Monday, April 22, 2013

Peanut Butter M&M Cookies

So we took my son (2 1/2 years old) to an Easter egg hunt this year at our church. I'd like to say that he enjoyed it, although I think that he was mostly just overwhelmed. We're still working on the social interaction with other kids your age thing. For some reason he prefers to converse with adults or much older kids, and gets a little panicky about interacting with other kids his age. When it was time to actually hunt for the Easter eggs, which were just spread out on the lawn for his age group, he approached it like he does with most things--very methodical and one at a time. Honestly, I kind of appreciate his approach to things like presents, etc-- he wants to enjoy each one before moving on to the next.  Of course all the other kids had the idea of picking up as many eggs as you could (my husband coined the term "swarm of locusts") as quickly as you could, and there was Ryan picking up one, shaking it, and wondering what was in it. I think he managed to get 4 on his own in his basket, with much encouragement on my part to just go ahead and pick up some more and we could open them later. Poor little guy--we got a picture of him with a very stressed out look on his face. Maybe next year will go a bit better.

Anyway, they also had games at this event including guessing how many pieces of candy were in various containers. My husband helped him come up with some guesses for the ones with candy in it that we thought he would actually eat, and he managed to win a bottle full of M&M's. There were 700 some in there if I remember right. Of course, being a typical 2 year old he subsequently decided that he didn't want to eat said M&M's because he discovered that he really loves Jelly Beans instead.  So I felt at liberty to commandeer his M&M's and bake with them!

My Mom is a good cookie baker, and one of my favorites that she would make when I was growing up was peanut butter M&M cookies. For some reason having that bottle full of M&M's sitting around made me really hungry for those cookies. The only problem though is that her recipe makes a crunchy cookie, and my husband has a strong preference for soft cookies. (Ok, I'll admit it's my preference now too).   So I did some searching on blogs to see if I could find a soft peanut butter M&M cookie, and I did!  I found this recipe from Sally's Baking Addiction (along with some other delicious looking recipes that I will probably be making in the future!). 

I followed the recipe exactly, and they turned out soft and delicious.  I showed my son the finished product thinking I might be able to tempt him into trying one... "No, M&M's on cookies are yuck." Sigh. Some day maybe he will appreciate my baking efforts--until then, more for my husband and me!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kitchen Challenge: Lemon Macarons with Lemon Curd Buttercream

One of my favorite food blogs  Love and Olive Oil started a monthly kitchen challenge recently. Last month was croissants, and I wanted to do it but totally chickened out after reading the process of making them. I was delighted to see that this month was macarons, because I had just been telling my husband that I was thinking of trying to make them, and this would give me the motivation to do it.

So I started doing some research about macarons. I have a lot of down time at work currently, so I will admit that I spent hours reading about macarons and becoming quite intimidated by them in the process. There are numerous blogs out there to tell you about how fickle they are, and about all the crucial steps to producing the extremely important, highly elusive feet on macarons. (For those of you who might not know, the feet are the frilly edges that develop at the bottom of the macarons when they are baking.) I pretty much read everything I could find about them until I had the process of macaronage (yes that's a word!) memorized, and was thoroughly versed in all the tips and tricks to successfully obtain feet. From reading some of these blogs, it sounded like in addition to following the steps just right you had to make sure the stars were all aligned, all your hairs were perfectly in place, and you were holding your breath the whole time they were in the oven in order to be successful.

Next I had to decide on a flavor, because one of the neat things about macarons is that the flavor options are pretty much limitless. The meringue shell is like a blank slate, just waiting for beautiful coloring and a flavorful filling to be added to it. I always seem to get a lemon craving in the spring, so I decided to go with lemon, and spent the next few hours reading any recipes for lemon macarons that I could find.

When this weekend rolled around I decided I was as ready as I would ever be. I anxiously looked at the forecast for the weekend-- rain. Perfect.  Everyone says that macarons should be made in a perfectly temperature controlled kitchen with no humidity. Oh well, it was now or never.  When it came down to finally picking a recipe to use, I did it in a very scientific manner. I dug out my baking cook books and looked at the pictures. The Bouchon Bakery book was eliminated because he uses the Italian method and I don't have a candy thermometer. Another book was eliminated because the macarons in the picture didn't have any feet. Finally I decided on the SprinkleBakes recipe because they were the prettiest. The only thing I decided to change was adding half a lemon's worth of lemon zest to the almond flour mixture, and adding lemon yellow gel food coloring.

I prepped everything first: drew circles on my parchment paper, sifted my almond flour and powdered sugar,  made sure my egg whites were room temperature, etc.  Finally I was ready for putting everything together. I whipped my egg whites into a nice meringue, and then was ready to add the almond flour and powdered sugar mixture. My husband happened to be in the kitchen at that moment and was highly amused as I muttered to myself about how crucial the process of macaronage is.  Pretty soon he's looking at me strangely as I'm holding my spatula up every few stirs to see how the batter is falling off of it.
"It's supposed to look like flowing lava," I explained.
"Have you ever seen flowing lava to know what it looks like?"
"Ummm no, I have no idea what I'm looking for..."

Eventually we decided that it might resemble flowing lava, and into the piping bag the batter went. I piped out my circles, tapped the pans, let them sit for 20-30 minutes, and them put them in the oven.  The oven in my apartment is a beauty.  One of the burners is broken, I'm quite certain the oven temperature is not accurate, and it does not have a window in the door or an oven light.  So I had convinced myself that even if I had managed to reach flowing lava consistency, my downfall was going to be the baking. With that said, I may or may not have clapped my hands and done a little happy dance when I peeked in the oven towards the end of the baking time and discovered beautiful macarons with feet.

For the filling I decided to make this lemon curd recipe, minus one egg and a few tablespoons of butter, and using regular lemons.  I used the American buttercream recipe by Sprinklebakes and then mixed the two together to make my lemon curd buttercream filling, which was quite delicious if I have to say so myself.

Finally, my husband I tested the finished product after a few hours in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld. We found them to be absolutely delicious! I had never had a macaron before, but based on everything I read and all the pictures I have looked at, I think these ones turned out perfectly with a crispy outer shell, and soft, melt-in-your-mouth middle.  The lemon curd buttercream in the middle is tart and creamy. We declared them a definite success.

My only disappointment is that my batch of macaron batter only made enough for 8 macarons!  I double-checked the recipe which said that it should make 18 sandwich cookies.  I know I disclosed my love of cookie dough in my last post, and I will admit that I taste-tested the batter, but I swear that I did not eat 10 sandwich-cookies worth of it!  I had to make a second batch of macarons later in the evening, because they were too good to only have 8 of.  My second batch turned out almost as perfectly as the first. I blame the slight decrease in quality due to the fact that I think they were stressed and sad about listening to my 2 month old who had her first set of vaccines that day wail inconsolably in the background. But despite that, they managed to pull themselves together and still had some lovely feet.

I had a very happy sense of accomplishment that I was successful in my macaron endeavors.  I am definitely planning on re-entering "Macaron Land" (as my husband dubbed it) sometime soon, and am excited about the limitless flavor options.  So many delicious possibilities!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Peanut Butter and ChocolateThumbprint Cookies

I don't know about you, but I have noticed that I when I bake I never seem to get as many cookies as the recipe says it should make. I blame this largely on the fact that I probably eat enough cookie dough to make up most of the difference...  Eating cookie dough is one of those guilty pleasures-- I know I shouldn't be eating it because of the raw eggs, but it's just so good I can't seem to help myself from taking a finger lick here, a pinch of dough there, etc. I don't really want to know how many cookies worth of cookie dough I usually eat while making cookies!

So imagine my delight at discovering a cookbook put out by one of my favorite food bloggers (Love and Olive Oil) featuring nothing but recipes to make with cookie dough--and it is guilt-free because she came up with delicious tasting dough that is egg-free! Seriously, if you are a secret cookie dough lover like I am you need to check this book out: The Cookie Dough Lover's Cookbook. You're probably going to be seeing a lot of cookie dough goodies on my blog in the near future, because I want to try out just about every recipe in this book!  Out of respect for copyright laws and the hard work that Lindsay put into her book I won't be sharing the recipes here, if you think it looks and sounds delicious you just might have to get the book for yourself!

The first recipe I tried are the Peanut Butter and Chocolate Thumbprint cookies. It just really tickled my fancy to be making a cookie dough cookie! This is a peanut butter thumbprint cookie with peanut butter chocolate cookie dough in the center and a drizzle of melted chocolate over the top. Yum.  The chocolate cookie dough in the middle was absolutely rich and delicious. My husband laughed at me when I told him that eating these cookies made me feel like I was being naughty, but it was fun flagrantly indulging in the guilty pleasure of eating cookie dough. Clearly I don't get out much.

I have to say, I had a little bit of trouble with the cookie part of it, which may have been due to an error on my part, I'm not sure. I ended up needing to add a good amount of extra flour to prevent the cookies from flattening too much to be able to even create a little divot for the cookie dough part to sit in. It also turned out a bit crunchier than I was hoping for, but that is probably just a personal preference on my part. Next time (and yes, there most certainly will be a next time!) I make these I might experiment a bit to see if I could make the cookie part more similar to the texture of a Peanut Butter Blossom cookie, although looking at the picture in the book, that is what her cookies look I'm not quite sure what happened to mine. Anyway, stay tuned for more cookie dough goodness in the near future!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hot Cross Buns

It's been a rough week.  Two sick kids equals not much sleep. I feel like I've been dragging myself through the week, barely functioning. So here it is Good Friday already, and I find myself trying to focus my thoughts on Easter and the meaning of it for my life for the first time this week.  Here we are celebrating how Christ died for our sins and rose again conquering death, and I've been wrapped up in my own life barely giving it a thought. When the baby got up early again this morning, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to bake I decided to try my hand at some hot cross buns. Maybe it's a silly way to do it, but I wanted to bake something that might help focus my heart today while I'm out in the kitchen.

Baking hot cross buns on Good Friday is an old English tradition apparently, with the obvious symbolism of the cross on top representing the crucifixion. It's possible that the traditional spices of cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg may be symbolic of the spices used for Christ's burial. If you do a little research you will find that there are some crazy superstitions that sprung up regarding hot cross buns which are kind of humorous:
-- hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will not mold or spoil for the next year
--if you hang one in your kitchen it will protect you from any kitchen fires
--if you take one on a sea voyage it will protect you from shipwreck
--if you share one with a friend, it will ensure friendship for the next year (This is the only one I might believe, because the buns are pretty tasty, so your friend would be pretty happy with you for sharing!)

Personally, I don't believe that the hot cross buns have any special, magical properties simply because they have a cross piped on top. The bun in and of itself is just another yummy treat.  The symbol of the cross does not make it holier than any other bun. But they did have a special meaning for me today, in that they helped me turn my heart and thoughts toward the sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross. His suffering and death has allowed us to have life-- and if you're going to celebrate something with baked goods, that certainly is worth celebrating more than anything else.

I looked at a bunch of recipes, and then cheated and mixed up the dough in my bread machine. The recipe I used can be found here: Hot Cross Buns.  Of course, I made a few changes....  I didn't have any lemons or oranges, so I had to leave out the grated lemon rind.  I used both raisins and dried cranberries, and plumped them up first with some orange juice.  After I drained the orange juice off of them, I tossed them with some vanilla bean paste, and then added them to my bread machine after the first rise. I formed them into 12 rolls, after raising for about an hour coated them with an egg wash and then baked them. I made the crosses on top with a combination of powdered sugar, cinnamon, and milk, but I made the glaze a little too thin, so they didn't stay in the shape as well as I would have liked.

I had never had hot cross buns before so I don't have anything to compare them too. Our conclusion was that they were tasty, although as far as buns are concerned I would prefer a cinnamon roll. I'm not sure if these will become a new yearly tradition, but for this year they served their purpose to both re-direct my heart and give us something tasty to eat.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

Have you tried the new White Chocolate Carrot Cake M&M's?

If you are a fan of carrot cake and you haven't tried them yet, you should. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical when my husband brought them home, but they really do taste like carrot cake! I am a bit ashamed to admit that we have now polished off 2 bags of them. The second bag was supposed to be our treat for Easter. Ooops!  Anyway, these scrumptiously addictive little morsels ended up making us crave the real thing. Now everyone in my family will tell you that my Grandma makes the best carrot cake ever.  But there are only two of us here that would eat cake, and I wasn't sure that we needed a whole big two-layer cake all to ourselves. So I thought, why not see if I could turn it into cupcakes?

I went to Your Cup of Cake, the cupcake blog I have been following, and used her recipe for carrot cupcakes. It turns out that her cupcake recipe was quite similar to my Grandma's cake recipe, so that made me happy. I didn't use her frosting recipe though, because the frosting that my Grandma puts on her cake is what makes it so special. Unfortunately for you, I don't think I'm allowed to share this family secret or I might get you'll just have to trust me when I say it's delicious.

I was happy with how they turned out. The cupcakes were nice and moist. My picky two year-old even approved of them (minus the "white stuff" and using the pseudonym of "muffin"). I even tried my hand at piping the frosting on to make them look a little nicer. I didn't really have the tools to do it, so I improvised with a ziplock baggie...well actually 2 or 3 since they kept breaking on me. I'm happy to report that I since have acquired an actual piping bag and tips, so hopefully my next try will look a bit nicer and be a less messy process. A few orange sprinkles on top for a finishing touch.

So if you pick up a bag of these M&M's, and then get a craving for carrot cake like we did, you should try these--they hit the spot!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Pretzel Cookie Experiment

Have you ever seen a recipe, and just couldn't get it out of your mind until you tried it?  That happens to me periodically. Most recently, it happened with these cookies. I kept drooling over the idea of  combining chocolate, peanut butter, and pretzels in a cookie since I saw it orignially on this blog: Sugar Cooking

Maybe it's partly my son's fault.  He has been getting me hooked on the peanut butter and pretzel combination recently.  On any given day if you ask him what he wants for lunch, 9 times out of 10 he will say "peanut butter sandwich, banana, pretzels, and peanut butter on the side" which is his way of asking for some extra peanut butter on his plate that he can dip his pretzels in.

Last weekend I was desperate for some time in the kitchen to make some cookies.  It was going to be my first week back to work after my 6 weeks of maternity leave, which went by WAY too quickly, and I needed some baking therapy. As the weekend rolled around, it found me exhorting my husband to start eating more cookies so that I could make another batch. I did a search for recipes with this combo in it, and found several online-- I can't remember all the ones I looked at. Some of them had peanut butter chips, some of them had peanut butter in the dough.  I thought, why not both?  I couldn't find any recipes that were quite what I was wanting.

So I decided to try to experiment a little bit on my own.  I wanted a soft cookie (we are big soft cookie fans in this house), with peanut butter in the dough, as well as the mixture of peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, and crushed pretzels. I have to say, the flavor of the cookies ended up being just what I was looking for--some salty, sweet, chocolatey, peanutbuttery goodness. Unfortunately, my dough experimentation didn't work out so well, and the texture of the cookie left a bit to be desired.  It was a soft cookie, but it ended up being VERY crumbly and dry. In fact, instead of dropping the cookie dough on the pan, I was molding it together into a cookie shape with my hands first before putting it on the pan.

Obviously I have a lot more to learn. (It looks like there is an episode of Good Eats by Alton Brown which addresses the differences in cookie dough, which I need to find and watch.)  I did do a little search and some reading about cookie doughs. I was mainly curious how you can tell from a recipe whether your cookie is going to turn out soft and chewy, or crunchy, or somewhere in between?   I'm still not entirely sure that I can look at a recipe and predict this, but I did learn a few pointers, some of which surprised me. I apologize, I don't remember all my sources-- most of them were discussions on forums.
Most of these points were also summarized in this article: The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

  1. Whether a cookie is hard and crunchy or soft and chewy is all about how much moisture is in the dough--makes sense right? It has to do with the type of fats, and the amount of eggs and sugar.
  2. You also need certain elements in your dough to trap the moisture, so it doesn't all evaporate when you put the cookies in the oven. Brown sugar seems to be a key player in this, and apparently increasing the amount of flour will also hold moisture in.
  3. A lower fat content will yield a softer cookie, higher fat content will make a crunchier cookie.
  4. A shorter baking time will lead to a softer cookie. (I definitely already knew that-- being a lover of soft cookies, it is my personal opinion that many recipes over bake the cookies. I almost always knock a few minutes off the baking time of cookie recipes.)
So I'm not going to share my recipe, because it isn't what it should be yet. I think I will have to do a bit more practicing and research on how to make a good cookie dough. But if I ever get it down, I will share the recipe because for anyone who likes the salty sweet combo, this cookie hits the spot.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Baking Odyssey of an Introvert

This blog has been a long time coming. I have previously considered starting a blog of some sort, but always shot myself down before I got started. Why? Well, this may come as a big surprise to some of you, but I am an introvert. In fact, my husband and I have agreed that I currently hold the title of The Most Introverted Person We Know. I'm not really proud of this fact, but it seems to just be who I am.  So naturally, being one who prefers to listen rather than talk, I have never felt that I had enough to say to justify a blog.  That, and when you're an introvert, putting yourself out there is a bit scary.

Anyway, I have finally decided to start a blog of sorts. I have always loved writing. I had an English professor in college who tried his hardest to get me to switch my major because he liked my writing. Since college my writing has mostly been limited to the charts I write/dictate, which doesn't allow for much expression. So I'm looking forward to exapanding that a bit. As an introvert, I find it much easier to express myself in writing than I do face-to-face. It's rather difficult to take your time in thinking, and to hit the backspace key to re-word things just the way you want when you're talking to someone.

Being a woman of few words, I have a few other means of  really expressing myself as well. One is playing my flute. Unfortunately, that one has been on the back burner for a few years. I fully intend to dive back into the world of music when I have the opportunity to do so. Right now it just isn't too practical.  When you have two small children, the best time to do things for yourself is when they are napping-- and playing the flute is a bit noisy at times. I also try to be mindful of the fact that we live in apartments, and my neighbors may not appreciate the wall-piercing high B-flats.  I'm hoping that in a few years when my kids are older, and when perhaps we might have a house of our own that I will be able to start playing more seriously again.

My other passion that I have developed is baking. I've always enjoyed it, but my love for baking has been developing along the way. When my husband was in seminary we met a good friend who is an amazing chef. As we shared life together, he also shared a bit of his excitement and passion for food with me, and inspired me to start taking pictures of what I baked and to start being a bit more adventurous. And even though his cooking skills were way above my league, for some reason he loved my baked goods, which gave me a bit of a boost in confidence.  I still hadn't felt that I had much to share though until recently, when some family members started drooling over all the food pictures they happened to see on our screen saver, and asking questions about what they were pictures of. In fact, I may have even inspired my mother-in-law to start taking pictures of things that she makes! I realized that maybe other people would find it more interesting than I thought, or at least would be able to know what I have made so that they could request something that they think looks particularly yummy!

Baking has become my means of processing life. When I'm stressed, or sad, or upset, or needing a chance to think things through, I find myself pouring over recipes and reaching for my mixing bowl.  Since I'm usually in the kitchen by myself it gives me a chance to think, pray, and generally try to process life and make sense of it all as I put my energy and emotions into trying to create something instead of just worrying. I'm not really sure why this works for me, but it does.

The bad thing about using baking as your therapy is that sometimes the things you bake don't always turn out well. It doesn't entirely help you feel better when you pour yourself into doing something only to have it be a big flop. But I have been thinking, that perhaps just like life in general,  it is not the number of successes and failures that are important so much as it is the journey and what you learn in the process (although the successes are much more fun to eat!). I like to think that during my time in the kitchen I have learned not only about life, but about baking as well. It has been an odyssey of sorts. 

My intention is to try to document that journey and the things that I learn about baking as I go, to help me remember the lessons I have learned. As far as the life lessons that I learn while I'm in the kitchen, well, don't expect to see much more than some occasional glimpses of those here. I am, after all, an introvert.