Friday, February 19, 2010

Cocoa Brownies


These luscious little beauties have been popping up all over the blogosphere lately, and though I've bookmarked the recipe more than once, I've been skeptical about how good they could really be. My preferred brownie recipes have always incorporated melted chocolate into the batter, and even though I had yet to find that brownie (you know, THE ONE, the perfect marriage of texture and flavor), I didn't give much thought to this recipe, because what's a brownie without melted chocolate?


Heaven in your mouth, if you must know. A brownie like this leaves you in awe of its unhindered deep chocolatey-ness, makes you wonder where its dense, fudgy texture with its paper-thin crinkly top has been all your life, and makes you vow to never love another brownie again. I may sound ridiculous, but I'll bet that you'll be writing your own love sonnets to these brownies after you try them. The melted chocolate that I thought I loved most about other brownies turned out to be exactly what was coming between me and my brownie nirvana due to the presence of cocoa butter, which can really tamp down all the great qualities of cocoa. I was tempted to serve these with ice cream and homemade caramel sauce, but I just couldn't imagine that those usual bells and whistles would make these showstoppers any more impressive than they already are. Use a good quality cocoa powder for these. Splurge on something other than Nestle and Hershey's (I hate to call them out by name, but they just won't cut it in this case). I recommend cutting them into small squares, because they satisfy even the most voracious chocolate craving after only a couple of bites.


Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies

10 tablespoons (141 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (280 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (82 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (66 grams) all-purpose flour

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

2. Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

3. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

4. Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

5. Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back to Basics: Extracts


I would be remiss if, during a kitchen basics-themed month here at FLMH, I didn't write a post on extracts. Extracts have to be the easiest, least labor intensive thing that will ever come out of your kitchen. Most of us don't think twice when we pay six bucks for a couple ounces of vanilla extract, but in reality, extracts are some of the most expensive items by volume that most of us have in our pantries. When compared with how simple and inexpensive they are to make at home, the expense of the store-bought extracts seems needless. I know the thought on many of your minds is "but what if I want vanilla extract? Aren't vanilla beans expensive?" Well, yes, if you're buying them at the grocery store and paying sixteen dollars for two scrawny beans. There are, however, plenty of places online where you can order beans in bulk for a much more reasonable price (I use saffron.com). I can get a half pound of good-quality beans here for fifteen or sixteen dollars, the same price I'd pay for two or three beans at my local
grocery store. That's usually about forty five beans, folks. Do the math.


The general ratio for a single-strength vanilla extract is three beans to every cup of liquor, but you can double the amount of beans for a stronger extract. Most recipes I've seen on the blogosphere call for vodka, but I prefer to use rum for vanilla extract because I like that warm kiss that rum lends toward baked goods, and I find that rum compliments the vanilla flavor more effectively than vodka does.

Vanilla Extract

3 vanilla beans, split
1 cup liquor (I prefer rum, but vodka is more popular)

Place beans and liquor in a glass jar and seal. Before use, store for at least 6 weeks in a cool, dark place, gently shaking every few days.

Want to make peppermint extract? Fill a jar with clean peppermint leaves that you've slightly bruised with your hands and top off with vodka. How about a citrus extract? Fill a jar with orange or lemon zest (or a combination of both), being careful to not include the pith, and top with vodka. Anise? Drop some star anise into a jar and, well, you get the picture. No matter what kind of extract you make, let it sit in a cool, dark place for at least six weeks (preferably two months) and give the jar a little shake every few days, and voila! You've got yourself a great homemade extract.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Back to Basics: Homemade Oreos


I debated whether or not I should categorize this post as "back to basics" because I don't necessarily think of cookies as a pantry staple. But, let's face it, most people have some sort of packaged cookie on hand at all times, and most of those cookies just aren't as wonderful as they're cracked up to be. As a child, my favorite cookie was the Oreo; I remember being able to eat them by the sleeve (does anyone else miss having the metabolism they had when they were 11?). Now, I can't get past the chemical taste, but I can remedy that problem by making them myself. I can't claim that this is more convenient than just buying them at the store, but they definitely taste the way an Oreo should taste, minus all the funky tasting stuff. The recipe recommends 10-12 minutes of baking, but my cookies were done after only 9 minutes, so you may want to start checking yours around 8 minutes.



Cream-Filled Chocolate Sandwiches
(Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cookies)


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus more for flattening cookies
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
Vanilla Cream Filling (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Into a bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg, beat to combine. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture; continue beating until dough is well combined.

3. Using a 1 1/4" ice cream scoop, drop dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets about 2" apart. Dip bottom of a glass in sugar, press to flatten cookies to about 1/8" thick. (You may need to carefully remove dough from glass with a thin metal spatula).

4. Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are firm, 10-12 minutes (mine only took 9), rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer baking sheets to wire racks to cool completely.

5. Place cream filling in pastry bag fitted with a coupler and pipe about 1 tablespoon of filling onto the flat side of half the cookies. Place remaining cookies on top and gently press on each to squeeze filling to the edges. Filled cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Vanilla Cream Filling
(Makes about 1 cup)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1. With an electric mixer, cream butter and shortening until well combined.

2. On low speed, gradually add confectioners' sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla and beat to combine. Set aside at room temperature until ready to use.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Marsala Poached Pears


One of my favorite ways to end a meal is with a bowl of summer berries topped with a wisp of freshly whipped cream. Sadly for me, summer berries just aren't happening in February, so I need to get my fruit fix elsewhere. Enter the poached pear. I've always enjoyed baked autumn and winter fruits, but somehow I missed the boat when it comes to poaching fruit. It just never appealed to me, and I was content to lend my poaching skills only to eggs, fish, and chicken. I should kick myself.


The only thing I can say about this is BEST. PEAR. EVER. That, and EASIEST dessert ever. Seriously, you just peel a few pears and put them in a covered pot with some wine and spices, walk away for 20 minutes, bask in the smell of the slowly reducing spiced wine, then plate the pears and pour the reduced sauce over them. That's it. As with most things this simple, you can always cater the spices to your palate. If you want to dress it up, serve with ice cream or whipped cream; if you're me and see no reason to discriminate, serve with both.

Marsala Poached Pears
(Adapted from Simply Recipes)

Ingredients

4 bosc pears, peeled, stem still attached, 1/4-inch of bottom sliced off so pears can easily sit upright
1 cup dry Marsala wine (or Madeira)
1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup white sugar
1/2 star anise
4 cloves
1/2 stick cinnamon

1. In a saucepan just large enough to fit all of the pears, place the Marsala wine, sugar, lemon juice, star anise, cloves, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to medium and place the pears in the pan, standing upright. Cover the pan and cook for 10 to 15 minutes (if you want, baste with the liquid a couple of times during the cooking), until the pears can easily be pierced with a fork. Very firm pears make need to cook for up to 20 minutes.

2. Remove the pears to a serving dish. Keeping the pan uncovered, let the Marsala syrup boil down for a few minutes until it is a thick syrup. (If it begins to caramelize, remove pan from the heat and add a little water to the pan to stop the cooking.) Pour syrup over pears and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Back to Basics: Chai Tea


If you were to take a cursory glance at my spice cabinet right now, you'd find a fairly disorganized melange of spices that probably need to be replaced sometime soon. Many of my spices are reaching the end of their usable shelf life, so my newest obsession is replacing all of my ground spices with their whole counterparts and grinding my own as I need them. It's not as time consuming as it sounds, and home ground spices pack a lot more flavor than their pre-ground counterparts. Don't believe me? Take a cinnamon stick and put it through an electric coffee grinder (preferably a metal one, so it doesn't absorb flavors and pass them on to whatever you grind next) and then smell your freshly ground cinnamon next to that powdered cinnamon you bought in bulk two years ago. See? No comparison.


Grinding aside, whole spices can be used in several different ways, most of which replace our favorite drink mixes. I've seen everything from instant coffee with cardamom to instant hot cocoa with anise... but really, how hard is it to make your own cocoa and pop a couple of anise stars in it? Are we really THAT pressed for time, or have we just gotten so used to having everything pre-made that we don't stop to think about how easy it might be to do it ourselves?


At the moment, my favorite application of whole spices is chai tea. I love its versatility and how you can omit several spices, add different spices, and have fun with it until you find something that's perfect for you. Many people use a strong black tea, but I prefer a lighter jasmine tea- it gives the spices more room to shine- and I like to drink mine cold (though it is still quite good hot). I absolutely love the clove/cardamom/anise flavors, but I've added fennel with good results, and if I plan to drink it hot, I'll add a thick strip of orange zest to perk things up a bit.

Chai Tea
(Adapted, with small changes, from here)

Ingredients

2 cups water

1 3″ cinnamon stick

8 cloves

10 cardamom pods (preferably green, but black will work too)

5 black peppercorns

2 Anise Stars

1 1″ piece of ginger

2 tsp loose jasmine tea

1 thick strip orange peel

2 T sugar

1 cup 2% or whole milk

1. Begin heating water in a pot on high. Smack cinnamon stick, cloves, and cardamom pod with the flat side of a knife to break them up a bit. In a dry sauté pan, toast cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, peppercorns, and anise stars (be careful not to burn them). Cut the ginger piece in half and smack the ginger with the flat side of a knife to break it up a bit.

2. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods (make sure you get all the little center seeds, that’s the real flavor), peppercorns, anise stars, ginger, and tea to the water. Boil on high for 12 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the orange peel, sugar, and milk. Continue to cook for about 3 minutes more, being careful not to let the milk boil over.

3. Strain into mugs or into a small pitcher. Can be enjoyed hot or cold.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to Basics: Homemade Marshmallows


This month at Milk and Honey, I'm posting a series of basic recipes that I strongly feel everyone should have at their fingertips. We take so many things in our pantries for granted, but what would we do if there was a run on mayonnaise or on our favorite spice mixes? Go without? I certainly would not; after all, most of our favorite pantry items predate the industrial process by at least several hundred years, meaning that people used to make these things from scratch, without hesitation, as a way of life. Purchasing the pre-made stuff may be convenient, but that perceived gain in convenience is more than lost in flavor and quality. The sad part is that most of these beloved items are incredibly easy to make, but we are so far removed from the process that we assume that preparation must be either time consuming or difficult. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be surprised by how quickly most of your pantry favorites can be made and by how any from-scratch item trumps its store bought counterpart in the flavor department.


I can't think of a better way to start this series than marshmallows. As a teenager, I learned how long marshmallows have actually been around, and it blew my mind. The mallows to which I was accustomed were so obviously processed and chemically treated that I couldn't fathom what they should taste like in their original form. What kept me coming back for more? Pure ignorance. Now that I know better, I like to keep the ingredients for mallows on hand at all times. They make great gifts, and they take rice krispie treats, hot cocoa, and s'mores to a whole new level. This recipe is for basic marshmallows, but flavor additions are limitless. Try adding slices of fresh ginger to the pot while the syrup boils for ginger mallows, or add lavender and Lillet to the final stages of whipping for a classier, grown-up treat. If you like your mallows a bit softer, reduce the whipping time; for firmer mallows, increase it.

Homemade Marshmallows
(Adapted from Alton Brown)

Ingredients:

3 packets unflavored gelatin
1 cup ice cold water, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
Nonstick spray

1. Place the gelatin into the bowl of a stand mixer along with 1/2 cup of the water. Have the whisk attachment standing by.

2. In a small saucepan combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium high heat, cover and allow to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

3. Turn the mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping. While the mixture is whipping prepare the pans as follows.

For regular marshmallows:

1. Combine the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly spray a 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Add the sugar and cornstarch mixture and move around to completely coat the bottom and sides of the pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.

2. When ready, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

3. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners' sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

For miniature marshmallows:

1. Combine the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Line 4 half sheet pans with parchment paper, spray the paper with nonstick cooking spray and dust with the confectioners' sugar mixture.

2. Scoop the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round piping tip. Pipe the mixture onto the prepared sheet pans lengthwise, leaving about 1-inch between each strip. Sprinkle the tops with enough of the remaining cornstarch and sugar mixture to lightly cover. Let the strips set for 4 hours or up to overnight.

3. Cut into 1/2 inch pieces using a pizza wheel or scissors dusted with the confectioners' sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining sugar mixture and store in an airtight container for up to a week.