baking

How do you spell “fun”? F-e-t-t-i!

Back in the spring, I had made some cookies to share with my coworkers in celebration of what was admittedly a rather arbitrary anniversary. Oh, I didn’t make a big deal of it, plastering “Five Years Since I Accidentally Took the Elevator to the Wrong Floor” banners across my cubicle walls, or anything like that. I packaged them unceremoniously in a Gladware container, scrawled “Funfetti Chocolate Chip Cookies” in green Sharpie on a folded piece of notepaper, and dropped the whole works in an obvious place in the communal kitchen. Free food always moves, and by eleven o’clock that morning, they were gone.

Do you want to know the difference between a “normal” person and a social committee member? The “normal” people instant-messaged me to say thank you, or how much they enjoyed them. Awww. One of the social committee members led with an instant message that started out like that, but turned into, “You should make some for our bake sale! I’d totally buy some! My kid’s two favourite things are chocolate and rainbows.” And so, it came to pass that I was going to be part of the sale.

I’m not going to torture you with a long and complicated recipe, insisting that you not overmix and taking a tape measure to your prepared cookie sheets to determine exactly how far apart your portions of dough are. I’m going to KISS (Keep It Super Simple; or Keep It Simple, Stupid – depends on how surly you feel).

Are you ready?

Take your favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe. In this case, the tubes of dough from the refrigerator section of your local superette does not count as a recipe.

When you get to the point where you’re about to stir in the chocolate chips, add in half a cup (or more, depending on the size of your recipe and your own aesthetic preferences) of rainbow sprinkles – jimmies, not nonpareils.

Bake as prescribed in the recipe.

Enjoy your colourful homemade treats.

I used my grandmother’s recipe, which yields a not-overlarge batch of cookies, and which bakes up nice and chewy, with just the slightest crispiness at the edges. They proved just as popular at the bake sale, even when people had to pay for them – by ten o’clock, only one package was left.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

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, cooking, craftmas

On the second day of Craftmas…

…my true love gave to me: a really easy recipe!

Who couldn’t use one of those in his or her repertoire, especially at this time of year?  There’s so much to get done, and anything that doesn’t involve preheating, rolling, cutting, frosting, etc. can’t be all bad.

And so I present to you my recipe for Cuban Lunch.  They’re based on a defunct chocolate bar (which was apparently resurrected earlier this year, but I haven’t seen it anywhere), and are a crowd-pleaser if ever I saw one.  You can make a lot quickly, and they’re perfect for gift-giving or cookie trays.  A few years ago, I gave little care packages to the management team at work, and within half an hour everyone had IM-ed me to say thank you – except for the men in the group, who IM-ed me to say thank you, and also that they had eaten all six in one shot.

What you need:

  • 2 cups each of semi-sweet chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, and butterscotch chips.  If you buy these things in bulk and actually want to measure, great; I find that your standard 300g bags found in the baking aisle give you what you need
  • 1 1/2 cups crushed ripple potato chips
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped peanuts
  • Optional, but nice: a kind person to help you set out your mini cupcake liners, and to set out more when your hands are occupied by chocolate-coated utensils and you realize you’re getting way more of these from the recipe than you anticipated

Set out your mini cupcake liners.  The recipe I found has a yield of 75, but whoever wrote it must have filled their liners fuller than I do.  This may take some experimentation on your part, so keep a few extra nearby.  Also, the tinfoil is not strictly necessary, but prevents you having to wash your cookie sheet when you drop chocolate on it – and you will drop chocolate on it.

Chop your peanuts and crush your ripple chips.  I like to use a mini food processor for the chips, but if you have some holiday rage to work through, a sturdy Ziploc bag and a rolling pin make a wonderful substitute.  Set them aside for now.

Put your 6 cups of baking chips in a microwave-safe bowl.  I like to fold them all together to prevent weird pockets of one kind or another in the finished product, because I’m like that.  Once you’re satisfied that your mixture is as homogeneous as it’s going to get, microwave it on high for 30-second bursts.  After each round, take it out and stir it before putting it back in for another 30 seconds.  Yes, this is a giant drag, but chocolate likes to hold its shape even when it’s at a melting point, so check and stir, every single time, until everything is completely melted.  No one likes scorched chocolate.

Once the baking chips are completely melted, fold in your potato chips and peanuts.  It can seem like a lot to integrate, but keep at ‘er.  Your mixture should look something like this.

Spoon the mixture into those mini cupcake liners you so painstakingly peeled apart and placed on your cookie sheets.  Once they’re all filled, they’ll need to set.  They will set up at room temperature, but some time in the fridge or freezer helps immensely.  If you live somewhere cold, use nature’s freezer!  (Just make sure you don’t have any neighbourhood wildlife creeping around.)

These can be stored in a sealed container at room temperature or in the fridge, and look so cute in a little cellophane treat bag tied up with a bow.

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:

CLBars1

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

Wet ingredients in another:

CLBars2

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…

CLBars5

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.

CLBars6

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

CLBars8

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

CLBars9

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.

PSC1

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!

PSC3

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.

Buckeye Brownies 1

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?

Buckeye Brownies 2

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.

Buckeye Brownies 3

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.

Buckeye Brownies 4

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! 🙂