Sunday, February 20, 2011

Giving Sweets a Savory Makeover

"We're hosting a surprise party with a tacky Fiesta theme, and were wondering if you could provide the desserts?" This wasn't a total game changer for me; I often find unique solace in tackiness - an inflatable moose is my idea of appropriate living room decor (Thank God I have a roommate with a sense of humor). My office was planning a going-away party for a beloved coworker; an individual with an impeccable sense of fashion and a knack for assembling classy gatherings. Thus, a tacky Fiesta was born: glittery palm trees, margaritas in plastic glasses, and paper mache piñatas made for a gathering that was everything but classy. I had two options: embrace the tacky and assemble cupcakes with marshmallow sombreros, or feature the unique flavors and spices of Mexican fare. While the former was highly tempting, I decided desserts that placed quality above frivolity would have a more lasting impact...but marshmallow sombreros would be cute, as a future project...
Two authentic flavors inspired my search: lime and chili pepper. Both play important roles in Mexican fare, as they are featured in a number of dishes. But how to pair the savory with the sweet? After endless Google searches and blog comparisons, I chose the following two recipes for the "Fiesta-style" party: White Chocolate Lime Cookies with Zesty Glaze and Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
I had used lime in baking number of times before, most notably in Key Lime Pie and 7-Up Pound Cake (lemon-lime flavored). Both recipes demonstrated lime's efficacy to balance the intensely sweet flavor of these desserts with a citrusy edge. They were also desserts in my upper echelon Unfortunately, neither would make for an easily dividable dessert, so I was back at square one. 
I then chose to do what any baker would: check the pantry and see what's already there. The answer proved to be just what I was looking for: white chocolate chips. From my experience, white chocolate always produces a much sweeter result than its darker counterpart, so the lime would pair quite beautifully. As for making it party-friendly, cookies were the easy answer. The original recipe calls for just the cookies; I added the glaze to give them a more festive appearance. Either way you choose, they are delicious! I baked these the day before and sealed them in an airtight container, then glazed them at the party itself. Enjoy! 
White Chocolate Lime Cookies with Zesty Glaze 
Adapted via EvilShenanigans 
Yields: 5 dozen cookies 

    1 cup unsalted butter, softened
    3/4 cup sugar
    3/4 cup light brown sugar
    2 eggs
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 teaspoon lime juice
    1 tbsp lime zest (about 1 large lime) 
    2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 (12 oz) bag white chocolate chips

Zesty Glaze (optional): 
     1 cup confectioners' sugar
     2 - 3 tbsp milk 
     1 lime, zested 

For cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two sheet pans with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl or stand mixer, sugar and butter until combined but not fluffy.
Add eggs one at a time, then add vanilla, lime juice and lime zest.  Mix to combine. 

Whisk together flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix into creamed mixture until just combined.  Fold in the white chocolate chips. Shape the dough into 1 balls, and place 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.  Bake for 10 minutes, or until the edges are golden and the centers are just set. Allow to sit on the pan for three minutes before moving to wire racks.

For glaze: (optional) whisk together milk and sugar in a small bowl until you reach the desired consistency. Using a spoon, drizzle glaze on cookies; sprinkle with zest and serve. 
Chili pepper, now that was the challenge. Spicy can either be the perfect compliment to a dish, or it can go horribly wrong. I wasn't about to give up, and knew there had to be some way to make it work. It was then I recalled an outing with some friends a few years back - we were visiting a local restaurant, and had ordered churros with chocolate dipping sauce. The sauce had a hint of cayenne, providing a tangible depth to the flavor that made for an irresistible dessert. 
So chocolate and chili it was, but I needed this to accommodate a crowd - churros and dipping chocolate would be a disastrous mess. My own OCD nixed the idea of cookies (I needed a contrast from the former recipe), but still wanted the bite-sized appeal. Funny thing, I had leftover cream cheese frosting from the Red Velvet Cupcakes I had made earlier that week - the idea of frosted chocolate led me to my answer: brownies. 
This recipe calls for three different spices: cinnamon, chili powder AND cayenne! While that sounds insane, the spices add more depth than spicy pain. One coworker, who claimed she hates spicy food, enjoyed them so much she went for seconds! I included original recipe for the frosting, just in case you who don't happen to have leftover frosting on hand...I just added cinnamon and a few tablespoons of milk to mine.  So that's it in a nutshell; maybe one day I'll settle for baking your standard chocolate chip cookies for events like this...maybe. 
Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting 
Adapted from 
Yields: 16 larger or 24 smaller brownies

Hot Chocolate Brownies: 
  ½  cup all-purpose flour
  1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  ¾ teaspoon chili powder
  ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  10 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1 ¼ cups sugar
  ¾  cup plus 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process)
  ¼ teaspoon salt
  ½  teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  2 large eggs, cold
  2/3 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting: 
  4 oz cream cheese, softened
  3 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  1 cup confectioners sugar (more if needed)
  2 teaspoons cinnamon

For brownies: Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides. Whisk together flour and spices; set aside. 

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl above a saucepan holding about and inch of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. (Anne note: this takes quite a while, it took me about 8 minutes to get a fully melted result). Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks gritty at this point, but don’t worry — it smoothes out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and spice mixture and stir until you cannot see them any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula (it’s thick at this point, just keep stirring…). Fold in the chocolate chips, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.
Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack before frosting.

For frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until fluffy. Sift confectioners sugar and cinnamon over cream cheese mixture, then beat at medium speed until incorporated. If the frosting is too thick, you can add warm water, a tablespoon at a time, until it’s the right texture. If the frosting is too thin, add more powdered sugar, a ¼ cup at a time, until it’s thick enough.
When the brownies are cool, lift up the ends of the foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Spread frosting over top of cooled brownies. Cut into 16 or 24 squares.

Friday, February 18, 2011

If Cupid's Arrows were Cupcakes...

Valentine's Day - a day where love is literally "in the air", as expressed through garish Hallmark Cards and heart-shaped boxes filled with unnameable chocolates (I always dread being the one who will choose the only chocolate filled with that fruity orange stuff, yuck!) Many have reserved this holiday for those with significant others, but I chose to break the mold this year and celebrate in a new style: champagne, roses, French cuisine, and three of my best girlfriends - now that's my idea of romantic. Anyways, about the cupcakes - these little beauties made their debut two days later for our office's birthday party. Remember that scene from Sleeping Beauty where the fairies turn an onslaught of arrows into flowers? Had they been Cupid's arrows, I imagine they would have turned into Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting.
For those of you familiar with my blog, you know this is one southern classic I've revisited in a number of contexts (both cake and cheesecake). But Red Velvet had yet to be featured in it most beloved, bite-sized form: the cupcake. Now for many, the "cupcake experience" is uninspired flavor disguised in a mound of frosting and confections. For me, a cupcake has endless potential: frosting variations, cake textures, flavor combinations, decorative ideas, and more - all in one petite sweet! These cupcakes were my first time using nonpareils, which (no shame here) I was REALLY excited about! I had been picturing these sugary pearls atop cream cheese frosting for weeks, and now my decorative dream had come true.
Like all red velvet cakes, this cake uses more red food dye than water in the Charles River, so be prepared to have a lot of extra bottles of yellow, green and blue lying around. On a side note: if anyone needs yellow, green or blue food coloring, I have plenty - just let me know. This recipe used FOUR whole bottles of red...I plan to invest in wholesale for future projects, a gallon should do it. 
Other than that, these cupcakes were delicious! I went for the classic Cream Cheese Frosting, and made the cupcakes slightly smaller than called for to ensure I had enough to go around. I made them the night before, then woke up early the next day to make the frosting and decorate the cupcakes before my morning commute. Enjoy!
Red Velvet Cupackes
Adapted via Joy the Baker
Yields: 2 dozen cupcakes

   - 8 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature (1 stick)
   - 1 1/2 cups sugar
   - 2 large eggs
   - 5 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
   - 4 (0.3-ounce) bottles red food coloring
   - 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
   - 1/2 cup buttermilk
   - 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
   - 1/2 teaspoon salt
   - 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
   - 1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar

Cream Cheese Frosting
   - 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
   - 6 Tablespoons butter, room temperature
   - 8 ounces cream cheese, cold (room temperature)

For the cake: Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In the bowl of a stand mixer fit with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Turn mixer to high and add the egg. Scrape down the bowl and beat until well incorporated.

In a separate bowl mix together cocoa, vanilla and red food coloring to make a thick paste. Add to the batter, mixing thoroughly until completely combined. You may need to stop the mixer to scrape the bottom of the bowl, making sure that all the batter gets color.

Turn mixer to low and slowly add half of the buttermilk. Add half of the flour and mix until combined. Scrape the bowl and repeat the process with the remaining milk and flour. Beat on high until smooth. Turn mixer to low and add baking soda and white vinegar. Turn to high and beat a few more minutes. Spoon batter into a paper lined cupcake baking pan and bake at 325 F for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center cupcake comes out clean. Let rest in the pan for 10 minutes, then place them of a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting: Beat the powdered sugar, cinnamon, and butter together in the bowl of a stand mixer fit with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium-slow speed until it comes together and is well mixed. Add the cream cheese all at once and beat on medium to medium-high until incorporated. Turn the mixer to medium-high and beat for 5 minutes, or until the frosting becomes light and fluffy. Do not over-beat as the frosting can quickly become runny.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The French Chef Brings a French Masterpiece

Neither elegant nor provincial, Julia Child is a woman whose merits will outlive many generations. Her efforts brought otherwise unheard of techniques to everyday cooking, and has inspired some of today’s greatest culinary minds. I have always had a particular affinity towards Julia: her profound understanding of the French style combined with the humility of a New England domestic gave her cookbooks their irresistible charm. The ending of Julia's memoir, My Life in France, beautifully captures her (and my) idea of a life worth living: "...the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite - toujours bon appétit!" Having successfully tested several of her savory dishes (most notably the Coq a Vin), I was pining for an opportunity to try one of her sweeter classics. Such an opportunity arose when a colleague of mine suggested a dinner party to celebrate America’s first culinary star, and asked that I provide the dessert. Given that the main course would be Julia's celebrated bœuf bourguignon, and that there would only be 7 or 8 of us, I needed a dessert that was rich yet modest. 
I have a small confession: I own over 40 cookbooks, and close to 100 cooking magazines, and almost ALL the recipes I use are from online!? Don't get my wrong, a number of my inspirations have been derived from this massive collection, but I then search for modified versions online. This is both a waste of valuable resources and of shelf space. As such, I have vowed to reference my books more often (especially considering half of the baking blogs I peruse cite these very books themselves). This dinner party was the perfect opportunity, seeing as how I own several Julia Child cookbooks (her most famous depicted in the photo above). Flipping through the pages of my personal favorite, The Way to Cook, I found just the cake: Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) Cake.
This single-layer cake was perfect: a gorgeous texture, with the melded flavor of chocolate and almond, infused with hints of coffee, then topped with a creamy layer of whipped ganache. Julia speaks of the beauty of French cakes, and how their simplicity is a remarkable contrast to the overbearing desserts of American households. She loved this classic so much, that it makes an appearance in three of her books. This cake sounded so simple and elegant that I had to make it...then I realized how this cake was anything but simple.
I highly recommend a thorough review of the recipe, from start to finish, before proceeding. There are a number of steps and techniques (and LOTS of mixing, shown above) that will be impossible to carry through without a full understanding of what comes next. All ingredients and tools should be pre-measured and organized, so that there is no pause during preparation. I thought I had botched the entire cake when I missed a step, yet quick thinking and careful supervision saved it. The result: one of the BEST chocolate cakes I have ever made. In other words, this cake is well worth the patience (Note: I have modified this recipe so as to make it slightly less intimidating - Julia's processes are great, but streamlining is a possibility, and will still provide a fabulous cake!) 
Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) Cake
Adapted via The Way to Cook, by Julia Child
Yields: 6 - 8 servings

   - 3 ounces sweet baking chocolate (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao)
   - 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate 
   - 2 tablespoons dark rum or strong coffee (I used coffee) 
   - 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
   - 1/2 cup sugar
   - 3 egg yolks

   - 3 egg whites (a scant 1/2 cup), at room temperature 
   - 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
   - A pinch of salt 
   - 2 tablespoons sugar
   - 1/3 cup blanched almonds pulverized with 2 tbsp sugar (in a blender or processor) 
   - 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (vanilla can be substituted, but not recommended) 
   - 1/2 cup plain cake flour (scooped and leveled) in a sifter/sieve set on wax paper

For starters: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and set the rack in the lower middle level. Butter and flour an 8- by 1 1/2-inch cake pan; set aside. Set out all the ingredients and equipment listed (CRUCIAL!) Break up the chocolate into a small heatproof bowl and add the rum or coffee; set above a pan filled with 2 to 3 inches of water; bring to a simmer - stir until the chocolate is smooth and glistening.

For starting the batter: Butter, sugar, and egg yolks. Cut the butter into pieces and cream it in the mixing bowl. When soft and fluffy, add the sugar and beat 1 minute, then beat in the egg yolks one at a time

For egg whites: (Note: Julia recommends wiping the mixing bowl with vinegar and salt prior to beating the egg whites - this aids the emulsification process - not necessary, though; she also recommends the egg whites be at room temperature). Using a giant balloon whip, or a hand-held electric mixer, or a mixer on a stand, start beating the egg whites at moderately slow speed until they are foaming throughout – 2 minutes or so. Add a pinch of salt (unless you have rubbed the bowl with salt before you started in,) and add cream of tartar – a stabilizer. Gradually increase the speed to fast (moderately fast if you have a heavy-duty mixer) and continue until soft peaks are formed. Gradually beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue until stiff shining peaks are formed.

For finishing the batter: At once blend the warm, smoothly melted chocolate and the coffee into the yolk mixture, then the almonds and almond extract. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Scoop the rest of the whites over the chocolate and, alternating with sprinkles of flour, rapidly and delicately fold in the egg whites.

For baking: bake the cake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F. Immediately turn the batter into the prepared pan, tilting it in all directions to run it up to the rim all around, and set it in the preheated oven. When is it done? The cake is done when it has puffed to the top of the pan and a toothpick plunged into the cake 2 and 3 inches from the edges of the pan comes out clean. The center, however, should move slightly when the pan is gently shaken. (Chocolate cakes of the French type should not be cooked dry.)

Remove the pan to the rack and let cool 15 minutes; unmold onto the rack. Let cool completely – 2 hours – before serving or icing.

Ahead-of-time note: May be wrapped airtight and refrigerated for 2 to 3 days, or may be frozen for several weeks. That limit is for the safe side. (Anne - I made my cake a day ahead of time, having placed a layer of parchment on the top of bottom of the cake, then wrapped it in parchment paper). French chocolate cakes are at their best when served at near room temperature – chilled, the chocolate is partly congealed rather than being softly yielding. 

For icing and decorating the cake: You may serve the cake simply with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, or with the soft chocolate icing described here and a design of whole or shaved almonds on top. 

Soft Chocolate Icing
For an 8-inch cake
   - 2 ounces sweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao) 
   - 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
   - 1 1/2 tablespoons rum or strong coffee
   - A pinch of salt
   - 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Melt the chocolates with the rum or coffee as instructed in “For starters” above. When smooth and glistening, beat in the salt, then the butter one tablespoon at a time. Beat over cold water until firm enough to spread. Turn the icing on top of the cake; spread it over the top and sides.