Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coconut Cookies - Can't eat just one

Coconut Cookies
It's nice to be able to get away every once in a while, and when you're on a strict budget, it's nice to know that you can "get away" just by visiting a friend. Visiting J&J's house is like going to a B&B. It's right on the water on a quiet street, the couches are comfy, and the food is fabulous! They are both foodies and it's a pleasure to just sit with a cup of tea, play a game or two and chat. I went up there a few weeks ago and on the table was a freshly baked batch of these addictive coconut cookies. We must have polished off at least half of the batch before we even realized what happened, they were that good, so I thought I'd share the recipe with you too. They go great with a cup of tea and a nice conversation.

Toasted Coconut Icebox Cookies
The recipe was adapted from an orange coconut version by Aida Mollenkamp, and if you like, you can add some orange zest to the mix, but my friend left it out and I liked it just that way.

* 2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 teaspoon table salt
* 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
* 1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for rolling cookies
* 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
* 1 large egg, at room temperature
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1 cup toasted sweetened coconut

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle.
2. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and whisk until evenly combined.
3. Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment beat together butter and sugars over high speed until light and airy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until just combined.
4. Reduce the speed to medium and add the flour mixture and coconut and beat until just evenly combined. Lay 2 large pieces of plastic wrap on a clean work surface and put half of the dough along the center of each piece. Shape the dough into 2 logs measuring about 1 1/2-inches in diameter and 10-inches long. Roll logs up in the plastic and secure tightly. Refrigerate the logs for 1 hour or up to several weeks.
5. Cut the logs into 1/2-inch slices. Roll the cookies in sugar to coat and shake off excess. Arrange on a baking sheet, leaving 1/2-inch between the cookies. Bake until set and golden on the edges, about 15 to 18 minutes. Remove to cooling racks to cool completely.


How about a little game of Poker?

Poker Cakes
Any game, poker included, can be much improved by the addition of cake. Toss in a few birthdays and it sounds like an all out party. A coworker from my last job emailed me a few weeks ago asking if I'd be interested in making a couple of cakes with a poker theme for her husband's and his niece's husband's birthdays. And she was pretty open about the flavors she wanted, so after going back and forth for a bit, we decided on a rich chocolate cake, my no-carrot carrot cake, and a white chocolate dulce de leche cake. I decided not to experiment with any new recipes this time around and go with the old standby's so that I would be absolutely sure everything would come out great. I found some poker chip designs online and copied them for two of the cakes:

Poker Chip Cake
And the chocolate cake lent itself quite nicely to being turned into a poker table:

Poker Table Cake
And since the cakes were for 2 birthdays, I put two jokers on the table :D

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Biggest Cake Ever

I find myself making a lot of extreme statements lately. The best focaccia, the best hot chocolate, the greatest cookie icing ever, and while it might sound like slight exaggerations, this one certainly is not. This cake was meant to feed 175 people and it could have easily taken care of over 250, especially if you consider the tiny slices the caterers chopped this monstrosity into. It was a yummy lemon cake with a buttercream heavily spiked with fresh lemon curd and it was the wedding cake I made for my coworker's big day. For once I planned ahead, I went to Home Depot and had them cut down a block of wood to use as a base and I wrapped it with a pillow case (a quick pat on the back for resourcefulness), lined with saran wrap layered the freshly baked cakes and spread with the frosting I made the day before (I still have a day job you know), and decorated with white chocolate leaves I made while the cakes were baking. And then I went to pick it up. I tried, I really did, and I promise you, I'm no weakling, but I could not pick this thing up to save my life, let alone carry it down several flights of stairs to my car. I made this realization maybe an hour before I had to leave the house, with cake in tow, and carefully make my way to the land time forgot where the wedding was to be held.

Fran's Wedding Cake

I had to call for help. Luckily I have a friend that lives near by and after she stopped laughing at me, she grabbed her brother and rushed over to help load the beast into my trunk. I'll skip the story about how I got lost on the way there and saw the "Welcome to Indiana" sign 6 times before I finally found my exit, and just tell you that the cake was very well received...even if no one but the bride, the groom and the photographer saw it. You see, they ran to the cake right away for pictures and then the caterers whisked it into the kitchen to be cut. I was a little sad at first, but then I decided that as long as the cake was good and the bride was happy, I'm happy.

Easy Lemon Curd Recipe

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces

Whisk together zest, lemon juice, sugar, eggs, and a pinch of salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan. Add butter all at once and cook over moderately low heat, whisking constantly, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubbles appear on surface, about 10 minutes. Immediately pour curd through a fine sieve into a bowl. Press plastic wrap directly onto surface of curd and chill until cold.

It should be made the day before you want to use it so it has enough time to set, and you can either slather it directly onto cakes, muffins, and toast, or whip it into your favorite buttercream recipe as I've done for the wedding cake. Be sure to lick the spoon, this stuff is great!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best Hot Chocolate, and just in time

XOCO Chocolate
As the weather cools and the last of the golden leaves fall to the ground, your thoughts should turn to the one great winter time chocolate! And if you find yourself in Chicago, wondering around in the bitter cold, with your frozen hands tucked deep in your pockets, searching for a small reprieve, consider stopping by XOCO. I'm trying not to sound too much like a commercial, but this recently opened restaurant from Rick Bayless to which my friend introduced me a few weeks ago serves the best hot chocolate I've ever had and I just can't not share this find with you guys. I'm sure their food is good too, but both times I've been there I've been drawn by the freshly home ground chocolate fairies, besides, a cup of the stuff is basically a meal on it's own. So go...and when you do, take me with you :D

Best Hot Chocolate EVER

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We be jammin'

No matter how much I try, I am a baker not a cook. I've always envied those that can step into the kitchen without a plan, swing open the fridge and produce the perfect, or at the very least edible, three course dinner. I end up swinging open the fridge door....and then making mac-n-cheese. With water, because I'm usually out of milk. Or ramen with whatever vegetable or herb is lying around hiding behind a row of colorful jars full of frosting leftovers. Whenever I have company coming, I always get very anxious and I research different dinner menus for days on end, make extensive shopping lists of things the cashiers can't pronounce, let alone know how to ring up, and run around like a chicken with it's head cut off (shoot, I forgot to buy the chicken!) trying to make sure that everything comes out just as the recipes, and numerous reviewers, promised. I don't know how, but my mother, who has entertained on many various occasions over the last few decades, always manages to put out a table groaning under all the assorted dishes with seemingly no effort at all. And should you ask her for a recipe, oh my, you better have a bit of patience. She speaks in ingredients, not quantities. The recipe for a herring spread, for example, will start with "send your father to the store" because no one else knows exactly what to get, how much to pay or how many to get and you're just doomed right away should you go without him. The rest of the recipe will go downhill for me because everything will depend on just how many herring he bought, how big they were, how low the tide was that month and how many chipmunks ran across the back yard driving our cat crazy in the last 14 minutes. These conversations inevitably send me running to google as I frantically enter the ingredients into the search box to see if anyone else has tried making this concoction.

Ripped up plums
This is exactly what happened when I asked for my mom's awesome plum jam recipe. Everyone loves when she makes it and my dad's only complaint about it is that it gets a bit runny making it hard to quickly fish out of the jar with a fork without getting caught (she keeps the fruit chunks big for him to think he's getting away with it). I came across a small mountain of perfectly ripe Italian plums at the store and since I've been on a small jamming frenzy lately, I called her to ask how she makes her jam.

Mom: "You'll need a lot of plums and some sugar and then just cook everything down"
Me: "But how much sugar do you add? How many cups of plums? How long do you cook it?"
Mom: "I don't ever much you want and until it's done. Why are you making it anyways? I gave you a jar just the other day."
Me: "Sigh" and off to the internet

I was surprised to learn that there are not that many recipes out there for this jam, which is shocking because it's AWESOME! It goes great on pancakes, toast, inside crepes, with tea and a spoon, on waffles and I'm told it's even good with pork. I did find some reasonable recipes, but they seemed to add gimmicks, like cinnamon or Grand Marnier, which is nice, but all I wanted was straight up Plum Jam. Other recipes included a pound for pound ratio of plums to sugar...and that's just crazy, or at least way to sweet for my taste. I'll try not to judge. So I decided to combine a bit of what I've learned from the other jam recipes that I tried and just whip something up.

Since I wanted to repeat this experiment if it went well, I measured everything and the ratio that I came up with is 1 cup of sugar per pound of pitted fruit and a tablespoon of freshly juiced lemon. I like recipes that are easy to remember :D These are the amounts I ended up using and in the end I had about ten 8oz jars of yummy jam:

6 pounds of washed and pitted plums
6 scant cups of sugar
juice from 2 lemons

- The lemons are high in pectin and would make sure that the mixture jelled well even if I didn't want to thicken it with sugar. I ripped the plums into shreds using my fingers while I was pitting them. Why get a knife and a cutting board dirty? It's faster and more satisfying to do it by hand anyways. I then mixed all the ingredients and let the mixture stand for 30 min in the fridge. I mean, hey, it did wonders for the strawberry jam back in July, so it can't hurt here either, right?
- Then I dumped everything into a huge pot, making sure there's plenty of room because the mixture will rise and bubble and you wouldn't want all your work to run away from you, turned the heat to medium and cooked for about 20 minutes until the fruit was very soft.

Cooking Plums
- I took it off the heat and used my immersion blender to smooth out the mixture into a rough pulp. You don't have to do this, but I wanted a more spreadable jam.
- I popped a plate into the freezer (this will make sense later) and put the pot back over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once it looked like it was getting to the right consistency (about 15 more minutes) I took the plate out of the freezer and dropped a few drops of the jam on it. Let the drop sit there for a bit and then nudge it with your finger. If it wrinkles, even a little, the jam is done. If it just runs away from your finger, it needs to be cooked a bit longer, so put the plate back into the freezer and test again in 5 minutes. You may want to skim the jam if it gets too foamy, but I got lazy and just kept stirring.

Foamy Jam
- Fill several clean jars within a half inch from the top with the jam and screw on clean, pre-boiled for 5 minutes, lids.
- Put your jars into a large canning pot and fill with water so that the water covers the jars by an inch. Put over high heat and once the water starts to boil, set the timer to 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, turn off the heat, fish out the jars with tongs and let them cool completely on a kitchen towel. I like to flip them upside down while they're cooling. This may not do anything, but I'm convinced it gives the jars a better seal. The tops should all pull in and not budge when you press them with your finger. If one of your jars doesn't seal properly, feel free to give it another hot bath, but I haven't run into this scenario yet, so I'm sure you have nothing to worry about.
- Make pretty labels, wrap in pretty paper, hide in the pantry or share with a friend, the jam should keep for a year...that is if it survives that long without getting eaten :D

I'm still having camera problems and it was too late at night to make the jars all pretty, so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say the jam came out a perfect dark purple and looked and tasted just like my mom's, that is to say, yummy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Yummy Sweet Potato Pie

I hate pumpkin pie. I know this is the season for it and making a statement like that is probably heresy, but I keep giving it a chance and each time....bleh. I guess it's just not my thing, but I always felt like I was missing out on a tradition. My coworker told me about a variation about a year or two ago in a long winded tale of how he can't find one anywhere and how he'd PAY to have it right NOW. Huh. An opportunity to learn a new recipe, make someone happy, and possibly recoup the cost of the could I pass it up? The pie he wove tales of was a sweet potato pie, with a graham cracker crust and a pecan topping. Doesn't that just sound yummy? I thought it did, so I gave it a try and the pie came out great. I also learned that while it looks just like pumpkin pie, it doesn't taste like it, not really, and I love this variation. Also, if I remember the story correctly, I think my coworker took his pie to a poker game and made money by selling it to his hungry friends by the slice towards the end of the game when snacks ran out. This was over a year ago and recently he's been hinting that life would be a heck of a lot better if that pie found it's way back into his life and when I found myself in front of a pile of sweet potatoes at the grocery store, I thought of him and caved.

Sweet Potato Pie with Pecan Topping
Sweet Potato Pie with Pecan Topping
You can make the crust yourself with some crushed graham crackers and melted butter, but usually I cheat and just buy one. It's the one time I don't think homemade makes that much of a difference.

* 2 medium or 3 small sweet potatoes
* 1/2 stick unsalted butter
* 3/4 cup sugar
* 3/4 cup whole milk (at room temp)
* 3 large eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 1/2 tsp cinnamon
* 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
* 1/4 tsp salt
* 1 Tbsp dark rum
* 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
* 1 deep graham cracker crust

Preheat the oven to 400°F and set the oven rack to the middle of the oven.

You could bake the sweet potatoes in the oven if you like, but I find that it takes too long and your microwave can do the job in a fraction of the time, so...stab the sweet potatoes with a fork all over (very therapeutic), place in a microwave safe bowl, cover loosely with a paper towel to avoid cleanup later, and nuke for about 10 minutes, turning them over around the 7 minute mark so they cook evenly. Poke them a few times with a fork to make sure they're done and pop back in for two more minutes if you hit a firm spot. Cool until you can handle them, peel and mash in a large bowl until smooth. I'm impatient and I usually pretend I've got asbestos hands so I don't wait to peel them and then I end up doing a little dance where I peel a piece off and then hop about blowing on my singed fingers for a second before doing it all over again. Don't be like me. Wait.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar. Add the melted butter mixture to the sweet potatoes with the milk and the eggs and beat with a whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining ingredients (the filling will be pretty liquid) and pour the filling into the pie shell.

I like to put the pie dish on a baking sheet, especially if you're using a store bought crust in one of those flimsy foil pans. It makes moving the thing around once it's hot so much easier. Carefully transfer the pie in the baking sheet to the oven and bake until the filling is almost set, about 35-40 minutes. When there's 5 minutes left, make the topping:

* 1/2 stick unsalted butter
* 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
* 2 tablespoons honey
* 1 cup pecans

Stir first 3 ingredients in heavy medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil 1 minute. Mix in nuts, coating completely.

Carefully take the pie out of the oven (aren't you glad you used the sheet pan now?) and spoon the hot nut mixture all over pie, distributing the nuts evenly over the top. Put the pie back in the oven and continue baking until topping bubbles, about 5 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool completely.

If you doubled the recipe and made two, you can share with a friend, if you really really want :D