Category Archives: Desserts

Valentine’s day at home

So, it’s long past Valentine’s Day, but I’ve been looking through my pictures and remembered wanting to post about it.  As relatively thrifty people (or cheap people, depending on how you want to look at it), my husband and I have a hard time going out for a meal that costs twice as much mostly because it’s decorated with pink balloons and flowers.  (Although, if that’s your thing, by all means go for it.)  So we have a Valentine’s Day tradition, mostly born out of practicality, of cooking a meal together instead of going out to eat.

Don’t get me wrong, we actually cook together a fair amount, but it’s usually pretty pragmatic.  So we generally try and go for something a little more … well, romantic on Valentine’s Day.  For the past few years he’s been getting the supplies from Whole Foods so we have some good quality stuff (and he usually picks up a bouquet of flowers as well).  We usually do a few courses, just to amp up the faux-restaurant feel, but we threw things together kind of last-minute this year.  We went with a surf and turf theme: he cooked duck breast, and I cooked scallops with bacon, with spinach cooked in duck fat as a side.

Valentine's dinner 2013

Surf and turf, home cooked-style

The dessert is generally left to me.  One of my favorite restaurant desserts is molten chocolate lava cake (or, you know, whatever combination of similar words the pastry chef decides to call it).  I had read a couple of recipes for lava cake before, and was skeptical since as far as I could tell, they basically made a chocolate cake-type batter and then only half-cooked it.  But it was Valentine’s morning, and I couldn’t really handle dinner without a dessert, so I looked up a simple recipe at allrecipes.com and decided to go for it.

upside down lava cakes still in muffin cupsThe recipe calls for a muffin tin, and extra-large paper muffin cups so that the cakes can be taken out of the tin easily.  Humorously, I only had a mini-muffin tin, and my husband could only find regular-size muffin cups, so I figured the proportions were about the same.  I was a little skeptical when I poured the batter.  And even more skeptical when I took the cakes out of the oven, before flipping them over.  I mean, the things looked pretty ridiculous.

But, when I put them on the plate and broke them open with a spoon — and tried the resulting gooey chocolate — I had to admit, the results were pretty good.

molten inside of lava cake

Molten inside after all!

It was easy, too!  Definitely a great ending to a home-cooked Valentine’s meal.  And once I’d made the batter, all I had to do was throw them in the oven, so we had them again the next night, too.  And now that I am thinking about them, and looking at the pictures, maybe we will have them again some night soon in the future, as well …

I hate to say it

But I guess summer is almost over :(

I think I’ll miss the weather the most.  That, and going to the beach.  And the pool, for that matter.  And being able to wear shorts and a tank top all weekend (is that just part of the weather, though?).  Oh, and flip-flops.  And the long daylight hours.

Well, you get the idea.

One thing we did a lot of this summer was grill.  I have to say “we,” because I generally let my husband take care of all the grilling.  He likes to play around with it and occasionally get a little fancy.

For example, here we have burgers and some corn. But for the burgers, my husband will usually buy some decent-quality, flavorful meat (he can go on and on about the best kinds, but honestly, I’m not sure I’m paying that much attention when he talks about it …) and grind it up in our Cuisinart, and make patties himself.  Plus, as you can see, we added bacon to these burgers.  Bacon right off the grill is pretty amazing.

As for the corn, the one in back is a little charred, but it’s super delicious that way.  Halfway through the summer, we started trying a method recommended by Real Simple magazine (can’t find a link online).  Basically, you half-shuck the corn, pull off all the silks (the stringy things), and soak the whole thing in water for 10 minutes or so.  That way, it won’t burn on the grill and still gets to cook in that husk for that extra flavor.

Because it’s a communal grill shared by everyone in our apartment building, we usually use aluminum foil, but don’t judge.  Surprisingly, you can still get grill marks!  Not as easily, but I’ve seen it happen.

My baking has decreased greatly since I’ve basically been letting my husband do
a whole lot of grilling to fill our stomachs, but last weekend I did make some chocolate chip cookies with these chocolate chunks that I got for my birthday.  The chocolate chunks were good, but honestly, they weren’t too different from regular chocolate chips.  They weren’t really even any bigger.  I wouldn’t buy them, but it was nice to try out a different ingredient that I got as a gift of course.

I’ve tried a lot of chocolate chip cookie recipes, and my favorite is still the good old standby from Nestle Toll House.  My only tip would be to take out the cookies in the recommended time even if they don’t fully look done, because just like everything else in baking, they’ll continue cooking for a while and you can always leave them on the baking sheet to help it cook even more.  It’s easy to use the Toll House recipe since it’s always on hand — I usually have a giant bag of Nestle chocolate chip cookies hanging out in a drawer somewhere.  Plus, every time I make the recipe, I can make myself laugh by remembering that awesome Friends episode (not a lot of time for reminiscing?  Here’s a short version).

And now, I’m going to have to watch a bunch of really random Friends moments on YouTube.

Apple butter (bars)

Recently my parents went to Amish country and brought us back some really random stuff, including a jar of apple butter.  I guess apple butter isn’t random to everyone, but it was to me.

It turns out, if you were curious, that apple butter isn’t really butter — it’s concentrated apple sauce.  And it is pretty delicious on its own just spread on bread or toast.  But we had a whole jar, so I didn’t know what to do with the rest of it.

I found this recipe for apple butter bars that is really simple, just needs oats (did I mention I also have a big can of oats that I’d been wanting to use up?) and all the typical stuff (flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, butter, and of course, apple butter).  Basically, you just mix up all the ingredients except the apple butter to make a crumb mix.  Then you layer half of it in a pan, spread apple butter on it, and then top with the rest of the crumb mix.  Super simple.

The only thing was this recipe called for a 9×9 pan and a cup of apple butter.  My jar of apple butter was on the small side, and I wanted to save a little, so I decided to halve the recipe.  Of course, I don’t have any 4.5×4.5 pans — I used to have a bread pan that might have worked, but we downsized our apartment and the bread pans, which I have used around 2 times in my life, didn’t make the cut.

So, this isn’t the prettiest result, but it worked:

image

Okay, you probably can’t even tell what’s going on in this picture.  I lined half the pan with aluminum foil and folded up the edge halfway to make a barrier, so I would have about half the pan “space.”  Then, in case the whole thing had a tendency to spread while it baked, I put some balls of aluminum foil in the empty half of the pan, to try and take up that volume.

I don’t think it would’ve worked for most recipes (like cakes or anything that was actually liquid-y), but since the bars were pretty solid and didn’t need to rise or spread out or anything, it was okay.

Um, I also didn’t have any cooking spray, so they were a little sticky and crumbly coming out of the pan.  But it was an okay end result.

image

And I have to say, they taste pretty delicious!  I mean, it’s kind of a foolproof combination of oats, butter, cinnamon, and apple butter, so that wasn’t too surprising.  I highly recommend it if someone gives you a jar of apple butter and you’re just not sure what to do with it.

Baking nerves

Recently, it was one of my coworkers’ birthdays at my new job.  Even though I’ve only been there for a couple of months, there have actually been a couple other birthdays as well, and this one woman has brought in the cakes both times.  So when she said she would bring in something, I told her, “Oh, you’ve done it already — let me do it.”

I thought it was the perfect time to bake a cake instead of buying one — I’d recently seen a recipe for spice cake with homemade caramel icing that I wanted to try, I hadn’t baked anything in a while, and my husband was out of town, so I had plenty of time.  So I bought all the ingredients that night and got to baking (although I halved the recipe to make one 8×8 cake instead of the layered cake in the recipe).

By the time I finished the cake it was around 11PM, and the cake was delicious, but not cool enough to frost.  So I left the cake out to cool and decided to come back.  Why I didn’t cover it or at least put it in the fridge, I have no idea.  (Actually, I know why.  I think I covered the last cake I made while it cooled, and there was a bunch of condensation in the container, and that didn’t seem good for the cake either.)

The next morning, I tried the cake again — as you might predict, it was on the dry side after being exposed to air all night, especially compared to how deliciously moist it had been before.  But it was too late now, I needed to bring in the cake for my coworker’s birthday, so I frosted it and wrapped it up.  In a fit of nerves (baking nerves, I’ve dubbed them), I stopped by the grocery store on the way to work and picked up some cookies, just in case the cake was disgusting and everyone needed something else to pick at.

That afternoon I had my doubts, but I brought out the cake nonetheless, admitting with some trepidation that yes, I’d baked it myself.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.  The cake was pretty good, and everyone told me they liked it.  I knew they’d say that whether or not it was actually true, but one of my coworkers went for a second piece — and she couldn’t have been lying about that!  Plus, none of them even touched the cookies.

I put the rest of the cake in the kitchen for the entire floor to pick at.  There was more than half of it left, but by the time I realized I wanted a picture for the blog and went back, it looked like this instead.

I’d make the cake again, although I wasn’t totally sold on the frosting.  It was a little too sweet for my taste, so I’d probably pair it with a vanilla frosting or even a cream cheese frosting next time.

And I’ll try to get over those baking nerves.

Cookie disaster

So last Sunday night my husband wanted to have people over to our new place for a Superbowl party.  Normally, that would be totally fine with me, but we had just moved in.  And I mean literally, as in, the day before.

But whatever, I was game.  So we had a few people over, made some chicken, threw some chips and dip on the table, and everything was going well.

Then I decided I had a craving for something sweet, and I wanted to make chocolate chip cookies.

Normally I’m pretty good at baking.  But since we’d just moved, our fridge was pretty much empty.  No problem, I thought — we live a five-minute walk from a grocery store, so I’ll head over there to pick up the butter and eggs.

I should’ve checked my cabinets more carefully, because it turned out I was missing vanilla extract, sugar (although we had Splenda), and baking soda, as well.

Not only that, but my giant bag of Tollhouse cookies had more than just the classic cookie recipe on it — it also had a recipe for some other chocolate chip pie, or something, which is what I started out making.  So about halfway through, I had to backpedal quite a bit.

This all made for a pretty entertaining side show to the Superbowl, I think.  Well, at least for me.  And here’s what I discovered:

- Baking soda: I decided to use baking powder as a substitute.  Various websites told me to add 2-4 times the amount of baking powder as I would have baking soda.  Then, ironically, in the first batch, I forgot to add any baking powder, too.  But the cookies still rose!  In fact, the first and second batches were nearly identical.  So apparently cookies are a bit forgiving on the baking soda front, although I think they could’ve used a little extra salt.  (That may seem unrelated, but I think baking soda may add a little of that salty flavor — although that is kind of a complete guess.)

- Vanilla extract: apparently the best substitute is maple syrup.  That makes a lot of sense!  We didn’t have any of that, either.  Finally I found a website that recommended coffee or espresso grounds.  We have some Keurig K-cups, and I opened one up and used that.  It did add a little of the depth that you get from vanilla extract, although the vanilla itself would probably have been better.  But not a bad substitute in a pinch.

- Sugar: the Splenda was actually pretty forgiving in this recipe.  I normally can taste that fake-sugar hint (and my husband is even more sensitive to it than I am, and he hates it), but I really can’t tell much in these cookies.

And the cookies totally ended up okay!  Not as delicious as they might’ve been if I wasn’t totally spaced out and missing ingredients, but still pretty good.  So basically, if you are ever completely distracted and have empty cupboards, you can probably still manage some decent chocolate chip cookies.

Mint chocolate brownies

A couple of weeks ago I made mint chocolate brownies for my husband’s birthday, from my Bon Appetit Desserts cookbook.  Unfortunately I can’t find the exact recipe online, but I can still share pictures!

The wet ingredients (mint chocolate chips, unsweetened chocolate, and butter) didn’t look that great to start out with, I have to admit.

But once they got melted and smooth, things started to look more promising.

Separately, I mixed together some flour and salt in one bowl; cream, espresso powder, and creme de menthe (!) went in another bowl.  I beat together eggs and sugar, and added the cream, then the melted chocolate.  Finally, the dry ingredients were mixed in.

All these Bon Appetit brownie recipes have a glaze to add on top as well.  This glaze was made by melting mint chocolate chips, unsweetened chocolate, and butter in a saucepan.  I added the glaze after the brownies had baked for half an hour already.

This wasn’t in the recipe, but I once read somewhere that adding York Peppermint Patties to brownies could make for a fun surprise when you bit into them.  I cut some up to sprinkle on top, and put some in the pan before pouring the batter in as well.  If you do this, be warned — the candy melts and bubbles to the top, so it looks a little scary!  It still tastes great, though!

The Bon Appetit cookbook also recommends using a metal pan for brownies, and lining the pan with aluminum foil so you can take the whole thing out and cut the brownies up all pretty.  It’s kind of an annoying step, but it works.

You can see a big piece of York Peppermint Pattie there in the middle waiting to get eaten … And being that my husband loves mint and chocolate, they were a big hit with him!

Thanksgiving baking

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!  I know it’s a bit late now, but I had a very relaxing weekend and tried out a couple new recipes.

A few weeks ago when I was in Cape Cod, we bought a pound of fresh cranberries from Annie’s Crannies.  I’d never used fresh cranberries before, but since we happened to be in Cape Cod (cranberry central!) just a month before Thanksgiving, it seemed like the time to start.

I contributed a fig-cranberry compote for Thanksgiving dinner.  It was really easy to make, and it was delicious!  I’ve never been a fan of cranberry sauce, but this was actually tasty both with the turkey and without.  My husband usually only eats the canned cranberry stuff, but thankfully he didn’t reach for it once.

fig-cranberry compote
I had a ton more cranberries, so over the weekend I made a cranberry-hazelnut bread (both recipes courtesy of Real Simple).

cranberry-hazelnut bread
It turned out really well.  (Although I should really use my real camera for these pictures … I think they’re both a little fuzzy.)  The cranberries are nice and tart, and the hazelnut adds that sweet nuttiness.  Toasting the hazelnuts before putting them into the bread seemed to really up their flavor.

Apple pie time!

What better way to celebrate the release of my first novella (summed up in two words: sexy werewolves) than to bake a fresh apple pie?

apple pie!
My husband and I went apple picking last weekend, and the only two reasons I went were a) for the apple donuts and b) so I can make a pie.  So even though it was 80 degrees out and didn’t feel like autumn in the least, apple pie Sunday it was!

ready to roll out   homemade pie crust

For a long time I was too scared to make my own pie crust, but turns out it’s actually fairly easy if you have a food processor.  I followed a pie crust recipe from my Bon Appetit dessert cookbook and made an extra crust a while ago, which I had frozen — made it quite convenient to just throw together the pie today.  (Except for the hour or so I had to wait for it to thaw, I guess.)

pie filling
I was originally intending to try a lattice-top pie (just because they look so pretty!), but crumb topping will get me every time.  So I ended up choosing a cinnamon apple pie recipe, with raisins and crumb topping.  I had to use half Golden Delicious (because that’s what was in season last week at the orchard), and half dried cranberries (because we had apparently run out of raisins), but the pie is delicious — especially with vanilla ice cream.

cut apple pie

Now it tastes like fall! even if it doesn’t feel like it …

Adventures in candy land

Over the weekend my family got together for dinner, so I decided to make a complicated dessert that I’d never attempt otherwise: “Snickers” bars from Bon Appetit magazine.  This was a 4-layer frozen dessert recipe from a chef named Breanne Varela, and is supposed to be an “elevated” version of the classic Snickers bar.

I like baking, but this actually didn’t involve the oven and only required complex skills I’ve never attempted before — namely, candy-making.  I thought I might be in trouble when one part of the recipe called for a candy thermometer, but luckily a friend had left a digital meat thermometer that did the trick.

This was for the nougat step of the recipe.  I didn’t think 3/4 cup of sugar could actually dissolve into only 3 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of corn syrup, but it totally did, eventually!  (The goal was 275 degrees, if you were wondering.)

I made a couple of (inadvertent) modifications.  First of all, you’re supposed to make the four layers in order: base, nougat, cream, then a chocolate covering.  I started with the cream step, because I was leaving the house and it needed four hours to freeze.  So I made the rest of it “upside down,” which actually worked out just fine.

The finished nougat looked like this.  Most of the crazy-seeming candy-making stuff was in this step (at least, for me, because I’m a candy-making novice).  Watching the stuff physically change just because I was boiling it or mixing it or whatever was crazy!  The nougat is mostly just sugar, with corn syrup, egg whites, peanuts, and salt.

The cream step required gelatin. So I put the gelatin over milk like the directions said, and after a few minutes it looked like this.  I was like, Man, this is so weird!  I can’t wait to use this in an actual recipe! … and then I totally forgot it.  So in the end it was left out of the cream.  The cream might’ve been less firm and fluffy than it was supposed to be, but the flavor was still fine.

So, in order: the base is chocolate, peanut butter, and Rice Krispies (the cereal is probably the best part, honestly!); the white is peanut nougat, detailed above; then is a layer of cream, which has milk chocolate and egg yolk and would’ve had gelatin if I hadn’t forgotten it; and the top layer is chocolate and butter, which I melted, brushed on top, and then froze.

It’s pretty delicious!  It doesn’t look too much like the picture in Bon Appetit, unless maybe you squint or something.  But hey, I’ll take it.  I don’t know if I’m going to make it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I made it once!