The Saga of Making a “Better Nutter”

Belated Happy New Year!  Though I haven’t posted, I have been busy in the kitchen trying out recipes from some of the great new cookbooks I

A Better Nutter

A Better Nutter

received over the holidays.

On Monday, while watching the Inauguration on TV, I enlisted three friends to try making “Better Nutters” from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook.  Ten hours and four pairs of hands later, we had 10 majestic peanut butter sandwich cookies.

Let me explain.

The Bouchon Bakery cookbook (co-authored by Sebastien Rouxel) is gorgeous, full of great color photos and a ton of recipes.  It’s exactly the kind of cookbook you want to give (or receive!) as a gift.  However, if you are familiar with Thomas Keller, you know he demands a certain kind of culinary perfection that can be difficult for the novice home baker.  For example, he likes precision, preferring that you measure your ingredients in grams on a food scale.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it is new to me.  I’m a baker who throws everything together quickly and figures, well, it is “close enough.”

So why did following Thomas Keller’s recipe for Better Nutters take 10 hours?  Well, I’ll admit that I didn’t have

Piping the peanut butter buttercream onto one half of a cookie sandwich

Piping the peanut butter buttercream onto one half of a cookie sandwich

all of the ingredients on hand.  So there was a trip to the grocery store, plus a stop at a friend’s apartment for a pastry bag and vanilla paste (thanks guys!)

Around the start of the inaugural parade, we toasted the peanuts, assembled the dough, and began refrigerating it.  The cookbook offered an interesting tip for creaming the butter and peanut butter for the dough.  The book recommends holding your KitchenAid mixer bowl above a low flame on the stove to warm the bottom of the bowl.  This really helped the butter break down to a creamy (but not melted) consistency.

Two hours later, when it was time to cut the cookie rounds, the dough was too soft to get more than one cookie round at a time.  Thus, it had to harden in the freezer a bit.  Then the cookie rounds themselves needed to freeze for two hours.  By this time, the inaugural ball was beginning.

We finally got the cookies baked and cooling, and began production of the peanut butter buttercream filling.  I liked using simple syrup, which I had never thought to do in buttercream before, and the filling came out really fluffy.  It would be a great filling between cake layers.

In the end, the cookies were great.  Very buttery, very peanutty, and surprisingly, not that sweet.  I thought they were even better the next day, after they hardened in the fridge. They definitely deserved their spot of honor on the cookbook’s front cover, alongside a very necessary glass of milk.

Will I make them again? Probably not.  But it was definitely a fun experience!

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Chocolate Chip Biscotti

I’ve never been a big fan of store-bought biscotti.  Unless it comes from a quality Italian bakery, it seems to be hard and stale by the time I eat it.  I know you are intended to soften it with an espresso or a steaming mug of tea, but I wouldn’t usually choose it over a soft, chewy chocolate chip cookie.  Or any cookie, really.

That all changed when I decided to make homemade biscotti for dessert after an Italian dinner.  I’ve been experimenting with different variations of this Giada recipe.  Strangely, the recipe title does not include the word “biscotti” but that is what you get.  Soft and chocolatey, with a pleasing crunch and a good shelf life.

I’ve left out the anise seed, but otherwise stuck to the recipe.  I’ve also added chopped dried cranberries and 1 teaspoon almond extract.  When using cranberries, I recommend reducing the amount of chocolate chips by about 1/3 cup.  Otherwise, the chocolate overpowers the cranberry taste.

I’ve also shipped the biscotti out-of-state via UPS and it has arrived whole and still fresh.  I definitely recommend this recipe for a homemade gift for that coffee, tea, or cookie lover in your life!

Pumpkins, Pumpkins Everywhere!

‘Tis the season for pumpkin products in the stores and displays of mini pumpkins and squash at the store entrance.  I love pumpkin, so this is a welcome time, though I have been amazed at the growing diversity of pumpkin products.  It seems like there are more this year than ever before.  It’s exciting to see the pumpkin products arrive, and I suspect part of their appeal is that they are offered for a limited time.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin bars, pumpkin macarons, pumpkin roll, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cream cheese, pumpkin cookies (pictured), as well as the traditional pumpkin bread and pumpkin spice cake.  I spotted a pumpkin-flavored dark chocolate bar. I’ve also heard rumors of Pumpkin Pringles. Compared to all this, pumpkin pie seems downright boring!

Pepperidge Farm’s tasty Pumpkin Cheesecake Cookies

That’s just food.  As for beverages, I bought Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee and Stash Decaf Pumpkin Spice Tea.  My favorite Mexican restaurant has Pumpkin Margaritas on the menu!  I am also tempted by this recipe for Pumpkin Liqueur.  Not to mention all the delicious pumpkin ales out there.

I find this array of pumpkin products to be surprising because, amongst my family and friends, pumpkin is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food.  For every pumpkin lover, there is someone who can’t stand the taste, or even the smell.  Granted, many of these “pumpkin” products don’t contain any actual pumpkin – they are just flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other warm, homey fall spices.  I wonder how many people with a dislike for pumpkin are turned off by these products, even when they are pumpkin-free?

That’s not a worry for me – the pumpkiny-er the better!  I’ll post any updates on new pumpkin products as I try them.

Zucchini and Yellow Squash Chocolate Chip Cookies

You can just see the little specks of zucchini in the cookie. The yellow squash has disappeared.

What to do with all the zucchini and yellow squash that the end of summer brings?  Make chocolate chip cookies, of course!  Not only are you eating sweets and getting some vegetables at the same time, but the cookies freeze well too.

You can experiment with the ratio of zucchini and yellow squash, though I would always keep the balance more on the zucchini side.  For these cookies, I used 2 small zucchini and 1 small yellow squash.  You can also omit the yellow squash entirely.

I also mixed the chocolate chips, based on what I had leftover from other recipes.  There were semi-sweet, full milk chocolate, and about ½ cup mini chips, forming 2 cups total.  I liked how the cookies came out with the varying chips.

Here’s my recipe:

Ingredients:

1 stick of butter, room temperature

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

5 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

2-3 small zucchini and/or yellow squash (about 2 ½ cups, grated)

2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease your cookie sheets.  Cream butter and sugar together with a mixer.  Add flour gradually as you mix.  Add beaten eggs, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.  The mixture may be dry at this point, as the zucchini adds a lot of moisture.  Grate the zucchini and mix it into the cookie batter.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

Drop by the tablespoon onto cookie sheets and bake 12-15 minutes.  Cool on wire racks.  Enjoy!

Oreo-Stuffed Valentine Kisses

Recipe courtesy of Bakerella.

I was intrigued to try this cute, no-bake recipe for a Valentine’s Day party.  It turned out to be easy, made a lot of kisses, and was quite popular.

I bought the family-size Oreo box since it was on sale, and was immediately confused about the number of Oreos I needed.  I ended up using 3 sleeves of Oreos minus 7 cookies.

As you mix the cream cheese and crushed Oreos in the mixer, it will become evident whether you need a few more cookie crumbs.  The consistency should be like Play-Doh.

My first few kisses came out a bit funny-shaped, but I eventually got the hang of it.

I definitely recommend putting some kisses in the freezer while you dip the others.  The ones that spend more time in the freezer will also dry faster once they’ve been dipped.  Just don’t let them freeze completely! 

I used a toothpick inserted in the bottom of the kiss to dip them in the chocolate coating.  After they were dry, I wrapped each one, tucking a little strip of paper in the wrapping.  I picked out paper at the craft store that I thought resembled Hershey Kiss paper – a bit thin, but not as thin as tissue paper.  It didn’t quite give me the effect I would have liked.

Don’t forget to dip the remaining Oreos in the remaining chocolate for some yummy chocolate-covered Oreos – keep those a secret for yourself!

Given how easy this recipe was, I may try experimenting with different Oreos, like mint or the golden vanilla ones.  You could also add peppermint extract or a bit of liqueur to the chocolate coating.  Ooh, possibilities!

A Slow Start to Baking in 2012

I’ve been on crutches since the day after Christmas, which has made baking a bit of a challenge.  I’ve been saving up recipes to try once I am back on two feet.  In the meantime, when I have had occasion to bake something, I’ve been more of a baking director, ordering my wonderful boyfriend around the kitchen.

I do have two notable recipes to recommend though.  If you like blueberry pancakes, you’ll love Stonyfield Farm’s Blueberry Shortcake Cookies.  Moist (thanks to Stonyfield”s yummy yogurt!) and fruity, they taste just like a pancake to me.  I was lucky enough to find fresh berries at the supermarket for a reasonable price, even in the midst of winter.  I’m not sure how well the recipe would work with frozen ones.

I made a Chocolate Banana Yogurt Trifle last Sunday for the Patriots-Ravens game,  Yes, I know that trifle has nothing to do with football.  It was, however, an easy dish for me to put together while sitting at the kitchen table.

I layered the following ingredients in a trifle bowl from bottom to top (quantity varies based on the size of your bowl):

  • Chocolate bundt cake (no frosting) (I used about 1 1/2 cakes)
  • Raspberry preserves
  • Greek yogurt (2 quarts) (whip in in a mixer for a few minutes to loosen up and become more spreadable)
  • Banana slices

    Photo courtesy of myrecipes.com

  • Chocolate chips

Repeat this, ending with yogurt on the top.  You can decorate the top with a few chocolate chips or some banana slices, but soak the banana in a little lemon juice first so it doesn’t brown.

I didn’t get a picture of this before it was dished out.  Maybe next time!

Do Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies Taste Better?

I have recently become interested in vegan baking.  While not a vegan myself, I have had vegan dinner guests and preparing a dairy-free, eggless dessert has presented an exciting challenge.

How do you mimic the behavior of an egg in a baked product?  Eggs have magical scientific properties that make cakes rise and fluff, cookies moisten, and bread shine.  Leave an egg out of a recipe inadvertently (as I did once) and you’ll know it right away.  Can you imagine a soufflé without eggs?

 Vegan baked goods use a variety of ingredients to replace eggs, milk, and butter.  One vegan brownie recipe I tried used soymilk and canned pumpkin.  Some vegans will use applesauce.  Tofu is another common substitute, as is a flaxseed paste.  Several people online recommend Earth Balance brand margarine. Commercial bakeries use ingredients like brown rice syrup or evaporated cane juice as sweeteners.

 But how does all of this taste?  I can vouch for the cupcakes at the vegan Sticky Fingers Bakery in the D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights.  Their cupcakes are some of the best I’ve ever tasted—vegan or not.  You would truly never know they were unconventional.

 Having determined that there are good vegan cupcakes out there, I decided to compare another bakery staple—chocolate chip cookies.  I purchased cookies from Sticky Fingers and one of my D.C-area favorite traditional bakeries, Buzz.  Cookies from only two bakeries are admittedly a small sample, but I was limited in time and budget.  I gathered a scientific panel (my boyfriend’s family) and conducted a blind taste test.

 The Buzz cookies were fairly large, and used chocolate disks rather than chips.  The cookie itself had a nice brown sugar taste, but some complained that there were too many bites without chocolate.

 The Sticky Fingers cookies were moister, with smaller chips.  One tester immediately tasted an odd spice, something like nutmeg.

 When asked which cookie was vegan, all the testers immediately identified the Sticky Fingers cookie.  However, they agreed that it wasn’t that they disliked it, more just that something seemed “off” which made them suspect it was the vegan one.

 I enjoy the vegan chocolate chip cookies at Whole Foods more than their traditional ones.  The Whole Foods cookies are more chewy, and you can break them into pieces with one hand (which is convenient when eating them at your desk like I do).  I find the dough to have a more balanced taste.  Both the vegan and traditional cookies are available as single cookies (perfect for lunch) and they are the same price.  Whole Foods has also started carrying selected items from Sticky Fingers.

 While I don’t plan to make a habit of eating vegan desserts, I do enjoy investigating them and will be happy to share any tasty ones that come along.

Photo courtesy of joyofbaking.com

 

Can You Use Your Car as an Oven? I Try to Find Out

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One day while wandering the internet at work, I saw an idea at Baking Bites that was so crazy that I simply had to try it.

I work in suburban Virginia, where my car sits in a parking lot all day.  While most days I choose to park in a shady spot, on a recent 100+ degree Friday, I put my car in the sunniest spot I could find to (what else) bake cookies in it. [Read more…]