Monday, July 7, 2014

Chunky Monkeys

Sometimes when you don't spend a lot of a money on a cookbook, you luck out.  I picked up "The Cookie Bible" a while ago for only $6 when one of my favourite bookstores was closing for, based on how cute the cookies looked.  As it turned out, this recipe was delish too!

In addition to blueberries and lemon, the other flavour combo that's always a hit in my family is bananas with chocolate chips.  Add some walnuts and you can't go wrong in a cookie!  After making over 3 dozen, by late afternoon and family visiting during the day and send some home with my daughter and son-in-law, there were only TEN cookies left!  So much for my plan to share them with my co-workers. ;)

As usual, since it was the first time baking these, I followed the instructions exactly, even though I found the 300 degree setting for the oven very low.  The cookies took longer to bake than instructed, but they did turn out perfectly - soft and tender!

2-2/3 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup mashed bananas - use ripe, but *not* brown bananas for better cookie structure
1 egg
1/2 tsp banana extract, if you have it.  I don't so I used pure vanilla extract instead.
1-1/2 cups dark chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in bowl and set aside.  In a stand mixer, combine butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.  Add banana, egg and vanilla extract (or banana) and beat until just blended.  As usual, take time to scrape the bowl completely to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

Add flour mixture until just blended.  Slowly mix in chocolate chips and walnut pieces.  This will be a rather wet dough, so I used my tablespoon scoop with a glass of hot water to dip the scoop into between measures.  Space evenly on parchment lined baking sheets.  I was worried that the cookies would run together while baking, but they held their shapes nicely.

The recipe called for baking them for 20 minutes or until the edges were lightly browned.  At 20 minutes, I tapped a cookie from the first batch lightly and could tell it wasn't baked yet.  I gave them another 4 minutes and they were perfect.  My second batch was perfect at 12 minutes per rotation (i.e., switch the pans for even baking through the process).

For once, I didn't count exactly how many this cookie dough yielded.  I'm going to guess at least 4 dozen, but boy did they go fast!  My daughter commented that "these are dangerous because they're not that sweet, so you could eat 20 of them before you realized how many you had."  I'll take that as an endorsement to make them again.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Very Own Bag End

There are times in your life when you don't want to bake, no matter how much you enjoy it.  Deciding to throw your own fundraising milestone birthday party is one of them.

This year I reached the age 60 milestone along with a number of my good friends.  Originally I wasn't happy about it at all, so I wanted to turn a negative feeling into something positive.  I've been a supporter of Habitat for Humanity for a long time (and yes, I've worked on a build) so I decided to tie it into one of my other loves, that is anything Tolkien-related.  This gave me the theme for the party - Hobbits for Habitat!  When you reach this age in your life, you really don't need a lot of "stuff", so I asked my family and friends to donate to Habitat in lieu of gifts.  I have to say that everyone was very generous with their donations and I truly did appreciate the flowers I received on the day of the party.

My gift to myself was a custom Bag End cake.  If you know Tolkien, you'll know that Bag End is the home of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the two most famous Hobbits in Tolkiens books.  My girls have jokingly called me a Hobbit for years, given that I'm height challenged and if I could, I'd move right into Bag End if it existed in Toronto. ;)  This cake was my closest facsimile, created by Sam Anderson of Cakes Cove:

(Photo courtesy George Winter - thanks!)

You can see mini Bilbo and mini Bella Gamgee (me!) having tea and cake on their picnic blanket.  Those decorations are made of gum paste and will keep forever - I just have to find a little clear box to put them in, to keep in my kitchen.

Everyone was just blown away by the detail of the cake and the fact that the entire thing was edible.  The tree was solid chocolate, as was the rail fence, the benches in front of the door and the stonework around the door and window.  Everything was absolutely delicious - the combo of chocolate cake with mocha truffle filling was a real hit!  Deciding not to bake my own cake was probably the best party idea I had and I know that everyone appreciated it almost as much as I did.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Lemon Swirl Cheesecake

On Mother's Day Sunday, my daughter Sarah treated my mum, the family and I to a lovely brunch - it was all delicious!  I've been baking again and decided I wanted to make on Saturday night something sweet to end the meal.  Since I already had cream cheese at home, I decided to try a Martha Stewart recipe from the "Cakes" cookbook I bought and had Martha sign at the Delicious Food Show last October.

The last cheesecake I've made a few times with great success is Chocolate Peanut Butter, which uses two packages of cream cheese.  Silly me, I thought the Martha recipe would need the same amount - wrong!  Despite reading through the recipe for Lemon Swirl Cheesecake, I completely skimmed over the TWO pounds of cream cheese required - that's four packages! - until I was ready to add the two packages I had at room temp to the mixing bowl.  I decided to go ahead with the recipe, but adapt the amount of sugar used and hoped it would still work.  Of course, with only half the cream cheese, it was a lot lower in the pan, but very tasty.  The family loved it and said they'd like to have it again.

Ingredients for the Crust:
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar

Revised Ingredients for the Filling:
2 8-ounce bars cream cheese (I always use the "light" version)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, at room temp
1 cup Lemon Curd - I had a jar of Yorkshire curd at home, so I didn't make it from scratch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  I neglected to line the bottom of my 9" springform pan with parchment paper, as noted in the recipe, and I regretted it later.  It does help the crumb stay together when you're cutting slices, so I wouldn't skip this the next time.

Stir the crumbs, melted butter and sugar together and press mixture firmly into the bottom of your pan.  Bake until set, about 10 minutes.  Allow to cool *completely* before adding the filling.

Reduce oven temp to 325 degrees.  In your mixer bowl, beat the cream cheese until fluffy and smooth, about 3 minutes.  Reduce to low speed and add sugar in a slow, steady stream.  Add the salt and vanilla, beat until well combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each until just combined - do not overmix.  Make sure that you keep scraping the bowl throughout, so that all the ingredients are fully incorporated.  Pour filling over cooled crust.

Drop lemon curd in small dollops over top of filling.  To make this easier, I warmed my lemon curd in the microwave for about 10-15 seconds, since it can harden up quite a bit in the fridge and make this step a mess!  With a wooden skewer or toothpick, swirl the filling together over the top of the cake.

Now, since I don't use the Bain Marie bath method, I had my baking pan filled with water already set on the lower oven rack, to create the humidity required in the oven.  For this quantity, I baked the cheesecake for 65 minutes and allowed it to cool completely in the oven for at least another hour with the door opened.  I refrigerated it overnight and took it out before brunch to allow it to reach room temp.  It was garnished with fresh raspberries, which made a lovely sweet/tart combo.  Definitely a recipe I'll make again, even though I didn't use two pounds of cream cheese!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ombre Pink Lemonade Birthday Cake

This year my sweet daughter Sarah celebrated a milestone birthday, her 25th!  Sarah is not one for change, which means that when I ask what flavour of cake she'd like for her birthday, in the past it's always been one of two types - triple chocolate almond or boxed rainbow sprinkle vanilla.  You can't beat the classics, can you?  However, this year the answer was different - "surprise me!"  I said that I wanted to try a pink lemonade for a while and she thought it sounded good, so I gave it a try.

The first recipe variation I'd read about was from Better Homes and Gardens, but the bakers' feedback online was not good at all.  I've been cautious lately about new recipes, after my most recent failure, so I appreciate the feedback from other bakers.  I dislike recipes that are overly sweet and the BHG recipe called for marshmallow Fluff as the icing base - that is WAY too sweet for me!  Searching online I found a recipe from good old Betty Crocker, which had great feedback.  Although the recipe was for cupcakes, it was easily adapted into a layer cake.  Here's Betty's version of Pink Lemonade Cupcakes.

What you need (as noted in the recipe) is a white/vanilla cake mix and prepared vanilla icing.  The flavour comes from the frozen pink lemonade concentrate.  Once the batter was prepared, I tinted all of it pale pink and used half the batter for the first layer.  I added more pink colour to the remaining batter to get the darker colour for the second layer.  It was my first time using gel pink colour, which is so easy to use.  A little goes a very long way, so using a toothpick to add the colour was the best technique.  Once the layers were baked and completely cooled, I placed a line of toothpicks around the layers as the guide to slice them into two halves, to get the ombre effect.

The next time I make it, will add less of the concentrate to the icing, because it became too runny.  After icing the cake, I put it back into the fridge right away to set a bit.  Once it hardened, I added the pink pearl beads (actually crispy rice bits) to decorate the top.  The flavour and the decoration got rave reviews with requests to make it again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When great expectations bomb...

When I got the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook, I thought their recipe for Cream Cheese Crumb Buns (try saying that three times!) looked delish.  The one drawback about this cookbook is the lack of photos, so it was also a leap of faith guessing what the final product would look like.

After making them yesterday, I'm not a happy little baker.  The last time I made anything so tasteless was two years ago with Martha Stewart St. Patrick's day recipes.  The ingredient list for the buns looked good, but in hindsight, there was nothing with any defined flavour in the recipe.  The other thing that irritates me today - it took three prep bowls!

Here's the recipe, if anyone is willing to try it:
Cream Cheese Crumb Buns from Magnolia Bakery

The quantity was listed as 16 "large" buns.  When my batter was mixed and I used my large scoop to measure them out, they only totalled 12 muffin cup sized "buns".  Maybe I measured too much batter?  The instructions called for 10 minutes of baking, followed by 1 tbsp of cream cheese filling added to the top, to be "pressed" into the buns with a tablespoon.  When I tried this, the filling ripped!  I decided to top each bun and lightly spread it out.  I topped this with a generous amount of the crumb topping and held my breath.  Usually, when you bake a crumb topping, the result is a lovely, toasty brown.  That's what you get when you mix brown sugar and butter, melted at a high heat, right?  Not so this time.  The crumb was cooked, but not toasty enough.  I think the recipe called for waaay too much flour in the mix.

Because I expected to take them to my office, I used muffin liners in the tray.  They were cool enough after 15 minutes to lift out and I gave one a try.  I'm guessing that because it was still warm the taste wasn't too bad.  When I packed them up later in the evening, I tried another one, which to me had little or no flavour!  Buns, meet my green bin!  Here they are, in all their beige glory, right before they become future compost.

If I'm going to spend an hour baking something, I'd like it to have a great taste when I'm done, especially after using an 8 oz package of cream cheese and 1-1/2 sticks of butter!  I'm not even going to bother tweaking this to try for a better outcome.  It's just time to take the post-it note off that recipe page and move on to something else.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Stamped Almond Shortbread Cookies

Well gang, I think I'm on a roll again, baking *almost* every weekend!

I had seen this recipe on Pinterest for Valentine's Day and thought it would be fun to try when I remembered that I actually had a cookie stamp that was waiting to be used.  When you bake a lot, you end up with a lot of tools, some which sit neglected until you find the right recipe.

After pinning, I was cruising my favourite baking/food blogs and realized the pin came from Bake at 350.  They were bright pink for Valentine's Day, so that was an easy ingredient to skip.  I made a few alterations to the recipe - used regular salt, rather than Kosher and I doubled the amount of almond extract because I wanted a stronger taste.  My friends and co-workers loved them!  Sorry kids, I'll have to make them for you another time. ;)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tsps almond extract
2-1/3 cups all purpose flour

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350 degrees.  As I've said before, and I'll say again - use parchment paper!  These cookies are very delicate when cooling and it's not worth messing up all your work for the little bit that parchment paper costs.

In large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar, salt and butter together until fluffy.  Beat in the almond extract.  Scrape bowl to ensure all the sugar is incorporated into the butter.  On a low speed, add the flour, mixing until combined.  I always watch for the dough to pull cleanly away from the metal mixing bowl and stop at that point.

Roll dough into 2 inch balls.  Before stamping cookies, prepare a plate with flour to dip the stamp into, once for each cookie.  Even though my stamp is made of silicone, the dough will stick very badly without this step.  You can use a pastry brush to wipe off the excess flour, but I found just tapping the stamp onto the plate worked perfectly well.

Press the cookie stamp evenly into the centre of each dough ball.  There will be excess dough pressed out around the edge, which I trimmed off with a paring knife.  Once I trimmed the excess off the cookies, it was reused to easily make more dough balls.  The yield for this recipe was 15 cookies, which I didn't think was a lot, but given that they're 2-1/2 inches in size that made perfect sense.  I actually made 16, since my last was a messy "test" cookie for me to taste.  Since they are shortbreads they don't expand, so they easily fit onto the two baking sheets.

The recipe called for 12 minutes to bake, but my cookies felt very underdone (a light tap to the middle was my test), so I gave them a little longer and took them out to cool after 15 minutes of baking time.

One big cookie with everyone's coffee or tea made everyone very happy last week!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Nordic Ware - My favourite pans!

Anyone who has read my posts knows that I love making bundt cakes.  They're usually a one bowl recipe, can feed a crowd, keep really well and you can make them in just about any flavour imaginable.  In truth, I love most recipes that just take one bowl, like loaf cakes too.

A few years ago I discovered the joy of Nordic Ware pans.  This company created the origianl bundt pan and they've taken their creations to wonderful heights.  The pans are usually quite expensive, but when I find them on sale I snap them up!  They come in "standard" designs and flights of fancy for every conceivable occasion and holiday.  They're coated with non-stick finishes, but I never use them unless they've been liberally sprayed with non-stick coating.  I don't want to risk a cake breaking up when it's inverted to cool.  I've amassed quite a nice collection of these now and these are some of my favourites.

This was my first one was a real steal at Williams-Sonoma - I found the pumpkin patch loaf pan one December for $9.99, reduced from around $48!

My former boss was always very generous with gift cards at Christmas, which is why I didn't worry about a sale when I picked up the castle pan.  Both the girls and the guys in our family get a kick out of this one and it's been used for quite a few birthdays.  It looks really cute with flags on the tops of the towers and I'm looking for some knights in armour and a little dragon to use one day. ;)

In December 2012, Marshall's had reduced all their holiday items drastically, so I couldn't leave this one in the store, could I?  I used it back in early December 2013 with my triple almond chocolate cake recipe and just dusted it with confectioner's sugar for serving.  Really fitting for the season and the cake was rich enough not to need anything else, plus the details showed up really well with white.

(All photos courtesy

The gingerbread cake with orange glaze was made in my most recent acqusition, the "Heritage" pan.  It made the most crisp, lovely edges on the bundt cake and, even though the cake was very tender, it removed from the pan absolutely cleanly.  You can see the results in my previous post and I know I'll be using that pan as one of my "regulars" in the future.

I highly recommend all of the Nordic Ware pans and don't expect to stop buying them any time soon!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gingerbread Bundt Cake with Orange Glaze

This past December I was really looking forward to making gingerbread cookies again, but the ice storm had other plans.  I'll definitely be making them early this coming December!

When we had our belated not-Christmas family dinner in January, I decided I wanted to make something with gingerbread flavour and decided it would be a cake.  I didn't have any recipe on hand that I wanted to try, so I found a recipe on the Ziploc site.  Who knew you could find recipes on a packaging manufacturer's site, but it was tied into holiday foods, so I guess that makes sense.  I changed quite a lot about the recipe.  It called for a LOT of fresh, grated ginger which is a really strong flavour and one I knew I didn't want to overwhelm a baked cake with.  Cooking with fresh ginger is one thing - biting into raw pieces in a cake is one I didn't want to taste!

Here's my version:

Dry Mix:
2-1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2-1/2 tsp ground ginger
1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Wet Mix:
1-1/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed (I used light sugar, but either is fine)
1/2 cup white granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil (don't use olive, since it will affect the flavour)
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 large, room temp eggs
1 cup room temp water
1/2 cup unsulfured molasses (not blackstrap)

2 cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar
1/4 cup milk or orange juice - I used juice, for the concentrated flavour
grated zest from one orange, to decorate after glazing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare a 12 cup bundt pan with non-stick baking spray or butter and flour really well.

In a medium bowl mix together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt and all the spices.  Set aside.  In a stand mixer, combine the two sugars, baking soda, eggs, water, oil and molasses.  Make sure you measure the molasses *after* the oil, so it will easily slide out of the measuring cup completely.  I actually wondered why the baking soda was included in the wet ingredients, rather than the dry, but realized it's for the chemical action required to have the cake rise properly.  After the wet ingredients are completely mixed, add the dry mixture and mix well.  Make sure to scrape the bowl all the way to the bottom so everything is thoroughly combined.

This will be a very liquid bundt batter, unlike most bundt mixtures.  Because of this, after you pour the batter into the bundt pan, you will need to tap the pan several times on the counter to release any air bubbles.  Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer in the center comes out clean.  Although my oven runs hot, for this cake I actually did have to bake it for the full 50 minutes.

Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes before inverting and removing from pan.  Allow the cake to cool for 2 hours (no joke!), before glazing and decorating with the orange zest.

My family loved this!  I served it with whipped cream and they were happy to take leftovers with them after dinner.  It's another keeper that I'll make again next  year.