Friday, June 15, 2018

Easy as Rollin' Off a Log

Hello loyal readers! It's been a while. And by a while, I mean since Christmas. And by since Christmas, I mean I HAVEN'T BAKED SINCE CHRISTMAS!!! Isn't that horrible? I was so busy with so many other things that I just haven't had the time and I was starting to forget where my mixer even was!

But here I am today, enjoying my summer hours at work by waiting at home for the refrigerator repairman. Larry said he'd be here at 1:00. It is currently 4:30. Larry is still not here. I already planted a bunch of flowers and watched a bunch of Gilmore Girls and I am BORED. And what else is there to do when you're bored except bake? So I went foraging in my pantry to see what I have ingredient-wise and ended up having just enough pecans to make Martha Stewart's Pecan Logs. I've never had a pecan log but I figure it has pecans so it must not be bad. Plus Martha's recipes are usually safe and easy to not screw up.

So I started out by putting a bunch of pecans on a pan to toast them in the oven. Mmmmmm pecans. Then I successfully softened my butter and added my confectioner's sugar (no regular sugar in this one) and turned on my mixer. And the bowl promptly jumped off the counter and fell to the floor. Yup, definitely forgot to lock in the bowl. Rookie mistake. That's as bad as forgetting to put the top on a blender. I was very embarrassed by my mistake but fortunately, I was the only one who saw it so nobody has to know about it. Shhhhh....

Amazingly, none of the ingredients fell on the floor (even though the bowl did) and I could get back to work. Very simple recipe: butter, powdered sugar, an egg, flour, salt, baking powder, pecans and OH, LARRY IS FINALLY HERE!

Ok, now he's under my fridge so I can resume. Like I said, simple recipe overall. Although I did notice that there was proportionally an awful lot of salt. One and a half teaspoons to be precise. That's not necessarily a lot but it seems like it when there's only two and a half cups of flour in the dough. We shall see. I lazily eyeballed the "half the pecans" direction because half the pecans go in the dough and half are used for rolling the pecan logs in. I tossed the dough in the fridge to set and immediately compromised with myself by saying "well, it's supposed to chill for 30 minutes but how about I let it chill for as long as it takes my oven to preheat?" Because I'm bored.

Once the dough was semi-chilled (sorry, Martha, I know you're right but I don't care today), I was instructed to roll tablespoons of dough into 2 inch logs. We should all know by now how good I am with measurements. If you don't know, the answer is: bad. Once again, I eyeballed it. The first few looked gigantic so I started rolling them smaller. I was supposed to get 4 dozen pecan logs. I got 2.5 dozen. Pretty close! I also had to roll these logs into the chopped pecans. This was not a terrible task but I felt like the pecans were falling off a bit. I wanted to press them into the dough but then I lost the shape of the log. Although, I'm not super sure why they need to be log-shaped anyway. Why couldn't they just be cookie shaped? I'm overthinking this but I'm managing my anxiety about Larry asking how old my fridge is.

Anyway, into the oven they go for 14-15 minutes (oddly specific, Martha) and I wait. And made myself a cup of tea. Finally they were done and I pulled them out and they looked perfect. Lightly browned and slightly cracked. They didn't grow at all, as I suspected they wouldn't, so with the exception of the couple of giant ones, most of the pecan logs are delightful two bite pieces. When they finally cooled, I prepared myself for a lovely little Friday afternoon treat:

Ok, so maybe it doesn't necessarily look appetizing but oh man, are these ever delicious! Crumbly, but not too crumbly. Sweet, but not too sweet. Oddly enough, I think the huge amount of salt really help the flavor although next time, I might use juuuuuust a bit less. You can definitely taste the salt. But it does help balance out the overwhelming pecan flavor.

Overall, not my favorite Martha pecan recipe (that honor still goes to the Pecan Tassies!) but delicious nonetheless! So, now I've satisfied my boredom and have two dozen pecan logs. Anybody want to come over for a cookie?

Say a prayer for the outcome of Larry's investigation...

Friday, January 12, 2018

Super Simple Apple Pie

This blog post is brought to you by: seeing one of those stupid accelerated cooking videos on Facebook. My husband showed me a video of an apple pie that had a cinnamon bun crust and a cinnamon bun top and instead of the normal person's reaction of "oh, isn't that amusing", my reaction was "I NEED TO MAKE THAT NOWWWWW." So I did.

Well, sort of. The first thing to do was look for an actual legitimate recipe. And I couldn't find a single one that had cinnamon buns as both the top layer and the bottom layer. I suppose I could have combined two recipes but that inherently felt like a phenomenally bad idea. So I opted to go with the Pillsbury Cinnamon Roll Dutch Apple Pie which has a cinnamon roll crust and involves peeling no apples.

This is seriously one of the easiest desserts ever. To make the crust, you press one cinnamon roll into the middle of your pie plate and then surround it with the other seven cinnamon rolls. Press them together until you seal all the gaps. Bam. Bake crust.

While it was baking, I made the crumble which goes on top. It consisted of brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and flour. My only problem here is that it suggested combining with a fork. I wasn't getting quite the crumbly quality I was looking for so I switched to my pastry blender. That helped a bit but it wasn't entirely there and then I remembered that the best way to make crumble is with my hands. Two seconds later, perfect crumb for the top of the pie. Then I stirred in some pecans because who doesn't love pecans?

At this point, the crust was done baking and was cooling off a little bit. I opened up the can of apple pie filling with no regrets because I hate peeling apples and I have had no success with apple pie yet. Then I was an idiot and went to move the crust to a more open counter space, completely forgetting that it had just been in the oven. Six of my fingers were not pleased. Fortunately, my instinctual reaction to being burned is to throw down the thing that is burning me and not grab on tighter. Also fortunately, I didn't drop the pie plate onto the ground. It was pretty harrowing.

After running my fingers under cool water, I put the apple filling into the pie, topped with the crumb, covered the edges with tin foil and then stuck it in the oven for 30 minutes. Beautiful. The grand finale was microwaving the cinnamon bun icing and topping the pie with decorative drizzles. Voila!

Not the best picture in the world but it sure was tasty! I was expecting it to be way too sweet but somehow it wasn't. Very nicely balanced. It's my new favorite super low effort pie. Easy for beginner bakers if you're interested in giving it a try!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Back to Basics Christmas

Happy New Year everyone! I just discovered that I am 23 posts away from 100 blog posts. So now I'm pretty dedicated to making it there. Now that I'm happily in my new home, I have yet another new kitchen to get used to baking in. And what better way to kick off baking in a new kitchen than with the annual Christmas baking insanity with my dear friend? Devotees will recall that last year ended in disaster and tears and sad cookies and truffles. This year, we decided it was time to go back to basics to get our Christmas baking mojo back. We decided to go with a plan of all things we had made before with only one new cookie and NO TRUFFLES. It was hard dropping the truffles but after last year, we really needed the break.

So here's the plan:
1) Palmiers
2) Walnut balls (the CORRECT recipe this time!)
3) M&M cookies
4) Cookie press cookies (i.e. Christmas trees)
5) Double chocolate cookies
6) White chocolate ginger cookies (our new addition)

Seems like a fair plan, right? Even more relaxing, we had a slumber party planned so we could do the baking over two days! Well, you know what they say about plans...

For reference, I had only moved into my house two weeks prior, on the day before Thanksgiving. So to say I was a bit frazzled and knew where nothing was is an understatement. The result of this was basically me looking in my cabinet, saying "I've got the walnuts and the M&Ms and surely I have everything else I'll need", and then actually having none of what I needed. We went to bake the first batch of cookies only to discover that I had no puff pastry for the palmiers and only one stick of unsalted butter. Who runs out of butter??? This girl.

I enlisted my dear husband to run to the supermarket for us. Because we didn't feel like going outside. Really and truly, that was the reasoning. Since I had my husband going to the store anyway, I decided to also add things that probably needed replacing in my cabinet. Baking powder from 2012 is probably no longer super effective. His list consisted of baking powder, baking soda, puff pastry, some spices for the ginger cookies, and five pounds of butter. "Five pounds?!?" he says. "Of course, five pounds!" we says. So off he goes. While he's there, our evening looks like this:

Not pictured: Home Alone on the TV. Priorities. Finally, my dear husband arrived (about the same time as our whole cheese pizza just for me us) with this:

We. Could. Not. Stop. Laughing.

Technically, I suppose he correctly bought five pounds of butter. But it's whipped butter! Which I have never bought in my entire life and has never been in our fridge in our entire relationship! I attempted to research if we could even use whipped butter and the resounding answer from the internet was "nope." Also not pictured: the world's largest box of baking soda and the TWO cans of baking powder (which, in fairness, a nice lady at the supermarket suggested he buy after hearing we make several hundred cookies). Remember, we were only getting these ingredients because I hadn't used up the stuff I bought FIVE YEARS AGO. [I love you, husband! Thanks for trying!]

So where does this leave us? Eating pizza, drinking wine, and watching Home Alone while my dear husband goes back to Shop Rite at 11 pm to return the offensive butter and no baking at all on Day 1. I guess we were no worse off than any other year though.

We woke up in the morning to nice normal sticks of butter in the fridge with a pound left out on the counter to soften overnight (nice idea, but the first thing we did was take out the other four pounds. We blew through that first pound in about 2 minutes.) So we could get right to baking! We started off with the cookie press cookies. We didn't do any planning for a numerical goal or for how many batches we wanted for each so I think we tripled the batch for the cookie press so we could do four shapes and colors. This logic made sense early in the morning. In reality, we made two types in two colors. But that was fine, easy to accomplish and brought our cookie count to a quick 150 or so.

I think next we made the ginger cookies. Those were the new ones and required several steps so I think we decided to get them out of the way early. The dough was pretty easy to put together except for one thing: when I was making my list of spices, I didn't actually check the recipe and was just going from memory. So instead of getting nutmeg, I told my dear husband to get allspice. Whoops. I didn't have any nutmeg. But instead of fretting, we just used the allspice and hoped it would taste good. [It did.] The first batch of cookies was a little bit underbaked and the cookies were a little too big so after that we made them a bit smaller and cooked them a bit longer. Then they were perfect circles of gingery excellence. We put them aside for later because the next step was dipping them in chocolate and piping adorable holly berries on them. No potential for failure there whatsoever.

On to the next critically important step: walnut balls! We were so heartbroken last year that we needed to take extra care this year. We checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the recipe. We carefully measured everything. We remembered to sift the powdered sugar. Aaaaaaaaaaand...they're perfect! Little nutty balls of heaven. Note for next year though: sifting the powdered sugar does nothing. We won't waste our time next year.

With those out of the way, we turned our attention to our next potential problem. Namely, we started to get afraid of running out of flour and, you guessed it, butter! Around this point, we were also talking about taking a coffee and breakfast break. As we were discussing our urgent need for coffee, an angelic voice from upstairs yelled "give me a few minutes and I'll get you coffee!" Husband to the rescue! The kicker was when he was taking our coffee order and I threw in the "hey, while you're out, could you pick up some more butter?" and his jaw almost hit the floor. His immediate reaction seemed to be "no, you have more than enough butter" but then he was very sweet and got us flour and butter. Which we didn't end up needing. Whoops.

About this point, we started to divide and conquer. I took out the puff pastry to thaw for the palmiers and started collecting the various chocolate needed for the double chocolate cookies while my friend worked on making the base for the M&M cookies. I melted A LOT of chocolate. I don't even want to tell you how much. But those cookies are a tried and true favorite even if they aren't very Christmas-y. On the other hand, one of our goals was to make a pretty tin of cookies with lots of colors and designs so it helped fill out the tins in that way. One of our other goals was to make the M&M cookies smaller this year, which we accomplished, but it was much harder to get the M&Ms into the cookies fast enough. We also baked up the chocolate cookies which take forever to bake so we finally got a little break. I also ran out of cocoa. Tired yet?!?

Speaking of chocolate, we still have to dip those ginger cookies! At this point, we had completely run out of space in the kitchen and on my dining room table so that means dipping the cookies in chocolate and then laying them on wax paper on the floor. SorryNotSorry. We started the chocolate melting adventure by choosing bad vessels for dipping and realizing that we each needed our own bowls of melted chocolate if we were ever going to finish. We used white Wilton candy melts and apparently the thing that makes chocolate smooth for dipping is adding shortening and NOT increasing the microwaving time. Thanks, Google! It actually worked perfectly except that I ran out of white chocolate candy melts and white chocolate and my giving a crap level was quite low at this point. So even though we were only dipping half of each cookie, we somehow managed to use a technique where we only covered the top of half the cookies. Basically, from the top, the cookies look perfect but from the bottom, they look like a disaster mess. But we managed to eek out enough chocolate to dip all but three cookies so mission: accomplished.

We're in the home stretch! And starving because we've only eaten a bagel all day. We once again called upon our fetching hero to fetch us some lunch/dinner at the grilled cheese restaurant. And we got going on the palmiers. Which we never should leave to last because they take FOREVER. Fortunately, I have a ton of baking pans so we could cut almost all the cookies and place them on pans to be ready to bake. At this point, there was pan overflow into my living room. Things are a bit of a blur here because I think we were also piping the ginger cookies at the same time. My friend was piping the red berries and I was piping the holly leaves. On the floor. We quickly discovered a need for pillows under our knees but it was rather uncomfortable regardless. Naturally, I didn't have piping bags large enough for all of the chocolate I needed so once the bags got refilled, our hands were covered in red and green chocolate. It took forever. My hands cramped. But I do have to say, the effort was worth it because these cookies were adorable and delicious.

Note the trays of uncooked palmiers in the foreground. Palmiers continued their endless baking while we cleaned up the kitchen and packed up the cookies. Here's a photo of the stuffed dining room table with tasty cookies:

Ok, really that's about 2/3 of the cookies because you may recall, they just didn't all fit. And our final cookie tally this year was a whopping 667. Not our record but not half bad either for one day of baking. Here's our very scientific tracking system:

Whew! All the cookies came out great and we definitely have our confidence back! Guess we'll have to do something crazy for next year, right?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Anchors Aweigh!

Ahoy! How exciting, two posts in one month! I'm on a roll. This post is brought to you by my sister's birthday, baking in a new kitchen, and viewers like you. Normally I do something completely crazy for my sister's birthday (see: TARDIS, panda cupcakes, cookie monster macarons) but I have the problem of my living situation being somewhat complicated right now and my baking tools being very far away from me. So I decided to go with something simple: cupcakes with fun anchor decorations because my sister loves anchors. Easy enough, right? HA.

The first decision to make was what to make the anchor decorations out of. Ever helpful Googling suggested just using Wilton candy melts and then piping the shapes. I seriously considered this idea because a) it's just melting chocolate and b) chocolate is yummy. However, it is August and chocolate is also melty. I wasn't confident enough in the anchors not melting after piping. Then I remembered the adorable glasses from the Smart Cookies that I piped with royal icing and they were super duper easy and dried perfectly. So I opted for royal icing. Next, I had to deal with the problem of having no tools whatsoever. I took a quick trip to Michaels and picked up the super awesome food dye kit (if you'll recall, I'm never dying anything again without this color palette of food dyes. Don't care about the cost. Worth it.) and investigated some piping tips. I didn't want to get anything too expensive but I knew that I needed at least two piping tips (one fine for the decorations, one large for the cupcake frosting) and I knew that my mom's piping bag is crap so I wasn't going to deal with that nonsense. Then my eyes fell upon a set of two squeeze bottles with #2 piping tips (the fine ones) for only $5. How wonderful! Seems like it will be an easy and not at all messy way of piping my decorations! You totally believe me that that's how it turned out, right? Finally, I got frustrated considering what to do with the big piping tip and just bought the tip I needed for $1 and said, "Eh, I'll use the method of cutting the corner of a Ziplock bag and call it a day."

Tools acquired, I asked my sister what flavor cupcakes she would like. She sent me four ridiculous flavors with no recipes attached. Because of course. I landed on the salted caramel cupcakes because they sounded yummiest to me and the most attainable. Did I mention that I have none of my cookbooks with me also? No? Well, I didn't. So boxed chocolate cupcakes it is and I'll have to find a salted caramel buttercream recipe on the interwebs.

The night before the birthday party, I set sail to pipe my anchors (get it?!?!?!). I made my royal icing which is pretty easy because it's just egg white, vanilla, and powdered sugar until you get stiff peaks for good piping consistency. I also dyed the royal icing black (I was originally thinking a dark blue but then changed my mind). This was probably a mistake because I always forget that the color card specifies 70 drops of black dye to get the color black and that much dye in that little icing turns people's mouths whatever color I'm dying it. Whoops. Too late. Once my icing was the right color, I started to put it into my handy dandy squeeze bottle. Or maybe not so handy dandy. Because the problem with a squeeze bottle instead of a piping bag is that it only has a small bottle-sized opening to put all the icing in through! So it takes forever and I had to develop a system of using the spatula to put some icing on top of the bottle and then used the back of a spoon to poke the icing enough to let some air through so it would actually go in the bottle. It was messy, it was slow, it was annoying. That's what I get for not just buying a piping bag. (I'd also like to point out that while I was raging in the kitchen, my mom and husband were paying exactly zero attention to my struggles. Too bad, it was pretty amusing.)

Anyway, once I finally filled the squeeze bottle, I started to pipe my anchors. The interwebs encouraged me to print out a template to put under my parchment paper but templates are for suckers. I simply googled "anchor royal icing decorations" and then eyeballed it from the image on my phone. And you know what? They came out surprisingly well! Piping with the stupid squeeze bottle hurt my hands and it was slow going but I think they came out pretty nice. They definitely actually look like anchors. Then I got bored of making anchors so I went rogue and did some fishies, some seaweed, and a few octopi (ok, maybe they're sept-or-fewer-opi). Then I offered the piping bottle to my mom and husband to see if they wanted to make any creations. Husband opted out and said he'd just eat them later and my mom attempted some shells and a truly horrifying mermaid (pictured below for your amusement). Off to bed to let them dry into perfectly professional decorations!


Now that went so smoothly so the rest of this will obviously be a shit show. First I had to make the cupcakes. Yes, I went with a boxed mix because I was short on time and didn't care. Unfortunately, this was needlessly difficult because it was an unfamiliar kitchen in my mom's fancy new shore house and I couldn't find a damn thing. And I'm extra annoyed because the box said it made 24 cupcakes but making 24 cupcakes with that amount of batter led to some very low cupcakes. Most of them didn't puff up above the ridge of the cupcake sleeve which made piping annoying and difficult. Not sure if it's because the cake mix was too fudgy or what but it was irritating.

Whatever, on to the fun part: salted caramel buttercream! I went through several recipes online and finally landed on one that looked relatively simple and caramel-y. A lot of recipes called for store-bought caramel syrup and that just didn't seem right to me. Eventually I found one that forced me to make my own caramel syrup. Buttercream is actually quite easy. It just requires a lot of butter and a lot of powdered sugar. Then for this recipe, I had to add my homemade caramel syrup. I was directed to boil water and sugar until it turns a light golden brown (super boring to watch, by the way) and then add heavy cream and vanilla VERY slowly. This almost went perfectly except for the part where some of the caramel converted to a soft ball stage and my spoon got stuck to the bottom of the pot while I was stirring. Oops. But it wasn't a whole lot so once the mixture cooled, I just poured in the amount that was pour-able and discarded the rest. Flawless logic. Baking is definitely not an exact science, right? Only thing left was to dye the buttercream a light ocean blue and assemble the cupcakes! (You can barely tell from the pictures because I'm bad at photography but I swear, the buttercream is blue!)

Having abandoned my nonsense squeeze bottle, I filled a plastic bag with the buttercream, inserted the piping tip into the corner and cut the tip off. And it worked great. No messes, perfect piping. Lovely spirals of buttercream even though the cupcakes were way too short. I was rockin', I was rollin', I was...suddenly out of buttercream with four cupcakes left. Well, screw that, I'm not making more buttercream. Those four are now officially chocolate muffins for breakfast. Last but not least, I had to remove my decorations from the parchment paper to adorn my adorable cupcakes. First anchor off: no problem. Second anchor off: broke in half. Must've been a defective anchor. Third anchor off: DEAR GOD, WHY ARE THEY ALL BREAKING! I underestimated how delicate these decorations were and do not yet have a good technique for handling them. The result was a lot of broken anchors, amputated octopi, and a decapitated mermaid. But I did the best I could and put in the broken decorations so it looked like they were under the waves of the frosting. All in all, it didn't end up looking that terrible.

Seriously, my photography skills need some work. But most importantly of all, these cupcakes were DELICIOUS! Recall that I do not have a sweet tooth but I inhaled this cupcake. So so so so good. I could've used a bigger cupcake to carry all of that buttercream but whatever, it was nummy. Overall, another success even with some bumps in the road. Might need to revisit some cookies next, it's been a while...

Monday, August 21, 2017

PeCAN I Start Baking Again Now?

Eight months without baking. That's just not right, friends. Not just eight months without blogging about baking, no no. Eight months without baking. If I've baked anything between now and New Years', I don't remember what it was but it couldn't have been substantial. My metaphysical angst has returned and I believe it to be in direct correlation to the amount of dust on my KitchenAid.

Step one: Dust my KitchenAid.

Today seemed like the perfect excuse to get my bake on since I have some friends coming over for dinner. I started my morning by searching for the perfect dessert to go with kabobs. Just kidding, I definitely didn't think that hard about it. I pulled out the good ol' Martha cookies book and I thought about making something tried and true but that would be so boring. Then I saw that there was a recipe for pecan bars that I've never tried before. Pretty easy to get back into the groove of things. Or so I hoped.

The first thing I was told to do was preheat the oven. Check. Then make the crust. This involved creaming the butter and brown sugar and I miraculously managed to make that happen. You know, considering how long it's been since I baked, it's a genuine miracle that my brown sugar was soft enough to use. Then I added my salt and my flour and bam! Crust done. I pressed the dough into the pan and pierced the bejeezus out of it with a fork and then was directed to chill it for 20 minutes. What? TWENTY minutes? Why on earth did I preheat my oven when I started? Why does Martha think an oven takes 30-40 minutes to preheat? Does she think there's little miniature Boy Scouts sitting in my oven with sticks and leaves trying to start a fire? Silly Martha.

To be efficient while the crust was chilling, I put together the ingredients for the filling. It's just butter, brown sugar, honey, sugar, and heavy cream at first. I finally killed my honey bear with this recipe. I actually almost didn't have enough but I stood over the saucepan letting the honey drip out ever so slowly for approximately 10 minutes so I think I ended up with enough at the end. I squeezed that honey bear for all he was worth. All that is in a pot ready to be boiled and then I'll just stir in some salt, pecans, and vanilla extract. Hmm. Where is my vanilla extract? I searched every single cabinet that seemed even marginally related to baking and could not for the life of me find my big bottle of vanilla extract. Is it possible that I used it up and forgot about it? I dove into my pantry for a deeper hunt and allllllll the way in the back, I found a little box with Big Y vanilla extract! Success! And it doesn't even expire until...January, 2015. Hmm. How much of a risk do I think that is? I mean, I doubt it'll outright poison my guests. It's unopened but there's a chance I may not get that potent vanilla flavor. Hmm. Well, I'm not going out to the store so I guess it'll have to do.

I just took the crust out of the oven (yes, I'm mid-recipe while I write this) and I am supposed to lower the oven to 325 and let the crust cool completely. Nice try, Martha. I turned the oven off until the crust cools. I imagine it may take a while in 90 degree heat.

Oh my goodness! I literally just remembered that I brought back vanilla extract from Mexico! Be right back...

YES! Found it! And before you comment on the fact that it was staring me in the face while I was looking for the other bottle, let me say that the other bottle was a slightly different shape. So I obviously can't be held accountable for not seeing it. Obviously. Goodbye, vanilla extract from 2015. I'm not going to deal with your nonsense.

And now I'm just waiting for the crust to cool. And waiting. And waiting. And reading the rest of the recipe. I've got some real questions about the end of the recipe where I'm supposedly going to be able to just invert the bars onto a cooling rack with no problems whatsoever. This crust was baked in an ungreased pan so I'm going to anticipate some difficulties with this step. Stay tuned.

I'm back! That went...surprisingly well! No issues with boiling the filling or pouring it on top of the crust (though, to be honest, it didn't look like enough filling/topping and next time I'd probably add more pecans) or baking it and letting it cool. Then, as directed, I used a sharp knife along the edges of the pan, flipped the bars onto a wire rack, and then flipped them back onto a cutting board. No issues! Well, a few crumbs on the floor but it worked perfectly! Not sure what sort of voodoo magic allowed this to happen but I am not complaining.

They looked exactly like the picture! And they were soooooo tasty! Definitely sweet but not overly sweet. I think maybe I could use a little less salt next time but in general, these bars were a great success. Considering I only had two left at the end of the night, I'd say they were pretty well received! Glad to be back - looking forward to more adventures!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Merry Meringues

Guys, I used the WRONG walnut ball recipe! Brown sugar! My recipe lacked brown sugar!

(Ok, so this is in reference to my last post with the crumbling walnut balls. But I just needed to share my discovery of the truth!)

Moving on to this baking adventure! Just a quick post from a baking adventure last week. I had to bake cookies for a holiday party at work. I didn't have much time to do so and I also didn't want to do anything boring. I'm guessing you know what that means? Something completely crazy!

I decided on meringue cookies. I've made these a few times in the past with varying success. BUT! To spice things up and keep it interesting, I saw a recipe online for "merry meringues" which are striped like peppermints! I just had to try it.

I went back to the America's Test Kitchen meringue recipe because it is just the best and I'm positive always gives me the best results. And I love making meringues because they have so few ingredients. Just egg whites, cream of tartar, a pinch of salt, sugar, and vanilla. Making the meringues was so easy. To achieve the striped effect, I was directed to paint colored stripes on the inside of my piping bag. I opted for only 4 stripes of red to test it out. I think this would have worked better with non-plastic bags because I felt like I had trouble with the dye rolling around a bit but overall, I ended up with 4 thin red stripes in my bag.

Then I had to VERY CAREFULLY spoon the meringue into the piping bag without smudging the stripes. It helped that I was working with a gigantic piping bag. So I started piping and the first five or so came out completely white. Not a disaster because hey, they're still going to be yummy meringue cookies. After that though, I actually got the desired effect! I think next time I'll either add more stripes, make them thicker, or pipe while turning to get a spiral but regardless, I really loved how they turned out!

How cute are they?!? I tried to fit as many as possible on the two pans because I wasn't making two batches and actually ended up throwing out a bit of meringue. It was a travesty. I baked them for the appropriate amount of time then let them cool in the oven. When I finally took them out, they popped right off the pans perfectly. And when I bit into one, it was absolute perfection. It was just the right amount of airy goodness - little pillows of perfection. These are probably the most perfect meringues I ever made. Success! I brought them to the party and they were enjoyed by all. I got quite a few compliments on these. See? I can still bake! Ignore that last blog post! Hopefully more tales of holiday baking to come! Especially now that I know the correct walnut ball recipe!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The One Where the Baker Gets Burned (Literally and Figuratively!)

Welcome to the very special holiday edition of this blog! As you may know, at the holidays, there is a lot of baking that goes on but there is one yearly tradition that is an exercise in excess. That's right, the yearly baking with my dear friend where we do crazy things like make over 800 cookies in a single day! It's crazy! It's fun! It's festive! It's exhausting! It's successful! Well, normally, it's successful. This was not. Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride...

This year, we were shooting for 1000 cookies. We say cookies but really that includes truffles and pieces of fudge as well. It was a lofty goal and we weren't going to be disappointed if we didn't hit it but dammit, we were going to try. And it was definitely attainable! After all, we had a plan! So here's our initial list of what we were going to make:
1) Cookie press cookies (quadruple batch)
2) Palmiers (double batch - makes a lot of cookies per batch)
3) Walnut balls (quadruple batch)
4) Hot chocolate cookies (double batch)
5) Penguin cookies (a late addition because we didn't have enough cookie types)
6) Chocolate truffles (white chocolate and regular)
7) Fudge (3 types)

It's a lot but totally doable. Plus we started baking earlier this year! We took out the puff pastry for the palmiers for it to defrost (yay thinking ahead!) and then we kicked it off with the cookie press cookies. A quadruple batch is more than my mixer can handle so we did two double batches. We settled on trees (obviously), snowflakes, wreaths, and teddy bears. Making the dough was easy. Coloring the dough was even pretty easy. We had our looming suspicions that the color combinations that the food dye package suggested wouldn't work but they did. We also had to use a hand mixer to color two of the batches because we didn't want to clean the KitchenAid four times that early in the day and it was a challenge but we got it done. I love cookie press cookies because you can make so many of them so fast. I also love that I have at least six baking pans so we could press all of the cookies and bake two trays at a time. Within about two hours, we already had 365 cookies. Well, 364 if you don't count the teddy bear cookie that got excluded because it somehow turned pornographic. And no, I don't have a picture of him but suffice it to say, he would be inappropriate to serve to children.

Promising start, no? Next up, we did the first step of the hot chocolate cookies. These cookies are a new one and are part of the "we're so crazy" lineup. Basically, they're sugar cookies baked into a cup shape that you fill with ganache, add super mini marshmallows to, add a pretzel handle and voila! A cup of hot chocolate! You're already shaking your head at me, aren't you? Stop shaking your head, it wasn't even close to the biggest disaster of the day. We used Pillsbury sugar cookie dough as directed (read: because we're lazy) and greased our mini muffin tins. There was some debate over whether we should roll the dough in sugar to help the cookies release from the muffin tin. It was a late addition to the recipe and as my friend pointed out, "If they had to update the recipe, it's probably an important optional step." Good point. So we pressed the dough into the muffin tins so that they looked like adorable little cups and tossed them in the oven. We used the cook time to clean up a bit (look how efficient we are!) and then checked the oven. They did not look done. At all. And a bunch of them rose so they just looked like mini muffins. Noooooooo. We had just finished discussing that worst case scenario, we'd cut out the middles and then when we checked back, they had collapsed again. Oooookay. Disaster averted? They definitely needed extra baking time but finally they started to look browned and done so we took them out of the oven. Let cool completely in pans. Seems like a good time to go get coffee, lunch, and more baking ingredients!

Fast forward to about an hour later where we've already decided on only two types of fudge but to just add nuts to one of them and where we discovered that Dollar Tree was completely out of truffle and cookie tins. Despite these setbacks, we're still feeling good. We checked on our now-cooled hot chocolate cookie cups and well, a chisel wouldn't have released them from the pans. After staring at them for a bit, we decided to try putting them back in the oven to soften them. Miracle of miracles! It worked! It's like we're real bakers with knowledge or something! At this point, we're already patting ourselves on the back for how well we're doing. Fools. We lost about nine of the cookies because the bottoms stuck to the pan too much but overall, we had some adorable little hot chocolate cups. We put them aside to fill later and moved on to the palmiers.

I was smart this year and looked at last year's blog post to see if I had any palmier tips. I did and the tip was "only one pan at a time". The problem with palmiers is that, even though they're only two ingredients, they take forever to bake all the batches and require sustained attention. This year though, we quickly remembered how to fold the cookies properly, were again amazed at the FOUR CUPS of sugar we used on these cookies, and we remembered that while we're doing these cookies, we can actually get a lot of other things done too. So while my friend did the Oreo fudge (I can't report on this at all because I definitely didn't touch any part of it), I manned the palmiers. Here's what I forget every year: they're a pain to flip over and to get off the pan because the sticky sugar gets all over the spatula. So what I end up doing every year is forgoing the spatula and just use my fingers. This is easier when I have long nails (I do not at this moment) but after a few seconds of letting them cool, they are cool enough for a very fast flip. This works great and I made it halfway through the batches (out of, I swear at least 12 batches) before I got distracted by talking or thinking or something shiny and didn't wait any time before touching the cookies. Bam, burn. I feel like a baby because it's so small but let me tell you, a sugar burn on the tip of your right index finger is obnoxious and painful.

It all goes downhill from here.

I truly mark that as the moment where everything that was going so very smoothly just went to hell in a handbasket. Because after this point, nothing at all went right.

Let's return to our heroes who are still baking palmiers, shall we? Once the Oreo fudge was done, we started working on the ganaches for the truffles. I measured out a combo of unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate for the regular truffles and heated up the heavy cream to melt the chocolate. Then I did the exact same thing for the white chocolate. Let me re-emphasize this: I did the EXACT same thing for the white chocolate. I did notice that the white chocolate melted chocolate seemed a bit more liquid than the regular chocolate but didn't think much of it because white chocolate has behaved oddly in the past. Anyway, they both went into the fridge to chill. Then we made the ganache for filling the hot chocolate cups. It was basically the exact same process except actually hot cocoa mix gets added as well. This was actually uneventful and we filled our hot chocolate cups with ganache pretty easily. We also added the super mini marshmallows (they're called marshmallow bits and they're actually stocked by the hot chocolate, oddly enough) and these little guys looked adorable. The last step was to add the pretzel handles but we needed to wait for the ganache to harden first. So off to the side they go again.

And now the fudge. Bear in mind, we are still rotating pans and pans of palmiers at this point. I very stupidly picked a Martha recipe for the fudge. I'm sure it makes excellent fudge but it's very complicated and involves a candy thermometer and let's just say the Oreo fudge did not. Oh yeah, and we doubled the recipe. We actually discussed in advance which would be a bigger regret: doubling the recipe or not doubling the recipe and risking not having enough fudge. So we doubled. Mistake. We thought we were being smart - when it said things like "use a medium saucepan" we used my big pasta pot and thought that would suffice. It did not. Somewhere in the heating cream, melting chocolate stage (during which time we almost forgot to put in half of the chocolate!), the pot got very very close to boiling over. And we were supposed to let this boil to soft ball stage. The problem was, the chocolate was rising above where my candy thermometer temperature line was. And there was nowhere left for this mixture to go! I think we finally called it when we were two degrees below soft ball stage. We really didn't want to clean boiled-over fudge off the stovetop. So we hoped it had cooked enough and put it into a giant metal bowl. Then Martha directed me to add the pieces of chilled butter to the top of the mixture to let melt. The butter was a little less chilled than I would have liked because it was so so hot in the kitchen at this point. We don't normally bake on a day that's almost 60 degrees! Anyway, time to let the fudge cool down for an hour to 112-118 degrees (yes, seriously) and time to take a short break and watch Home Alone. I'd like to point out, the movie had been playing in the background for hours and we technically sat down to watch it the third time when we finally took a break.

Whew. Sustenance....needed....

We used this time to keep pulling the never-ending pans of palmiers and to assess the situation. Cookie press cookies: done. Palmiers: will never be done, but done. Oreo fudge: done. Chocolate fudge: cooling. Truffles: cooling. Hot chocolate cookies: drying. Walnut balls: not even started. Penguin cookies: abandoned. But fear not! Our cookie total isn't looking sad because I had forgotten that I bought holiday chocolate chips (they're just red and green but they're too cute. How could I NOT buy them??) and my friend found them so we decided to whip up a quick batch of Nestle Toll House cookies for good measure. So, after assessing how screwed we were, we ordered pizza, bid Kevin and the Wet Bandits goodbye and got back to work.

My friend took the chocolate chip cookies and I took the walnut balls. At first we were reluctant to tie up the mixer because we'd need it again for the fudge but when I checked the temperature of the fudge, it was still at about 180 degrees. And the bowl was still piping hot to the touch. Hmm. I won't say much about the chocolate chip cookies because they're easy and they looked great and that was cool. I will, however, tell you very carefully about the walnut ball process. If you recall, the plan was to quadruple the recipe. That would require 6 cups of walnuts. But alas, I didn't have enough walnuts! Or maybe I did but couldn't find them but we were also worried that it wouldn't all fit in the Cuisinart so we downgraded to tripling. So if a quadruple batch needs 6 cups, then a triple batch needs 4 cups, obviously. Oh, you math nerds are telling me that's wrong? Well, you're right, it is wrong. I forgot a half a cup of walnuts. Ooops. As this unfolds, you tell me if you think that was the fatal flaw. Then I added 3 cups of flour, 6 tablespoons of sugar, and 3.5 teaspoons of vanilla (ok, it was supposed to be 3 teaspoons but I forgot that we were tripling and not quadrupling momentarily). Finally, I added the three sticks of butter and the dough looked exactly right. It felt exactly right. I had to leave it in the mixer for a bit to attend to some other things but walnut balls are so easy, how could I get them wrong?

I stepped away from the walnut balls to roll my chocolate truffles which were now ready. We did not double the chocolate truffles because we also had the white chocolate truffles. So I rolled out the truffles, covered my hands in chocolate, and started getting worried that we wouldn't have enough. At this point, our truffle tins were looking like they would be 3 pieces of fudge and 7 truffles (mixture of white and regular). We figured that worst case scenario, we could double up on each of the fudges. I'll spoil it a little...this was not the worst case scenario in the end. It was worse.

After rolling the chocolate truffles, I checked on the white chocolate and it was still liquid. Didn't seem to be thickening at all. And we were running out of time. So I put it in the freezer. Meanwhile, the chocolate fudge was still way too hot. We moved it to a different room and hoped it would eventually cool off. All that done, we decided to circle back and finish our hot chocolate cups. All that was left was to melt white chocolate and break off pretzel pieces to make adorable handles. Except I bought the wrong pretzels. Something we noticed AFTER melting all the white chocolate. Ughhhhh. So I called my dear husband to see if he could pick up the correct (smaller) pretzels on his way home.

Tired yet?

We rested our weary feet and sat in front of the TV rolling the walnut balls. We were careful not to make them too big and we did a very nice job on consistent sizing and they looked great. Tossed them in the oven at 300 degrees for 35 minutes and cleaned up a bit before the pizza finally arrived. So we had an actual break! And we got to see Kevin booby trap his house!

Our break sadly ended when the walnut balls were done. We had made a note last year to sift the powdered sugar so it would be less lumpy and we sifted two bowls of sugar so we could both roll the walnut balls in powdered sugar before they cooled. At this point, we were completely out of counter space and were planning to sit on the floor to roll the walnut balls. We pulled the walnut balls out of the oven, waited a minutes, and then tried to pick them up. And couldn't without them crumbling. So we panicked. Were they not cool enough? Were they not cooked enough? We didn't think they looked as browned as usual and we were making a lot so we put them back in the oven for another few minutes. In the meantime, we started prepping truffle coatings. At this point, we realized our frozen attempt at white chocolate truffles was still liquid and unlikely to change. So we set about rolling our sad number of truffles in walnuts and covering them in red and green chocolate. Or at least that was the plan until "Oh wait! The fudge!" It was now finally cool enough to put back in the mixer where I was instructed to mix it until it started to hold its shape, about 3-8 minutes. About 16 minutes later, I was afraid my KitchenAid was going to overheat. No luck, still liquid. It was thickening but I'm pretty sure we were done for. We mixed pecans into half of it, tossed it into pans, and put it in the fridge and hoped for the best.

We didn't get the best.

The fudge never fudged. It's still in my fridge and is surprisingly soft (though maybe is cut-able now, days later). I bet if you went at it with a spoon it'd be delicious. But there was no way that fudge was making the truffle tin cut. So for those keeping score, we're now at one type of fudge and one type of truffle for our truffle tins. The ones rolled in walnuts were fine. The ones dipped in green were fine(ish). The ones dipped in red were fine until the last one where we ran out of melted red chocolate to dip, had to melt some more but the chocolate wouldn't melt to a dippable consistency, got a fresh bowl of red chocolate, tried to make that last one look nice, and promptly gave up. Meanwhile, I was too sad to dispose of all of the white chocolate ganache and it was a really nice piping consistency so I filled a piping bag with it and made beautiful designs on some of the truffles. At least they were beautiful for about 5 seconds after I piped them and then the white chocolate would just sort of roll off the truffle. I thought I was going crazy. I would look at ones that I swore were piped well and they looked bad so I would repipe them. Finally, my friend informed me that I wasn't losing my mind, the truffles were just losing their white chocolate. This whole fiasco ended with my friend saying "that last red truffle looks pretty bad" and me saying "who are we kidding? ALL of these truffles look pretty bad!" and the two of us literally falling on the kitchen floor laugh/crying.

But it's not over yet! Don't forget, there are still walnut balls to handle. Or rather, to not handle. Because picking them up was like picking up a ball of sand on the beach. The lightest pressure and it would just crumble into a billion pieces. We managed to roll maybe 4 of them before we just gave up. We tried googling this walnut ball issue to see what went wrong. We quadruple checked the ingredients I added and while mistakes were made, that didn't feel like the problem. Our working theory is that the kitchen was warmer than it's ever been when we were baking and baking is a fickle thing. But regardless of how it happened, we are heart broken. Everybody loves the walnut balls. I love the walnut balls. But we have no walnut balls to give. Four cups of walnuts gone to waste. We had even sifted powdered sugar! And we never sift! Wasted sifting! I tried to think of ways to use the crumbled walnut balls but my brain was way too fried after nearly 12 hours of baking. My friend asked if they at least tasted good aside from the texture. I popped one in my mouth and nearly choked. It was impossible to separate the taste from the texture because the second it hit my mouth, it just crumbled and dried out my entire mouth. And so, garbage. We called my husband and told him to forget about the pretzels because we were DONE. We had the bitter taste of failure and a whole kitchen to clean up. It was so disappointing because we started out so strong and then the hits just kept on coming.

We sadly boxed up our cookies and truffles and fudge but it was half-hearted at most. I was counting on a lot of gifting of cookies and truffles but was just so embarrassed by the truffle tins that I may not gift them at all. The cookies at least make a presentable tin though there is a pretty heavy emphasis on cookie press cookies. We didn't even continue counting our cookies. We definitely hit over 500 but the number target just wasn't important in the end. Sigh. I guess after so many successful baking endeavors we had to have a failure. Just wish it wasn't at Christmas.

Next year, it's Back To Basics 2017. No truffles, no fudge, no cookie recipes we haven't tried before (well, maybe just one or two). Like a phoenix, we shall rise from the ashes of failure to emerge even more triumphant than ever before. Also, 2016 sucks.

Looking on the bright side, the cookies that we did make look lovely. Take a look and see for yourself.

The cookies:

The truffles:

The truffles do look very nice in the tin though. Somehow that makes it a bit better. 

The failed walnut balls: (And yes, I did Hulk smash the entire pan of cookies in my sadness and rage.)

I almost forgot the best part! While we were tinning up the cookies, I pulled out a tin and put it on the table. Minutes later, I said, "Oh wait, we already filled this tin." To which my friend replied, "No, we didn't...." That's right, my friends. I found in my kitchen a half-empty tin of LAST YEAR'S CHRISTMAS COOKIES. They looked surprisingly not-disgusting but I'm still alarmed that I found that. Must keep better tabs on my cookie tins this year. I consider it a sign though. It's like the universe is reminding me that we can be good at this and we will one day succeed again.

Don't worry, I will have more successful upbeat blog posts before we actually hit Christmas. In fact, I made some remarkably perfect meringue cookies that I'll tell you all about soon. In the meantime....FA LA LA LA LA FA LA LA FAIL!