Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chocolate Banana Bread

Since sourdough bread was the primary topic of yesterday, I thought I'd wait until today to share the recipe for the chocolate banana bread I made while waiting for the sourdough to rise.  It was an experiment to test a recipe for my dad.  

Doesn't look like banana bread, does it? 
The flecks on top are pieces of the ground nuts.
Dad loves nuts, but he can't chew them.  I wanted to see what the results would be of adding finely ground nuts to my favorite (chocolate)  banana bread recipe.  I'm looking to include the flavor of the nuts without the large pieces I would normally use for myself.  It needs a little more work.  I think maybe swapping out some of the butter with some corresponding nut oil may help boost the flavor.  I'll have to neglect some more bananas to test this again.

Decadent breakfast:  a thick slice of bread with mascarpone and blood orange marmalade.

Chocolate Banana Bread
Adapted from Cindy Mushet’s Chocolate-Banana Marble Bread in The Art and Soul of Baking

3 medium-sized, super ripe bananas
1/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup finely chopped or ground pecans, walnuts or almonds - optional  (I used pecans and almonds)

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Spray a large (9” x 5” x 3”) loaf pan with cooking spray and coat with butter.  Line with parchment to go up one inch over the long sides – these will be “handles” to remove the bread from the pan. 

Peel the bananas and process them in a food processor until smooth.  (You can also just mash them if you don’t want to wash the food processor.)  Measure out one cup of the puree.  Discard the rest or freeze it and save it for another use.  Combine the banana puree with the buttermilk and vanilla.  Set aside.

Sift together the cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cocoa.  Set aside.  (If you're not into the chocolate/banana combination, swap the cocoa powder for an equal amount of cake flour.)

Cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until very light and fluffy, three to five minutes.  Stop and scrape down the bowl and paddle periodically.  Reduce the speed to medium and slowly begin adding the beaten egg, drizzling in no more than one tablespoon at a time.  If the mixture starts to look curdled, stop adding the egg and beaten until smooth before adding any more.  Stop and scrape about half way through.  When all of the egg has been incorporated, add the ground nuts and mix until thoroughly combined.  Scrape the bowl and paddle.  

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one third of the dry ingredients, followed by half of the banana/buttermilk mixture.  Repeat and end with the last third of flour.  Mix just until the dry ingredients are incorporated, finishing by hand with a spatula if necessary. 

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.  Rap the pan on the counter a couple of times to even out the batter and release air bubbles.  Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove to a rack to cool completely in the pan.  When the bread has cooled, remove from the pan and peel off the parchment paper. 

This bread is really moist, so refrigeration is recommended.  It also freezes beautifully if well wrapped.  Thaw in the refrigerator and then bring to room temperature before serving.

To make muffins, scoop batter into paper or foil lined cupcake tins and bake 20 minutes.  The recipe will make 18 – 20 muffins. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

More Sourdough

As much as I want to continue my attempts at perfecting French macarons, sheer economics dictates otherwise.  In my last attempt, I had come to the conclusion that my food processor simply can’t grind the almonds finely enough and that using purchased almond meal would be necessary.  However, at $11.65 per pound almond meal is rather pricey – much more so than the 25 pound bag of bread flour we recently purchased for under $7.00.  So.  Macarons on the back burner; bread on the front.

Yesterday I decided to try a new sourdough bread recipe from King Arthur Flour.  (I’m still using the starter from the Tea & Cookies sourdough challenge.)  After I printed the recipe for Rustic Sourdough Bread, I realized it was scarcely different from the Extra-Tangy Sourdough recipe I’ve been using.  Still, I wanted to bake bread yesterday and the Extra-Tangy requires overnight fermentation.  But then I had the idea to make both recipes and compare them.  The overnight fermentation of the Extra-Tangy is one of the differences between these recipes, another is that the Rustic Sourdough has added yeast.  I was curious as to how the yeast would make the final loaves different.  The mixing methods are slightly different also, but since I don’t follow the instructions very well anyway that wasn’t much of a consideration. 

Rustic Sourdough
The dough for the Rustic Sourdough was simple to make (dump all the ingredients together, mix, and knead) and was quite lovely in texture:  smooth, supple and very easy to handle.  It’s what my baking instructor would have called a “sexy dough”.  At the time I didn’t really understand what he meant by that.  I get it now.  That’s pretty much where my infatuation with the dough itself ends though.  The addition of the yeast apparently meant that so much as looking at the dough the wrong way caused it to deflate.  I still ended up with two nice loaves of bread.  The crust was crispy and the interior was chewy, yet tender, with a coarse crumb.  But it didn’t particularly taste like sourdough.  Good bread, just not good sourdough bread.

Extra-Tangy Sourdough
This was my fourth time making the Extra-Tangy Sourdough.  I’ve been very satisfied with the results of this recipe.  Although I did use a small amount (1/4 teaspoon) of citric acid in this batch, the starter has aged enough that I’m curious to know if it has developed a sour flavor that can stand on its own.  The next time I make this recipe (which may be later this week) I’m going to omit the citric acid.  I’m also going to try halving the recipe to make just one loaf.  Occasionally, two loaves is a little much for two people to eat within a reasonable amount of time.  Not to mention four.

The boule on the left was baked in the cast iron skillet;
the one on the right on the baking stone.

Because I don’t follow directions well, my method for the Extra-Tangy dough is to mix all of the flour, water and starter and then knead in the sugar, salt and citric acid.  This causes the dough to feel gritty at first and then dough gets very moist and tacky as the dry ingredients are being kneaded in.  It isn’t quite as appealing to the touch as the Rustic, but I prefer the results of this method versus how it's written in the recipe.  In addition to halving the recipe, I'm also going to try mixing all of the ingredients at once.  If I'm going to deviate I may as well go all out!  

Ordinarily, I bake my loaves on pre-heated baking stones, but this time I decided to try baking one of the loaves in a pre-heated cast iron skillet.  The loaf baked in the skillet browned more significantly on the bottom than the one baked on the stone.  And made it very difficult to peel the parchment off the bottom of the bread.  I believe I’ll stick to the baking stones. 

And as if four loaves of sourdough in two days wasn't enough, I decided today was also a good day to deal with the rapidly declining bananas sitting on the counter.  So while my sourdough loaves were rising, I made a loaf of chocolate banana bread.  But more on that tomorrow.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Me vs Macarons: 0, 1 and 2

As in 0 wins, 1 tie, and 2 losses.  Can you guess where today’s attempt falls?

I’ve been planning this attempt at macarons almost before I finished the last one.  Never before have I been so observant of environmental humidity levels!  As predictions for today’s were around 47% I spent yesterday preparing my ingredients for round three, this time using the Cook’s Illustrated (Holiday Baking 2008) recipe for “Homemade French-Style Macaroons”.  This is the same recipe I used for my first attempt/failure, but I attributed said failure to being a complete novice at macarons.  I am now inclined to change my opinion about that. 

Apparently the laws of physics in the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchens are vastly different than those in mine.  According to this recipe, the egg whites can be whipped into stiff peaks (with the addition of some granulated sugar and cream of tartar) within three minutes.  That’s never happened in my kitchen.  Ever.  I’m usually looking at 7 – 10 minutes.  Today I had enough time to sweep and mop the kitchen floor while my egg whites were beating. 

I knew when I was only half-way through folding in the dry ingredients that this batter was going to be seriously thick.  The recipe does say “until a thick batter forms” but this was ridiculous.  It was more like dough than batter.  There was no way I was going to get the macarons I wanted out of that “batter”. 

At this point I made the decision to abandon the idea of this batter/dough becoming macarons.  It was not going to be worth having to wash the piping bag.  Instead I dug out a small cookie scoop and went to town.  The resulting cookies were tasty, but definitely not macarons. These are more reminiscent of the hazelnut baci d’alessio cookies I tried a few years ago.

Ordinarily, I don’t share recipes of my failures but I’m going to make an exception this time.  Be mindful that if you’re looking for the perfect macaron recipe, you should keep looking.   However, if you’re looking for a recipe for a tasty, gluten-free chocolate almond cookie, I’m your girl.  

Gluten-Free Chocolate Almond Cookies
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Homemade French-Style Macaroons

6-1/4 oz confectioners’ sugar
1/2 oz natural cocoa powder
7-1/2 oz almond flour (also called almond meal)
Pinch salt
2-3/4 oz egg whites
2-1/2 tsp granulated sugar
2-1/2 tsp powdered egg whites

Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Sift the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa powder together.  (Don’t wash the sifter yet; you’ll need it again.)  In the bowl of a food processor, pulse half of the almond flour with half of the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa mixture about 20 times.  Pour into a large bowl and repeat with the remaining almond flour and sugar/cocoa mixture.  Add the pinch of salt.  Set aside.

Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Whisk on medium speed for 2 – 3 minutes until the whites are frothy.  Meanwhile, combine the granulated sugar and powdered egg whites.  Increase the speed to medium high and whisk until soft peaks are just beginning to form, anywhere from 3 – 5 minutes.  Gradually add the sugar/powdered egg white mixture and continue whisking until stiff peaks form.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and sift in about a third of the dry ingredients.  Fold in with a rubber spatula until almost incorporated before sifting in another third of the dry ingredients.  Continue until all of the dry ingredients have been folded in.  Fold quickly and gently, but don’t be obsessive about not deflating the egg whites.

Scoop the cookies on to the parchment lined baking sheets with a small to medium cookie scoop.  (The one I used made 32 cookies.) 

Preheat the oven to 325°F.  Let the cookies sit, uncovered for 20 – 30 minutes while the oven heats up.  Bake the cookies one try at a time for 20 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through.  Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to sit on the sheet for 2 – 3 minutes before peeling them off of the parchment.  Place on a rack to cool completely.  Once cool, store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days or refrigerated up to five.  Allow cookies to come to room temperature before eating.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

French Macarons - Almost

French (Parisian, specifically) macarons have been on my “must master” list for over a year now.  Part of this obsession stems from the fact that I’ve never tried them and I really, really want to.  That’s not likely to happen unless I make a trip to St. Louis though.  I’ve certainly not seen any here in Southern Illinois. 

My first attempt using a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated was less than stellar, resulting in me becoming foolishly intimidated by a pastry.  While researching macarons earlier this month, I came across a recipe from The Novice Chef for Fruity Pebble macarons.  How could I be intimidated by something that contained Fruity Pebbles?  So I decided to try them – using Cocoa Pebbles instead (since there would be a lot of left over cereal to eat). 

Before going any further, I have to point out that macarons are not macaroons.  Macaroons (the chewy coconut cookies) can be made pretty much any time you feel like making them.  Macarons are apparently quite temperamental and very sensitive to humidity.  This is why my dry ingredients sat on the kitchen counter measured out and ready to go since February 2.  That day was a perfectly beautiful day with less than 50% humidity that practically screamed, “MAKE MACARONS!”  But after getting the dry ingredients prepared, my head started screaming, “STOP MAKING MACARONS!”  The migraine came full steam ahead and the macarons had to be postponed.  And postponed.  And postponed. 

Until yesterday.  It was finally a day without excessive humidity that I didn’t have other things that had to be done.  It was time.  I was feeling confident. 

My egg whites whipped into lovely peaks. 

I managed to get the dry ingredients folded in without deflating the meringue too much. 

I let them sit for an hour before baking to form perfect crusts. 

But then came the baking.  And then it fell apart.

According to Jessica’s recipe, the macarons were to bake at 290°F for 18 to 20 minutes or until they easily peeled off the parchment or silicon mat.  For me, it was more like 27 minutes (in one minute intervals!) before they came off the silicon without leaving their little bottoms behind.  I bumped up the oven temp to 310°F for the second sheet.  That probably would have worked out great if I would have remembered to set the timer.  Oops.  That batch ended up way too crunchy to use for macarons.  I filled the first batch with raspberry buttercream.  The second batch . . . well . . . I decided not to waste perfectly good buttercream on significantly imperfect cookies.
While these are definitely not perfect macarons, I think I'm getting closer.  I’m not at all unhappy for a second attempt.  Feeling more confident now, I’ll likely return to the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for my third attempt though.  Whenever that may be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Anonymous Citrus and Chile Pâte de Fruit

Yes, that’s correct:  Anonymous Citrus.  I could have called it “little, orange unidentified citrus fruits that finally grew on my tree and chile pâte de fruit” but I get annoyed by recipes with really long titles. 

The truth is that I still don’t know for certain what kind of tree I have.  I may never be certain.  I thought mandarins until I tasted one.  Then I thought calamondins.  Then I saw Shea’s Rangpur limes and that seemed like a very plausible option.  I do not know what these are.  What I do know is that they are small, extremely tart fruits on a thorny tree that put up so much of a fight when I tried to pick them that I had to clip the stems.  If there are any citrus experts out there, feel free to chime in with suggestions.

Beyond trying to figure out what kind of citrus I have, I’ve also had to figure out what to do with it.  As you may recall, the marmalade didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped.  In light of that, I didn’t feel the need to make any more with the remaining six cups of prepared fruit.  Since these fruits seem to have a very high pectin content, I felt a pâte de fruit attempt was in order.  

All in all, these turned out better than I anticipated.  I was fairly certain they would set well, but I was more concerned about the taste.  To be honest, these probably will not be my favorite, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The more of them I ate, the more I liked them.  Since the fruits are so tart and lime-like and I think lime and chile are a fabulous combination, I added one-half teaspoon of cayenne.  You don’t even notice it at first.  At first, you get the sweetness from the sugar coating.  Then the tart from the citrus hits you as the pâte de fruit starts to melt in your mouth.  It’s not until you swallow that you notice the chile and then it heats up the back of your throat.  If you don’t like spicy, the cayenne could be reduced or completely omitted.

The recipe is below if you ever find yourself with a surplus of small, extremely tart citrus fruits.

(Apologies for the blurry pics.  I realized halfway through I forgot to change the settings on my camera.)

The set on this was nearly perfect. 

It cut like a dream - no swearing involved.
I rolled some in granulated sugar, some in turbinado.

Anonymous Citrus and Chile Pâte de Fruit

digital scale; large (about 6 quart), heavy-bottomed pan; blender or food processor; mesh sieve; heat-proof silicon spatula; candy thermometer; parchment paper; 9 x 13 baking pan; containers for measuring out ingredients; baking sheet for finished candies

12 - 13 Rangpur limes, calamondin oranges or other small sour oranges
579 g water, divided (575 g + 4 g)
1350 g granulated sugar, divided (135 g + 1215 g)
1/4 – 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (totally optional)
31 g powdered pectin (I used Ball flex-batch pectin)
200 g light corn syrup
4 g citric acid (also called sour salt)
Non-stick cooking spray
Granulated or turbinado sugar for rolling

Quarter the citrus and thinly slice, removing seeds as you go.  (Or check out Shea’s method of preparing citrus.)  Add the sliced citrus and 575 g of the water to the large pan.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Simmer five minutes, remove from heat and let sit 8 hours or overnight.

Spray a little bit of the cooking spray on the bottom of the baking pan to keep the parchment in place.  Line it with parchment on the bottom and all sides.  I make diagonal cuts from the corners to make the parchment sheet fit in the pan better.  Lightly spray the parchment with cooking spray and set the pan aside.

After the fruit has sat and cooled, puree it with its liquid in batches in the blender or food processor.  Pour the puree through the mesh sieve into a container.  Rinse out the pan, set it on the scale and zero out the weight of the pan.  Measure 1350 g of the citrus puree into the pan.

Over medium heat, bring the puree up to 120°F on the candy thermometer.  Meanwhile, combine the 135 g of sugar with all of the pectin and stir to combine.  When the puree reaches 120°F, add the sugar/pectin mixture and stir well to dissolve.  Bring the mixture up to a boil.  (This may take some time.  Stir occasionally to keep from scorching on the bottom.)  When a full boil is achieved, boil for one minute then add the remaining sugar and the corn syrup.  Stir to dissolve the sugar. 

Continue to cook over medium heat until the mixture reaches 223°F.  (Of note, this is the standard temperature for pâte de fruit but I only made it to about 215°F when I realized mine was already beginning to set.  Use your own judgment.)  Mix the citric acid with the 4 g of water to form a slurry.  When the puree reaches 223°F, pour in the citric acid slurry and cook for 30 seconds.

Immediately pour the mixture into the prepared pan.  Allow the pâte de fruit to cool overnight.

The following day, remove the pâte de fruit from the pan.  Cut into cubes with a thin-bladed knife or cookie cutters sprayed with cooking spray.  Just before serving, coat with sugar and place in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Nontraditional Valentine

Since Tug is not a big fan of things sweet, it can be rather challenging finding a food-related Valentine’s Day gift.  (He doesn’t have such difficulties.  This morning I was greeted with a gift bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups, three Lindt chocolate bars – chocolate chile, dark chocolate sea salt and white chocolate coconut – and a bag of Lindt white chocolate truffles.)  There are the rare occasions when he’ll nibble on a small piece of dark chocolate, or eat a cookie or two, but they are indeed rare occasions.  I had thought about making brownies and cutting them into hearts, but he may have eaten one, two if I was lucky.  Instead, I made him something I know he really likes:  bread.  The man is an absolute carbohydrate junkie when it comes to bread.  

He was pretty happy with the focaccia I made last month, so that’s what I chose to make him for Valentine’s Day.  Baked in a heart-shaped pan of course.  And I made dinner.
focaccia baked in Wilton's (retired) puffed heart pan

Since I had all of those peanut butter cups though, I decided to make this recipe from Katie at Making Michael Pollan Proud.  When I first read it I nearly drooled on my keyboard.  For the most part I followed the recipe.  You know I have a problem in that regard.  What I did differently was use seven peanut butter cups (because I neurotically don’t like even numbers) and since I only had old-fashioned oats instead of rolled oats, I measured out one cup and gave them a buzz in the food processor then mixed them in with the other dry ingredients.  I find old-fashioned oats are just a little bit too toothsome in cookies.  The final thing I did differently was after mixing in the dry ingredients I switched to the dough hook attachment to mix in the chocolate chips and chopped peanut butter cups.  It worked like a charm to mix them in without crushing them.

After baking and cooling them, I boxed up almost all of them for Tug to take to work tomorrow.  These are so good that I have to get them out of the house.  Katie suggested that they freeze well so she freezes them to keep from eating them.  I have a feeling I would eat these frozen!
I couldn't resist pressing the last few scoops of dough into one of my
heart-shape cookie cutters.  Yes, I am a dork when it comes to Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I Heart Cookies

Valentine’s Day can bring out the romantic sap in many of us.  Others, however, will often rant on about commercialization and another day to make corporate America more money.  I’m going to go the romantic sap route.  Whether or not I go overboard with it, I will leave to others to judge.  I can take it.

red hearts for the romantic saps
My first V-Day project was cookies.  Most of these will be boxed up and sent off to my dad tomorrow. 

Yesterday I made my favorite butter cookies from my Grandma’s recipe, using large and small heart-shaped cookies cutters.  The large hearts were brushed with honey and covered with cut outs of vanilla-flavored red fondant mixed with candy clay.  I used a Wilton imprint mat for the vines and flowers. 

it didn't take long to give up
this exercise in futility

The original idea was to pipe white confectionery coating in the imprints, but it was a little too chilly in our kitchen this morning and the coating kept solidifying in my piping bag.  I forfeited that battle. 
The smaller cookies were drizzled with honey and covered in Pettinice chocolate fondant.  I was really surprised when I opened the package.  This fondant was so dark it almost looked black - which was okay because I had planned on adding black gel color to it.

In both cases, but sure the fondant cut outs are where you want them before letting go.  Once they touch the sticky honey, they aren't easily repositioned.  For that reason, I usually cut a couple of extras for when I have to scrape off one I've completely skewed.

black hearts for the "others" or for romantic saps who also
happen to be die-hard Joan Jett fans (such as myself)

Today I made caramel filled molasses cookies.  This is the recipe that makes the stickiest cookie dough ever that needs to be piped.  I thought this a good opportunity to use a Wilton heart piping tip I had purchased years ago.  Not so much.  I've not used it for icing yet, but I hope it works better for icing than it did for the cookie dough.  I gave up and went back to my Ateco large round tip.  Since I still wanted hearts, I matched the cookies up in pairs and cut out tiny hearts in the middle of the tops before filling them with caramel filling. 

plan b
Tug and I have things to get done this weekend, so I’m not sure if any more baking will occur until next week.  For Tug – who could care less about cookies and sweets, but nearly swoons over bread – I’m going to revisit the focaccia recipe, but try baking it in a heart-shaped pan.  And maybe make a Caesar salad . . . with heart-shaped croutons.

I used vanilla extract this time instead of almond, but I prefer the almond on purely sentimental grounds.