Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Am the Baker

For Reach the Beach relay this year, our friend John made us a snarky little CD with special songs for everyone. My song was The Baker by Aquabats; it includes the line, "A small vacation/I think I'll take/As soon as I bake/A chocolate cake." The six runner-passengers in Vantoo got an enormous chuckle from this song. (You can find it at iTunes if you're interested.) Anyway, I got home from RTB desperately wanting to make a chocolate cake. Go figure.

I made this Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake with a recipe from Hershey's. Nothing groundbreaking here. I've made variations of this recipe before. The cake is phenomenally moist. My only words of wisdom: If you make the cake and also the accompanying frosting recipe, double the batch of frosting. One recipe's worth is not enough.

This cake was a big-enough hit that Claire has requested it for her birthday cake.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Banana Snack Cake

The other day, I was lurking at Cook's Talk, the online forum at Fine Cooking magazine, and saw a thread for banana cake. That reminded me of the two overripe bananas on the counter at home. Much to my complete delight, someone at the forum posted a recipe for a banana snack cake that sounded pretty simple to put together. Before I took Claire to her Girl Scout meeting, I set out the refrigerated ingredients so that they could come to room temperature, and also assembled the dry ingredients. Then, while Claire was at her meeting, I made the cake batter, got it in the oven, and had the cake done before I needed to head out the door to pick her up.

This cake is very good. It's extremely moist and bakes up tall in the pan. You could eat it plain, I suppose, or if you happen to have any leftover chocolate frosting sitting around the house (I mean, seriously, who doesn't?), you could finish it off with that. I've been thinking that this cake could be really good split into two layers, filled with frosting and sliced bananas, then frosted on the top and sides.

Bundt Cake

Usually when a new magazine arrives, I turn the pages, think "Hey, I need to make this one at some point," then put it aside and forget about it. When the October 2007 issue of Bon App├ętit arrived, I took a look at the dessert feature by Julie Hasson and had to make Brown Sugar and Chocolate Chip Pound Cake with Maple-Espresso Glaze later that day. I ended up bringing the cake along for our weekend in New Hampshire for the Reach the Beach relay, and we managed to devour most of it in a couple of days. It seemed to be a big hit. From a baker's perspective, the only minor quibble I had was that the chocolate chips seemed to sink in the batter. Maybe next time I'll make it with mini-chips.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Morale Booster

Things have been a little hectic at Karen's work, so she asked me to make a work birthday cake for Ben, one of her colleagues. As it turned out, September 11 is also the birthday of another colleague, Robin. For their celebration and evening pick-me-up, I made them the ever-reliable Magnolia's Vanilla Cupcakes, only I made the batter as a three-layer cake. It's finished off with Magnolia's Chocolate Buttercream. Yes, I left the Hello, Kitty! water bottle in the photo on purpose. Does that qualify as food styling? Also, the three things sticking out of the cake are skewers. I inserted them to assist with the structural integrity of the cake. Our weather has been so disgustingly muggy the past week or so that nothing is setting up within normal parameters.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Reach the Beach

For the past four years, I've had the privilege to run Reach the Beach, a 200-mile relay race in New Hampshire, with 11 of my good running buddies. On Friday at 1:30 p.m., Becky will commence this year's event near the Flume Gorge in the White Mountains, and at some point on Saturday afternoon, Ken will scurry across the finish line in Hampton Beach. A good time will be had by all; new jokes will join the pantheon of one-liners; and as usual, everyone will go home with a goody bag of baked treats.

Since my ice-cream-making pal and teammate Ryan also likes to bake, we got together on a torrid September afternoon to prepare some treats for the Fellowship of the Bubblewrap's fifth Reach the Beach adventure. When Ryan and I are baking, each of us tends to prepare his own things. It's mostly just fun having company in the kitchen while baking is occurring.

On Saturday, I got things going with a batch of Chewy Orange Granola Bars from Chewy Cookies by Eileen E. Talanian. Last year, we made granola bars, and they were a huge hit. I have to admit that I tweaked this recipe from the get-go. First, I doubled the recipe and made it in a 9x13 pan instead of the 9x9 that was called for. Then I substituted dried cranberries for raisins. Also, I subbed a mix of whole toasted cashews and almonds for sliced almonds. Finally, since I had no orange to zest, I subbed a teaspoon of orange oil for orange flavor. Although they looked good in the pan, there were clearly problems when I attempted to slice them (photo above). I'm not sure what happened, but there was far more liquid than the granola could absorb. (Perhaps it was the unrelentingly muggy weather; perhaps it was the super-moist Bear Naked granola.) What to do? How about mix in about 2 cups of oats and rebake them? That seems to have done the trick (photo below).

Next up, Ryan made a batch of Chocolate Peanut Butter Surprise Bars from Tish Boyle's Good Cookie, which has become an often-used volume on Cookie Day (the Saturday in December when we spend upward of 10 hours making holiday treats). These bars have traveled to previous RTBs and, not surprisingly, have been a big hit. Seriously: Is it possible to go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter?

I then segued into Chewy, Chunky Blondies from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. I'm always leery of leavening in blondies and brownies, and this recipe was a good reason why. The blondies baked with a big puffed-up top crust that rose far above the batter, leaving the bottom and top thin and fragile, with a big air gap in between. These blondies were a bit of a disappointment.

Ryan, meanwhile, prepared Banana-Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies from The Good Cookie. Only he was leaving out a key ingredient: "Martha can't eat chocolate, so I'm making them without the chips." Of course, his point was well taken, but still. No chocolate in the cookies with "chip" in the name? As you can see (photo), I made a chipped cookie for my own personal enjoyment.

Next up: Chipster-Topped Brownies from the Dorie Greenspan book. These two-layer bars (brownie bottom, blondie top) turned out better than the blondies, although the chocolate-chip layer was thinner than I'd hoped. I've made other versions of these cookies (Abby Johnson Dodge, Kathleen King), and they were more balanced between the blondie and brownie layers. The Dorie Greenspan edition is far more brownie than blondie. That's not at all a bad thing, just a different thing.

Finally, Ryan made a double batch of snickerdoodles, using a recipe from The Good Cookie. We've made these cookies before (filed under the recipe Cinnamon Sugar Crinkles), and as ever, I jumped in to help out on these. It's a marvelous version of a classic cookie.

Now everything is in the freezer, awaiting packing Thursday morning and devouring over the weekend. (That's the Chipster-Topped Brownies in the photo.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Magnolia Doubleheader

Yesterday was just another one of those days where I figured I had too much on my plate. After I got home from work, I not only had to get Claire to a Girl Scout meeting (which I also thought I needed to stick around for in an effort to gather information for an upcoming weekend event); but I also had to bake for a work birthday and for a PLTI alumni meeting the next day.

Not knowing how much time I realistically had to work with, I decided to make cupcakes for the work birthday. I needed a recipe that worked and made a lot of cupcakes. Thus, I turned to the tried-and-true Vanilla Cupcakes from More From Magnolia. (This same recipe also appears in The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook and The Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook.) The published recipe yield is two dozen, but I always end up with 30 cupcakes from a batch of this batter. That would more than accommodate the work crew. I went with the Magnolia chocolate buttercream for the frosting, then sprinkled a little praline crumble on top of each cupcake for a garnish.

Then, after discovering that I didn't need to linger at the Girl Scout meeting, I zipped home and made peanut caramel brownie bars, also from More From Magnolia. I've also made these bars before. They're a layered concoction, with brownie at the top, with a layer of peanut-butter-chip and toasted-pecan-studded caramel below, all atop a graham cracker crust. I spent a few minutes racking my brain to remember what exactly it was that I thought I should do to the recipe after the first time I'd made it. I'm pretty sure it was to bake the graham-cracker crust before adding the toppings, so I did that. The bars are time-consuming to assemble, but I think they're worth the effort.

I managed to get all this baked, and the cupcakes decorated, and myself to bed nearly on time. Imagine my surprise, then, when I extended birthday wishes to my colleague this morning and she replied that her birthday is actually Friday, not today. Good grief. I've been late before, but never early.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Day in New Haven

For many Connecticut runners, Labor Day is not only a day off, but is also the day for the New Haven Road Race, a 20K event that serves as the national championships for that distance. I'd opted out this year, a fortuitous decision given the party that some overachieving virus decided to hold last week in my upper-respiratory and sinus system. Although I wasn't totally sure I'd be in shape even to spectate at this year's race, I felt well enough by Sunday and forged ahead so that I would not go empty-handed.

To share with my running (and non-running) buddies in attendance in New Haven this year, I prepared a couple of items from Lisa Yockelson's Chocolate Chocolate. First up was Cookie Crumb and Coconut-Swirled Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake. This recipe had caught my eye when I was making Sour Cream-Milk Chocolate Chip Pound Cake last week. As with all of Lisa's recipes, this one is detailed and clear, but I realized that I do have one gripe. She refers to the pan size required as a 10-inch Bundt pan, and I think that almost every other recipe writer calls it a 12-cup Bundt pan. Perhaps it's just me, but I tend to think of tube pans in volume sizes, not in diameters. I almost prepped a pan that would have been, like the Grinch's heart, two sizes too small.

On the plus side, the cake is fantastic: moist, rich, and chocolatey. The cookie-crumb tunnel (ground Oreos, coconut, and a bit of sugar) is a visual and textural counterpoint.

Next up was Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chunk Bars. These gooey peanut-butter based bars contain a bunch of chopped-up peanut-butter cups, chocolate chunks, and peanuts, then are topped with more chopped-up peanut-butter cups. To someone with a puritanical bent, these rich treats might seem excessive. The rest of us, of course, will be happy to indulge. I have to admit that I think there's something about this recipe that didn't quite work. Although I baked the bars for the full recommended baking time, they seemed underdone. At the same time, the bars were becoming fairly browned at the edges, and I feared overbaking. Should I make these things again, I think I'll try covering the pan with foil and baking them a few more minutes. They're super-gooey and taste great, but they're almost too soft to eat out of hand.