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Why hello, old friends! Happy 11-11-11! It’s been almost 2 years, but I’m making my way back to this portal of my life. The last time I posted here, I was just beginning my adventure at the bakery. And now that I have decided to leave that job behind, I am pretty much picking up where I left off.

Working at the bakery gave me the experience I wanted so desperately at the time. I was producing baked goods in a commercial kitchen and developing new skills, all while learning about an industry that has always intrigued me. Amongst all the fun I was having at the bakery, I continued to incorporate other personal and professional commitments into my life. I like staying busy but then, all of a sudden, I became a robot– routinely forcing myself place to place without the capacity to ever slow down.

Almost 2 years ago, I was searching for something– a sign, a spark of inspiration, a defined awakening that could point me directly toward where I am supposed to be, or rather who I am supposed to be, in this world. At the peak of my foodie frenzy, I allowed myself to accept an opportunity where I could explore whatever doubt I was maybe feeling. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. Never before had I committed to something on a whim, changing the course of my life plan.

Once my life started getting extremely hectic from bouncing back-and-forth between two jobs and classes, I began to waver between staying and leaving– staying because I truly love it or leaving because I wanted something more. In order to really focus on my long-term career goals, leaving was necessary so I could move forward. Ultimately, I did not choose to pursue culinary school and I am no longer continuing to work at the bakery, but I would still mark the past 2 years as a success. The experience taught me that baking is this big, and so sacred, part of me.

I may have left the bakery, but I don’t think I could ever completely walk away from baking. I am always thinking about what to make next– a recipe I’ve been aching to attempt or a creation idea I want to make real. I just can’t seem to ever turn those thoughts off. And I am sure my friends and loyal taste testers are thankful for that.

So this is where I’m at now… The holiday season is creeping up on me and I’m once again consumed by my kitchen and the persistent desire to create some delicious treats. I have been doing a lot of test baking lately to figure out which creations will make an appearance at Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are some sweets I’ve been experimenting with so far..

Apple Cinnamon Pop Tarts: Pate brisee with an apple cinnamon filling

Recipe for Apple Cinnamon Filling**
2 medium to large apples, peeled and sliced 1/4″ thick
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp + 2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
2 Tbsp flour

**These are estimated measurements. I will probably follow up with better defined measurements and full recipe instructions in a later post.

Pear-Apple Rustic Pie: sliced apple and pear filling with cranberries and sliced almonds wrapped in a pate brisse

Cinnamon Crunch Pear Muffins: moist muffin with bites of diced pear, cinnamon crunch topping

Chocolate-Filled Thumbprints: buttery, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread thumbprint cookies filled with a silky smooth chocolate ganache

Recipe for Chocolate Ganache

8 oz. good semisweet chocolate, shaved
3/4 C. whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla

1. Place shaved chocolate in a bowl.
2. Heat whipping cream in a small saucepan on medium high heat.
3. Take saucepan off the heat as soon as cream starts to boil.
4. Add hot cream to bowl of chocolate. Stir gently until smooth and even consistency. Add vanilla and continue to until incorporated.
5. Let the ganache cool and set before using.

I hope you enjoyed the picture preview… I am excited to get back to chronicling my experiences in the kitchen! This holiday season is going to be a great one!

nom nom nom,

B

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I hate to see my blog steering solely towards baked goods and sweets. The truth is, savory food really hits the spot for me. However, unlike the meals I used to prepare with my friends in college, I am hoping to do more than just cook a 30-minute meal. I know how to grill. I know how to throw together a hearty meat lasagna. I know all the shortcuts. But now, I’m trying to avoid them all. I want to explore my abilities in the kitchen and bring something new to the table.. literally.

Luckily I have an open palette to match my open mind, so there is nothing holding me back. A serious foodie never discriminates against food! And with that said, part of my mission is to also honor dishes of various styles, backgrounds, and cultures on this journey.

This morning, I came across a half moon press in our baking drawer– 3 half moon presses, actually (small, medium, and large). My mom bought them many many years ago, probably thinking we could use them to make pastries.. even though she doesn’t bake. She really loves kitchen knickknacks. (Guilty. I get that from my mama.) But what’s the point in owning appliances and gadgets that aren’t being used? Big pet peeve. Hence my sudden urge to break in the ice cream maker and popcorn maker within the past couple of months.

It took me about 20 seconds to think to myself: Empanadas! The half moon press is perfect for empanadas! And I saved myself a trip to the grocery store, because I had all the ingredients for the dough. As for the filling, I quickly played around with a few ideas in my head as I scanned the kitchen. I wasn’t worried.

Empanada Dough

INGREDIENTS

2-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into 1/2-in cubes
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

DIRECTIONS:

1. Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some (roughly pea-size) butter lumps.

2. Beat together egg, water, and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until just incorporated. (Mixture will look shaggy.)

3. Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and gather together, then knead gently with heel of your hand once or twice, just enough to bring the dough together. Form dough into a flat rectangle and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 1 hour.

*Recipe courtesy of Epicurious.

The empanada dough is comparable to a flaky Pâte Brisée (tart or pie dough). Same basic ingredients, same procedure. The addition of the egg, which differs from a Pâte Brisée, acts as a binding force for empanadas. When rolling out the dough, you will see that it has a semi-elastic quality that a Pâte Brisée does not. Thus, when baked, the empanada will be able to hold its shape (and the filling) and won’t immediately crumble apart when broken into to eat! The final empanada will have a bite to it.. a slightly tender chew.. with a flaky exterior.

Once you place the dough into the refrigerator, keep time in mind; you have an hour to spare. It’s better to let the dough chill in the refrigerator for a little bit longer (if the filling isn’t quite done) than have the filling be ready before the 1-hour chill time is up. It only took me about 30 minutes to make my filling, including prep time.

This is my original recipe for the filling I created:

Sausage, Spinach, and Mushroom Empanada Filling

INGREDIENTS

1 package of frozen sausage links (I used Hot Italian because I like the spicy flavor), defrosted
1 medium onion, sliced (cut in half vertically, then cut in slices end to end)
2 cups white mushrooms, sliced
1 cup uncooked spinach, washed and dried
3 tablespoons sour cream

DIRECTIONS

1. Cut a slit in each sausage link with a knife and remove meat from the casing.

2. Place sausage meat, onions, and mushrooms into a heated and lightly oiled pan. Cook on medium to medium high heat. Stir occasionally and break up large chunks of sausage to ensure thorough cooking.

3. When the meat has just about reached its doneness, stir in spinach. Let the spinach wilt down. Then add sour cream, stirring until incorporated. Turn the heat down to medium low and keep it on the stove for about 3 more minutes.

4. Take the pan off the stove. Let the filling cool down before placing it onto the empanada dough.


After you add the sour cream and let it all heat up a little longer, the filling really came together. The sour cream thickened the juices from the ingredients. By allowing the filling to cool down, the juices dissipate and get soaked up by the whole mixture.

So, let’s see how it’s all put together..

I removed my chilled dough from the refrigerator. Lightly flour the board and rolling pin.. keep some  flour around for additional use but avoid over-flouring. Roll out the dough to an approximate 1/8″ thickness. It should be rolled out fairly thin, but NOT paper thin. I just know I don’t want them to end up too doughy. I hate that.

For the next part, my medium half moon press comes into play. But, remember, if you don’t have a half moon press, don’t be intimidated. You can use the same procedure. Instead, cut your dough into circles (for a half moon shape) or rectangles (for a square shape) and pinch to close with your fingers or the back of a fork.

I was able to use the back of my press to cut out the circle shape into my dough. I rolled and cut, re-rolled and cut.. until all the dough was used up, placing all my circles onto a plate. I prepared an egg wash (one beaten egg) in a small bowl.

I placed the dough on the inside of my press, added the filling into the center with a little bit of shredded cheese (although the empanada surely doesn’t need it).

With a small dabble of egg wash, I brushed along the edge of the dough. This acts as the glue.. keeping it sealed up.

Then, all I had to do was press the two handles together. Tip: If the dough circles feel sticky, lightly flour one side (the side laying directly on the press) with your fingertips. Do so as needed.

Once all the empanadas were pressed. I place them onto a cookie sheet. Brushed each with the egg wash. Fit as many empanadas onto the sheet as you can without crowding.

I put the sheet into a preheated 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes, checking them out periodically and rotating the sheet halfway through. I knew they were done when they turned a golden brown color.

And there you have it.. Empanadas! Or shall I say MmmPanadas.

nom nom nom.

B

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I love the sweet, warm aroma of cinnamon rolls. The scent– the thought– always reminds me of  Throwdown with Bobby Flay. One episode featured a “Sticky Bun Throwdown”. Bobby challenged a Harvard graduate in Mathematics turned baker with “the best” sticky buns in the Boston area. Before Bobby surprises the challenger with the proposition of a “throwdown”, he heads to his test kitchen. With the help of Mariam and Stefanie, they try out many different combinations and distinguish their likes and dislikes before deciding on what they will present when going up against the challenger. Whatever the challenge– sticky buns, tacos, cupcakes– the premises of the show is to convey that there are so many variations in technique and use of ingredients. Whether they deliver a final product that is simple or complicated, the winner is determined solely by the tastes and preferences of two random judges.

Throwdown is one of my favorite shows on the Food Network. I love watching the individuals– the everyday nobodies– credited on the show for their popular eats. It’s also interesting to watch Bobby in the test kitchen with Mariam and Stefanie as each step of their process compares and contrasts with the challenger’s approach. Part of being a good chef/baker is taking risks. Don’t be afraid to pursue ideas– the sparks of, perhaps, creative genius– that personalizes your food. It’s important to understand your style and your taste. Like some of my favorite food shows on television, a successful chef is proven to be one that is confident and in control while in the kitchen. Learn from your mistakes.. use your knowledge of food as a guide to pursue your creative license in a sensible fashion.

I watched that particular episode of Throwdown over a year ago, and I can’t tell you who won that challenge. (Although, I have a feeling it wasn’t Bobby.) All I remember is wanting to make my own version of sticky buns one day.

When most people think of Thanksgiving, they immediately associate the holiday with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes. Of course, for me, holidays are just another excuse to bake. I think about Thanksgiving in the context of baked goods and desserts. Pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, pecan pie, something that will fill my house with the smell of Fall. So, with the sudden urge to create a delicious dish for the Thanksgiving table, I wanted to take on this sticky bun challenge.

Because I do not have any culinary training, I always start by doing my research. I knew that I would not be using anything premade.. that would take away from the whole challenge aspect. For any sticky bun dough, it’s important to have yeast. Luckily, I had one packet of yeast in my kitchen. In the grocery store, yeast is located in the baking section. I usually buy yeast in the packets of 3, because I don’t use much and I don’t have to worry about measuring it out. The other two packets were used for my soft pretzel and pizza dough creations.. but that is another story. Having that one packet of yeast saved me a trip to the grocery store and allowed me to continue my mission. Those little guys come in handy, so it doesn’t hurt to have a few of those packets stocked in the kitchen.

I decided that I wanted to start off with a brioche dough. It contains the basic ingredients of bread– yeast, butter, eggs, salt, flour. However, the brioche dough, when baked, resembles more of a pastry than a bread. Due to the larger amounts of butter and eggs, the richness of the dough makes it perfect as a base for pastries.

I found a great recipe for a Brioche dough from Artisan Bread in Five. The original recipe yields about 4 loaves, which was more than I intended on making. I also noticed that, because of the large yield, the recipe called for 2 packets of yeast. So, I decided to cut the recipe in half– accommodating to my 1 packet of yeast without changing the measurement ratios of the ingredients. I did the proper calculations and came up with this recipe based on Artisan Bread in Five’s Brioche dough. The recipe is only halved, the same ingredients and original instructions still apply.

Brioche dough (yields about 2 loaves)

INGREDIENTS

3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 1/4 teaspoons granulated yeast (1 packet)
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup honey
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

DIRECTIONS

1. Mix the yeast, salt, eggs, honey and melted butter with the water in 5-quart bowl, or lidded (not airtight) food container.

2. Mix in the flour, using a spoon until all the flour is incorporated.

3. Cover (not airtight), and allow to sit at room temperature for about two hours.

4. The dough can be used as soon as it is chilled. (The dough is way too sticky to use after initial rise.) It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

MY COMMENTS:

First of all, I chose this recipe because the instructions are basic and easy. Combine all the ingredients but the flour. Then, combine the flour. I love recipes that only require one bowl! It really can’t get much easier than that. The prep time is less than 5 minutes. Most of the work is done by the yeast. In the 2 hours it takes to rise, you can focus on another dish or sit down to watch a movie. Plus, the dough can be chilled up to 5 days! So, because I know I’ll use up the dough, I probably would have gone for the 4 loaf yield if I had two packets of yeast instead of one. The beauty is that you can make one big batch or split up the dough into several batches to test out different ways of using it.

Secondly, when adding the flour, avoid clumping. The first time I made this dough, I noticed that adding in all the flour at once cause lumps in my dough. If you allow lumps in the dough when entering the rising stage, don’t think that the lumps will go away. In fact, the lumps will become more prominent after the dough rises and when chilled. When you are ready to use the dough, the worst thing is having a dough with hard flour lumps! I tried to pick some out when I was ready to use the dough because I wasn’t sure how that would impact the dough when baked. When I made the dough a second time, I decided to take a more careful approach. I first sifted my flour (not necessary but safe). And incorporated the flour in small amounts at a time, using an electric mixer on low speed with a dough hook. As long as you remember not to over-mix, the dough will be much smoother when ready to use.

Thirdly, the recipe calls for unsalted butter. There is a lasting debate on use of unsalted vs. salted butter. Specifying unsalted butter makes it easier to control the amount of salt in the recipe. Some say, it’s okay to use salted butter if you take out the amount of salt the recipe asks to add. This is incorrect. You may be lucky and it may work.. but it could also go very wrong. It’s definitely a risk. But, it’s a risk that I personally try to avoid. With salted butter, you don’t really know exactly how much salt it contains. It may contain more or less than what you may need for your recipe. A complete tossup. So, especially for baking, it is better to have unsalted butter around the house. A cooking rule of thumb is that it’s easier to add to what you’ve got than to subtract!

Lastly, it is important to remember that this dough contains yeast. Yeast WILL cause the dough to rise about double the size of batch when it is initially combined. The recipe says to use a 5-quart bowl or lidded container (for the 4 loaf yield!).. I used a large mixing bowl that held over 5-quarts for the halved recipe. The bowl I used did not have a lid, so I covered the bowl with plastic wrap (the bowl, not the dough!) And placed a large cutting board on top to hold the plastic wrap down– keeping the area sealed, but again, not airtight.

TEST KITCHEN JOURNEY:

The website where I found the Brioche dough recipe further included recipe ideas using the dough. One link was for caramel sticky buns. The page features a step-by-step pictured process to making cute mini cinnamon buns. I used a small portion of my dough to try it out. Following the same technique, I recreated a few of the mini cinnamon rolls with icing. Baking at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

The small test batch did, in fact, turn out just like the picture on the webpage. Using a mini muffin tin was a cute spin on cinnamon rolls– the bite-size “donut hole” of cinnamon rolls. My main purpose for doing a small test batch was to observe the bake of the dough. Taste it. The honey in the Brioche dough recipe adds a nice flavor to the dough. It is not too sweet, but perfect for a cinnamon roll/sticky bun. Sometimes, when I eat pastries, the dough that is left with no icing or no glaze is pretty terrible. Flavorless. This dough defies that pastry stereotype. The delicate sweetness of the pastry with the swirl of brown sugar and cinnamon is a great combination. With rolls, you never get a flavorless bite!

Loving the outcome of the cinnamon roll, I decided to kick it up a notch. Using the dough I had left (about 1 1/2 loaves worth of dough), I followed the same steps to the cinnamon roll.

Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a rectangle (about 1/4″ thickness).

Top it with a hearty helping of brown sugar and an light (and even) sprinkle of cinnamon. Use your fingertips to blend brown sugar and cinnamon. Add more brown sugar/cinnamon as see fit. At this point, you can also add raisins/Craisins, chopped nuts, or any other filling you would like to see in your swirl! Leave a 1/2″ border around edges.

Roll the dough, beginning with one of the longer sides of the rectangle. Pinch to close.

This time, I wanted them full-sized and full of flavor. I decided to create my own goo. A technique I picked up on Throwdown, a goo is spread out on the bottom of the tray. The sliced cinnamon rolls sit on top of the goo, soaking it all up while they are baking.

My goo started off with a butter and brown sugar base. Accounting for the amount of dough I had left, I had to make a good amount of goo to cover the bottom of my tray so that no cinnamon roll would be gooless. In a saucepan, I heated 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick).

After the butter is completely melted, I added about 1 cup of packed brown sugar while stirring on low heat.

The ratio of butter to brown sugar is about 1:2. While you are stirring, you will notice if the goo is the right consistency. You are looking for the mixture to be somewhat runny, but only appears as if there is slightly more butter than brown sugar. If it looks like you may need a little more brown sugar, add it.. it won’t hurt! But, again, remember that it is always a good idea to add small amounts at a time. Don’t go overboard! The goo is a sugary caramel flavor. And I thought orange would be a nice pairing. So, with my saucepan still on low heat, I added about 1 teaspoon of fresh orange zest and about 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed juice from the orange.

Reminder: zest before juice! It may not seem like a lot, but that little amount of zest and juice incorporates the perfect hint of citrusy flavor.

I chopped up a handful of pecans and threw them into the saucepan, as well.

I love adding nuts to baked goods. Nuts tend to bind everything together.. in this case, the goo. Pecans remind me of Thanksgiving, so I thought they would be nice to add given the occasion. The sugary-citrusy-nuttiness of the goo was the right pairing for the cinnamon in the rolls.

Pour the goo into the tray while it is still hot.

The goo falls out of the saucepan easily and cleanly. I spread the goo into my tray as evenly as possible– getting to each corner so that the every cinnamon roll would be covered with the goo. Slice the cinnamon rolls (about 3/4″) and space them out on the tray.

Make sure they are not pressed up against the sides. You don’t want them too crowded initially, because they will expand AND rise when they are baked! Press down on the middles of each slice on the tray. This will allow the roll to rise at the same level. Otherwise, the middle of the roll might protrude. Once preparing the tray, let the rolls sit for a couple minutes. Then pop them into the oven at 350 degrees. Depending on how big or small your rolls turn out, the bake times will vary. The bake time of my tray was about 20-22 minutes. I set the timer for 15 and checked periodically after that. Once the rolls look slightly golden on top, you know they are done. You can tell if the rolls still look doughy. Also take note that the cinnamon/brown sugar swirl should exhibit a caramelized look rather than “sugary”.

My mom was less than impressed when my rolls came out of the oven. Yes, they looked good but she questioned my technique. “Why did you put the goo on the bottom of the tray? Don’t you want it to be on the top?”

The whole technique was all-intentional. With the goo heating up on the bottom of the tray, beneath our rising cinnamon rolls, the rolls are soaking up the caramelizing goo. The cinnamon rolls are able to bake to their full potential but also become “one” with the goo and all its flavor. Let the tray cool for a few minutes after removing from the oven. This will allow the goo to really stick to the rolls. While still warm, carefully, use a spatula to cut out each roll.. scraping underneath the goo (because they are “one” now!).. and flipping it over onto a separate plate/platter. Scoop up all the extra goo that may be left in the tray and load it on top of the plated sticky buns. Don’t let it go to waste! You want to remove the sticky buns from the tray and flip them over while the goo is still warm so that the drippy goo can sneak its way into the swirls of the cinnamon rolls. Mmm.. Delicious!

HAPPY ENDING:

This is the final product..

Ta Da! And what makes these sticky buns? The goo, of course. It’s all about the goo baby! When I think of cinnamon rolls I think of my small test batch– cinnamon, brown sugar (some also add a layer of butter in there) swirl with a simple powdered sugar-based icing. Sticky buns incorporate the idea of the cinnamon roll (always getting a tasty bite as you pick apart the spiral) with a more elaborate topping. Like the fudge on top of an ice cream sundae, the goo adds something extra to the cinnamon roll. A melt-in-your-mouth sense of decadence. Sticky buns would be nothing without the goo. Whether you eat them while they’re hot out of the oven or warm them up later for seconds (or thirds, or fourths..), the extra ooey gooeyness of the sticky bun is fingerlickin’ good.. literally.

nom nom nom.

B

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