Tag Archives: baking

A Splash of Licorice

It’s no big secret that I love to bake. So when two of my friends took a trip to Atlanta recently, they were kind enough to bring me a new baking book – Sonya Jones’ Sweet Auburn DessertsThis collection of recipes, named for the author’s bakery in Atlanta, focuses on Southern and African-American traditional recipes. 

My attention was immediately caught by one of the recipes – the Sazerac Tassies. Sazeracs are a New Orleans variation on an Old-Fashioned, one of the earliest examples of an American cocktail. Made with rye, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters, the cocktail has a distinct licorice note. The word tassie refers to a traditional Southern tart, so teeny that they are served more as cookies. Chef Jones plays up the licorice flavor of the Sazerac in these treats, filling the tartlet with a light custard flavored with anise liqueur.

I was intrigued because the Sazerac is a favorite cocktail of mine, as a lover of all things licorice, and I liked  the idea of the cute little tarts. So when the third Comicazi Cookie Clash rolled around, I decided to bake the little guys as my wild card entry. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t do well in the judging – anise is a very polarizing flavor – I know far more folks who don’t like the black jelly beans than those who do (whereas I have loved them from an early age!) I decided to make them anyway because it was something new and it’s important, when one is baking six dozen cookies for charity, to make cookies that you want to eat.

Baking from a new recipe did not prove to be without its challenges, however. The process isn’t terribly complicated – you make a dry, crumbly dough reminiscent of a Mexican Wedding Cake and let it chill in the fridge. Roll it out and press it into tart pans or mini muffin tins. Whip up your custard (I flavored mine with Pernod), pour it into the tart shell, and bake.  It should have been easy, and yet…
despite a mini muffin tin with a non-stick surface AND some strategic use of cooking spray, my tassies stuck. Hard. Any attempt to remove them, from a sharp knife around the edges to some gentle tapping on the bottom led to the tops dislodging. In the end I had to scrape the entire first batch out of the pan and into a giant, sticky mess that I regrettably neglected to photograph.

However, did I let disaster stop me? Heck no I did not! For the second half of the dough I added a key ingredient – mini cupcake liners. I’d considered them at the beginning but since they weren’t called for had decided to leave them out. I fretted that I would still have a sticky mess, this time with paper embedded in it, but thankfully this was not the case – round two came out beautifully!

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Tiny, tasty perfection.

 The tart dough was buttery and light, the custard sweet and full of licorice flavor. From my point of view they are the perfect treat!

As I suspected, the judges disagreed and these cookies did not do well in the Clash (although my Mexican Chocolate Brownies placed in the bar category, thank you very  much.) However, my fellow licorice-lovers adored them, so I feel quite justified in my choice. If you hate licorice but like the idea of mini, flaky tarts, I think the flavoring could easily be changed to lemon or almond or anything you might prefer – the recipe can be found at Serious Eats. I’ll definitely make these again and would love to hear about any modifications you make!

Brioche au Chocolat

A while back I mentioned that I’d picked up the Flour cookbook by Joanne Chang and finally made my own version of my favorite treat from the Flour bakery – the sugar brioche buns. Since then I’ve made many of the items in the cookbook – focaccia:
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sugar cookies:
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even regular brioche:
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But in my heart, I knew that eventually I was going to need to take on a bigger and better challenge: the brioche au chocolat.

Y’see, unlike the sugar brioche buns, in which the main challenge was the brioche dough itself, these little beauties raise the stakes with homemade pastry cream inside. Pastry cream is one of those things that seems deceptively simple, but leaves a lot of room for things to go awry. It’s a rich, vanilla-flavored custard used to, you guessed it, fill pastries. It’s made with eggs, milk, flour, sugar and vanilla, and is cooked over the stove, similarly to real-deal pudding. To me,the issue is that flour – pastry cream, over-cooked, can quickly become grainy. Would I be ready for the task?
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Luckily, J. Chang’s recipes are very well written. If you just do everything PRECISELY THE WAY SHE TELLS YOU TO, you should be just fine. The pastry cream above admittedly looks a little gross, but this is because it is custard. Custard is not the most photogenic member of the food kingdom, kids.

Once I had the brioche dough and the cream ready, the rest of this recipe was relatively pain-free. Spread the cream on the dough:
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Sprinkle with some chopped dark chocolate. I used Taza, of course.
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Fold the pastry over itself into a little envelope of dough:
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Let that puppy grow:
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Bake to a rich mahogany:
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I would NOT recommend this recipe for the dessert-maker in a hurry – the total time from start to finish, what with waiting for brioche to proof and pastry cream to cool, numbers in the days rather than the hours. If you have the time, however, it is totally worth it, and not nearly as scary as it seems.

Operation: Pie

As you can probably imagine, after I rendered my leaf lard I didn’t wait too long to turn it into a pie – I was too excited!

Using my usual pie crust recipe, I decided to go with a half butter, half lard ratio. That way, in theory, I would have the best of both worlds – tasty butter and flake-inducing lard.

Into the food processor went the product of my hard work:
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I’d been keeping it in the freezer, but as you can see it remained fairly soft, more scoopable than cuttable. The smell of it was pleasantly nutty rather than porky, which I took as a good sign for my pastry dreams.

Here it is all whirred together with the butter:
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And with the additional flour:
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When I got to the stage of the crust recipe where I had to mush everything together, I was pleased to note that it was a good deal easier than when all of the fat is butter:
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Usually I have a hard time getting it all to ball together, but this time was a snap! So far, so good. I tossed it into the refrigerator to firm up and went about my day.

Eventually the time came to create the pie. In a happy coincidence, Mr. Menace and I were going that night to the house of our friends Elise and the Goog for dinner – I felt reasonably certain that as fellow adventurous eaters they would be willing to eat a pie that contained pig fat (I don’t believe in feeding people things they’re unaware of, as it can be dangerous!) and it is my motto to always bring something when you are invited to someone’s house. I went with a simple apple because clearly it is the king of pies.

The dough rolled out easily and with less tearing than my usual crusts:
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Look at how smooth and pretty that is!
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This things smelled amazing baking. Here’s the final result:
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Note how puffy the crust got – that’s a good thing! It’s all of the pastry flakes that cause that. It also browned more evenly and deeply – without burning – than my typical pie. Here’s my normal crust for comparison:
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See how much less richly brown it is? Mind you, that was still a pretty tasty pie, but so far, the lard crust has it all over the butter one.

So, how did it taste? I’m going to be really, really honest here – this was easily the best crust that I have ever personally made.
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Perhaps the others will weigh in with their verdicts in the comments, but this was everything I hoped it would be – tender, flaky, with that slight nuttiness carrying through, and moist without being greasy. Rendering the lard is a bit time-consuming, but it’s not difficult, and I got enough for two pies out of the process. Leaf lard – my new secret weapon in the quest for the perfect crust!

Bread Adventures

Hello there! Did you all miss me? I hope you’ll forgive the shocking amount of blog silence of late – things have been insanely busy both at work and at home, and I’ve had little time for either food OR writing.

However, last weekend I finally got to work on a project that I’ve been waiting for ages to do, ever since I learned that a certain cookbook was coming out, and that it contained a certain recipe. You see, near my place of employment is a marvelous bakery – Flour. It’s actually the second location in what is now a mighty empire of three, and it’s a fabulous addition to the Fort Point food choices. For the most part I visit them not for their baked goods, but for the delicious, creative sandwiches, soups, and other lunch choices they offer. (If you’re in town, rush down to any of their locations and order the BLT. You will not regret it.)

However, owner Joanne Chang is rightly known for her pastry skills. Her homemade oreo cookies and pop tarts are the subjects of many glowing reviews, and her sticky buns are legendary – she trounced Bobby Flay in a throw-down with ’em. Flour is a bakery at its heart, after all, and it has one treat in particular that I can’t resist, that captivates my imagination. It’s not nearly as decadent as the sticky buns, nor as kitschy-cute as a homemade oreo. But lord, is it tasty. My weakness? The sugar brioche bun.

For those of you not up on your French bread varieties, brioche is basically bread turned up to 11. It’s chock-full of eggs and butter, resulting in an exceptionally rich and tender crumb. Brioche is what you’d get if white bread and a croissant had a baby, and I love it.

The sugar buns take this concept to the next level, because as Mr. Menace sagely pointed out, they are essentially high-class, French monkey bread. Baked in muffin cups, they’re easy to pull apart, rich and buttery and just dusted in sugar. Soft, tender, and wonderful, this is the breakfast I choose when I’ve had a really good run and have no need to be virtuous. (When I wish to be virtuous, I get Flour’s phenomenal oatmeal – steel-cut oats with seasonal fruit and nuts. The fact that it is not available year-round is a tragedy, but perhaps I am the only person on the planet who would happily eat a bowl of oatmeal mid-summer.)

So, a while back, I learned that Chang was coming out with a cookbook. And thanks to the magic of Twitter, I learned from the great lady herself that the sugar brioche bun recipe would be in said book! It was only a matter of time before the secret was mine!

As it turned out, a bit more time than I thought, because when I finally had the book in my hot little hands, the recipe called for bread flour, the one flour my pantry was currently lacking. And since bread flour has a higher gluten content than all-purpose (gluten is the protein you get from kneading bread – more gluten means more stretchy, bonded-together bread) there was no way I could substitute. Le sigh.

Eventually I gathered all of my ingredients together, along with just enough time to make my buns (another secret of brioche is that it’s proofed – risen – in the fridge. This slows down the yeast production and lets you create more flavor without letting the yeast run amok and burn itself out. This means it takes a long time to get brioche dough completely ready to bake.) I’m not going to share the whole recipe here, because you should really go buy Ms. Chang’s book. It’s got fantastic photos, and the directions are explicit and easy to follow. I will say that the brioche needed quite a bit of kneading, to the point that my poor beleaguered Kitchen-Aid was thumping like mad for about 20 minutes straight. I cannot imagine doing this recipe by hand, even though I know it’s existed since the 15th century and pre-dates stand mixers.

What I will do is show you, in photos, what happened when I moved from the brioche dough into the actual sugar buns!

Here’s the dough, before any handiwork is done:
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Next I shaped it into a 10×5 rectangle. The dough is super-pliable and easy to shape. Yes, I used a ruler to measure my dough-tangle, because I am precise like that. No, my rectangle is not perfect, because I am sloppy like that.
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Slice it up!
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And again, into cute little dough cubes:
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These are put into waiting muffin cups in groups of five, and given a final proofing stage of 1.5 hours. The little cubes get all puffy in their muffin-prison:
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And then bake! This fuses the dough-cubes together into a sort of Frankensteinian amalgamation, the better for tearing off tasty hunks of:
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So golden brown!

Then I brushed the tops with melted butter and rolled them in a sugar and spice mix. I ran the sugar through the food processor first – part of the charm of Flour’s version is that they use extra-fine sugar, allowing for a better coating.
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In the end, my buns were maybe not quite as light and airy as Flour’s – I suspect my yeast is getting old and needs to be retired. Still, they tasted rich and wonderful – well worth all the eggs, butter, and labor!
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The real question is what I will do with the other half of the brioche dough – the recipe makes enough for two! The famous sticky buns, or the brioche au chocolat? Decisions, decisions!

Reminder – the next food adventure is next week! On November 13th we will be visting The Haven for Scottish fare. Please let me know if you’d like to attend – I need to make reservations this weekend!

Chocolate Cream Adventures

I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate cream pie lately, and would like to convince all of you to, as well! But before I do that, have any of you visited Travel, Eat, Love today? Guess who’s the Featured Friday Foodie this week!

Ok, it probably wasn’t too hard to guess. I want to thank Meghan for the chance to yak about myself on her blog. And if you’re coming over here from over there, thank you! I hope you enjoy it!

In the picture of me on Meghan’s blog you can see that I am hilariously about to take a huge bite out of a pumpkin pie, a strange pictorial tradition that my sister Kate and I started for no real reason other than that it amuses us. If you check out my Flickr page you can find scores of pictures of her and me, pretending to lick baked goods. I didn’t say it was a clever joke, but it’s a thing. I bring it up now because that picture is from the housewarming party of Mr. Menace and myself, the theme of which was wine and pie, and while sadly none of them are in that particular picture, it was for that very party that I made my first ever chocolate cream pie.
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To be honest, pudding’s not my all-time favorite food, and so I’d never really bothered before. Besides, how interesting can a one-crust, no bake pie really be? But Mr. Menace is a big fan of this pie, and requested it specifically. How could I refuse him? He’s not usually a sweets fanatic, so I know when he asks for something that it must be very special indeed.

And it turns out that chocolate cream pie, while still not my favorite pie to eat (it’s ok, but it just can’t compete with my precious, precious apple), might be my all time favorite pie to make, because making pudding from scratch is ridiculously fun.

I sense your skepticism. Perhaps you’re thinking of things that are considerably more fun than making pudding, and I understand. We all take our joy where we can find it. But for me, watching sugar, eggs, milk and chocolate come together from disparate ingredients into a cohesive whole is magical – particularly when you go from this:
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where the chocolate just won’t blend into the rest of it and you think you’re going to have a weird, gritty failure, to this:
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Smooth, creamy, and making a total mess out of your stove! Amazing!

Since that party I’ve made the pie on occasion, usually for Thanksgiving or by request for an event. Two weeks ago, however, I was suddenly struck by the urge to make one for no real reason other than the thrill of pie baking.

That pie was something of a departure, because I usually use bittersweet chocolate, but having run out, threw in semisweet chips instead. They melted like a dream and the resulting pie, while shockingly sweet, was actually quite good. Slathered in homemade whipped cream and wrapped into a flaky crust, it was the perfect sort of sugarbomb treat for a chilly winter afternoon.
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The semisweet chips have me pondering other alternations I could make to the recipe – almond extract instead of vanilla? Perhaps a Mexican chocolate variation? What effect would different levels of cacao have? I have a feeling that our chocolate cream adventures are only beginning!

Holiday Happenings

I mentioned in the “Snowy Day” post that I would fill you in on the further details of our cookie decorating party, and here they are!

This is a tradition that started about four Christmases ago, when I was getting ready to prepare my usual cookie plates. A large bulk of the cookies are decorated sugar cookies – they’re festive and fun, not too difficult, and have a sweet simplicity that people seem to enjoy. However, in large quantities, they are horrifyingly tedious. Sugar cookies are refrigerator cookies – the dough needs to be chilled, then rolled out with a pin and cut into shapes, or rolled into a log and sliced into circles if you’re less ambitious. The baker then baby-sits umpteen cookie sheets at about 5-8 minutes each, finally decorating them when they’re cool. I prefer to make a simple icing, color it, and paint the cookies. Which is fun for about five cookies or so, but when one is making five dozen becomes the most boring task imaginable. I found I’d often resort to dipping cookies into one color or another just to be done. The joy was being sucked out of my holiday preparations!

Then, in 2006, it struck me that what I needed was help. Not only to reduce the number of cookies I was icing, but to inject a little fun into the proceedings. I decided to throw a party – not a cookie swap, I didn’t need cookies coming INTO the house, but a decorating soiree, complete with savory snacks and mulled wine! (Mulled wine is a sure-fire way to make your house smell like Christmas, as well as to make a $14 box of wine a completely acceptable beverage to serve to your guests. I’d link you a recipe, but I just use a tin of mulling spices and follow the directions on it. My only real addition – orange slices.) That first year just four folks came over, but we had such a grand time that I vowed never to ice alone again.

We’ve come a long way with this party – more participants, better snacks, and prizes for arbitrary categories of my choosing! This year I even made different sorts of sugar cookie – a regular batch, a double-vanilla batch, and a spiced batch. I nearly didn’t hold it this year, what with all of the Marathon baking, but I’m really glad I did. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the season with good friends!

Here are this year’s winning cookies!

Best Traditional Cookie: Shaded Snowman
Traditional Snowman

Most Creative Use of Shape: Coyote from Dragonfly:
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Best Use of Color: Trout
Color winner

Most Evil Cookie: Blue Ghost
Hungry Ghosts

And last but not least…

What?!: Trojan Horse
Trojan Horse

Thank you to everyone who came out this year and celebrated with us! Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and to those who don’t, Happy Year’s End!

One Month Down!

Today marks the end of one full month of training! I celebrated by running seven miles, with a hill smack in the middle – Park Avenue. It’s a pretty serious hill, about three quarters of a mile long and rising, from what I can figure out from GMaps elevation setting, almost 200 vertical feet – the summit is 380.5 feet above sea level! To put that in perspective, Heartbreak Hill has a rise of only about 88 vertical feet – its difficulty stems from where it falls in the marathon, rather than how high it is. I figure tackling Park Ave as part of my training will help gear me up for the marathon’s challenges. It was strange to run up it alone – I’ve done it many times before with my dear friend and training buddy, Nandi, but this was the first time I mastered the beast solo. When I crested the top and rounded the large water tower that marks the summit (an exact copy of the ancient Greek Arsinoeon of Samothrace), I noticed for the first time that from that vantage point is a perfect view of the Boston skyline. I’ll try to bring my camera with me the next time I run up – it was absolutely breathtaking (though running up the hill may have had something to do with that).

My other big accomplishment this weekend has quite a bit more to do with the theme of this blog – I earned another $250 towards my goal by selling baked goods at the always amazing Comicazi-Con and Bad-Ass Bazaar! There’s a true pleasure in large amounts of hard work paying off, and I think it’s great to have these mini-victories before the final big ones of raising my goal and finishing the marathon. Two of the items I baked this year were from old family recipes – pumpkin roll and lemon squares.

The first is something my mother makes every Thanksgiving, usually to be consumed the next morning as it’s the perfect breakfast treat. A thin pumpkin bread is slathered in cream cheese frosting and rolled into an absolutely beautiful spiral. Mine came out pretty well considering it was the first time I’d baked it!
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I sold it by the slice and it did pretty well, particularly in the morning with vendors looking for some breakfast.

The lemon squares are a recipe that my Nana, Stella Reczek, used to make for special occasions. Nana was a decent cook; she mostly made standard 1950’s housewife fare. There were certain recipes, however, that she just nailed, and these lemon squares are included in that category. The most important difference between her lemon squares and those you usually get, as any of my siblings will tell you, is that they are properly sour. They actually taste like lemon! There are few things more disappointing, in my opinion, than an overly sweet lemon square. The second secret is that the crust incorporates coconut. While I’m not usually a fan of the stuff due to the creepy texture, in the lemon squares the shredded coconut acts to break up the extremely buttery, shortbread-like crust, adding a needed airiness and texture.
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In addition to these and other goodies, I held two raffles! One was for another holiday pie baked by me, the other for my mother’s famous cheesecake. And the winners are:

For the pie: Kelly Strauch! You DID win your apple pie at last!

For the cheesecake: Garth McMurray! Congratulations!

Thank you to everyone for buying tickets and supporting my cause!