Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas with the Daring Bakers: French Yule Log

Given the timing, it wasn't a surprise that this month's Daring Bakers challenge was a Yule Log, or Buche de Noel. It also wasn't a surprise that this was the most time-intensive, complicated Yule Log I've ever made. Most yule logs that I've seen are comprised of a thin sponge cake rolled around a mousse or buttercream filling, and frosted with chocolate to resemble tree bark. This yule log, on the other hand, was composed of six different elements, from cake to mousse to creme brulee, layered in a buche mold or loaf pan, and frozen until solid.

The craziness first started with the question of the cake mold. You see, I wanted a rounded yule log. I knew that I could make my buche in a square-cornered loaf pan, but as we all know, there are no square-cornered logs found in nature. My baker's OCD demanded fully realistic edible flora! However, my obsessiveness is rivaled only by my cheapness, and I decided I didn't want to spend $40 on a buche cake pan, so I decided to construct one myself. Hello, second grade!

Round buche de noel: as delicious as it is realistic

Fun fact: paper mache is not as exciting as your memory might have you believe. Mostly, it is a slow and messy process. And as an additional tip, it is a good idea to follow an actual recipe, instead of just guessing quantities for the paper mache paste. I think my mold might have dried and hardened...eventually...but I didn't have three months to wait and find out.

However, a mold made from reinforced posterboard and duct tape worked swimmingly. I was worried about it softening after being filled and frozen, but it had no problems keeping its shape. It is now in my closet, because I spent too long making it to throw it away, even though I can't imagine needing it again. This is how pack rats think, people.

So after all the drama with the mold was over, all that was left was making the six buche components and assembling it over the course of several days! Simplicity itself. Here's what the buche was composed of:

I wanted a chocolate yule log, because chocolate makes everything better, but I wanted to fancy it up a little bit, so I added a few extra flavors. The chocolate mousse got a little orange zest to add a citrus flavor, the ganache got a bunch of cayenne and a little cinnamon to add some spice, and the creme brulee was infused with a cinnamon stick, although that flavor got lost in the heavier chocolate flavors. I made my own praline and thought the hazelnut praline crisp layers were the best part. So flaky, so crunchy, so delicious! Call me, hazelnut praline.

I had a grand vision of creating a frosty winter wonderland scene for my yule log, so I created a bunch of chocolate mushrooms, leaves, and butterflies, and set it all on a foil-covered cake board covered with multicolored chocolate designs. In the end it wasn't as glorious as my dream--perhaps I should have continued the second grade crafts theme and made a diorama--but I did have fun fiddling with all of my accessories. Here are some close-ups:

The butterflies: I drew a few different butterfly templates onto a sheet of paper and taped waxed paper over it. I traced the designs using different colored candy melts, and once they were hard, glued them together with more candy melts. It was definitely a learning process, and next time I know to make my butterflies a bit thicker so they don't keep breaking.
The mushrooms: For the caps, I inflated balloons just the tiniest bit, and dipped them halfway into candy melts. I set them to dry upside-down in an egg carton, and once completely dry, popped the balloon and carefully peeled it away. The stems were thin cigarette cookies dipped in candy melts and glued to the caps with candy melts.
The leaves: These were my favorite! Simply paint the tops of leaves with candy melts. You can use one color or blend several colors on one leaf. Once dry, carefully peel the leaf away, and you have a pretty chocolate leaf! I painted some of my butterflies and leaves with silver luster dust to get them to glitter.
The berries and rocks: these are new M&Ms Premiums. The red ones are raspberry almond and the blue ones are plain almond. They taste all right, but I mostly love them for their appearance.
The cake board: was made by covering a cardboard base with aluminum foil. I took several colors of candy melts--white and light blues--and plopped them at random intervals on the cake board. Then I smoothed them into a very thin layer with an offset spatula, and dragged a serrated cake comb through it to give an interesting design.

Overall, this recipe was time-consuming, between creating all the different elements and the various cooling/chilling times before assembly, but I didn't have too many difficulties or frustrations. I did have a bit of a hard time with the pate a bombe for the mousse, because the quantities were so small in my mixer. While I was making the icing I tasted it and thought it was seriously bitter, so I added a lot of extra sugar to compensate. I also doubled the icing recipe because so many people had difficulty getting it to fully cover their logs. Other than that, it was smooth sailing! I need to give a special shout-out to my main dishes man, who washed every dish in our kitchen--thrice, it seems--during the course of making this dessert.

And how did it taste? Darn good! All of the elements worked extremely well together, and although it seems excessive, the taste is actually quite light and not too rich. It also keeps incredibly well--I made it 2 weeks ago and froze it, and we're now enjoying it--straight from the refrigerator, not the freezer--over this Christmas weekend. Everyone who's tried it has liked it immensely, so I will consider this a success.

Because it was so much work, it probably won't be a regular dessert, but I will definitely keep the recipe one hand next time I need a show-stopper. The exceedingly long recipe is below, under the cut.

What did everyone else think?

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux.
They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand.

Dacquoise Biscuit (Almond Cake)

Preparation time: 10 mn + 15 mn for baking

Equipment: 2 mixing bowls, hand or stand mixer with whisk attachment, spatula, baking pan such as a 10”x15” jelly-roll pan, parchment paper

Note: You can use the Dacquoise for the bottom of your Yule Log only, or as bottom and top layers, or if using a Yule log mold (half-pipe) to line your entire mold with the biscuit. Take care to spread the Dacquoise accordingly. Try to bake the Dacquoise the same day you assemble the log to keep it as moist as possible.

2.8 oz (3/4cup + 1Tbsp / 80g) almond meal
1.75 oz (1/2 cup / 50g) confectioner’s sugar
2Tbsp (15g) all-purpose flour
3.5oz (100g / ~100ml) about 3 medium egg whites
1.75 oz (4 Tbsp / 50g) granulated sugar

1. Finely mix the almond meal and the confectioner's sugar. (If you have a mixer, you can use it by pulsing the ingredients together for no longer than 30 seconds).
2. Sift the flour into the mix.
3. Beat the eggs whites, gradually adding the granulated sugar until stiff.
4. Pour the almond meal mixture into the egg whites and blend delicately with a spatula.
5. Grease a piece of parchment paper and line your baking pan with it.
6. Spread the batter on a piece of parchment paper to an area slightly larger than your desired shape (circle, long strip etc...) and to a height of 1/3 inches (8mm).
7. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for approximately 15 minutes (depends on your oven), until golden.
8. Let cool and cut to the desired shape.

Dark Chocolate Mousse

Preparation time: 20mn

Equipment: stand or hand mixer with whisk attachment, thermometer, double boiler or equivalent, spatula

Note: You will see that a Pate a Bombe is mentioned in this recipe. A Pate a Bombe is a term used for egg yolks beaten with a sugar syrup, then aerated. It is the base used for many mousse and buttercream recipes. It makes mousses and buttercreams more stable, particularly if they are to be frozen, so that they do not melt as quickly or collapse under the weight of heavier items such as the crème brulee insert.

2.5 sheets gelatin or 5g / 1 + 1/4 tsp powdered gelatin
1.5 oz (3 Tbsp / 40g) granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp (10g) glucose or thick corn syrup
0.5 oz (15g) water
50g egg yolks (about 3 medium)
6.2 oz (175g) dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1.5 cups (350g) heavy cream (35% fat content)
[I added the zest of one orange to make orange-chocolate mousse]

1. Soften the gelatin in cold water. (If using powdered gelatin, follow the directions on the package.)
2. Make a Pate a Bombe: Beat the egg yolks until very light in colour (approximately 5 minutes until almost white).
2a. Cook the sugar, glucose syrup and water on medium heat for approximately 3 minutes (if you have a candy thermometer, the mixture should reach 244°F (118°C). If you do not have a candy thermometer, test the sugar temperature by dipping the tip of a knife into the syrup then into a bowl of ice water, if it forms a soft ball in the water then you have reached the correct temperature.
2b. Add the sugar syrup to the beaten yolks carefully by pouring it into the mixture in a thin stream while continuing to beat the yolks. You can do this by hand but it’s easier to do this with an electric mixer.
2c. Continue beating until cool (approximately 5 minutes). The batter should become thick and foamy.
3. In a double boiler or equivalent, heat 2 tablespoons (30g) of cream to boiling. Add the chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.
4. Whip the remainder of the cream until stiff.
5. Pour the melted chocolate over the softened gelatin, mixing well. Let the gelatin and chocolate cool slightly and then stir in ½ cup (100g) of WHIPPED cream to temper. Add the Pate a Bombe.
6. Add in the rest of the WHIPPED cream (220g) mixing gently with a spatula.

Dark Chocolate Ganache Insert

Preparation time: 10mn

Equipment: pan, whisk. If you have plunging mixer (a vertical hand mixer used to make soups and other liquids), it comes in handy.

Note: Because the ganache hardens as it cools, you should make it right before you intend to use it to facilitate piping it onto the log during assembly. Please be careful when caramelizing the sugar and then adding the cream. It may splatter and boil.

1.75 oz (4 Tbsp / 50g) granulated sugar
4.5oz (2/3 cup – 1 Tbsp/ 135g) heavy cream (35% fat content)
5 oz (135g) dark chocolate, finely chopped
3Tbsp + 1/2tsp (45g) unsalted butter softened
[I added a hefty shake of cayenne to make it spicy]

1. Make a caramel: Using the dry method, melt the sugar by spreading it in an even layer in a small saucepan with high sides. Heat over medium-high heat, watching it carefully as the sugar begins to melt. Never stir the mixture. As the sugar starts to melt, swirl the pan occasionally to allow the sugar to melt evenly. Cook to dark amber color (for most of you that means darker than last month’s challenge).
2. While the sugar is melting, heat the cream until boiling. Pour cream into the caramel and stir thoroughly. Be very careful as it may splatter and boil.
3. Pour the hot caramel-milk mixture over the dark chocolate. Wait 30 seconds and stir until smooth.
4. Add the softened butter and whip hard and fast (if you have a plunging mixer use it). The chocolate should be smooth and shiny.

Praline Feuillete (Crisp) Insert

Preparation time: 10 mn (+ optional 15mn if you make lace crepes)

Equipment: Small saucepan, baking sheet (if you make lace crepes).
Double boiler (or one small saucepan in another), wax paper, rolling pin (or I use an empty bottle of olive oil).

Note: Feuillete means layered (as in with leaves) so a Praline Feuillete is a Praline version of a delicate crisp. There are non-praline variations below. The crunch in this crisp comes from an ingredient which is called gavottes in French. Gavottes are lace-thin crepes. To our knowledge they are not available outside of France, so you have the option of making your own using the recipe below or you can simply substitute rice krispies or corn flakes or Special K for them. Special note: If you use one of the substitutes for the gavottes, you should halve the quantity stated, as in use 1oz of any of these cereals instead of 2.1oz.

Ingredients for the Praline Feuillete:
3.5 oz (100g) milk chocolate
1 2/3 Tbsp (25g) butter
2 Tbsp (1 oz / 30g) praline
2.1oz (60g) lace crepes(gavottes) or rice krispies or corn flakes or Special K

1. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler.
2. Add the praline and the coarsely crushed lace crepes. Mix quickly to thoroughly coat with the chocolate.
3. Spread between two sheets of wax paper to a size slightly larger than your desired shape. Refrigerate until hard.

Vanilla Crème Brulée Insert

Preparation time: 15mn + 1h infusing + 1h baking

Equipment: Small saucepan, mixing bowl, baking mold, wax paper

1/2 cup (115g) heavy cream (35% fat content)
½ cup (115g) whole milk
4 medium-sized (72g) egg yolks
0.75 oz (2 Tbsp / 25g) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
[I added a cinnamon stick to make cinnamon creme brulee]

1. Heat the milk, cream, and scraped vanilla bean to just boiling. Remove from the stove and let the vanilla infuse for about 1 hour.
2. Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks (but do not beat until white).
3. Pour the vanilla-infused milk over the sugar/yolk mixture. Mix well.
4. Wipe with a very wet cloth and then cover your baking mold (whatever shape is going to fit on the inside of your Yule log/cake) with parchment paper. Pour the cream into the mold and bake at 210°F (100°C) for about 1 hour or until firm on the edges and slightly wobbly in the center.
5. Let cool and put in the freezer for at least 1 hour to firm up and facilitate the final assembly.

Dark Chocolate Icing

Preparation time: 25 minutes (10mn if you don’t count softening the gelatin)

Equipment: Small bowl, small saucepan

Note: Because the icing gelifies quickly, you should make it at the last minute.

4g / ½ Tbsp powdered gelatin or 2 sheets gelatin
¼ cup (60g) heavy cream (35 % fat content)
2.1 oz (5 Tbsp / 60g) granulated sugar [I almost doubled this--it was bitter as written!]
¼ cup (50g) water
1/3 cup (30g) unsweetened cocoa powder
[I doubled the recipe to make pouring easier]

1. Soften the gelatin in cold water for 15 minutes.
2. Boil the rest of the ingredients and cook an additional 3 minutes after boiling.
3. Add gelatin to the chocolate mixture. Mix well.
4. Let cool while checking the texture regularly. As soon as the mixture is smooth and coats a spoon well (it is starting to gelify), use immediately.

Yule Log Assembly

Depending on whether your mold is going to hold the assembly upside down until you unmold it or right side up, this order will be different.
You will want to tap your mold gently on the countertop after each time you pipe mousse in to get rid of any air bubbles.

1) Line your mold or pan, whatever its shape, with rhodoid (clear hard plastic, I usually use transparencies cut to the desired shape, it’s easier to find than cellulose acetate which is what rhodoid translates to in English) OR plastic film. Rhodoid will give you a smoother shape but you may have a hard time using it depending on the kind of mold you’re using.

You have two choices for Step 2, you can either have Dacquoise on the top and bottom of your log as in version A or you can have Dacquoise simply on the bottom of your log as in version B:

2A) Cut the Dacquoise into a shape fitting your mold and set it in there. If you are using an actual Yule mold which is in the shape of a half-pipe, you want the Dacquoise to cover the entire half-pipe portion of the mold.
3A) Pipe one third of the Mousse component on the Dacquoise.
4A) Take the Creme Brulee Insert out of the freezer at the last minute and set on top of the mousse. Press down gently to slightly ensconce it in the mousse.
5A) Pipe second third of the Mousse component around and on top of the Creme Brulee Insert.
6A) Cut the Praline/Crisp Insert to a size slightly smaller than your mold so that it can be surrounded by mousse. Lay it on top of the mousse you just piped into the mold.
7A) Pipe the last third of the Mousse component on top of the Praline Insert.
8A) Freeze for a few hours to set. Take out of the freezer.
9A) Pipe the Ganache Insert onto the frozen mousse leaving a slight eidge so that ganache doesn’t seep out when you set the Dacquoise on top.
10A) Close with the last strip of Dacquoise.
Freeze until the next day.


2B) Pipe one third of the Mousse component into the mold.
3B) Take the Creme Brulee Insert out of the freezer at the last minute and set on top of the mousse. Press down gently to slightly ensconce it in the mousse.
4B) Pipe second third of the Mousse component around and on top of the Creme Brulee Insert.
5B) Cut the Praline/Crisp Insert to a size slightly smaller than your mold so that it can be surrounded by mousse. Lay it on top of the mousse you just piped into the mold.
6B) Pipe the last third of the Mousse component on top of the Praline Insert.
7B) Freeze for a few hours to set. Take out of the freezer.
8B) Pipe the Ganache Insert onto the frozen mousse leaving a slight edge so that ganache doesn’t seep out when you set the Dacquoise on top.
9B) Close with the Dacquoise.
Freeze until the next day.

If you are doing the assembly UPSIDE DOWN with TWO pieces of Dacquoise the order is:
1) Dacquoise
2) Mousse
3) Creme Brulee Insert
4) Mousse
5) Praline/Crisp Insert
6) Mousse
7) Ganache Insert
8) Dacquoise

Unmold the cake/log/whatever and set on a wire rack over a shallow pan.
Cover the cake with the icing.
Let set. Return to the freezer.
You may decorate your cake however you wish. The decorations can be set in the icing after it sets but before you return the cake to the freezer or you may attach them on top using extra ganache or leftover mousse, etc...
Transfer to the refrigerator no longer than ½ hour before serving as it may start to melt quickly depending on the elements you chose.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Baking, Part 2

I like the Christmas candy recipes that I posted yesterday, but I LOVE these cookie recipes. I guess I'm more of a cookie girl at heart.

Gingerbread Cookies
This recipe is AMAZING. I've tried many different gingerbread recipes, and I invariably find ones that taste great but don't hold their shape well, or hold their shape beautifully but taste like cardboard. I thought this one was easy to work with and had a great dark gingerbread taste. Next time I'll add orange zest, and it'll be just perfect. This is now my default gingerbread cookie recipe.

Chocolate Crinkles
I actually made these twice, because the first batch was nasty. I used a recipe I heard about on NPR (tip: don't take baking advice from a radio news program) and the result was flat, ugly, grainy, overly sweet cookies. Tragic! Fortunately the friendly internet provided me with another recipe that turned out much better. Crunchy on the outside, chewy and fudgy inside, with a robust chocolate flavor. The only downside is that they don't keep well. I tasted one today (two days after baking) and it definitely tasted stale. I guess this means I'll have to eat them faster in the future!

Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies
Without a doubt, my favorite Christmas cookie. I saw this recipe in Bon Appetit a few years ago and made them one Christmas with my mom. We've both been making them religiously ever since. Ultra-chocolately cookies sandwich a minty buttercream frosting, and the edges are rolled in crushed candy canes. Even my boss, who (allegedly) hates mint, loved the combination of chocolate and peppermint in these cookies. These are also fab using other flavors of buttercream in between the chocolate cookies. I've done them with lemon, coconut, berry, and plain vanilla, and they are always delicious.

As always, the recipes are below. Merry Christmas to all, and to all happy eating!

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
From Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups miniature semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

Place the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler placed over (not touching) barely simmering water. Heat, stirring often, until the butter and chocolate melt. Remove from over the water and set aside to cool slightly. In a bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Using a wire whisk, beat until light in color and thick, about 3 minutes. Stir in the melted chocolate mixture with a wooden spoon until blended. Add the dry ingredients and beat until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to roll into balls, about 2 hours. [I rolled them into balls after 1 hour, then refrigerated the balls overnight. This worked really well.]

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 325 degrees. Line 2 rimless baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat baking mat. Sift the confectioners' sugar into a small bowl.

To form each cookie, roll a rounded tablespoon of dough between your palms into a 1 1/2 inch ball, and roll the ball in the confectioners' sugar. Place the cookies 3 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Make sure to set them firmly onto the baking sheets so they stay in place.

Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until the tops are puffed and crinkled and feel slightly firm when lightly touched, about 13-14 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies

From Bon Appetit, Dec 2005
* 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
* 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup sugar
* 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
* 1 large egg
* 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
* 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
* 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
* 2 drops (or more) red food coloring
* 1/2 cup crushed red-and-white-striped candy canes or hard peppermint candies (about 4 ounces)
For cookies:
Whisk flour, cocoa, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Beat in egg. Add dry ingredients; beat until blended. Refrigerate dough 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out dough by level tablespoonfuls, then roll into smooth balls. Place balls on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Using bottom of glass or hands, flatten each ball to 2-inch round (edges will crack). [I usually form it into a long log, wrap it well and refrigerate it until firm. Then I slice off rounds, which yields even pieces and is much faster.]

Bake until cookies no longer look wet and small indentation appears when tops of cookies are lightly touched with fingers, about 9-11 minutes (do not overbake or cookies will become too crisp). Cool on sheet 5 minutes. Transfer chocolate cookies to racks and cool completely.

For filling:
Using electric mixer, beat powdered sugar and butter in medium bowl until well blended. Add peppermint extract and 2 drops food coloring. Beat until light pink and well blended, adding more food coloring by dropfuls if darker pink color is desired. Spread 2 generous teaspoons filling evenly over flat side of 1 cookie to edges; top with another cookie, flat side down, pressing gently to adhere. Repeat with remaining cookies and peppermint filling.

Place crushed candy canes on plate. Roll edges of cookie sandwiches in crushed candies (candies will adhere to filling). (Cookie sandwiches can be made ahead. Store in single layer in airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days or freeze up to 2 weeks.)

Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from Gourmet magazine. If you don't like strong gingerbread, reduce the spices by half and use molasses that is not robust.

2/3 cup robust molasses
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 3/4 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of one orange

Bring molasses, brown sugar, and spices to a boil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, and remove from heat. Stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up), then stir in butter 3 pieces at a time, letting each addition melt before adding next, until all butter is melted. Add egg and stir until combined, then stir in 3 3/4 cups flour, orange zest, and salt.

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting with as much of remaining 1/4 cup flour as needed to prevent sticking, until soft and easy to handle, 30 seconds to 1 minute. [I didn't use any additional flour]. Halve dough, then wrap 1 half in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature.

Roll out remaining dough into a 14-inch round (1/8 inch thick) on a lightly floured surface. [I rolled between two sheets of parchment]. Cut out as many cookies as possible with cutters and carefully transfer with offset spatula to 2 baking sheets covered with parchment, arranging them about 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until edges are slightly darker, 9-10 minutes total (watch carefully toward end of baking; cookies can burn easily). Transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps (reroll once). Decorate with frosting if desired.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Baking, Part 1

No TWD for me this week...the house is already stuffed to the rafters with sugary sweets, and the thought of adding butterscotch pudding to the mix didn't excite me at all. However, I did happen to make some things I think are even better than pudding: Christmas cookies and candy! I got medieval with the mixer this past weekend and churned out six cookies/candy for gift giving this year. Here's the first wave of goodies:

Coconut-Lime Macaroons
I love the combination of coconut and lime. I have a coconut-lime truffles recipe that regularly haunts my taste buds, but I wanted something that would hold up a little better than delicate truffles on a cookie platter. These miniature macaroons were dipped in green-tinted white chocolate and given a chocolate drizzle to dress them up a bit.

Walnut Fudge
This is actually my father-in-law's recipe. He's famous for making huge blocks of fudge and giving it away each Christmas. He also does a white chocolate version, but my heart belongs to this semi-sweet variety. It's really easy--no candy thermometer or beating required--but I like it much better than other "easy" fudge recipes that call for condensed milk or marshmallow cream. It's perfectly smooth and rich and, to me, what an ideal fudge should be.

Almond-Cinnamon Toffee
Jason loves toffee, but I rarely make it for him. Poor little lamb! So he was really psyched to see that I made it for the gift plates this year, since it means lots of scraps for him. You can bet he was praying for lots of mistakes and awkwardly broken pieces while I was divvying it up. This toffee has just a touch of cinnamon in it to give it a subtle holiday taste. I mostly like it because it doesn't get unpleasantly chewy or sticky.

The recipes are under the cut below. Stay tuned tomorrow for the rest of the Christmas baking! And, because I love reading about sweets almost as much as I love eating them, tell me what you're making for Christmas this year!

Okay, I lied, I don't have a recipe for these lime-coconut macaroons! Truthfully, I didn't like the recipe I used, and ended up tweaking it a zillion different ways to get it to work. Pass! So if you have a fail-safe macaroon recipe, I'd love to hear it! I want one that's golden brown and crunchy on the outside, but really nice and moist on the inside. Is whipping the egg whites the secret? Do tell me all. I can tell you that adding the zest of two limes and some fresh-squeezed lime juice makes them taste fab. See, it's a barter system.

Almond-Cinnamon Toffee
Adapted from my Cinnamon Hazelnut Toffee recipe
* 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
* 1 cup granulated sugar
* 2 tbsp water
* 1 tbsp light corn syrup
* 1 tsp ground cinnamon
* 1 cup chopped toasted almonds
* 1.5 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Set it aside. Grind 1/4 cup of the almonds in a food processor, or finely chop with a knife. Coarsely chop the rest of the almonds.

2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once it is melted, remove it from the heat and stir in the sugar. Once the sugar is mixed in, add the water and corn syrup and stir until well-incorporated.

3. Place the pan back on the heat and insert a candy thermometer. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the candy reaches 290 degrees. Watch it carefully near the end, as it can easily burn at high temperatures.

4. Once the candy reaches 290 degrees, remove it from the heat. Stir in the cinnamon and the coarsely chopped nuts, and immediately pour the candy onto the prepared baking sheet. Tilt the sheet several times to spread the candy in a thin layer. Allow the toffee to sit at room temperature until it is completely cool.

5. Place the chocolate chips in a large microwave-safe bowl, and microwave until melted, stirring after every minute to avoid overheating.

6. Spoon half of the melted chocolate on top of the toffee, and spread it in a thin, even layer over the top. Sprinkle half of the finely chopped nuts on the wet chocolate. Place the toffee in the refrigerator to set the chocolate for about 15 minutes.

7. Remove the toffee from the refrigerator and lift it from the baking sheet. Flip the toffee over so that the chocolate side is now resting on the bottom of the baking sheet. Spoon the remaining melted chocolate over the top of the toffee and spread it evenly. (If necessary, re-warm the chocolate briefly so that it is spreadable). Sprinkle the remaining finely chopped nuts on the chocolate.

8. Refrigerate the toffee again to set the chocolate. Once set, break the candy into small pieces with your hands. Store the toffee in an airtight container in the refrigerator or in a cool room.

Easy Walnut Fudge
Recipe also on the candy site
* 4-1/2 cups granulated sugar
* 1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
* 18 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
* 1/2 lb butter, cut into small pieces
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 2 cups chopped walnuts

1. Spray a 9”x 13” pan with cooking spray, or cover with foil.

2. Combine sugar and evaporated milk in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir continuously and boil for six minutes.

3. Remove from heat, and add butter, chips, and vanilla. Continue stirring until the chips and completely melted and the mixture is smooth.

4. Add the chopped nuts and stir to incorporate. Pour into prepared pan.

5. Ideally, this should cool at room temperature overnight, but if you are in a hurry or if it is especially warm, it can be put in the refrigerator to harden. Slice into small squares and serve when firm.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TWD: Buttery "Jam" Cookies

If you were to make a recipe titled Buttery Jam Cookies, what flavors would you expect to find? Butter, naturally. And also jam, correct? So why, then, did my Buttery "Jam" Cookies taste like...nothing?
They're kind of cute, right? I used chunky cherry preserves from TJ's, and last time I checked, they tasted awesome and flavorful on toast. Mmmm, toast. I added some pink food coloring so they wouldn't have that sickly reddish-purple-bruise color that jam always gives baked goods. Pink cherry cookies? Sound great! I was pretty psyched to taste these after they came out of the oven.

I took a bite... cue *crickets chirping*
Another to explain my reaction?

Have you seen the episode of The Simpsons that parodies A Prairie Home Companion? Homer and the family are watching a Garrison Keillor monologue on TV. As the studio audience cracks up repeatedly at Keillor's small-town dry wit, Homer watches stone-faced, not understanding the jokes. Finally, he gets up and hits the side of the TV. THUMP! "Stupid TV! Be more funny!" THUMP!

Friends, I felt like Homer Simpson. "Stupid cookies! Be more tasty!" THUMP!
We decided that maybe the cookies needed frosting, so I whipped up a quick batch of frosting, using more cherry preserves in the frosting to give it some extra cherry flavor. And still...nada. Don't get me wrong, they're not terrible. I actually liked the flaky, almost biscuit-like texture, and yes, there was some strong butter flavor. But...they needed something more, for me.
The worst part is reading the reactions of people who loved them, because a lot of folks seem to go crazy over them. I feel like these cookies are holding out on me. Is it malice? The cookie equivalent of Jekyll and Hyde? Or is this recipe only meant to be used with apricot jam, no matter what the recipe options tell us? If I make them again I'll double the ginger and use apricot jam, to give them the full benefit of the doubt. But to be honest, I don't know if I will make them again, after facing the heartbreak of tasteless cookies this week.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was A Bear

...or rather, Fuzzy Wuzzy was a truffle. That's right, to all the smarties who guessed that this gorgeous furry beast was moldy chocolate, you are right! You win...bragging rights. (Yay?)

But this is not just any moldy chocolate, this is an overpriced truffle from Vosges. A month ago, Jason & I visited the Vosges boutique in Las Vegas and bought some treats, including a small hand-picked truffle assortment. We got home, decided to set aside the truffles until we could really "savor" them. Weeks pass, the truffles get lost in the shuffle, only to be found a good month after they were purchased. And mind you, these truffles had been sitting at room temperature this whole time. But does that set off any warning bells? Oh my, no.

So Jason, brave Jason, starts right in, chomping down on a delicious hazelnut praline truffle. I ask him how it is, he says, "...good..." and offers me a taste. As I go to pick it up, I notice a green streak on the inside. Breaking it apart, I see the resplendent mold garden that has been blossoming between the ganache and the chocolate shell. Aaaah! I couldn't believe he ate half the truffle and didn't notice it was a penicillin factory! I asked if he didn't notice the taste, and he said he thought it was just an unusual ingredient, because Vosges does a lot of crazy flavor combinations. (Mold + chocolate is the next big seller, you heard it here first.) But after finding out what he'd eaten, this was his reaction:

So kids, let this be a warning to you. Don't wait to eat your truffles! Don't let excuses like "diets" or "spoiling your dinner" get in the way of your chocolate consumption. Bad things happen when you put off truffle eating. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

[And P.S., we totally tore the rest of the truffles apart and devoured the ones with no visible signs of mold. We have no shame and big appetites.]


Monday, December 08, 2008

Tuesdays with Dorie: Christmas Sugar Cookies

After the fun of baking with my mom last week, it was a bit of a letdown to go back to solo baking. However, the fabulous sugar cookie recipe this week and the resulting cookies I scarfed went a long way toward consoling me.

So, folks. Sugar cookies. Not too exciting, right? A basic component of the holiday cookie platter, but rarely the star. Too often, sugar cookies are dry and floury, with hard royal icing on top. Not tasty! These cookies, however, were awesome. They were everything all sugar cookies aspire to be. Soft, but crisp on the edges. Buttery and flavorful. (I added the zest of half and orange and just a sprinkling of cinnamon to get them in the holiday spirit.) So good, I had to stop myself from eating all the unbaked dough.

The little guy on the lower right is my favorite

As many people noted, the dough did get soft very quickly. To counter this problem, I used a trick I learned several years ago: immediately after making the dough, I rolled it out to proper baking thickness between two sheets of parchment paper and stuck it in the fridge on a baking sheet. This helps it chill much faster, so I didn't have to wait the full two hours before beginning to cut the cookies. This also means I didn't have to flour the dough as I rolled it out, so they didn't get too floury or tough.

I did roll my dough a little thicker than the recommended 1/4", so I ended up with some fatty bo-batties. Which was no problem, since I love a good chunky cookie any day.

I finished the cookies off with a simple powdered-sugar based icing. They were the hit of Jason's holiday party! I was a bit bummed to not get a few more cookies out of the batch, but it was also a blessing since the decorating took way too long as it was, and I need all the beauty sleep I can get.

And finally, to make up for the lack of my adorable mom in this post, I give you this instead. Any guesses as to what it might be? Answer tomorrow!


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tuesdays with Mommie: Linzer Sables

This week's TWD recipe is very special. For the first. time. ever. in Cake or Death history, I had my mom baking with me! Or more accurately, I baked with her, since we were in her kitchen using her ingredients. (Thanks, Mom! Sorry for spilling that ganache on the floor. And for dirtying so many dishes and countertops. And for dropping that rubber band in the oven and melting it to the oven floor. Love you!)

Familial Camaraderie: it's what's for dessert

We had a great time making the Linzer Sables together. We made the dough a day in advance, and aside from some massive frustration involving her poorly designed, eternally frustrating food processor, it all went smoothly. (I have added her food processor to my list of Inanimate Arch Nemeses. It's a big list.) We used toasted almonds for the nut meal, and the dough had a nice nutty flavor. I loved the addition of the spices, although it kept tricking my nose into thinking we were making gingerbread. My taste buds, however, could not be fooled.

The next day, we started cutting our shapes. I have a big collection of miniature "fondant" cutters from Wilton, that I rarely use for fondant but often use for cookies and chocolate decorations. The cookies ranged in size from under 2" to slightly over, and we also made some minis, so we ended up with a healthy number of cookies in the end. I think my dough was rolled a little thick--I thought the resulting cookies could have been thinner, and baked a little less, so the filling-to-cookie ratio was a little higher.
We used several different fillings: strawberry jam, raspberry jam, chocolate-caramel ganache, and Nutella. I was expecting the chocolate-based cookies to be the most popular, but the jam versions were actually the winners around my house! Who'da thunk it? There was something about the pairing of fruity filling and nutty cookie that worked beautifully.
So yes, the cookies were tasty, and I would definitely make them again. They looked beautiful, especially those filled with the jewel-toned strawberry jam. With seasonal cookie shapes, they'd be perfect for a Christmas or Valentine's Day gift plate.

You may be saying to yourself, those cookies sound awesome. What is their secret? Is it special equipment? Premium ingredients? Innate pastry skills that are impossible to duplicate? Well, it might be those things, but truly, the secret to our baking success is love.

...No, just kidding. The secret is saliva! Eat up, fools!