Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Forest for the Cherries

Ever since my discovery of National Hot Tea Month, World Nutella Day and National Almond Day, I was curious to see what other days and months of the year were dedicated to food and drink. Apparently, EVERY day or month has also been dedicated in honor of food. Petitions to declare a commemorative event are introduced by constituents, trade associations, hobbyists, etc. and the Senate issues commemorative proclamations, which do not have the force of law. Some state legislatures and governors also proclaim special observances, which is, I guess, why there can be two National Guacamole Days. Who are these Congresspeople using their time and power to proclaim food holidays? I'll leave that investigative journalism for the professionals.

Some of these proclamations are obvious--March 17th is Corned Beef and Cabbage Day, for example. But some, like March 15th assigned as National Pears Hélène Day, just make me wonder. I don't wonder for too long, though, because as a food blogger this works out great for me. Endless inspiration! And this is why, dear readers, I would like to wish you a Happy Black Forest Cake Day, and bring you this recipe from Martha Stewart for Black Forest Cookies.

Black Forest Cake comes from--you guessed it--the Black Forest region of Germany. Though "black forest" these days can be used to refer to any combination of chocolate and cherry, the original cake ("Schwarzwälderkirschtorte" in German) may date from as early as the 16th century. The black forest region is known for its sour cherries and a double-distilled, clear cherry brandy called Kirsch, and the black forest cake is typically made from chocolate cake layered with these cherries and whipped cream. I've actually been looking for a recipe to use up some leftover heavy cream, so I used this opportunity to make homemade whipped cream for black forest cookie towers. For those of you also in the Washington, DC region cherry blossom festival season is kicking off, and these cherry-studded cookies would be a great addition to any festival parties you might be attending.

For a list of national food holidays, click here

Black Forest Cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz semi- or bittersweet chocolate chopped (or chips)
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
12 oz semisweet chocolate chunks
1 1/2 cups dried cherries

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
2. Place chopped chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water; stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat; whisk in sugars, then eggs, until smooth.
3. Whisk in dry ingredients until just combined (do not overmix). Fold in chocolate chunks and cherries; press plastic wrap directly onto surface of the dough and refrigerate until firm, 30-45 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drop mounds of dough equal to 2 level tablespoons about 2 inches apart on prepared sheets. Bake just until edges are firm (but not darkening) 11-13 minutes.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Capital Cakes, Cont'd.

As promised, here are some of the entries from the National Capital Area Cake Show and now I'm even more disappointed than before that I wasn't able to go. Here are shots from some of my faves, coutesy of user ctay12254 on Flickr.

At first I thought this one was a little strange--but look how realistic those birds in the birdbath are!! Amazing.

Cupcakes...THAT LOOK LIKE SALAD! Why do I never think of this stuff?

Okay, I'm not ashamed to admit that I don't fully understand this one...can anyone clue me in to the relevance of Juicy Fruit to happy hour or Margaritaville?

Hope you all enjoyed these as much as I did, and I'm already looking forward to next year!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Capital Cakes

Unfortunately I missed this weekend's National Capital Area Cake Show in Burke, VA but pass on this great coverage from the Washington Post. With categories like "Fairies and Castles" and "Topsy Turvy" I can only imagine some of the great cakes on display. Hope to post pics of the winning entries soon.

Where Sugarcoating Is Welcome

Cake Decorating Competition Puts 'Fairy Dreams and Castles' on a Pedestal

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009; C04

In the live cake decorating challenge, amateur Dianna Lopez was the definite underdog. Lopez, a UPS manager, was competing yesterday at the National Capital Area Cake Show in Burke -- against three professional bakers who have appeared on the Food Network.

As the 11 a.m. start neared, contestants and their assistants worked furiously to set up in the auditorium at Lake Braddock Secondary School. They would have six hours to turn three round cakes into a culinary masterpiece with the theme of "fairy dreams and castles."

Lopez, 44, unpacked boxes, pulling out a bottle of vodka.

"It's not for drinking," she said. "At least not yet."

The cake show -- the live challenge was one part -- was an extravaganza of sugar, flour and chocolate. Creativity was limited only by the imagination and gravity. Cake took many forms: a bouquet of flowers, a worn baseball mitt, plenty of fairies, a few hats and one elf.

More than 1,000 people were expected this weekend to view the nearly 300 cakes entered in several decorating contest divisions.

In the school's gym, a camera-clicking crowd gathered around a life-size "stone" birdbath: the sparking water made from gelatin, the fluffy birds from gum paste and the "dirt" beneath the bath from cookie crumbs.

Nearby, Denise Watkins used a knife to push up a sagging line of icing on her five-tier wedding cake of shell-pink ruffles. "I call it my pink beauty," said Watkins, a Virginia Beach teacher who has been decorating cakes since 1984.

The event was sponsored by the Virginia chapter of the International Cake Exploration Societé.

Lopez, who lives in Kearny, N.J., began decorating cakes a few years ago. Her cakes won their division in the Mid-Atlantic Cake show in 2007 and again in 2008. But mostly she decorates for family and friends. The contest in Burke is the biggest she has entered.

She was up against Michigan bakery owner Courtney Clark, New Jersey cake store owner Anne Heap and Charmaine Jones, owner of Cakediva Custom Cakes in New York. All three have competed in cake decorating contests on the Food Network.

As the start neared, Lopez and assistant Vanessa Greeley, a bank systems analyst, readied their equipment: bowls and spatulas, wire cutters, pliers, scissors and a pizza slicer. The alcohol, it turned out, was to be mixed with colored powders to create an edible paint.

A remark by contest emcee Norman Davis, co-owner of the Sweet Life, an Annandale bakery, made clear that competitive cake decorating is not for the faint of heart.

"If anyone cuts off their finger, I have bandages," he said.

Nobody laughed.

By 11 a.m., supplies were neatly stacked on tables, airbrushes were plugged in and contestants had received their three cakes. Soon enough, the cakes would weigh 150 pounds each and be barely recognizable under layers of sugar, gum paste, chocolate and icing.

The contest began. Note-taking judges wandered among the contestants. Lopez laid strips of striped chocolate resembling bark over a piece of PVC pipe next to the cake.

Together, she and Greeley draped green fondant -- a gelatin and sugar substance rolled out like pizza dough -- over the cake and smoothed it down. Greeley cut out tiny doors while Lopez created a fairy.

At 5 p.m., contestants high-fived as their creations were moved to display tables. The packed auditorium erupted in applause.

Lopez's cake drew gasps. It was a three-tier green mountain with stone steps, trees, moss and a fairy with spun-sugar wings that rotated around the adjacent tree.

Alas, no cake lasts forever. The four decorated yesterday are to be sliced up and sold today at the cake show. Proceeds will go to charity.

At stake for the competitors is $1,000 and bragging rights. The winner will be announced today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Luck O' the Irish Cream

Because I'm so obsessed with St. Patrick's Day, you all get a two-for-one recipe special on the blog today! I'm one of those people that enjoys St. Patty's Day because they like to pretend they are more Irish than they actually are. This sense is buoyed by the fact that I have genetically inherited several Irish traits. For example, for a school project at age 11 I wrote a story about a family emigrating to escape the Irish potato famine (what kind of child writes about the potato famine?) Additionally, I have an unnatural love for potatoes and I actually enjoy boiled cabbage. I also love to drink. I can impersonate an Irish accent and can tell the difference between Irish and Scottish accents. I also own a thatched-roof dairy farm near the Cliffs of Moher where I raise my own sheep to produce artisanal cheeses. Okay, maybe not that last one. But I am Irish, I swear! In all honesty, my maternal grandmother's maiden name was Slattery (which is about as Irish as you can get, short of O'Slattery) but our nearest born-in-Ireland ancestor arrived in America roughly 150 years ago. Sooo we don't exactly have ties to the old country.

But that's what St. Patrick's Day is for! A day when everyone is Irish. And drunk. As for holiday recipes, I've purposefully avoided anything green but I have given in to making Irish Soda Bread. To balance out the fact that every food blogger and their mother will be making Irish Soda Bread today, I have also made Irish Cream Brownies. At least Irish Soda Bread actually has some Celtic ties, whereas corned beef is not truly Irish. But that's ok, on this day, no matter what your heritage, go ahead and dig out that hideously too tight green Abercrombie polo shirt from college, find the nearest "Irish pub" and raise a stein of green beer to St. Patrick. And, when you're hungover, line your tummy with yummy Irish Soda bread and remember that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is still making it to work on time Wednesday morning.

Irish Soda Bread
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
4 Tbs unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
2 cups golden raisins (or regular)
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbs heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs with a few large clumps remaining (may want to use hands). Fold in raisins.

2. In a bowl, whisk together the whole egg, buttermilk and baking soda. Pour egg mixture into the flour mixture; using a spatula, fold in, working in all directions and incorporating the crumbs at the bottom of the bowl, until dough just comes together (may need to add a couple more Tbs of buttermilk). With your hands, form the dough into a round, domed loaf about 8" in diameter. Gently life the dough from the bowl and transfer to the prepared sheet.

3. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk with cream; brush over the loaf. With a sharp knife, cut a cross 3/4" deep in the top center of the loaf. Bake, rotating halfway through, 55 min- 1hr 10 min.

Irish Cream Brownies

1 cup butter
4 oz unsweetened chocolate (Baker's brand)
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt

Irish Cream Swirl
2 8-oz pkgs cream cheese (room temp)
1/3 cup sugar
3 Tbs Irish Cream liqueur

For the brownies: Place butter and chocolate in a medium saucepan and melt over low heat, stirring often. Remove from heat and let cool. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13x9 pan with foil coated with cooking spray.

Beat sugar and eggs together in a medium bowl with handmixer until light and fluffy (about 4 minutes). Add flour and sugar gradually. Fold in the melted chocolate mixture.

For the filling: Combine cream cheese and sugar in another medium bowl. Beat until creamy. Add egg and liqueur and beat.

Pour half of the chocolate mixture into the pan. Spread all of the cream cheese mixture over the chocolate (this may get messy, that's ok). Cover with the remaining chocolate mixture and smooth. If desired, swirl layers together with a knife for a marbled effect. Bake 30-40 minutes.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Super Quick Bisquick

I wish I could take credit for this awesome-looking biscuit dough but, as you can probably intuit from the title of this post, it is in fact courtesy of none other than Bisquick. As an aside, the spellcheck suggestions for Bisquick are bisque and Basque. Interesting?


Biscuits aren't at all in my normal dinner repertoire but, having picked up some steak on a whim at the grocery store on my way home from work, I knew that the lowly can of green beans I had planned to microwave as a side dish just wasn't going to cut it. I was craving carbs. For some reason, the old standby of "steak and potatoes" didn't occur to me at the grocery store, and a quick scan of my pantry revealed that I didn't even have instant potato flakes. My glance fell across a bag of cornmeal and I started having warm-and-fuzzy flashbacks of the Jiffy cornmuffin mix my mom used to make. With that as an option I also caught a glimpse of a forgotten box of Bisquick mix peeking out from one of the lower shelves--When did I buy that? Though I assumed biscuits to be a long and messy affair, a quick comparison of ingredients showed that, whereas the corn muffin recipe called for 8 ingredients (8!) and 20 minutes of bake time, the biscuits needed only the baking mix and milk. Genius.

Of course, these aren't the enormous, flaky biscuits you may remember from childhood, but for a biscuit that can be made start to finish in 10 minutes I don't think you can beat these light and airy ones. As you can see, I made the rolled-out version of these biscuits (with the help of my trusty high-tech rolling empty wine bottle) but they can be even easier if you make drop-biscuits using heaping tablespoonfuls of dough dropped onto a cookie sheet instead. Before, Bisquick baking mix was one of those things that didn't even register to me when scanning the grocery store shelves. But, now that I know this one versatile mix can be used not only for biscuits but also for breading, shortbread, pancakes as well as hundreds of other recipes from Bisquick's website, it is definitely going to be one of my pantry staples from now on.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

CooCoo for Coconut

I have a spotty relationship with custards. Crème brûlée: love. Rice pudding: hate. Flan: love in any flavor but plain. Panna cotta: I'm a fan but secretly think it's just an Italian knockoff of flan (shh). So, when a search for recipes to use up some leftover coconut milk brought me to Coconut Crème Brûlée I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to re-enter the world of custard (Custard World?) and also put myself in a tropical state of mind, since the 4 inches of ice and snow outside coating the ground and my car are not exactly uplifting at the moment. Unfortunately, I didn't have any toasted coconut or mango to accompany these but those would be great additions if you try out this recipe at home.

I know that crème brûlée might be intimidating because A) it's a French dessert and B) most recipes call for a kitchen torch to "brûlée" the top. But I'm here to tell you that this dessert is SO simple. I mean, really, it's just this side of pudding--don't tell the French--and what culinarily independent 6-year-old can't make pudding? And also, you can crisp the sugary top crust just as easily by using your oven's broiler. On the other hand, a kitchen torch is possibly one of the better Christmas gifts I have ever received even though I'm pretty sure I've only ever used it to make crème brûlée (but I'm starting to think that homemade smores might be a possibility...)

Whenever I lightly crack the top of a crème brulée (a la Amelie) it is always certain to take me back to my time in Paris, but I am specifically reminded of a lunch with friends when one of our group suddenly looked up from his crème brûlée to announce "Crème Brûlée! I get it!" After a full three months of living in France he had never realized that crème brûlée was so named because it is, in fact, crème...brûlée (literally, burned cream). Ah, Marcelo from Florianopolis, wherever you are this one goes out to you...

*One note, I recommend Thai Kitchen brand coconut milk because it has a higher concentration of coconut than other brands. Also be SURE to shake the can before opening or stir thoroughly before using.

Coconut Crème Brûlée
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup milk
4 egg yolks
1 Tbs cornstarch
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 Tbs brown sugar for crust

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a small pot, gently heat the coconut milk and regular milk.
3. In a medium bowl, mix the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla until it forms a smooth paste. Slowly add about 1 cup of the hot mixture to the bowl and stir well. Return all of this to the pan of remaining hot milk.
4. Cook until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
5. Pour into 4 6-ounce ovenproof ramekins or custard cups and place in a roasting pan filled with 2" of hot water. Bake for 20 minutes then chill for 2-3 hours.
6. When ready to serve, turn on broiler and sprinkle 1 Tbs of brown sugar over the top of each cup. Broil 2-5 minutes until the sugar has caramelized, watch closely as the topping can burn easily.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kneadlessly Simple: Cookbook Review

I have a confession. Although I profess to have a love of all things "baking," I am scared to death of yeast breads. Throughout these past couple of months of faithfully blogging out a record of my baking indulgences, I've always had a nagging voice in my head insinuating that I'll never be a "real" baker until I can actually make bread dough from scratch. Fortunately, however, this voice does not imply that I should be in any hurry to master the art of pastry dough. Let's not go overboard here. Because making a yeast bread from scratch is time consuming and factor-dependent, I guess I'm afraid that I'll devote two hours of careful attention to my dough only to end up with flat, rock hard doorstops instead of soft, flaky dinner rolls, for example. Maybe another excuse is that I am exceedingly immautre and have never really been comfortable with the words "yeast," "yeasty," or "yeasted." So, imagine my joy when I came across a new cookbook devoted entirely to breads that don't require kneading, thereby removing the most labor-intensive part of the process.

Finally, a cookbook for lazy time-conscious bakers like me. Don't get me wrong, I know that one day I will finally give in to the yeast yen, as I can already tell that there would be something immensely satisfying about baking up my own foccacia and ciabatta. I daydream about smiling to myself while I lunch in my cubicle, enjoying a turkey-and-cheese between two slices of soft, home-baked white bread. How quaint. But, until I'm ready to take the plunge, thankfully Nancy Baggett has created Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads as a stepping stone to the yeasty world of homemade breads.

This book includes a full 75 recipes ranging from classics like honey wheat and sourdough, to specialities like rosemary foccacia and brioche, as well as pannettone and other sweet breads (Double Chocolate-Honey Bread--need I say more?). Filled with gorgeous pictures and with easy to follow instructions this is a great book for anyone looking to liven up their bread repetoire, save a little bit of time, and get a little bit of that bakery-fresh flavor right at home.