Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sugar Cookies for Mother's Day

Over the weekend, I did some experimenting decorating sugar cookies with royal icing. I found a book called Beautiful Cakes by Peggy Porschen while browsing at Barnes and Noble Bargain Section last week. The cookies in the book are so pretty - I thought I'd take a shot at creating some of my own. I think mom will like these, don't you?

Sugar Cookies
from John Barricelli via Martha Stewart
Makes about fifteen 5-inch cookies.

4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and lemon juice and beat until well combined.
With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in two batches, mixing until just incorporated. Turn dough out onto a clean work surface. Divide in half, and pat into flattened rectangles; wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.
Working with one piece at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to a 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 5-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out hearts. Transfer to prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes. Repeat process with remaining rectangle of dough. Gather all the scraps, and roll out again. Chill 15 minutes; cut out more heart shapes, and place on baking sheets.
Bake, rotating baking sheets halfway through cooking, until cookies are golden around the edges and slightly firm to the touch, about 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies may be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.

Royal Icing
Recipe courtesy Alton Brown
Makes 3 1/2 cups

3 ounces pasteurized egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar

In large bowl of stand mixer combine the egg whites and vanilla and beat until frothy. Add confectioners' sugar gradually and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated and mixture is shiny. Turn speed up to high and beat until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. This should take approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Add food coloring, if desired. For immediate use, transfer icing to pastry bag or heavy duty storage bag and pipe as desired. If using storage bag, clip corner. Store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Keep the icing covered. It will dry out quickly if left uncovered.
I outlined the cookies with a stiffer icing, then "flooded" the outline with a thinner icing made from simply adding water, a spoonful at a time until it was thin enough. This flooding is how you get a smooth icing on the cookies. Experiment with different consistencies to get the best results. Allow the icing to dry before adding icing embellishments.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Favorite - My iPhone!!!

Here she is...my new iPhone! I'd been waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for the day when I could upgrade from my Nokia flip phone and that day was yesterday! It felt like Christmas ALL day! I have a lot to learn about what this phone can do and oh...the apps!! If you have any good apps to suggest for me, I'd really like to hear about them. I've not searched the recipe apps yet but I'm sure I'll get to it! I have a list of to-do's and a shopping list application and the Today Show and I've loaded all of my music and contacts and weather - and of course I've bookmarked my blog. I love this phone!! Now I'm off to make sugar cookies! Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Brownie Latte Cheesecake

Warning! This cheesecake is to die for! I volunteered to make a dessert for the annual Blue and Gold Banquet aka The Cub Scouts Awards Dinner. I always jump at the chance to bake for a special event and I love trying new recipes. This may have been a bit over the top for this particular event, but I think it was appreciated by all. I also brought several of those chewy chocolate chip cookies to share with my son's den. They wiped out the cookies and raved over this cheesecake. It may be the best cheesecake I've ever had - a rich chocolatey brownie crust flavored with espresso topped with a Kahlua and espresso-flavored cheesecake topping. I added my own finishing touches by sprinkling with cocoa powder and garnishing with chocolate-cappucino sticks I found at the grocery store in the gourmet chocolate section.

Brownie Latte Cheesecake
from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book

Brownie Base
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Latte Cheesecake Filling
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
2 tablespoons Kahlua
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 large eggs

Make the Brownie Base
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with the rack positioned in the center of the oven. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9X3-inch springform pan. Cut an 18-inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap the foil around the outside of the pan. (Make sure the foil has no holes and you may want to double the foil to make sure no water seeps in from the water bath.)
In the top of a double boiler, melt the chocolate with the butter over barely simmering water, stirring occasionally. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and stir in the espresso power, vanilla extract, and salt. Whisk in the sugar until combined. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, until blended. Stir in the flour until no traces remain.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it into an even layer. Bake the brownie for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool while you make the filling. Leave the oven on.

Make the filling
In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese at medium-low speed until creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar and beat until blended. Add the vanilla, espresso mixture, Kahlua, salt, sour cream, and cornstarch and mix until well blended. At low speed, add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
Scrape the batter onto the brownie base. Place the pan in a roasting pan or large baking pan. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to come about 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake the cake in the water bath for 70-80 minutes, until the center is set but slightly wobbly (the cake will continue to set up as it cools.) Remove the pan from the water bath and cool the cake completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Refrigerate the cheesecake for at least 4 hours before serving.
To serve, slice the cake with a thin-bladed sharp knife, wiping the knife clean between each cut. Garnish each slice with a dollop of whipped cream and a few chocolate covered espresso beans. (Alternately, dust with cocoa powder and garnish with chocolate-capuccino sticks.)
Store loosely covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Monday, April 20, 2009

300 Mini Cupcakes! made by Marzipan

I offered to bake mini cupcakes for the Hearts and Hands Annual Gala to support the Millvale Franciscan Volunteer Program. Please see this site to read more about this wonderful program which services the Pittsburgh area poor and needy. There were well over 100 people attending the gala which featured a silent auction, raffles, and delicious foods from area restaurants.
I spent two entire days in the kitchen to produce the freshest and most delicious cupcakes. I had so much fun planning the menu and creating adorable little morsels of yum! I'm happy to say that the cupcakes were a huge success! In addition to Rootbeer Fudge Cupcakes, I made

Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins with Chocolate Banana Ganache, a favorite among the attendees,

and Coconut Snowball Cupcakes - my new favorite! More to come on these later...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Favorite - Cool Cupcake Carrier

I have not forgotten my beloved blog - I've been busy planning for a super-duper baking weekend. I volunteered to provide sweets for three functions and they all happen to fall in the same weekend, so check back next week for a rundown of all the goodies I'm making in the kitchen! In the meantime, I thought I'd share a super find with you. At Costco, they have these cool cupcake carriers made by snapware. Each of three trays come with an insert tray with handles which has circles to hold 12 cupcakes, or you can turn the tray over and it's a flat tray for carrying any type of goodie. The containers are deep and so versatile. All three containers lock together for carrying and you can use as many trays as you need. I bought two of these handy carriers and I'm thinking of going back for more before they're all gone - especially if I decide to go ahead with my baking business I've been thinking about lately - but more on that later. The pink non-skid rubberized pad I added myself so that my mini-cupcakes wouldn't slide around in transport. I'm so glad I found these! Have a great weekend!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Favorite - Building New Hope Coffee

This coffee is delicious and you can feel good about drinking it because you're supporting a Pittsburgh-based non-profit company as well as helping families in Central America by paying a fair price for organic, shade-grown coffee. I get it either from my CSA (Kretschmann Farm) or from Mark's aunt who sells it to everyone she knows. You can also find it at Whole Foods. Read more about Building New Hope and where to find it here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ricotta Cheesecake

I'm sitting down to plan my Easter menu and make a shopping list and thought I would share it. It's not a super exciting menu but I know everyone will like it and I like the simplicity. What dishes do you usually have on Easter? I'd love to hear about them.

My traditional Easter Menu:
Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts
Crab-stuffed mushrooms
Cheese tray
Ambrosia Salad
Ham and Gravy
Candied Yams
Mashed Potatoes
Steamed Green Beans
Homemade bread
Ricotta Cheesecake
Raspberry Pie
Vanilla Ice Cream

Ricotta Cheesecake
from Cook's Illustrated, Published December 12, 2006
Serves 8 to 10

The ricotta cheese must be drained in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or overnight. To drain the cheese, line a fine-mesh sieve with two layers of cheesecloth or paper towels, place the cheese in the sieve, place the sieve over a bowl, and refrigerate.

Amaretti Cookie Crust:
5 ounces amaretti cookies , processed in a food processor to uniformly fine crumbs (1 1/4 cups crumbs) (I used vanilla wafers)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted, plus 1 tablespoon melted butter for greasing pan
Ricotta Filling:
2 pounds ricotta cheese , drained overnight (see note above)
4 large eggs , separated
3/4 cup sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
1/4 cup light rum
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon table salt

1. For the crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. In small bowl, combine amaretti crumbs and 4 tablespoons of melted butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened. Brush bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan with most of remaining tablespoon melted butter, reserving small amount of excess melted butter for brushing sides of pan after crust cools. Empty crumbs into springform pan and press evenly into pan bottom (See illustration). Bake until fragrant and beginning to brown around edges, about 13 minutes. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 30 minutes. (Do not turn off oven.) Brush sides of springform pan with remaining melted butter.

2. For the filling: While crust cools, place drained ricotta in food processor and process until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add egg yolks, sugar, rum, flour, zest, vanilla, and salt and process until blended, about 1 more minute. Scrape mixture into large bowl.

3. In bowl of standing mixer, beat egg whites at high speed until they hold stiff peaks. Fold whites into ricotta mixture until fully incorporated and pour mixture evenly into cooled crust.

4. Bake cheesecake until top is lightly browned and instant-read thermometer inserted into center registers about 150 degrees, about 1 1/4 hours. (Perimeter of cake should be firm, but center will jiggle slightly. It will solidify further as cake cools.) Transfer pan to wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Run paring knife between cake and side of springform pan. Cool until barely warm, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Wrap pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cheesecake is cold and set, at least 5 hours or up to 2 days.

5. To unmold cheesecake, remove sides of pan. Let cheesecake stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dear Three Particular Giant Eagle Employees,

(I interrupt this food blog to bring you a heartfelt letter inspired by the works of my good friend Jennifer Juniper and her letters to grumpy old men and young kickboxers.)

I would like to let you know that my trip to the grocery store was not the pleasant experience I have come to expect.

To the long time pharmacy counter man: I understand that your pharmacy "is separate from the regular grocery store" like you stated, but when I come to you with two bottles of lotion which I found were sliced open at the top (stockboy, I'll get to you later) after I had cleaned up the spilled lotion on the floor with paper towels which I found under one of the registers because there was no employee in sight, I'm sorry if I expected you to be grateful that I would care enough to NOT put those bottles back on the shelf after I noticed the defect. Noticing your reluctance to deal with the problem, I offered to walk them over to customer service myself and you gave me the eye-roll and said "nevermind, I can take them ". I'm sorry if I inconvenienced you by making you call a stock person to take them away (even though there was no one in the pharmacy at the time). But frankly, a simple "thank you" would have sufficed.

To the stockperson: Even though I did not see you personally, I would like to point out that when you open a box of lotion, or flour, or anything, that you should be extra careful not to slice the contents of the box open while opening the box of said contents with your box-cutter. Before the lotion incident, I was shopping for flour. I picked up two bags and placed them in my cart. That simple movement resulted in my black jacket turning white because of all the flour spilling out of an obvious razor-like slice in the flour bag. Is this lesson not one of the first that a stockperson should learn on the job? If I found two examples of this carelessness during my short shopping trip, I can't imagine how much money the store is losing to damaged goods.

And finally, to the cashier: I have long suspected that our Giant Eagle hires ex-cons as part of some rehab program (like in the movie Shawshank Redemption). I was convinced that the sweet old men who bag the groceries were reformed criminals and in the back of my head I admired Giant Eagle for helping someone in need. You, however, are a different story. I won't go into your appearance because like I try to teach my kids , "we shouldn't talk about how other people look." Maybe your teeth were all missing because you didn't have a responsible mother to remind you to brush your teeth when you were little - that's not your fault. However, do you not realize that bananas are fragile and plunking them into my cart might bruise them? That piling heavy things on these bananas might also damage them in some way? You took such care in making sure the two bunches of organic bananas would stack one on top of the other so that you wouldn't have to weigh them separately, only to throw them carelessly into my cart. Normally I would point out that you made a mistake and charged me for the conventional bananas, but the steam coming out of my ears prevented me from doing so. Also, when someone got in line behind me even after your nice supervisor placed a candy rack behind me to block the aisle so you could take your 15 minute break, you looked at the unsuspecting customer like she was so stupid and told her in your sarcastic voice, "Can't you see that this lane is closing? That's why the rack is there." Then you look at me and say that people do that all the time (like aren't they all stupid!) I'm sorry, but at Target they make you dodge several candy racks before you get to the register in hopes that you'll buy something from them. Finally, I can understand that not all people know what gingeroot is so I didn't mind telling you, but I would've liked to find it in my bag when I got home - it was nowhere to be found!

I may think twice about doing my shopping at your grocery store the next time I need bananas and the prescription in my purse is going straight to the counter at Costco tomorrow. And I'll be getting my flour from Soergels from now on, even if it does cost a bit more.

Thank you for letting me get this off my chest.

Ladies and Gentlemen...Start Your Seeds!

Just one week ago, I planted seeds into this great little seed-starting tray. I couldn't believe how fast they germinated! The tray comes with a clear plastic domed lid for keeping in moisture and a bottom tray for catching extra water. It is very compact, with 72 partitions in a 22" x 11" space. Under the tray is a special heating pad made just for seed starting. It keeps the soil warm, which is most appreciated by the peppers and tomatoes. The heat combined with the moisture helps the seeds to germinate quickly. I also have two full-spectrum lights shining day and night on the seedlings. (These are the same lights which are supposed to be keeping me out of the winter doldrums due to what my mom claims is Seasonal Affective Disorder - I think it's just that our winter weather stinks and who isn't depressed in pittsburgh come March??? I digress...) I have the tray next to the window in the sunniest spot in the house - our south-facing sunroom. When they get a little bigger, I'll transfer them to slightly larger pots where they will continue to grow until they can be transplanted outside. These little seedlings have a long, hard road ahead of them, and some of them won't make it into the garden, but before you know it, most of these plants will be bearing fruit which we'll eat right off the vine. We'll can or freeze the surplus for us to eat all winter long. When I look at these little plants, it's hard to believe that it's actually snowing outside! Come on Spring!!

One year ago: My Spring Babies

Monday, April 6, 2009

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've tried a lot of different chocolate chip cookie recipes... from Alexis' Favorite (from Martha Stewart) which spread out super thin but were tasty, to Alton Brown's variations, and of course the infamous New York Times recipe which has been all over the food blog community and a recipe which I have to admit didn't impress me (therefore I didn't blog about them). I realize that personal preference plays a big part in determining which cookie is your favorite. But finally, I'm happy to say, that the search for my perfect chocolate chip cookie has ended! This recipe is slightly different from the Original Toll House recipe...more brown sugar, less white sugar, more vanilla, and more baking soda. The basis for this recipe came from the cookbook The 150 Best American Recipes by Fran Mc Cullough and Molly Stevens. I changed the recipe by adding some flour and reducing the salt. Flattening the cookies before baking helps them to cook more evenly. I'll sleep better tonight knowing I have this recipe in my files...

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (but not too soft)
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups (12 ounces) chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with rack just below the center of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment or Silpat baking mats.
Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda.
With a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, cream together the butter and sugars until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla. Add the flour mixture all at once and blend until a dough forms. Fold in the chocolate and walnuts. Refrigerate the dough for at least one hour.
Roll 1 1/2 tablespoon lumps of dough into balls (I used a 1 1/2 tablespoon medium cookie scoop), then place them on the baking sheets. Flatten with your hands to 1/2 inch thick disks, spacing them 2 inches apart. If your hands are sticking to the dough, dampen your hands slightly to prevent sticking. The cookies can be frozen at this point by placing the flattened cookies on a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper and placing in the freezer until frozen. After the cookies are frozen, transfer the unbaked cookies to a zip top freezer bag. There's no need to thaw the cookies before baking, but the baking time may need to be adjusted.
Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 14 minutes. Let cool slightly on the baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday's Favorite - Herb Keeper

There are three herbs that I like to use fresh and keep on hand for cooking: parsley, cilantro, and basil. Other commonly used herbs are just as good dried like oregano and thyme, but herbs like parsley lose most of their flavor when dried. Unfortunately, fresh basil just will not keep very long no matter how you store it so I don't buy it too often. I've had more luck keeping basil in a cup with water in it right on the kitchen counter, but even then it won't last more than a couple of days. I make sure though to grow a nice big patch of it in the summer in my garden for picking whenever I need it. To keep cut herbs like parsley and cilantro fresh the longest, try one of these herb keepers. It's the best thing I've found for keeping herbs fresh. The height of the container needs to be ample enough to contain the herbs, but you could make your own herb keeper out of just about any container. Place water in the bottom so that the water covers the stems. (Try not to submerge the leaves since wet leaves will turn slimy very quickly.) Change the water if it starts to look cloudy. Keep the container covered tightly in the refrigerator. These herbs will keep for more than 2 weeks in your refrigerator if they aren't too old when you buy them - a real money saver if you buy fresh herbs!


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