Tuesday 26 February 2008

They've done it again!

Each and every time, the Daring Bakers group, of which I am fortunate to be a part, has has pushed me to try something new and unfamiliar. This month's challenge - French bread - was no different. I suppose there are several reasons why I don't bake bread very often. First, although I like bread very much, I try not to eat so much of it. These last 3 months or so have been an exception as I've found myself craving carbs after my insane running schedule. Second, it always feels like such a hassle to have to plan your day around the extended rest periods that yeasted dough often requires. So when I first read about this month's recipe, I was looking forward to the trying this out as there's nothing I love better than a crusty baguette with a dollop of salted French butter.

I must admit that the first time I read the recipe, I was a little taken aback. Together with all the notes that were included, the recipe spanned 11 pages long! I was also a little dismayed to find that the dough required between 7-9 hours of resting time! I guess there's a reason they call this the Daring Bakers' group.

Undeterred, I embarked on this recipe bright and early last Saturday. Following the instructions, I put the ingredients in my trusty KitchenAid and in no time, the dough was all prepped for its first rise. Since I was planning a long run that day (30km!), I left the dough to proof and headed out to the park for my run.

Upon returning, the dough was nice and springy, so I proceeded to the next step and prepared the dough for its second rise. Since we were both feeling slightly drained after our respective long runs, I had no problem sitting at home and chilling for a couple of hours. Now those of you who know me will know that this is not my preferred modus operandi on a weekend. After having to sit at work all week, I like to make the most of my weekends and usually have an action-packed schedule of activities planned. Things, however, are certainly a little different after a 3 hour jog.

At the end of the second rise, I decided to shape the dough into two medium round loaves, or pain de miches. This time, M and I decided to head out for a movie. Third resting time also easily taken care of!

I finally put the bread into the oven at 8pm that evening and was very pleased with the way it looked coming out of the oven. The crust had turned a nice dark brown and save for the missing slashes on the top of the bread (they sealed up after baking in the oven), I thought the breads looked great. Given the suggestion to let the dough rest for 3 hours before eating, it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I finally got to taste the fruits of my labour.

Unfortunately, despite all my efforts and best intentions, the bread, which was nice and crispy on the outside, tasted way too ‘yeasty’ for me. I’m not sure if I may have over-proofed the bread or maybe used too much yeast?? In any case, this month’s challenge wasn’t a slam dunk success so I’ll have to find the time (and the courage!) to try this again.

For recipe, click here

Monday 25 February 2008

Chasing away the Monday blues...

Its Tuesday and around here, that can only mean one thing -  time for Tuesdays with Dorie! This time, we got a break from the cake making and were tasked with making biscuits, a recipe chosen by Ashley from eat me, delicious. Given that at the time I heard what the recipe for this week was going to be I still had three quarters of a cheesecake sitting in my fridge, I was thankful to be making something that had a chance to be finished in this household of two.

Rather than leave this to the last minute, I decided to wake up early on Sunday morning to make these biscuits as an accompaniment to breakfast. Note I said "accompaniment" and not actually breakfast itself. You see, M's favourite meal of the day is breakfast. He often tells me in fact that he goes to bed looking forward to his bowl of cereal / granola / muesli in the morning. So you can imagine that replacing his cereal with biscuits would not have won me any popularity contests here.

In hindsight, I needed have worried. Contrary to some of the earl responses I read on the TWD blog, I thought the biscuits turned out beautifully. Whether eaten plain or with a generous helping of creamy French butter, the biscuits were divine. I had halved the recipe in order to minimize the amount of wastage, and all 7 biscuits were quickly devoured by M and myself. For those of you must know, M had 5 and I had just 2.

Pecan Sour Cream Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour (or 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour and 1/3 cup cake flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
1/2 cup cold sour cream
1/4 cold whole milk
1/3 cup finely chopped pecans, preferably toasted

Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Get out a sharp 2-inch-diameter biscuit cutter and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Whisk the flour(s), baking powder, salt, and baking soda together in a bow. Stir in the brown sugar, making certain there are no lumps. Drop in the butter and, using your fingers, toss to coat the pieces of butter with flour. Quickly, working with your fingertips (my favorite method) or a pastry blender, cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly. You'll have pea-size pieces, pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and pieces the size of everything in between-- and that's just right.

Stir the sour cream and milk together and pour over the dry ingredients. Grab a fork and gently toss and turn the ingredients together until you've got a nice soft dough. Now reach into the bowl with your hands and give the dough a quick gentle kneading-- 3 or 4 turns should be just enough to bring everything together. Toss in the pecans and knead 2 to 3 times to incorporate them.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour and turn out the dough. Dust the top of the dough very lightly with flour, pat the dough out with your hands or toll it with a pin until it is about 1/2 inch high. Don't worry if the dough isn't completely even-- a quick, light touch is more important than accuracy. 

Use the biscuit cutter to cut out as many biscuits as you can. Try to cut the biscuits close to one another so you get the most you can out of the first round. By hand or with a small spatula, transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet. Gather together the scraps, working with them as little as possible, pat out to a 1/2-inch thickness and cut as many additional biscuits as you can; transfer these to the sheet. (The biscuits ca be made to this point and frozen on the baking sheet, then wrapped airtight and kept for up to 2 months. Bake without defrosting-- just add a couple more minutes to the oven time.)

Bake the biscuits for 14-18 minutes, or until they are tall, puffed and golden brown. Transfer them to a serving basket.

Makes about 12 biscuits

Thursday 14 February 2008

Will you be my Valentine?

All over the world today, many people will be celebrating Valentine's day. Ironically, even though I'm engaged to be married I'm spending the day alone (at least physically). You see, M is in Paris on work. Yes, I know, there's something wrong with that picture. While I'm sitting here in London all alone in the apartment, he's in what's arguably the most romantic city in the world having room service food. But, it's really not all that bad. I'm hopping on the Eurostar tomorrow to join him in Paris for a belated Valentine's weekend celebration.

Still, even though he's not physically here, I spent yesterday evening baking up some Valentine cookies for him, which I will bring up with me to Paris. These are also my entry into the A Heart for Your Valentine event hosted by Zorra. These cookies are Thomas Keller's (of French Laundry fame) take on Oreos and they are seriously addictive. It might be because of the larger than usual quantity of salt in the dough which I've always found to heighten the flavour of chocolate or it could be the sinfully rich white ganache filling that is a million times better than the white gunk in the store-bought variety. Whatever the reason, this is my favourite cookie recipe of all time and thus, they are appropriately the cookie I am making for M this year.

To read the other entries to A Heart for Your Valentine, click here.

From The Essence of Chocolate

1/2 cup cream
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped

3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
7 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature, cut into small cubes

For the filling: 
Place the white chocolate in a bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat on the stove.
Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk together to melt the chocolate. I find this is a pretty high chocolate-to-cream ratio, so if you are unable to get all the chocolate to melt, you can place the bowl over a bain-marie and stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Transfer the filling to another bowl and let cool until it has thickened enough to spread - it may take a few hours. You can speed up the process by putting the bowl in the refrigerator. If the filling gets too stiff, you can heat it up again in the microwave.

For the cookies: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or Silpats.

Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in an electric mixer. With the mixer still running on low speed, add the butter a few pieces at a time. Let the dough continue mixing until it comes together - it should go from looking like pebbles or cornmeal to a cohesive mass.

Turn the dough out onto a floured working surface and work into a solid block. Divide the block into two pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll out between two sheets of parchment paper until 1/8" thick. Using a 2-in cookie cutter, cut out shapes and place on the baking sheets about 1 inch apart (cookies will spread a bit in the oven).

Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through baking time. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks for a few minutes (cookies will be too soft to move at first), then transfer cookies to wire racks and let finish cooling.

To assemble the cookies: 
Place half of the cookies upside down on a work surface. Whisk the filling lightly to fluff it up a bit and make it spreadable. Using a small spoon, scoop a small dollop of filling onto the center of each cookie. Top with another cookie right side up. Press the cookies together until the filling spreads out to the edges.

The cookies with keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies

Monday 11 February 2008

My first Tuesday with Dorie

Ever since I became a Daring Baker, I've been introduced to so many new treats that I normaly wouldn't have chosen to make myself. Some of them, such as the Bostini Cream Pie, have been absolute hits and others, have been less so. Still, I'm very much enjoying the experimentation and feel that it has definitely tested my skill as a baker. So, when I started reading about a new baking group, Tuesdays with Dorie, that was recently formed with the intent of baking their way through one of my favourite books on baking, Baking: From my home to yours, I just knew I had to join them.

I officially became a member last Thursday and thankfully, didn't have to wait long to complete my first challenge as the group posts every Tuesday. This time, the recipe was chosen by Jaime of Good Eats n' Sweet Treats and she chose a Brown Sugar-Apple Cheesecake.

Now, I'm a big cheesecake fan. And I mean big. Back in college, I used to mail order cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory, keep them in the freezer and polish them off singlehandedly. My favourite flavour was Triple Chocolate Brownie Truffle. I would have merrily continued along this path of ordering cakes by post and eating them had it not been for the fact that one day my Cheesecake Factory cake box came with a nutrition label slapped on to it. When I saw the nutritional content of 1 slice of cheesecake, I nearly fainted. Each decadent slice of cheesecake contained a whopping 900 calories, a large proportion of which is saturated fat, I'm sure. In any case, my cheesecake ordering habit stopped then and there. I didn't stop eating cheesecake completely, though, I just decided to indulge in moderation.

This week's recipe for TWD is a twist on a traditional cheesecake as it is lightly flavoured with cinnamon and apple cider, and also contains cooked apples. The flavours are definitely autumnal (think spiced apple cider) but are perfect still for the winter. Remembering what I learned in college about cheesecakes, where possible, I used lower fat ingredients such as light cream cheese and half fat sour cream. Having not made a cake with full-fat ingredients for comparison, I can't tell you if this affected the taste, but I can tell you that I thought the cheesecake still tasted every bit as creamy and decadent. The only problem I had with my cheesecake was that after taking it out from the oven to cool, my cake promptly developed a large crack down the middle. I'm not quite sure why it happened but despite the slight blemish to its appearance, I was still pretty happy with my first attempt at cheesecake making. You can be sure I'll be enjoying the rest of the cake, one small slice at a time, of course.

Brown Sugar-Apple Cheesecake

For the Crust
30 gingersnaps (or a scant 2 cups graham cracker crumbs)
2 tbsp light brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted

For the Apples
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
3 large Golden Delicious or Fuji apples, peeled, cored and cut into eighths
2 tbsp (packed) light brown sugar

For the Filling
1 1/2 pounds (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp apple cider
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sour cream
1/3 cup heavy cream

Apple jelly, for glazing, or confectioner's sugar, for dusting (optional)

To Make the Crust:
Butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Put the gingersnaps in a food processor and whir until you have crumbs; you should have a scant 2 cups. (If you are using graham cracker crumbs, just put them in the food processor.) Pulse in the sugar and cinnamon, if you're using it, then pour over the melted butter and pulse until the crumbs are moistened. Turn the crumbs into the springform pan and, using your fingertips, firmly press them evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan as far as they'll go. Put the pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven. (The crust can be covered and frozen for up to 2 months.)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the freezer and wrap the bottom tightly in aluminum foil, going up the sides. Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until the crust is set and lightly browned. Transfer to a rack to cool while you make the apples and the filling. Leave the oven at 350 degrees F.

To Make the Apples:
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides, toss in half of the apple slices and cook, turning once, until they are golden brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the apples with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and cook them, turning, just until coated, another minute or so. Scrape the apples onto a plate, wipe out the skillet and repeat with the remaining apples. Let the apples cool while you make the filling.

Getting Ready to Bake:
Have a roasting pan large enough to hold the springform pan at hand. Put a kettle of water on to boil.

To Make the Filling:
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese on medium speed, scraping down the bowl often, for about 4 minutes, or until it is velvety smooth. Add the sugars and beat for another 2 minutes. Beat in the cider, vanilla, and cinnamon. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each egg goes in. Finally, beat in the sour cream and heavy cream, beating just until the batter is smooth.

Pour about one third of the batter into the baked crust. Drain the apples by lifting them off the plate with a slotted spoon or spatula, and spoon them into the pan. Cover with the remaining batter and, if needed, jiggle the pan to even the top. Place the springform pan in the roasting pan and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

Bake the cheesecake for 1 hour and 30 to 45 minutes, covering the cake loosely with a foil tent at the 45-minute mark. The cake will rise evenly and crack around the edges, and it should be fully set except, possibly, in the very center--if the center shimmies, that's just fine. Gently transfer the cake, still in the pan, to a cooling rack and let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate it for at least 6 hours; overnight would be better.

Run a blunt knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the crust, open the pan's latch and release and remove the sides.

Makes 1 10-inch cake

Thursday 7 February 2008

Fueling up for a marathon

M and I are training for the London marathon this year. Its something that we've both always thought about doing and we thought it'd be a fun(?) thing for us to do together in the run up to our wedding. Besides, since the race is only a month before the wedding, it would force us to shape up before the big day.

Now one of the unexpected perks of marathon training, is being able to eat a ton. Since we're logging 4-5 runs a week with a total mileage in excess of 30 miles, we're burning some serious calories. I'm sure you won't find this advice in any marathon training books but I'd like to think that cookies are a perfectly acceptable form of fuel for our runs.

With that as an excuse, I took the opportunity to try out a recipe that I've had my eye on for a while - Triple Chocolate Fudge cookies from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. Using a combination of cocoa powder, bittersweet and white chocolate chunks, cookies don't come much more chocolatey than this. They were so good that I scarfed down 6 cookies fresh from the oven. M had 5 the first night and another 5 the next. Feeling guilty about the overindulgence on my part, I carted the rest to the office where they disappeared in a flash.

Triple Chocolate Fudge Cookies

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tsp tightly packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup 1/2-inch chunks of white chocolate
1/2 cup 1/2-inch chunks of bittersweet chocolate

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda into a medium bowl and set aside.

Using a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer, cream the butter on medium speed until pale yellow, about 2 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Add the sugar, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla. Cream on medium speed until it is smooth and lump free, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle.

Add the egg and beat on low speed for 15 seconds, or until fully incorporated. Do not overbeat. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle.

On low speed, add the flour mixture. Beat until all the dry ingredients are incorporated, 15 to 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the white and bittersweet chocolate chunks and mix until they are just incorporated. If using a hand mixer, use a wooden spoon to stir them in.

If you want to bake these right away, preheat the oven to 350F. Adjust the rack to the lower third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon the dough by heaped teaspoons 2 inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets.

Bake one sheet at a time for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the cookies look dry and feel firm, turning the sheet front to back halfway through the baking. Remove the sheet from the oven and carefully slide the parchment directly onto a work surface. Wait at least 5 minutes before serving or 20 minutes before storing in an airtight container for up to 3 days at room temperature.

Makes about 36 3-inch round cookies