Monday, April 14, 2008

cranberry upside-down cake

I love cranberries and buy them any chance I get. The dried ones I devour immediately. The fresh ones, though, I buy and then leave in the fridge and eventually throw out, because I don't know what one does with fresh cranberries, and I'm usually feeling too lazy to make a smoothie. (For some reason, while I'm willing to spend hours and hours on a cake, a smoothie or shake seems impossibly inconvenient. If I'm to have one, I have to bribe my husband into making them for me.) This time, though, I discovered something cranberry I wanted to bake--Dorie's Cranberry Upside-Down cake. I cross my fingers and went to the fridge to check out the cranberries. There were a few bad ones, but most of them still looked quite good, considering I'd had them for three or four months. So I washed them off and started on the cake.

I was delighted by the simplicity of the recipe. (I suspect I'll be saying this a lot--my favorite cakes come from Pierre's Chocolate Desserts, and with my amateur baking skills, none of them are simple.) The base is a small, mild spice cake. The topping is cranberries and pecans pressed into a mixture of sugar and butter brought to a boil and then poured into the bottom of the pan. After baking, you top the cake with red currant jelly. (Which was another delight--I'm a bit of a compulsive grocery shopper, so I've had red currant jelly in the cupboard for months with no specific plans for it. But suddenly, I had a recipe that called for red currant jelly [which I hadn't noticed until B pointed it out to be after the cake was done], and lo and behold, I had the jelly on hand. It is moments like this that reinforce my bad shopping habits.) The overall effect was that of a nice coffee cake.

We ate the cake while it was still warm. B didn't care for it--he doesn't like sour things, squishy things, having nuts in a dessert, and most spice cakes. I, however, loved it. The crackling sugar, the crunchy nuts, the plump, squashy berries, the soft cake, and the contrast of sweet and tart, balanced with the background flavor of cake. It tastes like Christmas, and I could happily eat it for breakfast every day.

I could happily eat this for breakfast every day. I'm sad knowing that after I use my last few cranberries (only half as many as I need), I won't get any more of this cake until fall, since I haven't been doing the smart thing that Dorie does and stashing bags of cranberries in my freezer while they're in season.

Cranberry Upside-Downer (Baking from My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan)

1 C flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 C minus 2 TB sugar
1/4 C chopped walnuts or pecans
2 C cranberries--fresh or frozen (do not thaw if frozen)
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract or 1/2 tsp almond extract
1/3 C whole milk
1/3 C red currant jelly, for glazing

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put an 8 x 2" round cake pan on a baking sheet.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Sprinkle in 6 tablespoon of sugar and cook, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil. Pour this evenly over the bottom of the cake pan, then scatter over the nuts and top with the cranberries, smoothing the layer and pressing it down gently with your fingertips. (If you've used frozen berries and they've caused the butter to congeal, don't worry--everything will melt in the oven.) Set aside.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the remaining stick (8 TB) of butter on medium speed until smooth. Add the remaining 1/2 C sugar and continue to beat until pale and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition and scraping down the bowl as needed. Pour in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add half of the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear into the batter. mix in the milk, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Spoon the batter over the cranberries and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove it from the oven and run a blunt knife between the sides of the pand and the cake. Carefully turn the cake out onto a serving platter. If any of the berries tick to the pan, just scrap them off with a table knife and return them to the cake.

Warm the jelly in a small saucepan over low heat, or do this in a microwave oven. Gently brush the glaze over the hot cake.

corn muffins

Because my husband loves corn muffins, I decided I'd give Dorie's recipe (from Baking) a try. Neither of us likes chunks of corn in our cornbread, so I left out the can of corn and skimped a little on the flour to compensate for the left out moisture. I also didn't use corn oil, just plain old vegetable oil. So mine weren't really the corniest corn muffins.

The muffins were quick and easy to make, and we both liked the flavor. They weren't quite as sweet as we like our cornbread, so I'll probably add more sugar next time. It's hard to really judge them, though. I ate one, my husband ate one, and the dog stole the rest out of the bag while we were in bed. (Our dogs love muffins, and they have quite a talent for extracting them from small holes in packages.)

Corniest Corn Muffins (adapted from Baking, Dorie Greenspan)

1 C all-purpose flour
1 C yellow cornmeal
6 TB sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C buttermilk
3 TB unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 TB oil
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk

Center a rack in the oven. Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter or spray the 12 molds in one regular-size muffin pan or use paper muffin cups. Place the pan on a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, whisk the buttermilk, melted butter, oil, egg, and yolk together until well blended. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend. Don't worry about being thorough--the batter will be lumpy. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, or until muffins pass the knife test. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before removing muffins.

chocolate caramel slice

I've been eying a chocolate caramel slice recipe in a book from mum-in-law for a year now. This week, I finally made it for a party . It's a very straightforward recipe. A shortbread crust, a thick layer of caramel, and a tiny layer of three kinds of chocolate, poured in stripes and then marbeled. I had my doubts--could any shortbread recipe compared to that of the America's Test Kitchen's New Best Recipes? Would the miniscule amount of chocolate even be noticeable?

The shortbread came together quickly. I had some issues with the caramel--it never got quite as dark as I wanted it to, yet I ended up with a pan full of burned bits. Thank goodness for strainers. Nor did the milky caramel taste quite as strong as I wanted it to. The chocolate worked out just fine, although I didn't smooth the caramel layer as thoroughly as I'd've liked.

When I tried the slice, I was pleasantly surprised. The shortbread was just fine. The caramel had a pleasant texture and a nice, quiet flavor. The small amount of chocolate prevented it from overwhelming the caramel. I'll definitely be making these again, although I'll increase the amount of chocolate just a bit, and perhaps use my beloved ATK shortbread recipe.

I also, uh, dropped my camera in a ramekin full of melted chocolate taking these pictures:

Marbled Caramel Chocolate Slice (Cookies, Catherine Atkinson et al.)

2 1/4 C flour
scant 1/2 C superfine sugar
3/4 C sweet butter, softened

7 TB sweet butter, diced
scant 1/2 C light brown sugar
2 x 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk

3 1/2 oz semisweet chocolate
3 1/2 oz milk chocolate
2 oz white chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line and lightly grease a 13 x 9" jelly roll pan. Put the flour and superfine sugar in a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Work with your hands until the mixture forms a dough.

2. Put the dough into the prepared pan and press it out with your hand to cover the base. Then use the back of a spoon to smooth it evenly into the pan. Prick all over with a fork and bake for about 20 minutes, or until firm to the touch and very light brown. Set aside and leave in the pan to cool.

3. To make the filling, put the butter, brown sugar and condensed milk into a pan and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stirring constantly, bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture very gently, stirring constantly, for about 5-10 minutes, or until it has thickened and has turned a caramel color. Take care that the mixture does not burn on the base of the pans, as this will spoil the flavor. Remove from the heat.

4. Pour the filling mixture over the cookie base, spread evenly, then leave until cold.

5. To make the topping, melt each type of chocolate separately in a microwave or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of hot water. Spoon lines of semisweet and milk chocolate over the set caramel filling.

6. Add small spoonfuls of white chocolate. Use a skewer to form a marbled effect on the topping.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Last night, I tried making Pierre Herme's macaroons (from that most wonderful of books, Chocolate Desserts). As you can tell from my choice of verb, I failed. But this was the tastiest failure I've had in the kitchen.

The process:

I separated the eggs, putting the whites in a bowl and then putting that bowl in a bowl of hot water to bring the whites to room temperature more quickly. While they were warming up, I started making my almond flour. Pierre recommends putting the confectioner's sugar and cocoa in the food processor with the almonds. (I didn't have confectioner's sugar, so I just used powdered sugar. And admittedly, I was sloppy about measuring it.) The sugar prevents the almonds from turning to butter from you grind them. You're supposed to grind the almonds for three to five minutes to get them fine enough. Then you push everything through a medium sieve (strainer? can't remember).

Well, it took me closer to half an hour to grind my almonds. The problem is that I simply don't have a big enough food processor to fit all of that in at once and get it to grind the almonds effectively. So after grinding everything in batches, mixing it together, and discovering the almonds were still quite gritty, I sifted the sugar and cocoa back out into a separate bowl, and dumped the almonds in in small batches. They did end up a bit buttery, but I just rubbed the paste through the mesh and it worked well.

As directed, I ran my metal bowl under warm water to heat it up for the egg whites. I whipped them on low until they were quite foamy, then turned up the speed and beat them to not-quite-hard peaks. I stirred in the dry ingredients, and that was where I began to worry. There were an awful lot of dry ingredients. But Pierre's instructions said not to be afraid of this, just to add them all. So I did. But instead of coming out thin and cake batter-like, my macarons were fairly thick. Not quite brownie batter, but much thicker than cake.

I scooped the batter into a pastry bag. Since the directions didn't specify tip size and I had no idea [edit: only, turns out, it is actually included in the recipe--I'm going to be learning a lot about why my baking fails by typing out the recipes], I decided to leave the bag with no tip. This was a bad idea—the batter dripped out one end while I was putting it in the other. I was to pipe 1" circles onto parchment covered insulated baking sheets. Or, lacking insulated baking sheets, I was to stack baking sheets one on top of the other. However, I could only find two of my baking sheets, so I had entirely uninsulated sheets. I tried piping rounds. I think I got at least one that was a circle 1" in diameter. Then there were ovals of 2.5" x 2" and large circles and a bunch of run-together batter. And they were all flat as can be (not unlike the divinity I made as a kid, actually). This did not bode well. The next step was to knock the air out of the macarons to create the feet. There was no air to be knocked out of these, but I figured I might as well follow the directions. Which would have worked much better if I'd finished reading them.

After preheating the oven to 425 while the cookies set up, the cookies go in for 10-12 minutes. You immediately turn the oven down to 350 and prop the door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon. Well, I missed that part. So my first batch of cookies baked for several minutes at 425. They were not only flat but a bit cracked and crunchy, with parchment paper stick to the tops of a few where I'd forgotten to trim it. Fortunately, I had read the directions before baking the second batch, so they turned out softer. But none had feet or little domes. Most of them looked like overbaked homemade oreos. A few were slightly puffy.

The next step is to pour hot water under the parchment paper to loosen the cookies from it and make them a bit soft. This step made me nervous. Shouldn't this result in soggy cookies? Well, I tried it, and except for where I got distracted and poured the water on the parchment instead of under, it resulted in nice, soft cookies that came off the parchment nicely.

I filled my little misfits with milk chocolate coconut-flavored ganache that I had pulled out of the freezer intending to throw out. It had been there since Christmas and I thought it would be freezer burned. Luckily, I tasted it before throwing it out. It went nicely with the cookies, which had a pleasant chewy feel and only a few bits of noticeably gritty almond. I've never eaten macarons, so I don't know how far off mine were in texture. We enjoyed them, though. Only two lasted long enough to get the overnight in the fridge treatment Pierre says they need.

Chocolate Macaroons (Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, Dorie Greenspan)

1 1/3 C finely ground almond powder
2 C + 2 TB confectioner's sugar
1/4 C Dutch-processed cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona, plus more for dusting
1/2 C egg whites

1. Line two large insulated baking sheets with parchment paper, or line two regular baking sheets and put each one on top of another baking sheet. Fit a large pastry bag with a plain 3/8-in. or 1/2-in. tip. Set these aside for the moment.

2. If you've got almond powder, just sift it with the confectioners' sugar and cocoad. If you're starting with almonds, place the almonds, sugar, and cocoa in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the mixture is as fine as flour, at least 3 minutes. Stop after every minute to check your progress and to scrape down the sides of the bowl. This is not a quick on-and-off operation. Although the almonds may look as though they're pulverized after a minute or so, they won't be: The nuts really need 3 to 5 minutes to be ground to a powder or flour. When the almonds are ground, using a wooden spoon, press the mixture through a medium strainer.

3. For this recipe to succeed, you need 1/2 of egg whites, which means using 3 large egg whites plus part of a fourth white. The easiest way to get a portion of a white is to put the white into a cup, beat it lightly with a fork, and then measure out what you need. once the eggs are measured, they need to be brought to room temperature so they can be beaten to their fullest volume. You can leave the whites on the counter until they reach room temperature, or you can put them into a microwave-safe bowl and place them in a microwave oven set on lowest power; heat the whites for about 10 seconds. Stir the whites and continue to heat them--still on lowest power--in 5-second spurts until they are about 75 F. If they're a little warmer, that's okay. To keep the eggs warm, run the mixer bowl under hot water. Dry the bowl well, pour the whites into the bowl, and fit the mixer with the whisk attachment.

4. Beat the egg whites at low to medium speed until they are white and foamy. Turn the speed up to high and whip them just until they are firm but still glossy and supple--when you lift the whisk, the whites should form a peak that droops just a little. Leave the whites in the mixer bowl or transfer them to a large bowl and, working with a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients gently into the whites in three or four additions. It will seem like a lot of dry ingredients to go into a relatively small amount of whites, but keep folding and you'll get everything in. Don't worry if the whites deflate and the batter looks a little runny--that's just what's supposed to happen. When all the dry ingredients are incorporated, the mixture will look like a cake batter; if you lift a little with your finger, it should form a gentle, quickly falling peak.

5. Spoon the batter into the pastry bag and pipe it out onto the prepared baking sheets (to keep each sheet of paper steady, "glue" it down by piping a bit of batter at each corner of the baking sheet): Pipe the batter into rounds about 1 in. in diameter, leaving about an inch between each round. (Because you're going to sandwich the baked cookies, try to keep the rounds the same size.) When you've piped out all the macaroons, lift each baking sheet with both hands and then bang it down on the counter. Don't be afraid--you need to get the air out of the batter. Set the baking sheets aside at room temperature for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven.

6. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 F.

7. You should bake these one pan at a time, so dust the tops of the macaroons on one pan with cocoa powder and slide one of the sheets into the oven. As soon as the baking sheet is in the oven, turn the temperature down to 350 F and insert the handle of a wooden spoon into the oven to keep the door slightly ajar. Bake the macaroons for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they are smooth and just firm to the touch. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and turn the oven heat back up to 425 F.

To remove the macaroons from the parchment--they should be removed as soon as they come from the oven--you will need to create moisture under the cookies. Carefully loosen the parchment at the four corners and, lifting the paper at one corner, pour a little hot water under the paper onto the baking sheet. The water may bubble and steam, so make sure your face and hands are out of the way. Move the parchment around or tilt the baking sheet so that the parchment is evenly dampened. Allow the macaroons to remain on the parchment, soaking up the moisture, for about 15 seconds, then peel the macaroons off the paper and place them on a cooling rack.

8. When the oven is at the right temperature, repeat with the second sheet of macaroons. Remove from the parchment as directed above.

[edit: As my husband so helpfully demonstrated, you can bring this recipe to a whole new level by reading the egg white section in a seductive voice.]