Thursday, August 30, 2012

Zucchini Spice Muffins (or Carrot Spice Muffins)

After all the cakes, cookies and pies, I figured I should post something that could reasonably be called "healthy" for a change! These zucchini muffins are slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and make a really great breakfast muffin.

To make a delicious carrot spice muffin (similar to carrot cake but less sweet) just use this recipe with carrots in place of zucchini. Since carrots have a natural sweetness, you could lessen the sugar by 1/4 cup if you wanted to.

1 medium zucchini (or two small ones - enough to get about 1 1/2 cups when grated)
2 Cups All-purpose flour
1 Cup Sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
Spices: I like to use 1 whole freshly grated nutmeg. That sounds like a lot, but I love nutmeg. Alternately, you can use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and a dash of clove. The spices are really up to your own taste.
3 eggs
1 Cup Canola Oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray muffin pans with non-stick spray or line with muffin cups.

Grate the zucchini with a microplane or the finest setting on your box grater. If the strands of zucchini are very long, you can chop them a couple of times horizontally with a knife. Place the grated zucchini in a clean kitchen towel and wring it firmly to release the moisture within the zucchini. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and spices until well-mixed. In a separate small bowl, beat the eggs lightly with the oil, then add the wet ingredients into the dry. Mix well and then add in the zucchini last, stirring only until all of the zucchini has been blended in.

Pour into muffin pans and bake 18-20 minutes, until the tops spring back when you touch them gently with your fingertip.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Homemade Soft Pretzels

Here is a fun baking project to do with kids: Homemade Soft Pretzels. Not only are they a favorite  for kids to eat, but they are fun to make! With this recipe, you can show kids the amazing power of yeast bread without the long rise times - it only takes one (30-40 minute) rising before you can work with this dough.

I found this recipe in a catalog from Penzey's Spices. This recipe makes 12-15 soft pretzels, depending on how large you want them. They are best eaten the same day they are made.

3 cups All-purpose Flour  (plus another 1/2 - 1 cup for kneading in)
1 1/2 teaspoons INSTANT yeast *see note on yeast below
1/4 Brown Sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (not HOT)

4 Cups water
4 Tablespoons Baking Soda
Kosher Flake Salt for sprinkling on top
Other seasoning ideas: Parmesan Cheese, Italian Seasoning blend

Put the flour in a bowl with the yeast and sugar. Stir together until well-mixed. Add the water in and mix with a wooden spoon. Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured board and knead in the extra flour until the mixture feels smooth and not tacky to the touch (a nice elastic dough will take 7-10 minutes of kneading). Place the doughball in a greased bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Place it in a warm area of the kitchen and let it sit for 30-40 minutes. It doesn't have to double in size, but it will be much bigger than it was.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Pour the 4 Cups of water into a large pot and bring to a boil. While you are waiting for the oven and the water, divide the dough into 12-15 pieces, depending on how big you want your pretzels (I cut the dough in half with a knife, then half again, etc. until I have 12 pieces). Roll each piece of dough into a long snake-like shape, then twist it into a pretzel shape (this gets easier with practice). Let your kids make funny shapes if you want. Make sure to push the ends of the pretzel into the main part, giving them a firm poke with your fingertip so they stay intact when you boil them. This will create a divet, but that will mostly go away during cooking.

When the water has boiled, add the 4 Tablespoons of baking soda to the water (kids like to watch this because it foams up like a volcano). Give it a minute to dissolve, then dunk the pretzels in one at a time. Let them sit in the water for about ten seconds, turning them once to get the other side. Then gently lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon and place on a drying rack. DO NOT BLOT the top of the pretzel - leave it damp so the salt adheres. Repeat this step until all of the pretzels have had a short dip in the boiling water. I like to sprinkle the salt on each batch right after they've come out of the water.

Place the pretzels on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Bake at 500 degrees for 6-8 minutes. They should be medium to dark golden brown and a little firm to the touch. If in doubt, take a spatula and peek at the bottoms to make sure the bottoms are golden brown as well. You can give them an extra minute or two if needed, but watch them carefully at this point - at 500 degrees, they can burn quickly!

These are best served while still warm from the oven. You can make them a couple of hours ahead and re-warm them in a low oven (200 degrees), but they are best eaten the same day.

* Note about yeast: I like using INSTANT yeast because you mix it directly into the flour, skipping the step of dissolving the yeast in water first. Instant yeast is also more powerful, so you use less and it tends to work more quickly. However, you can use active dry yeast if that is what is available to you - Use one packet (which equals 2 1/4 teaspoons) and be sure to dissolve it into the warm water for a few minutes before mixing the yeast/water mixture into the flour. Proceed with the rest of the recipe as above.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Homemade Frozen Waffles

Everyone loves waffles, but making homemade ones can be time consuming, and frozen waffles are usually bland and full of preservatives. So, one lazy Sunday, make up a double batch of your favorite homemade waffles, and freeze a bunch for busy mornings. That way you get tastier homemade waffles and you can control what ingredients you use. Follow these simple steps:

1) Make some homemade batter
2) Slightly undercook them on the waffle iron
3) Cool to room temp
4) Wrap portions in airtight baggies (I do two squares per bag)
5) To reheat them you can do it one of two ways: Either toast on low, flip them over, toast on low again. Repeat this process until cooked through. OR microwave the waffles for ten seconds or so to thaw them out and then toast them on a low setting. If you are doing many waffles, you can reheat them in your oven on low.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Cake Dilemma - Compromising TASTE to get the LOOK?

My mother has a saying that she uses every year when I send her a tin of hand-decorated sugar cookies: "They're too pretty to eat!" I used to laugh, but lately I think I know what she means: they are lovely but in fact, they don't look edible.

Okay, so I am a scratch baker. I like to bake the old fashioned way, and take my time on it. Flavor comes first and all that.


I am also a cake decorator. And lately I am more and more at odds with myself over the compromises to taste that one often has to make in order to get a certain look. When someone orders a custom cake from me, I want to make it taste as good as possible, but people often don't realize that by asking for a certain look, they are putting up obstacles to having the freshest, tastiest cake possible. Some of the challenges are:

I actually kind of like the taste of fondant (a.k.a. sugar paste), when it is homemade. But the taste (and more important the texture) of fondant is something that is not palatable to everyone. On those occasions where I attend the function for which I have made the cake, I often see it peeled off of the cake slices.

There are distinct advantages of using fondant, of course: 1) There is a uniquely different look to fondant which is very popular. 2) You can sculpt life-like figures with it. 3) Fondant-covered cakes can stand up to heat like most buttercreams cannot.

But despite its popularity, I am seeing more requests lately to return to buttercream and only use fondant for the accents or toppers, if at all.

Gum Paste: Used to sculpt life-like figures and flowers, gum paste dries quicker and harder than fondant. But although it is certainly edible, very few people want to eat it. It is rock hard when dry, which makes it ideal for certain detailed sculptures (the shoe at left is gum paste). 

 The CAKE itself: When you order a wedding cake or any other custom cake that requires time-consuming, detailed decorations, that usually requires working over the course of a few days. So the cake is not so fresh by the time you get it. This can lead to cakes that are dry. There ARE things your cake decorator can do to help this somewhat - applying a sugar syrup to moisten the layers, choosing a cake recipe that is less prone to drying out in the first place, etc. But the simple fact is that elaborate cakes are, by necessity, several days old by the time you eat them. Not that they aren't still tasty, but they are rarely as tasty as simpler ones that were made fresh. This is a compromise that you pretty much just have to accept.

Sculpted/3-D Shapes: Speaking of the CAKE part of the cake, you may also have to compromise on the type of cake you were looking for if you have a unique 3-D shape in mind. Sculpted cakes are generally made with something dense like pound cake. If you were looking for a light, delicate white cake, you probably shouldn't ask for it to be shaped like a rowboat or something.

Warm Weather Outdoor Events:
If you absolutely HAVE to display your cake outside on a warm day, you will be limited about which frostings can be used. I have searched high and low for frostings that can stand up to high heat. There are many buttercreams that can sit at room temperature for several hours, but if your cake will be outside on a day that is 85+ degrees, you basically have two options:

1) Opt for a fondant covered cake (with fillings that can withstand heat). If you don't mind fondant, this is a great option.
2) Use a high-ratio shortening in place of butter for the frosting. Nobody likes the idea of a shortening buttercream (think of grocery store cakes with that really sweet frosting on them and that is what a shortening buttercream is) But if it is really necessary, there are ways to make it taste fairly good with extended beating and adding flavored extracts. I had to use it once for an outdoor summer wedding cake (the bride requested no fondant) and I actually got many compliments on how tasty that cake was.

If possible, the best thing to do is store the cake in a cool room and bring it outside just before cutting (of course, this may not be possible with a tiered wedding cake).  ALL cakes need to be kept from direct sunlight, so find a shady spot if it has to be outside.

Artificial ColorsI don't have a problem with artificial colors, but there is an ongoing debate about whether or not they pose a health risk. You may be surprised at just how much coloring you have to use to get the vivid colors seen in modern cake trends (This 8" cake took an entire small bottle of professional strength red coloring). All-natural colors just do not achieve the same shades.

Non-Cake Items and Architectural Supports:
If you have watched any of the trendy shows like Ace of Cakes or The Cake Boss, you know that there is a lot of Non-Cake in today's cakes. Rice Krispies are used to make shapes that can't be achieved with cake alone. And the more impressive the cake sculpture, the more likely it is that a large percentage of that structure is actually non-edible architectural support. I don't have a problem with that, but again it takes us one more step away from pure cake that tastes good. So people should be aware that when they order a fantastical cake, some of it may not be cake at all, and they may be sacrificing taste to some extent.

So what's the summary of all this? I actually don't know. Other than maybe I am just getting old. Because the older I get, the more I prefer cakes that look simply and utterly delicious. I am still heartily impressed by cakes that look like shoes, snakes, and cars. I just don't really want to eat them.

Vanilla Raspberry Cake with Raspberry Buttercream

Boston Cream Pie

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Unnecessary Baking Products

Lately, whenever I walk the aisles of my local craft store, I realize two things: 1) Everyone and their grandmother is getting into cake decorating, and 2) Companies are making BIG bucks trying to sell bakers and cake decorators completely unnecessary products. Any task you can imagine doing in the kitchen has its own special tool these days, instead of cooks having just a handful of multi-purpose tools.

Once in a while, those single-use gadgets can be pretty clever and useful. But more often than not, that special pan or ultra-specific tool is just a waste of money. In some cases it even goes further than that - the special pan actually makes a WORSE product. Hence, the latest item on my Roll-of-the-eyes list: The Whoopie Pie pan. This pan looks like a cookie sheet with circular indentations in it (See the Wilton version here: HERE).

First of all, why do we need to complicate the Whoopie Pie? It is so easy and delicious the way it is, no special equipment needed. Just take a cookie sheet, spoon on your batter (or use an ice cream scooper - a tool that can be used for more than one task). This means that the batter must be thicker than your average cake batter so it holds its shape without spreading. Bake them and Voila! You have little cakes that are perfect for sandwiching with a billowy filling - Domed on top and totally flat on the underside (I don't like to call them cookies, because, well, it's NOT a cookie).

Secondly, these new-fangled things just look weird to me. The trend of using those unnecessary pans is leading to some strange looking Whoopie Pies. Instead of being a simple half moon kind of shape, the sides of the whoopie pies are strangely flat and slanted outward before doming up. I can't post a picture here because I've never made these oddly shaped things and probably can't get permission to make fun of someone else's picture (alas). But here is a picture of my own traditional, no-frills whoopie pies. I LOVE this recipe (which you can find in the recipe section). It was adapted from something I found on Epicurious:

I will say that one popular bakery in our area that ONLY makes Whoopie Pies uses these silly pans, and the first time I saw their product I thought to myself, "How can they make nothing but Whoopie Pies when they obviously don't know what a real one is?!" Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh of me. I'll just take my foot out of my mouth and fill it with a whoopie pie now.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

White Almond Sour Cream Cake

Aside from being a crazy baker, I am also a cake decorator. As I was searching for good recipes on my favorite cake decorating website Cake Central, I kept coming across something called White Almond Sour Cream Cake. Hmm, that sounded really good. But wait - when I clicked on the recipe for this intriguing cake, I found that it started with a box of white cake mix. Clicking on variations of the recipe, I saw that they all started with a box mix! I was puzzled, because I had long believed that professional cake decorators do everything from scratch. I wanted to try this delicious-sounding cake, but I didn't want to just make a modified mix - I wanted the real thing. So I set out to come up with my own recipe. I started with my go-to white cake recipe, mixed it with the reverse creaming method (mixing the dry ingredients with the butter), added almond extract, and substituted sour cream for half of the milk it called for. Success! The cake tasted delicious. It is pictured here with cooked milk buttercream. If you are worried about nut allergies or just don't like almond flavor, this cake would also taste delicious as a vanilla sour cream cake.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray pans with cooking spray and line with parchment. This cake will do three 8" round layers, or two 10" round layers.

Have all ingredients at room temperature before starting:

3 1/2 Cups Sifted Cake Flour
4 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 tsp salt
2 Cups granulated sugar
1 Cup unsalted butter, softened (if you are using salted butter, omit the salt)
1/2 Cup milk
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1 teaspoon almond extract (OR 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract for vanilla flavor)
7 egg whites

Mix all dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and stir well (if you have a KitchenAid mixer, go ahead and put it in that bowl and mix on low speed with the paddle to combine.)

Add the softened butter and the milk to the dry ingredients and mix on low until combined. Turn mixer on medium and beat for about 60 seconds to aerate. Stir the Almond extract into the sour cream and add half of this to the batter. Mix on low until just combined (about 15 seconds). Add the last of the sour cream and mix on low again, until just combined. Scrape the bowl to make sure the bottom of the bowl got mixed in.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a wire whisk until they are stiff but still a bit moist. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, just until they are incorporated (you will still see some thin streaks of white). Immediately fill pans and bake at 350 degrees:
Cupcakes: 18-20 minutes
6" or 8" layers: 25-35 minutes
9" or 10" layers: 30-40 minutes
12" layer: 45-50 minutes

Bake just until the cakes spring back when gently poked with a finger on top, or when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool before frosting.