Wednesday, December 31, 2008

For Light and Fluffy Waffles, Under Mixing is the Ticket

Under mixing is a lesson you'll only ever learn from a pastry chef. I've spoken before about being gentle with cake batters and other bakery items where flour is involved. Most items produced in the sweet kitchen are delicate. Flaky. Crumbly. How do you make such a flaky crust? Under mix the butter into the pie dough. How do you make delicate scones? Don't over mix the buttermilk into the dry ingredients. How do you make a light and fluffy pancakes and waffles? You see where this is going.

Pie dough and waffle batter are the extremes in this rule. Pie dough and waffle batter should be riddled with blobs of butter and egg whites, respectively. Next time you're making either, resist the urge to mix thoroughly. Your waffles will be lighter than air.

Here's a photo of ready to cook waffle batter. The whites were added with just a few turns of a large spatula. Somehow, when the waffles cook, the clumps of whites take care of themselves.

Buttermilk Waffles
Print recipe only here

Makes 5 waffles

2 cups AP flour
1 T sugar
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
4 T canola oil
2 eggs, separated

Preheat waffle iron.

Sift together dry ingredients.

Separate eggs, cracking egg whites into a medium mixing bowl and reserving.

Measure out buttermilk and canola oil and add egg yolks, whisking well to combine.

Whisk egg whites until solid white and foamy - they should be loose and not peak-forming.

Add liquid to dry ingredients and combine with a few swift strokes. The batter should be lumpy and mostly - but not too thoroughly - combined. Dump the egg whites on top and combine in the same manner with about 5 or 6 total folds. The egg whites should be evident in the mixture.

Cook 1 scant cup batter on hot iron per manufacturer's instructions or until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately or cool on a wire rack if you have too many and want to freeze some. Allow them to cool completely on the rack, then transfer to a one-gallon Ziploc storage bag.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oh, joy! I got a new woodpecker for my camera!

Rosemary Raisin Bread, pictured above, is a winter favorite of mine. We used to make it at Campagne for service in the Cafe. We served it toasted with apricot jam, which I still enjoy. I'm partial to Bonne Maman preserves. The goods are great and the empty jars are useful around the kitchen. One lives near my stovetop as a kosher salt cellar.

I often gift these loaves at Christmastime, usually with a pot of preserves too. The loaf above made it out to New York, stashed in my checked baggage alongside three dense chocolate tortes for my dad's birthday party. Good thing TSA didn't get the munchies.

A special thanks to Grandma Doris for noticing some missing information on the recipe. How cool that my Grandma not only reads my blog, but cooks from it?!? I added baking times to the recipe link for clarification.

I'm back home now, psyched to play with my new camera and make another round of Christmas cookies. Christmas baking was limited this year because I got strep throat right before Christmas. Upside of getting strep throat: made me feel like a kid again. A whiny, feeling oh-so-sorry-for-herself because she had to miss the cookie exchanges and Third Annual Peninsula Chocolate Bar Extravaganza, kind of kid, but a kid just the same.

Anyway, home, psyched and strep-free, I'm also really looking forward to overusing my annual Trading Places greeting of Happy New Year! over the next few days. Hope yours is especially merry.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nuts: The holiday slow food

The New York Times sort of beat me to it on this post. I scribbled a post on nuts in early December and forgot about it until reading this.

Ah well.

My take on nuts goes more with the gorgeous photo they ran, shown here at left (now is a good time to credit the photo to Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times). But where the Times delved into the health benefits of nuts, my thoughts were on the old world/slow food beauty of the nut still in its shell.

We always have nuts around. Of the already-been-shelled variety, almonds, plain and smoked, and peanuts (GORP is a favorite household snack) are in steady supply. There's always a small tin of nuts in my glove box. A handful of nuts has gotten my children (by “my children” I mean me) through many an episode of food anxiety.*

In the summer we eat a lot of peanuts in the shell - either at Wrigley or at home watching the game on WGN. Sunflower seeds, also in the shell, are a summer snack when we’re camping or on a road trip. But it’s the holiday nuts that I get really excited about. Each year, right around November 1, I pull down a pewter challis from its perch on the shelf above my cookbooks and fill it with mixed nuts - walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts - all in their pretty shells. We have a growing fleet of nutcrackers. My favorite is a wooden screw turning one that I got my daughter out of a Montessori catalog.

Maybe it’s the excitement of the season, but something about cracking my own nuts and enjoying no more than five or six of them in one sitting makes for a delightful seasonal tradition. And this is what slow food is really all about - slowing down, enjoying our food more. It’s not about munching a handful of nuts between frenzied errands around town. And yes, by "munching" I meant "shoveling into one's mouth."

Slow down this season. Enjoy your food, whatever it may be.

*food anxiety - [food ang-zahy-i-tee] -noun
1. Distress or psychic tension caused by fear of one’s next meal not coming quickly enough.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fave Five Christmas Cookies

Rugelach, Cornmeal and Russian Tea Cakes (a/k/a Mexican Wedding Cakes)

I made three of my favorite Christmas cookie doughs yesterday: Rugelach, Russian Tea Cookies, and Cornmeal Cookies. Amaretti and Press/Cutout Cookies will be made and baked off tomorrow, in time for the back to back cookie exchanges I plan to attend on Thursday.

What I appreciate about these recipes is the variety when all are on a plate. Also, there are enough choices about fillings and what nuts to use that make it fun each year. I traditionally use hazelnuts in my Russian Tea Cakes. Hazelnuts are so rich and flavorful but don't make enough appearances outside of the Pinch kitchen. This cookie is a great way to use them. This year, however, I opted for pecans, just to switch things around a bit.

Rugelach is a hard one to pick a filling for because I like them all so much. The recipe I use makes a ton of cookies out of the four logs. I plan to use all four fillings this year - a log of each. I might even try the Barefoot Contessa's recipe. It's not much different from my own - mainly she calls for rolling the cookie dough into a round, filling, cutting the round into wedges and rolling them up like a crescent. My good friend Jessica makes these and they're way prettier than my own log style ones, if only a bit more labor intensive.

The Amaretti and Cornmeal Cookie recipes are courtesy of my sister. They are both such perfect additions to the cookie plate and original ones, too. I made press cookies because they're so kid friendly (my daughters decorate sheet pan after sheet pan of them with their friends each year before Christmas), but my tastes are more for the less sweet Amaretti and the enticing piñoli-topped Cornmeal Cookie.

What are you baking this year?

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Biblically Good Gingerbread

Soft gingerbread cake, looking very much like it was Photoshopped in, but it wasn't.

A guy I knew in college surprised us all, as we peeled back the layers and got to know him better, to be a bit of a downer. Like Eeyore - always thinking it was going to rain and don't-you-feel-so-sorry-for-me-because-of-it, kind of a person. Everyone knows someone like this. Recently, I surprised myself as a downer when I found myself telling my sister how awful her freshly baked gingerbread was going to be (we were on the phone as she was pulling it out of the oven).

I’ve been tinkering with my gingerbread recipe for years. At one point it was perfect. But when I rewrote it for high altitude I misplaced the original recipe. When I spoke with my sister I was still working out kinks in my recipe and had recently made a gingerbread using the exact recipe she used*. It was really disappointing - not that it in any way excuses my big mouth. Beth seems to have forgiven my pessimism. Today's post is an olive branch, a promise to never rain on inferior gingerbread. Oops! I did it again...Well, at least I'm offering the recipe for what is, in my estimation, the best gingerbread, ever.

I’m so pleased to have Gingerbread back in my baking rotation, and to offer it here. It is the best thing, ever. It’s a fabulous tea cake, and a wonderful light dessert served with low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt.

Gingerbread Bundt Cake
Print recipe only here

Makes one 12-cup bundt cake
Preheat oven to 350°

Spray a 12-cup bundt pan with canola spray.

Sift and add to the bowl of a stand mixer (fitted with paddle attachment):
3 1/3 cups flour
2 ½ t baking powder
1 ½ t salt
1 T ginger
1 ½ t cinnamon
1 cup sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup molasses
Slowly add:
¾ cup plus 2 T canola oil
1 cup boiling water

Mix thoroughly, scraping sides and bottom.

Transfer batter to the prepared pan and bake about 40-50 minutes. The cake will be darker, firm and pull from the sides when it is done. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate.

Keeps well, covered, at room temperature, for 4-5 days.

* For the curious, the *bad gingerbread recipe* was the Soft Gingerbread from the otherwise praise-worthy Fannie Farmer Baking Book.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Baking 101: High Altitude Baking

Nigella Lawson once commented that baking is easier than cooking because a baker just follows a recipe. Nigella never moved to a town 10,000 feet above sea level and had to rewrite the contents of her baking cookbook. Having done exactly that I could claim the opposite to be true; writing a entrée recipe, from scratch, is much easier than writing a dessert recipe. The baker’s science has to be spot on for the end result to look and taste perfect. I wouldn’t make that claim, though. No good can come from pitting egocentric cooks against each other.

To build confidence as a high altitude baker one must understand the science behind leavening and the effect altitude has on the internal structure of baked goods. Once that lesson is learned, the baker must adjust each recipe, testing and retesting until it works. Some recipes are easier to adjust. I never mastered Sponge Cake at altitude. Sponge Cake achieves it loft from a balance of air and leavening, two variables greatly affected by altitude. I learned to appreciate denser yellow cakes during my mountain years.

The science
Higher elevation means lower air pressure. Lower pressure causes water to boil at lower temperatures. Water comes to a boil in less time, so it takes longer to cook everything you boil. For example, at sea level I make 11-minute hard boiled eggs. To achieve the same egg
at 10,000 feet, I boiled them for 17 minutes.

At high altitude (anything over 3,000 feet) baked goods rise faster. Liquids evaporate faster so flavors and sugar become more concentrated. When the sugar ratio is out of proportion, cakes don’t set. The middles are gooey and the cake lacks structure. Air bubbles rise faster so cakes rise fast and high only to fall because of the last of structure inside.

The solutions
1. Decrease sugar - start by removing 2-3 T from a recipe and see how it responds. I routinely reduce sugar by 25% when trying a new recipe, so don’t worry about overdoing it.

2. Decrease leavening -baking powder or baking soda - by a ¼ to ½ teaspoon.

3. Increasing flour by 2-3 T helps reinforce structure and balance sugar/protein ratio.

4. Increase liquids - an extra egg yolk goes a long way. Butter, eggs, and sour cream all count as liquids. Start with an extra ¼ cup.

5. Don’t overbeat anything, especially eggs. Beating adds air, and adding pesky air bubbles creates rising problems. When a recipe calls for whisking egg whites to a soft peak, only whisk them until they are fully white but not quite strong enough to hold a peak.

6. Increase baking temperature 25° F. A faster cooking time will help prevent cakes from rising too high.

7. Use only pure ingredients, extracts and flavorings. I only advocate pure extracts, but it's absolutely critical that you don't use imitations at altitude since flavors are more concentrated at altitude. Use the best extracts available.

8. Bundt cake pans are much more forgiving cake pans at altitude. Never pass up the opportunity to use one. Cakes made in bundt pans also tend to be more dense and have lower rates of collapse.

9. Cookies rarely need recipe adjustments. It is critical to chill cookie dough prior to baking. Also increase oven temperature as described above.

The Conclusion
Taking any cake recipe and applying the guidelines above will improve your chance of success. And when you fail, don't sweat it. A fallen cake can become a beautiful trifle.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Baking Without Butter: Pumpkin Bundt Cake

This cake was added on to the Thanksgiving menu at the eleventh hour at the insistence of my youngest daughter. Thank goodness! It's a great cake to have around. It was nibbled on by house guests over the weekend.

I made cupcakes out of the same batter last year, and frosted them with Cream Cheese Frosting. They were good, but this lighter cake was much more popular. Besides, what good is it to bake without butter and then slather the finished cake with butter, cream cheese and sugar?

The recipe came from a 1997 issue of Food & Wine which I clipped and stored in my cookbook (my cookbook is a binder filled with page protectors). I've only tinkered with it slightly.

Years ago, at the request of a client in Telluride, I made a pumpkin by baking two bundt cakes and inverting one on top of the other, with a layer of frosting in between. For a stem, I inserted an upside down cupcake in the hole on the top cake. I frosted the orb with orange-tinted cream cheese frosting and the stem with green. It was a hit.

Pumpkin Bundt Cake
Print recipe only here

Makes one 12-cup bundt cake. Half the recipe makes 12 cupcakes or a 6-cup bundt.

Preheat oven to 350°

Spray a bundt pan or muffin tin with canola spray.

Sift together:

* 3 1/3 cups flour
* 1 ½ t salt
* 1 t baking soda
* 1 t baking powder
* 1 T ginger
* 2 t cinnamon
* 1 t nutmeg
* ½ t cloves

In a mixing bowl, beat together (I use my stand mixer here):

* 2 ¾ cup sugar
* ¾ cup canola oil
* 4 eggs

Add and combine:

* One 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
* 2/3 cup warm water

Add the dry ingredients to the mixer and mix well, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl to incorporate thoroughly. Transfer to the pan and bake (about 25 minutes for cupcakes and about 50 minutes for the large bundt). The cake will be golden, firm and pull from the sides when it is done. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate.


I've waxed snarky on Rachel Ray in the past, but here's a recipe from her that is great: Pumpkin Whoopie Pies. My good friend Crissy fed me these and I loved every bite. Ray Ray calls for something called pumpkin pie spice which I don't buy. If you don't either, just substitute 1 ½ t ginger, 1 t cinnamon, ½ t nutmeg and a pinch of cloves.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

On Eating the Advent Calendar

I scampered out in the snow this morning to collect the Advent calendars my daughters expect annually. There's a piece of chocolate behind each door. Every morning they open the corresponding door on their respective calendar and get sweet treat. Sure, there's a good measure of holiday cheer involved, but let's be honest - there's chocolate. In the morning. Of course they're going to be excited about that. The calendar could herald the apocalypse and children would be just as jazzed. Oooh! I got one of the HORSEMEN!!!

[Katie dons a cashmere wrap, fixes a spot of Irish Breakfast tea and settles into an overstuffed chair.]

When I was a kid, we had an Advent calendar. Yes sir. One Advent calendar for us children. We shared it. And you know what? It didn't have chocolate inside. There were pictures behind each door. Just pictures. We were content to feast our eyes on the same pictures we'd seen, year after year. And you know what else? We were good and excited about opening the door each day on that sugar-free calendar. In fact, we fought about it - pushing and shoving to get to be the first one to the calendar each morning. Our mother put an end to that behavior by making us pick odd/even days and alternate every year, so I savored the treat of opening the double doors on Christmas Day biennially.

My children will be home from school shortly. They're not expecting the chocolate calendar. I already told them my childhood Advent calendar story and reported my plans to seek out a food-free one this year. They were so understanding about it that I decided right then and there to quit rumbling and get them the chocolate calendar they like so much. But I am going to keep an eye out for a nice keepsake Advent calendar to use this time next year.

How do you take your calendar?

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