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.