Sunday, April 20, 2008

Raspberry Nanaimo Bars

I made homemade graham crackers last week, but I forgot one crucial bit of information: we don't eat many graham crackers around here. After stuffing ourselves with S'mores, we were left with a large Ziploc bag of crackers rapidly going stale. What to do? You know the saying-when life gives you graham crackers, make Nanaimo bars. (You did know that saying, right?)

Nanaimo bars are named after the town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The local lore is that a resident of Nanaimo entered her special cookie bars in a baking contest and named them after her hometown. They became a sensation and are now sold across the US and Canada, sometimes under different names like "New York Slice." The bars consist of three layers: a chunky base with cocoa, crushed grahams, coconut, and nuts, a creamy vanilla custard middle layer, and a soft chocolate glaze on top. I decided to spruce up my bars by adding raspberry puree to each layer, for a delicious chocolate-raspberry flavor combination.

Bottom Layer:

1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup seedless raspberry puree*
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups graham cracker wafers
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
1 cup coconut

Place the butter in a medium saucepan, and place it over medium heat until melted. Add the sugar, cocoa powder and raspberry puree and stir until smooth and well-combined. Add the egg and take the pan off the heat, stirring constantly to incorporate the egg. Once the mixture thickens, stir in the graham cracker crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Scrape the mixture into a 9x9 pan lined with aluminum foil, and firmly press it into an even layer.

Middle Layer

1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter, room temperature
1/4 cup seedless raspberry puree*
3 tbsp instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups powdered sugar

Cream the butter in a stand mixer. Add the puree, pudding mix, and powdered sugar and beat for several minutes until fluffy and light. Spread the raspberry cream over the bottom layer and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Top Layer
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tbsp cream
1 tbsp seedless raspberry puree*
*To make seedless raspberry puree, blend fresh or defrosted frozen raspberries and pour them through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

Place the chocolate, cream, and puree in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 45 seconds and stir. If the chocolate is not fully melted, microwave for an additional 15 seconds and stir until melted. Pour the chocolate over the raspberry cream and smooth it into a thin, even layer. Place the bars in the refrigerator until the top layer is set, about 20 minutes.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Homemade S'mores

As a child I hated camping. I hated the claustrophobia of stuffy tents and sleeping bags, I hated being away from warm showers, I hated hiking, and I especially hated pit toilets. In fact, the only element of camping I remotely enjoyed was the food. Camping was a great excuse to indulge in foods that we normally didn't eat, like biscuits smothered in sausage gravy, bacon in every single meal, and gooey S'mores around the campfire.

As an adult I have grown to love hiking and being around nature, although I still dislike pit toilets. However, my S'mores consumption has sadly diminished from my younger years. A recent surplus of homemade marshmallows led me to crave S'mores, so I decided to do what my childhood self never imagined: make S'mores from scratch.

There are three basic elements to S'mores: the marshmallows, the graham crackers, and the chocolate. I began by making my own graham crackers, which was a revelation. Although I've made all sorts of baked goods, it had never occurred to me to make crackers. They just didn't seem very exciting or necessary to make. Some things will obviously taste better homemade. But crackers? I had my doubts.Turns out homemade graham crackers are good! This recipe uses brown sugar, honey, and a sprinkling of cinnamon-cloves to give the crackers a warm, homey taste. I found that I preferred the crackers very well done, so that they had a satisfying snap and crunched all the way through. This recipe is from Michael Recchiuti's Chocolate Obsession, an excellent cookbook for the chocophile.

Graham Crackers
1/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons (2 oz by weight) honey
1 cup (5 oz) all-purpose flour*
1 cup 3 tbsp (5.25 oz) whole wheat flour*
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
5 tbsp (2.5 oz) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup packed (6 oz) brown sugar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt

Whisk together the milk, vanilla, and honey in a small bowl and set aside.
Place the flours, salt, and baking soda in the bowl of a large stand mixer and turn it to low to mix. Add the butter and turn the mixer to medium, mixing until it looks like coarse meal. Add the sugar and mix until no sugar lumps remain.
With the mixer on medium, slowly stream in the milk mixture and beat until a smooth dough forms, 2-3 minutes.
Scrape the dough onto a length of cling wrap, pat it into a thin square, and wrap it tightly. Refrigerate overnight to firm the dough.

When you are ready to make your crackers, preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Lay out a strip of waxed paper and sprinkle it generously with flour. Place your dough on the prepared surface and sprinkle the top with more flour. Lay another sheet of waxed paper on top, and roll the dough between the floured paper. My dough was really, really sticky. Obviously it's best if you don't work too much extra flour into the dough, but I added quite a bit more because it was so wet. Keep lifting the waxed paper, flouring the dough, and flipping it over and repeating the process as necessary, until you have rolled it to 1/8" thick.

Recchiuti recommends using a ruler to score the dough and cutting the crackers into 2.5" squares. Doubtless this would produce gorgeously identical crackers, but I didn't have the patience for that, so I eyeballed it and used a pizza cutter to make square-ish cuts. Carefully transfer your crackers to the baking sheet, leaving 1/2" in between them. Sprinkle the tops with the topping mixture, and bake for 15-18 minutes--I found I liked mine quite brown and crisp!
Allow to cool completely, and store uneaten crackers in an airtight container for up to two weeks. (This is his recommendation--I found mine started tasting stale after about 3-4 days. No preservatives, dontcha know.)

*I highly recommend measuring by weight, not volume. Sheer sloth caused me to use cups instead of ounces, and I think I shortchanged the flour on mine. It was sooo sticky and moist. If you have a scale, definitely use it!

Now that the grahams are taken care of, what about the marshmallows? Well, you lucky people, I happened to put together a photo tutorial showing how to make marshmallows in ten easy steps! This recipe's not hard, but you will need a candy thermometer and a large mixer with a whisk attachment. The marshmallows should be made a day before you use them, so I guess you also need a little foresight. And finally, the chocolate. I have big plans to make my own chocolate from scratch, and have bought cacao beans for that very purpose. However, I haven't quite gotten there yet, so for the time being I contented myself with a Trader Joe's bittersweet Pound Plus bar. (Aside: they've gone up in price! $4.00 each now. I suspect rising oil costs are to blame somehow.)
The actual baking of the S'mores is child's play, assuming you would let children anywhere near an oven set to broil at 500 degrees. (I might, which is why I don't have children yet.) Turn your oven to broil on its highest setting. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment, and place several graham crackers on the sheet face-down. Top the cracker with chocolate. I opted to chop my chocolate, since the bars were almost an inch thick and I didn't think they'd melt enough for my taste. Place a marshmallow or two on top of the chocolate, and remember that they will puff up--dont' be greedy and smother it with mallows, as that will only result in an abominable snowman of a S'more that is impossible to control and eat properly.
Place the open-faced S'mores in the oven and watch them like a hawk. Do you know the phrase "a watched pot never boils"? I am here to tell you that an unwatched S'more will overbroil in a second. It took about 20-30 seconds in my oven to get them to the point I liked--melted and gooey, with a crisp golden brown topping. If I waited much longer, the inside was liquified and the top was a crunchy, chewy mess.

Once your S'mores are cooked, top with a second cracker and attempt to eat gracefully. I recommend bibs, tarps, and a garden hose for clean-up. Eat your heart out, childhood me!


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sunny Lemon Cookies

After several pleasant weeks of cooler-than-usual temperatures, it's getting warm again in Los Angeles. The rising temperatures haven't caused me to forsake my oven, but they have made me crave bright, summery flavors.

My recent experiments making macarons, nougat, and marshmallow have left me with a lot of lonely egg yolks. I could turn these into ice cream or custard, but, for better or worse, we usually end up eating all of the ice cream ourselves. This time I wanted to make something we could share with others. Our motto: spread the love while spreading the calories. Everybody wins! So I decided to make egg yolk cookies.

These cookies are soft and tender, with a bold lemon flavor that comes from finely shredded zest and lemon oil. (I love the Boyajian flavoring oils--they have such a bright, natural taste. Lemon extract can be substituted, but you might want to double the quantity). They spread quite a bit, so if you don't want thin cookies make sure the dough is well-chilled before baking.

Lemon (Egg Yolk) Cookies

  • 2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 egg yolks (or 3 whole eggs)
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1/2 tsp lemon oil, or 1 tsp lemon extract
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
In the bowl of a large stand mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Whisk the egg yolks with the zest and lemon oil, then add the yolks to the butter/sugar and mix until combined.

In a separate bowl stir the dry ingredients together. Stop the mixer and add the drys, then turn the mixer to low and run it until it forms a smooth dough. The dough will be a little sticky. You can bake it right away, or refrigerate it and bake it once chilled. If you're using it right away, I recommend forming it into balls and rolling the balls in granulated sugar, then baking on a parchment-covered tray at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Don't overbake, or the cookies won't have that wonderful melt-in-your-mouth texture.

After baking off a tray of these, I realized that they are the type of cookies that work well in miniature. The flavor is bold enough that several bites is satisfying, while an oversized cookie could be overwhelming. So I started baking them smaller, ending up with cookies that were slightly larger than a 50 cent piece.

My years of candy training have taught me that anything that is good plain is even better when dipped in chocolate. I couldn't resist experimenting on my little babies. I dunked some in semi-sweet chocolate and some in lemon-flavored white chocolate, with contrasting accent decorations. Once again, the hypothesis was proven. My little lemon cookies WERE much improved by a bath in sweet, sweet chocolate.

I also left some cookies undipped and drizzled them with lemon-white chocolate and semi-sweet. Not surprisingly, those too were delicious.

My final experiment was to try and create linzer-ish cookies from this dough. I love the combination of lemon and raspberry, and thought that the vibrant lemon flavor of these cookies would be a good base. What I really didn't consider, however, was the soft texture of the cookies. My favorite part about them--their tender crumb--was also their downfall as a filled cookie.

Really, I should have known they'd be trouble from the start. After chilling I rolled the dough out and used mini flower cookie cutters to make adorable flower shapes that, upon baking, ended up looking like deformed circles. Whoops. Several sheets of mutant cookies later, I finally wised up and stuck the cookies in the freezer for about 20 minutes before baking. That finally seemed to produce recognizable flower shapes (seen below) but they still lost a lot of definition and that "cute factor." I tried to overbake the cookies a little bit to get them crisper, then sandwiched them with freshly made raspberry preserves. This was probably my second mistake, as the fresh preserves had more liquid than storebought jam. I finished the top cookies with a lemon-powdered sugar glaze, admired my creations for awhile, and packed them up in a tupperware container.

Fortunately for me, I can't rest knowing I have sweets in the house, and was back in a few hours to check on them (read: sneakily eat one). When I did, I found that the jam had softened all of the cookies, even leaking through the back of one of them. The cookies were falling apart before my eyes, and were in no condition to give away to anyone. The sad conclusion of this story is that Jason and I had to force ourselves to eat about 4 lemon linzer cookies apiece, so that they wouldn't go to waste. They were too soft, but everything else about them was perfect. Tart, sweet, fruity, and so satisfying. Certainly not a bad way to welcome summer!


Macaron Magic

Have you ever had a macaron? Macarons--not to be confused with macaroons, the soft coconut cookies that are delicious in their own right--are petite French sandwich cookies featuring crisp and chewy meringue shells and a soft inner filling that is usually chocolate ganache or buttercream. A number of my favorite food blogs have been featuring macarons lately, and their creative versions and beautiful pictures inspired me to try making my own.

The macaron shells can be made in a variety of flavors. Vanilla and chocolate are probably the most popular, since they pair nicely with a number of flavors, but bold nut versions like hazelnut and pistachio are also common, and pastry geniuses like Pierre Herme have created seemingly endless combinations. Some sound amazing (caramel fleur de sel and chocolate!) and some sound more...adventurous (chestnut and savory green tea?).

Initially it was a tough decision as to what macarons I should make for my first attempt. Finally, as I do when faced with all major decision in my life, I chose chocolate. I used a recipe by David Lebovitz, one of my favorite chef-bloggers, who has yet to concoct a dud dish. This is his recipe, with a few of my own modifications.

Macaron Batter

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 ounces ground almonds (about 1/2 cup. I used roasted salted almonds because it was all that I had and it worked out fine)
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature*
  • 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
*Tartelette, who features a macaron recipe on her blog almost every other day and who I consider to be a macaron expert, suggests leaving the egg whites at room temperature overnight before using them. Since I don't really believe in salmonella or food poisoning, this seemed like good advice (room temperature, older egg whites always whip much nicer than cold, fresh whites) so I left mine out overnight before making the cookies. I don't know if this step is necessary, but my cookies turned out nicely, so there's one data point saying yes.

To make the cookies, first preheat the oven to 375, and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Prepare a piping bag with a 1/2 inch tip or a blank coupler and set aside.

Place the powdered sugar and the ground almonds in a food processor and run it for about 10 seconds to break up any sugar lumps and to grind the almonds as fine as possible. Add the cocoa and pulse it a few times to distribute the cocoa.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, begin to beat the egg whites on medium speed. When they first start to hold soft peaks, add a spoonful of sugar. Continue to beat the whites and add the sugar gradually, spoonful by spoonful. After all the sugar is added, beat until the whites are very glossy and hold firm peaks, about two minutes. It is important that the whites are beaten to stiff peaks, but not overbeaten, as they can get crumbly and ruin the meringue texture.
"You're gorgeous, meringue baby!"
Once the whites are whipped properly, add half the dry mixture and fold it in until almost incorporated. Add the second half of the dry ingredients and gently fold it in just until mixed. The batter will be stiff. I was worried that it was too stiff to pipe, so I gave it a few extra turns of the spatula. It should flow, but only very slowly.

Spoon the batter into the piping bag and pipe small 1" circles onto the parchment paper. They spread a bit during baking, so space them about 3/4" apart. The batter should flow enough to create a nice circle without a peaked top, but it shouldn't puddle and ooze out of the circle shape. At this point, you can sprinkle the tops with any decorations or flavors you'd like. I decorated mine with candied cacao nibs, chopped hazelnuts, and royaltine wafers. Firmly rap the sheet on the counter to remove any air bubbles, and let the cookies sit at room temperature for 10 minutes to develop a slight shell on the outside.
Pop them in the preheated oven for 15-18 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool. Sometimes macarons can be hard to remove from the parchment, so here is a great trick I learned. While the cookies are still warm, slightly dampen a tea towel. Slide the cookies on the parchment sheet off the baking sheet and onto the damp tea towel. The warmth from the cookies will create a little steam, which will release the cookies from the parchment easily. Genius!

One reason macarons are intimidating is because there are so many ways they can go wrong. The ground nuts can be too coarse, the whites can be overbeaten or underbeaten, and if it's humid while you're making them? Fuggedaboutit! Of course, if any of these things happen, you will still have a cookie of some sort, but it won't have the classic macaron shape and characteristics. I felt intense pressure to make perfect macarons, so I hovered around the oven as they were baking, checking their progress every two minutes. "Feet! They have feet!" I finally shouted triumphantly, causing my husband to wonder if the day-old egg whites had had a Frankensteinian effect on my cookies.

But no, I was simply referring to the ruffled bottom of the cookies, commonly called the "feet." The perfect macaron has a smooth, shiny domed top and a perfectly proportioned "foot." The anatomy of a macaron is such:
The cookies thus successfully executed, it was time to turn my attention to the filling. Since my philosophy regarding all things chocolate is "more is more," I knew I wanted to do some sort of ganache, but instead of making a plain chocolate ganache, I decided to use some hazelnut-flavored chocolate to make a sort of homemade Nutella spread. However, I thought I should also have a non-chocolate option in case chocolate-on-chocolate was too intense. I had some sweetened condensed milk in my refrigerator leftover from a candy project, so I decided to make dulce de leche.

Left: hazelnut-chocolate ganache, right: dulce de leche

Hazelnut-Chocolate Ganache
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 3 ounces finely chopped gianduja chocolate (hazelnut-flavored chocolate)
  • 1.5 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until it simmer and has bubbles around the edges--do not let it boil. Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and let it sit for one minute to soften the chocolate. Whisk the mixture until it is smooth and liquid. Cover the top of the ganache with cling wrap so it does not develop a skin. For best results, make one day ahead so it can firm up at room temperature. If made the same day, refrigerate the ganache for an hour or two until it is firm enough to spread, but not hard.

Dulce de Leche
All you need for this recipe is sweetened condensed milk. I usually make it the dangerous thrillseeker's way, meaning I boil an unopened can of condensed milk in a saucepan full of water for about two hours. It's considered unwise because there's a chance the can might explode IF it's not covered with water the whole time. To which I say, Bah! Any monkey can monitor boiling water and add more if it gets low!

However, if you are not a fan of endangering your life or your clean kitchen, you can use the wussy safe method. Spoon the condensed milk into a shallow bowl or pie tin, and cover it tightly with foil. Place it in a baking dish and fill it with hot water halfway up the sides of the bowl. Put the dish in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, stirring halfway through and adding more water if necessary. At the end you should have gorgeously thick, creamy dulce de leche. Stir in a pinch of sea salt to balance the sweet flavors, and you're done!

Assembling the macarons is as simple as spreading filling on one cookie, and topping it with a second. I left some of my macarons undecorated, so I used these as the bottom. I recommend making these a day in advance. Immediately after they were made they were a bit too chewy for my taste, but the next day they were the perfect balance of crunchy shell and soft, chewy interior. They were great the following day as well, but three days after being made, their age began to catch up with them and they started tasting stale.

My favorite combination was probably the candied cacao nibs with the hazelnut ganache. The nibs added a crunchy, smoky dark chocolate flavor, while the ganache was sweeter with a pure hazelnut taste. Overall the experiment was a success, and I can't wait to play around with different flavor combinations.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gooey Chocolate-Caramel Bars

I made these awesome soft caramels last week, and after making the Girl Scout cookies I still had almost a pound of caramels left over. An upcoming potluck was the perfect excuse to put this caramel to good use. I made a decadent flourless chocolate cake base, topped it with softened caramel, and finished the bars with a chocolate ganache topping.

The flavor combination and texture was delicious--the flourless chocolate cake had a rich, almost cheesecake-like texture, and the caramel and ganache were both silky smooth. However, after sitting out at room temperature for about 3 hours, the caramel got too soft and oozed out the sides of the bars. The taste wasn't affected, but next time I will definitely add less cream to the caramel, and keep these refrigerated until 10 minutes before serving.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

(makes one 9" round cake, or 9x13" bars)

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
6 large eggs at room temperature, separated
12 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 9-inch-diameter springform pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper or waxed paper; spray paper. Wrap outside of pan with foil. Alternately, line 9x13" pan with foil or parchment and spray with nonstick spray. Melt chocolate and butter in microwave-safe bowl until melted and smooth. Remove from heat. Cool to lukewarm, stirring often.

Using electric mixer with whisk attachment, beat egg yolks and 6 tablespoons sugar in large bowl until mixture is very thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Fold yolk mixture into lukewarm chocolate, and stir in vanilla. Clean the mixer bowl and beaters. Beat egg whites in the clean bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, beating until glossy medium-firm peaks form. Fold whites into chocolate mixture in 3 additions. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake cake until top is puffed and cracked and tester inserted into center comes out with some moist crumbs attached, about 25 minutes for 9x13 and 40 minutes for 9" pan. Cool cake in pan on rack (cake will fall).

Gently press down crusty top to make evenly thick cake, or trim the top so that it is even. If making round cake, cut around pan sides to loosen cake. Remove pan sides. Place 9-inch-diameter tart pan bottom or cardboard round atop cake. Invert cake onto tart pan bottom. Peel off parchment paper. If making bars, leave the cake in the pan.

Caramel Layer

1 pound soft and chewy caramels
1/4 cup heavy cream (or less--I might only use 2 tbsp next time)

Melt the caramels and the cream in a microwave-safe bowl and stir until it is melted and smooth. Pour the caramel over the cake and spread it into a smooth, even layer.

Ganache Layer

1.25 cups chopped bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream

Place chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Place the cream in a small saucepan and heat it until it simmers with small bubbles forming around the edges. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and allow it to sit and melt the chocolate for one minute. Gently whisk the cream and chocolate until the mixture is smooth and homogenous. Pour the ganache over the caramel layer and smooth it into an even layer. Place the bars in the refrigerator to set the caramel and ganache, about 3 hours or overnight.

To serve, use the foil to lift the bars out of the pan. Dip a large knife in hot water (this is the easiest way to get clean cuts) and cut the bars into small squares, dipping and wiping the knife blade as necessary. These bars are decadent and very rich, so you can easily get 20, 24 or even 28 squares out of one 9x13 pan. They taste best at room temperature, but don't let them get too warm or the caramel will become messy.