Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes

This year, I was not called upon to make 300-plus cupcakes for the Girl Scout troop's Princess Tea Party. I found a couple of boxes of cake mix left over from last year's extravaganza and decided to use one of them to make a treat for this week's PLTI class. These cupcakes are made from a devil's food cake mix, a can of cherry pie filling, some almond extract, a couple of eggs, and some chocolate chips.

Cherry pie filling is pretty nasty, acrid stuff, although the nastiness is mitigated somewhat if you happen to find a couple of cans of it for 99 cents each on the grocery-store closeout rack. For the frosting, I followed the Anne Byrn's recommendation for the Martha's Chocolate Icing. It's a cooked frosting (sugar, butter, and milk heated until the sugar melts, then combined with chocolate chips). I made a double batch of it and used some to glaze the Chocolate Syrup Swirl Cake for Lost Lunch Thursday.

Chocolate Syrup Swirl Cake

A couple of months ago, we stopped for dinner at Cracker Barrel. We seem to find it impossible to get out of Cracker Barrel without buying something in the gift shop, whether it's Moon Pies, candy, or some other crazy thing. This trip, I started flipping through a spiral-bound Hershey recipe collection that seems to be a combination of three grocery-store impulse-buy point-of-purchase cookbooks. Enough recipes seemed appealing that I ended up buying the cookbook.

One of the recipes that caught my eye was Chocolate Syrup Swirl Cake. After the batter is prepared, half of it goes in a Bundt or tube pan. The other half (2 cups) is combined with a cup of chocolate syrup and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. There's also an option to add a cup of shredded sweetened coconut, which I did. Also, I discovered that I had only about 1/2 cup of chocolate syrup left, so I balanced out the total volume with some coffee-flavored syrup. (Mocha!)

As the cake bakes, the batters swirl together.

All in all, this cake was pretty good. It's extremely moist. My only gripe was that the chocolate/coconut center was hard to slice neatly. Maybe it would be a cleaner cut without the coconut.

A Cake for Frank

Frank, one of Karen's colleagues, decided to retire after working at their place of employment for 30-plus years. Yesterday, a bunch of folks took him to lunch to celebrate, and I got to make his going-away cake. Since I've kind of been in the stout groove, I made another one of the Chocolate Stout Cakes. It's such a good cake: moist, rich, good chocolate flavor. It's also a reliable recipe. (Also, I still had four bottles of stout to use up. Now down to three!) I think I let the glaze cool too much before I poured it on the cake, though. It looks a little gloppy.

By all accounts, the cake was greatly enjoyed. Happy retirement, Frank!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Red Velvet Cupcakes

I had to make another batch of those red-velvet cupcakes because they were so good. The recipe makes so many that I had plenty for both Lost Lunch Thursday and for PLTI. Sweet!

A Disappointing Coffee Cake

I usually like Carole Walter's recipes a lot, and I was thrilled when Fine Cooking ran one of her coffee cake recipes in their holiday issue last year. I didn't make it then, but had it in the back of my mind. When I needed to make something for a skating-club board meeting last weekend, I decided to give this coffee cake a try. The recipe has three variations, so I went with the chocolate version.

Although I ended up liking aspects of the cake, I can't say that I loved it overall. Preparing this cake requires a major kitchen throwdown, calling into use the following gear:

• a saucepan for preparing struesel
• a bowl for combining struesel ingredients
• a bowl for combining filling ingredients
• a food processor for preparing the filling
• the KitchenAid, of course
• many measuring cups and spoons
• other pieces of measuring equipment
• the oven (natch)

After the cake batter is prepared, there's a fairly elaborate cake-assembly process involving layers of batter alternated with layers of filling, all topped off with struesel and a final application of filling — reminiscent of a babka, almost, I guess. I think it took me longer to get the cake ready to go in the oven than it took to bake it. I also didn't have the amount of batter I'd believed I would have to be able to assemble the cake according to the instructions.

After all that work, the final result was disappointing. The middle two layers of the cake were gummy — reminiscent of a bread pudding, I guess. (And that is not to disparage bread pudding, but I wanted a coffee cake.) I would like to say that I will try this one again, but I'm not so sure. Maybe. The top part was excellent, especially the struesel. In all, though, I felt underwhelmed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another Chocolate Stout Cake

When I hear the word stout, I don't usually think of beer. First, I think of the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menominee, Wis. (I went to college in nearby Eau Claire.) Next, I think that stout describes the shape I have taken on since the beginning of the year. Eventually, I get around to stout as in the dark beer.

A couple of weeks ago, the King Arthur Flour email newsletter included a link to a blog post and recipe for a chocolate stout cake. I was intrigued because the cake looked pretty awesome; besides, I'd already bought a six-pack of Guinness for a chocolate stout Bundt cake. I decided to make the King Arthur cake for St. Patrick's Day.

The process mostly went well; I had only a couple of gripes. First, the cake layers baked with a bit of doming, which meant that I had to level two of them before assembling the cake. (I am thinking that is because I used my thinner cake pans instead of the heavier-duty ones.) Also, if you choose the three-layer option as I did, I think you don't get quite enough ganache to frost the cake. (My instinct tells me that even if you made the cake as two layers, you might want to split and fill them; otherwise, that is going to be two extremely thick layers of cake. In that case, of course, you would definitely need more ganache.)

That said, the cake is great: rich and very moist. (You might expect that, of course, when you get to the second ingredient in the recipe: 1 lb. of butter.) I think that this cake might be good enough to become a St. Patrick's Day tradition.

Test Session

Several times a year, the skating club holds test sessions, which allow skaters to demonstrate their proficiency with skills that they learn in lessons. I think some of the skaters test because they want to compete (and level of testing determines what category you can compete in), and some test because they like the challenge of preparation, of learning new things.

Anyway, when we hold a test session, four or five judges attend to do the assessments. Because the judges do this service for free, it's tradition to provide them with a nice lunch. Since I am currently hospitality chairperson for the skating club, I get to do the food.

Last weekend, we held a test session. For lunch, I made split-pea soup with tarragon and lemon, and a fruit salad (honeydew, grapes, and kiwi with mint). Of course, I also baked: bacon-cheddar-chive scones, orange poppyseed pound cake, red-velvet cupcakes, and the aforementioned chocolate stout Bundt cake. (The orange poppyseed pound cake is a Nicole Rees recipe from Fine Cooking and was featured in the same article as the stout cake.)

OK, it was dessert-heavy, but it was nice to have extra to share with the skaters. The judges seemed pretty happy with the food, especially the scones. I neglected to take a photo of them before the test session, and by the time the session was over, they were gone! Instead of making eight large scones, as the recipe directs, I divided the dough in half and make 16 small scones.

I don't know what prompted me to make the cupcakes. I've been reluctant to make red-velvet cakes because -- cripes! -- a bottle of red food coloring? I've got to say, though, that this cupcake recipe is amazing. I am planning to tinker with it to see how they turn out with a bit of additional liquid in place of the red food coloring. I think they'd make an excellent vanilla cupcake.

Our next test session is in May. I think it goes without saying that I will have to make another batch of the scones. While that will not be a problem, I will be sure to stash one away for myself for after the test session.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chocolate Stout Cake

This Nicole Rees recipe first appeared in one of the Holiday Baking issues that Fine Cooking published several years ago. Since it contains stout and since we are nearing St. Patrick's Day, I figured it was time to revisit this cake. It's a great cake, moist and chocolatey. It calls for 1-1/4 cups of stout; unfortunately, the bottle of Guinness stout that I bought measured 1-1/2 cups of liquid. Thus, 1/4 cup was ladled out and discarded. (Although I enjoy beer, I am not a stout fan.)

Now that I've got five bottles of stout left to use, I guess I'll be making another stout cake (this one recently featured on the King Arthur Flour Web-site blog).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tropical Chocolate Chip Cookies

There is a conventional wisdom that if you change three things about a recipe, it becomes your own creation. Inspired by the chocolate chip cookies I made last week, I started thinking about flavor combinations that might work well in a cookie. A couple of days later, I made the dough for these Tropical Chocolate Chip Cookies. I am going to chalk this up as my first recipe (although I confess that it borrows heavily from the traditional Toll House cookie recipe, a cookie formula of classic and elegant proportion).

These cookies contain white chocolate chips, lemon zest, lemon juice, toasted macadamia nuts, chopped dried pineapple, and shredded coconut. I think they taste great. Ideally, they will be going to tomorrow night's PLTI class -- as long as I don't eat them all first.

(Recipe to come, as soon as I track down the notes I made.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Donut Dip

Whenever we travel to or through Springfield, Mass., I always look forward to the opportunity to visit Donut Dip, a small, local purveyor of old-fashioned cake and yeast-raised caloric goodness. Even though I knew we would get to stop at the King Arthur Flour Bakers' Store last weekend, I was looking forward more to Donut Dip. (Bonus: We got to stop there twice, on the way to Burlington, Vermont, and on the way home.)

Donut Dip advertises 49 varieties, but I don't think that includes their muffins or their fruit-filled bar cookies, which seem to be a New England bakery specialty. Donut Dip just sells good doughnuts. It's always difficult to choose a rational sampler at Donut Dip, but among other things, we tried both cake and raised doughnuts, filled and unfilled, glazed and sugared. It was all good.

Based on prior visits, I had hoped to get a meltaway, Donut Dip's version of a treat we first discovered at Bonatt's, a fantastic bakery and breakfast place in Harwichport on Cape Cod. Last weekend, they had no meltaways. However, they did have their version of the "dirt bomb," a treat we first discovered at the Cottage Street Bakery in Orleans on Cape Cod. The dirt bomb is a muffin with a cake-doughnut-like texture. After baking, it's rolled in melted butter, then in cinnamon sugar. (Yes, it's as good as it sounds.)

I also couldn't resist the allure of my very own Donut Dip T-shirt (photo above). If I'm going to be a walking advertisement for anything, it might as well be something I wholeheartedly endorse. If you're traveling through Springfield, make a stop at Donut Dip. You'll be glad you did.

Donut Dip is on Riverdale Road in West Springfield, Mass.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Last weekend, we were obliged to attend a skating competition in Burlington, Vermont. The theater-on-ice team debuted this season's long program, based on the story of the Rainbow Fish, and they looked pretty good, especially in their awesome costumes. (Did I leave the camera in the hotel room when we went to the rink for the performance? Why, yes I did. Fortunately, they have a few upcoming performances.)

Anyway, to celebrate the successful performance, I brought along a batch of chocolate chip cookies with orange zest and pistachios. The recipe is from Lora Brody's Chocolate American Style, but it's pretty much a straightforward Toll House cookie recipe with a few tweaks (pistachios, milk chocolate chips, orange zest, almond extract). I made the dough several days before I actually baked it, hoping to capitalize on the resting time to get a thicker, chewier cookie. Worked like a charm.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lime Bars

Last week, I picked up a big bag of limes from the dented-and-dinged rack at the store. I had used a few of them, but I could tell it was getting to be time to get rid of them somehow. Although I'd had something else in mind for Lost Lunch Thursday, I ended up making a batch of Lime Bars, using the Lemon Bar recipe from Emily Luchetti's Stars Desserts. The last time I made these bars, they were something of a disaster as the filling somehow seeped under the crust. This batch, however, turned out perfectly. I was actually a little skittish about using this recipe again after the previous batch, but I'm glad that they turned out well. I can now (re)elevate this Lemon (or Lime) Bar recipe back to my all-time favorite for this treat.

Lemon Anise Bread

The subtitle of this post could be "When things go wrong."

This recipe follows the banana bread recipe in Lora Brody's Baking Basics, and basically follows the same formula and technique. I knew I'd never made this bread before and was kind of surprised I hadn't. The flavor combination seemed really intriguing. In addition to the lemon and the anise, the bread contains a cup of chopped toasted slivered almonds.

As with the banana bread, the batter assembled well. When I took it out of the oven, though, the center of the bread had collapsed. The loaf also had the same coarse top texture that the banana bread had. Remembering something I read in Shirley Corriher's BakeWise, I have come to think that this bread is overleavened. It contains 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, which is maybe too much for 1-1/2 cups of flour and a cup of chopped nuts. The flavor is pretty awesome, though, so I think I'll try it again, but will dial back on the baking powder. Even if it baked out to a more pound-cake-like texture, it would still be pretty good.

Two Banana Breads

It was a race to the wire, but I finally managed to use up an entire bag of dented-and-dinged bananas. This coup was completed with these two banana breads. For the first one, I used a recipe from Lisa Yockelson's Baking by Flavor. This Banana-Cranberry Tea Bread has dried cranberries in a sour-cream enriched batter. I zested an orange into the batter, figuring that it would go pretty well with the cranberry flavor.

The second loaf is from Lora Brody's Basic Baking. For this loaf, I added the zest of a couple of limes and 1/4 cup of lime juice instead of the lemon zest and juice the original recipe called for, plus some toasted coconut. While I was relatively happy with how the recipe came together, but I was a little disappointed with the coarse texture of the top of the loaf. Also, although the recipe called for an 8x4 loaf pan, the batter was plenty enough for a 9x5 loaf pan. I'm glad I went with my gut instinct on that one, or I'd have been scraping up burned batter from the oven floor.

Both of these breads have been sliced and will go to this week's PLTI class.

Michele's Pies

Last Saturday, I was on my way home from Brooklyn via Stamford. I'd been busy all day in Brooklyn and didn't have the opportunity to make any bakery visits. As Claire and I were heading for home, driving north on Route 7 in Norwalk, I caught a glimpse of a man picking up a sandwich-board type sign on the side of the road. I said to Claire, "Was it just me, or did that sign say something about free pie samples?" She concurred, and I replied, "There must be a pie bakery in that plaza." I checked the clock on the dashboard; it read 7:55. I looked for the next available left-hand turn and prayed that the shop would be open til 8 p.m.

Much to our good luck, Michele's Pies in Norwalk was indeed open until 8, and I think we snuck in as the last customers of the day. I definitely wanted something but didn't want to commit to an entire pie. Lucky for me, Michele's carries small pies (probably two servings per pie, unless you're incredibly hungry). I ordered one pineapple crumb and one chocolate peanut-butter dream. In addition to pies, Michele's carries quick breads, savory pies, and cookies, among other items. Claire went for a couple of peanut blossoms, and I also got a couple of pumpkin cookies with cream cheese frosting.

The verdict? Very nice pies. The crust was incredibly flaky. Of the two I ordered, I liked the chocolate peanut-butter pie best. I really liked that the pineapple crumb was made with tidbits of fresh pineapple, but I kind of wished that maybe there had been something binding the pineapple bits together. It's a small gripe, though. Pineapple is a pretty unusual pie ingredient, and I loved having the chance to sample it in that use.

You can find Michele's Pies in the Town Line Center in Norwalk, Conn.

Banana Crunch Cake

Whenever I succumb to the dented-and-dinged banana challenge, I end up racking my brain to remember good banana recipes. One favorite I hadn't made for a while is Banana Crunch Cake from Elinor Klivans's Bake and Freeze Desserts. It's a pretty straightforward banana coffee cake; the crunch comes from a streusel sprinkled in the middle of the cake (applied after half the batter is in the pan) and then on top of the cake. The streusel contains butter, brown sugar, toasted pecans, and crushed dried-banana chips.

While the cake is good as it is, I like to add 3/4 cup of miniature chocolate chips because, really, you usually can't go wrong adding a bit of chocolate to a banana cake.

Lime Buttermilk Pound Cake

For this week's PLTI class (inspired by a bag of limes from the dented-and-dinged rack at Stew's), I went with Lime Buttermilk Pound Cake, a Maida Heatter recipe that appears in Baking From the Heart. The cake contains lime zest. Then, while it's still warm from the oven, the cake is brushed with a lime-sugar glaze. I lucked out and got to try a piece of the cake (there was a little left over); it's definitely worth making again.

This recipe also reminded me how much I enjoy Maida Heatter's recipes. Her manner of writing process is so comforting and welcoming. I need to unearth some of her books and rediscover them.