Sunday, November 28, 2010

Triple Chocolate Chile Cookies

Unlike most teenagers, who spend much of their time dyeing their hair odd colors, piercing body parts and ditching high school to smoke illicit substances, I whiled away the majority of those years with my nose buried in my mom's collection of Bon Appetite magazines. (That is, when I wasn't dyeing my hair, piercing body parts, or ditching school to smoke illicit substances.) My fixation with food magazines continued into college, and everything changed when I received a subscription, from my mom, to Cook's Illustrated. Cook's quickly became my bible, and their rigorous testing seemed the answer to every shady recipe, unexplained step or odd ingredient I'd ever encountered. They laid everything out plainly, detailing the rationale behind each iota of leavening or extra egg yolk. (And trust me, they are really into their extra egg yolks.)

For years after obtaining my useless degree in Art History, I dreamed of working as a recipe tester for Cook's. (Ok, I still do.) And I've certainly wished for Cook's salary and taste testers over the last few weeks of developing this cookie recipe.

When the notion of a triple chocolate chile cookie first popped into my head, I didn't quite realize what an adventure I was embarking upon. I wanted a cookie with the chew of a classic chocolate chip but the flavor of deep, dark chocolate highlighted by cinnamon and chile.

I based my first trial on Elizabeth Falkner's Chocolate³ Espresso Cookies from Demolition Desserts. With a hefty dose of cocoa powder, a relatively small amount of egg, and chopped chocolate stirred in at the end, the dough utilized the creaming method (in which butter and sugar are creamed together). I've been spoiled, however, by Cook's Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies which employ the batter method (in which the butter is melted and whisked with the sugar and eggs), and I've now been rendered too lazy to either drag out the mixer for a batch of cookies or wait for the butter to soften and then mix them using my supreme upper body strength. All of that is to say that I tried melting the butter for this first batch of cookies, doubled the egg, and subbed cayenne and cinnamon powders for the espresso.

While tasty enough to start me down the path of triple-chocolate-cookie-no-return (and bribe the upstairs construction workers to take a break for an hour so I could hear myself think), the cookies were, shall we say, aesthetically challenged, as well as overly delicate. I liked how easy the recipe was to make, though, requiring neither melting chocolate nor mixer-mixing, and I really ought to have given the recipe another try, actually following it this time.

But I didn't.

For the next trial, I turned to Martha's mag of Holiday Cookies. The triple chocolate cookie in there used milk chocolate, both melted into the batter and stirred in in chunks. I had only dark chocolate, so I tweaked the cookie to the best of my abilities, and again the cookies were tasty but overly delicate.

Trial 3 used Martha's Brownie Cookies from her book, a wet, gooey dough made similarly to brownie batter, where gobs of chocolate are melted with butter, then eggs, sugar, vanilla and flour are mixed in. These cookies were more truffle-like, and there was something about the flavor that I found unappealing.

I finally consulted Cook's, and was surprised to read that the elusive triple chocolate cookie was their most difficult achievement. They swore up and down that the creaming method was the only way to get a chewy cookie.

I was all set to give their recipe a go, but, as a testament to the fluidity of recipe-writing, when I looked on-line, those clever bakers have since come out with two more, completely different, chocolate cookie recipes. One, which I made when I baked at Petite Patisserie, used a method I've never seen before for cookies, in which whole eggs are whipped with sugar until they reach the 'ribbon' stage and have tripled in bulk, much like making a genoise. While swoon-worthy, these cookies have a light, 'mousse-like' texture and I wanted something with a bit more heft.

Cook's newest recipe bizarrely uses egg white only and a combination of sugar and dark corn syrup to sweeten the cookies. While I loved that for once Cook's was asking for egg white only (they seem to adore adding extra yolks into everything from cookies to cakes to pies), I already have a motley collection of liquid sweeteners taking up space in my cupboard - brown rice, molasses, light corn syrup, malted barley, Lyle's Golden Syrup, agave, maple and honey - and was not about to add another.

Luckily, before I threw my hands up in frustration, I found yet another Martha recipe online. Despite requiring melting chocolate and using a mixer, somehow it sounded just right. The cookies in the accompanying photograph looked handsome and crackled, deep and dark with chocolate, neither too thick nor too thin. The reviews confirmed that this was a solid recipe.

But of course it wasn't so simple. Unfortunately for us bakers, chocolate is not only one of the yummiest but also one of the most finicky ingredients that we work with. The label 'bittersweet' can contain anywhere from 50 to 88% cocoa solids, a range which can really mess with your baking ratios. Cookies in particular require a delicate balance of liquids (eggs, butter, sugar) to solids (flour and in this case, cocoa solids) in order to get the texture right. The chocolate that I am so in love with I wish I could marry it and make beautiful and delicious half-chocolate babies use contains 70% cocoa solids. I always use this percentage of chocolate for baking and was not about to change that for no finicky triple chocolate cookies.

It took three more tries to get the amount of flour right when using 70% chocolate, but this recipe was the best yet, using ingredients I almost always have around the house, achieving a deep, dark chocolate flavor with the satisfying chew of a regular chocolate chip cookie, and immense depth of flavor from fruity chocolate, cocoa powder, cinnamon, chile, vanilla and brown sugar. The chewy dough envelops pockets of melty chocolate, and cocoa nibs lend texture and extra-chocolaty goodness.

While I'm sure I could continue trying recipe after recipe (and certainly would were I paid Cook's - or Martha's - salary) I decided to stop at trial 6, because these cookies are not only pretty, but pretty awesome-tasting, as well.

I brought some to my dance group before our big show, expecting to catch hell for sabotaging their Adonis-like figures. Instead, the cookies were duly devoured before rehearsal even began. Steve, who doesn't even have a sweet-tooth, begged me not to bring him any more ever again, then looked stricken when I agreed.

Beware: these treats may make a cookie monster out of you, too. Though bake assured that one trial should be all it takes to get them just right.

(Gluten-free!) Chocolate - Rum Blondies
Chocolate Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake
Double Chocolate Banana Cupcakes

One year ago:
Winter Squash and Sage Gougeres
Arroz Con Leche with Coconut, Cardamom, and Cinnamon

Triple Chocolate Chile Cookies

Adapted from Martha

I make these with chocolate that contains 70% cocoa solids. If using a chocolate with 60% solids or less (or one that doesn't say) increase the flour to 1 cup (5 ounces). My cayenne is on the elderly side (not sure how long it's been hanging around the spice cupboard) and the amount used here lends a warmth in the aftertaste, but not a tongue-scorching heat. (In fact, an unsuspecting five-year-old ate one at a party, and purportedly begged for another.) If your cayenne seems quite piquant, you might try decreasing the amount you use in the cookies.

If you like, you can press a chocolate chunk or two and/or some extra nibs into the tops of the unbaked cookies. I couldn't decide which I liked better, aesthetically.

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) unsweetened dutch-processed cocoa
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces, 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (3 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) coarsely chopped 70% bittersweet chocolate, 4 ounces melted, the rest reserved
1/4 cup (1 ounce) cacao nibs

Position 2 racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, chile, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or the old-school way, with a bowl, wooden spoon and your supreme might) cream together the butter and sugar until lightened in color, 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla. (It's not the end of the world if the mixture breaks.) Stir in the melted chocolate until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle as needed, then stir in the dries on low until just combined. Stir in the chopped chocolate and cacao nibs.

Remove the bowl and paddle, and use a sturdy rubber spatula to give the dough a final fold by hand

Scoop the dough into heaping-tablespoon-sized balls (I like to use the purple-handled spring-loaded ice cream scoop) and place 2 inches apart on the parchmented sheets. Bake 12 - 15 minutes, rotating top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until the centers are puffed, cracked and soft, and the edges are set. (Don't overbake.) Let cool completely on the sheets.

The cookies are best within the first couple of days after baking, but will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Round-Up, 2010

No, I'm not talking about an herbicidal Monsanto creation, merely a collection of recipes which you might consider making on the big day this year.

First things first are desserts, natch:

Pumpkin Tart

and Sweet Potato Pie with Bourbon and Pecans are twists on the classics,

or mix things up with individual Pumpkin Flans.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Squares with a Gingersnap Crust can be baked 'in the round'; just stick the crust and batter in a 9" springform pan (if you're good at math, you can increase the filling by 1/4, using 1 pound each squash and cream cheese, etc.), and adjust the baking time. 

If you're looking for apple desserts, some options might include the Apple Custard Tart,

or Über Apple Upside-Down Cake.

The Apple-Huckleberry Pie could be made with fresh cranberries in place of the huckles;

ditto for the Apple Rhubarb Crisp.

Like rhubarb, cranberries have a tart and tangy bite which contrasts well with sweet, fleshy apples. Top any of these off with Dreamy Vanilla

 or Green Cardamom ice cream,

or go crazy and try the Horchata ice cream.

Moving on to savories, you might begin the evening with Winter Squash and Sage Gougeres.

You might make a Pumpkin Challah for a Shabbat Thanksgiving; otherwise, the dough can be shaped into individual, goyishe rolls; just weigh out 1 1/2 ounce balls of dough and shape them into tiny boules.

Oven Roasted Potatoes and Parsnips could make a crispy change to the standard mashers.

If you're a vegetarian looking for an indulgent entree, you could make a Roasted Squash Tart, with Sage, Goat Cheese, and Truffle Oil

Whatever you eat, I hope you all have a lovely and tasty Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pecan-Topped Sweet Potato Pie

Though I generally don't get excited about holidays, Thanksgiving is one exception...

...because I get to bake PIES. LOTS OF PIES. Thanksgiving is the only day of the year that I am not considered a total freak show when I bake FIVE PIES in one day. That's something to give thanks for.

I won't lie to you: baking five pies is no piece of, um, cake to begin with, but things get even more complicated with my family. There's my raw-foodist mother. My gluten-intolerant sister. My niece with the dairy allergy (when she feels like it). And my half-sister's mom's partner can't have sugar.

So one year, trying to please everyone, I made an (almost) raw pumpkin pie à la Cafe Gratitude (I drew the line at raw pumpkin, though), with a date-pecan crust and nut-milk based filling sweetened with agave. But my cousin complained because she's allergic to... dates.

Despite the abundance of gastronomical particularities, however, I know that each and every picky family member will 'cheat' and at least 'taste' a bit of everything.

For all of you 'dead-food'-eating, butter-loving, sugar-crazed bakers out there who indulge in just about everything (or are willing to cheat) here is a no-holds-barred pie that is now one of my faves.

And, if you're not a raw-foodist or allergic to dairy, sugar or gluten, it's actually not too unhealthy. The filling is comprised of sweet potato, eggs and milk, sweetened judiciously with white and brown sugars. (Pay no attention to the whisky behind the curtain.) I use whole spelt flour in the crust because I am a dirty hippy. Just kidding! I use it because not only is it full of healthy things, it is low in gluten and thereby creates and tender and lovely crust. Also, I used an all-butter, sourdough pate brisee for the crust, but Martha's pate brisee (from whence I adapted it) is a perfect substitute, lacking sourdough starter. (If you want some, though, and you're willing to come and get it, I'm happy share.)

Perhaps because I have never been to the South, the only sweet potato pie I've ever had that I didn't make was at a jazz festival in LA many years ago. Now I make Cook's recipe at least once a year, and it has become one of mine and Jay's very favorite desserts.

Or sometimes breakfasts. Hey, I said it was healthy-ish.

Anyway, this time I wanted to mix things up. In the article preceding the recipe, Cook's mentions testing a hybrid pecan-sweet potato pie, which they describe as being well-loved but 'unwieldy.' Inspired by a pumpkin-pecan-praline pie in an issue of Cook's Country, I decided to combine the two. The pecan topping complimented the smooth custard so perfectly that I can't imagine ever going back.

What I appreciate so much about Cook's sweet potato pie is that it really tastes like sweet potato. Unlike traditional molasses- and spice-heavy pies (or so I've heard... from Cook's), here judicious amounts of nutmeg, bourbon, vanilla, and butter enhance, rather than mask, its natural flavor (though the larger amount of bourbon does give it a lovely boozy taste). I did make a few tweaks to the original recipe in that I deleted the additional egg yolks (only because I already have too many pesky whites), and decreased the sweetener, adding brown sugar to the mix for its molasses flavor. I don't know whether it was just my imagination, but the filling looked and tasted brighter than ever before. The crunchy-gooey topping takes this pie over the top, and a dollop of maple-sweetened whipped cream makes an ideal foil.

Another direction to go would be to use coconut milk and dark rum in the pie, and grated panela, palm sugar or muscovado in place of the brown sugar in the topping. In fact, it would be quite reminiscent of the rum-laced mashed sweet potatoes my mom tops with pecans every year for Thanksgiving.

Despite being a raw foodist.


Sweet as:
Apple-Huckleberry Pie
Creamy Pumpkin Pie
Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie

One year ago:
Mac and Cheese with Winter Squash, Bacon and Sage

Pecan-Topped Sweet Potato Pie

Use orange-fleshed sweet potatoes for this pie, such as garnet or jewel. If you lack sourdough starter, use the Flakiest, All-Butter Pie Dough instead.

The most efficient order in which to make this pie is as follows:
1) Make the pie dough. Chill. (The dough, that is.)
2) Roast the sweet taters.
3) Roll out the dough, fit it into the pan, chill for 1/2 hour, freeze 20 minutes.
4) Par-bake crust.
5) While crust bakes, make the pie filling. Pour into the hot crust and
6) Bake the pie.
7) While the pie bakes, make the pecan topping.
8) Sprinkle topping on pie, bake.
9) Cool 2 hours.

Sourdough Pate Brisee:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat or whole spelt flour (or use all AP)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
4 ounces (1 stick, 1/2 cup) very cold unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice
about 4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) liquid sourdough starter

Sweet Potato Filling:
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

2 pounds sweet potatoes (3-4 medium) (or 2 cups cooked and mashed sweet potatoes)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 eggs
1/2 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 - 3 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk

Maple Pecan Topping:
Adapted from Cook's Country

1 cup pecans
1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
a few pinches flaky salt, such as Maldon

Maple Whipped Cream (for serving, optional): 
1 cup heavy cream
1 - 2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the crust:
In a large bowl, combine the flours, salt and sugar. Add the butter and rub with your fingertips until the mixture looks like gravel, with some butter worked in and some 1/4" chunks remaining. Gradually add the starter, folding the mixture with a spoon or your hands until it just starts to come together into large clumps, with no floury bits remaining. Gather the dough into a ball, flatten into an 8" disc, wrap in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes. (The dough will keep, refrigerated, for several days, or tuck into a ziploc bag and freeze for up to a couple of months.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 12" round, flouring the top of the dough and the rolling pin as needed. Fit the dough into a 9" pie pan, trim the edge to a 1" overhang, and tuck it under. Flute the crust. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes, then freeze for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 400º. If you have a baking stone, set it on the rack.

Place the frozen crust on a rimmed baking sheet, place a round of parchment paper inside the crust, and line with pie weights (or dried beans or cleaned pennies - I keep mine in a cheesecloth bag for easy handling.)

Bake the crust until the bottom looks dry and light in color underneath the parchment, 20 - 30 minutes. Carefully remove the weights and continue baking the crust until light golden brown on the bottom, 5 more minutes.

For the filling:
Prick the potatoes several times with a fork. Place on a small sheet pan lined with parchment paper and roast in the oven at 400º until collapsing and oozing juices, 40 minutes to 1 hour. (They should be quite tender when squeezed with a pair of tongs.) Let cool until handleable, then peel and scoop out two cups of flesh. Add the butter to the warm flesh and mash smooth with a fork (some fibers and lumps are ok.) Set aside.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350º.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugars, nutmeg and salt until smooth. Whisk in the bourbon, vanilla and milk, then whisk the egg mixture into the sweet potato mixture until combined.

Pour the filling into the warm, par-baked crust (this will reduce the baking time and ensure a crisp bottom crust). Place on a baking sheet to catch any drips, and place the baking sheet in the oven, on the baking stone if using. Bake until the filling is puffed and beginning to crack around the edges and the pie wobbles like jello when shaken (but not in a wet, jiggly way), about 45 minutes.

Pecan Topping:
Spread the pecans on a small baking sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant and crisp, 12 minutes. Let cool until handleable, then use your fingers to break them into small pieces (this results in more regular pieces and less 'dust' than chopping). Combine the pecans in a medium bowl with the sugar, maple syrup and sea salt.

When the pie has finished baking, remove it from the oven and sprinkle the pecan mixture evenly over the top. Sprinkle with the pinches of flaky salt. Return to the oven and bake for 10 or 15 more minutes.

Let the pie cool at least 2 hours, then slice and serve. (For cleaner slices, chill the pie before cutting.) The pie keeps well in the fridge for up to several days, though the crust will be crispest on the day it is baked.

Maple Whipped Cream:
Whip the cream either in a bowl with a whisk or in a stand mixer fitted with the whip, until it holds soft peaks. Add the maple syrup to taste and the vanilla extract.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Baked Pancake with Pear and Cardamom

The end of summer always comes as a bit of a shock. I'm not talking about the lack of beach days, road trips or forest hikes - I'm a spoiled Californian, after all, and can enjoy these activities nearly year-round.

No, I'm talking about breakfast.

There is a time of the year, usually in late October or early November, where yogurt, fruit and granola simply stop being appealing. The 'last chance' peaches sit, neglected and rotting, in the airing cupboard. The jar of Saint Benoit yogurt remains in the fridge, untouched. And the granola jar has long run dry.

For someone who spent her first 12 years of life eschewing breakfast (until I read in Sassy magazine that doing so can actually make you gain weight), I certainly give it a lot of thought these days. (Chuh, I don't want to get fat!)

So what does one make on a chilly fall morning for a quick breakfast?

Well, lately I've been simmering oatmeal with an apple grated into it. But that's not particularly exciting, now is it? (Still, I may bore you with it in a later blog post.)

If you're not in a rush, though, you can have this glorious baked pancake puffed and ready to eat in less than an hour.

The other day I was seduced at Rainbow not by a cute produce worker (sadly), but rather some slender and fragrant Japanese pears. Their skin was sticky to the touch, and they smelled of tropical fruits, like guava or passion fruit. I came upon this Deborah Madison recipe, which I've been wanting to try since I purchased the book seven years ago, and mixed up the batter. I lovingly sliced the pears, and with much anticipation, tasted one-

-and realized my error! It was a secret asian pear - tasty, but crisp and almost watery; certainly not a pear you would want to bake with. I guess the 'Japanese' bit should have tipped me off, but in my defense, they looked nothing like the apple-round 'asian pears' one usually meets in the fall.

But I made the pancake thingy anyway, and despite the lack of 'buttery' (as the recipe calls for) pears, it was still awesome. Dramatically puffed from the oven, it was a sight to behold. The barely sweet batter encased lightly-caramelized pears flecked with freshly ground cardamom. The crusty brown edges made a satisfying contrast to the delicate interior, and despite my greatest fears, the pears tasted tender and, well, pear-like. Drizzled with a bit of warm maple syrup, it felt decadent and nourishing all at once.

I compared clafoutis to an oven pancake, so it probably won't be particularly helpful when I compare the texture of this oven pancake to a clafoutis. But I'm gonna do it anyway.

This is like a breakfast version of clafoutis. Where clafoutis is rich and sweet, this batter contains milk, rather than half and half, and no sugar (2 tablespoons flavor the pears, but the batter itself contains none.) Clafoutis puffs a bit, but not nearly as much as this bad boy. Clafoutis would be offended if you deigned to pour maple syrup over it, but this pancake begs for it shamelessly.

I casually studied Traditional Chinese Medicine for a time (I did live in Santa Cruz, after all), and learned that baking foods in the oven makes them not only hot in temperature but warming to the body, having been slowly infused with heat. Whether you buy this or not, turning on the oven undeniably warms up the house. It is said that pears benefit the lungs, important during flu season, and cardamom, a warming spice, aids digestion and increases spleen chi. (I won't go into all the smack they talk about sugar, eggs and dairy, though.)

See? Even Chinese medicine agrees - this is an ideal breakfast for fall. It may not be quick enough to make before work, but it is simple enough to throw together on a leisurely bojon morning.

And nearly as virtuous as a granola bowl.

Skillet skillz:
Summer Veg Crustless Quiche
Über Apple Upside-Down Cake
Apricot Cherry Clafoutis

One year ago:
Curried Coconut Sweet Potato Teacake

Baked Pancake with Pear and Cardamom

Adapted from Local Flavors

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 - 3 medium, buttery pears, ripe but firm, cut off the core and sliced 1/4 - 1/2" thick
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons sugar
powdered sugar for dusting (optional)
maple syrup for drizzling

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400º. Place the butter in a 10" cast iron (or other oven proof) skillet and put in the oven to melt.

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, make a well, and add the eggs. Whisk to combine, adding the milk little by little until the batter is smooth. Whisk in the vanilla and about two-thirds of the melted butter. Set aside.

Heat the skillet with the remaining butter over a medium flame, and brush some of the butter around the rim of the skillet. Toss in the pears, cardamom, lemon juice and sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pears are tender and the sugars are beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes.

Pour the batter into the hot pan over the pears and place in the oven. Bake until golden and dramatically puffed, as though trying to escape from the pan, about 25 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and cut into wedges. Drizzle with maple syrup and serve immediately.

Leftovers, should there be any, reheat beautifully in a toaster oven in 5 or 10 minutes.