Sunday, August 31, 2008

Baking Escapades: Pear Passionfruit Cupcakes With Passionfruit Chocolate Ganache

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of rich foods, it was an age of poverty, it was the season of Squash, it was the season of Kale, it was a summer of fresh fruits & vegetables before a winter of despair. You get the idea: Justin and I haven't had the money to eat out, so we've been making the most of cheap, in-season produce, and that means all kinds of culinary experimentation.

Personally, though, I don't find cooking nearly as exciting as baking. I mean, I enjoy cooking well enough, but nothing compares to the smell of bread or cake or cookies fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately I've always been scared to experiment with baking because of the old adage that cooking is an art and baking is a science. You experiment with art and you're avant-garde. You experiment with science and scary things can happen.

Still, I faced my fears. If I tried to make my own cupcake recipe, what was the worst that could happen? I might create something completely inedible, but atomic destruction was unlikely. I decided to go for it and created a recipe around a can of Goya Pear/Passionfruit Nectar we had sitting in the fridge.

Such was the genesis of my Pear Passionfruit Cupcakes (based loosely on this Old-Fashioned Cupcake Recipe). The resulting fragrant yellow cakes had an unidentifiably fruity flavor, and I topped them with a Chocolate Passionfruit Ganache made from Scharffen Berger semisweet chocolate and PassoĆ£ liqueur.

The cupcakes were delicious, but not heavy enough on the passionfruit flavor for my taste. When I try these again I'm going to use at least twice as much liqueur in the batter - this should enhance the taste a lot and hopefully tint the cupcakes a pink color. I might also try a white chocolate passionfruit buttercream in place of the ganache.

Overall, I'd count this experiment a success. My recipe was edible, pretty and completely non-lethal. Mmm, non-lethal cupcakes...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Oh, one more thing

I meant to elaborate on the thing I ended this post with but then the cat walked by or there was a cloud or something and I forgot.

But here it is anyway.

I have a game: in order to test just how egregious can be, do a search for something innocuous but maybe a tad ethnic (the further outside of Midwest cuisine the better) then count how many results you have to go through before you find something truly inedible.

Enchilada's pretty good. This recipe is number 7 on the list and features a mixture (a paste?) of yogurt, cream of chicken soup, and mozzarella cheese spread over the tortillas. Enchiladas are a staple food. We even have them in Ithaca and we don't have any real Mexican food in Ithaca (I'm looking at you, Viva Taqueria). How do you make a recipe like this happen? How do you give it five stars after subbing in LOWFAT yogurt (their emphasis) and ground turkey? How do you do that?

So what do you think, can you do better than 7? I'm sure you can, I'm hardly even trying and I found this.

Long Weekend Living: Nun's Puffs

I had a dream last night that I mixed up what must have been 15 or 20 cups of whole wheat bread dough and then tried to force it by thirds into a hot waffle iron. When it poured out of the iron's sides, wheaty and elastic and half-cooked already, I turned to Dana and said that it was really much better to make waffles out of dough than batter because there's nothing to clean up. Apparently this indicated that when five pounds of nascent bread ends up on your counter it's not a mess, it's an accessory; and also that even in the dead boredom of my dreams, I wanted to bake.

When I woke up, my mind flitted to a recipe for Nun's Puffs I'd stumbled across in the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook a couple weeks ago. In the accompanying picture, the puffs resembled popovers or filo pastry: light and crisp and sparkling with caramelized sugar where they flowed from their muffin cups. The recipe is simple and just packed with fatty deliciousness, so I gave it a whirl this morning:

A whole stick of butter, seriously
1 cup of milk
4 eggs
3/4 cup of flour
1 Tbsp of sugar for dusting
some, like, honey or jam or something, because baby why not just go all the way?

Melt the butter and milk together and bring to a boil then dump in the flour all at once, stirring--as the recipe commands in uncharacteristic italics--vigorously. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing furiously with a wooden spoon, then plop the mixture into some heavily greased muffin cups, dust with the sugar, and push into a 375 degree oven for half an hour.

I had high hopes, but the puffs which came out of the oven were a little disappointing. As you might imagine, the copious amount of butter had them frying in their cups, and the exorbitant number of eggs mixed directly into the batter made them dense and heavy. Ultimately it was the sugar which saved them from being just egg biscuits as anywhere the sugar lay in a thick crust they were transformed into perfect little doughnuts, with just the right combination of heavy and sweet.

If I make these again--and I don't know that I will with the whole stick of butter and all--I would amend the following into the recipe:
  • whip the eggs to soft peaks and fold them in to the batter at the last moment
  • use self-rising flour or just sub in a little baking powder so the dough leavens in the oven more completely
  • add 1-2 Tbsp of honey or granulated sugar to spread the really necessary sweetness throughout
  • a pinch or two of salt (assuming I'm not using the self-rising flour which already contains a bit of salt) to balance the heavy eggyness and the sweet
Dana suggested (on the way to the gym to work out the three puffs we each downed) that they resembled Aebelskivers and as such might be great if split and filled with jam. I think filled with a whipped cream or chantilly they would become something closer to a cream puff which, let's face it, is what every baked good secretly wishes it could be.

We'll keep pondering, I guess, but I think with our powers combined, we can make these truly great.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I've got it: Irish Food

I woke up yesterday with the motivation to cook. It happens that way sometimes, I suddenly find myself hovering around the kitchen opening and closing the fridge only to realize that I've been there for hours, basking in the glow through the milk jug, wanting something I can't see.

The truth is I'm terrible at coming up with meals from the things we have. I'm good for one or two days after a trip to the grocery store, but afterward I look into the heart of the refrigerator and see nothing but parts that don't fit together. A hotdog... tortilla... salad? Egg battered Cheerios? This is less delicious than I would have liked.

So at breakfast, nothing came of my motivation, then lunch passed without breaking the stalemate, and it was only after Dana and I got out of Tropic Thunder and she declared she was going to make Irish soda bread that it all clicked together. We stopped off at the store on the way home and then whipped up this fantastic Irish meal with the soda bread recipe that Nicole passed along to us years ago and a pot of Irish Chicken & Dumplings that we'd made twice before as a St. Patrick's Day option for those not brave enough to tackle our corned beef and cabbage.

The soda bread turned out lovely, a dense sweet loaf dotted with raisins, and the chicken & dumplings was easily the most filling meal ever devised by man. After a little bowl of this stuff we were egregiously, sinfully full, and I truly don't know how that works. It's essentially a stew, sure, so it's chock full of carrots and potatoes and shredded chicken, but together its constituent parts come together to form a meal that swells like shaving cream immediately upon contact with stomach acid. I've never made chicken & dumplings when we didn't have a crowd over to consume it, and maybe that was a blessing I'd previously been unaware of. The huge bowl of leftovers we retained is going to hold us for a month at least, and we're going to be hard pressed to keep this a single six pound dumpling from replacing Thanksgiving Dinner out of pure necessity.

You can find the recipe for the Irish Chicken & Dumplings here, though I suggest you reduce the dumpling portion by at least half if you don't want your stovetop covered in par-boiled bread lumps, and I double the amount of potatoes (cut them smaller than it suggests. Trust me.) and salt, and sub in various herbs (oregano, thyme, marjoram, basil, a little coriander) for the generic "poultry seasoning" which just sounds like a culinary disaster rubbing its salty little hands together, waiting to happen.

It's really a fantastic dish if you have the time and the stomach capacity to handle it, substantially superior to most dishes featured on

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ice Cream Beginnings

We got an ice cream maker as a wedding present earlier this summer, but it sat unused on a shelf in our kitchen until Tuesday of this week. Then, by some strange confluence of intention and overestimation, we found that we'd acquired the necessary ingredients to make not one but two batches of creamy delicious ultra-fatty ice cream.

The first set went together super easily, I combined 1 cup of heavy cream, 2 cups of fat-free half & half, about a cup of sugar, and two teaspoons of vanilla extract (so basically the simplest ice cream recipe ever) and tossed it into the machine. While it was freezing, I chopped up a square of this semisweet Scharffen Berger baking bar we had lying around. The resulting mixture was rich and light but tasted more like chantilly cream than true ice cream. I pawned most of the batch off on our neighbors Eisha and Nicole at the second day of a Pride & Prejudice marathon they had going with Dana. They were troopers and choked it down which is good because we definitely couldn't have eaten it all ourselves. The four cups of ingredients swell into like 6 cups prepared, and the fact that we used basically all cream meant that eating more than a bite or two of the stuff left our mouths covered in a ridiculous--though not un-delicious--dairy residue for hours. This was not the ice cream for us to make habitually, this was a flawed recipe.

Our friends Hunter and Marissa joined us in polishing off the remains yesterday, then a few hours later, caught in the roiling tension of a Settlers of Catan game, we decided to whip up another, better batch. Well armed by Hunter's familiarity with this Ben & Jerry's book, we set off to make a mint chip batch. And we sort of succeeded. I guess.

Ben & Jerry's recipes start with an egg yolk in addition to the dairy products to lend the resulting concoction a thicker consistency, but this addition, coupled with a little bit of an overestimation of our mint extract requirements, and the swapping of skim milk for the nonfat half & half kept the ice cream from freezing as quickly or as uniformly as I would have liked. Finally, at 11:30, half mad from the grinding of the ice cream machine, I pulled the whole batch out, served some of the syrupy product up and threw the rest into the freezer to chill and set. This morning, despite Hunter's prediction that the whole batch would ice, it seems to have set quite well into the familiar consistency of ice cream.

So, we're still working at this ice cream thing, but it is getting better. We just have to balance a couple of things, maybe figure out our ingredients list, and then we'll start experimenting in earnest. I'm looking ahead at passion fruit ice cream (I've been obsessed with passion fruit since we stumbled into dinner and passion fruit margaritas--served in an actual coconut! Non-ironically!--at Bamboo restaurant during our vacation in Hawaii last summer) and mango sorbet most fondly indeed. All you troopers who live near us are just going to have to suck it up and consume some ice cream disappointments before we can get on to the good stuff. I hope that isn't too tough an assignment for you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Long Weekend Living: Garage Sale, Pizza Part 2

With the influx of gifts from the wedding, our apartment has been packed with stuff for months. This week, caught in the backwash lull of finished work (for Dana, TAing a summer course, for me finishing my thesis) we decided to gather up all the extra junk we've been tossing in our guest room for months and host (along with Eisha) our very first yard sale.

Even though typing that sentence took me literally two hours with all of the web browsing, it was still much easier said than done. We have been working way more than full time all week trying to gather, clean, and price everything we own and don't need. Ultimately it was totally worth it, we made a few hundred dollars and some considerable progress in making our apartment livable again, but the whole process left us little time and even less energy. We've been dragging since the sale ended Saturday afternoon and way off our normal food schedule. Seven minute dinner so we can catch a 10pm movie? Definitely. (Don't see Pineapple Express, by the way. You can thank me later.) Starting to cook breakfast around noon while we flip back and forth between beach volleyball and regular volleyball? You bet. This is one of the wonderful imbalances that teaching allows, I guess, that you can have these sorts of breaks intermittently where you have to concentrate for forty-five seconds to recall what day of the week it is. It's like all the joy of a kid's summer vacation but with the ability to drive thrown in.

All that was just to say that our long weekend living has really been more autopilot than gourmand this time around. Breakfast this morning was a super simple waffle made with whole wheat flour and spotted with sliced peaches, sugar free maple syrup, and lowfat vanilla yogurt. All healthy-like, which I guess makes up for the fact that it was pizza for dinner once again. Granted it was on a partially wheat crust, and mostly veggie, but still. There's something about really cleaning up the apartment that makes me want to clean up my diet a bit, too. Maybe time to head back to the gym?

On that sour note, here's the recipe for my super secret medium-thin crust pizza dough that I've developed in the last couple of years from the fantastic bases of Peter Reinhart's American Pie (which I highly recommend if you're at all interested in pizza as a serious form of study)

5 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
1.5 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp honey
1.5 cups water (110-115 degrees)
2 tsp kosher salt

(Note: for a wheat dough, I sub in a cup of the all-purpose for whole wheat flour. That's as much as I find I can safely use before I need to add oil and water to counter the tendency of wheat flour to dry out the dough ball.)

The process is simple but takes a little bit of time. Add everything but the water and yeast together in your Kitchenaid (it is red, right? You don't want to mess this up) and sift a bit with a whisk (though when making a wheat dough I find actually sifting the flour as I add it helps the texture). Meanwhile, proof the yeast in the water until it's bubbly (about ten minutes) then dump that in as well. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on medium-low speed for three minutes then shut off the mixer and leave the dough for at least five minutes. When you get back from checking your email, mix on medium-high for another three minutes then pull the dough ball out and split into three equal pieces. Oil them all and cover with a damp cloth or loose plastic wrap. Leave for like two hours. Take a shower, maybe see a movie, DO NOT eat a burrito. I'm serious, you will regret it later. When you come back, punch all three of the balls down and toss two in oiled bags in the fridge or the freezer. The one that's left you can mash down and stretch into a round, brush the round with a smidge more olive oil, top, and bake.

Oh before that, set your oven to its hottest setting. Whatever it is, it's not nearly hot enough, by like three hundred degrees. This is the losing proposition of pizza making, the one that everybody will tell you. Your oven might cook a pizza alright, a pizza stone would help a little, but pulling the whole thing out and replacing it with an Italian brick oven would help a lot more. I half believe the party line, but I bake on a cheapo pizza stone in an oven that only goes up to 500 on a really sunny day and it turns out just fine, the crust is always lovely and crisp, and the pizza is hot all the way through so I have nothing to complain about.

So that's it. Really simple pizza dough that's a bit sweet and way light on oil and enough for three good-sized rounds that are fully guaranteed tasty.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Silver Palate Chocolate Chip Cookies

As much as I enjoy baking fancy recipes, my all-time favorite thing to pull out of the oven is a sheet of warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies. I love the way the smell of them permeates the house, the way the edges get the tiniest bit brown and crispy while the centers stay soft. Really, our friend Sara A. is to blame for my cookie-baking abilities. My own mom was not the best cook in the world - her idea of a balanced meal was serving us carrots with our Domino's pizza - so it wasn't until Sara took me under her wing that I figured out that you have to take cookies out of the oven before they look done in order to avoid over-cooking them.

Usually I stick to my old standard, the Nestle Toll House recipe on the back of the bag, but I decided to try something a little different on this batch. Instead of semi-sweet chips I used Nestle Swirled chips (a combination of semi-sweet & white chocolates), and instead of the Nestle recipe I test drove one from The Silver Palate. It called for slightly different portions of the same ingredients, including a higher percentage of brown sugar to white sugar than the Nestle recipe, which changed the flavor quite a bit. I'd say it tasted more like a restaurant or Mrs. Field's cookie than one that was home-baked. The recipe also called for the dry ingredients to be sifted together, the end result being a lighter, fluffier cookie.

Of course, I like the home-baked taste of the Nestle cookie, so I'll likely stick with that recipe. I guess I just like my cookies like I like my men: boring, and not found in a mall.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Pizza Part 1

In our house, there's hardly a topic bigger or more pertinent than pizza. We're sort of pizza fanatics. It started probably a year ago when we first wised up and went from ordering pizza in to making our own crusts. That shift takes the cost of a pizza down from like ten or fifteen bucks to a dollar, maybe two if you want something extra fancy on it. So, obviously, huge.

Of course this also negates the need to eat some soggy pie with pepperoni curled up into little grease swimming pools. Not that I don't love me some grease once in a while.

But still. All in moderation, people; we don't need to ingest enough oil to fill scrooge mcduck's vault just to get a little demi-italian round, we can probably save that bit of saturated fat for something a teensy more deserving.

Lately, since our truly amazing friends lured us into borrowing their farm share for a couple of weeks, we've been turning out what are essentially garden pizzas, a little lighter on the sauce and cheese but loaded with fresh vegetables and vibrant herbs. One of the singular joys of the summer has been sprinkling chopped arugula over the pizza while it's still hot from the oven and leaning over as the aromas warm and melt together. It's sunny and spicy and always has that perfect tang of caramelized onions and minced garlic to accompany the medium-thin snap of the crust. I'm not afraid to admit that it's one of the things that's kept me going while writing my thesis. That one inhalation will get me through ten maybe twelve hours of grueling poetry writing without a problem.

I'll extol the virtues of my crust in a later post but for now, I leave you with this: go directly to the store, buy some arugula (and some summer squash and green onions and sun-drenched basil and mozzarella and fresh local garlic and and and and!), and make a pizza. Come on, you know you want one, and you know it'll be even better than you imagine.