Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Panettone

Several months ago I began doing genealogy research.  In addition to the German heritage I knew, thus far I’ve also discovered English and Irish heritage of which I was previously unaware.  What I have not found, is Italian heritage.  This isn’t particularly surprising in and of itself, but every time I cook something Italian inspired that Tug really likes he says, “Are you sure you’re not Italian?”  Yes, dear, I’m sure.  Perhaps if I had found Italian heritage it may have helped explain my fascination and passion for things Italian.

One of those passions is panettone.  There are different romantic myths regarding the origins of panettone – charming stories that are entertaining but to which I give little regard.  What I do regard, is the Italian tradition of panettone on Christmas Day.  Last year I didn’t make panettone and this year I was determined that it would not be absent from another Christmas.  The first step to realizing my panettone was finding my recipe long ago clipped from the pages of a King Arthur Flour catalog.  The search on Friday was futile and I ended up using this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but substituting candied ginger for pineapple.  The paper forms I used are available from King Arthur Flour, but in the past I’ve also used small, brown paper bags (lunch bags) with the tops rolled down and they work just as well.

Biga fermenting in our defunct over-the-stove microwave.
Because panettone requires a starter (biga) it’s a two-day process.  I made two loaves:  one for myself and one to take to our friends, Wayne and Terry, on Christmas Eve.  The quantity of starter needed is quite small, but I made it in two batches.  This was mostly because I was putting raisins in Wayne and Terry’s panettone and not in mine.  (Although panettone is an Italian tradition, mine is somewhat nontraditional.  There is nary a raisin to be found in my version.  All of the panettone I’ve ever purchased has contained raisins.  Anyone who knows me well is aware of my deep aversion to raisins that have had heat applied in any way, shape or form.)  Some of the dried fruit needed to be chopped as well, so that was also a good task to complete the day before.

I like to take about a tablespoon of the measured
flour and toss the dried fruit in it to keep the pieces
separated - particularly in the case of the ginger.
Mise en place ready.  The Fiori di Sicilia flavoring is
also from King Arthur Flour.  Can you tell I'm a fan?

And since I was making two loaves, I arbitrarily decided to use two different mixing methods.  The original recipe instructs to allow the loaves to rise, gently deflate and then knead in the fruit.  I followed the instructions for Wayne and Terry’s panettone.  For mine, I chose to add the fruit to the mixer after the dough came together and let it rise with the fruit in it.  That was definitely the easier of the two methods, but I’m not certain if it had any effect on the final product.  I can’t speak for Wayne and Terry’s panettone, but mine turned out quite dry.  Dry is fine for bread pudding (as Terry suggested) or for French toast (as I’ll be making later today), but for general eating – not so much.  I guess that means I need to try again.  Darn.

This is the dough for my panettone with the fruit
added during the mixing process.

And this is the dough for Wayne and Terry's panettone
to which the fruit was kneaded in.  I like the other method.

Par-baked panettone.  (I forgot to take their picture
before putting them in the oven.)

Fully baked panettone.  I had to tent these with foil to
keep the tops from getting too browned.  As it turned
out, they probably didn't need to be baked quite as long.

The slightly disappointing end product. 
Glass half full:  I think it will make awesome
French toast!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Toffee Madness

Music and cooking apparently go together for me.
I always find songs running through my head related to
whatever I'm working on.  Waiting impatiently for the
toffee to reach 270 had Tommy Petty singing
"the waiting is the hardest part" in my head.
Indeed, Mr. Petty.  Indeed.
Since discovering Katie’s “Dad’s Famous Toffee” recipe, my head has been spinning with ideas for variations.  So far I’ve realized the original version but with pecans instead of walnuts, cashew toffee, macadamia nut toffee with white chocolate, and toffee with roasted sea salt almonds and milk chocolate.  I had added a bit of cardamom to the cashew toffee, but unfortunately not enough and the flavor was totally lost.  Another attempt is in order.  Ideas for future endeavors include hazelnut toffee, pistachio toffee and toffee made with goat butter. 

I would love to spend all day making toffee today, but that’s not in the cards.  Besides the fact that I have birthday cupcakes to deliver, it is 61° and seriously humid here today.  The toffee I made last night is already getting sticky.  I’m hoping for less juicy air tomorrow.

These are my variations on Katie’s original recipe:

For the cashew toffee, I decided to try this silicon mold
to make uniform little squares.  It worked well, but they
are a little bit thicker than I'd like.

Cashew Toffee

Since I wasn’t going to use any chocolate on this toffee, I amped up the quantity of the nuts.  I used 1-1/2 cups of raw cashew pieces in place of the walnuts.  As previously mentioned, I also added 1/8 of a teaspoon of cardamom that I couldn’t taste at all.  The amount of cardamom definitely needs to be increased, but carefully so it’s not overpowering. 

Macadamia Nut Toffee with White Chocolate

Chopping the macadamia nuts was the most difficult
and time consuming part of this toffee. 
I wanted them uniform in size,
so I quartered each nut individually. 
Have I mentioned I'm a little OCD?
I was out of salted butter, so I used unsalted and added 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt; I swapped the walnuts for raw macadamia nuts and white chocolate (the real cocoa butter type) for bittersweet chocolate.

Toffee with Roasted Sea Salt Almonds and Milk Chocolate

Again, I used unsalted butter, but since the almonds were already very salty I didn’t add any additional salt; I used the roasted almonds in place of walnuts and some milk chocolate chips on top. 

Right now I'm seriously struggling to keep myself out of the kitchen so I don't make more toffee.  I do believe I may be obsessed.  Imagine that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sugar High

This has been a sugar (and butter) filled month.  In addition to the cakes, this week included four dozen cupcakes, three batches of nut brittle, my first – and definitely not last – attempt at making toffee and six different kinds of cookies:  cranberry-walnut sugar cookies, plain sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies with currants and pecans, coffee sandwich cookies with caramel filling and Grandma’s butter cookies.  I have no idea how many dozen that is, but it’s definitely in the double digits and probably in the 20's.  And there will be more cupcakes before the week is over, plus figuring out something to send to work with The Hubs for his office get-together, which I will miss while delivering aforementioned cupcakes.  Not surprisingly, I’m nearly out of sugar.  I guess I should have gone with the 50 pound bag after all. 

The amazing toffee waiting for the chocolate to set.  Of all the things I made, this is by far my favorite.  For the recipe, check out Katie's post at Making Michael Pollan Proud.  There was absolutely no reason for me to adapt and reprint her recipe because it's perfect.  I can't wait to make more of this using different nuts and chocolates.  A macadamia nut/white chocolate version will be first on my list.  I also bought some cashews and am thinking sea salt roasted almonds with milk chocolate.  And although I personally wouldn't eat it because I don't like black walnuts, I think a version with black walnuts for my family back home.

The cranberry-walnut sugar cookies waiting to go into the oven.  This is a recipe I adapted from one I found for Amish Sugar Cookies that had been submitted to our local newspaper for a holiday recipe contest.  I added some finely ground walnuts and substituted vegetable oil with walnut oil.  At first I wasn't sure if I liked them, but I have to say I kind of developed a taste for them.

Currant-pecan oatmeal cookies cooling.  Ordinarily I use cranberries in my oatmeal cookies because I don't care for raisins.  But these weren't for me and I can handle currants since they're smaller.  As this recipe doesn't include any egg, I like to underbake these just slightly so they stay nice and chewy.  These have a little more "chew" than usual since I ran out of quick oats and had to use some old-fashioned oats.  I think they still turned out great.

My grandma's butter cookies are one of my favorite cookies.  Part of it is sentimental I'm sure.  I prefer them with a soft buttercream icing (like Grandma made), but that doesn't travel so well.  The snowflakes were decorated with royal icing and some very uncooperative little silver dragees and fondant and luster dust.  The stars were drizzled with melted vanilla confectionery coating.

The coffee cookies getting their coffee-caramel filling.  These almost ended up just being coffee wafers instead of sandwich cookies.  When I first started to fill them, I noticed that my caramel was more of a sauce than a filling.  Fortunately with a little more cooking it firmed up just the way I wanted.

Packaged, boxed and ready for delivery.  All of this was made for my friends, Rhonda and Jim, to put together cookies trays to give on behalf of Jim's business, Cache River Chevrolet & RV.  (Yes, a totally shameless plug for them, without their knowledge or compensation.)

So now that all of that is out of the way, I have another go around with the white chocolate cupcakes, as well as pumpkin cupcakes, for a birthday on December 15th and then I get to start baking for myself and start my Christmas shopping.  I think I may take January off.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

White Chocolate Raspberry Cupcakes: Version One

While in the final push on Friday to finish up the previously mentioned cakes and cupcakes for my third bride, I received a call from the wedding assistant of Bride No. 2.  She liked the cupcakes I had done for Bride No. 2's wedding and wanted some for her birthday on December 15th.  When I first spoke with her, we agreed on two dozen pumpkin spice cupcakes.  The next time we talked, she asked if I could do white chocolate raspberry cupcakes.  I stammered for a moment because I've never before made white chocolate cake.

Okay, so let's get this out of the way before we go any further:  I know white "chocolate" technically isn't true chocolate, but for the sake of conversation it's easier.  However, when I do say "white chocolate" I mean the confection that's made with cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla, not the sickly sweet "white baking chips" made with ingredients difficult to pronounce. 

That being established, my concern about white chocolate in cake was that it's a much more subtle flavor than it's darker counterparts so it could be a challenge to get the flavor to come through.  Then I had to think about the raspberry - would adding raspberry to the cupcake overpower the white chocolate completely?  You never know until you try.  So I did.  I left most of the cupcakes plain, but experimented with adding raspberry puree to a few of them.  (I hate the fact that "raspberry puree" has Prince's "Raspberry Beret" running through my head.)

Some I swirled in the puree, others just drizzled it on top.
The ones with the drizzle on top look like someone bled on them.
Kinda gross.

The cake recipe I began with is adapted from Cupcakes, a Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publication that I found while waiting in the check out line at the grocery store some time ago.  Starting with their yellow cupcake recipe, I reduced the sugar and vanilla and added six ounces of melted white chocolate.  I think if you know there's white chocolate in the cupcakes you'll taste it, but otherwise it may be overlooked.  I'm pretty sure if I replace some of the butter in the recipe with culinary cocoa butter, I'll get the flavor I'm looking for.  If I can find culinary cocoa butter locally, I'll give it a try.  Not holding my breath on that, Plan B is to add chopped white chocolate chunks to the batter in addition to the six ounces of melted white chocolate.

The cupcakes with the raspberry puree weren't as texturally appealing as those without it.  There's a bit of a "raw dough" texture around the puree.  Not so appetizing.  You can see the difference on the inside between the cupcake I tried to swirl in the puree and the one that just had puree on top.  As for the flavor, it didn't really add much but enough to mask the white chocolate.  That's exactly what I thought may happen. 

Since I had plenty of raspberry puree left over, I decided to make raspberry buttercream and leave the cupcakes as the white chocolate component.  At least the buttercream didn't disappointment me.  Both the color and flavor stayed vibrant.  As the cupcakes are now, I still think the raspberry will overpower the white chocolate.  (I haven't tried this combination yet; my palate needs a break from sweet right now.)  But, I also made a litte bit of white chocolate ganache.  I'm thinking of piping a little star of ganache on top to get the white chocolate flavor mixed in with the raspberry flavor. 

In the meantime, I'll distribute these to a few taste testers tomorrow and see what kind of feedback I get.  Hopefully I'm on the right track.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

It's Done!

Yesterday The Hubs and I delivered my largest cake order yet.  Back in May I agreed to do cake for the wedding reception of a good friend's sister.  It ended up being a bride's cake, a groom's cake and cupcakes for about 250 people.  Before I was finished, I seriously thought I was crazy for trying to do all of this on my own. 

The bride's cake was inspired by three different cakes she saw in the wedding cakes page on the Martha Stewart website.  The cake itself was vanilla bean white cake filled with strawberry buttercream and iced with vanilla buttercream- very similar to what I did for her bridal shower.  Each tier was adapted from one of her inspiration cakes.  It worked, but I have a lot of self-criticism:  I need to keep up with my piping skills for writing; the colors weren't exactly what I wanted; the white candy tiles were too tall, etc., etc.  I think no matter how good something may be, I can still find fault with my work.

The groom's cake was supposed to be a surprise.  I didn't spoil the surprise, but he did come in when I was setting the cakes up.  Oops.  A cake with a St. Louis Cardinals or Rams theme was requested.  I held out on deciding which to do until after the World Series - then I knew I would do the Cardinals.  The bride was having a hard time getting the groom to commit to a flavor other than "chocolate" so we went with chocolate fudge cake with peanut butter buttercream filling and rich chocolate buttercream icing all covered in a mixture of fondant and candy clay.

My inspiration for the groom's cake came from a couple of pennant flags in the Cardinals shop on the MLB website.  This cake really didn't turn out the way I envisioned either.  I had piped "St. Louis Cardinals" with red and blue confectionery coating, but the red just would not smooth out.  Couple that with the fact that "Cardinals" broke when I was attempting to remove it from the plastic and it didn't take long to scrap that idea.  I had looked for small number-shaped cookie cutters to do fondant cut outs of the years they won the World Series, but the only ones I found were metal, which I ordinarily prefer but for intricate or small designs is difficult to get fine details.  It made them look juvenile.  I did happen on a set of fondant molds that I liked much better.  Instead of molding fondant, I molded tinted confectionery coating.  I was fairly happy with how they turned out, even if 1964 is extremely crooked on the cake.  (And learned in the process that the Cardinals have never won a World Series in a year containing the number 5.  Just a little trivia there.)

I'm not sure how the groom felt about it, but my dad would like this cake.

And of course, the cupcakes.  Originally intended to be three dozen carrot cake cupcakes, a last minute plea from the bride altered that.  Apparently the mother-in-law was in distress that there would be no red velvet cake.  The bride didn't seem overly excited about red velvet cake so I countered her original thought to replace one of her tiers with red velvet by suggesting some of the cupcakes be red velvet.  Compromise is key.  We ended up with carrot cake cupcakes with cream cheese buttercream topped with a flower of dried pineapple and red velvet cupcakes with the same buttercream - hence my suggestion of cupcakes instead of one of her cake tiers.  Easier for me, the bride had no offending red velvet in her cake, and the mother-in-law got what she wanted.

The adrenaline rush of getting all of this done and delivered successfully has waned and I am now back to wondering:  "Is this really what I want to do?  Am I taking something I love and wringing the passion out of it?  Did they like it?  Can my self-esteem handle it when the time comes that someone doesn't like what I do?"  I don't have answers to those questions right now.  But I'm not giving up just yet.