Monday, February 04, 2013

Levain-Inspired Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

Remember that time I proclaimed I'd made the best chocolate chip cookies ever? And that they were replicas of Levain Bakery's famous confections?

I was wrong.

Those cookies are fantastic, but I've since had the pleasure of actually eating Levain cookies, and those ain't them.

Part cookie, part scone, Levain's creations defy everything we've been taught about "the perfect cookie", as well as most of what I've read about Levain.

They're not exactly chewy, but they're not crispy either. They're tender, but not raw in the center. They're hefty and toothsome, each bite leaving you satisfied yet wanting more. They're full of complex flavor, but not distractingly so. They have all of the nostalgia and familiarity of America's favorite cookie, but somehow amplified and improved.

They're more, but not too much.

Since I live on the West Coast, I've been working on homemade versions for the past six weeks. Untold quantities of flour, butter and sugar later, I've not only come up with what I believe to be a close approximation of Levain's creations, but also gluten-free versions. (Thank you, Cup4Cup, for making a gluten-free flour that lives up to its promise of a 1:1 substitution for wheat flour in virtually any recipe.) And because I adore sea salt on my chocolate chip cookies, my recipe calls for a sprinkling of flaky Maldon before baking.

Gluten-free or not, I suggest you waste no time making these incredible cookies yourself. And don't bother with using frozen butter that's been cubed or grated, as so many Levain copycat recipes advise. I've tried those techniques and got the best results from the tried and true method of creaming ever-so-slightly softened butter with sugar. Nostaligia, indeed.

Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies with Toasted Walnuts
Makes about 9 (6-ounce) to 18 (3-ounce) cookies

Toasting the walnuts enhances their flavor, giving these cookies a wonderfully nutty crunch without a hint of bitterness. You can of course omit the walnuts or substitute another nut of choice, but if you're not allergic, do try them.

2 cups walnut halves
3 1/2 cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour OR Cup4Cup Gluten-Free Flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Diamond Kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup/8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened slightly but still cool to the touch
3/4 cup evaporated cane juice (or standard granulated sugar)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup Turbinado (raw) sugar (for texture and flavor; you can substitute regular or brown sugar)
2 eggs, cold
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups (12 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks (recommended: Guittard Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips or Scharffen-Berger 62% or 70% Cacao Baking Chunks)
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon), for sprinkling (optional)

1. Toast the walnut halves: spread nuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, tossing the nuts and rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking. Set aside to cool while you prepare the dough.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and paddle. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed until incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.

4. Stop the mixer and add the flour mixture, chocolate chips or chunks, and toasted walnut halves. Mix, starting on the lowest speed and progressing to medium-low speed, until the mixture just comes together into a uniform dough. Be careful not to over mix, or the dough will become tough (or gummy, if using gluten-free flour).

5. Refrigerate the dough in an airtight container or plastic wrap for at least four hours or, preferably, two to four days.

6. When you're ready to bake the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until it's softened a bit but still cold.

7. Line two half-sheet baking pans with silicone baking mats and/or parchment paper. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

8. Portion the dough into 6-ounce or 3-ounce balls. (If you don't have a scale, use a half-cup or quarter-cup dry measure.) Place dough balls on baking sheets, spacing evenly apart and at least 2 inches from the sides, and sprinkle with sea salt if desired.

9. Bake for 12 minutes (for 3-ounce cookies) to 20 minutes (for 6-ounce cookies), or until golden brown on the sides and top but still soft in the middle. Be sure to rotate the baking sheets back to front and top to bottom halfway through baking. Remove the sheets from the oven and place on cooling racks for five minutes, then transfer cookies directly to racks to cool completely.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to a month. (Defrost cookies in plastic wrap or container to collect condensation.)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Levain-Inspired Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

Perhaps the only thing better than a Levain Bakery Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie is a Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip one, still warm from the oven and gooey in the center.

However if you, like me, don't live near Levain and are even a little proficient at baking, please try these at-home versions. You can even make them gluten-free if that's your thing.

Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip Cookies
Makes about 9 (6-ounce) to 18 (3-ounce) cookies

2 1/2 cups (12.5 ounces) all-purpose flour OR Cup4Cup Gluten-Free Flour
1/2 cup Dutch (alkalized) cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Diamond Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional) (recommended: Medaglia d'Oro)
2 sticks (1 cup/8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened slightly but still cool to the touch
1/2 cup evaporated cane juice (or standard granulated sugar)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup Turbinado (raw) sugar (for texture and flavor; substitute regular or brown sugar if desired)
2 eggs, cold
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups (10 ounces) peanut butter chips (recommended: SunSpire)
1 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks (recommended: Guittard Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips or Scharffen-Berger 62% or 70% Cacao Baking Chunks)

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and instant espresso powder (if using). Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and paddle. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed until incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.

3. Stop the mixer and add the flour mixture, chocolate chips or chunks, and peanut butter chips. Mix, starting on the lowest speed and progressing to medium-low speed, until the mixture just comes together into a uniform dough. Be careful not to overmix, or the dough will become tough (or gummy, if using gluten-free flour).

4. Refrigerate the dough in an airtight container or plastic wrap for at least four hours or, preferably, two to four days.

5. When you're ready to bake the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until it's softened a bit but still cold.

6. Line two half-sheet baking pans with silicone baking mats and/or parchment paper. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

7. Portion the dough into 6-ounce or 3-ounce balls. (If you don't have a kitchen scale, use a half- or quarter-cup dry measure.) Place dough balls on baking sheets, spacing evenly apart and at least 2 inches from the sides. 

8. Bake for about 12 minutes (for 3-ounce cookies) to 20 minutes (for 6-ounce cookies), rotating the baking sheets back to front and top to bottom halfway through baking. Remove the sheets from the oven and place on cooling racks for five minutes, then transfer cookies directly to racks to cool completely. 

The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to a month. (Defrost cookies in plastic wrap or container to collect condensation.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Buttermilk Biscuits with Bacon, Cheddar and Chives

I'm back, sort of. When the wonderful Miss Whistle asked me to share a favorite recipe for the January Jeliciousness series on her blog, I jumped at the opportunity. I do miss flexing my creative muscles (wee ones, mind you) by styling and photographing the things that I make. For I have not neglected my baking and cooking as I have this blog.

In the spirit of testing the waters for a possible return to more regular posting here on Flour Child, below is the recipe I'm sharing on Miss Whistle. I'll be back again soon, maybe. In the meantime, please visit Miss W's blog for recipes, musing and lovely things.
If the menu at David LeFevre's restaurant, M.B. Post, in my hometown of Manhattan Beach, California, isn't tempting enough already, the bacon cheddar biscuits are reason alone to dine there. Studded with smoky bacon and sharp cheddar, the dough is surprisingly tender and light. When my girlfriends and I meet at M.B. Post for brunch or dinner, you won't hear a single word about dieting, nor do we feign guilt at eating these biscuits. They're an utterly worthwhile indulgence.

And while I appreciate that many (most) of us are focusing on virtuous eating now that the holidays are over, there's something to be said for gently easing back into healthy habits. So rather than quitting the bacon, butter and cheese cold turkey, you might make these biscuits for your next supper or brunch. Just don't eat the entire batch (easier said than done), and maybe serve them with lighter fare.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Bacon, Cheddar and Chives
Lightly adapted from David LeFevre
Yield: 12

If you don't have a kitchen scale, get one. Weighing ingredients makes all the difference in baking, especially when it comes to light, flaky biscuits. Grating the frozen butter seems like a fussy step, but it's incredibly easy and tremendously helpful in ensuring the dough is evenly flecked with cold butter. Speaking of which, make sure all of your ingredients are cold. I measure and mix the dry ingredients into a Ziploc bag and chuck it in the freezer for 30 minutes. (The dry mix will keep for up to a month in the freezer, and having it on hand is a time saver.)


12 ounces* (2 3/4 cups; see note, below) all-purpose flour
4 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (recommended: Diamond brand)
1 ounce (2 generous Tablespoons) sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, frozen, grated (grate the butter onto a plate and keep it in the freezer while you prep the remaining ingredients)
6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, diced into 1/4 inch pieces (1 1/4 cups measured after dicing)
6 ounces (3 1/2 slices) bacon, cooked until crispy, drained, and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1 ounce fresh chives, finely chopped (scant 1 cup measured after chopping)
1 cup buttermilk, cold, shaken thoroughly before measuring
1 Tablespoon clarified butter (melt 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cool, and skim milk solids off the top)
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for sprinkling

*The Los Angeles Magazine version of this recipe states that 12 ounces of all-purpose flour equates to 1 1/2 cups. When I measure 12 ounces of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour using the spoon and sweep method, I get 2 3/4 cups every time.


1. Heat oven to 375 degrees F and position a rack in the middle of the oven.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Add the frozen grated butter and mix gently with a spoon until evenly distributed.

3. Add the cheddar cheese, bacon and chives and gently mix again to combine.

4. Pour the cold buttermilk into the mixture and gently fold it in until a dough begins to form. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and, with a light touch, knead the dough with your hands until it comes together. (Be careful not to overwork the dough, or it will toughen.)

5. Gently roll out the dough to 1 1/4 inch thickness and cut into 2 1/2 inch squares or rounds.

6. Brush the biscuits with clarified butter and sprinkle with Fleur de Sel.

7. Arrange the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat and/or parchment or waxed paper and bake for 12-20 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. (Use a toothpick, skewer or cake tester to test the centers for doneness. In my oven, these biscuits take 20 minutes and I rotate the baking sheet after 10 minutes to ensure even browning.)

8. Remove the biscuits from the oven and let set for 5 minutes before serving. (I dare you to resist the crispy cheese bits that ooze onto the baking sheet as the biscuits bake.)

Minus the bacon, cheddar and chives, this recipe makes the absolute best plain biscuits; they're perfectly light and flaky with a crisp exterior and soft interior. (I dare say, they're better than Scott Peacock's version.) Do experiment with other savory or sweet mix-ins, and let me know how they turn out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Irish Soda Bread Pancakes

Last month I set out to make Irish Soda Bread for St. Patrick's Day, like I always do. (I also made a Chocolate Stout Cake, but this blog has seen more than its fair share of cakes.) I was eager to try Fallon & Byrne's soda bread recipe touted in Bon Appetit, and in the course of looking up the recipe I stumbled across a fantastic idea: cooking the dough on a griddle, a la English muffins or crumpets. So I doubled the recipe and made both baked and griddled versions. Wouldn't you know it, the griddled bread was better than the loaf. Since then I've been playing with the recipe to make it a bit less dense while at the same time more oat-y. And pancake-y. And a touch savory, thanks to the addition of fresh rosemary.

The batter is hearty and nutty thanks to whole wheat graham flour, raw wheat germ and both old fashioned and steel cut oats.

It's also a touch sweet thanks to brown sugar.

Buttermilk imparts a slight tang -- and rise -- to the batter. 

You'll want to add the optional chopped fresh rosemary. Trust me. (This from a girl who isn't mad about rosemary.)

Drizzle the pancakes with honey or, better yet, Lyle's Golden Syrup.

Top with berries and you've got a winning breakfast that just so happens to be perfect pre-run fuel in case you, like me, are getting back into running.

Oh, and don't forget a generous pat of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter.

Irish Soda Bread Pancakes
Makes 10, 4-inch pancakes

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat graham flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup old fashioned oats
1/4 cup raw wheat germ
2 tablespoons steel-cut oats
2 tablespoons (packed) brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
2 cups buttermilk
Nonstick cooking spray

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except the buttermilk and cooking spray. Add the buttermilk and stir until the mixture forms a uniform batter.

2. Heat a griddle or cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. Coat with cooking spray and spoon about 1/4 cup of batter onto the griddle for each pancake. The batter is thick, so you'll have to press and spread it around with your finger or a spoon. Cook until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes, then flip and cook for another 3 minutes on the other side. Note: Between batches, wipe the griddle with a cloth or paper towel and re-spray with cooking spray.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Meyer Lemon Meringue Tartlets, South African Style

My latest baking endeavor began the way they often do -- with a challenge -- and played out in typical fashion: in fits and spurts of obsessive research and serious thought followed by compulsive ingredient gathering, fatigue and procrastination, and finally getting on with it (and making another trip to the market for fresh ingredients).

All of this is to say that I usually find the end result of all that activity to be disappointing, at least initially. I mean, it's difficult to do justice to the process. And while I do have my share of flops, more often than not I come around -- usually with feedback and encouragement from my supportive yet honest husband and friends -- and wind up quite pleased.

So yes, I'm pleased with these Meyer lemon meringue tartlets, which owe their existence to a South African friend and neighbor who issued the aforementioned challenge, informing me that American lemon meringue pie pales in comparison to the variety found in South Africa. I was unaware that there is any difference -- last year I'd sampled Tina Bester's version at her stall at the Biscuit Mill and didn't find it markedly different from what I was used to in the States -- but he explains that the version of which he is so fond owes its superiority to the meringue. French meringue to be exact, which is baked at a low temperature for several hours until completely dry. (Isn't this pie beginning to sound like the United Colors of Benetton of desserts?) 

The plot thickened when I consulted arguably the foremost authorities on South African cooking and baking, Ina Paarman and Tina Bester. The most marked difference between their recipes and, say, Alton Brown's (which is probably as typically American as you'll find), is not the meringue but the filling. Huh.

Rather than the lemon custard to which we're accustomed in the States, Paarman's and Bester's fillings are nothing more than sweetened condensed milk whisked with a couple of egg yolks, lemon juice and zest. In Paarman's recipe, the filling is par-baked in a cookie crust for 20 minutes before being topped with a simple unstabilized meringue, baked for another 25 minutes and left to cool in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. It's not completely dry like French meringue; rather, it's gooey inside and crunchy outside, like a browned marshmallow.

Bester's meringue isn't baked at all. In her version, egg whites are warmed with sugar, whipped into soft peaks and arranged on top of fully baked tartlets. In a final flourish, they're browned with a kitchen torch. As for Bester's crust, which she has aptly named "Well Behaved Pastry," it's a riff on Pâte Sucrée. With more than the usual quantity of sugar and two whole eggs, it's beautifully tender yet pops out of the tins without losing its shape. Best of all, it doesn't shrink when baked. Well behaved indeed.

Tina Bester's lemon meringue tartlets at her Queen of Tarts stall at The Biscuit Mill.

I realize this much too much explanation for pie of all things, so I'll wrap this up by saying:
  1. I suspect there are regional variances in South African lemon meringue pie. Paarman and Bester are from the Western Cape, as is my husband, and they are all in agreement about soft meringue. That our neighbor is from Johannesburg and is partial to dry meringue leads me to believe it's native to that part of South Africa. (Readers, do you know if this is the case?)
  2. The filling in South African lemon meringue pies has a more subtle lemon flavor than American pies, and is creamier owing to the sweetened condensed milk. It's also easier to make because it doesn't have to be cooked into custard form before baking.
  3. To make my lemon meringue tartlets, I mixed and matched the portions of Paarman's and Bester's recipes that suited my preference for a Pâte Sucrée crust and my neighbor's penchant for French meringue. I'm mad about the resulting tartlets (the browned marshmallow topping is divine), but I didn't do right by my neighbor. The meringue isn't dry enough, so I've concluded that I'll have to bake the meringue separately and pop it onto the pie when the filling and still hot, so as to "glue" them together.
And that, my friends, is more than you'll ever care to know about lemon meringue pie.

It also seems I have a challenge to complete. If I disappear for a while, you'll know where to find me.

Meyer Lemon Meringue Tartlets
Makes about eight 6-inch tartlets, 15 3-inch tartlets or one 9- to 10-inch tart

The use of Meyer lemons isn't South African; I just happen to adore* them and they're abundant in markets right now. Their tangy-sweet flavor is perfectly suited to the milk-based filling.

*I used to pluck Meyer lemons from my great aunt and uncle's backyard tree and eat them like oranges all day long. Don't do that. You'll damage your tooth enamel.

For the crust (lightly adapted and converted from metric to standard from Bake: Tina Bester Queen of Tarts):
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold
2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Note: This makes quite a bit of dough and you will have some left over. It makes lovely rolled and cut cookies, or you may freeze it, tightly wrapped, for up to one month. Also, I unintentionally made mine a bit more traditionally than Bester. Operating on autopilot, I separated the eggs and discarded the whites, and therefore had to add about 3 tablespoons of ice water at the end to bind the dough.

For the filling (lightly adapted and converted from metric to standard from Ina Paarman):
2 12-oz (395 g) cans sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon zest (from about 3 1/2 Meyer lemons)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 4 Meyer lemons)
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the meringue (lightly adapted and converted from metric to standard from Bake: Tina Bester Queen of Tarts):
4 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Make the crust:
1. In a food processor or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend the butter and sugar until coarsely combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, followed by the flour and salt. Process or mix until a dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, gather and press it into a disc, and refrigerate, tightly wrapped, for at least an hour or up to two days.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Place the tartlet tins upside down on the dough and cut circles about 1/2- to 1-inch larger than the tins all around. Turn the tins over and gently work the dough circles into them, making sure to press the dough into the edges and sides. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Blind bake the tartlet crusts (still on the baking sheets) for about 15 minutes or until they just begin to turn golden brown. (If making one large tart, the crust may need to bake for 5-10 minutes longer.) Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 325 degrees F.

Make the filling:
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the condensed milk (use the boiling water to get the last bit of milk from the cans), lemon zest, lemon juice, egg yolks and salt. Portion the filling into the prepared crusts (I use a liquid measuring cup for this), making sure it comes all the way to the top edges. Bake for 20 minutes while you make the meringue.

Make the meringue:
1. In a double boiler or medium saucepan set over the lowest flame, heat the egg whites and sugar, stirring constantly, until the mixture is just warm.

2. Transfer the warmed egg mixture to the (very clean and dry) bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on increasing speed (working up to high) until soft peaks form, about 8 minutes. Whisk in the cornstarch.

3. Remove the partially-baked tartlets from the oven. Pipe or spoon large dollops of the meringue on top of the hot filling. (If you have extra meringue, you can spoon dollops of it onto the parchment-lined baking sheets and bake along with the tartlets.) Bake for 25 minutes. (The meringue will be very slightly browned all over. If desired, remove the tartlets from the oven and brown the meringue with a kitchen torch, then return to the oven.) Turn off the oven and let the tartlets cool completely in the oven (about 3 hours). This gives the meringue a gooey, marshmallow center.

Tartlets may be stored in the refrigerator (the cool, dry air prevents the meringue from weeping) for up to two days.

If you prefer a less marshmallow-like meringue and are okay with egg whites that aren't fully cooked, you may skip the step of baking the meringue. Increase baking time for filled tartlets to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and, while the filling is still hot, top with meringue and brown with a kitchen torch. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Strawberries & Cream Heart Cookies

What's your stance on Valentine's Day? Love it? Hate it? My sentiments are somewhere in the middle. When I was in elementary school I loved addressing Valentines and making treats for class parties, but every year I was disappointed when I failed to receive a Valentine from the boy I had a crush on from kindergarten through eighth grade. (Such enduring, unrequited love. Also: awkward.) But for a "Hallmark holiday" I think it's a fine one. I am a hopeless romantic after all (see: childhood crush), and I can't fault a day devoted to the exchange of sweet treats and sentiments. Plus, it's a wonderful reason to get into the kitchen and bake something special for the ones I love. (And thankfully not for an elementary school party).

Strawberries & Cream Hearts
Makes about 18 2-inch cookies

These Strawberries & Cream Sandwich cookies are a nod to my husband's favorite South African biscuit, Bakers Strawberry Whirls. Strawberry Whirls are not readily available in the United States, and the last time we got our hands on them (thanks, Rose!), my husband was saddened to find that the manufacturer had changed the recipe. What was once a beloved tea time treat is now a chalky biscuit whose cream and strawberry filling leaves an unpleasant chemical aftertaste. So I did what any self-respecting baking enthusiast (and perfect wife, ha ha) would do: I came up with a homemade version.

Because I don't have a press or mold for making cookies with a swirl pattern like actual Strawberry Whirls, I opted for a rolled and cut cookie. The result is a sort of hybrid between Strawberry Whirls and another iconic Bakers treat, Jolly Jammers. I cut hearts in the tops for Valentine's Day, but you could cut out a small round a la Strawberry Whirls, a silly face like Jolly Jammers, or any shape you like.

No matter what you call them -- Strawberry Whirls, Jolly Jammers or Strawberries & Cream Hearts -- these cookies are light and delicious, with no chemicals or strange aftertaste. The dough is fantastic in that it can be re-rolled and cut several times without losing its light, flaky texture, and holds its shape when baked.

For the dough:
14 tablespoons (1 and 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 cup cake flour, measured using the spoon and level method
1 cup + 2 tablespoons all purpose flour, measured using the spoon and level method

For the filling:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) vegetable shortening
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted before measuring
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
Strawberry jam

1. In a In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, confectioners' sugar and egg yolks until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat until incorporated.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours. Add to the butter mixture and beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape the dough from the mixer bowl onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into a disc. Wrap tightly and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to two days. (The dough may be frozen for up to a month. Defrost in the plastic wrap to allow condensation to collect on the plastic and not the dough.)

3. When you're ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Remove the dough from the plastic wrap and roll out on a lightly floured surface to a scant 1/4 inch thickness. Cut cookies with a 2-inch round biscuit or cookie cutter. Use a heart-shaped mini cutter to cut hearts out of half the cookie rounds.

4. Transfer cookies to a parchment- or silicone-lined baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden, rotating the sheets halfway through baking. Allow to cool completely before filling and assembling.

5. To make the cream filling, beat together the butter, shortening, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

6. To assemble the cookies, use an offset spatula to spread the cream filling on the underside of the cookies that don't have hearts cut out of them.  The cream filling should be about 1/4 inch thick and not quite reach the edges of the cookies. Top each cookie with a layer of strawberry jam and a heart cutout cookie.

Friday, February 03, 2012


I could go on and on about how much I love having pre-roasted ingredients on hand for assembling meals and snacks, but I'll get right to the point: paired with a handful of store bought ingredients, roasted vegetables and fruit make perfect toppings for a seemingly endless variety of crostini that can be assembled in five minutes flat. So the next time you're in need of a little lunch, a snack or even an appetizer for a gathering, these little toasts are just the thing. Below are a few of my recent favorites. Please ignore the color (and other) problems with the photos, and have a happy weekend!

Herbed Goat Cheese, Marinated Beets and Toasted Almonds
Chunks of roasted red beets are marinated in champagne shallot walnut vinaigrette and spooned onto toasted ciabatta bread that's been slathered with herbed chèvre. Finish with chopped toasted almonds, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper.

To make the beets: Scrub and dry whole red beets, rub with olive oil and wrap in aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree F oven for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. When cool enough to handle but still warm, peel and chop the beets into chunks. Toss with vinaigrette of choice (I make my own or use Stonewell Kitchen's Champagne Shallot Walnut Dressing) and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Ricotta, Roasted Pear and Golden Syrup
Remember those pears from the Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Pears and Leeks? They're delicious atop ricotta on toasted ciabatta. Drizzle with Lyle's Golden Syrup (or agave or honey) and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper for a punch of flavor. 

Nutella and Roasted Banana
For a rustic, deconstructed twist on pain au chocolat, slather (yes, slather) Nutella (or your favorite chocolate and nut spread) on toasted ciabatta and top with sliced oven- or pan-roasted bananas. A sprinkle of powdered sugar and an extra spoonful of Nutella on the side make for a whimsical presentation.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Pears and Leeks

So far 2012 has been all about simplifying and refocusing. As 2011 came to a close and I reflected on the year that had passed, I realized the extent to which I let myself get sidetracked by concerns that don't ultimately matter. So I'm shifting my focus back to what's most important and real: family, friends, my dogs, work (in no particular order). I've not been on blogs or Twitter or Facebook much (although I am publishing links to this post on the latter two sites), and my Instagram posts are few and far between.

Among the many wonderful results of this social media greyout is that I'm not looking at my phone and its addictive social media apps every minute or two, and I'm freeing myself from some of the associated pitfalls that so easily erode happiness, such as Fear Of Missing Out and The Comparison Trap. I feel clearer, lighter and more content.

Something else that has me contented is spending Sunday afternoons in the kitchen preparing simple, comforting meals to reheat during the week. Roasting has been my cooking method of choice, and dishes such as crispy skinned buttermilk brined chicken, roasted smashed potatoes and pork tenderloin have been just the thing to enjoy at the end of long and busy days.

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Pears and Leeks
Makes 8 to 10 servings

This recipe was passed on to me by a dear friend who is an expert at treating family and friends to fantastic, healthy meals with minimal fuss. This dish is perfectly suited to a Dutch or French oven, but a large cast iron skillet or rimmed baking sheet will do just fine. (If using the latter, brown the tenderloin in a large pan on the stove before transfering it to the baking sheet.) I deviated from the recipe a bit in that I brined my pork tenderloin for 24 hours before roasting it. If I have the time I always brine pork and poultry. If you're new to brining, Cook's Illustrated's method is foolproof.
1 boneless pork loin roast, about 3.5 pounds, excess fat and silverskin removed 
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 Tablespoons olive oil
5 ripe red Anjou pears, or 4 large or 6 small apples, halved lengthwise and seeds removed
4 leeks, white portions only, trimmed, halved lengthwise and rinsed

1. Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 400°F. Season the roast liberally with salt and pepper. (Tie the roast with kitchen twine if it comes halved lengthwise.)

2. In a 5 1/2-quart (or larger) Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the pears or apples, cut side down, and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

3. Add the pork to the pot and brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.

4. Place the leeks, cut side down, in the pot in a single layer. Set the pork on top of the leeks and place the pears or apples along the sides of the pot, encircling the roast.

5. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the pork registers 140°F, 45 to 55 minutes.

6. Transfer the pork to a carving board, cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes before carving. Transfer the leeks and pears or apples to a platter. Cut the pork into slices and arrange on the platter.

Monday, December 19, 2011

German Chocolate Cake for Dad

When I was a child we had German chocolate cake for my dad's birthday every year. It was notable not only because it was his favorite, but because my mom purchased it from the supermarket's bakery instead of making it from scratch like she did other cakes. (Of course, cake was notable to begin with because ours was a macrobiotics-influenced natural foods household where sweets were reserved for special occasions. Even then, mom baked with honey, whole wheat flour and even tofu.)

Mom would arrive home from the store the evening before or the day of dad's birthday with the cake in a domed clear plastic carrier, tall and extravagantly decorated with rosettes around the edges and a red maraschino cherry on top. After dinner the cake would be plated and brought to the table; lights would be dimmed, candles lit and Happy Birthday sung. We'd sit around the table enjoying generous slices of cake with dad's favorite accompaniment, Dreyer's Grand French Vanilla ice cream, giggling and joking as the sugar made us increasingly giddy.

Over the weekend I made this cake in memory of my dad, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday had he received the liver and kidney transplant for which he was at the top of the waiting list in 2001. As I assembled the ingredients into a cake resembling those from his birthday celebrations years ago, I was reminded of how generous he was about sharing and celebrating food. I'll never forget how, in his last days, he offered his ICU nurse some of his ice chips "because they're so good." Those ice chips were all he was allowed to take by mouth (and were all the more precious because he was allotted only tiny amounts a few times per day) but he insisted on sharing the icy goodness. (That nurse has since become one of my dearest friends and I can't thank her enough for taking such good care of my dad.)

There's not a doubt in my mind that dad would have wanted you to have a slice of this German chocolate cake -- because it's so good. I hope you'll make and share it with someone you love.

And, as you make your New Year's resolutions, please consider designating yourself as an organ donor. Be sure to discuss and formalize your plans with your loved ones so that they're comfortable honoring your wishes. For more information, please visit the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

German Chocolate Cake
Makes one 9-inch four layer, or 6-inch six layer, cake.

I'd never made German chocolate cake and wanted it to be perfect, so I consulted several cookbooks and food blogs before settling on this recipe from David Lebovitz, who adapted it from his former Chez Panisse colleague Mary Jo Thoresen.

I made no changes to the cake layers or syrup, but increased the amounts of pecans and coconut in the filling. I also used my own recipe for chocolate icing, as I prefer a lighter chocolate buttercream over the dark chocolate ganache. The latter is a bit intense for the delicate rum-infused cake and nutty filling.

I can understand why my mom bought a German chocolate cake rather than make it from scratch, as this is a multi-step recipe that will take most of a day to make. But the result is well worth the time and effort.

For the cake:
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons water
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cup + 1/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

For the syrup:
1 cup water
2/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum

For the filling:
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
3 ounces butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (omit if using pre-salted pecans)
1 1/2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped (note: I used store bought pecans that were roasted and salted)
2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut, toasted

For the icing:
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 cups powdered (confectioners') sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool and slightly firm to the touch
3 tablespoons milk, plus more if needed, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1/8 teaspoon fine grain salt

To make the cake layers:
1. Heat oven to 350° F. Grease two 9-inch or three 6-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment or wax paper.

2. Melt both chocolates together with the 6 tablespoons of water. Use either a double-boiler or a microwave. Stir until smooth, then set aside until room temperature.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or by hand, beat the butter and 1 1/4 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the melted chocolate, then the egg yolks one at a time.

4. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

5. Mix in half the dry ingredients into the creamed butter mixture, then the buttermilk and vanilla extract, then the rest of the dry ingredients. (Tip: I stir the vanilla into the buttermilk before adding it to the batter.) 

6. In a separate metal or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until the hold soft, droopy peaks. Beat int he 1/4 cup sugar until stiff.

7. Fold about one third of the egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining egg whites until there's no trace of egg white visible.

8. Divide the batter into the prepared cake pans, smooth the tops, and bake for about 35 minutes for 6-inch cakes or 45 minutes for 9-inch cakes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cake layers completely. 

While the cakes are baking and cooling, make the syrup, filling and icing.

To make the syrup:

1. In a small saucepan, heat the sugar and water until the sugar has melted. Remove from heat and stir in the dark rum.

To make the filling:

1. Put the 3 ounces butter, salt, toasted coconut and pecan pieces in a large bowl.

2. Combine the cream, sugar and egg yolks in a medium saucepan. Heat the mixture and cook, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture begins to thicken and coats a spoon (an instant-read thermometer will read 170° F).

3. Pour the hot custard immediately into the pecan-coconut mixture and stir until the butter is melted. Cool completely to room temperature (the mixture will thicken).

To make the icing:

1. In a small saucepan over very low heat (or a double boiler set over but not touching simmering water in the bottom pan), melt the chocolate, stirring constantly, until it's melted and smooth. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the powdered sugar, butter, 3 tablespoons milk, vanilla and salt. Beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes, then reduce the speed to low. Add the chocolate and beat until combined, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 minute more.

3. If the frosting is dry, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it is creamy but still holds peaks. (Makes 2 generous cups.)

To assemble the cake:

1. Remove the cake layers from the pans and cut in half horizontally, using a serrated bread knife.

2. Set the first cake layer on a cake plate. Brush well with syrup. Spread 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the coconut filling over the cake layer, making sure to reach the edges. Set another cake layer on top.

3. Repeat, brushing each cake layer with syrup, then spreading coconut filling over each layer, including the top.

4. Ice the sides with the chocolate icing, then pipe a decorative border of chocolate icing around the top, encircling the coconut topping, and at the base of the cake if desired.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Winter Cake

This cake was almost an afterthought. The night before my husband's birthday in November, after dinner reservations had been confirmed and gifts wrapped, it occurred to me that I hadn't thought about a birthday cake.

I fretted for few moments -- everyone should have a special cake on their birthday, how could I have overlooked such an important detail -- before realizing that I had all of the ingredients for his favorite cake: vanilla sponge layered with berries and cream. Even better, the cake looks impressive but is a breeze to make and decorate (the latter is decidedly not one of my strengths).

I didn't even have to stay up much past my bedtime. But don't tell my husband. For all he knows, I labored for hours.

Winter Berries and Cream Cake
This cake seems like summer at first glance, but raspberry season extends through November. Take another look and the bright red berries against a blanket of snow white cream are the very picture of winter. Adorned with sprigs of seasonal greenery, this dessert would be a festive but light finale to a holiday meal.

The vanilla sponge is an adaptation of the vanilla cupcake recipe from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook, which I lightened by separating the eggs, beating the whites and folding them into the batter at the end. I also added salt, an important but apparently overlooked ingredient. The whipped cream filling and frosting are old standbys in my kitchen.

For the cake:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool to the touch
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, separated (tip: separate the eggs when they're cold, then bring to room temperature)
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

For the frosting and filling:
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 tablespoon seedless raspberry jam
1/2 to 1 pint fresh raspberries, rinsed and dried

Make the cake layers:
1. Heat oven to 350° F. Grease three 6-inch (or two 9-inch) cake pans, dust lightly with flour and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the flours and salt. In a separate bowl or cup, stir the vanilla into the milk. Add the flour to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk, and beat until the batter just comes together. Set aside.

4. In a separate bowl that you are sure is clean and dry, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and no traces of runny white remain at the bottom of the bowl. Stir a third of the egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until no visible traces of whites remain.

5. Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake on the middle oven rack for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool the cakes in their pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans to cool completely on wire racks (be sure to remove the parchment from the cakes). The cakes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and kept overnight before decorating and serving.

Make the filling and frosting:
1. Stir the cream and sugar together in a large mixing bowl and chill, with the whisk, for 30 minutes in the refrigerator or 10 minutes in the freezer.

2. Once the cream is chilled, add the vanilla, stir a few times and beat on increasing speed until soft peaks begin to form. It's important to under whip the cream because it will stiffen when you stir in the raspberry jam and decorate the cake.

3. Transfer about a third of the whipped cream to a medium bowl and stir in the jam until it's evenly distributed. Add more jam as desired to achieve a deeper color and stronger flavor.

Assemble the cake:
1. Set each cake on a flat surface, bottom side down, and use a long serrated knife to level the tops if they've domed or baked unevenly (my oven is not level, so everything I bake tips to one side). Cut each cake in half horizontally to make two layers. You'll end up with the six layer cake pictured above if you've used three 6-inch pans, or a four layer cake if you've used two 9-inch cake pans.

2. Place one cake layer in the middle of a serving plate or cake stand. Slide some parchment strips just under and all around the edges of the cake to keep the serving plate free of crumbs and extra frosting.

3. Spread enough filling to evenly cover the cake layer by a depth of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Repeat with the remaining cake layers, but don't top the final layer with the raspberry cream filling.

4. Using an offset spatula, spread the whipped cream over the sides and top of the cake. You should have enough for 1/2 to 3/4 inch of frosting. Use the spatula to make thick swoops in the cream if desired. Arrange raspberries around the top edge of the cake. (You'll use about 1/2 pint for a 3-inch layer cake, and closer to a pint for a 9-inch cake.) Gently remove the parchment paper strips from between the bottom layer and the plate, and serve.

Note: if desired, you could spread a very thin crumb layer of whipped cream over the cake and let it set in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour before covering it with thick swoops of the remaining cream.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gingerbread Ninjas

I spotted these adorable Ninjabread Men cookie cutters on A Cup of Jo this morning and want them, bad. (Never mind that they're part of a gift guide for toddlers.)

I usually bake gingerbread and sugar cookie men (and women and dogs and stars and such) to hang on my tree, a tradition that has gone by the wayside thanks to a little giant puppy who eats ornaments, edible or not.

Maybe I'll make a gingerbread ninja garland instead (to be hung very high on a wall, of course), or make a batch to bring to Stacey's Annual Latkes and Cookies Party. I'd love to try this gingerbread recipe from Gesine Bullock-Prado.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide: Ten Stocking Stuffer Ideas

When I was a kid, in addition to whatever little toys and trinkets Santa placed in my stocking, on Christmas morning I'd always find a Tobler dark chocolate orange (now sold under the brand name Terry's), a Toblerone bar, mini candy canes, unshelled peanuts and an orange.

The orange would always work its way to the bottom of my stocking, and I'd dig it out to peel and eat while the whole family took turns opening presents. Then I'd get to work on my Toblerone bar, letting each triangle dissolve on my tongue until the chocolate was gone and the crunchy nougat bits remained. I continue this tradition today, because it's just not Christmas without these little pleasures.

Here are some more ideas for stuffing the stockings of people who like to cook, bake, eat and even talk about and photograph food.

These blue rimmed spoons are one of my favorite and most used kitchen tools.

 2. Zester, Grater or Peeler, $4 to $8
I love my citrus zester ($8) for removing fine ribbons of citrus peel for garnishing, cooking and baking. And do you see that brilliant practice of putting zest in ice cubes pictured below? Do it.

I firmly believe in world peace, being nice and grating my own nutmeg. The potency and flavor are unbeatable, and a few grates stirred into mashed potatoes is the bomb. This Microplane Premium Spice Grater ($10) does the job perfectly.

Kuhn Rikon Swiss Peelers are my favorite because they're only $4, fit in the palm of my hand and stay sharp for a very long time. They're also great for lefties and come in a variety of colors.

Long ago I lost track of how many times I've grated and cut my fingers. This cut resistant glove from Microplane is exactly what I need (hint, hint).

A cookie dough scoop is the secret to making uniform cookies. Every baker should have one.

5. Thermometers, $8 to $13
An oven thermometer ($8) is essential for ensuring you're baking at the right temperature. You'd be surprised  by how inaccurate oven temperature gauges can be. 

An InstaRead Meat and Poultry Thermometer ($10) is a must for anyone who prepares meat and poultry, because nobody likes Salmonella poisoning.

And a Candy and Deep Fry Thermometer ($13) comes in handy for tempering chocolate, making popcorn balls and frying up apple cider doughnuts.

6. Biscuit, Doughnut, Pie and Cookie Cutters, $1 to $15
I use my Biscuit and Doughnut Cutter set ($15) for the obvious, and also for cutting scones and venting pie crusts.

Speaking of pie, a set of mini cutters in festive shapes ($4 for 6) is just the thing for decorating pie crusts.

Not only are cookie cutters great stocking stuffers, they're also perfect for adorning wrapped presents and homemade gifts

I don't have words for how delicious these caramels are. Creamy with a bit of crunch, they're the perfect combination of salty and sweet. My in-laws are seriously addicted, and apparently I do in fact have words for how good these are.

 8. Bacon Jam, $14, or Blaak Onion Jam, $10 
This delicious caramelized onion and bacon spread from Skillet Street Food is fantastic on burgers, sandwiches (especially grilled cheese) and, well, everything.

For vegetarians, Blaak Onion Jam from Beekman 1802 is a perfect savory-sweet blend of onions, maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.

I hate/love these. I hate the term foodie but I love that these flashcards allow anyone to poke good natured fun at pretentious foodie terminology.

A fun stocking stuffer for food bloggers and anyone who snaps photos of their food.

 If you celebrate Christmas, what are your favorite stocking stuffers and traditions?