Friday, August 31, 2007

Another Work Birthday

This week, we celebrated another birthday at work. This time, it was mine, and we celebrated a week late because I was out of town on my actual birthday. Over the years, I've simultaneously tried to commemorate everyone else's big day while trying to conceal mine, but I guess that maneuver became untenable long ago.

This year, my colleagues Maureen and Krysta teamed up to prepare Incredible Chocolate Cake. As you can see from the photo Krysta so kindly sent me, it's a real showstopper. The cake layers are dense, with an almost flourless quality although the cake is not flourless at all. The layers sandwich a chocolate buttercream spiked with a touch of dark rum and a layer of raspberry preserves, and the cake is then covered with a bittersweet-chocolate ganache.

The cake was an enormous hit, and I lucked out because Maureen shared the recipe with me. I'm happy to have added Incredible Chocolate Cake to my collection, and a lucky guy to have had such a great birthday cake. (I now feel a lot less bad about not having gotten around to making my own birthday cake.) Thanks, Maureen and Krysta!

Cranberry Walnut Coffee Cake

To celebrate the first day of school, our friend Patti had a "drop off your kids at school and stop by " open house. Although I suspected that she'd have out an enormous spread of food (and I was right -- it included a lot of great fresh fruit and a terrific spinach strata), I could not allow myself to go empty-handed. As I'd pulled out Sally Sampson's Bake Sale Cookbook for other purposes, I had it available and saw a recipe for Cranberry Walnut Coffee Cake. Her recipe is based on one from Sarah Leah Chase's Open House Nantucket Cookbook. I've actually made that version of this coffee cake before, so I knew it was good. Luckily, I had a bag of cranberries in the freezer, so I was able to avoid having to use dried cranberries in the coffeecake. With a rich, sour-cream-based cake layer topped with cranberries and a nutty struesel, this cake deserves to be prepared more often than I've made it.

My confession: I was in such a hurry (or maybe in such a fog from the cold I've had) to get the cake in the oven last night that I forgot to put the walnuts in the struesel. I don't think it hurt the cake at all.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sour Cream Milk-Chocolate Chip Pound Cake

I got back from vacation just in time for a work birthday. Because I was still in the midst of post-vacation frenzies, I needed a reliable recipe that would make a big cake that would assemble quickly and still allow me time to mow the lawn. Driving home Monday night, I decided to make the Deep Chocolate Pound Cake my friend Ryan had had for his birthday. It’s a recipe from Lisa Yockelson’s Chocolate Chocolate.

Unfortunately, when I got home and pulled out the recipe, I discovered that it called for milk. I had no whole milk in the house, and I didn’t feel like going out to buy any. Trusting Lisa, I turned through pages of pound-cake recipes until I found one that had ingredients I actually had in the house. I landed on Sour Cream Milk-Chocolate Chip Pound Cake (because I did have sour cream and milk chocolate chips at hand).

All in all, this cake was enormously pleasing. It’s dense, and the milk-chocolate chips give the cake a mellow, candyish flavor. Not all milk chocolate is bad. Just bad milk chocolate is bad.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Bakery Tour of the Upper Midwest

Since we've been on vacation for the past week, I've been indulging in bakery visits along the way as opportunities have arisen. Here's the rundown.

1. Norske Nook, Osseo, Wisconsin. Our first day of vacation, we traveled from Minneapolis to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where we had a terrific dinner with my college friend Sue and her two kids, Katie and Jack. When Sue pulled out a dessert of blueberry crumb pie from Norske Nook, I nearly fell over. I'd never had Norske Nook pie, and I secretly harbored an itinerary delusion that somehow, we'd end up going past the restaurant so that I could snag a piece of their renowned pie. This blessing of pie was a good omen for the rest of the vacation. Thanks, Sue!

2. Dessert First Bakery Cafe, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. A zillion years ago, I went to college in Eau Claire. I spent much time anticipating taking a nice run around town, getting to see old sights and discover what had changed. Things gone? The hideous fried-chicken restaurant I worked at for a couple of months one summer, the former layout of the children's department of the public library (where I worked after the chicken restaurant), the street layout where one of my old apartments was, much of downtown Eau Claire. Things new? A gorgeous downtown park, a miles-long bike- and runner-friendly trail hugging the Chippewa River, and a new dessert spot right across the street from the Ramada hotel downtown. Even better, I got to be among the first customers of Dessert First Bakery Cafe because we happened to be in town on their opening day. Their selection was somewhat limited on day one, but I was enormously pleased with the chocolate mint cookie and mocha cupcake I got there. I hope that the next time I'm in Eau Claire, I'll get to sample from their planned full assortment of cupcake flavors.

3. Dan's Bakery & Coffee Shop, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. Whilst driving across Minnesota on a rainy Saturday, we were zipping through the town of Sleepy Eye. My eye, however, was not sleepy when I espied Dan's Bakery & Coffee Shop. I picked up a couple of bags of cookies (peanut blossoms and M&M cookies); both provided vital sustenance during our travels.

4. Lange's Cafe, Pipestone, Minnesota. I'd seen Lange's referenced at Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood web site. They raved about a beef sandwich at Lange's (no beef for me, thanks) and also raved about the sour cream raisin pie. When I realized we'd be in the area to visit Pipestone National Monument, I knew we'd have to eat at Lange's. The dinner (a super-loaded grilled cheese) was fantastic and left no room for dessert. So we got pie to go: lemon meringue for me, French silk for Claire, and a cinnamon roll for Karen. Lange's: definitely worth the stop.

5. Hagman's Bakery, Brookings, South Dakota. When I went running Sunday morning, my goal was to find Hagman's. Brookings' downtown isn't too big, and a nice run from the hotel got me there. On a Sunday morning, their bakery selection seemed limited, so I got a cinnamon roll. It was a totally OK cinnamon roll, but I didn't eat much of it. I think it may have looked better than it tasted. Or maybe I wasn't really craving a cinnamon roll.

6. A Piece of Cake, Rapid City, South Dakota. En route to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we drove past A Piece of Cake. This quaint spot is more of a small teahouse or lunch place than a bakery, but the assortment of baked goods was worth the stop. I tried an apple maple roll, which consisted of an apple filling inside a crispy, maple-glazed rolled crust. Think of a churro, but filled with apple. I liked it enough, but I think I'd have appreciated it more with a non-apple-pie filling. (My sense is that it was a canned filling.) I also tried a slab of banana-chocolate cake. The cake had a top layer (banana-walnut) and a bottom layer (chocolate), all coated with frosting. (I'm pretty sure it was vanilla buttercream.) Not bad, and it definitely gave me some ideas for cakes I could make.

7. Jerry's Cakes and Donuts, Rapid City, South Dakota. We stayed in Rapid City for three days, and for those three days, I availed myself of a nice running trail through a park along a creek. The first day through, I saw Jerry's Cakes and Donuts across the way and tucked the thought of going there into the back of my mind. As we were leaving Rapid City on Wednesday morning, we dropped in at Jerry's before heading to the Badlands. All I can say is thank you, Jerry, for some of the best doughnuts I've ever eaten. We purchased a selection of items from Jerry's: cake doughnuts, raised doughnuts, a cookie. I'm still swooning over the memory of biting into the chocolate-glazed, cream-filled long john I got; I'm also still mad at myself for sharing it with Claire. (Just kidding.) (Or not.)

8. The Cookie Jar, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We'd stayed overnight in Sioux Falls en route back to Minneapolis, and quite unintentionally drove past this bakery while we were heading out of town after an unplanned excursion to see the falls. It was a fortuitous happenstance. The Cookie Jar's salad-plate-size cookies are exceptional. I couldn't resist a sampler, so I got a big variety: chocolate-frosted chocolate-chocolate chip, chocolate-frosted chocolate, peanut butter-chocolate chip, frosted ginger, ginger, frosted sugar, Heath crunch, and a sour cream-raisin bar. The cookies are big and soft, definitely meant for sharing. Then there was a cinnamon roll -- and not just any cinnamon roll, but quite possibly one of the best cinnamon rolls I've ever eaten. Pillow soft, laced with a swirl of cinnamon, and capped with a luscious frosting, this cinnamon roll will stay in my memory as a benchmark.

9. Denny's Fifth Avenue Bakery, Bloomington, Minnesota. This bakery was up the street from our hotel in Bloomington. While they have a big variety of items in the store (cakes, cookies, doughnuts, breads), I limited my purchases to a couple of "wedges"(triangular doughnuts with a cream filling) and a chocolate nut roll (chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, rolled in chopped peanuts). The yellow-coated wedge has strawberry filling and a banana glaze; unfortunately, it tasted medicinal. The chocolate-glazed wedge, however, was thoroughly traditional and fairly tasty. The nut roll was fine, too.

10. Nestlé Toll House Café, Bloomington, Minnesota. In the Mall of America, amid scads of places to shop, eat, and play, you can find a couple of Nestlé Toll House Cafés. Plenty of cookies and brownies to choose from, along with beverages. Claire and I each had a mini-chocolate chip cookie sandwich (the perfect recovery food after a dozen roller-coaster rides), and I had a Butterfinger brownie. It was like something I'd make myself, a frosted brownie dusted with Butterfinger pieces.

Pre-vacation Baking

In a mad effort to use up some perishables before leaving for vacation, I made a batch of Cook's Illustrated's Double Chocolate Cookies and a banana streusel coffee cake from Sally Sampson's Bake Sale Cookbook. My friend Ryan has made the CI cookies before and recommended the recipe, and it was clearly with good reason. The cookies are immensely fudgy; I upped the ante by stirring a bagful of chocolate chunks into the cookie dough. After I started making the dough, I realized the dough needed to be chilled for an hour before baking. I ended up letting the dough chill overnight, with no apparent ill effects.

The coffee cake is instantly one of my turn-to recipes for overripe bananas. The cinnamon-spiked cake is incredibly moist. Between the streusel topping and the cake batter, I sprinkled a layer of mini chocolate chips. Cinnamon, banana, chocolate: great combo.

Banana Streusel Coffee Cake (my version)

For the topping
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold or at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts
1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips

For the cake
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 overripe bananas, mashed
1 cup and 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup buttermilk

Heat the oven to 375°F. Grease and flour an 8x8 pan.

To make the topping: Place the butter, sugar, flour, and cinnamon in a mixer fitted with a paddle. Mix until combined and crumbly. Add the walnuts, if using, and toss to combine. Set aside.

To make the cake: Place the butter, sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat until light, fluffy, and light lemon-colored, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. add the bananas and mix until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and mix until well combined. Add the buttermilk and mix until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and pour into the prepared pan.

Sprinkle the top of the batter with the miniature chocolate chips. Then crumble over the streusel topping. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until cake tests done.

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Just in case you have some prepackaged cookies sitting around, here are a couple of nifty recipes to try because what else would you do with a dozen Oreos or a bag of Milanos other than chop them up and use them as an ingredient in a cake, right?

Since I'd picked up Maida Heatter's Cakes book a couple of weeks ago, I'd been carrying it around, reading recipes and feeling inspired. I ended up trying her Oreo Cookie Cake. On its own, this cake would be a lovely, moist white sour-cream pound cake. With chopped up Oreos, it's got a little something extra. The Oreos didn't become soggy as I figured they would; instead, they stayed crunchy. I'm glad I chopped them fairly small.

Then there's the Milano Coffee Cake from Lora Brody's Chocolate American Style. In the intro to this recipe, Lora relates an anecdote about the origin of this recipe, in which an unfortunate bag of Pepperidge Farms Milanos sadly becomes a bag of crumbs. This misfortune led her to use the Milano crumbs as a streusel topping for a marbled chocolate and vanilla coffee cake. When I first read this recipe eons ago, I couldn't get past the idea that someone could possibly allow a bag of Milanos to become crumbs. Then I dropped a can of tomatoes on a bag of mint Milanos a few weeks ago. Sigh. The Milanos make a pretty good topping for the cake, although I suspect I overbaked this cake a bit even though I took it out of the oven five minutes before the recommended baking time. I think this cake would be nifty with a drizzle of chocolate glaze. Maybe I can try that the next time I have a Milano accident.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Rediscovering Maida Heatter

Today we celebrated my boss's birthday. His actual birthday was last Friday, but I had the day off. Celebration deferred.

For all other work birthdays, I bake what catches my eye or what I feel like preparing. For Kevin, I go out of my way to find something that sublimely blends chocolate and peanut butter, one of his favorite flavor combinations. (To be sure, I've never heard anyone complaining about the various dynamic-duo combos I've brought in for Kevin's birthday.) This year, I was feeling a little stumped. I hadn't found a recipe that caught my eye. I browsed one cookbook and saw recipes for peanut-butter mousse and chocolate mousse, then toyed with the idea of mini-refrigerator cakes (the mousses stacked with chocolate wafers). Then the leading contender became a peanut-butter mousse cake recipe from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book.

Eventually, I started browsing my stack of supplementary baking books and flipped to the index of Cakes by Maida Heatter. It's one of her compilation books (companion to Pies & Tarts and Cookies). Although I have several Maida Heatter cookbooks, the only recipe of hers that I can remember making is her legendary Palm Beach Brownies (with their insane preparation technique, baked at 425F). These brownies are great, and I've made them several times.

At any rate, browsing the index of Cakes, I saw a listing for Chocolate-Peanut Butter Icing, so I figured I'd check to see what it was all about. Much to my utter delight, the frosting recipe was associated with the recipe for Chocolate Festival Cake, a monster of a tube cake featuring chocolate, bananas, and peanut butter. I felt as if I'd hit the motherlode and shouted out loud, "Maida Heatter, you rock!"

I am extremely pleased with this cake. It's a dense beast of a thing, overwhelmingly rich with peanut butter and chocolate goodness. The batter has mashed banana in it, but that flavor was unnoticeable, primarily because I had to use barely ripe bananas. The cake is slathered with a thick coat of chocolate-peanut butter frosting. The frosting was the only tweak I made in the recipe. It called for an egg. I didn't much feel like messing around with a raw egg in a frosting recipe, so I substituted 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Then I drizzled in enough additional heavy cream to give the frosting a nice consistency.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Summer Blahs

Heat. Humidity. Summer doldrums. It’s the saddest time of year for a baker.

I’ve been wanting to bake but, because of the weather, have been feeling slightly uninspired. Nevertheless, like a junkie needing a fix, I’ve made a few things over the past couple of days. (I apologize in advance for the lack of photos. Camera has started to act weird.)

On Tuesday night, after slogging through a lawn-mowing session, I made Chocolate Chip Scones, using a recipe from the King Arthur Flour Web site. The recipe called for their Mellow Blend pastry flour, and I happened to have a bag of it stashed away. The scones were nice and tender, but I think I patted the dough a bit too thin because the scones weren’t as tall as I’d envisioned them being.

Last week, during a visit to the library, I borrowed The Deen Bros. Cookbook: Recipes from the Road, the new cookbook/travelogue by by Jamie and Bobby Deen with an assist from food writer Melissa Clark. It’s a culinary voyage across the country, containing a mix of savory and sweet recipes. Last night, I tried a couple of things that had caught my eye, both recipes from Butters Brownies in Austin, Texas. The first, espresso brownies, are superb. The batter went together nicely and had a good coffee flavor. The brownie baked a lot faster than the recipe indicated, though, done at more along the lines of 30 minutes instead of the 35 to 40 that was directed. After the brownie has cooled, it's finished off with a batch of espresso and Kahlua-laced icing. Brilliantly excessive.

Then I made a batch of brownie cupcakes. Their recommended baking time was 12 minutes, but even after 16 minutes in the oven, they were underdone. It seemed like 18 to 20 minutes was more appropriate. Perhaps the baking times should have been averaged between the two recipes. These cupcakes are for Karen to take along on a work picnic.

There are a couple of work birthdays coming up in the next 10 days or so, so I’ll either be baking (after having been hoping for cooler weather) or I’ll be working up some treats requiring refrigeration but not baking.