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Oh, bread. Why are you so scrumptious? I have a serious weakness for 3 things: bread, cheese, and potatoes. Maybe these are my top 3 because they can be devoured in so many different forms. But of the three, bread is especially fascinating for a baker like me. And fresh bread is just incredible.

Yesterday, I was really craving something fresh yet substantial. Immediately, I thought of a Caprese salad. Afterall, what’s not to love? Mozzarella.. Good. Tomato.. Good. Basil.. Good. Put them all together.. GOOOOOOOD. But when I stopped by the bakery, I felt the urge to grab a fresh loaf of French bread. So I decided to build a Caprese French Bread instead.

I sliced the loaf in half to give myself two flat platforms. Next, in a small saucepan, I infused a couple cloves of minced garlic into melted butter at medium heat. That mixture was liberally brushed onto the open bread. I placed the garlic bread on a large sheet tray and baked at 425 degrees until the bread started to get slightly crispy– when edges begin to turn a golden color and the soft middle is just toasted. Then I piled sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella (crumbled into large chunky pieces) all over the garlic bread and popped it back into the oven until the cheese was completely melted. The final touch was a chiffonade of fresh basil sprinkled generously over the top with a little salt and pepper. I chopped the Caprese French bread up into individual serving sizes and they were ready to gobble up! Fresh. Crunchy. Satisfying!

Today, particularly inspired to use my cast iron skillet, I was determined to make these Rapid Rolls I saw on Kelsey’s Essentials on The Cooking Channel. I’ve made many doughs requiring yeast, but this is by far the easiest recipe I’ve come across to date. Anyone can achieve equally as impressive results with just 2 essential tools– a stand mixer and a cast iron skillet.

Rapid Rolls (Courtesy of Kelsey Nixon)

INGREDIENTS

3 (.25- oz) packets active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups warm water
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup melted butter, plus more for brushing
2 teaspoons, plus more for sprinkling
2 large eggs, beaten
4 to 6 cups flour, plus more if needed

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the instant yeast, and warm water. Let it activate for 5 minutes until bubbly. Stir in the honey.

On low speed, add 1/2 cup melted butter, 2 teaspoons salt, and eggs. Slowly add the flour cup-by-cup until fully incorporated and the dough pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Add more flour if it is too sticky.

Portion the dough into 24 even servings. Form the rolls into desired shape and place in a cast iron skillet or on a baking sheet spaced evenly apart. Set aside and allow to rise approximately 20 minutes, or until doubled in size. Brush the rolls with melted butter.

Bake for 25 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Remove from the oven and brush with more melted butter, and sprinkle with a little salt.

Notes: Rapid Rolls

When making the dough, I only used 1/4 cup of honey versus the 1/2 cup stated in the recipe. I opted out of making the dough too sweet, because I don’t like sweet dinner rolls. I only used half of the dough to make 12 rolls in my cast iron skillet. With the other half of the dough, I will probably use it to make cinnamon rolls tomorrow morning. When using the rest of the dough, I can then control the sweetness and taste by adding a trusty combination of brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon.

Other than the amount of honey, I followed the recipe as it is.. Even the melted butter before and after baking and a final sprinkling of Kosher salt at the end. The butter and salt at the very end really bring out the flavor of the rolls, so do it!

This is what the rolls looked like before popping them into the oven (with the tops brushed with melted butter)…

And then, straight out of the oven..

When I broke into the perfectly-pieced puzzle of rolls, I fell in love. The rolls pull apart effortlessly. They are light, fluffy, and wonderful. These rolls will surely be at my Thanksgiving table! I suggest you bring them to yours, as well. Super for soaking up all the gravy!

But what did I decide to do with these rolls? I made sliders! I seasoned some ground beef and cooked the patties with my cast iron skillet on the stovetop.

Thanksgiving will be even better this year now that I’ve discovered this recipe. After the big Thanksgiving feast, I can’t wait to make little mini Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches with these!! I can already imagine the turkey, dressing, and gravy goodness stuffed into these yummy rolls!

Bread is most often represented as something we munch on before the meal or as a side to compliment a dish. However, once in a while, highlight the beauty of freshly baked bread. Break that bread apart and decorate it with the food you love most.

nom nom nom,

B

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An idea came to me, I experimented, and I think I’ve stumbled upon something truly extraordinary. I’ve never been a big fan of thumbprint cookies, because I don’t have an affinity for crunchy sugar cookies. But there is one thumbprint exception that seriously changed my life. It was so long ago, but I can still remember how the cookie melted in my mouth, the chocolate fudge in the center was rich and decadent, and the sprinkles on top made the cookie look extra special.

For years, I’ve dreamt about that cookie.. I have just never seen anything like it anywhere else (or maybe I just don’t get out enough). But finally, I made it my mission to recreate this delightful memory from my childhood and reclaim that feeling of oh so happy bite-sized bliss.

I hardly ever make sugar cookies. They get stale quickly and they really just taste like plain white granulated sugar. Conversely, I absolutely love making shortbreads. A plain shortbread is like a blank canvas. It’s so much fun to experiment with different add-ins like nuts, citrus zest, shredded coconut, nuts, dried fruit.. And I’ve even made chocolate Nutella shortbread, too!

Jam is a popular filling for thumbprint cookies. I usually like to make my own jam now, because it makes a huge difference and it’s surprisingly very easy. But since I didn’t have any fresh berries on hand and I wanted to stay true to the cookie I remember, I decided to stick with a chocolate filling.

Chocolate Filled Thumbprint Cookies– yields about 17 cookies

Essential Tools: stand mixer (hand mixer will work too!), small ice cream scoop, decorating tip

Basic Shortbread Dough Recipe

INGREDIENTS
1 C. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 C. powdered sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 C. All purpose flour
1/2 C. cornstarch
1/2 tsp Kosher salt

DIRECTIONS
1. Beat butter in a stand mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed for 1 minute or until it has an even consistency.
2. Add powdered sugar and vanilla to the butter. Start on low speed and then bring up medium speed for 3 minutes, mixing until light and smooth.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, and salt. Set this mixture aside.
4. Use a spatula to scrape down the mixing bowl and paddle. Mix again for 30 seconds on medium speed.
5. Add the dry mixture to mixing bowl. Mix on the lowest speed until everything comes together and completely incorporated. Avoid over mixing!
6. Turn the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Wrap the dough up tightly and then flatten into an even disc shape about 1″ thick. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hr before using.
7. Use a small ice cream scoop to dish out even proportions of the cold dough onto a parchment lined sheet tray. Place a thumbprint in the center of each rounded portion.
8. Bake for 16 minutes at 350 degrees (300 degrees in a convection oven) rotating the tray half way through.
9. Leave the cookies on the tray for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

NOTES: for shortbread
Since this is a basic shortbread recipe, it is quite versatile and not exclusive to making thumbprints. Refrigerating the dough is necessary because the dough is very sticky from all that butter! It’s much easier to work with once it has chilled. I also love using this dough to make fun shapes with cookie cutters. If I’m rolling out the shortbread, I like keep the dough at about 1/2″ thick, so the shortbreads have a nice depth to them and they will bake at the same time consistent to what is stated in this recipe.

When baking cookies, it’s easy to look for a golden brown color or how much the cookie spreads to measure doneness. However, shortbreads need to be baked very carefully because you shouldn’t look for either of these qualities. If you notice they are turning golden, then they are overcooked. Although the cookie will still taste good, it will have a crispier and drier consistency. That’s not quite what we’re shooting for with these! But if that’s how you like your cookies, then go for it. I like these to be light and somewhat flaky so they melt in my mouth– really maximizing the purpose of the butter!

Once the shortbread thumbprints come out of the oven, the thumbprint impression won’t be as deep as initially punctured. So immediately once they come out of the oven, while they are still hot, I do a second gentle thumbprint. It will crackle slightly when doing so, but that’s okay because it’ll be covered up anyway. I like to keep the “thumbprint” deep so there is more room to fill with chocolate!

Chocolate Ganache Recipe

INGREDIENTS
8 oz. semisweet chocolate
3/4 C. whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla extract (*or substitute with your favorite flavored liquor)

DIRECTIONS
1. Shave or grate the chocolate and place into a medium sized mixing bowl.
2. Heat the whipping cream in a small saucepan on medium high heat.
3. When the cream just starts to come to a boil, immediately remove from the heat and add to the mixing bowl of chocolate.
4. Stir gently with a heat-proof spatula until everything is incorporated together. Then add vanilla and continue stirring until even consistency.
5. Let the ganache cool just until it is no longer runny. About 20 min at room temperature.
6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a decorating tip with the ganache.
7. Pipe the ganache into the center of the cookies.

NOTES: for chocolate ganache
I’ve used a great, flawless recipe for chocolate ganache by Pioneer Woman in the past to make chocolate truffles. However, this is a much simpler, and equally as satisfying, way to make ganache. Ideally, I prefer to use good quality chocolate baking bars since chocolate is the star ingredient here. Semisweet is very familiar for most people, but a combination of semisweet and bittersweet (60% cacao) is also fabulous. Or plain old chocolate chips work, too.. I know I always have a bag laying around!

Shaving or grating the chocolate bars will allow the ganache to come together in less than one minute. If the chocolate is chopped up into pieces or if you are working with chocolate chips, constant stirring is very important once the hot cream is added. You definitely do not want a clumpy ganache! It should be silky smooth!

The first time I made these cookies, I made the mistake of popping the bowl of ganache into the refrigerator to cool faster. I forgot I wasn’t trying to make chocolate truffles. For this recipe, be patient when it comes to the ganache. Chocolate can be very temperamental.. The consistency can change very quickly with temperature. It will look runny and liquid-like at first, but it will thicken as it continues to cool and set. Speed up the process by placing a cool towel underneath the bowl. Stir the ganache every once in a while to keep smooth and to check the consistency. When the bottom of the bowl is no longer warm to the touch and the ganache is thick (but also still soft) enough to scoop into a piping bag, it is ready to use. Make sure the cookies have already cooled and try to pipe the ganache into the cookies as quickly as possible. The ganache will continue to set and it can harden suddenly.

Using a piping bag and decorating tip (round or star) will give these cookies a aesthetically neat and clean look. If you don’t have a piping bag and decorating tip, you can fill a plastic ziplock bag with the ganache. Cut one of the bottom corners of the bag and carefully squeeze to “pipe” out the ganache.

If you happen to have extra ganache, make a few truffles! Roll little balls of the ganache into some cocoa powder or chopped almonds. Treat yourself for all that hard work!

Want to know what you can do with chocolate ganache? Here are some ideas!
1. Use immediately when it is liquid-like to cover a cake or to dip cookies.
2. Refrigerate and let it set completely. Then use a small ice cream scoop (or tablespoon) to make chocolate truffles. Dip these into melted chocolate wafers/buttons for a chocolate hardshell.
3. Whip the ganache while it is in liquid form in a stand mixer. As it cools and whips it will incorporate air, creating a fluffier consistency. Use this to decorate cupcakes!

These cookies are now one of my all-time favorites! The best part about these cookies is their shelf life; they won’t “go bad” after a couple days like most other cookies. Both shortbread and chocolate ganache will taste fresh for quite a while as long as they are stored in an airtight container. But really, don’t let these sit around for more than a week. These cookies are so easy to make.. I just made them twice in 2 days!

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do! Make these cookies for people you love.. Or people you want to love you!

nom nom nom,
B

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Mom says I never make any of my great creations while M is home. Geez. It’s not like I’m a professional here. But I promised that I would feed M well while she is home for the holidays. The holiday baking was quite intense, but we all survived. Unfortunately, the pounds of brown sugar, powdered sugar, chocolate, flour, eggs, and vanilla did not make it past December 25th. Christmas was a big baked goods extravaganza. But now, it’s time to settle back into reality.

So, I’ve been repeating a number of the recipes I’ve already tested for M to try out. Poor girl never got the chance to indulge the first time around. She finally tried the caramel corn when I made it for Christmas. Yesterday we made strombolis with tomato basil sauce, pepperoni, salami, and mozzarella. This morning, we made buttermilk pancakes. M didn’t quite understand the process. It is obviously more effort than using pancake mix from a box. However, like I said before, it is well worth it. M gobbled up the light, fluffy, airy, scrumptious buttermilk pancakes hot off the griddle. So good that she didn’t even want syrup! What a happy camper.. Made me happy to share the same pancake heaven I experienced for the first time a few weeks ago.

It’s been nice having someone around to eat all this food! Sometimes, it gets overwhelming producing so much food without enough mouths to finish everything when it’s hot, fresh, at its most desired eatability. Today, after buttermilk pancakes, I made the pizza dough again. This time, we used the pizza dough recipe to make pizzas instead of strombolis. We had a whole bunch of extra ingredients. In addition to the tomato basil sauce, pepperoni, salami, and mozzarella, I loaded some sauteed chopped broccoli, red bell pepper, and onion onto my pizza.

We had a couple somethings hot.. so, to mix it up, here’s something cold. It may be winter, but you can’t fool me– it’s never too cold for ice cream. As you know, I’ve only made ice cream once before and I told you I would continue to put my ice cream maker to use.

Last night, I adapted my own Orange Creamsicle Ice Cream using the Ben and Jerry’s French Vanilla Ice Cream recipe as a guide. The plan was to create a vanilla ice cream base and orange combination that will model the idea of an orange creamsicle.

Orange Creamsicle Ice Cream

INGREDIENTS

2 eggs
3/4 cups white granulated sugar
2 cups whipping cream
3/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 fl oz. (1/2 16 fl oz can) frozen orange juice concentrate

DIRECTIONS

1. Whisk the eggs until light and fluffy

2. Whisk in the sugar until completely blended.

3. Pour in the whipping cream and milk. Whisk until blended. Then add vanilla extract and frozen orange juice concentrate, and keep whisking until smooth.

4. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

5. Store in an airtight container and keep in the freezer.

If you love ice cream and orange like me, you will adore this recipe. It’s refreshing, creamy, and better than any creamsicle you will ever eat!

For a special treat, ditch the extra sweet toppings and make an ice cream float! I placed a couple scoops of my Orange Creamsicle ice cream into a glass. Then, instead of using soda, I topped my glass off with Martinelli’s Apple Sparkling Cider. It’s fabulous!!

M will be around for a few more days before she returns back to the other coast right after New Years. I’m sure we will have a many more adventures in our kitchen before she leaves. With that said, I should start coordinating a few more meal ideas for the rest of the week.

nom nom nom.

B

P.S. Thanks for the mention, M. ūüôā

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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 P√Ęte Bris√©e (tart or pie dough). Same basic ingredients, same procedure. The addition of the egg, which differs from a P√Ęte Bris√©e, acts as a binding force for empanadas. When rolling out the dough, you will see that it has a semi-elastic quality that a P√Ęte Bris√©e 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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Today, the 2-week countdown until Christmas begins! I was just thinking about how I haven’t made shortbread cookies in a while.. After making a batch today, I will probably start making them more often. I usually try to avoid cookies that call for refrigeration time and require rolling the dough out. But, I guess since I’ve been making so many doughs lately (brioche dough, pizza dough), I’ve grow accustomed to the process.

Shortbread is actually a pretty basic cookie: flour, salt, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla.

I used a recipe from JoyOfBaking.com. Lately, everytime I’ve been looking for recipes, I always run into the Joy of Baking site. So, I decided to try out the Shortbread Cookies recipe.

Shortbread Cookies

INGREDIENTS

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

1. In a separate bowl whisk the flour with the salt. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with hand mixer), cream the butter until smooth (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat until smooth (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated. Flatten the dough into a disk shape, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill the dough for at least an hour.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with the rack in the middle of the oven. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thick. Cut into rounds or whatever shapes you wish using lightly floured cookie cutter. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet and place in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. This will firm up the dough so the cookies will maintain their shape when baked.

5. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until cookies are lightly brown. Cool on rack.

MY NOTES:

I immediately liked this recipe, simply because she said to whisk the flour and salt together. Not many people know that whisking the dry ingredients is the same as sifting them together! The only difference, in my opinion, is that whisking is so much easier! It’s a great tip I learned one day while watching Martha Stewart’s Holiday Cookies special.

Once I added the whole flour mixture, the dough was of a very fragile and crumbly consistency. It reminded me of the flour and butter/shortening mixture when making biscuits before adding the buttermilk. After combining everything to the best of my ability, I pressed the dough into the bottom of my bowl to imitate a disk– a foe disk, I suppose. I laid out a good-size amount of plastic wrap and turned my bowl over onto it. Unfortunately, it crumbled as it fell. But then, I found I was able to reshape the dough very easily by folding over lengths of the plastic wrap and pressing the dough together from outside of the wrap. The dough making contact with the plastic wrap instead of my hands directly, was very helpful. When I tried using my hands, the dough stuck to them like glue! I hate being messy.. and wasteful of the dough!

It is important to form the dough in a disk shape before refrigeration. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but the disk shape will allow the dough to chill quickly and evenly. If you place a cookie dough ball into the refrigerator for the said amount of time, the outside will be chilled but the center will not!

Once the cookies are chilled for an hour, the dough will be very stiff. I tried to roll the dough out with no great success. It was cracking at the edges when I was trying to roll it out! Plus, the dough was sticking to my rolling pin even after I lightly floured it! This was not looking good. I ended up reworking the dough a bit, and that solved all of my problems. Since the dough has so much butter it did, eventually, roll out cleanly.

When baking my cookies, I had one batch on a sheet lined with parchment paper and one batch directly on the baking sheet. Both sheets cooked exactly the same. My understanding is that the parchment paper is mainly used for convenience– the ability to slide the cookies from refrigerator to pan and pan to cooking rack with ease. It can also make cleanup easy. Usually, parchment paper is used to keep cookies or cakes from sticking to the pan. However, since these cookies are butter-based, they will not be sticking to the baking sheet. And because I always wash my baking sheets after I use them, it doesn’t really make much of a difference to me. So, in my opinion, if you don’t have any around, don’t worry about making parchment paper a priority for these cookies.

I ended up going with a basic circle shape. I used the rim of a glass for uniformity. Because I wanted to try this plain shortbread cookie dough first (to see if I loved it enough to want to put my own twist on another batch), I knew I had to find some way to make these cookies my own. So, I made a simple chocolate glaze– chocolate chips, butter, and a little heavy cream melted over a double boiler– to give the shortbread some character. Now, this is the time to use parchment/wax paper. While the dipped chocolate on the cookies set onto the paper, ¬†I added some festive sprinkles as a final touch. I placed the cookies in the refrigerator for a few minutes to allow the chocolate to fully set– doing so doesn’t change the texture of the cookie at all. It just makes it easier to safely and cleanly remove the cookies from the paper. These are a few..

I’ve eaten some shortbread that are too heavy and too dry. I want to savor my cookie, not choke! Don’t worry. This is the recipe to use. These cookies melt in your mouth– and rightfully so because of all that butter! I will be using this shortbread recipe as a base for a few other shortbread variations I will be embarking on this season! Stay tuned!

nom nom nom.

B

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Last night was the season finale of Top Chef: Las Vegas. It was sad to see Jenn go last week, but I’m glad she made it to the final 4. The final 3 contestants– Kevin and Bryan and Michael Voltaggio– battled for the title of Top Chef. When presenting their dishes to the judges, each of the finalists had successful and faulty dishes. At the Judges Table, I honestly couldn’t figure out who would be pronounced Top Chef! For me, it was a complete tossup. Kevin, Bryan, and Michael have been the most consistent all season. They all deserved to be in the finals, and they are all great chefs. I particularly enjoyed the fact that each of them portray very different styles in their cuisine. Kevin: Flavorful simplicity. Bryan: Combining traditional and modern styles. Michael: Fearless innovation.

Kevin was eliminated first. Thus, like we suspected from the beginning, it was a battle between the Voltaggio brothers. The brothers have continuously proven their culinary proficiency by creating and successfully executing dishes with greater difficulty than any of the other contestants in the competition. So, though we may have foreseen this brotherly battle, which Voltaggio would take it all? The comments from the judges made it seem like Bryan had it; his venison dish and dessert were on point. Instead, to my personal astonishment, Padma proclaimed Michael Voltaggio as Top Chef. Yes, Michael Voltaggio one-upped his big brother with his passionate love for food, creativity, and his unwavering ability to take risks.

My reaction was: I can’t believe Michael won! I thought, sure enough, Kevin and Bryan both had a better chance than Michael. Then, once it came down to the brothers, I was still thinking Bryan.. Bryan.. It’s definitely Bryan. I was disappointed when I heard “Michael, you are Top Chef.” WHAT??!?! But after sleeping on it, I stopped being so bitter and started to understand why the judges chose Michael.

Both Bryan and Michael are very detail-oriented chefs with a great amount of skill and technique. However, Michael is willing to try something unique with the risk of failing. He doesn’t ever play it safe, and that’s the main reason why I believe he ended up winning the competition. The difference between a good chef and a great chef is the passion to create.. To do more than just produce tasty food.. To tell a story on the plate. When I think back to the previous challenges, Michael has always intrigued the judges in that sense. His odd pairings would always progressively come together with each bite. That. Is. Amazing.

Also last night, on Man v. Food, Adam Richman found himself in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He took on the Fat Sandwich Challenge at the R.U. Hungry Grease Truck. But before his challenge, Adam uncovered some massively delicious looking sandwiches at Harold’s Deli and Stuff Yer Face. Since the episode last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the stromboli from Stuff Yer Face. I wanted one so badly, but NJ is so far away… Like over 3000 miles far. So, as I was up all night suffering from a serious stromboli craving, I came up with this idea to create my own stromboli! Oh, what I will do for food..

I have a tendency to make everything so much harder for myself in the kitchen. Though I could have bought a pre-made pizza dough at the grocery store, it wouldn’t have been as exciting to see the final stromboli product. My favorite part about cooking is the challenge– tackling recipes from all walks of food without really knowing how it will turn out. I want to know I can make anything! And since I started this blog– the encouragement I needed to expand from my normal repertoire– I’m slowly finding that I can.

I’ve only made pizza dough one other time and I don’t remember the recipe being that great. So, I looked for a new one that would be right for my stromboli. First, I look at the ingredients (to see if I have them all) and scan the directions. If it looks doable, I skim through comments or reviews about the recipe. Usually, I don’t risk using a recipe without any reviews.. that can’t be a good sign. Eventually, I came across Jay’s Signature Pizza Crust featured on AllRecipes. Very good ratings from almost 2,000 people. Sold. I began my mission with the dough.

Jay’s Signature Pizza Crust

INGREDIENTS

2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1-1/2 cups warm water (110 degreesF)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-1/3 cups all-purpose flour

DIRECTIONS

1. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and brown sugar in the water, and let sit for 10 minutes.

2. Stir the salt and the oil into the yeast solution. Mix in 2-1/2 cups of the flour.

3. Turn dough out onto a clean, well floured surface, and knead in more flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Place the dough into a well oiled bowl, and cover with a cloth. Let the dough rise until double; this should take about 1 hour. Punch down the dough, and form a tight ball. Allow the dough to relax for a minute before rolling out. Use for your favorite pizza recipe.

4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. If you are baking the dough on a pizza stone, you may place your toppings on the dough, and bake immediately. If yu are baking your pizza in a pan, lightly oil the pan, and let the dough rise for 15-20 minutes before topping and baking it.

5. Bake pizza in preheated oven, until the cheese and crust are golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.

Without a bread machine or even a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, my dough turned out wonderful! I tried to use only enough flour. So although in the INGREDIENTS section it says 3-1/3 cups all-purpose flour, this is just an estimate. If you read the directions, you start out with only 2-1/2 cups. From there, I kept the remaining flour nearby but gradually worked just enough flour into the dough. I didn’t end up using it all even after using some to flour my surface.

While my dough was rising for about an hour, I had time to make my filling. That’s the best part about making a stromboli; you can stuff it with whatever you want! I decided to go big.. spicy sausage, pepperoni slices, sauteed green pepper and onions, sliced tomato, and mozzarella cheese! Mmmmm. For the spicy sausage, I just removed the casing from the links and cooked the meat up in a saucepan. Threw the green peppers and onions into another saucepan. Then, after everything was to my liking, I let the ingredients cool for a little bit. Putting the hot ingredients directing on my dough might damage it! I intended to make a pretty large stromboli (I was incredibly hungry for it!), so I cut out 1/3 of the dough and rolled out a pretty good length. I made sure to give it some width, because I knew I had a lot of ingredients to get in there! Just do not roll your dough too thin– there is a good chance it will break while you are trying to seal it up or it won’t be able to carry the weight of the filling.

The dough is very elastic, so I was able to seal it up with a few pinches! Instead of 425 degrees F, I set my oven to 45o. I turned over my stromboli (pinch side down) and plopped it on a lightly greased baking sheet (just a little cooking spray). To ensure that I would get a nice crisp exterior, I drizzled a little less than a teaspoon of olive oil into my palm and rubbed it over the stromboli– a light coat. Then, I sprinkled a little Italian seasoning and shredded parmesano reggiano on top. About 15-20 minutes later..

Sure, it looks like just a piece of bread with a very nice golden crust.. But when you cut it open..

There are no words. It was heaven on a platter. This is the only way to eat a stromboli.. hot from the oven with everything oozing together! LOVE IT.. making more more more!

Thank you, Adam Richman.. After watching you eat that stromboli in last night’s episode, I got inspired (and hungry) and accomplished this homemade feat.

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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