Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Cookie Wrap Up

I hope everyone is having a joyful holiday season. I'm trying to do the same over here.

We're spending Christmas in Austin due to work commitments so I'm a little bummed we won't be heading home to spend the holiday with family. We always stop in New Orleans for a couple of days on our way so not only am I missing my mother's Christmas dinner, now I don't know when I'll get my po-boy fix.

Despite being homesick, there are benefits to not traveling over Christmas. I'm kind of looking forward to a quiet and relaxing holiday with just the two of us. We're committed to taking it easy and plan to go out for Christmas dinner. We'll cook my mother's traditional dish on Christmas Eve- a big pot of Shrimp Creole served with homemade crusty bread- but other than that, the kitchen will be closed after December 24th.

In keeping with my vow to chill, I'm not making the traditional holiday treats that tend to sap my time, energy, and patience. I adore eating cutesy, decorated sugar cookies as much as the next person. I even made ten dozen for a holiday party a couple of years back. This year, however, the only painstakingly decorated sugar cookies I'll be eating are those others make. Same goes for gingerbread men; Mom and I make a mammoth batch every year when I'm home and since I can't make them with her this year, I'm skipping it. I also won't be making pain au chocolat or cream filled doughnuts for a festively stressful holiday breakfast. We'll be having an early dinner so breakfast is going to be on the lighter side (literally and figuratively).

Lest you think I've gone Grinch, I am enjoying holiday festivities; I'm just doing so at a more relaxed pace this year. I recently made five dozen cookies for a holiday cookie exchange but instead of seasonal treats, I went with well-loved standards that would please a wide array of people, including gluten free friends. What I really liked about all of the recipes I chose is that they could be prepped or made ahead of time so that I didn't have to scurry around and stress out the day of the party.

My go-to cookie for the gluten free crowd is always the macaron. I decided to make mini macarons for the cookie exchange because I liked the idea of a one bite, pop-able cookie. These chocolate macarons are already on the rich side so a little bit goes a long way. I did mini macs two ways: with a pecan topping and fudge filling and topped with Brazil nuts and filled with cajeta. As you can see from the pic below, the cajeta thinned out a bit too much and ran over the sides of the cookies but the flavors were terrific together so although not the prettiest, they certainly were tasty. I made the macs the day before- the texture actually improves after resting in the refrigerator overnight- and filled the cookies the day of the party.

For those without dietary restrictions, I went with cookies that are perpetual crowd pleasers. I've yet to meet anyone (without a nut allergy or other medical condition that prohibits consumption) who doesn't like a peanut butter cookie or a chocolate chipper. I'm pretty sure that if you grew up in the USA, you're hard-wired to like these cookies. And if not, as my late father-in-law, a first generation, proud citizen would say, "That's just un-American."

These peanut butter cookies are the same creamy, soft treat you remember from school cafeteria lunches but are made even better with the addition of milk chocolate. I found the recipe on Molly's site- for the best cookie texture she recommends freezing scooped dough and then baking directly from the freezer. Bingo! I made the dough and froze the scoops the weekend before the party and then baked them off the day of. I'm seriously considering always keeping frozen dough on hand from here on out- they're that good.

I'm always up for trying out a new chocolate chip cookie recipe but this one sets the bar (for me) against which all others are judged. It's a Jacques Torres recipe that he shared in the New York Times. He calls for resting the dough for at least 24-36 hours and up to 72 hours. According to NYT taste tests, the longer the dough ages, the more evenly the cookies bake and the richer and more complex they taste. Delayed gratification has its upside- if you can stand the wait, these cookies are fantastic. And if you need a recipe that can be prepped ahead, they're pretty much a perfect choice. Mr. Torres calls for using cake flour and bread flour- you can sub all-purpose in a pinch but the texture won't be as nice.

OK, so brittle isn't exactly a cookie but I still brought some to the cookie exchange. Aside from being another gluten free item to share, brittle is holiday-ish. At least for me, it is- I don't really snack on brittle any other time of year. This smoked almond brittle makes me think I should, though. The recipe calls for smoked almonds and sea salt which allays the overly sweet factor of a typical brittle. I went a smidge further and used smoked sea salt to really play up the brittle's savory side.

This brittle can be stored for up to one month in an air-tight container so I made a batch the weekend before the cookie exchange. Note, I tried making the brittle without corn syrup and never could achieve the right texture- one attempt (with staged sugar) produced a brittle so hard it would crack your teeth and the other (with honey) never set properly. I'm hoping to find a good corn syrup substitute- I'll be trying this recipe soon- but until then, the best brittle result required using corn syrup. I was a little hesitant to add the baking soda called for in the recipe thinking it would give the brittle an off taste but I learned something new- I read that adding baking soda releases carbon dioxide which gives the brittle a lighter, crunchier texture. In testing, I found this to be true- the brittle made with baking soda had a nice snap to it but was easier to chew.

Winter Solstice/whatever to all and
best wishes in the New Year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Karen Krasne's Bonaparte Cake

I usually don't go in for fussy desserts. Fussy is not my style. Also, my patience has its limits.

This cake really tried my patience.

In the end, the effort was worth it but I doubt that I'll be making this baby again anytime soon. (Which is such an apt analogy- this cake was so agonizing to make, I feel like I gave birth to it.)

I half-joked with a friend that it just wouldn't be a holiday for me if I didn't undertake to make some overblown pastry project. It's the only time of year that I'll take on the kind of fidgety projects that I'd never endure otherwise. I figure the holidays are already stressful, why not just ratchet it up a notch?

I embarked upon this four day cake making odyssey for our Thanksgiving meal. Eric had invited a few of the other chefs he works with to join us for dinner. I was cool with baking for a slightly more selective crowd (chefs can't help but be critics) but then he went and dropped a bomb on me. Turns out one of the chefs that would be dining with us was a former pastry chef at the Four Seasons here in Austin.

I was decidedly not cool with baking this cake for a former pastry chef. Not one bit.

Gah! At that point, there was nothing to do other than press on. I had already completed day two prep and I certainly wasn't going to a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving to pick up ingredients to make another dessert. I'm not that crazy. (Good thing I didn't know then what day three prep was going to be like or I might have changed my mind.)

I finished up the fourth day of cake making Thanksgiving morning. From outward appearances, the cake looked fine but I always stress when serving a dessert that I haven't sampled beforehand. To tame my nerves, I pulled out a couple of extra bottles of wine. I figured if I plied the guests with plenty of booze, by the time I cut the cake they'd be too inebriated to scrutinize it too closely. Or at least I'd be well lubricated if I had to face a flop.

Fortunately, the cake was delicious. The ganache and mousse layers held together perfectly and the cake layers were super moist and rich. In hindsight, I don't know why I got so worked up- with as much chocolate as went into the cake, how could it have been bad?

And the former pastry chef was quite complimentary of my effort. Whew!

The Bonaparte is a chocolate sour cream cake layered with ganache and salted chocolate chip mousse, topped with ganache, salted caramel, and almond brittle. It's from Karen Krasne of Extraordinary Desserts. She recently released her first book, Extraordinary Cakes: Recipes for Bold and Sophisticated Desserts and Jan surprised me by sending me a copy (how apropos- the very two ladies that inspired me to start baking). As I've mentioned before, Extraordinary Desserts was such an eye opener for me- I had never before seen desserts done on that level. Karen's confections are awesome and inspiring even if I've since learned that her style of pastry will never be my cup of tea. While I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of her creations, honestly I'm happiest making (and munching on) simpler baked goods. I get excited by a really well executed chocolate chip cookie made with super rich European butter and bad ass single origin chocolate. While I'll never be an expert cake maker like Karen Krasne, I do think it's good to push yourself. Now and then everyone needs to step outside of their comfort zone, right? Especially when the reward is chocolate cake!

I apologize for not including recipes but the six separate recipes to make the components of the assembled cake spanned five pages in the book. If you're going to make the kind of commitment required to reproduce one of Karen's cakes, you are probably invested enough to buy the book. Instead, I'm going to give you crib notes on what I learned while making this cake that might make the process easier for you if you do buy the book and embark on the odyssey yourself:
  • Karen called for baking the cake in a 10"x3" round cake pan and then cutting it into three layers. I don't have such a pan so I used three regular 9" round cake pans and weighed the batter out equally into each pan to ensure even layers. I then baked one cake pan at a time on the middle rack of the oven. While it might have required a little extra time, this was so much easier, in my estimation, than agonizingly trying to cut even layers on a large, rather thick cake.
  • The original recipe called for brushing the cake layers with a Tuaca simple syrup. I skipped this step because I didn't have a bottle of the liqueur, although Karen did note that you could substitute pure vanilla extract. I didn't think the simple syrup was needed after baking the layers individually. There were no crumbs to be tamed from cutting layers and baking the layers individually lessened the risk of dry cake from over baking.
  • Next time (as if) I would skip making the salted chocolate chips called for in the mousse. It seems tedious and unnecessary to me when several chocolate companies make excellent salted chocolate bars you can readily buy in a store and chop up to use for chips. Lindt makes a great, inexpensive bar that I'd probably use next time (yeah, right).
  • Karen called for using a cake ring to assemble the cake layers, which is another piece of baking equipment that I don't own. I bought a cheap acetate strip I used to line one of my 9" cake pans to serve as a mold. It worked like a charm to assemble the cake, mousse, and ganache layers and was a breeze to just peel off after freezing the cake.
Lastly, the Fairy Hobmother from Appliances Online is making her holiday rounds.  She kindly visited me and left a sweet gift. She just might visit you too if you leave a comment!