Thursday, March 13, 2008

You're never too old to enjoy milk and cookies!

I needed to bake something for a co-worker's birthday. I was planning to make a nice, decorated cake, but I found myself running late. My daughter, Nadia, came to the rescue! She suggested I make a huge chocolate chip cookie, and decorate it with a "Happy Birthday" message. (We saw cookies like this some time ago at the mall, for an incredibly outrageous price.)

What a great idea! In addition to being so much easier to make, it was a great time saver. I simply mixed all the ingredients in my Kitchenaid mixer, and pressed the dough (about a half-inch thick) into a 15-inch pizza pan lined with parchment paper (press dough to within 3/4 inch of pan edge, to allow for spreading), and baked. When it was cool, I piped some chocolate icing stars, and "Happy Birthday" with a decorator bag and star tip.

This cookie recipe will make a huge batch of regular-sized cookies. Use a cookie scoop to make them all a uniform size. But why not try making some in different sizes? To make some large (5 inch) cookies, use an ice cream scooper to get an even ball of dough, place it on an ungreased cookie sheet, press with your palms until it's about a half-inch thick and a nice circular shape, and bake. (Remember to leave a good amount of space between cookies because they will spread some more while baking.) Or try a pizza pan, and make something really special to share. And don't forget to bring the cold milk!

Easy Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
2 cups light brown sugar (don't pack it for this recipe)
1 cup white sugar
4 Tbsp plain yogurt
2 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups chocolate chips (or carob chips, if you wish)
(for an extra special treat, you can use 1 cup chocolate chips with 1 cup peanut butter chips)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

In large mixing bowl, cream softened butter with both sugars. Add yogurt and vanilla, and mix until smooth. Mix dry ingredients (except chips and nuts) in separate bowl, and combine with creamed mixture. When evenly mixed, add the chips (and the optional walnuts).

Drop from teaspoon, cookie scoop, or ice cream scoop onto ungreased cookie sheet. (You can choose to line the cookie sheets with parchment paper, for easy cleanup.) Make sure you leave plenty of space between cookies to allow for spreading. Bake at 350 degrees until the cookies are evenly, but lightly, golden brown. Remove from oven, and allow cookies to cool and set for just a few minutes before removing from cookie sheet. (If not using parchment paper, cookies should still be somewhat warm when you remove them, or else the cookies may stick to pans as they cool, and be difficult to remove without breaking the cookie. Parchment paper solves this problem: You can let them cool completely on the parchment lined pans.)

Note: If you're using a teaspoon or cookie scoop to drop the cookies, you don't need to press the cookie dough flat onto the cookie sheet. But if you're using anything larger, you must press the dough flat, no more than 1/2 inch thick, or else the cookies will not bake completely in the middle. And if you're using the pizza pan option, for best results make the thickness of the cookie greater along the edges, and slightly less in the center. This will help ensure that the middle gets done before the edges get too dark. I've also had good success placing the perforated pizza pan (lined with parchment paper) directly onto a hot baking stone in the oven, which helps with even browning, as you can see from the above photo.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What to do with all those bananas?

Sorry for the huge break from this blog! I just got back from India, and the first thing I wanted to do when I got back to my own kitchen was (what else?) bake!!! So nice to be back in my kitchen, and when I got my hands on my Kitchenaid stand mixer, I knew I was home at last.

No, really. I was missing my kitchen so much, I would dream every night about fresh, homemade bread, and yummy cakes and pies.

So when I came home, I saw a huge bunch of very, very ripe bananas in the fruit basket. I had planned to make some sourdough bread (my sweet husband had even taken the time to feed the starter every week!), but looking at those very brown bananas, I knew there was only one thing to do: Make some tasty banana bread!

This recipe is super easy. If you've got some bananas that no one is eating, put them to good use. The riper the better! When mashed up, ripe or overripe bananas make this bread very moist and tasty! And here's a tip from my good friend, Shri Gaurangi. She likes to add mini chocolate chips to her banana bread batter. Now there's a chocoholic after my own heart!

Banana Bread
(makes one delicious loaf!)

3 very ripe bananas, mashed
2 Tbsp softened butter
4 Tbsp plain yogurt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional, but yummy!)

In large mixer bowl, combine mashed bananas, butter, and yogurt. (A Kitchenaid mixer or other electric mixer works best.) Don't worry about getting all the lumps out of the bananas...small banana lumps are ok, you don't need to make it a paste. Combine flour, sugar, and baking soda in a separate bowl, and then add to banana mixture. When blended well, add the chopped walnuts and optional chocolate chips. Pour batter into a well-greased loaf pan, and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, or until golden brown on top, and knife inserted into center of loaf comes out clean. Cool, and remove from pan.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pennsylvania Dutch Apple Dumplings

I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is also one of the leading apple producing areas in the United States. The Amish and the Pennsylvania Dutch make the best apple pies, and their long-lost cousin, the apple dumpling. Each autumn, our school would host a fund raiser and sell literally thousands of apple dumplings to us anxious kids, parents, and families.

The concept of an apple dumpling...what a brilliant idea! A mini apple pie, all to yourself. When I was a child I wasn't much of a crust fan. I couldn't wait to dig in and break open the pastry shell to reveal the perfectly shaped, peeled and cored apple, with the hollow core filled with cinnamon sugar just oozing out into the foil pan. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is heavenly atop such a dumpling, but more likely than not we would follow a great Dutch tradition of pouring milk into the excavated pastry, and let the crust soak turn soft while soaking up the liquid. Mmmm! Takes me back!

Many Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks don't elaborate a specific recipe for apple dumplings. (And I'll follow in those footsteps here by not including one). In fact, my great-grandmother used to use whatever leftover pie dough remained after she was finished baking her weekly batch of pies. According to the amount of leftover raw dough, she would peel and core just enough apples (always the tart green ones), and place them upside down atop a circle of dough (about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, according to the size of the apples). She would fill the empty apple cavity with cinnamon sugar (roughly the proportion of 1 tsp cinnamon to 1 Tbsp sugar) and a teaspoon of butter. Then the moistened edges of the dough would be brought up around the apple and sealed. She would slash the crust once or twice at the top, and into the hot oven they would go (425 is about right). If you have individual foil pans, or even large stoneware ramekins, they are best used here, because invariably some filling will leak out through the bottom. Bake until the crust is nice and golden brown, and the sweet brown juices start to bubble. Test the apple dumpling by piercing it from the side with a slim, sharp knife. If the blade penetrates it like soft butter, you'll know they're ready. They're best served warm from the oven, but they're equally delicious cold the next day. You can even warm them in the microwave (if you remove the foil pan first!).

What a great way to use leftover pastry! As far as I remember, she wouldn't set out to make apple dumplings on her baking day; they were just made with whatever pie dough was left over. She also had other tricks for creating goodies using the extra dough, but I'll save those ideas for later.

Apple dumplings are now my favorite excuse to make extra pie crust. So next time you're baking a batch of pies, save the leftover dough and treat your family to a "wunnerful good" Pennsylvania Dutch dessert. "Ja!"

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tips for making pie crust

My mother would say that making good pie crust was the test of a real cook. Anyone can measure ingredients, stir them around, pour into a pan, and put into the oven. But making great pie crust is not only a science, but an art. With the correct proportions of moisture and fat comes the art of knowing how to shape and roll the crust ever so delicately, without sticking to the rolling pin or surface, and then transferring it to the pie plate without ripping it and destroying the beautiful appearance, especially of the top crust.

Many old cookbooks would not mention how much liquid to add to the flour and shortening. Cooks were expected to know this just by feeling the dough. And to some extent, this is true. Where I live in Florida, making pie crust in the summer time can be a real challenge with humidity levels as high as the temperature. So during the summer, I've found that pie crust needs a bit less shortening. If the full amount is used during high humidity, the crust can actually slide around on the pie. So for a crust calling for 3/4 cup shortening, take out 2 Tbsp of it. You'll barely have to add more ice water to the dough. Just add enough water so that the dough holds together without being crumbly, and not too much so that it's sticky. After making a few pies, you'll soon be able to get the feel for it. It should be nice and soft, holding together just right. (It's easier making pie crusts in more northern, less humid climates, such as Pennsylvania where I'm originally from.) And if you're ever making the dough, and it seems to come together nicely, and you still have water left to add, by all means don't add it. The correct amount of moisture may vary from time to time, from season to season, and even by the kind of flour you use.

Butter is nice to use in your pie crusts, but it is more difficult to work with. You'll most likely need less water in your recipe, and so you'll need to adjust accordingly. From my experience, the best fat to use in a pie crust, with consistent results, is vegetable shortening. Crisco works very well, and now there is even a trans-fat free Crisco, so that's what I use for most of my pies.

One tool I've become dependent on is a good pastry blender. The best type has blade-like cutters, like the one shown here. Pastry blenders with more wire-like cutters aren't as efficient, and you'll have to work a whole lot more. With a blade cutter, you're actually cutting the shortening into the flour, and moving the blades rapidly and in a slightly circular motion, you'll be able to combine all the shortening into the flour in about two minutes. Then add the ice water, combine gently, and you're ready to go.

For rolling the crust a good pastry mat is really helpful. You can get one from specialty cooking shops, or even at Target. There's also good silicone mats, so there's no reason why your pie crust should stick to the counter top.

Another tool I've improvised is a flour sprinkler. I have a parsley container, about 7 inches tall, with the large holes in the top for sprinkling parsley. Well I've used up the parsley about 10 years ago, and now I fill the container with flour for sprinkling on the pie crust and the rolling pin when rolling out the dough. The holes are just the right size so that the flour doesn't all pour out at once. I can sprinkle it exactly where I want it. It's also nice to re-cycle things in your kitchen if you can. This container has lasted 10 years for me, and I hope it lasts many more.

Don't be afraid to try your hand at pie crust. Remember how much fun you had as a kid with Play-Doh? You'll soon find yourself having a great time in your kitchen, playing with the pie dough, and loving the way it feels between your fingers. And as your pie bakes in the oven, you'll know that this is truly a labor of love. The love you put into your pastries will fill your family with happiness.

Let's go make a pie!

Basic Pie Crust
(for 2-crust pie)

2 cups all purpose flour (unbleached is best)
3/4 cups vegetable shortening (try trans-fat free Crisco)
1/2 tsp salt
5 Tbsp ice-cold water

Mix flour and salt together in a mixing bowl. Add shortening, and mix into the flour with pastry cutter until it resembles cornmeal crumbs. (If you don't have a pastry cutter, you can use two knives, one in each hand, and move them back and forth in a scissor-like motion, to cut the shortening into the flour.) Add 4 Tbsp of ice water, and mix gently into the flour with your hands. If you can't bring the dough together into a ball, add the remaining water. If it still won't hold together, add more water, a little at a time, until it holds together when you press it into a ball. Don't add too much water, or your dough will be sticky and the finished crust will be tough. For best results and the flakiest pie crust, the dough should be handled as little as possible.

When you're ready to roll out the crust, cut dough into 2 pieces, one slightly larger than the other. The larger piece will be the bottom crust. Always use the smaller piece for the top crust. This recipe will make a double crust for an 8- to 9-inch pie.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Easiest Chocolate Cake You'll Ever Bake

It was inevitable. When Friday night would come around, after a long, hard work week (baking business and homeschooling), all I could think about was how I was going to relax that weekend. But so often I would be called on a Friday night by someone ordering a birthday cake for Saturday. And not just a small one, of course. They would need a cake to feed half the county! What to do for these procrastinators?

I would often turn to this cake recipe, given to me by my dear friend who used to cook in a Boston bakery kitchen back in the early 80s. One reason I love this recipe is that it can be multiplied many, many times (for extremely large cakes, or for lots of sheet cakes) and the cake will come out just as moist as it does when you make a single recipe. Another reason to love it? It's absolutely egg-free! No beating eggs, or getting shell fragments in your batter. You only need one mixing bowl, which makes cleanup a lot easier. And if you need a lower-fat version of this delicious cake, you can substitute unsweetened applesauce for 1/3 of the butter. When you make this substitution, the added pectin from the apples also helps the cake to hold it's shape, so this is a good idea if you are using molds for kids' specialty cakes, or if you just want to be sure the cake doesn't fall apart after you take it out of the pan. What's not to love?

(Something else to try: This cake recipe works extremely well with carob powder instead of cocoa, for those who can't or who don't want to eat chocolate.)

This recipe will make 2 8-inch layers, or 24 cupcakes. Multiply the recipe as your heart desires! And for a chocolate-lover's dream come true, frost the cooled cake with Fudgy Chocolate Icing.

Easy Chocolate Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup baking cocoa (or try carob powder)
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups cold water
2 sticks (1 cup) melted butter (don't use margarine!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except melted butter. Using electric mixer, mix until there are no lumps. When smooth, add the melted butter and beat thoroughly until the butter no longer separates.

Pour into greased and floured cake pans, and bake until the cake tests done in the center, and it starts to pull away from the edges of the pan. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan, and cool thoroughly on wire cooling rack. When completely cooled, frost as desired.

Fudgy Chocolate Icing
(makes 2 cups)

1/2 cup Hershey's cocoa
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
6 Tbsp butter (use the real stuff for best taste)
4 Tbsp milk or water
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine cocoa with sugar in mixing bowl. In a small bowl, cream the butter with 1/2 cup of the cocoa mixture. Add remaining cocoa mixture alternately with milk, beating to a spreading consistency. (1 Tbsp light corn syrup can also be added to make the frosting glossy.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Autumn: The best time for apple pie

Days are shorter. The air is cooler. Autumn is back, and there's no better to time to fill your house with the aroma of apple pie, fresh from your oven. Apples are also best this time of year, and you can't beat those tart, Granny Smith Apples for the best tasting pie. (I never used any other type of apple for the bakery pies...for delicious flavor and texture that won't turn mushy in the oven.) Today's recipe is based on the one my Mom uses, and always comes out delicious!

New to pie making? Or you don't have time to pull the crust together? You can always use refrigerated or frozen pie crust from the supermarket. But always be sure to read the ingredients label before you buy. Never, ever, buy pie crust made with lard (animal shortening). The crust should always be made with vegetable shortening, butter, or both. Your family will thank you for caring to use the best ingredients.

Mom's Apple Pie
(makes one 9 inch pie)

pastry for a double crust pie
6 cups peeled and sliced fresh Granny Smith apples (preferably oganic)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2 Tbsp Minit Tapioca (instant-type tapioca)
1 1/2 Tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 450. Stir together sugar, cinnamon, and tapioca in a mixing bowl. Add apple slices and let rest 5 minutes. (The tapioca will absorb the apple juices, and keep your pie from becoming wet and runny.) Line a 9 inch pie pan with bottom crust. Fill with apple mixture. Dot with the butter, cut into 3 or 4 chunks. Moisten the edges of the bottom crust, and then top with the upper crust. Trim excess pastry from edges, and flute the pastry edges, or press with the tines of a fork. Make 3 or 4 decorative slashes in the top crust with a sharp knife (allows steam to escape). Bake for 50 minutes, or until crust edges start to turn golden, and apple filling starts to bubble through the crust slashes. Remove from oven, and cool completely.