And then some more. And finally got down to business (you can see now why I’m 3 days late with this post!).

To get over my fear, I read and then re-read the recipe to see what I was getting myself into. As you know, I’m not really a baker. But I reminded myself that I decided to participate in TWD to get better at baking and here was another chance to face my fears. So here it goes. The recipe, however, was not comforting. It read something like this:

Work with half the dough at a time, each batch makes 5 bagels.

Shape the bagels: Stretch the dough into a purse-shaped ball, punch a hole, shape with your fingers and set aside to rest.

Boil the bagels: Boil in small batches because they can’t touch. Flip them over in the water. Take them out. Glaze them with egg white – the egg whites need to be strained (?!?) — glaze them quickly so they don’t stick and don’t let the glaze hit the pan because it can make the bagels stick.

Bake the bagels: Pour 2 cups of water in the bottom of your oven (yes, really) to create steam. Bake the bagels one rack at a time. Bake 25 minutes. Turn oven off. Bake 5 minutes. Open oven door. Bake 5 more minutes.

Now you’re done. Deep breath.

For a somewhat-non-baker like me, making this recipe feels like I’m cracking a code. True confessions: I made some adjustments. Not that I’m a rebel — I’m just an impatient person. Probably why baking and I are not always friends. So for any of you scared bakers out there, here are some short-cuts I took that worked.

1. I used regular unbleached flour, not high gluten or bread flour. Didn’t want to go around town finding the right flour.

2. I worked in 2 batches but shaped all the dough pieces at the same time.

3. I did one pan of bagels on parchment and one on an oiled pan per the recipe. Bagels stuck to the oiled pan so parchment won that technique contest.

4. I didn’t strain the egg whites. I was exhausted. I was impatient. I was starting to get angry at egg whites…and bagels. It was time to skip a step and this seemed like a good one. It all worked out in the end.

5. I tried to rush it and put both sheet pans in the oven at once on different racks — BIG mistake. The recipe was right. The bottom rack rose nicely but the top rack didn’t benefit from the steam.

6. I did do the 2 cups of water in the oven to create steam. LOVED this trick — very cool method to have up my sleeve. I kind of feel like a “real” baker having done something so cool.

In the end I had lovely, tasty bagels and, I’ll admit, was pretty darn proud of myself for making it through this recipe. Would I make them again? Probably not.

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I love it when my kitchen is granted a moment of culinary serendipity. Like when you realize you have a bundle of tomatoes nearly too ripe AND the cilantro & lime needed to turn them into a quick salsa. Or when you have some leftover mashed potatoes AND you discover that last bit of ground beef in the freezer perfect for assembling a shepard’s pie. Or what happened this past week: I’d reached a stone fruit breaking point with over 6 lbs of assorted plums from the last few weeks of Farm Box deliveries threatening to take over my crisper drawer AND realized that this week’s TWD baking assignment was a basic whole wheat bread. Fresh baked bread was the only excuse I needed to turn all those plums into a huge batch of jam. A match made in heaven.

First, the jam. I used this recipe as my base — I like the method of cooking half of the fruit in a sugar syrup until soft and then adding the rest of the fruit. This leaves you with a lovely textured jam with bits of chunky fruit and bits of mashed fruit. I ended up combining three different varieties of plums with a basket of blueberries. And then, for a little twist, one lonely star anise pod — it may seem like a small, insignificant addition, but this tiny flavor bomb adds a complex “black liquorice” taste that blends so nicely with the plum’s acidity.

Once I had a huge pot of jam, it was time for the bread. The recipe (found here and here) is so, so easy. A few simple ingredients (whole wheat flour, bread flour, yeast, honey, salt and water) are combined, kneaded and left to rise. After a second rise in loaf pans, they’re ready for the oven. With about 2 hours of unattended rise time, this recipe does require some forethought — but ultimately  it’s very little actual work and such a simple endeavor. Within 5 minutes of the bread hitting the oven, my house smelled like a bakery — the smell alone is reason to bake bread more often. Is there anyone who doesn’t associate the smell of fresh-baked bread with happiness? It’s truly one of my favorite smells.

I let the bread rest as long as I could stand (about 22 minutes I think) and then carved off a slice and sat down to warm bread and homemade jam. The bread was truly the perfect bread for toast and sandwiches — a light crumb, a faint sweetness from the honey and not too heavy. The jam was sweet but not too sweet thanks to the tartness of the plums and a savory backbone provided by the star anise. Has anyone come up with a carb-only diet yet? I think I need to start one because I could eat this every day!

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To me, there is nothing better to do with summer fruit that fold it up into a delicious pastry crust. While the pie from my past post was pretty spectacular, it does take some time to make. The chilling of the dough and chilling of the pie are key parts to the success. So when patience is not on my side and I have an abundance of fruit in the house and I’m craving that perfect summer dessert, I turn to pie’s less-fussy, easier cousin, the galette. These free-form, open-faced tarts can be filled with nearly anything — some fruit with a bit of sugar, some cheese bound with a bit of egg.

I’ve made galettes with a variety of different doughs and was excited to try this week’s Tuesdays with Dorrie’s baking assignment. The recipe called for a mix of flour and cornmeal (a nice addition for a bit of texture) and a mix of butter and yogurt (another nice addition for a bit of tang). The biggest difference between a pie dough and a galette dough is the way it’s handled. Pie dough should have big steaks of butter/shortening in it and should not be overworked — this ensures a flaky crust, the hallmark of any good pie. Galette dough, on the other hand, should have the fat worked completely into the flour(s), creating a more sturdy dough with a crumbly instead of a flaky texture. This is good news for the speedy baker — it means making galette dough in a food processor is a great choice….your dough will be ready in minutes!

We stayed true to the recipe and filled this one with a mix of seasonal berries, added just a bit of sugar and honey, folded up the edges and in a short 35 minutes we had this lovely, golden galette.

 

This week I got a hug batch of plums in my Farm Box. I think a feel a plum and almond paste galette coming on….

Visit this week’s hosts for the full recipe: The Kitchen Lioness and Tomato Thymes.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am no pastry chef….and, in fact, I can hardly be called a baker. I think this has less to do with lack of schooling and more to do with lack of confidence. While I’ve cooked professionally for over a decade and can easily make delicious food for any size party, it takes nothing more than the simplest baking task to throw me (see: The Genoise Disaster). It’s worth clarifying that I have never been to a cooking class, never trained to be a culinary professional. But what I’m lacking in schooling I’ve made up for with my own earnest study of all things food related, a deep love of cooking/eating and an unfettered confidence (it’s just food, right?). While all of these things have seen me through my culinary career, they fail me when it comes time to bake. Maybe it’s because baking takes a precision that challenges my impatient nature. Maybe it’s because baking requires getting it right from the start and cooking allows you to fix and tinker as you go. Regardless, I tend to enter each TWD assignment with a little trepidation. But lately things have begun to to turn around….and this week’s Blueberry Nectarine Pie is a stunning example.

This pie is glorious summer perfection tucked between the best crust you’ll ever have. Big promises, I know. But this pie lives up to it. This should really be the master recipe for anyone who wants to make pie and is a little scared — it’s not only easy but also has some fail-safe steps that ensure success. (See the complete recipe on this week’s hosts: That Skinny Chick Can Bake and Manchego’s Kitchen.)

First, there’s the dough. As per most good pie dough recipes, this one uses part butter and part shortening (the butter ensures good flavor and the shortening ensures a flaky crust). This recipe makes enough for two double-crust pies. I considered cutting the recipe in half but realized this was the kind of thing that has gotten me into trouble with baking recipes before so I put my head down and did as I was told. I made the full recipe and froze the dough for the second pie. I made the dough by hand and it was a bit softer and wetter than the doughs I usually make — turns out this is what makes it so easy to roll out. Genius!!

While the dough was resting and chilling, I made the filling. The method for this filling was another revelation. I cooked HALF of the berries and nectarines with sugar and lemon zest and a bit of flour until thick and bubbly and then folded in the raw fruit and let cool. The result was the perfect jammy-pie-filling consistency that still has nice chunks of fruit. After the filling chilled I was ready to build.

This is where I usually get a little nervous — will the dough break? Will it be too sticky? Not this dough — it was the EASIEST roll-out I’ve ever experienced. The dough was soft and supple but not sticky. Success!! After filling the dough with the chilled fruit mixture and topping it with dots of butter, I covered it with the other round of dough and chilled the whole pie for about 30 minutes. The old me would have considered skipping this second chilling step thanks to that lack of patience I mentioned. But the new, better-baker version of myself knew better. So I let the pie rest, baked it for 50 minutes and was greeted with a gorgeous, golden pie with fruit filling bubbling through the vents.

Oh, and it tasted amazing, too! In fact, it was so good and so quickly gobbled up by my book club friends that I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of a cut slice. Whoops! The best part? I still have pie dough in my freezer and I’ll be getting peaches in my Farm Box next week. Peach Pie, here I come!!

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It seemed so simple starting out. I read through the recipe for French Strawberry Cake in Baking with Julia — this week’s assignment from TWD — and it was very straightforward. Bake a basic genoise cake, fill with berries and cream, frost with more cream and top with gorgeous whole strawberries. A grown up strawberry shortcake. I was all in. I reviewed the genoise cake recipe and got started — a simple cake leavened with eggs — how hard could it be? This is probably a good time to admit that even though I spend my days developing recipes and cooking for people  I am very much a hit-or-miss baker. And when it comes to cakes, it’s usually a miss. Maybe it’s the precision required in measuring the perfect cup of flour or maybe it’s the patience required in waiting for cakes to cool, but I’ve made very few successful cakes in my 18+ years of professional cooking. In fact I can count them on one hand. Despite these past failures, I went into this recipe full of optimism. Frankly, it just didn’t seem that hard.

So I sifted the flour, separated the eggs and whipped the mixture for the full 5 minutes until I had pretty lemon-yellow ribbons of batter. I folded in the butter, poured the mixture into a round cake pan and sent it off to the oven to bake. A mere 22 minutes later I had what seemed like a successful cake — the tester came out clean so I let it cool, wrapped it up and refrigerated it overnight.

But, to be honest, I knew something was amiss. Before refrigerating it, I noticed that the cake was awfully thin still — it had barely risen and was only an inch tall at best. The top of the cake was also very sticky. In my optimistic ignorance, I thought it would be fine after it cooled. Not so much. I decided to turn the cake into two rectangles to create some extra layers — I thought it would be fun to make a small rectangle cake instead of the expected round shape. To do this, I cut the round edges into straight lines, cut the cake into two even rectangles and that’s when I noticed something was very wrong.

The cake was rubbery and had a thin, gummy layer in the middle. In fact, everything about the texture was wrong: the top was spongy and super sticky, the middle was gummy and the bottom might as well have been the bottom of a shoe. One taste dashed any hopes I had of saving this cake — it was utterly inedible. The worst part? I have no idea why! Clearly I did something wrong with the eggs since they were solely responsible for making this cake rise. Did I whip the too long or not long enough? And why did the cake separate like that?  I’m hoping the other more seasoned bakers of TWD can explain the error of my ways. Part of me wants to give it another go and get it right. Part of me is thinking “What’s so great about cakes anyway?” Either way, I need some answers to have closure. Help!

In the meantime I ate the pain of my failure with a bowl of whipped cream and strawberries — nearly enough to make me feel better. But seeing as I’m two days late with this post, I was clearly still working through some feelings of shame. Whipped cream and berries only have so much power after all. If you’d like to try making this cake yourself, go to this week’s hosts for the full recipe — Sophia’s Sweets and Think, Love, Sleep, Dine — if you do better than I did (and I can’t imagine anyone doing worse), tell us about your success — I need pictures of what I should aspire to 🙂

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