Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Individual Banana Puddings with Vanilla Wafer Crust

Banana Pudding made with vanilla wafers is such a nostalgic American dessert. Individual puddings in little ramekins gives this dessert a nice presentation for company. This recipe makes about six servings (depending on how much filling you put in each one - you can make four thicker puddings if you prefer).

1 1/2 Cups Crushed Vanilla Wafers
1/4 Cup butter, melted

Combine in a bowl until the consistency is like sand. Spoon a thin layer (about 2 Tablespoons) of the crumb mixture into the bottom of each ramekin and press firmly to flatten out. Chill until set (30+ minutes)

2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 2/3 Cups milk
2 egg yolks
1 banana
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

In the top of a double boiler combine the sugar, flour, salt, and milk. Stir the mixture in the bowl while the water boils beneath it, cooking for about 12-14 minutes until the mixture thickens (stir it frequently). Remove from the heat. *The time it takes to thicken will depend on a few factors, such as how cold the milk is that you start with. Instead of paying close attention to the timer, look for the correct consistency instead. The filling should be almost at pudding consistency (as thick as apple sauce) before you take it off the heat.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. Take a small amount of the hot milk/flour mixture (about a tablespoon) and stir it into the eggs. Add another spoonful and stir it in (you are "tempering" the eggs so they don't cook and curdle). Now pour the egg mixture into the rest of the hot milk mix. Return it to the double boiler and cook until thickened some more (about 3-5 minutes) stirring constantly.Take it off the heat.

Cut the banana in half. Mash half of the banana in a small bowl. Add the mashed banana and vanilla extract to the filling mixture. Now place a layer of Saran wrap directly on top of the filling (to avoid getting a thickened skin on top). Put it in the fridge to cool. 

The other half of the banana should be sliced into six "coins."  A slice of banana can be placed into the bottom of each ramekin on top of the crust, so that when you bite into the pudding you get a bite of real banana.

When the filling has chilled, spoon a little into each ramekin (a layer about 1" thick). Top with whipped cream. Garnish them with banana slices or a Vanilla wafers on each one.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Baking with Cast Iron

This post has to be a little tribute to my parents, who swear by cast iron cooking. My mother passed down to me two of her family's cast iron pans, one of which is now probably 100 years old! My dad taught me how to cook pancakes on a cast iron griddle, and like any modern home cook, I totally disregarded his "old-timey" advice for years. But finally I saw the error of my ways. Cooking a pancake (or anything, for that matter) on modern non-stick cookware literally pales in comparison. Now I am a firm believer in cast iron cooking, and I have been pleased to learn that cast iron is great for baking as well!

Skillet Cake (recipe in the recipe section)

Although you can cook and bake just about anything with cast iron, there is a sacred list of three things that absolutely MUST  be cooked in cast iron, or they simply won't achieve their wonderful potential. Those three things are CORNBREAD, IRISH BREAD, and PANCAKES. 
For cornbread, I like to heat the cast iron skillet while preheating the oven. Then I take it out, grease it, add the cornbread batter, and put it back in the oven. That gives the crust a little extra color and crispness, which I love in cornbread:
For Irish Bread, on the other hand, I do not preheat the skillet, I just lay the round bread dough in the room temperature skillet and bake it (see my recipe in the recipe section):
 Granny Mahoney's Irish Bread
For pancakes, it is best to heat your griddle or skillet over low-medium heat for a good 15 minutes or so before dropping the pancakes on. This ensures nice and even heating. For my recipe and my Dad's fantastic pancake tips, see the recipe section.

Homemade Pancakes 

For cakes and pies, follow the baking instructions on your recipe. You'll want to watch your time more closely, because things tend to bake a little more quickly in cast iron. I do not reduce the heat when baking in cast iron, although I have heard some bakers do. But I choose to bake cakes and pies in cast iron that are not as delicate. Hearty chocolate cakes and country-style fruit cobblers are great choices.

The great thing about Cast Iron Cookware is that it is pretty inexpensive and, if well-cared for, it can last a lifetime (or in the case of my pans, several generations!) The Lodge company has been making cast iron here in the U.S. since 1896, and they are the experts on cooking with and caring for your cast iron cookware. See the Lodge website for more info: Care for Cast Iron

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Undying Cupcake Trend

A new cupcake shop just opened up in the mall near me, the third one in my area that sells just cupcakes. Wait a minute, didn't I read an article two years ago in which several noteworthy food writers proclaimed that, after a long run, the cupcake craze is on its way out? In Boston, there are currently EIGHT cupcake shops, and that is not counting the surrounding suburbs. The one that just opened is one of a well-known chain of shops which sells oversized cupcakes more sugary than they are flavorful.

Don't get me wrong, I do love cupcakes. What's not to love? They are cute and oh-so portable. Unlike a slice of cake, no plate and fork are necessary with a cupcake. I think the biggest draw of all is the nostalgia factor. Because they used to be considered a "kid food," cupcakes make us think back to childhood, with its long carefree summers, birthday parties, and those old days when we could eat sweets with no guilt whatsoever. So I get the appeal; I'm just baffled that there are SO many stores in SO many towns that JUST sell cupcakes. How long can this trend of cupcake-only cafes continue when it's been more than twelve years already?!

These specialty cupcakes are great, but they don't come cheap. A one-bite mini will set you back at least $1.50, and the regular ones are $3.00 and up, depending on whether you want basic or exotic flavors. The latest thing in the ongoing cupcake trend is putting wacky fillings into the cupcakes. Unusual cake flavors and unique toppers have become passé after all this time, so now the cupcakes are filled, and they are morphing into giganto sizes.

The bakery that is usually credited with starting the modern cupcake craze is Magnolia Bakery in New York City. Even before they were featured on Sex and the City, The Magnolia bakery was known for their cupcakes. When I lived in NYC I used to go there sometimes. The store is adorable, and so are the cupcakes. Basic Vanilla and Chocolate with a simple old-fashioned butter frosting tinted lightly in pastel shades. I love Magnolia Bakery, even though I always thought their cupcakes were a tad dry. And cupcakes were never their only offering. As the story goes, the cupcakes were actually a bit of an afterthought on the menu when the bakery was first opening.

The first time I saw a shop that sold ONLY cupcakes (also in NYC), I thought it was a very clever novelty idea. They offered many flavors beyond the standard chocolate and vanilla, which made it a neat experience. But then more and more cupcake shops popped up to cash in on the craze. Weird, funky, terribly overzealous cupcakes emerged. Along came something called "Cupcake Couture." People even started having cupcakes as their wedding cake. Years passed, I moved to Boston, and yet I am still seeing new cupcake shops open each year. Haven't we reached a saturation point by now? Maybe I am just tired of it more than the average person since I have been following this trend almost from the start. Or maybe I am baffled (and admittedly a tad envious) that someone could make a living selling nothing but cupcakes day in and day out. Don't the customers reach a point where they say, "Hmmm, maybe today I feel like a Croissant instead. Or a slice of pie. Oh wait, this bakery doesn't offer that."

I guess I am just one of those people that starts to like something less when it becomes really trendy. But I feel like this one really is getting old. Can't we just go back to loving cupcakes because they are tasty and nostalgic, not gobbling up fantastical cupcake creations because they are so "in"?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Simple Chocolate Layer Cake

My recipe for Simple Chocolate Layer Cake is something I modified from the Hershey's basic chocolate cake recipe. A reliable and fairly easy recipe, it is a great one to start with if you've never made a cake from scratch. If you grew up on box mix cakes and like that "in the middle" texture and flavor (chocolatey but not too rich, moist but not too dense) than this is the cake for you.

2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Cocoa Powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup hot fresh coffee

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans, or three 6-inch round pans.

Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly and then add in the milk, oil and vanilla.

Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. With an electric mixer, beat on medium speed for two minutes. Stir in the coffee (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake 25-30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, or until the surface springs back when pressed lighly with a fingertip. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost with chocolate or vanilla buttercream.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pineapple Skillet Cake

This Pineapple Upside Down cake (or, as my Great-Grandmother used to call it, "Pineapple Downside-Up Cake") is made in a cast-iron skillet so the fruit gets extra brown and caramelized with the brown sugar. My family is big into cooking and baking with cast iron, and I was thrilled to see this cake recipe in a book my mother gave me of old recipes from my grandmother and great-grandmother. Baking with cast iron is making a big come back these days - there is even a recipe similar to this in The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. I'm sure it's a great recipe, but I haven't tried it yet because I am so hooked on this one. With pineapple juice in the batter, I can't imagine any other Pineapple Upside Down Cake being better! However, I did take one tip from The Cake Bible: I mix this cake with the reverse creaming method instead of the traditional way.

1 1/2 Cups All-purpose flour
1 1/2 Cups Sugar*
1 1/2 teaspoons Baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 Cup (1 stick) softened butter
1/2 Cup Pineapple juice
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 Cup Butter
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar

1 large Can Pineapple slices (I used 8 slices) drained and patted dry
4 maraschino cherries, sliced in half to make 8 halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

I make the sauce and line the skillet with the fruit before making the batter then pouring the batter over it. But both steps are fairly quick to do, so you can make the batter first if you'd prefer.

In a large cast iron skillet, melt the butter. Mix in the brown sugar and stir until it is all coated in butter and starts to foam. Remove from heat and spread out the brown sugar sauce to make sure it coats the whole bottom of the pan. Place pineapple slices in the bottom of the pan and put a cherry in the center of each pineapple, rounded side down.

Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on low for about 30 seconds to mix dry ingredients. Add the butter (in chunks) and the pineapple juice to the dry ingredients. Mix on low until moistened and then turn the mixer up to medium. Beat for 1 minute to aerate. Add egg yolks one at a time with the vanilla, beating just until each egg is incorporated. Scrape down the bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold the egg whites gently into the rest of the batter (there will be white streaks).

Pour batter over the sauce and fruit, gently spooning it into all the areas of the pan. With a spatula, spread the batter to even it out, while gently pressing down to ensure it gets into the crevices of the fruit.

Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. This cake turns very brown on the outside, so don't be alarmed.

When the cake is done, flip it onto a platter while hot - (Make sure to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan really well first. For this I like to use a heat-resistant spatula).

If any fruit sticks to the pan, carefully scrape it off and place it back on the cake.

Cool to room temp and cut with a hot knife.

*This cake is very sweet; I like it as is, but if you want to lessen the sugar to 1 cup, go ahead.