baking

The cake is a lie. (And so were the cookies, cupcakes, etc.)

A confession: for years, I thought that all recipes everywhere were part of a giant conspiracy theory to prevent others from replicating the originator’s success. Who were these weirdos baking cookies at 375 for 10 minutes? The only thing that was a recipe for was failure, and burned cookies galore. Now, admittedly, I knew for years that my oven ran hot, thanks to an oven thermometer (the best six bucks I ever spent!) as recommended by Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. If I wanted 350, I set it for 325. I also adjusted baking times downward, because the times called for in recipes were generally far too long, and although you can certainly add to baking time once something’s in the oven, you cannot take it away. It was a system that served me well for oh, ages and ages.

Sometime in January or February, I gradually came to the realization that all was not well with the oven. The 25-degree window I had come to know and tolerate was failing me. If the dial was set for 325, I was seeing 375; if I cranked it down to 300, I got 315 or so. What I didn’t quite twig to for a while was that I now had the kitchen-appliance equivalent of a traditional Greek song: it would start at a manageable tempo (or temperature) before stepping on the metaphorical gas to the point where your feet can’t keep up or putting frozen “chicken” strips in for longer than ten minutes required one person to fan the smoke alarm to keep it from going off and one to hold the back door of the house open to clear out the resulting haze.

New stove? Oh, yes, new stove. Only now, recipes looked like a foreign language to me. Is that really 350, or just “bake in a moderate oven”, like old-time recipe books like to say? When I finally screwed up my courage to take the plunge and try baking something, it made sense to try a recipe I’ve baked dozens of times before, right? Instead, I tried my hand at a new-to-me variety of mini cheesecakes. The chocolate-peanut butter people in my life won this round.

I compared making cheesecake to a baking trust fall before, but I’m honestly not sure which time was more stressful: when the oven was running even hotter than I realized and I didn’t know what I was doing, or when I was worried that somehow the new oven wouldn’t run hot enough.

I shouldn’t have worried, because these came out beautifully. In fact, I suspect the ones I made for my mom’s birthday got just a tiny bit overdone – this batch was smooth, creamy, and not the least bit dense.

Rather than make the chocolate whipped cream called for in the recipe, I used my remaining 4 oz. of cream cheese to make a half-batch of the cream cheese-whipped cream frosting from the pumpkin spice latte cupcakes I made last fall, sifting in 1/4 cup of cocoa before beating the cream cheese. It generated the perfect amount to pipe generous-but-not-mountainous swirls on top of each cheesecake, with enough left over for my taste testers to lick out the bowl and not fight over it. I couldn’t be happier with the results, and I think I have the perfect Father’s Day dessert figured out.

Thanks for looking – and remember, always use your oven thermometer! 🙂

baking

The Cheesecake Factory Has Nothing on Me

With my mom’s birthday approaching, I knew I had to find the perfect birthday cake recipe. There’s nothing wrong with an old standby (excuse me, classic), but then there’s no anticipation, no element of surprise. In the course of my regular web-browsing, I rediscovered the mini cheesecakes on Life, Love, and Sugar. She does like cheesecake…and that would certainly be a surprise. I was sold, but then the tough part came: deciding which variety to make.

Fortunately, this proved to have a rather elegant solution. Since each recipe calls for 12 oz. of cream cheese, and since cream cheese is sold in 8 oz. bricks, I decided to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ha!) and make two different kinds. I decided on chocolate Bailey’s (because the birthday girl loves her some chocolate) and cherry almond (because the baker loves her some cherries).

Did I mention that I had never made a baked cheesecake before? Is there a better time to try a brand-new, possibly-fussy dessert than for an actual occasion, with no back-up plan?

*crickets*

I was actually excited when the chocolate ones cracked a little bit: I know that while one does not normally want one’s cheesecake to crack, cracking is a thing that cheesecakes sometimes do, which told me I must be on the right track. Because gaaah, these things stressed me out. If I had been making a cake-cake or cupcakes, I could have jabbed a toothpick in the centre to check for doneness, touched it/them gently to see if it/they sprung back, all that good stuff. Cheesecake relies on sight and blind faith. It’s like a baking trust fall, and that makes me uneasy like you wouldn’t believe.

Once I had satisfied myself that these were more or less solid and baked through, and they had had time to cool completely, I tackled the flavoured (and occasionally boozy) whipped creams for garnish.

I had a lazy moment and didn’t really want to add two piping bags to my growing pile of dishes, so I snipped a corner off two sandwich baggies and dropped my piping tips in. They worked far better than I had thought they might, and cleanup was insanely easy. But just in case you think I’m completely lazy…

I made honest-to-goodness chocolate curls!

The birthday girl specifically requested no candles (sigh).

They passed their second-to-last test: they released from their paper liners with no trouble at all. It was the sigh of relief heard around the world.

(The combination plate is a venerable tradition around these parts. 😉 )

The birthday girl loved her unique dessert – and I may have inadvertently created some heightened expectations. That’s okay; after these turned out so well, I’m looking forward to experimenting with flavours.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

“Zing!” went the strings of my heart

It all started when my friend had a birthday recently.

Wait, scratch that.  It started a few weeks before that, when one of the ladies at work (who knows I’m a baker and has previously been my sprinkle patron) asked me if I baked bars very often.

I wrinkled my nose.  “Not really,” I replied, and economically at that, for those two words were meant to convey the following:

I.  Don’t.  Get.  Bars.  They never seem to bake properly and become inedibly overbaked around the edges before the rest of it is done, and although they’re supposed to be easier than cookies, say, they seem like a lot more work, somehow.  Why do cookbook authors coyly list them with the cookies (e.g. “Bar Cookies”) when they are clearly not cookies?  They’re usually sticky or filled, and you sure as heck can’t eat them with your fingers like a cookie.  But they’re not cake, either.  And how are you supposed to portion/eat them?  With a (sliced) cake or a cupcake, the portioning is self-evident.  With cookies, you can go back and keep grabbing until you’re satisfied.  But bars?  Unless you’re at an outpost of a ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee chain, they’re generally cut into these teeny-tiny squares that look like something from a tea party, and which are not at all satisfying.  Yet because of their often-rich nature, too big a piece is just going to make your teeth and stomach hurt.  Just…why, bars, whyyyy?

I clearly need to work on my non-verbal communication skills, because she pressed on and explained that she had been tasked with baking for a church fundraiser, and thought I might have some ideas.  At that moment, I had a sudden flash of remembered inspiration, and told her all about the Cranberry Lemon Oat Zing Bars from The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes by Kris Holechek: they’re delicious, beloved by pretty much anyone who tries one; they’re quick and easy to make (and can be made not-vegan, if that’s how you roll); and they give you something besides just chocolate.  Sometimes there’s just too much chocolate, and these are a welcome antidote.

When I related this exchange to the Birthday Boy, he perked up and said that if I wanted to make a batch to show her what they were like, he would gladly help with the leftovers.  He wasn’t just being nice – I have honestly seen him lick out a container after being brought a sample.  When he mentioned them again, unprompted, a week or so later, I knew I had his birthday cake figured out.

And you know what?  I forgot just how easy these are to make!

Dry ingredients in one bowl:

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I always triple the cinnamon called for in the recipe because we like cinnamon around these parts. 😉

Wet ingredients in another:

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All together, with cranberries stirred in:

The batter was quite thick, and I had to use my fingers to spread/press it into place in the foil-lined, greased pan to get an even layer.  Always line those pans with foil, kids!

And now, we get to the fun part…

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My initial misgivings weren’t entirely incorrect – they did get a little darker around the edges, although not to the point of burning or otherwise ruining them.

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A lemon-cream cheese frosting seals the deal and hides the toasty edges.

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We managed to not set off the smoke detector or get wax on the cake bars, so I’d call that a win-win.

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Look at that: they cut beautifully, have just that little extra browning at the bottom edge, but stayed moist inside.  We played by ubiquitous coffee chain rules and made the pieces cake-sized, but because these aren’t overly sweet (the lemon zest and cranberries provide the right amount of tartness and tang), no one batted an eye.

The Birthday Boy was delighted by his “cake”, and even more so when I sent half of what was left home with him.

I’m still not sold on bars-as-a-culinary-subgenre, but these definitely have a place in my repertoire.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

For when your blood type is pretty much “pumpkin spice”…

It’s one of those terribly “basic” things to admit, but my heart beats a little faster when pumpkin spice latte season rolls around (it must be all that extra caffeine).  In my defense, my infatuation is strictly with the latte, and not the hundreds of other pumpkin spice-inspired items available.  I’ve carefully researched the coffee options, so you don’t have to.  From worst to best:

4. McDonald’s Caramel Pumpkin Spice Latte.  Their pumpkin spice latte used to be good, but the current iteration is far too sweet.  Add to that the general chaos and lousy service, and this is a hard pass.

3. Starbucks.  I think this might have been the original one, but it’s also really sweet and something else – I almost want to use the word “sludgy”, which is something your coffee should never, ever be.

2. Tim Horton’s.  This is saying something.  I’m not a fan of Tim’s overall, but their allegedly handcrafted latte is not wretched.  It doesn’t have a terribly strong pumpkin or spicy flavour, but it’s not gag-inducingly sweet, either.  If you want something warm, creamy, and soothing, this will take the chill off.  (Bonus: The Pumpkin Spice Iced Capp is surprisingly decent, if you can get past the idea of a cold pumpkin drink.  Just stay away from the whipped topping; that stuff could probably survive a nuclear bomb.)

1. Second Cup.  The ne plus ultra of pumpkin spice lattes.  I only wish there were more locations so that I didn’t have to brave the mall every time I want a fix.  These are flavourful and not too sweet, and if you haven’t tried one, you must.  You’ll never drink Starbucks again.

Ahem.  Given that kind of attention to these drinks, it’s probably not surprising that the recipe for Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes from the Brown Eyed Baker called to me.  I cheated just a little bit and used my pumpkin cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World as the base, only with the coffee and spices recommended by the BEB.

I used instant coffee instead of instant espresso powder because that’s what I had on hand.  I also used a bit more than the 4 1/2 teaspoons called for, because it’s not as strong as the espresso.  And although you certainly can dissolve 7 or so teaspoons of instant coffee in 1/4 cup of milk, you certainly should not taste it unless you want to never touch coffee again.  Bleh.  Luckily, by the time it’s mixed in with all the other ingredients, it just lends a nice coffee-ish flavour to the cupcakes without overpowering them.

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I topped them with the cream cheese whipped cream as suggested in the recipe, and oh: you can’t go wrong with that stuff.  It’s light and fluffy, but doesn’t deflate if it’s out of the fridge for longer than a few minutes.  I’ve probably mentioned this before, but if you have leftover whipped cream, it’s also excellent on toast or gingerbread, or eaten straight out of the container with a spoon.  I don’t judge.  Some caramel sauce and Saigon cinnamon sprinkled on top sealed the deal.

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They also release really nicely from their liners and stay moist.  Dry cupcakes are the worst!

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I made these over Thanksgiving weekend, and although I associate with a band of cookie fans, I have never seen a batch of cupcakes disappear so quickly.  This is one recipe that stays in the roster for next year – or, you know, next weekend. 🙂

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

Is there such a thing as too much chocolate and peanut butter? Maybe…

It’s been well-documented in my years of blogging (and even more years baking and not putting it out there on the interweb) that chocolate and peanut butter is a flavour combination that rates very highly with my test audience.  Frankly, I think that the very best cookies contain lots of peanut butter and little to no chocolate, but hey, give the people what they want, right?

I grabbed my Baking Buddy and told him we were going to try the Buckeye Brownies as published on the Brown Eyed Baker.  Even though I don’t typically like having someone else around when I’m baking (seriously, this towel has my name all over it), it was actually a really ingenious if kind of Marxist solution: by splitting the cost of ingredients, each person is only out half the cash, and each person gets half a pan to eat rather then try to work through an entire 9 x 13 pan alone.  Plus, it’s a fairly inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, and feels productive.  That’s what, win-win-win-win?  I can’t argue with that kind of logic.

Although I’ve got a totally kickin’, never-fail brownie recipe of my own, I took a leap of faith and followed the recipe to the letter.  My devil-may-care attitude was rewarded; those brownies – a.k.a. the ultra-important foundation of this entire endeavour – turned out perfectly.

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A lovely, slightly cracked top – what a sight to behold!  Baking Buddy’s mind was blown when I demanded the aluminum foil to line the pan: he had never done that before, and marveled at the ridiculously easy clean-up that followed (eventually).  Waiting the recommended time for these to cool enough to add the next layer was the longest part of the entire process, so if you’re going to try these, make sure you can find some way to amuse yourself for a while.

Buckeyes require peanut butter, right?

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Action shot!  (And clearly, we don’t believe in putting our groceries away during brownie-cooling downtime; sorry.)

This part was a lot like the peanut butter frosting I use on cupcakes, only…more.  Lots more.

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Only here did I deviate from the recipe.  The recipe called for milk chocolate chips in the ganache/glaze, a thought which immediately made my teeth hurt.  Don’t get me wrong, I love milk chocolate, particularly if it’s got peanuts, caramel, or nougat in it.  But the thought of it smeared on top of a thick sweet layer of peanut butter?  Shudder.  I used semi-sweet instead, a twist heartily supported by Baking Buddy.

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As we cut them, my first, stomach-dropping thought was, “They look like Nanaimo bars!”  (Something I would likely never make because they’re far too sweet and rich.)  “Hey, they kinda look like Nanaimo bars,” remarked Baking Buddy cheerfully.  It’s all about agreeing on the important things, folks.

These brownies are lovely, and the layers showed perfectly, and…holy crow, are they ever rich!  I can’t begin to imagine what milk chocolate chips would have brought to the party.  If you’re going to make ’em and eat ’em like this, a cup of coffee or glass of milk (depending on your preference) is strongly recommended…but during the postmortem, we discussed ways to make them better.  Halving the peanut butter mixture?  Halving the peanut butter mixture and omitting the chocolate glaze?  The top two layers almost ruin a wonderfully chewy brownie that stands up well on its own – but on the bright side, I now have a second basic brownie recipe in my arsenal.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking, cooking

Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring…

…my summer jam is really made from all these things.  (And a lot less likely to leave you hung over and robbed of your silver spurs!)

The very first year the cherry tree in the front yard yielded fruit – honestly edible fruit, and not the kind you leave for the birds to peck at – I was thrilled.  This isn’t exactly the Okanagan, so this was a novelty to me, one that elicited fantasies of making jam and…well, I didn’t make it much past jam.  And when I first tried it using a Jell-o jam recipe a couple of years ago, the results weren’t great.  (What did I expect?  Jell-o is not and will never be a proper substitute for pectin.)

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It’s not a huge tree, but it’s got spirit and bursts forth with cherries like it’s going through some sort of weird tree puberty.

Last year yielded another large crop.  Since the idea of “real” canning terrifies me and has me convinced I’ll give someone botulism, I looked for a recipe for freezer jam, and found this.  Even though the recipe specifically calls for sweet cherries, it works wonderfully with my tart little harvest, too.  It’s remarkably similar to the one found inside the Certo package, with the small addition of microwaving the fruit-and-sugar mixture for a few minutes to increase the saturation point and help the sugar dissolve for non-grainy jam.  (There’s something a little disturbing about a recipe using so much sugar that the fruit can’t absorb it all on its own, but even the Certo box calls for the same amount.  In any case, that brief heating works like a charm.)

And, sure, the cherry jam was good, but I sighed that I wished I had my late grandmother’s recipe for strawberry jam.  Hers was the best, bar none, and I had spent the entirety of this millennium to date without tasting it.

“She just used the recipe from the Certo box,” my dad pointed out.  Wait.  The same recipe that I had just more-or-less used with great success?  “The very same.”  Suddenly, memories of her retrieving a new jar from the freezer, not the pantry/basement flitted past my mind’s eye.  I could have been enjoying this stuff for the past 15-plus years.

It was past strawberry season when I had that epiphany, but this year, there was no way I was going to miss out again.  Farmers’ markets may or may not be a giant rip-off (case in point: the cherries that proliferate unbidden in the front yard cost $5.49/lb at the market, and they’re tiny and mostly pit, and tart to boot), but there’s no denying that fresh, local strawberries taste only about a million times better than their pale, flavourless California cousins.  It was a challenge to not eat them all before I could puree and mix and jar them.

But I managed it, and was rewarded with this:

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Keepin’ it real with mismatched and repurposed jars, there – yet another perk to freezer jam.  Even tasting the mixture as I went along to make sure the sugar was dissolved was like a trip down memory lane.

Of course, it’s hard to justify spending $7.49/pint and not use the fruit you can get for free, right?

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The freezer is full of unlabelled reddish jars now.  But don’t worry; I can tell them apart.

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(Editor’s note: I could have sworn the line, “I can’t see the difference.  Can you see the difference?” was from some sort of margarine ad, but a quick Google search confirms it’s ABC laundry detergent.  The more you know!)

I still had half a bucket full of cherries after the jam, so I baked the Bourbon Cherry Crisp from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

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Warm from the oven, it was a bit like a cherryish hot and sour soup.  But ah, at room temperature – heaven on Earth!  The topping is crisp and lovely, and the sliced almonds complement the fruit perfectly.  I’ve still got some cherries in the freezer, pitted and ready to go, so a second batch may be in order.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

The Hunt for Red Velvet

I know that red velvet cake is generally considered to be a southern dessert.  That’s “southern” as in “below the Mason-Dixon line”, and not “Windsor” – being within spitting distance of the Ambassador Bridge doesn’t count, but I really, really wanted some sort of red velvet cupcake for Canada Day.  It’s red cake!  With white icing!

Silly me: if I wanted a patriotic dessert, I should have stuck with something simple like Nanaimo bars or butter tarts (again).

See, I’ve got issues with red velvet cake.  The Crimson Velveteen cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World are moist and delicious, but, well, darkish.  (The authors fully own this colour issue, arguing that their dessert is much classier than some of the day-glo red versions you see.  Very well, but what if I want bright red?)

Last year I tried the recipe on the Brown Eyed Baker.  Those puppies were nothing short of fire-engine in the picture on her site, but were just as dark as my original recipe and much less flavourful once baked.  Talk about your bait-and-switch!

When I happened upon the red velvet recipe on Sally’s Baking Addiction, I thought I had died and gone to baker’s heaven.  Sally is a full-on baking geek who understands the chemistry and technique involved in making a truly spectacular dessert.  I followed her recipe to the letter, and was rewarded with lovely, brighter-red cupcakes.  (The secret is using about half the cocoa called for in other recipes I’ve seen.)

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They’re red and gorgeous and perfect!  They look exactly like the ones on the blog (piping techniques notwithstanding).  They rose, and formed these perfectly rounded tops upon which to pipe scads of icing

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And they’re just as beautiful under the wrappers, too.

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This is as striptease-y as it gets.

I so appreciated the methodology of the recipe: there’s butter for flavour; oil for moisture; buttermilk to make them tender; and two eggs, the whites of which were whipped and folded into the batter separately to keep things light and fluffy.

There was just one problem…they were kind of dry.  Okay, really dry.

My test audience was split about 50/50 as to whether or not this was a dry cake.  One conceded that “they were fine at first” and only got dry after a few days.  On the other hand, whenever I ate one, I felt like I was playing that old party game wherein one tries to whistle while eating crackers.  And I’ve made hundreds of moist cupcakes, so believe me, I know a dry cupcake when I taste one.  So disappointing!  The only thing I can figure is that the cornstarch in the batter dries them out – there’s cornstarch in the vanilla cupcakes from VCTOtW, and they’re nowhere near as moist as the other varieties.

It’s back to the drawing board for a red velvet recipe that’s at once moist and red; in the meantime, I think I’ll have to order a piece from Sals when the craving hits:

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(Now that’s a red velvet cake!)

Update: After this fiasco, I tried the Betty Crocker red velvet cupcake mix-in-a-box, and once I got past the shame of using a mix, was forced to admit that they’re pretty darned good.  Darker in colour than my scratch-baked cupcakes, above, they’re moist and light.  And I still made my own icing from scratch, so that makes them practically homemade.

Happy Canada Day! 🙂