Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Cookies

My Christmas traditions for some time now have included single-handedly decorating a double batch of sugar cookie cut-outs, and individually dipping an entire bag's worth of mini pretzels in chocolate. I decided to abandon both this year, in favor of baking several new cookie varieties. I was inspired by the America's Test Kitchen Best Holiday Cookies 2010 issue, which included staples like Snickerdoodles and Russian Tea Cakes and recipes I've never seen before, like Texas Pink Grapefruit Bars and Peanut Butter Mousse Cups.

Like a crazy woman, I chose four recipes to try in one day, and accomplished them all. Here's the chronicle.

Cookie #1: Turtle Thumbprints

These turned out beautifully. The dough stayed soft and fudgy, and the pecan, cocoa, and caramel flavors balanced well. I did use the cream from the top of a jug of raw milk to mix with the caramel, and it produced a more liquid caramel than regular heavy cream would have. It tastes wonderful, but they are messy.

Cookie #2: M
acadamia Eggnog Creams

The unique ingredients in this recipe made it fun to prepare. Eggnog goes into both the dough and the rum-spiked glaze, and the creamy, nutmeggy flavor definitely shines through. The salty macadamia nuts add a nice contrast. The flavor is subtle and perhaps somewhat lackluster, but sugar cookie fans who also like eggnog should love them, and they were super easy to bake.

Cookie #3: Molasses-Sp
ice Lemon Cookies

These turned out to be my FAVORITE cookie of the day. The dough is packed with spicy ingredients--Brer Rabbit molasses, ground cloves, cinnamon, and ginger--and the flavor, especially just out of the oven, was incredible. I took them out when they still looked underdone, which resulted in a cookie that has stayed very moist. I almost wanted to leave them alone, but the lure of the lemon cream was too much. A simple combination of powdered sugar, fresh lemon juice, and butter fills the cookies, adding a creamy tang to offset the spices. I can't get over the flavor. Delicious.

Cookie #4: Oatmeal Fudge Bars

I had made a version of these before, probably from a recipe on AllRecipes.com, and I think I liked that one better. I recall it using sweetened condensed milk, which resulted in a richer, fudgier filling than the denser, drier one in this recipe. The version I made this time also called for instant coffee, which I thought was a good idea, but when I tasted the finished product, I thought the flavor seemed a bit harsh. I think I also overbaked these slightly, since the oatmeal crust and topping ended up a bit too crunchy. They've gotten good reviews from their tasters, however.

Monday, November 29, 2010


I planned for a leisurely Monday morning this week, getting plenty of sleep last night and waking up in time to shop for the week's school lunch groceries and visit Five Below for stocking stuffer ideas. I didn't find anything worthwhile for the stockings, but these Chocorooms did catch my eye. I had seen them before, and although I was skeptical about the quality of edibles purchased at Five Below, I had confidence in the Chocorooms' Japanese origin. The Japanese know what they're doing when it comes to candy.

My box says it is distributed by D.F. Stauffer Biscuit Co. in York, PA, and manufactured by Meiji Seika Kaisha, Ltd. in Tokyo. Confident that I had purchased an authentic Japanese product, I opened the package.

The Chocorooms are adorable, for one thing. They look exactly like they do in the photo. The cracker stem is slightly sweet, and firm but crispy. The chocolate mushroom cap is smooth and very malty. I was nervous about the quality of the chocolate, but the ingredients list chocolate as the third ingredient after sugar and wheat flour. It is unfortunately followed by partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and artificial flavors, but the rest of the ingredients didn't sound awful: whole milk powder, cocoa butter, lactose, non-fat dried milk, malt syrup, yeast, salt, and leavening. I thought the ratio of chocolate to cracker was just about perfect.

I spent about $2 on a 3.13 oz box, which includes about 33 Chocorooms. I'm a big fan. They're tasty, cute, and relatively cheap for the novelty. Maybe I did find a stocking stuffer after all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Slate Article on Inaccurate Prep Times in Cookbooks

I apologize for the dearth of new material here lately. Grad school and other demands have required all of my time. I hope to re-energize the blog over Thanksgiving or Christmas break.

Until then, check out this article on why estimated recipe preparation times in cookbooks are always wrong.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Spaghetti Tacos!

A fad sweeps the nation.

Reviving Leftovers: Chinese

For a long time, my cooking career consisted mainly of baking, which follows set procedures and lists of ingredients. Experimentation was risky. I've always wanted to be more of an impromptu cook, knowing just what seasoning to apply where, like an elusive puzzle piece. I've been making progress, through simple trial and error and bits of knowledge I gain through osmosis when I skim through food magazines at work.

One of my favorite things to do these days is fish out day-old leftovers from the fridge and revitalize them. I rarely keep them in their original form, unless they're just too good to be messed with, like my mom's stuffed shells. I also like trying to find ways to expand leftovers--dicing a few pieces of leftover chicken into a stir-fry, for example--to make another full meal.

Today's mission: leftover Chinese. Who DOESN'T have leftover Chinese? Who can eat those gargantuan portions of rice and sticky meat in one sitting? Warming up half a serving of lo mein is easy, but alas, I was stuck with the following: 1/2 cup pork fried rice, 1-2 cups white rice, and 3/4 cup of General Tso's chicken. This wouldn't do--I needed to make a meal for two people, me and my sister Angela, who's always the most willing to undergo my food experiments, being an accomplished baker herself.

First, I wanted to make the rice more appetizing. I combined both rices and seasoned the mixture with a pinch of dried ginger, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and a teaspoon of garlic salt, each flavor chosen because I've known it to be included in many Asian recipes.

Instead of trying to split the leftover chicken between us, I diced it into smaller pieces and mixed it with the rice, and microwaved the whole thing.

To complete the meal, I added bowls of fall lettuce salad and buttermilk drop biscuits from a super easy recipe in Cook's Illustrated. (Oh, and a Leinenkugel Berry Weiss. ;) Our revitalized Chinese was delicious--the chicken reheated well after being diced, and the rice was fresh and savory.

The moral of the story is: don't throw out leftovers! Get them out, dice them up, throw them in a pan, and toss on a seasoning combination you haven't tried before. You can't lose--they're only leftovers!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kettle Chips

It's likely that many of you know the potato chip revelation that is a bag of Kettle Chips. Made in Salem, Oregon, these all-natural chips are practically a meal. Thick, crunchy, satisfying.

But there is another revelation to be had! Kettle Chips has released a baked potato chip in the following flavors: salt & fresh ground pepper, sea salt & vinegar, aged white cheddar, hickory honey barbecue, and sea salt.

I've had the aged white cheddar and they were good--subtle cheese flavor with a lot of crunch. But the sea salt & vinegar that I bought this week were really fantastic. They explode with flavor, and I appreciate the quality of the chip. The baked chips from some brands seem almost powdery, and the flavor is all but non-existent. Kettle Chips, on the other hand, are baked with plenty of oil, which helps them retain that moist crispness of a fried chip. The really good news is that despite this fact, they contain 65% less fat than their fried cousins. Kettle Baked Chips are very flat, but sturdy; when you open the bag, you actually see mostly whole chips rather than a sack full of crumbs.

Only downside: these bags are only 4 oz. and I ate it in two sittings. At roughly $3, a little pricey, but quality is quality.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Magazine: Cook's Illustrated

I have a bit of a confession to make. I'm addicted to food porn. If you haven't heard this term before, don't be too scandalized. It just means: food photography that makes your mouth water, it looks that good. I love photos of food. I think subconsciously I browse through them while eating, pretending that my reheated potato-leek soup is really steak frites with herb butter.

Which can occasionally be my downfall. My love of food photography kept me from ever picking up the magazine Cook's Illustrated in the bookstore, which is completely black and white. But this magazine is truly awesome. It comes out of America's Test Kitchen, which is a real kitchen/science lab located near Boston. Each recipe is accompanied by an in-depth article on the additions, subtractions, and other changes made to the dish, and how it affected the final product.

I finally picked up this magazine when I saw a color copy of their Best Recipes edition, and it's fabulous. It contains a lot of meat recipes, an area in which I need more expertise, and other delicious-looking dishes I want to try like oven-fried onion rings and boston cream cupcakes. It also includes sidebars on cooking techniques like choosing proper cuts of meat, kneading dough, etc.

I am also aware that there is a television show called America's Test Kitchen, which looks to be completely available online. I haven't watched yet, but I may today instead of reading my early American lit homework.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Labor Day Baking

I am totally psyched for my extended family's Labor Day weekend "camping" trip. All 30-some of us congregate in a little town in south-central Pennsylvania on my aunts' and uncles' rural creekside property. Some sleep indoors, some tent, and we all canoe, build fires, and, most importantly, eat a crap-ton. Except we're Mennonite, so it tastes a lot better than crap. It's more like an ambrosia-ton.... never mind.

This year, my contribution is an apple cheese pie, recipe found in Taste of Home's annual Fall Baking issue, and key lime white chocolate chip cookies. Here is my photo chronicle of baking the apple cheese pie.

This is a rather unique recipe, calling for a double crust, but also a layer of caramelized pecans under the bottom crust. So I started thus:

Then the bottom crust.

Then a layer of cream cheese, a little sharp cheddar, and a pinch of sugar, topped with sliced Granny Smith apples tossed with sugar, flour, lemon juice, cinnamon, and ginger.

Over goes the top crust, and into the oven.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is a PIE.

Unfortunately, the recipe called for me to invert the pie so the pecans would be on top, so I lost my beautiful top crust, but I am glad I inverted it while still warm. I used a larger, heavier pie dish to invert into so that it would keep its shape.

I made the whole house smoky because the juices dripped down into the oven, but the kitchen has been set to rights, and the dish looks gorgeous. I've only recently gotten into eating apple slices with sharp cheddar, so I'm excited about how that combination will taste in this pie. Check back for a tasting update next week!

Tasting update: This pie got fantastic reviews from its tasters! Not too sweet, with just the right hints of saltiness and tang from the cheddar and cream cheese. The Granny Smiths baked well, producing a soft bite while still maintaining their shape and texture. The nuts and cheese complimented each other beautifully. My only lament is that I didn't taste the pie warm; I suspect that its flavors may have been more robust if served soon after baking. I'm definitely keeping this recipe around!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Blackberry Streusel Coffee Cake

Okay, I think I got the most votes for the #1 photo, so here we go! I thought I was supposed to bring a dish for our church coffee table last week, when really it was this week. I took the coffee cake anyway. Upon arrival, it was suggested that I freeze it and save it for this week, but, um, yeah it didn't last. It was too good and was quickly consumed.

I modified a basic coffee cake recipe from The Joy of Cooking for this dish, and it turned out beautifully. My mom had brought home lots of huge, gorgeous blackberries from bushes my grandfather grew, and I was curious how they would turn out when baked. Would they be too watery? Too mushy? Would they taste more like raspberries or blueberries? All of my questions were answered in a coffee cake that turned out moist, tangy, nutty, and not too sweet. I even healthified it by using yogurt and applesauce instead of sour cream! Please find below my adaptation of The Joy of Cooking's Quick Sour Cream Coffee Cake, p. 630.

Blackberry Streusel Coffee Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9"x13" baking pan.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine dry ingredients and whisk together thoroughly.

1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup applesauce
4 large eggs

Beat well in a large bowl. Add the dry ingredients and beat just until smooth. There should still be lumps in your batter; overbeating will toughen the cake. Spread in the greased pan. Dot batter with approximately 1-2 cups of frozen blackberries (or any other berry you wish to substitute). My blackberries were huge, so I allowed at least a half-inch of space around each berry. Sprinkle with streusel, recipe below.


2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter

Blend ingredients until crumbly (hands work best!) and add 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 to 1 cup chopped nuts if desired (I used a mixture of walnuts and pecans). Sprinkle streusel over berries.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out relatively clean.

Be aware that I doubled the original recipe, which was to fit a 9" square pan, so this produces a high, thick cake. Feel free to experiment with pans of different shapes and sizes. The flavors in this recipe came together beautifully. The blackberries were tangy, but not as sour as raspberries, which complimented the rich streusel. The berries and streusel sank into the batter, producing a cake marbled with flavor. My substitution of yogurt and applesauce for the sour cream worked very well and yielded an incredibly moist, hearty cake. Overall, a great success!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Photo Vote!

Here are three photos of things I've made recently. Vote on which one you want me to post about next! Just hit the Comment button below and list the appropriate number.

Number 1:

Number 2:

Number 3:

The Pizza Experiment

I'm having a good problem right now, I suppose: I'm cooking faster than I'm blogging. I have four potential posts in the works and I'm tempted to do them all at once. But where would the suspense be in that?

First, the results of The Pizza Experiment! I followed my informational video closely, resting both the wet and dry dough for the prescribed amounts of time. I let it proof in the refrigerator for about three hours before getting out about two hours before I baked so it could warm up and rise.

Someone previously asked me about how to keep the dough from drying out while resting, and indeed this did become an issue. I should have covered the balls in oil and then placed them in a plastic-wrap-sealed bowl before refrigerating them. The dry outside of the dough balls didn't affect the quality of the dough, but it did make for a much lumpier crust when I spread it out.

I baked one crust on my pizza stone, on a layer of parchment paper, and the other on a basic cookie sheet. The pizza stone works well, but I always err on the side of too much baking time. This resulted in a very crunchy bottom crust, a little too tough for me. The cookie sheet pizza was near perfect, with a soft but dry bottom. The crust was flavorful and somewhat chewy; not quite the pizzeria quality I was looking for, but satisfactory.

It seems the key to a quality pizza crust is not so much your recipe, but the kind of oven and heat you're working with. Genuine pizza ovens (like ones I found here) can retain temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This level of heat cooks the pizza very quickly, searing the dough and producing a crispy crust that's still soft and chewy inside. I recently found out that my aunt and uncle are putting a ceramic wood-fired pizza oven in their new house. I think this calls for a future Pizza Experiment field trip.

For my ingredients, I used one part semolina flour to four parts all-purpose flour. I used canned Furmano's pizza sauce and grated block mozzarella on my pizzas and was pleased with the quality of both.

My family loved the pizza, though we all agreed that the one baked on the pizza stone was too crispy. Next time I use it, I'm going to bake just until the cheese is completely melted. Overall, the Pizza Experiment was a success, but I still have more to accomplish.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Waiting for Pizza

It's pizza day! The initial phases of The Pizza Experiment have gone well. I followed the steps described in the instructional video in the previous pizza post, and my dough is now "proofing" in the refrigerator. My dough balls aren't as smooth as his, and I'm curious as to why his finished ball didn't seem to have risen, but overall, I think I'm doing well. I bought some parchment paper because I don't have a pizza peel to use with my pizza stone. I can assemble the pizza on the parchment paper and then lift it directly onto the preheated pizza stone.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed some Greek yogurt and a fresh peach for my lunch. If you haven't yet tried Greek yogurt, do! It's a naturally nonfat yogurt made by a straining process that produces a thick, creamy consistency. But don't go into this expecting Yoplait Rich & Creamy. Because yogurts like Chobani don't use corn syrup, cornstarch, or gelatin as thickeners, they leave a slightly sandy feel in the mouth. I don't find this off-putting, and the fact that my 6 oz. serving of Chobani vanilla contains zero fat and 16 grams of protein definitely makes it worth it. And the local peach...well, life doesn't get much better.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Favorite Breakfast

Now, the title of this post isn't entirely accurate. My favorite breakfast, and this is saying a lot, as I don't often pick favorites, is eggs benedict. Ever since I first had the dish at Bob Evans in college, I've been hopelessly devoted to it. That combination of smoky ham, creamy egg, and tangy sauce is divine. I've made simplified versions of eggs benedict at home (substituting turkey ham for Canadian bacon or a simple cheese sauce for hollandaise, etc.) but never the real, complete thing. Someday I will, and I'll post about it. For now, I'm just going to introduce you to my next favorite breakfast, easily made at home.

I grew up eating over-easy to over-medium fried eggs with toast my whole life. It's one of my mom's favorite ways to eat eggs, and has become one of mine too. What truly makes this dish superb, though, are the fresh eggs we get from my aunt's home-raised chickens. To see the visible difference, click here. Store-bought eggs, often gathered from chickens raised in cages and fed a poor diet, have pale, lemon-colored yolks, while cage-free chickens fed on food scraps and grass produce eggs with deep orange yolks. The whites from natural eggs are also sturdier and easier to cook, and the flavor is rich, tasting almost, like Julie claims in Julie & Julia, "like cheese sauce." I've been permanently spoiled. If I must buy eggs at the store, I always buy cage-free, and even they aren't quite as good as eggs you could buy locally. I am destined to spend the rest of my life obsessively hunting down chicken raisers and begging them to sell me their eggs.

I cook my eggs in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat with a little olive oil. I like my whites thoroughly cooked but the yolks still in a liquid state. I estimate that in a well-heated pan, I cook my eggs for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on one side and 45 seconds to 1 minute on the other; different pans and stoves may alter this time, however. Meanwhile, I toast the bread (this morning, Italian Wheat) and throw anything else into the pan that I'm hungry for, usually a slice or two of turkey ham or some Swiss chard (pictured).

There's no beating this breakfast for economy of time and money, and an abundance of nutrition. And it's delicious.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Upcoming post: The Pizza Experiment

Just wanted to give you a teaser for an upcoming post: the chronicle of my grand Pizza Experiment.

Here's the background. My mother and I have enjoyed making pizza from scratch for years. We have a basic pizza dough recipe that uses all-purpose or bread flour, a tablespoon or two of yeast, and only rises once before being pressed into the pan. It's a good, reliable recipe, but it yields a dough with more of a biscuit texture than that chewy pizzeria crust I'm looking for.

For a while, I thought changing baking methods and pans would improve the texture. I switched from cookie sheets, to pizza pans with holes in the bottom, to a pizza stone. The pizza stone delivers a nice crispy bottom crust, but the chewiness still isn't there. I've also tried recipes from others who claim that their recipe is chewy. Yeah, no. No it's not. And I found out why.

Pizza dough can and should be rested for up to several days before baking, to encourage the gluten proteins to develop and "align" themselves into the long strands that create a chewy texture. It's also recommended to let the dough rise at least twice and punch it down. The time and processing develops the flavor of the dough.

Another option is to add a high-gluten flour, such as semolina, to your dough to encourage chewiness. I just picked some up at Wegmans today, so I'll be using it in my experiment.

Much of my information came from this wonderful informative video I found. I think that this Friday will be my official experiment day, after which I'll report my results! (A few lucky readers may get to taste the results. Oh, the privileges of being associated with an amateur foodie...)

Reed's Ginger Brew

(image courtesy of wellnessgrocer.com)

After touring The Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and learning that they brew not only quality cheap beer but also the Reed's Ginger Brew that you can find in many supermarkets, I decided to try some.

The Reed's website says that the original ginger brew is hand-crafted in individual batches and contains 17 grams of fresh ginger root, lemon, lime, honey, fructose, pineapple, herbs, and spices. This information was confirmed by our Lion Brewery tour guide, who described how the brewmasters "dump" loads of fresh ginger into the brew.

The website also explains why their Extra Ginger brew is called ginger beer while the other flavors are marketed simply as ginger brew or ginger ale: "In the early 1800’s the two terms were used interchangeably. As time went on, the term 'ginger beer' became associated with the spicier ginger ales. That’s why our Extra Ginger Brew, with 25 grams of fresh ginger, is called ginger beer."

My first reaction upon sniffing my open bottle of Reed's was actually pretty negative. The ginger aroma is somewhat sour, in a stomach-sickening way--ironically, since ginger is a great digestive aid. The flavor, however, though it takes some getting used to after a lifetime of experience with Canada Dry and Schweppe's, is citrusy and refreshing. I liked it best over ice, with the flavor slightly diluted. The carbonation and stomach-settling qualities of the ginger and spices make it great to pair with a heavier meal, and the flavor and body of the drink are sturdy enough to substitute for a beer or other alcohol if you desire.

I got a 4-pack of Reed's at my local supermarket for about $5.00. The varieties available are Original, Extra Ginger, Premium (like the original, but sweetened only with honey and pineapple juice), Raspberry, Spiced Apple, and Cherry.